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.

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