Mississippi Teacher Corps

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Anatomy of a terrible day

I called in sick today. My official reasons for doing so (all of which are true) are that my stomach has been upset for a few days, my allergies are acting up, and I had some pretty bad insomnia two nights ago, so I'm feeling pretty run down. All of these symptoms are things that I'd normally grin and bear, but in light of everything else that happened during school yesterday, I just didn't think that I could handle teaching today, so I took my first sick day. During training, we did lots of scenarios and discussions about crisis situations at school, very few of which had actually happened to me until yesterday, when for some reason all hell broke loose over the course of the day. Here are the highlights:
Homeroom: One of my students, Timmy, has been wanting to make me bang my head against a wall for the past 2 weeks. Timmy won't keep his mouth shut during class, questions me over stupid things, tries to get other students in trouble with me, and is generally just a jerk to the other kids in my class. I met his mom last Friday, and talking to her sort of made me realize why Timmy acts the way he does; I was trying to express my concern about Timmy's behavior, but all his mom wanted to talk about was how some girl hit Timmy. At any rate, during homeroom, Timmy grabbed another kid, pushed him agains the wall, and held him there. I came over and actually yelled at Timmy to back off, which didn't work, so I ended up physically pulling the boys apart. Being a female teacher, I always thought that if a fight broke out, I'd run to get the nearest male teacher, but when this incident actually happened, my protective instincts kicked in and I just had to intervene as quickly as I could. After I broke the boys apart, I was still panicking, so I made one boy come out in the hall with me and asked Mr. Sosa, the big football coach who teaches across the hall from me, to come into the hall. I told him what happened, and he pulled the other boy, Calvin, into the hall. Calvin is a big trouble-maker, but I still really like the kid. Calvin started saying that he wasn't fighting and that Timmy had grabbed him, and from what I'd observed, he might have been telling the truth. Mr. Sosa paddled both of them while I watched. I hate paddling, and I hate watching it. Calvin started crying after he was paddled, and I ended up talking to him for a little while to calm him down, helping him clean himself up, and escorting him to his first period class. I really hated myself after that happened, and I wanted to cry.
Immediately after that: I wrote up a report about the fight, which I gave to my principal. She asked why Mr. Sosa had paddled the boys, because he wasn't supposed to. She said that the punishment for fighting was suspension, and since he'd paddled the boys, the school wasn't supposed to punish students twice for the same offense. She wasn't upset with me, but said that Mr. Sosa should have known better.
Second period: Mr. Sosa comes in my room while students are working and tells me, "Next time I paddle kids, don't tell the principal. I paddled them to give them an easy way out so that they wouldn't have to miss school, and now they'll both get sent away for five days." I didn't want to discuss this in front of my students, so I just said, "OK." The fact that Mr. Sosa said this in front of students made three people (him, me, and the principal) look like idiots. Wow.
Fourth period: Two of my male students make sexually inappropriate comments about me. They repeatedly ask me if I have a boyfriend, to which I keep on answering, "that's personal." One tells me that he likes me, and I say, "Good. I like all of my students," prompting him to clarify, "I like you as a girlfriend," which I tell him is inappropriate. They keep on asking me for my phone number and home address (which of course I don't give them), and one tells me that he will come by and visit me after school, then mutters half under his breath, "'cause Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket and I can do whatever we want behind closed doors and it stays behind closed doors." He makes several other inappropriate comments over the course of class, and keeps winking at me, to which I respond, "Do you have something in your eye?"
Seventh period: I have my homeroom class back again. They are being rowdy and are annoyed at me for cracking down on them. All of a sudden, I look up and Calvin and another student, Peter, are grabbing each other and pushing. Someone tells me that Peter and Timmy are cousins, so Peter is standing up for Timmy. Again, I physically intervene. It's five minutes before dismissal, and I make everyone just sit in their seats without getting up or talking, and give them my two cents on what it means to respect the other students in the class. At the end of the day, I report this incident (and all the other events of the day) to my principal.
I talked to several other teachers at the end of the day, and one teacher even suggested to me that I take a day or two off (at that point, I'd already pretty much decided not to come the next day). She also told me that since I'm a small person, and some of my male students are large, I should be careful and stay in my classroom with the door closed during my planning period and not let anyone come in the room. I think this is overly reactive, but I'm kind of freaked out after hearing someone say that.
Now playing: Bruce Springsteen- Born to Run

Sunday, September 17, 2006

This post is for Keisha

I'd be lying if I said that the past 6 weeks haven't been difficult and at times really disheartening. Right now, I feel that I'm failing many of my students. I do mean failing in the literal sense (an embarrasing percentage are earning below 70% in my class), but also failing in the sense that they aren't responding to my teaching. The vast majority of my students failed my first test (and I mean some of them failed as in earning 8% or so), and I feel really disheartened when I ask a question and students just respond with a random unrelated term that they happen to remember from a recent lesson (e.g. "What organelle helps plant cells make energy from the sun?" "Oooh, ooh! Selectively permeable!") I feel like a complete failure sometimes, but I'm still going strong. Even though I still feel like so many of my students just aren't understanding what I'm teaching, once every few days, I'll see evidence of some student I've reached, some lightbulb going on in someone's head, and that's what keeps me going. Just this past week, I had perhaps my most powerful teaching moment with one of my students. I'll just call her "Keisha."
This story wouldn't mean much without the relevant background information. On the first day at school with all classes meeting, Keisha showed up in my fourth period class. The first assignment I had all my students do was to fill out a student information sheet. A girl in the class approached me and asked, "Can I help her write hers? She's slow," gesturing toward Keisha. I told her that she could. I watched Keisha struggle to even write her own name on her paper. Later in the period, I had all students write an essay about respect, and I allowed the two girls to work together. I then invited students to read their essays to the class, and Keisha volunteered. She came up to the front of the room with her friend, who held the sheet of paper and pointed to one word at a time for Keisha to read. The result was a painfully slow recital of the essay that lacked any rhythm or inflection, and I remember just looking around the room and thinking that I would want to kick anyone who dared to make fun of Keisha (to the credit of my other students, no one did). We have lunch during fourth period, so I had to take this whole class to the cafeteria and eat with them. I noticed that Keisha walked with a bit of difficulty and spoke very slowly, with a speech impediment. She sat next to me at lunch and smiled at me. At some point during the meal, she picked the juice box off of her tray, held it out to me, and said very slowly, "I brought you some juice." For reasons that I can't even explain, that just broke my heart. After school, I asked the special ed teacher about Keisha, and the special ed teacher told me that the school didn't have her accomodations so no one really knew anything about Keisha yet, but that she had heard a rumor that Keisha had been very sick the past year and missed school, had been very bright before she fell ill, and had returned to school the way she is now. At the end of the day, I explained this story to one of my roommates and found myself saying, "It's so unfair!" I actually started crying when I explained Keisha to my roommate. This is the only time I've actually cried since school started.
Over the past few weeks, I've become very attached to Keisha. She sits next to me every day at lunch and does incredibly sweet things, like cleaning up my trash for me without being asked to do so and bringing me napkins. I continued to struggle with how to help her. I've frequently asked the special ed teacher assigned to work with her about what I can do for Keisha, but this teacher has offered me nothing more than, "Well, I still don't have her IEP [individualized education plan]." I felt sad watching her in class and wondering how to teach a student who can write approximately one word per minute.
About a week and a half ago, Keisha missed school one day. The next day, she was at school, and while I was eating lunch with her, she mentioned that her stomach hurt. I had her drink some water, but she said that it still hurt, and said that she had missed school the day before because of her stomach. Tears started welling up in her eyes. "Keisha, what's wrong?" I asked. "My stomach hurts." I asked her if anything else was wrong, if she'd like to go the the guidance counselor, if she'd like me to see if the nurse could see her, etc., but she answered no to all of those questions. She said that she would call her momma to pick her up, but when I offered to let her go to the office and use the phone, she said she'd wait until 5th period, after my class ended.
The next day, both of Keisha's parents came by the school and wanted to talk to me. As soon as I finished my last class of the day, I met with Keisha and her parents in the office. Her mother was concerned that Keisha had been complaining about her stomach for a few days, yet had nothing apparently physically wrong with her, and suspected that Keisha was stressed out about school. I told her mother that I was very glad she came to the school because I had been hoping I could talk to her and figure out how to help Keisha better. Keisha's mom told me that just that day, she had physically brought Keisha's IEP to the school because for some stupid reason, a month into the school year, the school still hadn't received it from Keisha's elementary school, which is in the same district! She made a copy of the IEP for me, and we discussed Keisha's situation. Her mother informed me that Keisha has some sort of brain damage that started affecting her when she was five and caused her to forget everything that she'd learned up to the age of five. Keisha's handwriting, walking, and speech are still improving, and she functions at the level of a fourth grader but must be tested at grade level. Keisha's father suggested to me that they buy a tape recorder for Keisha to record my class, which I thought was a great idea, and I got the OK from my principal.
The following week, Keisha switched her schedule. It turns out that she was supposed to be in self-contained (that means with other special education students only) classes for at least math, reading, and English, but the school had put her in regular classes because they didn't have her IEP. Keisha wanted to stay in my class, though, so she did. I noticed an improvement in her performance. Keisha began raising her hand in class more frequently, and, here's the great part, answering my questions correctly! I could see a huge grin break across her face every time that happened. I'm not even sure how to express how proud I am of her. I called her over to my desk at the end of class, told her that she did really well, and gave her a small uninflated balloon.
This past Thursday, I attended my first PTSO meeting. At the end of the meeting, I saw Keisha and her mom talking to the guidance counselor, and I heard her mom telling the guidance counselor, "We love Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket." The guidance counselor smiled and responded, "So do we." That just made my week. I went over to talk to Keisha and her mom, and her mom told me that Keisha had seemed much better that week, and seemed to be adjusting better. She told me, "Keisha came home the past two days with a balloon, and I asked her where she got the balloon, and she told me she got it from Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket for doing well in class." I went on to say how proud I was of Keisha, and her mom said that they were, too.
It's for students like Keisha that I leave for school before sunrise every morning and deal with all the rest of it.
Now playing: Bonnie Rait- Angel from Montgomery

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Understanding Poverty

I just finished reading Ruby Payne's A Framework for Understanding Poverty as our assignment for this weekend. I was able to relate this reading best to my own experiences when I reflected on perhaps my greatest frustration so far in teaching: a lack of organization, and a lack of ability to follow simple directions. Let me elaborate.
I require students in my class to keep 3-ring binders with all their work. The binders stay in the classroom so that I don't have to worry about kids leaving their binders at home. I have a specific system for setting up the binders that I introduced to students on Day 1 and have reviewed multiple times since. I gave the students a good week and a half to obtain their binders, reviewed how to set them up, and remind students constantly that I will be checking and grading their notebooks. As I've mentioned to my students, a lot is at stake in this grades since I usually will check class work and homework when I grade their binders rather than having them hand in these assignments separately. Every day, I instruct them to take out their notebooks at the beginning of class, and every time we take notes or receive a handout, I tell students where to put it in their notebook. I keep a sample notebook in my room with all the work we've done. When a large percentage of my students failed to bring in binders by the due date, I went out and bought a bunch myself and offered them to students for $2. Now, here's the part that kills me: a good third of my students didn't have their notebooks in the classroom when I graded them! So, I had no choice but to give all of these students 0's. Wow, that made me want to scream. Of the other two-thirds of my students, a significant number had binders with some of the work, but were missing significant chunks of work and didn't have anything in order, despite the fact that I at least mention notebook organization EVERY SINGLE FREAKIN' DAY! Today, when we were working on a review sheet for the test I'm giving tomorrow (as a side note, this is a retest for the exam I gave last week that the majority of my students failed, and failed badly... but that's a topic for another blog), I had one student sit in his chair, stare at the sheet without even attempting to write a single answer, and tell me that he needed help. Our interaction went a little like this:
Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket: OK, what questions do you have?
Student: I don't know this one, this one, or this one, or this one, or... [pointing to every single question on the sheet]
Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket: Why don't you try and explain to me what confuses you about the questions? We can start with the first one.
Student: I don't know any of it.
Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket: OK, why don't you take a look at the notes you took and the handouts about the cell?
Student: I don't have any of that.
Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket: You didn't keep any of the notes you took at all?
Student: No.
Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket: What about your binder?
Student: I don't have one. I don't have my notes.
Incidentally, this student kept on telling me for the first week or two of school that he was about to buy a binder. Even though I'm still working on a way to make sure students actually buy binders, I've grown somewhat used to the fact that a lot of my students just don't have them. But, for crying out loud, not keeping a single thing we worked on in class?! I was so frustrated that I told this student that if he didn't even keep his notes and handouts, of course he wouldn't know what he needed to know to study for the tests.
In addition to my notebook woes, I've had similar frustrations with students failing to follow directions that I give that seem abundantly clear to me. On the same review sheet that I handed out today, there were all of two lines of directions at the top of the page. It was a fill-in-the-blanks sheet, and the sheet had a word box that students could use. In bold letters, the top of the paper read, "You may use these words more than once." At some point in the day, I stopped counting how many kids asked me if they could use a word more than once. This kind of situation is standard fare for me; I have some students who still need to be reminded to put their names on their papers.
Coming into all this, I realized that my students probably wouldn't have the kind of organizational skills that they need to do well in school, but I had no idea that it would be this hard to teach them. I mean, tell kids step by step what to do, have them follow along, remind them a few times, and I should have almost everyone on board, right? Ha. Lately, I've felt like banging my head against a wall trying to figure out how the heck to get these kids to follow simple directions, and wondering why I've been failing with so many of them.
I wouldn't say that I have a solution to my problems after reading the book. However, Understanding Poverty made me realize that my students' struggles with organization are not the result of incompetent teaching, but a reflection of the lack of order in their lives. Payne wrote about how in poverty class, people do not tell stories in a chronological way, but in a non-linear manner that focuses on entertainment rather than plot. Hence the problem my students have following step-by-step directions that seem crystal clear to me. Payne also mentions the disorderliness that characterizes the lives of the poor: fluctuating personal ties, frequent moves, unanticipated problems that individuals lack the resources to solve neatly, and a focus on living in the moment. If my students think this way, it probably makes little sense to them to organize their notes, or in some cases, even hold on to their notes. I'm still at a loss for how to convey the importance of organization in academics to my students.

Completely unrelated anecdote that just makes me laugh so much that I couldn't resist including it in this blog: I give a Star Student award to one student in each class period once every two weeks (which causes its own issues for me, since I'm convinced my classes are rigged... I mean, seriously, more than two thirds of my 6th period students are on the honor roll wheras 4th period, I'll be happy if I get a coherent- not even correct, just coherent- answer from anyone... but again, that's a topic for another blog). One of the perks of the award is getting a little mix CD that I threw together. The Star Student award is starting to do great things for some students; I have students who are coming up to me and telling me that they will act right in class and study hard so that they can be the next Star Student. The CD has something to do with that motivation, methinks. Word is starting to spread that Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket actually knows the music that the students listen to, and that's earned me cool points. Today, my students started a new routine that seems to be catching on. It goes a little something like this:
Student: Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket, what you know about dat?
Me: [smiling in amusement] I know all about dat.
*cue laughter and exclaimations of, "Oh snap! Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket knows about TI!"*
They even tried to get me to rap for them. Sweet.
Now playing: TI- What you know

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Perceptions of race in the Delta: musings of a Sunday morning insomniac

I haven't updated my blog in a long time, in part because we didn't get Internet access in my house until a few weeks ago and my ability to access the Internet at my school is, to say the least, sub-par. At any rate, I plan to soon add some entries where I talk about my students, my first month of teaching, other teachers at my school, and so forth, but this Sunday morning, as I grudgingly accept the fact that my body won't let me sleep much past 7 am anymore, even if I need to catch up on sleep, I'm pondering race. More specifically, I've been thinking a lot lately about how I really want to talk to my students about race in a meaningful way, since even though it's a month into school, students still ask me questions about my own race on practically a daily basis (in an effort to give this blog at least the semblance of anonymity, I'll just state here that I'm one of the many corps members of mixed race). I'd like to have some sort of conversation with my students where they explain their conceptions of race to me, though I'm not really sure how to make this happen (in addition to being unsure how to facilitate this sort of conversation with a bunch of seventh graders, I'm wondering how I can justify having this sort of conversation during a science class... hmm).
This morning, I started thinking about all this when I was reflecting on the puzzling fascination my students have with my hair. My hair is black and wavy, and I'll go out on a limb here and say that I like my hair. That being said, I don't think there is anything distinctive about my hair, and have been wondering why my students seem to be fascinated by it. They frequently ask me questions about my hair and will always comment if I put it up one day instead of wearing it down. Several of my female students have touched my hair out of curiousity and been surprised by the texture (one of my girls even commented to her friend, "Ms. Long Skirt Blue Jacket's hair feels just like tissues!"). What's the big deal? I keep asking myself. Just recently, it occured to me that perhaps my students are fascinated because they have never seen hair that was black but not kinky before. This explanation makes sense to me in light of all the other questions I've been asked about my race.
At this point, I've probably discussed my race with the majority of my classes, prompted by questions from curious students who have tried to guess my race and come up with everything from Japanese to Puerto Rican to African. A student told the guidance counselor that he'd seen that the school had an"exchange student" this year (yes, he meant yours truly). Yet there still seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding my race. After I told one student that I was mixed race, he asked, "What does that mean? Puerto Rican?" Another student asked me, after I'd explained my family's ancestry, "So what does that make you?" I think what this really comes down to is that to my students, race is categorical. In their minds, a person is either white or black, and most have a few additional categories that are more abstract to them, i.e. "Mexican" or "Asian." Many of them have probably never met someone before who does not fit neatly into one of these few categories, and I am confusing to them.
Sadly enough, this lack of knowledge about race does not seem to be the result of the young age of my students. Several days before students showed up to school, I had to attend an orientation for all the new teachers in the district. For legal reasons, all of us were fingerprinted, and we needed to fill out information on a card for the fingerprinting. There was a tiny box, too small to fit more than a single letter, labelled, "RACE." I looked all over the card to see where the code letters for each race were listed, but couldn't find them anywhere. I looked around to see what the other teachers were doing. It was an easy enough job for them; they were all putting either "B" or "W." I approached the personnel director, explained my race to him, and asked him what I was supposed to write in the box. Perhaps an "O," for "other," or an "M," for mixed? He looked very confused, admitted that he had no idea, and teased me that I was messing everything up.
The long and short of all this is that I've never felt anywhere near as conscious of my race as I do here. That is not to say that I feel that I am being discriminated against or anything like that, but when I walk down the street, I can tell that people are looking at me and wondering. Random Mississippians ask me about my race on almost a daily basis. The fact that my students are having such a hard time grasping my racial identity makes me feel the need to somehow make them more aware of race issues beyond the black/white dichotomy. I'd be really curious, too, to hear how my students perceive their own racial identities. At my school of about 500 students, there are 5-10 white students, two of whom I have in my classes. I've noticed that most of the white kids at my school bleach their hair, as though to look even more white and stick out even more. I find myself wanting to ask my two white students what it feels like to be the only white kids in their classes, but worry that it might seem insensitive to ask. A local TFA teacher was telling me the other day that it bothers him that there are so many blatant racial problems in Mississippi that no one is willing to talk about, such as the white side of the tracks/black side of the tracks phenomena in the very small Delta towns. I agree with him, but at the same time, thinking about all these issues makes me understand why they are so difficult to discuss.