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.