Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Autumn Teaching Update

It has been a while since my last “Baltimore City Teaching” update, but of course I was off for the summer, and just haven’t had a chance to send out another dispatch until now. Things are going well, and I am having another successful year so far.

Though I am still teaching in the city, and at the same school as last year, we moved out to a little bayside suburb called Joppatowne that is fourteen miles northeast of Baltimore City. Weirdly enough, this is the same community I lived in as a child when my family returned to the states from Munich, Germany. I attended 4th-6thgrades at Riverside Elementary School (just three miles up the road), and 7th grade at Joppatowne Junior/Senior High School (just a mile and half up the road, and now it is just a Senior high school). We originally just came out here on a little Saturday afternoon drive when we had cabin fever last year, so I could show Jonathan where we had lived when I was kid. While we were driving around I said to Jonathan, “Wow. It’s really nice out here.” He agreed. It is a happy little fairyland by the Chesapeake Bay, and now it has a wonderful little park (that did not exist when I lived here as a child) with paved walking/biking trails, squirrels, rabbits, a bunch of little fishing piers, and LOTS of birds in the summer time (blue herons, all different kinds of ducks, cormorants, etc., etc…). So we started looking for a place, found one, and moved in during the first week of school. It is delightful out here! It’s not Montana, but it’s “cool and green and shady,” as the old John Denver tune goes. Our townhouse sits up on a hill above the main road that goes through this part of Joppatowne, and though there is a shopping center directly across from us we can’t see it. Our living room has a sliding glass door that looks out into the canopy of trees that cascade down the hill, so my view is of sky and trees and leaves and squirrels…..aaaaaahhhhhh….such a wonderful change from the alley-view we had in the city. It is extremely therapeutic to come home to this every day, and makes teaching in the city (and the short commute that I have to do every day now) doable.

The second year of teaching is infinitely easier than the first one for a lot of reasons. The first reason is that I’m now well acquainted with the culture of the school district I teach in, know what to expect from my Head Principal and Assistant Principal (lots of support in every situation), and know the kids and how to deal with them (they are like little wild things who have no idea how to behave in an organized social setting because no one has taught them this, and they have no idea what purpose school serves in their lives because hardly anyone they know has finished high school and even fewer people they know—if any—have gone on to college, and they are desperate for some kind of direction and meaning in their life, and the most successful deliverers of such are the gangs, despite the incredibly high profile of churches EVERYWHERE in this city). The second reason is that now I have some experience trying to get my “little wild things” to learn even though their minds are on anything and everything but my lesson—in college education courses they don’t even teach classroom management (though recently this has begun to change), much less tell you how to teach in anything less than the ideal classroom setting.

WARNING: The following paragraph contains a bit of a political RANT on the ills of our society—you may skip it the end if you are not in the mood. (It does make sense of my teaching situation, though, so if you are interested in understanding that, don’t skip it.)

One of the BIG problems with education in America is that everyone is talking about “No Child Left Behind” and how to “level the playing field” for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged students of our country, but the institutions that train teachers are still preparing them for only one classroom setting: traditional, middle-class students who are prepared by their families and culture to succeed, and perhaps even excel, in a school environment, and in life. NO ONE (it seems) in higher education is preparing teachers to teach in settings like the one I teach in, not even the “alternative routes to certification” that are designed to get teachers into these areas quickly. The focus of the latter is still on how to get students to achieve, and how to be a better teacher, but there is exactly ZERO focus on how to get that one kid in your class (who is so miserable and dissatisfied in his own life for reasons that he is too young or too emotionally stifled/confused/repressed/fill-in-the-blank to verbalize that all he can do is act out and be disruptive in a negative way, and to whom what you say or do or think of him doesn’t matter one iota so no traditional forms of discipline work to get him to “play ball”) to participate in the lesson in a way that allows him to learn and allows the other students to learn. I say “he” but my experience so far is that the classroom malcontent is just as likely, if not more likely, to be a “she.” What “they” WILL tell you is that if you just make your instruction more relevant and meaningful that you will never have these kinds of problems in your classrooms—HA! I would like for the people that shovel out that kind of instructional manure to teach my students for one week—they’ll never make it if they are shooting for 100% satisfaction guaranteed, and might even change the way they teach future teachers.


Even though that is the environment in which I teach and those are the kids that I teach, I have somehow managed to figure out the dynamic and get the vast majority of students to learn and enjoy learning in my classroom. Though I have read a gozillion books on “teaching in the urban environment” by now, and have attended a gozillion “professional development” seminars on the same, I can honestly tell you that I have learned exactly ZERO from those books and in those seminars about how to get kids to learn in the conditions I have described. What has ended up working for me is this: I just love the kids as if every last one of them were my own, and I deal with them individually in every situation exactly as if they were my own. So, I am generous and profuse with my praise when they are doing things correctly and kindly, I am stern and firm and unyielding when they are disrupting my class and mistreating me or their classmates; and when nothing is working and they are so disruptive that I can’t teach and the other kids can’t learn, I send them to the principal (over and over again if necessary—for the most hardcore disrupters this usually results in them choosing to skip my class on a permanent basis, which works for me because now the rest of my class is no longer held hostage by a disruptive malcontent and are free to learn).

The biggest problem with “No Child Left Behind” (from the view inside my classroom) is that it assumes that the reason that students don’t achieve is because teachers let them down in some way. But NCLB doesn’t seem to even remotely consider the fact that there are a handful of students out there who will sabotage themselves and leave themselves behind—this is not the fault of the teacher, the school, the district, or even the parents in many cases. There are just some kids who make really poor choices no matter what their circumstances are. Why they make those choices is something that should concern all of us as a society, but it is not something I can solve for every child in my classroom every day. Learning THAT has made it possible for me to teach successfully and develop good relationships with the vast majority of my students. If I consider myself a failure because I was unable to reach one or two kids out of seventy each semester, then I shoot myself in the foot psychologically and make it difficult to impossible to effectively teach the other 68 students who show up every day with their unique variety of idiosyncrasies, but who are willing to learn regardless. I still fret over the one or two who choose not to participate (and dream about them, and worry far too much about them), but there’s nothing I can do for a student who never comes to class, or who comes to class and blows it up every time s/he is present. Accepting my own limitations in that regard has been key to attaining success in my classroom for the majority of students.

If you are interested in a more abbreviated version of how things are going for me this year: It’s going OK and I’m doing fine. But it’s hard for me to do anything but get really wound up about how absolutely broken our public education system (and our society) is, though; so please forgive the digression into the ills of the modern Roman Empire that we seem to have become.

WARNING: Another political RANT begins here.

A lot of teachers just choose to call it quits and go do something, but I really think that if more and more people take on that attitude that in a few short years we will have no one working to solve any of these problems and the whole system will collapse. American society and public schools (and I really think the two are inextricably connected) are only going to be fixed when we all work together to solve the problem. I also think that it cannot be solved at the national (executive branch) level, and was never intended to be solved that way. To attempt to apply NCLB from the executive branch of the federal government to school districts which are administered at the state level is to 1) interfere with the rights of the states to administer public education, as is provided for in the constitution, and 2) to colonize children of the many varieties of cultures in this country according to the “pleasure of the President.” This topic causes both the Native American Studies scholar (anti-colonization) and the southerner (states rights) in me to rise up with indignation. There are a lot of things going on here and, in my opinion, federal interference in the education of our children has aided the process of “dumbing down” our populous and speeded it along toward its inevitable outcome: a population of verbally, scientifically and mathematically competent (though not excellent) students with no creative imagination whatsoever. It’s hard to know whether to participate in that kind of process as a teacher; but I suppose that as long as I teach in a school that at least offers art as an elective (thus at least playing lip service to a “well rounded classical education”) then I’ll continue to participate.


Meanwhile, I’ve dropped my courses at Johns Hopkins, because I don’t need a second masters degree, I don’t need the courses I would take there to be certified, and I don’t need to be so damned busy all the time that I have no time to nurture my own inner creative and imaginative life. So, I’ve finally gotten a grip on my teaching job such that I rarely need to bring grading home or do any lesson planning at home, and am able to use that time to write and create artwork and read and walk and enjoy the autumn colors. I’m starting to feel like my “normal” self again (whatever that is—the “self” being a moving target that seems to evolve as we age). Suffice it to say that I am beginning to experience some peaceful joy in my life despite the frantic and general Habitrail-style chaos of the East Coast Megalopolis by which I am surrounded. I have found that what a friend once said to me long ago is actually true: “If you take care of yourself first, and do what you need to do, everyone else will automatically be taken care of.” This may seem to be in conflict with the idea that “he who seeks to save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life….will find it,” but I believe that it’s not; because by “losing myself” in the act of nurturing my own inner creative and imaginative life (prayer) I am taking care of myself. This pays dividends not only for me but for those around me by filling up my well (so to speak) so that I have abundance to share with others. My students benefit by my generally healthy state of mind in that I am more satisfied, relaxed and content in the middle of the chaos of my work place.

With less time at home spent grading and planning lessons, I’ve been able to devote some energy to becoming more established in our community and making some friends. On yet another of our “cabin fever” weekend drives, we took a wrong turn on our way to somewhere we had planned to go and discovered a restored grist mill and covered bridge just 3.5 miles from our house. It is part of Gunpowder Falls State Park and is full of hiking trails along the Little Gunpowder River in beautiful woods, so we go there pretty often to get our nature-fix. Driving home from our first accidental encounter with Jerusalem Mill (the grist mill I just mentioned—you can check it out at http://www.jerusalemmill.org/) we saw a not-so-little but not-so-big (“it was just right!”) United Methodist Church sitting just as pretty as you please in a grove of trees by the side of the road (like a postcard). We were driving slowly enough to read the marquis announcing that they have an 8:30am Sunday service, so we decided to try them out the next Sunday. In this way we found Union Chapel United Methodist Church, a church a lot like Bozeman United Methodist Church (though there is only ONE Dave McConnell!), and are now regular attendees. (This church was established in 1821 and was a joint congregation of Quakers, Episcopals, and Methodists who shared its original log cabin sanctuary until they were each able to build their own church buildings—you gotta love that kind of ecumenical cooperation.) I joined the women’s crafting group and spent several weeks painting wooden Christmas ornaments for their annual Fall Festival that happened last Saturday. Again….I am beginning to feel like a real human being again, almost normal. This assuages the homesickness for Montana, some (though I doubt anything will ever kill it altogether).

It was really, really good seeing all of you (with whom I was able to connect) in Montana and Alabama this past summer! We are hoping to make a longer visit to Montana next summer, and have less “business” to take care of when we get there, so hopefully we’ll be able to get together again! (I’ll keep you posted.) I hope everyone is well. You are all in my prayers.

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