Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Teaching Table Manners to Orcs

Yesterday, at the end of a really, long, tiring day in my classroom, while I was attempting to straighten up my room and tidy up my desk, I looked out across the trash-strewn floor and jumbled desks and chairs (that had been clean and straight early that morning) and had this thought: What I am attempting to do here is like going into the heart of Mordor and trying to teach table manners to the Orcs.

Of course to understand that reference you have to be a fan of “Lord of the Rings.” For those of you who have not read the “Lord of the Rings Trilogy,” nor seen the movies, I’ll bring you up to speed: Mordor is the kingdom of Sauron, who is an evil Lord who possesses magical powers. The Orcs are his creation and do his bidding as soldiers in his evil army, and they have no choice in this matter—they are slaves who were created for this purpose and know nothing else. Gandalf is a good wizard who has mustered the support of Frodo, Merry, Pippin and Sam (all Hobbits from the innocent world of The Shire) in an attempt to defeat Sauron once and for all and place the rightful and good king, Aragorn, into his proper place after which all citizens of Middle Earth will live free of the darkness of Sauron and Mordor.

And now a further clarification: I am NOT saying that my students are evil, mindless slave soldiers of a dark and evil force. I simply found myself, at the end of a particularly difficult day, grasping for an analogy that would help me make sense of what I am trying to do here, and to help me understand whether it is even an accomplishable task. So you can be sure that I am not blaming my students for the difficulties they face, I’ll flesh out this analogy/metaphor that I’ve chosen to use further.

Gangs in the city are the equivalent of Sauron and Mordor, and they breed the kinds of problems that my students face every day. My students, much like the Orcs in Mordor, had no choice about what city they were born into, whether they would be raised by one parent or two, whether their parents would be employed, drug-addicted, or whatever; nor did they have any choice about whether they would live in the more affluent neighborhoods of the city or in the projects or in the blocks of boarded up and/or burned out houses in which people actually do live. None of this was their choice, but they must play the hands they’ve been dealt, nonetheless.

How this plays out in my classroom is that I have about one hundred and thirty students that I see every single day, many of whom do not have any understanding of basic civility. This is not to say that they are “bad” kids. After two months of teaching these kids I can say with confidence that none of them are “bad”; but many of them do not possess the basic skills required of civil society. By this I mean that they do not understand that 30 students calling out in a classroom, or carrying on side conversations while the teacher is attempting to address the class, or crumbling up a clean piece of paper on which they have made one mark that they consider a “mistake” and then tossing that fifteen feet over the heads of the other students to the trash can (which they nearly always miss—I hope none of the kids in my art class are on the basketball team because we will surely lose every game if they are) is pure chaos. They do not understand that the words f***, b**ch, motherf***er, s**t, d**n, god***n [if you need clarification on any of these words, email me privately and I’ll clear it up for you], and any number of other colorful words are delegated for the street and not the classroom; nor do they understand that it is inappropriate to call the teacher a c**t, b**ch, w**re or sl** when they do not like the fact that she had to tell them to stop talking so she could teach (these are a small minority, thank goodness, and all got suspension for that kind of abusive behavior). They do not understand that trash should be put in a trash can, not on the floor—three days in a row this week I swept up enough trash at the end of the day to fill an entire trash can—they just throw anything and everything on the floor.

Meanwhile, I love these kids. The lack of basic civility and “table manners” does not make them unlovable (to me, anyway). I’ve made a sincere effort to get to know every one of them and have discovered (not surprisingly) that they all have unique and wonderful things to offer the world. The problem is that they do not see this, nor are they concerned with whether they have anything to offer the world. Part of this lack of concern stems from the fact that they are teenagers—they are “me” machines, primarily concerned with what will benefit them individually at any given moment in time. That is normal; it’s part of the natural course of human development (according to all of those courses in human and cognitive development I was required to take when working on my education coursework and teacher certification).

But part of the lack of concern is a kind of resigned apathy that stems from the unique lifestyle of poor, urban kids. My biggest challenge so far, as an art teacher, has been the sheer lack of imagination that exists in most of my students. When I introduce a warm up exercise with, “Imagine…..” or “In your mind, think of ….” I get blank stares. Then I get a chorus of, “Why don’t you just tell us what you want us to put down on the paper….” I also occasionally ask them, “Have you ever wondered about…..” and get blank stares and no response. I was absolutely stunned, and I talked to other more experienced teachers about what might be the source of this problem. I received answers that ranged from “these kids just can’t….” to “years of having people tell them exactly what to do has caused them to not think for themselves….” to “the survival mentality of the street causes them to think creatively only about emergencies….”

This was all so overwhelming to me, because the lack of natural imagination suggests a lack of hope. Then I remembered something from the book, “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.” Josh (AKA Jesus) is trying to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like to his disciples and they just can’t get it. Then Maggie (AKA Mary Magdalene) explains that trying to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like using parables is like trying to point something out to a cat—the cat won’t look at what you’re pointing at, it will only look at your finger, pointing. Josh says that these are the stupidest sons-a-b**ches he’s ever known; to which Biff responds that they’re just being childlike, like Josh told them to be. Then Josh says something like, “yeah—stupid children.” Anyway….Maggie finally says to Josh that they don’t have to be smart to understand the kingdom of heaven, because faith is not an act of the intellect; faith is an act of imagination.

That’s what these kids are missing: faith; hope. They are just struggling from day to day to survive. Every now and then one of them will tell me about some dream they have to be the next (fill-in-the-blank) movie/hip-hop/rap/sports star. And every now and then one of them will tell me about how he’s planning to go to college so he can play football or basketball (without any idea of what he will major in, or what he will do if he doesn’t get picked up by the pros at the end of the five years of playing football/basketball). But few of them really believe that they will ever make it out of where they live right now. They have no hope, which is why they seem to lack imagination (or the other way around—it’s hard to tell where that cycle begins and ends).

The state of Maryland and the National Education Association have standards of achievement for the visual arts that I am supposed to help my students reach. My lessons are all supposed to be designed to lead students to mastery of these achievement standards. But there is nothing in the standards about “developing imagination.” The possession of individual creativity and imagination is assumed to be a foregone conclusion. This apparent lack of awareness that not all students possess the prerequisite building blocks for achieving arbitrary standards is one of the many flaws in our educational system today.

So much of what we are expected to help students achieve depends on mastery of other skills that are assumed to be possessed by all children everywhere. There is a lot of talk about how poverty and crime affect the children we teach, and how that should change the way we teach. But in the end it is all talk—we are simply expected to get these students to score higher on standardized achievement tests, which include nothing to do with creativity and imagination (as if there is a standardized test that could assess this, anyway). In the process of trying to get students’ test scores up, the government, the school districts and school administrations (and many teachers) not only does too little to enhance and develop creativity and imagination in their students, but they assist in squashing it out of them. I ask myself at least ten times a day if my need for an orderly classroom is simply aiding “the system” in squashing creativity out of my students, or if it is actually helping them to have a better learning environment.

As I attempt to look at all of this within the framework of a bigger picture, and as I ponder whether what I am attempting to accomplish is, indeed, along the order of the seemingly impossible task of teaching table manners to Orcs in the heart of Mordor, I have to wonder (every minute of every day) if I am up to this task.

Since I’ve chosen this particular metaphor, I’ll continue with it: What would Frodo Baggins do? Every step along the road of his inescapable journey he was tempted to just run back to The Shire, to the comfort of a polite, civil, peaceful community of like-minded individuals who enjoyed gardening, drinking, dancing and eating. But he never turned back, because he realized that The Shire would cease to exist if he did not complete his mission, because the boundaries of Mordor would simply creep further and further out until all the world would be overrun with the evil power of Sauron.

Last night I told my husband that I wasn’t sure I was up to this task; that I thought it was entirely possible that it is not an accomplishable task, and that I should go to the suburbs or somewhere rural; that there are days, weeks, like this one where I can’t tell if I am part of the solution or part of the machine that grinds these kids down. But in reflecting on this problem, and by relying on my friends from Middle Earth (by relying on my imagination, my ability to hope) to help me sort through the ins and outs of the problem, I came to the same conclusion that Frodo Baggins came to: there is no other road for me but the one that I am on, and it may be my death but I must do it; and if I don’t at least attempt it, who will? I can’t abandon these children—they already haunt my waking and sleeping dreams, and I’ve only been here for two months.

The tide of poverty, crime and injustice that overwhelms the majority of children in this school district will not be turned by me or any one individual, but it is my belief that with enough people making the attempt it can eventually be turned. Right now I choose to stay, even if the Orcs are a little rusty in their table manners.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Insanity of the First Year of Teaching

The amount of work involved in teaching is unbelievable. I and nearly everyone I know had heard about how many hours teachers work, but the descriptions I received didn’t really cover it. Maybe the teachers that told me about their work loads weren’t as whiny as I am; or maybe it doesn’t matter how well you describe something that is impossible to believe—the hours actually spent working on teaching tasks does not seem possible, and it further does not seem that anyone who is sane would continue to do it year after year, making the claims of outlandish amounts of time spent on the job even more unbelievable.

I’m here to confirm the claims. All the stories are true. I get the chuckles now when I think of all of the people I know who fantasize about teaching as a way to have a flexible lifestyle with summers off. HAAA! The joke’s on them if they ever decide to teach for that reason, because by the time summer rolls around about all you’re physically capable of doing after working the way we work is to hold in your hand nothing heavier than a fruity cocktail with a small toy sticking out of it.

It is Thanksgiving weekend, and now that my frenzied day of cooking and company is over I am settling into day two of the four day weekend trying to work up the energy and enthusiasm to grade, calculate, record and update records for one hundred and twenty nine students by Monday morning at O’Dark-thirty AM. My mother probably had no idea that when she agreed to come up here for Thanksgiving that she’d be spending a large part of the weekend helping me to grade papers, sort and organize.

The pile of “to do” items never shrinks. No sooner do I get caught up on the grading than there is another stack even bigger than the one I just finished accumulating.

My typical day begins at 3:00am when the alarm goes off to wake my husband who drives a school bus in the same district in which I teach. The beeping wakes me up, I wake him up, then I go back to sleep until the alarm goes off again at 4:30am to get me out of the starting gate. My husband leaves the house about the same time I get out of bed. I get up and go downstairs for a cup of coffee (from a pot he made when he got up). Then I sit at my computer, check my email, and begin lesson planning, either for that day or a few days ahead. (It would be ideal to begin lesson planning about a month before school starts and then always be writing lesson plans a month ahead of time, but since it is my first year and I’ve never done this before I find that if I can plan one week ahead I’m doing phenomenally well).

At the beginning of the school year the best I was able to hope for when it came to lesson planning was to get a lesson planned for that day. Now, two and half months into the school year, I’m finally able to have a whole week of lessons planned ahead of time. I’m hoping that next year, since I will have already done this once, that I will be able to recycle everything I’ve used this year (everything that was successful, that is—some lesson plans were flops) into a curriculum that I’ll have written ahead of time over the summer. If I’m able to pull that off all I will have to do ahead of time is prep materials and I’ll be able to just show up every day and teach, and then do the grading. That is not the story this year.

After I have spent a solid two hours lesson planning for the three distinctly different classes that I teach (Fundamentals of Art, Graphic Design, and Advanced Design), then I take a shower and get ready for work and am usually at school between 7:45am and 8:00am. I only live a mile from the school (which is a blessing and benefit) so I am able to use the time that my hundreds of thousands of Charm City neighbors use commuting to do my lesson planning in the morning—awesome.

Once I arrive at school I spend the next forty five minutes to an hour getting the date, my standards, warm up assignment, daily objectives and any other “what we’re doing today” stuff up on the board. I tape large, blank, un-lined sheets of flip chart paper to the board for all of the demonstrations that I’ll be doing that day throughout the six classes that I teach (because I have found that my students are not able to translate chalk-on-black to black-on-white on their own paper—they see everything in reverse tone and are unable to visually translate it, so I try to make my demonstrations as similar to what they are actually doing as possible).

I am fortunate enough to not have a homeroom this year. My principal is particularly kind to all of us first-year teachers and takes as much of the extra stuff out of our lives as she can get away with. I have no homeroom period and I have a planning period that is adjacent to my lunch period. This makes my day a little less insane than it would be otherwise.

When homeroom is over the marathon race through my day begins. There is no passing time between classes at my school. When I was in high school, and when my daughter was in high school, the way the change of classes happened was like this: a bell would ring at the end of class, you would have four to six minutes to get to your next class (depending on the school and the era—it seems like schools that do have passing time make that time shorter and shorter every year), and then another bell would ring at the end of the four to six minute period to signify that the next class had begun.

No such sanity at my school. My class periods are forty five minutes long, the first one starting at 9:00am (homeroom is from 8:45am to 9:00am) and running until 9:45am. The bell rings at 9:00am and does not ring again until 9:45am, which is the beginning of the next class period. Teachers are expected to go out into the hallway at the sound of the bell and gather their students into their classes for the next period. I think the reasoning behind this is that it will get the students into class faster, but that is not what happens.

Because there is no bell indicating that students who are not in class are now considered tardy, students hang out in the hallway, taking their time, wander all over the school, go visit their friends, all the while their desperate teachers are hollering for them to get out of the hallway and into class. The process of getting students into the classroom usually takes between ten and fifteen minutes because this method is so inefficient.

What I finally started doing was to explain to my students the concept of “passing time” between classes, and then tell them how that worked in my high school, my daughter’s high school and (presumably) in other high schools that actually still use it. I then explained to them that they needed to take responsibility for getting to class a lot faster than they were doing, and that from now on I would leave the hallway and head into class at five minutes after the bell, at which time I would take attendance, and anyone not in the room by five minutes after the bell would be considered tardy. In this way I was effectively giving them “passing time.” This has worked extremely well, outside of a few chronically tardy students wanting to complain that my clock is fast and that they really weren’t late (which doesn’t fly with me).

Perhaps you begin to see the insanity of my situation. The lack of passing time does nothing to create for the students a sense of urgency about getting to class. Instead, they (like the teachers) see how utterly impossible it is to be at your next class at the same time that you are in your last class, so they just deal with it in their own way by lollygagging around the school.

Just because I’ve instituted a sort of “passing time” for my students, please don’t misunderstand—this does NOT mean that they all arrive on time. I still have a handful of stragglers (enough to disrupt the class every single time) who wander in after the allotted five minutes, usually after I’ve started teaching, and then want to argue with me in front of the class about how unreasonable I am to require that they show up to class on time (despite the fact that the majority of the class was able to do this with no problem). After I manage to shut down the arguing, I go back to teaching my lesson.

By this time we are about fifteen minutes into a forty five minute period. I am able to teach and they are able to work on their projects for about twenty minutes before I have to begin the exhortation to clean up and prepare to leave. I usually assign a short written reflection on the lesson that only takes about one to five minutes. This schedule means that with a forty five minute class period we only get about twenty minutes of quality instructional / hands-on time.

At the end of my second period my planning / lunch period begins. Because I have eaten my breakfast at 5:00am (while I did my lesson planning) I am usually ravenous by that time (10:30am) so I eat my lunch first, and then proceed to grade papers and do more lesson planning. (Sometimes I even remember to go to the bathroom, but that’s never a sure thing, since I am usually too busy to think about it.)

At 12:30pm my third class begins. I teach four “Fundamentals of Art” courses, and this is the third one of the day. Each Fundamentals class is progressively more poorly behaved than the one before it. I don’t know if this is the luck of the draw, or just the students getting antsier as the day moves on. Whatever it is, there is definitely a steep curve that climaxes in my fourth Fundamentals class, and then drops dramatically with my Advanced Design class in the last period of the day.

Again, there is no passing time between classes, so I charge through four class periods in a row to the end of the day without any breaks or setup time—all setup for all of my last four classes of the day must occur in the morning or during my planning period. My fourth and sixth periods are Graphic Design and Advanced Design, respectively. Both of those classes are populated (with only one exception) entirely by senior students. This makes the classes decidedly calmer than the four Fundamentals classes, but the time constraints and tardiness issues are the same.

The day ends at 3:35pm, at which time my coach class schedule begins. We are only required to offer one coach class a week, but I offer four so as to accommodate the varying needs of my students. Coach class is nothing more glamorous than time spent before or after school by students getting help with homework or other assignments, making up quizzes and assignments, or just extra study time. I have had exactly five students out of my one hundred and twenty nine students ever take me up on coach class time. I am like the Maytag repairman: I’m always there but rarely does anyone show up to keep me company. On most days I just use this as more lesson planning and grading time.

When I finally get home around 5:00pm, I have been up for over twelve hours. I always have grand plans and ideas about lessons that I want to plan, grading that I’ll get done, a home cooked meal that I will prepare from scratch (aaahhhh….the good ole days when I was able to cook a meal every evening….), etc.; but by the time I get home and have fixed myself and my husband something fast from a box, and then allowed myself to sit down just long enough to watch something mind-numbing on T.V., I am usually conked out for the duration.

And then there’s the lesson planning. This is, of course, a monumental task for me in my first year of teaching, because I’ve never had to do unit or lesson planning for an entire year before; and of course there’s the small detail about having no curriculum—I’m making it all up as I go. This is getting easier to do a lot faster than I thought it would, but it still takes a lot of time and energy. Mostly I rely on the Picasso adage, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” I spend massive amounts of “spare” time surfing the internet for lesson planning ideas that gracious veteran teachers have posted for sharing with poor unsuspecting first year teachers like myself. I’ve gratefully taken some of these lessons and modified them for my own purposes and used them to great success.

But I’ve also learned that finding previously prepared lesson plans on the internet (or in books) is not the cure all that it may sound like. Every school has its own required format for lesson plans, so at a minimum you always have to modify the lesson plan to meet the formatting requirements of your school. And then there’s the variable of how the lesson plan you’ve “stolen” fits in with the unit you are teaching, and whether your students have mastered the required skills for beginning the lessons that you find, and whether you have the supplies required to execute the lesson, and so on.

So, where “stealing” lesson plans is concerned I have found that the best thing to do is not look for previously prepared lessons. What I have learned to do is to look for finished products that demonstrate mastery of skills and concepts that I am trying to teach, and then write a lesson plan that gets my students to that finished product. That way I do not get bogged down in trying to follow a lesson plan that doesn’t exactly meet the needs of my students, nor do I have to worry about whether I have the required supplies. I just design the lesson and finished product using the supplies that I have and building on skill sets that my students have already developed. The fancy education-speak for that latter item is called “scaffolding,” but it is so important to not leapfrog over skill sets and concepts that the students have not mastered yet—that is key to having a great lesson that the students enjoy and excel at.

Snoooooze…..zzz….zzzz…..Wake up! Don’t you know that it’s rude to fall asleep while someone is telling you a story? Seriously….I know that this chapter must be terribly boring compared to the previous death-defying accounts of teaching in the inner city that I’ve sent you, but from my point of view what I’ve been relating in this “chapter” is way more stress-inducing than the other stuff. The demands made on teachers in the current educational environment in our country, and particularly in underserved areas like Baltimore City, are beyond what is humanly possible to deliver (unless you are a machine, or don’t need sleep or a life outside of your job). I have met veteran teachers in my district who do manage to juggle it all, but I have yet to meet anyone who is able to do every little thing that their job requires of them; they all admit that they have selectively chosen to do the parts of their job that they think are important, and let the rest go. As a perfectionist, I find this horror-inducing—it is one of my many idiosyncrasies to at least attempt to do all of the things that my job requires of me, and then to do them well, so I’m hoping that I find some way to balance all of these responsibilities and sort out the essential from the superfluous before I make myself insane. I’ll get back to you in a few months and let you know how I’m doing.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Georges Seurat, American Imperialism, and the Meaning of it All

This is a mission field, I tell you. Who needs to go to third world countries when we’ve got the same conditions right here in Baltimore? I’m starting to think that the only places that are worse are in Africa; particularly the Sudan and Somalia.

Jonathan and I have inadvertently arrived at a method for dealing with the overwhelming sorrow of all of this by sharing one or two short stories before we just stop talking about it and go on to something else, like watching a TV show or a movie or something to get our minds off of it. Then we write, write, write about it and proofread each other’s stuff. It’s very therapeutic and helps us to validate and compare our experiences without having to deal with it head on all the time.

I was thinking about how our country is on this democratic globalization binge at the moment (now the radical Native American Studies grad student / sci-fi nut in me comes out), which is really the newest form of imperialization and colonization; but we have black holes in our own country like Baltimore and all the other urban areas with the same problem. It makes me desperate for our country to take a “Star Trek” approach to international relations and develop some kind of “prime directive” (which, in “Star Trek,” forbids any effort to improve or change in any way the natural course of any other society, even if that change is well-intentioned and kept completely secret, because such interference always leads to disaster for the society being interfered with). I mean, we are all over the world forcing our way of life down the throats of as many countries as we can, as if it is actually working HERE, and this is all disguised as “spreading democracy” when it’s really all about money (colonization).

Iraq is a perfect case in point—I begin to understand what many Iraqis mean when they say things were better under Saddam Hussein: he was a cruel, brutal, genocidal tyrant, but they had little crime, the cities were beautiful, and the country was livable (what they say, not what I say—it was only livable if you didn’t happen to end up on Saddam’s bad side somehow, so I’m still glad he’s out of there, but I think we could have helped them without declaring an all out war and bombing the hell out of the country).

Sorry—I find it impossible these days to not think about what we’re seeing here in our schools and on the streets without thinking in terms of the global picture and our (the US) part in it. While we have dedicated around three hundred and fifty billion dollars ( to the effort and are fighting a losing battle in Iraq, a battle that was never ours to begin with, our kids are being eaten alive by the streets of our own country (finally I get to my point) and I don’t see any great initiatives designed to fight the battle to liberate them, nor any money going out to attempt to solve the problem; and now I am sure that while we may reach a few kids and make a difference in their lives, there is no way that we are going to solve the core problems that exist here because they are out of our reach to fix—but at least we show up every day and do our best to fight what seems like a losing battle. Losing or not, I’ll do the best I can even though it is not nearly enough; the kids need so much more than I have to give them.

I started watching “The Wire” this week. I’m renting it from Netflix and have started at the beginning of season 1. I’m so glad that I didn’t start watching it before I started teaching, because if I had I probably would have thought it was overly dramatic and way worse than what really exists here. Now that I’ve been teaching for two months I know that it is NOT overly dramatic or way worse—it actually seemed kind of subdued (all except for the overuse of the word “f***”—I keep telling my students that they really need to find some new cuss words, because the one they keep using is really unoriginal and overdone; they look at me like I’m from another planet because I think it’s the first time they’ve been told something different than to just stop saying it, which I also tell them).

I asked my kids what they think of “The Wire” and about half of them say they like it and the other half say they don’t. When I asked either side why they like or don’t like it they gave me the exact same reason: because it is so realistic. The kids that like it say it is so realistic that it is really relevant to their experience and it makes them feel validated; while the kids that don’t like it say that it is so realistic that it makes them feel like it is all too much, so they don’t watch it anymore (“I live it, Ms. A—I don’t need to watch that on TV when it’s goin’ on right outside my door,” they say).

About halfway through the first episode I asked myself, “Now why did I think I wanted to watch this?” because it was so realistic as to seem like a seamless continuation of my day. But the answer is that it helps me to understand a little more about what the conditions are like at “home” for a lot of my students, and I’ve made a deal with myself to never look away. I was surprised at how validated it made ME feel to watch it. It also solidified my resolve to encourage my husband to “see no evil” while he’s driving the bus, because he sees too many drug deals in a day to ever be safe if he were called on as a witness.

One of the things that all of this writing about what we’re doing is helping me with is to really look at the whole experience. After I’ve written as much as I have about the problem, and then I try to focus on a solution, I realize that there is no solution that I can provide that will fix any of this. All I can do is to just keep showing up every day, bear witness to the lives of these kids, and do the little things that I’m actually able to do that might have some impact on the 129 individuals entrusted to my care for 3 ¾ hours a week.

Yesterday, two students who I had never even seen before came to me after school because the director of the Native American Program for our school district (which is housed at our school because of the high number of Native American students) told them that I have a masters in Native American studies. They are on the debate team and had a statement to defend that concerned Native American issues. The very quiet young man insisted that they stick to the facts in their defense, but the very vocal young woman kept taking her premise concerning what the government should do to facilitate the perpetuation of indigenous languages and expanded that to a more global effort to eradicate the US government. She is WAY more well read on philosophy than I am (and I have to tell you it was so encouraging to deal with two students this smart at my school—I don’t get to see that very much in my art classes, which is kind of depressing for a lot of reasons). She also had a lot of great points about why we should burn our governmental structure to the ground and give all the land back to the Native Americans.

However, the two of them had come to me to get supporting facts for their argument, which I gave them. The young man kept trying to pull her back to bullet points that would help them win the debate, but she kept trying to grind her “eradicate the US government” axe with her debate topic as the whetstone. I was grasping for ways to help her understand that that is not the way to win a debate or to change the world and I found a metaphor in Seurat (which made me feel like maybe I might be a good art teacher after all): I explained to her how he used pointillism to paint these enormous pictures and what pointillism is (neither of them had heard of this); then I explained that winning her debate was like one dot of paint on the canvas, and winning the next debate was another dot, and meanwhile other people around the world are fighting the same battle against American imperialism that she is and that their small victories are the other dots in the painting, etc.—eventually the job gets done if everyone does their own small part every day; and no one can win the battle fighting the whole thing at once all by themselves in one debate.

I found that that was very good advice for ME, especially when I’m feeling like all of my efforts are futile. Every day that I show up to work is a dot on the canvas, and every day that Jonathan shows up, and all the other teachers and bus drivers and resource officers …..those are all dots on the canvas of Baltimore’s problems. With any luck they will paint a beautiful picture, eventually, that will eradicate the ugly one that exists here now. It helps me to think in terms of an art metaphor, as if there may be some sort of purpose in all of this.

Now I’m getting ready to go work on my dot of paint for the day. I’ll do my best to make it beautiful.

Friday, November 03, 2006


I am a witness to the lives of these children. If I am never able to affect any kind of change here I will at least have been a witness; someone to tell the story.

This past week was chaotic and crazy and I’m not even sure why. Perhaps because Halloween fell on a Tuesday and was followed by Homecoming on Friday—the usual flow of things was interrupted, and that never bodes well for maintaining any sense of order at our school. The strange thing was that I felt the disruption, and felt out of sorts as a result.

But the disruption didn’t begin with the un-events of this week (remember: there is no Halloween celebration at my school, and there was hardly any Homecoming celebration to speak of). A couple of weeks ago we had two days in a row of chaos that revolved around a core of young men wearing black shirts, black hoodies, and black hats who were simply wandering and running through the hallways of the school all day. They eluded the five police officers who work at our school for a day and a half, and on the second day set off enough cherry bombs on the third floor to cause an actual fire emergency (not a drill).

There was no fire but there was smoke. This happened about twenty minutes before the final bell of the day on the first cold day of the school year—not too clever on the part of the perps; I mean, if you wanted to get everyone out of school by pulling a prank and causing an evacuation, why do it twenty minutes before the day ends anyway? Why not do it at nine in the morning? That would have made more sense; but I guess people don’t choose a life of crime because they’re the brightest lights in the harbor….

Anyway, the incident had all of the teachers on edge because every class period during that two days was interrupted by a loud disturbance in the hallway, during which we were all calling down to the various academy offices telling them where they could find these disturbers of the peace if they were fast enough. As a result of the two days of shenanigans, the senior principal announced that the school would proceed until further notice under lock-down-type rules: stricter enforcement of the uniform code, no passes during classes at all, and hallway sweeps between classes to pick up and suspend students who are not in class.

What I can’t understand is why these kids who cause this kind of trouble come to school at all? I mean, what’s in it for them? If they really hate school that much why not just skip? One of my little darlings who kept calling me a c**t, sl**, b**ch and a w**re in class got suspended twice for this offense, and on the second suspension he was apprehended in the hallway for trespassing. What kind of crazy behavior is that? To go to all the trouble of getting yourself suspended so you don’t have to come to school, and then come to school and get yourself arrested for trespassing? It doesn’t make sense under the normal “rules.”

But my school and my kids are not “normal” by mainstream standards. I learned a lot from the kid who got arrested for trespassing because he was at school while he was suspended. What that situation taught me is that for many of these kids there is something going on at home that is so unbearable that they act out in negative ways at school; but when they get themselves suspended they have nowhere to go but back home where the problem exists. It’s a teenage “catch 22.” They are trapped in a crazy world not of their own making—they did not choose the life they were born into, but they aren’t old enough or experienced enough to have the ability or the power to change their own circumstances. They are stuck, from their point of view, and they do not have the emotional or social skills to play the hands they’ve been dealt.

There are many statistics on why these kids don’t have the skills. One is that 85% of all kids in this city have one parent at home (most often a mother, no father) who is working two jobs for a total of 80 hours a week just to make the rent and put food on the table. Many people look at the problems of urban children and assume that the parents don’t care, but that is not necessarily true. It’s simply a matter of time and money—if you don’t have a college education and can only get hourly-wage work (which is mostly low-paying), then you have to work more hours to make the money that, in the end, won’t be enough to pay all of your bills. That’s hard enough with one child, but most of these hard-working women have several children to feed and clothe.

Some of them can’t do it. There isn’t enough work or there are too many bills and eventually some of them get “put out on t’ street.” That’s Baltimore vernacular for eviction. You won’t ever hear a kid say, “My family got evicted.” You’ll hear them say, “We got put out t’ street.”

Someone on our block got “put out t’ street” just a few weeks ago. I won’t paint this prettier than it is—they were not good neighbors. They had a dog that they kept chained up in a very small concrete back “yard” and who barked nonstop, morning, noon and night. One day we heard a loud argument out the back in the alley and it was one of our other neighbors hollering at these people about the stench coming from the garbage piling up in their back “yard.”

A few days later I came home from work and saw a mountain of household items piled on the curb in front of that house. In addition to neglecting their dog and accumulating garbage, they evidently had failed to pay their rent, also. They’d been “put out t’ street.” It did not take more than two days for passers by to pick through and confiscate the belongings that had been thrown on the curb—there was nothing left but a little detritus when the city finally came around to pick up and haul off the debris. It was truly heartbreaking to consider that, no matter how happy we were to see these neighbors go, they are homeless now.

My husband is working for the next couple of weeks as an attendant on a school bus for children with special needs. Once he has completed a few weeks working as an attendant he will be given his own route and will drive a special needs bus (and will hopefully have an attendant to help him with the kids). While my days involve dealing with the kids in the classroom, he drives around their neighborhoods and sees where they live. Some of these neighborhoods rival refugee conditions in urban African countries that have been ravaged by civil war. Entire blocks of row houses burned out and/or boarded up; mountains of trash on the sidewalks and in the gutters.

One day last week he was in a particularly bad neighborhood and a car pulled out in front of the bus and stopped, blocking the road. Then a kid came out of one of the row houses and walked up to the car, where it was obvious that some kind of transaction occurred, and then the kid walked away and the car moved on. When my husband asked the bus driver what had happened, he replied, “Drug deal.” Right there in broad daylight, no attempt to cover it up, a drug deal had gone down. What a world.

A few days after the incidents at my school with the kids-in-illegal-hoodies and the cherry bombs I had two nightmares in the space of an hour just before I woke up at 4:30am to begin my teaching day. In the first nightmare I was driving down some street and saw a fellow walking on the double yellow line in the middle of the road. Suddenly I see blood spurting out of his chest from three different places, sort of like buttons popping off of a jacket that’s too tight, and realize that he has been shot three times in the back and that I was seeing the bullets coming out the front of his chest. I keep driving and see another fellow carrying a handgun and walking the yellow line behind him. He looks at me passing in the car and shoots me in the neck and then I wake up.

In the next nightmare I dreamed that I was out in the country at my Aunt’s place in Alabama. I have pulled off of the road just south of her place so I can load some things into my car from the barn. All of a sudden my car falls over sideways. I think, “Bummer. Now I’ll have to find someone to help me tip it back up,” (as if your car could just fall over, and as if it could be righted by just picking it up—it was a dream). At that point I see some kids come down the road and pull over. I think, “What wonderful luck! They’re going to help me pick up my car and set it back on the tires.” Then I get a funny feeling about the whole thing, pick up my car and right it by myself (remember—it’s a dream), get back in it and lock the doors. Before I really know what’s happening, I smell something toxic and realize that they are pouring something flammable on my car. Then I see one of the kids come around the front of my car with a rock in his hand the size of a football, and then he throws the rock at my windshield. I drive back up the road to my Aunt’s place, and I see all of these unidentifiable things in the road that are on fire. Then I see a bunch of kids setting things and people on fire. Then I wake up.

I am not afraid of my students. It’s weird, but I really have no fear around them, even when they are doing things that I should probably consider threatening. But evidently my subconscious is working overtime, because that dream made me think that I must be worrying about my personal safety more than I consciously realize; or, maybe, that I should be worrying about my personal safety more than I do.

Then I just got up, got ready for work, went to school, and didn’t think about any potential threat to my safety until writing this dispatch. But thinking about it now I wonder if I should continue to live in the city. I think I would probably be safer if I lived far from here and had an unlisted number.

In 2004 a gang set a family’s house on fire because they kept calling the police to report drug deals going down in front of their house. The family of seven was in the house when this happened and all of them were killed. Just the other day the Baltimore TV news reported that the Mayor dedicated their remodeled project apartment as The Dawson Family Safe Haven Center (you can read about this at and My husband said the bus driver who explained to him that he had just witnessed a drug deal in broad daylight told him that she had been shot at in a bus before. I’m thinking that he would be safer on a rural route.

Am I a sellout if I move to a safer neighborhood but continue to teach in this school? Am I a sellout if I move to a safer neighborhood and teach in a safer school? If I do that, who will be a witness to the lives of these children? Is it necessary that it be me? These are the questions that I ask myself every day. I don’t know the answers yet. So I’ll keep showing up until I don’t.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

No Halloween

The kids at my school cannot wear masks or makeup or costumes on Halloween, and the teachers are loathe to celebrate it, also. The reason for this is “a safety issue,” and that is probably correct. On regular school days at our school, days that are not a beloved holiday, students are not allowed to wear hats, hoodies (sweatshirts with hoods), or anything other than their school uniform. The school uniform is a pale blue oxford shirt (either long or short sleeved) and khaki colored pants. Students are not allowed to wear anything over their uniforms, nor are they allowed to wear leggings (if they wear short pants), or pants with elastic at the ankles, or vests or sweaters or coats over their shirts. They are also not allowed to wear colored wrist bands or bandanas (do-rags), or anything else that might betray a gang affiliation.

My school has an extremely diverse student population which includes mostly African Americans but also Hispanics, Latinos, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Africans (from the continent, not America), South Americans (from many different countries), many European immigrants, and, yes, Euro Americans (white students). The most recent statistic at our school says we have something in the neighborhood of 22 languages spoken at our school, though Spanish is the most common non-English language, followed by French. Even so, most of the students are African American, and most of them were born and live right here in the city, where they will most likely spend their entire lives (according to statistics).

The “safety issue” at our school is gang activity, of course. Students bring all of the problems they face at home and on the streets right into the school with them every day, where the school administration works tirelessly to bar any and all activity that might interfere with learning. This is much easier said than done, and the methods used (while quite effective, actually) create an atmosphere at our school that much resembles prison, for both teachers and students. The reason for the ban against gang colors is to reduce the possibility of signaling to gang members within the school and to redirect focus back toward learning. The reason for no hoodies is that security cameras do no good if the perpetrator of a crime can conceal his or her identity by hiding his face inside a hood.

Which brings me back to why our students cannot wear Halloween costumes—they could be even more effective in concealing the identity of someone perpetrating a crime. So on the off chance that a few ne’er-do-well students may choose to participate in some shenanigans on Halloween, the entire student body of around 1800 students must suffer Halloween without costumes. This cheerless mood also carries over to cover “no parties” at our school. There is basically no celebrating of any kind.

The general philosophy is that these kids need rigorous discipline in order to achieve academically. It is generally (and somewhat accurately) assumed that the majority of the students come from undisciplined environments in which they have not been pushed to achieve, and that it is our responsibility to push them.

This is my first year teaching art in high school, and it has been quite an experience so far. I’ve only been at it for two months and during the first few weeks of school I was pretty sure that I hated it and was going to quit. The kids are challenging, and working in this kind of restricted environment does not make me feel safer, but rather more frustrated. I’ll let you off the hook: I now know that I love what I do and the kids that I teach, and if I were to go to a different school in a different district I might have an easier job and a nicer environment but I would be haunted by the students I left behind, and I might not have the awesome support that I get from my principals.

Right now my focus is on becoming a better teacher. At the moment I can tell that I will be great at it some day, but presently I feel lucky if I’m merely good at it more than half the time. The other half of the time is the experimenting and floundering that I do while learning how to be a good teacher. Most days are an uphill struggle to get my students to learn something, to want to learn something. Most days I’m figuring out what works and what doesn’t and trying not to waste too much time on the things that I find do not work.

The kids at my school are tough, but I love them. They are different than any kids I’ve ever been around before. I have read the statistics on urban schools and the challenges faced by teachers in these districts, but the challenges I face are nothing compared to the challenges that my students face every day. I have to remind myself of that every minute of every day. Then I have to force myself to forget it so that I can do the things that are necessary to get them to learn. So much of “the challenges they face” are things that, while real, become excuses for failure and for not even trying in the first place. Many of the kids are extremely invested in their perception of their lot in life. They are invested in being misunderstood. This is an urban mindset that is complicated by the natural tendency to be misunderstood that is inherent in the teenager. To allow a white schoolteacher to convince them that they can be something different, achieve something different would mean selling out in some way. It would mean that they don’t know themselves, their situation, their options, or their own potential as well as they think they do. It would mean that they could hope for something better. It would mean that they would be wrong about the allure of easy money on the street.

“Get money” is a phrase I hear over and over during the day at my school. These kids are obsessed by it. And at the expense of offending someone or sounding racist I’ll make a clarification: it is the African American kids who use this phrase. The Latino/Hispanic/Mexican-American kids at my school are just as likely to be involved in gangs as the African American kids; and any of the other kids from a multitude of other cultures (including my own) are also just as likely to get involved in gangs. But to deny that there are major cultural differences among these groups is to ignore reality. They are all similar in many ways, but they are also very dissimilar in the ways that they approach a variety of problems in life. They are also very prejudiced against each other. I hear racial slurs made by kids from one group against kids in another group and vice versa all day long every day. I am constantly working to raise my own cultural consciousness as well as that of my students. On most days I feel I am coming to understand them better, but my feeling is that most of them are driving the trenches between them deeper—it’s hard to tell, really, if anything I say or do gets through to them, and I may never know for sure.

Anyway, about “get money.” Most of the kids at my school are extremely poor, so it is easy to see how alluring a promise of easy money can be to them. That is the appeal of gangs. Not only do they promise these kids a family that they may not have, but they promise easy money. A couple of weeks ago there was a spike in crime in the cultural district of our city. The new gang initiation for young potential members is to run up to people on the street and snatch their cell phones out of their hands and run away. It’s like Oliver Twist in Baltimore. There’s a whole network of young crime “families” taking in these cast-offs, providing them with acceptance in exchange for a little petty crime. It’s easy to see the appeal of that. If you have no family of your own, or if your family is unavailable for whatever reason, and you have no money, and you have to take care of yourself, why not do these things for a “family” that apparently cares for you?

Another phrase that I hear over and over at my school throughout the day is “that’s my father” or “that’s my son.” I haven’t been there long enough to know whether these are direct references to gang relationships, but that’s what I suspect they are. In a world where the average life-expectancy of the African American male is about 25, a sixteen-year-old taking in a fourteen-year-old and calling him “son” can have great appeal for the fourteen-year-old who has no father (and statistically about 85% of these young men have no father at home).

The girls have just as many problems, and they are easy to guess. We have a daycare in our school, if that gives you an idea of the kinds of problems these girls have. We also have a health clinic that dispenses condoms and other birth control, as well as providing other basic school-related health care services. It is directly across the hall from the daycare center. One of my more on-the-ball senior girls astutely observed one day: “That’s working out real well, isn’t it?” She was being ironic, of course, referring to the fact that birth control is available directly across from the daycare center, but most of the girls are opting for involuntary parenthood rather than being seen going into the student health center. While I must be asked a hundred times a day for a pass to go to the health center for an aspirin, evidently not as many students are going there for birth control counseling as need to.

Of course, it is likely that not all of the sexual activity is voluntary. In the same way that gangs protect young men who perform duties for the “family,” I assume that young women are afforded certain protections for their involvement as well. I do not pretend to understand how all of this works, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to draw a few conclusions. Because of my heightened awareness of the gang activity at my school I have selected “The Wire” to be the next series I rent from Netflix. I never would have guessed that I would have to watch a crime drama to get to know my students better. This ain’t no “Beverly Hills 90120” for sure (to coin the vernacular of my students).

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Real Christians - They Forgive

I read this article on and was moved to tears. The Amish demonstrate the love of Jesus through their actions. Check it out and be encouraged:

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Ambitious Spiders on the C and O Canal

As an amendment to my second installment of “Baltimore Adventure” I want to give a little flora and fauna report. This weekend I am at my dad’s place in Cumberland, Maryland. Cumberland is the terminus of the C and O Canal Tow Path (C and O for Chesapeake and Ohio). This canal has not been in use for some many decades, and for a long time the tow path still existed but was in a state of disrepair. But in recent years the C and O Canal Tow Path was made a National Historic Park, and the trails and historic sites along the way have been restored and maintained for hikers, bicyclers and horse riders. The tow path is 184.5 miles long, starting in Harper’s Ferry (near Washington D.C.) and ending in Cumberland. One could hike or ride the entire distance of it, and a boy scout troop from Cumberland did just that this last week. Jonathan and I have set a goal to walk/bike the entire length of it in sections (this section one weekend, that section another weekend, and so on); but we would also like to take a week or so and do the entire length at one time at some point. A small tourist industry has built up around the restoration of the tow path, and there are accommodations along the full length of the path at reasonable intervals, so we wouldn’t even have to camp out if we didn’t want to; although there are great camping areas all along the way.

Yesterday I started at Canal Place in Cumberland (a restored train station, where you can take a ride on an old steam locomotive to Frostburg and back) and walked along the tow path for about a mile and then turned around (it was about noon, it was hot, the humidity was about 70%, and there was no shade along this stretch). This morning I started at the North Branch junction and walked about two miles to a steam pump ruin (about two miles) and then turned around and walked back. That part of the tow path is shady the entire way, and it was wonderful! (I didn’t take any pictures because I didn’t want to carry anything with me.) There was a hiker/biker camping area near the North Branch junction, and there were a couple of bikers camping there (sleeping) when I walked out. On my way back they were up having their breakfast. It was very enticing—I am really looking forward to being able to do that! It’s not Montana, but it’s green and it is beautiful and peaceful.

One thing that is really odd about the green places / trails I’ve found out here is that there are hardly any people on them. Unlike Bozeman, where any trail you choose nowadays (whether in town or in the mountains) is practically a backcountry freeway of human foot traffic, I very rarely pass people on these trails. On the busiest trail day so far I passed about 5 people total during a one hour walk. I’ve been out at all times of day (morning, evening, midday) and this doesn’t seem to change. So, while the east coast is just brimming with people in general, getting off the beaten path to these little green spaces is a true respite, because hardly anyone takes advantage of them. That’s unfortunate, really, because people are not availing themselves of these wonderful outdoor resources; but it means more open space and quiet for me, so I’m not complaining.

So…’re probably wondering what “ambitious spiders” (from the subject line, above) have to do with anything. This morning my feet hit the tow path at 7:05, and I was the first person out on that stretch of the trail. The trail itself is about 8 feet wide (wide enough for a wagon, though in the days when the tow path was used wagons did not pull the canal boats—one mule led by a man pulled them). Then there are about two to three feet of grass or brush to each side of the path and then lots of trees. In two separate places within the two mile stretch of trail that I was walking, I walked right through a spider web that had been constructed right in the middle of the path, at just about face level (I’m about 5’7” tall, so that would be MY face level). After I did that twice I actually started looking for the things. On the way back I saw several more and managed to avoid them. These spider webs were only about a foot in diameter and the spiders that were hanging out in them were pretty small (between a half inch and an inch in diameter, including legs). The strands that were holding that one foot medallion of spider web in the middle of the trail were easily ten feet long, strung from each of what would be four corners of the web, if a web had corners. These little spiders must build and rebuild their webs a dozen or more times a day as they are torn down by hikers and bikers walking/riding through them. My active imagination could envision these ambitious little spiders seeing hikers and bikers going by and thinking what a big meal they would have if they could trap one of those!

If you want to know more about the C and O Canal Tow Path, go to You’ll find a map at this link: (be aware that the map is arranged for convenient viewing, which means the Mason Dixon Line is to your right—if you were looking at a North-oriented map the Mason Dixon line would be at the top of the page). Enjoy.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Shirley, and Kids Who Talk

What a difference a week makes! Shirley is back on the road with a new water pump and a new wiring harness. She still needs a bit more TLC, but she pulled through and lived to tell the tale and will likely not leave me stranded on the side of the road in the city somewhere. And now I have a Volvo mechanic who has recommended a repair and maintenance schedule for Ol’ Shirley, so I don’t feel panicky and desperate about having a reliable vehicle anymore. I highly recommend Danneman Auto ( if you are having car trouble in the Baltimore area.

I also received a teaching placement on Friday! I’ll be teaching Art in grades K-12 at Patterson High School which is in the Greek Town section of Baltimore City (southeast corner, just north the Fort McHenry Tunnel, just east of the Inner Harbor, for those of you who like to use Earth Google and/or Mapquest, and are actually interested enough to look it up). Get this: I was at my interview yesterday with the Assistant Principal and the other Art Teacher, and when they saw on my resume that I have a masters in Native American Studies they got all excited and asked me if I had any idea that they have a very large group of Native American students at that school. I replied that I knew that there are NA students in the district, because all of the federal Indian service agencies are in the D.C. / Baltimore area. They said that the ratio is a LOT higher at Patterson because a large group of Lumbee people (tribe in North Carolina: relocated to that part of Baltimore a long time ago and stayed, and all of the kids go to Patterson. Weirdly, I learned about the Lumbee relocation in my masters program, but had no idea what schools the kids attended, or that they were all at one school. What do you suppose the odds are that the only person of all the BCTR residents with a MA in NAS would end up getting placed (coincidentally) at the school with all the Lumbee kids? Truth truly is stranger than fiction. I can’t think of a more perfect fit for me! Looks like that masters in NAS will be useful after all.

Yesterday I also found out that the Baltimore City School District managed to negotiate a pay increase for teachers, so I will be making $3,000 more per year than I thought I would be when I entered this program. They also negotiated a mandatory 5% annual pay increase in that deal. Sweet. J

And just when you might think that those are enough serendipities for one person in one week...This morning I got a call from the Art Teacher who was at my interview yesterday. She called to tell me that the art teacher who I am replacing has been renting a little house that she owns less than a mile from the school at which I will be teaching. The reason I am replacing that other art teacher is because she and her husband are moving to upstate New York to be closer to family (they’re having a baby soon), so the rental will be available around Labor Day (which is precisely when I will need to have found a place). She asked me if I had found a permanent place to live and if and (if not) would I be interested in renting it. The price is great for the city, the location is within walking distance of my job, the neighborhood is a great working-class neighborhood (Greek Town) with easy access to all of the neat stuff in Baltimore City (i.e., the Inner Harbor, just west of there), and a convenient distance to the Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus (where I take my education courses two nights a week—part of the program I was hired through), and she doesn’t mind that I have two dogs. So of course I said I’LL TAKE IT! I’m not completely stupid, though—I’m going to do a drive-by tomorrow and then go look at the inside on Monday evening. If everything is hunky dory I’ll sign a lease and rent it.

As for my training and student teaching placement for the summer….I have to spend two and a half hours every morning in another teacher’s classroom observing and teaching for part of the time as part of my accelerated teacher certification training. My placement is at Maree Ferring Elementary School in Brooklyn, MD, which is just south of the Inner Harbor. The site coordinator for the summer school (sort of like a principal, but she’s not the principal—she just supervises the teachers who are teaching summer school at that location, but who usually teach at other schools during the regular school year) informed us at our initial orientation that Brooklyn is known as “the West Virginia of Baltimore.” For those of you who are not familiar with West Virginia and its associated stereotypes let me tell you that that is an insult to West Virginia and an insult to the residents of Brooklyn. She’s referring to the West Virginia stereotype of hillbilly inbreeding (which is JUST a stereotype).

The teacher I have been placed with is awesome! She is a terrific teacher and was hired and trained through the same program (Baltimore City Teaching Residency, AKA BCTR) that I am working through. I am working in a class with 1st graders who are going into 2nd grade but are a little behind where they need to be and are in summer school as a sort of bridge program, to get them up to speed for second grade. There are also a few 2nd graders who were held back and are in summer school for the same reason—to get them up to speed so they have a better chance of not being held back for a second time. For the first two days of my summer school placement I worked with two boys who the teacher called “non-readers.” Their reading skills are about Kindergarten level for one kid, and pre-kindergarten for the other. After just one day of working with the two of them I got to watch their reading improve! Very exciting! It made me feel like I might really be a teacher after all.

On the third day, the summer school site coordinator came into the classroom while the teacher was working with a small group on an activity, and while I and the other student teacher placed in that class were working with two smaller groups on sentence writing skills. The site coordinator explained that she had placed the little boy she had in tow in the wrong classroom (where he had been for three days) and she had only noticed just a few minutes before bringing him to our class that he should have been in our class. Then she explained to the teacher that he would cause no trouble for the teacher, and that he didn’t even talk. “He doesn’t talk at all. You’ll talk to him but he won’t talk to you and he won’t talk to the other kids. He won’t cause any trouble.” He had not spoken a single word in the three days of summer school, and evidently had a history of not speaking prior to the beginning of summer school (though I have no idea for how long). What she said and the way she said it caused me to assume that he must either be actually mute or had an emotional disorder that prevented him from talking.

After the site coordinator left, the teacher of this class brought the boy over to my table and explained that since we were nearly finished with our activity he did not have to do it. He could color one of the coloring pages that she had provided the other kids as a reward for finishing their assignments, just so he would have time to settle into a new class. Then she planned to work on getting him caught up with the other kids the next day. I welcomed him to the table and asked him if he would like to color. He nodded yes. I asked him if he would like to pick out a coloring page and he nodded yes. I got him some crayons and he started coloring. I continued working with my other two students while he colored his page. I asked him if he had everything he needed and he nodded yes. I purposefully only asked him yes or no questions so he would not feel pressured to talk to me, and so he could respond just by nodding or shaking his head. I do not have it in me to not encourage a child, so every couple of minutes I would say something like, “You’re doing a great job on that picture. I can tell you’re a really great artist.” Or, “I like the colors you chose for that part of the picture.” Just anything I could say to encourage him and let him know he was.

After about ten minutes of this, all of the sudden he looked at me and said, “Don’t look at my picture until I’m done.” He smiled—he wanted to surprise us with what he was coloring. Inside my head I was hollering with excitement, “OH MY GOD, HE TALKED!” But what I said was, “OK—You just let us know when you’re ready.” I kept helping my other student, and every few minutes would say “Just let us know when you’re ready. We can’t wait to see what you’re doing!” He finished the picture and showed it to us and started another one, talking to us conversationally all the while he worked on the second one. At that point my other student said to me, “HEY! That lady said he couldn’t talk! But he’s talking.” Kids never miss a thing.

WOW! That was EXCITING! Later that day, in my training session with the other teaching residents our facilitator asked if anyone had anything to share from our morning of student teaching. So I told the story I just told you. From behind me one of my colleagues said, “Was that [and she named the student]?” I answered that it was. She said, “Oh my God! He was in our class for three days and we couldn’t get him to say one word. It says in his student record that he simply doesn’t talk. How did you do it?”

I honestly don’t know how I did it. I just made him feel welcome, let him know I was interested in him, I didn’t talk down to him, and I let him come around in his own time. As it turned out, “his own time” was in the range of 10-15 minutes. I was as shocked as anyone that he chose to talk to me.

This week ended on a decidedly calm and satisfying note. My car is fixed. My permanent teaching placement is secured. A convenient and affordable place to live has emerged. And it looks like I actually CAN teach! Life is good! I am still sort of amazed at how everything not only came together just swell, but it all came together as if the whole thing was tailor made for me—art teaching job that makes my MA in Native American Studies downright useful, at a high school in a neat part of town, with a practically built-in place to live within walking distance for the right price. It’s enough to make a person believe in the invisible guiding hand of God (which I do, anyway; although for a while there I was inclined to think that he was distracted or something…). At the very least it is encouraging and thought provoking, and I am enjoying the way everything is coming together. And I’m not so stressed out, now—I think I might be actually be able to get through this week on a little less adrenaline.

Hopefully, all of my future installments will be as happy as this one. If they aren’t I promise I’ll at least make them entertaining. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the ride.