Sunday, December 26, 2004

a little retrospective

It's the day after Christmas. I copied all the blogs and pasted them in chronological order (July to December rather than the way it appears in the blog, which is December to July) into a document in my word processing program. It's 64 pages single spaced, without the comments! (I have the blogs with comments pasted into another document.) This morning I read the entire thing, from 4 July to 20 December.
I noticed a few things. For one, I say often in the blogs how honored I feel to be working with these children. It strikes me as interesting that that's the word I use. And it's true, I do feel so honored. I wonder if I'm one of those people who places a certain age group on a pedestal? I think there's a word for people like that. But I do have such awe about adolescents. They're on the cusp of being. Now is a time when they can choose to go toward being thinkers or to just roll with the crowd. Now is the time when they can become proactive or remain reactive. Now is a time when they can discover their minds. They have such power now, and such potential. It is awesome to be able to bring writing into their lives.
Another thing that strikes me is that I often say that I am not working at this school to be liked or to make friends. That's true. However, I have made friends, good friends. I think that's amazing, given the fact that this is my first year at the school, and given the racial situation. And given the fact that I'm an Orleans Parish Teaching Fellow. Teachers don't seem to like us too much. I think they think that we think we're some kind of elites, or that we think we know better than they how to teach. I can understand that they may be wary of us. But that seems not to be an issue now for me.
And then there's the two revelations I had about the "test." One is that I saw in October that the halls could be made quiet and civil and respectful because of the leap test. It's so important to our school (I love it about our principal that she wants so much for these children to pass, not because she wants to look good on paper but because she cares so much about the children). So because of the test we learned that we could create a little pocket of order. And the other revelation, that in order to be successful on the test students must be prepared to be critical thinkers, and so suddenly thinking has come to the fore. That has been sorely absent in schools, something I absolutely could never fathom. So now everyone is trying, and being forced to try, to help students become thinkers. So I have to thank the test for that.
The head maintenance man, the handsome guy I assumed was capable, I have found is nothing special. He never did find a place for my bike. After me asking him several times he never did fix the broken pane of glass in my door. He pretty much just walks around kind of like a swashbuckler, looking handsome, lilke he's all that. And he's not. I really miss Mandeville High School in this regard. The people who took care of our school were serious about it and respectful of the whole education process, and considered themselves part of it, which they were.
I looked also at the samples of writings I included in the blog and realize that what I want to do is collect all of my students writings and do some comparing and contrasting (from the writings in August to the writings in December) and see what happened, who they were, who they are, if they've grown and how (they have), and like that.

On another topic, Tuesday the 21st I went to Mandeville High School's Christmas party in the early evening, then to "the east" to Douglass's Christmas party, from 8-12. Such an interesting contrast, to say the least. Someone I know (another writer) told me it would make a good story to tell in one of the local publications, the difference between the two parties, the two schools, etc. I'd like to write that story. But it hasn't sunk in yet. It will.

Melanie Plesh

Monday, December 20, 2004

on holiday

We made it. We teachers were wary on Friday, thinking the cover of order would blow and we'd have chaos in the halls, but it didn't happen. There was a lot of sugar-induced frolicking and carrying-on, but no fires, and only one fight (however, now that I think of it, it was pretty big. I was sitting on the step when our resident NO cop had to go out to his car to get more handcuffs. He said he had six handcuffed inside.) But that fight didn't spark any others, which is a good thing. I have to give it to the security staff and administrators; they kept the halls in enough order but without being heavy-handed about it. There was a happiness in us all. A light-heartedness. It was a wonderful day. The sister of one of my students brought a hundred chicken wings to my class. I had cold drinks and chips and cookies. By the end of the day every edible thing in the room had been consumed, and we cleaned up so as not to keep Mr Chris, the man who maintains my room, from his holiday. The few of my students who had not finished their lists/writing/poems did that between forays into the hall and chips and wings and drinks. And, naturally, I didn't think to bring any of their writings home with me to include in this blog.
I'm hoping during this holiday to go back and read the entire blog and try to see what the big picture is.

Melanie

Friday, December 17, 2004

the "good" ones

Friday morning. In a weak moment this week I said aloud that I'd bring snacks and drinks today. And so I'm doing it. What was I thinking?
It has been a strange week. I'm doing this cool poetry thing that I like to do where I give a list of about 20 subjects (smell, taste, time of day, people, ideas, etc.) and the kids write 15 words that come to their minds when they think of each subject. Then we look at all the words we've generated and attempt to see a theme or a thread, and we do a free-writing about that. Then we make the LEAP from prose to poetry. That last part is hard, but it's cool and kids come out of it with a few things -- a bunch of words from themselves, a reflection on what their choice of words says about them, and a poem. It's easy and fun. At first, almost to a kid, they complain and balk and have a terrible time getting started. But after they get into it they like it. Except third period. I don't understand what's going on with third period. That's the class with the girl I kicked out this week, who returned, who got frustrated with her essay and threw her work on the floor and left and cried in the hall. That's also the girl who called me Monday to see if I was okay. Also in this class is the girl who was unbelievably rude, who got suspended on account of me, with whom I made a promise that if she gave it a serious try I'd help her make a B this quarter and thereby pass the class (she's not doing it, by the way, though she was at first). Also it's the class with the girl who stormed out a couple of months ago because we were reading Thanatopsis and her step father had just been killed, and she didn't return for about a month (she was definitely using it as an excuse). But she's back and we're cool and she even hugged me when she returned. That's also the class with LG, the girl I often write about here, the homecoming queen, the girl who is real funny, who comes into class and loudly (loudly) makes a greeting bellow, which I return in kind, the girl I gave the journal to when she went to see her recently found father in another state. It's also the class with the girl, M, who told me she loves having the chance to think. And a few others. It's a very small class, and everyone in it is extraordinary, pushing me, making me see things I'd not seen before, raising me, hurting my feelings, and sometimes breaking my heart with their stories. They revolted yesterday when I brought the assignment up, directly indicating to me that I do not know what I'm doing as a teacher. Though I KNOW they cannot possibly believe this. They just cannot possibly. LG told me she didn't like me anymore. This was actually useful for me to hear because I'm very clear about what I'm doing at this school, and it's not to be liked. It's to be their teacher. I think she may know that. But she's mad at me, and the others are rebellious. Maybe because they know the class is almost over? Yesterday M said I was going to be in trouble next semester because THIS semester I got the good kids but next semester would be a different story.
On another note, a child in first period invited me to his house for Christmas dinner. He said his mother said he could invite anyone he wanted.
I really need this holiday. There's probably another teacher or two in the world who may feel the same. Probably.
Oh, and one more thing. I've been riding my bike to school this week!

Melanie

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

duct tape isn't as tough as we think

Several people today expressed surprise that I'd taken the day off yesterday. I had to explain myself quite a few times.
At lunch, finally, someone busted through the duct tape on the former pane of glass in my door and opened it and did something slightly mean in my room. Only slightly mean. Actually, all they did was move my desk a bit and push about a third of my things off my desk. Several things of value were in the room (I wasn't thinking when I left for lunch), but nothing was stolen. I think these were just hall thugs who broke into my room to show me they could. Actually, I don't think it was about me at all. The students who know me will not like this, just like they didn't like it when my photograph of Tupac was stolen. I know that the kids will have to kowtow to each other more than they have to to me, but I also know that that is just what has to be. I'm not upset at all.
We read an excerpt from Black Boy, by Richard Wright, today.

Melanie

Monday, December 13, 2004

how I learn

Today I did what I said I wasn't going to do. I took a day off. It wasn't completely frivolous. I had a lot to do, a lot of catching up to do. All my clothes and all my dishes were dirty, for example. And I also admit, I spent the weekend doing nothing but having fun, so didn't do a single thing around the house. So I stayed home today and washed clothes and rugs and quilts and sheets and mopped the bathroom floor and vaccumed and brought the Christmas cedar tree in from the patio and cleaned off the writing table and made some changes to my computer arrangement. And I tried to let myself feel good about it. And guess what the heck? The girl I kicked out the other day, she who returned (I surely didn't want her to go, but we'd come to an impasse) only to throw her folder on the floor and leave again in anger because of the bad grade on her essay, she who was crying in the hall. M. She telephoned me to find out if I was sick.
I knew intuitively that it was important for me not to miss school. But now I know in an empirical way.

Melanie

Friday, December 10, 2004

the journal

Today was as high as Wednesday was low. We read poems (Harlem Renaissance) and talked and opined, and two students from first period stayed for second period and a friendly argument broke out between the first period children and the second period children about which class was better! I had no idea they cared so much. It was a funny and warm and wonderful thing to see, and I've never seen second period so engaged and energetic. In fact, during second period we wrote in our journals after reading some poems and the two boys from first period wrote even though they didn't have to. One of them even wrote a poem about how first period was smarter than second period. (He's the one who recently had a breakthrough, who discovered he "has a brain.") Two girls from second period, who have never (or very seldom) read their journals aloud, read their journals aloud. Everyone was alive. One of the girls, L, wrote this:

"It's unbelievable how human beings of (on) our own can come up with something that everyone can relate to, from the past and present. It's wonderful how you can read a poem of someone else's feelings and feel exactly the same way.
Is it that the poets are intelligent, is it that they're writing what they feel, is it that things that happen to them in their time will happen to us in our time?
Or is it just that every human being goes through the same problems and emotional feelings?"

I asked her if she'd been taught that or something and she said no, she just thought it for the first time when she was writing in her journal today. Ironically, she prefaced her reading aloud by saying that what she wrote doesn't make sense. I told her that doesn't matter, just to read it anyway. And so she did.

Journal writing.

Melanie

Thursday, December 09, 2004

being real, yet again

As I expected, even in the midst of all my bravado, today was great. I know that I go too far in letting people say and do what I perceive they have to say and do. I'm too understanding. But today, when a certain person gave me her attitude, I told her NOT to talk to me like that, and she did anyway, and I gave her her purse and told her to leave my room, that I will not be spoken to like that. I was wild, in a good way. Outside the door she apoligized and I let her back in. It's not that I want her to leave. I just have to be treated with respect. At this school it's real clear. A little later, while she was reading the comments I'd made on an essay of hers (for which she received a 66 out of 100 because of little stupid mistakes) she went crazy, threw her folder on the floor (and her papers scattered) and she left the room, saying I show favoritism (because another girl in the class gets an A every quarter because this girl revises her papers until they're A papers every time). Anyway, so she stalked out. A boy from my first period who is so proud of himself for how his writing has grown was sitting in the class, catching up on something, and he said he'd pick up the girl's papers for me and I told him he'd be doing it for her, not for me, that I wasn't planning on picking the papers up (though in the end I helped her pick them up), and then another girl (I wish I could use names) came in and told me M was crying in the hall. I have seen three people crying at school in half a year. Anyway, obviously, I went out to her and we talked and I explained what it takes to be an A student, and she finally agreed to come into the class. She revised her essay again and it was a lot better, but I was loathe to make any comments. It was not an A. So I just wrote a note on the essay and told her to see me.
I have to stop writing now. There's a lot more to say.

Melanie

in the morning light

I'm still mad, but not as much. Maybe I will try the poetry again. But not today. Ironically, the teacher who observed my class yesterday wrote me an email and told me she loved the class and how moved she was all day with the ideas our discussion stirred up in her. It was an interesting, unexpected perspective.
And the children do deserve the poetry. They deserve everything. And I shouldn't have used the word "brats" (although the word fits). It was a little childish and stupid of me. But I'm a human too, and sometimes it just gets to be too much, being treated like an object.
Wouldn't it be something if the powers that be really understood this whole teaching gig?
And don't worry, I'll be myself again today. But I am going to tell the children how I feel. They need to understand that their lives matter, in a lot of ways, including that someone who loves them can lose sleep over them.

Melanie

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

best laid plans

I don't know what went wrong. My students were so ready for the poetry. They've been engaged, at times even rapt, regarding this track we're on, this quest to understand the American psyche through our literature. But today they were rude and disrespectful. I realized today (I'm going to speak my Melanie Anne Plesh, the person's, mind here) that I knock myself out to do all the things teachers do constantly. I am fair, forthcoming with an apology when I'm wrong, honest, patient, forgiving, reasonable, sane, kind, generous, friendly, understanding. I've laughed at myself at times, laughed with them at myself at times, and put up with a hell of a lot of insulting racist remarks about me being white. Today it occurred to me that all they do is take, that they do not give anything back. I have to always be the good guy and they get to be as mean as they feel like, and as disrespectful. Maybe I let it happen.
It was the kind of day that makes a person want to quit teaching.
One thing that bothers me is that they act like they think they know better than I do about what they might need out there in the world, and today they were loud about it. Maybe it was bravado. For example, one of the things I wanted them to do was to flip through the textbook from about halfway through (The Moderns) to the end, just so they could see the photographs and names, and maybe graze a little. Second period got into it. I answered a lot of questions, (including why starving men were shown in a picture in a cell at Buchenwald. I'm telling you, some of them did not know about the holocaust.) In first period I omitted that and went directly to Frost's poem, "Nothing Gold Can Stay," because I knew they were capable of, and would enjoy, getting straight to the rallying. But the class made a joke of people thinking, and they would not listen to me when I spoke. I am a human too. And to make it worse, a teacher was in there observing my class. Third period blew the flipping through the text off, suggesting to me that it was a stupid activity, suggesting to me that I don't know what I'm doing. So I went right to the poem with them. The few who did speak applied meaningless cliches, just to hear themselves talk, just because they think if they say words they're participating. It was BS.
I'm thinking about scrapping my idea of bringing American poetry to them. I'm not going to get myself crazy over watching something I love, poetry, being dissed and abused. I'd rather keep it to myself than contend with that again. I feel like they don't deserve it.
Tomorrow I'm going to tell them exactly how I feel, including the part about me feeling that they don't deserve it. I know they're going to be sorry, but I don't feel like being forgiving either. I want them to act like civilized human beings. Today they were brats. I do not like brats. And I did not like them.
But I still love them.

Disposed of: my sanity

Melanie

Monday, December 06, 2004

step into my office please

Two weeks more. It's sad that it's almost over.
Last week, as I made note of here in this blog, I read some currently published essays of syndicated essayists who are being published in the newspapers even as we speak, aloud to my students and we talked about how these essayists are addressing the human condition. Then I asked them to essay the following idea: What ought to be written about? What's being overlooked? What do you wish you would see addressed on the op-ed page? It was, accidentally, a very good assignment. (Today I realized that that big assignment before Thanksgiving where I asked the children to make a connection between the old American writers and our American lives today was not a good assignment. They spent more energy on regurgitating information than on developing a thesis. As I was reading the essays, though, I realized the assignment would have been a great final exam because it was obvious who understood the texts and who just repeated lines from notes.) But the off the top of my head assignment about what issues are being overlooked, that turned out to be a much better, a good assignment, and I'm saying it exonerated me. This should remind me that I'm much better as a teacher when I just let myself feel out the moment and give assignments that seem right then and there than when I labor in my kitchen laboratory (I never noticed the connection between those two words) over fancy assignments. ANYWAY, the first drafts were so good that I couldn't not let them revise them, so a little bit Friday and the rest of it today, I spoke with each student about their drafts and gave them suggestions about revision. I think I already wrote that in a blog. I'm not good with linearality. They revised in class today. Conferencing with each student individually seems to me to be the best way to help their writing. It took me a long time to figure out how to do it quickly enough so that I could get them rolling without taking up a lot of time. Actually, I figured it out last year at Mandeville during a regular one hour class when I got to the point where I was able to talk with 30 children in one hour. Here's what I do. I call the child into my "office" (they think that's funny) and I begin to read the draft aloud and respond aloud like a reader. If the first sentence is boring, I say it's boring. (obviously have to have developed a trusting relationship by now). So I or she writes "boring" in the margin. And then I read until I get, or don't get, the drift of what's happening in the essay. And I say so. I don't get what's going on here, I say. Or, I see what you what to have happen, but then you throw this in and don't connect it to what you're trying to do, and so I'm lost. Or, I get what you're trying to do and it's working. Well done. In most cases I read about the first third of the first draft. I sit with each student about 5 minutes. How to revise is not my job to teach them, as I see it. My job is to be a smart reader at this point and say aloud what this reader recognizes. And it looks to me like when they see that an intelligent reader gets lost, for example, at a certain point, then they know what their job is, which is to make it right. I don't want to tell them how to make it right. I don't think I have to. I think it's presumptious of me to believe I know how to make THEIR writing right. They do seem to get it. I think that's because I'm treating them like writers and not like children. So far, this procedure has not not worked. I will bring some first and second drafts home and think about how I can present some examples of this procedure here on the blog.
On another note, something traumatic happened. A shooting, but not a death, came into my life today. I'm hesitant to write about it; the danger is too close for the student. The reality of it hasn't hit me yet. I'm not trying to be evasive, I just don't believe I should talk about it. But on the other hand, I have to be true in the blog. So that's as true as I can be right now.

I miss disposing of things. I guess that means it's about to happen again. But not tonight. I haven't eaten my supper yet. Good night.

Melanie

Friday, December 03, 2004

tomorrow is my birthday

We now have only two more weeks before the holiday, which is essentially when the semester (in our case, year) is finished. The classes have been so wonderful. It's so interesting that, after all these years and all the vocabulary tricks I've tried, I think the best way to do vocabulary is for me to stand in front of the class and tell them what things mean and give them examples and ask them to come up with examples. They're remembering the words. And they're loving learning new words. I know you may think I'm exaggerating when I say that, but I am not. There are so many kids in the classes who clearly are hungry for an education. Today I read a third Times-Picayune essay with them, this one from last Saturday's paper, written by Leonard Pitts. It's about the new video game called JFK Reloaded. This game approximates the Kennedy assassination. The player is in the book room from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK, and must attempt to shoot the president (it hurts my heart to type these words) as Oswald did. Anyway, Pitts explained the game (through his eyes and through the eyes of people who have had loved ones murdered), and then hits with his usual right-on-target zinger at the end, in which he addresses the human condition in a big picture way. All week we've been reading essays like this (one about materialism, one about the Pacers and the melee during the basketball game) and discussing what the issues suggest about the state of the American psyche. Yesterday they wrote a first draft of an essay in which they were to bring up issues that ought to be essayed. Today I was able to have a private conference with every student about their first drafts, during which we both made notes, and on Monday they're going to revise these. There are many excellent essays. Their writing is getting better and better. And the best thing of all is that they realize it. It was a very recent revelation for them, like this week. Suddenly there's a feeling of awe in the room. I hardly know how to express it. They're in awe of words, in awe of ideas, in awe of the essays we're reading, in awe of themselves for being so able to write so well. And I have to tell you, I am grading their essays exactly as I graded essays at Mandeville. I'm not giving them any quarter. I take points off every time they misspell to/too/two, for example, or every time they make a lot one word (alot). And they're keeping up. For some students this has meant very low grades on the essays, but I'm giving them the option of revising again, as much as it takes to get it right. And they're willing to do it. Really, almost every person to whom I offer the opportunity to revise, revises. Even those who got B's, for example. That's what I mean, they really want to grow. They really want to learn.
I've recently had a revelation. I've mentioned before that I think these students are really smart, and I'm not kidding, they're really smart. They remember words (for example), they remember ideas we've brought up in class, they can and are willing to try to make the jump, for example, from the literal meaning of the word callous to what it means to be a callous person. They're starting to take chances at being wrong, which was very hard for them, but isn't anymore. They seem to be coming to understand that intelligence is something one grows rather than something one learns from the outside. I have a theory about why they're so smart. I think it's because of their hard lives. They are constantly "on." They can never really much relax their awareness. They've had to develop street smarts and survival skills. In many cases, they've had to learn how to take care of themselves from an early age, and to take care of their younger siblings. They've had to learn how to be hyper-aware, and how to read situations and people quickly. All that takes a lot of brain power. I think all of that has made their minds more developed than the minds of people who don't have those things to grapple with, simply because they've had to work their minds so hard. It just amazes me that I came to this school to give of my expertise and turn out getting more than I give. It's like this education is for me, at least as much as it is for them. I mean this. I am in love with these people, and I am in love with Frederick Douglass High School.
Did I mention that tomorrow is my birthday? It is. One of my students bought me a cake! But a man on the bus sat on it. She was so angry. And she spent a lot of money on the cake, her own money. Also, the wonderful woman who works across the hall, the one who bosses the children around (the children love it and they love her), when she found out today that tomorrow was my birthday she left school and went and bought me a present. The present is a little glass swan ornament on a mirrored pedestal. Can you guess how much I treasure this thing?
I brought home my box of loose poems and this weekend am going to choose from them and from all my poetry books a nice selection, make xeroxes of everything, and we're going to discuss the human condition as it is expressed in poetry. Just the idea of experiencing this with them...the joy in my heart makes it feel almost too big for my body. I feel like the luckiest human being alive.

Love, Melanie


Wednesday, December 01, 2004

the human condition

It was a great day. I did another batch of vocabulary words with the children, 27 words I culled from two essays I cut out of the Times-Picayune a few days ago. I know it seems like too much, me standing in front of them telling them what words mean, but their intellectual curiosity was sparked and it was fun feeding them and seeing the pleasure they had in learning some new things. They're hungry and they're smart. Regarding the essays, one was about the melee on the basketball court Artest and the Pacers were involved in, the other about several recent publicized acts of boorishness. Both of the essays addressed aspects of the condition of the American human. The words led to the themes and the themes led us to look at our society. I hope now we can make the leap from our society to us. I have planned two more days of essay reading and writing, one piece of writing about subjects they think it would behoove us to see written about, another piece about what it seems we learn about ourselves from the essays we read. Next week I hope to help them see that poets bespeak us as much as essayists do.
And again, the third week is still anybody's guess. And I hope it stays that way for a while. I love the not knowing, the letting it unfold.

Melanie