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Showing posts from 2012

A Wonderful Story

That's the name that my student gave to this exerpt she wrote in her 8th grade creative writing class.  I think it sums up writer's block quite well. Trying to Write I held the pen in my hand. The feel of the clean, smooth surface of the wood against my skin. I stared at the blank crisp sheet of pure white paper, which sat on my desk waiting to fill. My mind is blank as always. I could never think, it was as if my ideas float away out of my mind and into the world to get blown away. Crumpled sheets of paper litter the floor with my dark blue pen marks on it.

The Best Compliment

I started tutoring two sisters a few weeks ago in Spanish.  They're both very intelligent in different ways and they're both having trouble in different ways.  I'm really enjoying both of them and, as always, kids can tell when you really enjoy talking to them and being with them.  Kids know when you're faking it so it's best to be sincere. I was working with the younger child when she ran to show me something.  As she went out of the room, the mother's partner said to me, "This is the first time I have ever seen her be herself in an educational setting.  She is finally completely herself while she's learning." I didn't and couldn't have prepared to do that.  Honestly, I think that is why I love teaching - it's not the teaching - it's the getting to know the child as an individual, valuing her for her own unique traits, and being privileged to see how that gives the child an opportunity to shine.

Guns Don't Kill People... Oh Wait, They Do.

I don't know anything more about this story than is told in the article .  Unknown gunman shooting at a house, hit a sleeping 11-year old, expected to survive.  However, I know this much: this is not a unique occurrence.  It made it to the news because it injured an innocent kid.  Sometimes those stories don't make it.  Sometimes they miss the kid and everyone just goes on with their lives. In my second year of teaching, I got a note that said, "Please excuse my daughter from not doing her homework.  The gangs was shooting and she had to sleep in the closet."  Other kids would talk about sleeping in the bathtub in case bullets from drive-by shootings went through walls, they probably wouldn't go through the bathtub too.  I was so shocked that I didn't even know how to respond.  These kids live like this.  Not once in their lifetime, but many, many nights, they hear shooting and they are afraid, they sleep in the closet or the bathtub to give the bullet mor

How To Outsmart a Teenage Boy, Part II

I often tell people that my strength isn't teaching , per se, it's my ability to have a relationship with my students.  Part of that relationship is getting them to do what I know they need to do, and as any parent or teacher knows, this involves a fair amount of manipulation, for their own good.  I don't mean pathological manipulation, I mean healthy manipulation. I first wrote about outsmarting teenage boys here .  I had another episode with a boy I'm tutoring and I was very proud of myself. Me: I need you to read your writing aloud so that you can catch your mistakes. Him: That is too embarrassing.  If I do that, I will be embarrassed. Me: Is that a picture of you in a TeleTubby costume on the wall? Him: Fine, I'll read it. This is what I mean by "healthy manipulation."  We could have wasted the whole session arguing.  Instead, it took 20 seconds, he caught his mistakes, he realized how to edit his own writing, (and I think he liked the atte

I Didn't Write This But I Love This

Please read this about seeing all kids as our kids , from Teaching Tolerance. I'm so thankful I'm not the only one that feels this way and I'm praying that more and more people will feel this way. You can read about what I think about my kids , and about all the kids belonging to all of us .   Nothing will ever get better if they don't.

Ain't No White Kids

I went to the Big Brother Big Sisters picnic with my Little Sister a few weeks ago.  I want to say right away that I love this organization and think it serves a very needed purpose, especially for boys who often have no strong (or really any) male figures in their lives.  But I did notice one thing that disturbed me.  Not something about the organization, but rather about the demographics and socio-economic status in the area: almost all the mentors (the "Bigs") were white or Asian, while almost all the children (the "Littles") and families were black or Latino.  This was not without exception, but was true of the vast majority of the people there. It reminded me of my first year teaching, when I was brand-new to the area, and still fairly naive about the racism and segregation that was (and is) present.  I started teaching in January of 2000, so I was trying to get to know the students at a time of year when most teachers can tell you more about their students t


The best principal I ever had ( and I had quite a few ) had a novel idea when it came to children who were being discipline problems.  She urged her teachers to realize that there was a reason for their behavior.  She wasn't condoning fights, disrespect, or any other of the myriad behavior problems we dealt with on a daily basis, but just pointing out that there are reasons behind their behavior.  She explained further by saying, "Many of these kids have been through things that none of you can even imagine."  That has always stuck with me. It's easy as a teacher to say thoughtless things like "I don't know why you do this," or "You should be ashamed of yourself," or "Why can't you be good."  Some teachers try to be aware and compassionate and avoid things like this, while others are so frustrated/uncomfortable/unhappy/afraid that they don't try any more and just yell at kids about being stupid and bad (I've worked next

Connections to Tragedy

A teenager was killed in Oakland last week.  It made the news - as most homicide victims of that age do - but not for long.  It was one of seven murders in seven days, with the victims ranging in age from 15 to 84 years old.  Six out of the seven homicides happened in East Oakland, where I used to teach. Hadari was a friend to several of my former students who I'm still in touch with.  He was also related to my 9-year old "Little Sister."  She told me this, adding that she had no feelings about it and didn't want to talk about it.  Ever.  I don't know the reason behind the killing, and I'm not sure it matters.  The consequences are the same. I've been facing these situations since I started teaching 13 years ago and I still don't know how to deal with them in the best way.  For eight years, I taught in what is the most violent neighborhood in Oakland.  Most years, the majority of the kids in my class knew someone personally who had been murdered. 

What I Didn't Learn

Last week, I went to visit the school I used to work at, where my Little Sister attends school.  They had just finished standardized testing, and the very wise and probably exhausted teachers at that grade level were giving their students and themselves a bit of a break by having some theme days.  One teacher had a Hawaii luau theme.  That class called the classroom their hotel, wore leis and sunglasses, and read on beach chairs and towels.  (The teacher also told them there was no fighting in Hawaii and that seemed to work!).  Another teacher had a camp theme with baseball caps, fake campfires, flashlights, and other fantastic props.  The kids seemed so happy and relaxed to have a day out of the ordinary and I honestly wished I had thought of it. I was talking to a couple of the teachers I knew from when I was there (I left 5 years ago next month).  We were talking about the differences between now and then.  The biggest difference is that the school is much, much calmer.  There are

Guest Post - Frightening Black Men

A friend wrote this about her experience and thoughts about racism in the United States.  She makes an excellent point: "I believe that black men in the United States are considered particularly frightening by many, many people and black boys are men in training, so they are scary too." I am a women of African origins and have lived  20+ years in the United States.  Over the years, one thing has been patently clear; living in the United States as an African American women is way easier than living here as an African American man.  At some point in the past few years, I decided to sign an on-line petition through a website called .  I receive periodic updates on petitions being circulated, like the one earlier this year on a $5 per month account fee Bank of America wanted to charge or something like that.  The petitions don't often catch my attention.  While I don't think Bank of America should start charging a new account fee, honestly, it isn&#


This is a poem written by a teenage boy I know who doesn't have a very easy life and is struggling to pass his classes in high school . He said I could share it.  I don't have anything very profound to say about it except I love it. (The assignment was to write a poem in Spanish so he wrote it in English and tried to translate it with Google Translate.  Of course.)


I'm sure everyone has heard about Trayvon Martin by now.  He is the young black man who was killed by a neighborhood watch captain, in Florida (where apparently neighborhood watch captains carry guns?)   Trayvon was a teenager who got hungry while watching a basketball game on TV and walked to the corner story to buy Skittles and iced tea.  George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch of the gated community where Trayvon's father lived, called the police (for what?  Because a black teenager was in a gated community?) and was told to wait for police.  He didn't, and accosted Trayvon, ending up shooting him.  He said that he did so in self-defense, so the police let him go.  Apparently it didn't matter that Trayvon was unarmed and 100 pounds lighter than the white man who attacked him. I don't have much new to say about this except that, even never having met this young man, I am broken-hearted.  I have thought about the chance of this kind of thing happening to one of

Racism Hurts Everybody

In the last week, I have seen  this photo that's made it around facebook and heard about an acquaintance saying something about someone acting "like a typical black kid" - meaning, of course, that the child was being a troublemaker. Obviously, these both make my heart hurt for a number of reasons.  The first thing I thought of was my Little Sister.  She is an ideal student and friend: thoughtful, caring, loyal, hard-working, and careful to think the best of everyone.  This is a girl who told me that we should give a homeless person her granola bar because the man didn't look like anyone treated him well, and everyone should be treated well, even if they're homeless.  She is also black.  I often think about what her reaction would be to either hateful racism, like this bumper sticker (and as snopes points out, whether it's real or not doesn't really matter, as you can buy plenty of products just like it online), or to ignorant racism like


I have noticed - in an extremely unscientific survey - that most of the white children I know have only white dolls.  I mentioned this to someone recently who wondered if all children tended to have dolls that looked like them.  In my (again, very unscientific) observations, however, children of color (in the US) tend to have both dolls that look like them and white dolls.  This makes sense, as there is a wider variety of white dolls than other colors, of course (in the US). When having these conversations, I can't help thinking of the doll experiments performed by Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s.   These were the experiments cited in the Brown v. Board of Education case that eventually led to the desegregation of schools.  The experimenters provided children with two dolls that were identical except that one was white and one was black.  They asked the children (ages 6 to 9) things like "Which doll is the  nice doll?" and "Which doll would you like to play

The President's Hair

I've talked before about how excited I was when Barack Obama was elected - not just because I thought he was the best candidate (I did and still do), but also because he's black.  And he has a black wife.  And black kids. The city where I worked is a disturbingly segregated city for an area that considers itself progressive and diverse.  I have often heard statistics cited to show how racially diverse Oakland is, ignoring the fact that in many neighborhoods - especially the poorest and richest ones - there is virtually no diversity. The kids in my neighborhood felt this acutely.  When I brought up the idea of desegregation of schools, one of them scornfully pointed out that black kids and white kids don't go to the same school - and in her experience, she was right.Although none of these kids - or even their parents - had ever experienced segregation due to laws, certain ideas were so foreign to them that they assumed they were legally prohibited. I took the kids on a

A Father's Affection

In the classroom, I didn't have a lot of interaction with my students' fathers.  There were a few, but I remember them clearly because there were so few.  Most of them were not around, incarcerated, or just not involved in life at school, preferring to leave those responsibilities to the mothers and grandmothers. As I've been tutoring in students' homes, I still don't see many fathers.  I primarily deal with the mothers, and often don't meet a student's father until a year or more into our tutoring relationship.  Other fathers are present but let their wives deal with scheduling, feedback, and payment.  Many of these men seem to be somewhat shy about getting involved with their children.  I don't usually get the feeling that they consider themselves above being interested in school, but often that they don't really know how they fit in.  I've notice with one man, particularly, that he seems to be really proud of his middle school daughter a

More Regrets

I talked briefly about some of the regrets I have here but I've thought of more.  Fortunately, there are many, many things I do not regret (like the feelings paper ), but there are a few things I would like to do differently. Most of my regrets have to do with adult bullying.  I think many people wouldn't classify it as such but I would.  For example: I regret that, when I was volunteering in a class after I stopped teaching, that I did not stand up to a bullying teacher.  She was a fantastic teacher - for any student who was willing to sit still, behave the way she wanted, and learn by direct instruction.  However, when children had learning difficulties, behavior problems, or emotional trauma causing them to act out, she shamed them.  Sh called them names, she told them that they would never do well, and she almost mocked them.  I don't remember if she ever used the word "worthless" but that was certainly what she was calling several children, whether she sa


When I was working in the inner city, I noticed that the kids were rarely unaware that they had less than other kids.  When we went on field trips, they would ask me, "Is this where the rich people live?  These house look like rich people houses."  They would often point out that white people in the grocery stores buy more food than their family was able to, and that other people didn't have to live where there was shooting most nights. As I've been doing private tutoring, I have obviously been working with many students whose families are much better off financially than my former students' families. One of the interesting things to me is that many of them are not aware how fortunate they are.  At one point, a student who goes to a prestigious private elementary school asked me if I tutored any of my former students.  When I said no, she asked me why.  I simply said that most of them couldn't afford tutoring - didn't explain further.  She looked at me f