Tuesday, May 31, 2005

the woods

I'm reading a journal I've just finished filling, which I began 17 February. (and I'm also now thinking I could include in this blog some of the personal journal writings during this year I had with my students.) I don't know. I'll just start here and type in this one and see how that feels.

18 February 2005 I'm sitting on a rotted fallen tree, my feet on a rotted fallen branch. God but it's good to be in the woods again! And the mud and the bugs and the coming darkness. I haven't seen a black night in a long time. In fact, the nights in my neighborhood are orange. More than lit. Lit and noisy about it.
It's a young woods. I can see Walter Anderson and his symmetry here. That's the biggest thing about the woods for me, its symmetry and balance and completeness and its perfection. I would love to bring my students to the woods, try to help them understand a different kind of logic and order. There isn't a wrong or right. This isn't, either. But the fact that it grows on its own, out of our hands and control, makes me trust it more. I think they could understand that. Eventually. That there is an order, even when it's not due to our manipulation. That there need not be thought and worry and concern a hundred percent of the time, that it's honestly possible to relax and let the world rise and fall around us, that we don't have to work all the time. That's what they don't know. We don't need to work all the time. We aren't in charge of absolutely everything. It's possible to relax, to just let Nature carry on and relax. They don't know what it means to live in a way -- to live without the stress of being smart and good and strong and sharp. They don't know that it's possible to live without watching their backs. They do not know this. What a thing! They do not know what it means to be safe. I would love to bring them here.


Saturday, May 28, 2005

a done deal

Yesterday was the last day. I slept 11 hours last night.
I packed up my room and brought a few boxes home. I decided to leave all my books there in room 219 so it will remain a home spot for me. I managed to go through some of the student files (I'll bring them to school next year for them to have back) and put the work in chronological order. I'm studying them, looking for what, if anything, changed. Just off the top of my head (and because I woke up this morning thinking about this) there was one student, NH, who sometime in the past learned the 3.5 essay (three points, five paragraphs) and that's all she would ever write in my class. She is also someone who skipped all the days we were reading Hamlet. Yesterday I studied and studied her work and found no change whatsoever. Every essay was the same. The reason I woke up thinking about it is because I realized that she is the victim of that damned format. She has learned it and she will forever be stuck in thinking that's actually an essay. She can't break free. She was taught an easy way out and why wouldn't she use it? This girl (and how many others in the country?) has found a way not to think which is not only sanctioned by teachers, it is in some cases insisted upon. I bring up Hamlet because reading that was not the easy way either. NH has learned how to get by and pass tests and semi-please teachers, but not that education is an end in itself.
I have a lot of folders to read, a lot of things to think about, a lot of writing to do. That's just one thing that came into my head and wouldn't go out.
Yesterday everything made me cry. I am full of pent up emotion. But the fact that I MADE IT!!! is the doozy. That's got me reeling. I can't wait to finally read this whole blog, from July to now.


Wednesday, May 25, 2005

a request

The school year is over Friday. I can't believe it, of course. It has been a strange end because the kids have gradually quit coming to school ever since LEAP. The year is ending not with a bang but with a whimper. It has been impossible to get closure. And because there's so little to do it feels like I should be home vegetating, recuperating, all that end of the year pathology, but I can't quite yet, yet there's no energy at school to keep me going.
The other day a student, MF, asked me for a list of books she should read, so I gathered a handful that I had and gave them to her yesterday, then wrote her a letter and started the list, but I haven't seen her since and don't know if I will. So the letter and the list are sitting on my desk (folded up inside a copy of The Great Gatsby).
I've had all the time in the world, of course, to pack my room up. Today a teacher came in and sighed. And another came in and said it's almost like I'd never been in the room! It made me sad because I have SO been in that room.
So today I looked at the LEAP scores again and made notes, and my plan is to type up the results (in layman's language) and write a letter and give both to my principal. I don't know how to interpret the results except in the obvious way (4 scores stayed the same, 3 scores dropped, 12 scores rose). And I'm going to just give her that, with names and my commentary, etc. Trying to insure my position for next year. Tomorrow I'm going to look at all the writings I have from the students from all year, and take notes as I look at their work and see what I come up with. Because, for example, the three students whose scores went down doesn't make sense to me at all. So I'm going to look at their writings. Fortunately, I have work from most of the students who are part of this.
I have a request. I think I should write the stories of some of my students, but I don't know whom I should profile or why or what a reader would want to know. Can you help me know? Thank you.
And one last thing before I go watch the third and final championship Jeopardy game. Ken Jennings is 0 for 2. The one last thing is that a teacher in special ed, who came into the teaching fellows program with me and came to Douglass with me, died Sunday. It was a complete surprise. The way we found out is that school hadn't seen or heard from him for three days and a policeman went to his apartment today and found him. It's not foul play, it seems, just natural causes. He was a lovely man and I enjoyed him so much.


Friday, May 20, 2005

a soulful graduation

Today was graduation. It was at 10 am at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts, which was a beautiful venue. The last few times I was there was to go to the opera. (I'm a classy broad. We don't know why I have to say that. Who doesn't know?)
Back to the children. It was a beautiful thing. About 55 seniors graduated. They were respectful and even reverent. If anybody understands how serious it is to graduate from high school, I'd say they do. It's such an accomplishment for them, for so many reasons, not the least of which is that 60 other seniors in their class didn't graduate. Fewer did than didn't.
We teachers wore graduation gowns, including the hats. (Mine fell off.) There were a couple of speakers who were on the program but didn't show, including someone from the school board. That was cold. And the children so know.
But everything else about the program was wonderful. While the people were filing in the seniors on the stage moved subtly to the rhythm of the band playing "Pomp and Circumstance," moving their weight from one foot to the other. That was my first indication of what a soulful event this would be.The valedictorian and salutatorian were twins, a boy and a girl, Christina and Christopher Burton. Christopher delivered the hello and Christina delivered the goodbye. In between and before and after the coming and going speeches, here's what we had: the presentation of colors by the JROTC; The Star Spangled Banner, played by our band; a prayer by a student, which included mention of the Father and of Jesus (I can't really imagine a gathering of a group like this without that. I didn't mind it.); a song which on the program was meant to be sung by choir and audience, but since there was no choir, the audience did the best it could; our speech/journalism/drama teacher, singing a gospel song, "For thou, oh Lord, you've been a shield," (she had a gorgeous voice and got a strong ovation. It was spectacular!); the superintendent's award, delivered by someone else because no one from the superintendent's office or from the school board was there, the cold-hearted bastards; another piece of music by the band; the SPEAKER, Dr Dwight Webster, Pastor of the Christian Unity Baptist Church, who was FANTASTIC and who got a long and well deserved standing ovation. The inspiration for his speech was a Tupac Shakur song, "Keep Ya' Head Up," the text of which he read in its entirety, and which is all about not letting the world or your history dictate your actions for the future. I quote him: "Everybody in here is an ex-something. The question is, are you going to be held down by your past? By your biography?; Your destiny awaits, though your dreams might be deferred; You decide there's something in life for you and go after it." I guess those don't sound earth-shatteringly original in this context, but what he said moved everyone, including the seniors onstage. They were all turned to look at him and they were listening. It was beautiful. These people are willing to listen when someone has something useful to say to them. I love these kids. They give the gift of real.
The conferring of the diplomas was precious. Every senior walked across the front of the stage after being called by name, one senior on the path at a time, and each one stood with our principal and had a professional photograph made with her. Some of them danced across the stage. Some of them strutted. Some tottered on pink stillettoes (I'm not joking). Some in yellow. At least Elijah didn't do a cartwheel!
It was a beautiful morning. After the graduation I went up to one of my students, a great person, one who should go to this very theatre for an opera, and asked to meet his mother. He was embarrassed, I could tell. His mother is an addict, and it was obvious. I hope I did the right thing. I hope it didn't hurt his heart.
After all that, seven of us teachers went to Deanie's in bucktown and had a fried seafood lunch which was delicious, and over which we had good chat. I like the faculty. When we got back the school was deserted. Empty of students, that is. All the teachers were there.
It was a great day. I love what I do. I love the people I work with. And I love those children.

Love, Melanie

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

catching up

I have a lot of catching up to do. I've been writing in my journal at school so I'm just going to type here what I wrote there.

9 May, 8:55 A.M. EN is sitting in the room and I have to talk to her. This is the girl who cursed me out and who got suspended for it. She's been absent (partly from several suspensions) way too much to get credit for the two classes she has with me. The assistant principal told me to give her a chance to make up her work and to excuse the absences. So now she's sitting in my class and I'm nervous to talk to her. She's mean. She's loud. She's irrational.
10:00 A.M. I wrote up a list of my expectations, including four 3-draft essays and a revision of her research paper, and including that she will be in both classes every day until the end and also that she will not raise her voice to me or lose her cool with me. She got argumentative and angry and said she wasn't coming back next year so it didn't matter. She accused me of passing other people but not her, and she accused me of not caring about her. Then she got called to the office. When she came back she respectfully apologized for raising her voice to me. She's a troubled girl.

13 May. This might be the last time I write with students here this year. And at the moment it's just me and DC. There's no energy in the school. The power has gone out of it. So few people are coming to school these days, which leaves the rest of us who are here listless. It caught me by surprise. But next year I'm going to do things differently. I'm going to be more conscious from the beginning of school of student absences and deal with that problem early. I'm gong to get more serious about class participation grades. I'm going to be hard in the beginning and ease up later. Too many people got B's the first quarter and now are not doing anything in class because, in the end, 3 divided by 4 rounds off to a D for the course. I don't believe those kids should pass and I surely don't want my name associated with someone who passes that way but receives no education in English III, for example, or whose writing does not improve. It's a badly flawed system. KB in my writing course got an A in the first quarter, and she earned it, but her writing has not changed or improved one iota. And yet she's going to pass the class. Then my name gets associated with a poor writer passing my class. I have no idea how to handle it. Maybe I could rearrange my plan and put the literature early in the year, and the tests (which I'm not a big fan of, but may have to become), and homework, and if somebody gets an A or a B, well, she will have worked hard for it. And someone who works hard and tries hard isn't the type to blow off school the last three quarters. But still, I hate to see people fail the first quarter because of tests. But then again, perhaps I could start the year out with literature and make tests that resemble the LEAP. And if they fail those then they need to know they're weak in that area. But what about writing?
Hell, I'm acting like I'm going to have a job next year!
I just realized there are no administrators in the school today. And the only other teacher on my hall is a substitute. It's rowdy and I'm tired of it. I'm tired all the way around, in fact. Seriously tired.

16 May. I made a comment on MF's essay, in response to a weak opening, that a writer needs to woo the reader.

17 May. God but I love working in this school. I love the children so much. What is it about them? Where it really counts they are a hundred percent real. They understand what loyalty is. So many of them wear their difficult lives with grace. In the face of poverty and near poverty they're still so generous. I feel like I can be a true teacher here. I feel like my job is to figure out what my students need and teach them that. Like for example, I thought my students needed Hamlet, so I gave it to them. They need prefixes and suffixes. They need one on one writing conferencing with me. I feel like I can be what the essence of a teacher is, which is to fill in the holes in my students' education wherever, however, whenever I can.

Today I went in to the archives room which is really just a big room full of file cabinets. I've always wanted to go in there because it holds the stuff from Douglass/Nicholls since the 30's, when the school was built. So today the door was open and I walked in. I nosed around for a few minutes and, idly, picked up a yellowed section of the Times-Picayune. It's unbelievable, but it was the obituary page from 19 May 2004, the page with the obituary and photograph of Dustin, a student of mine, who died a year ago Sunday. And in fact, I keep that very picture of Dustin in my desk drawer.

Another issue on my mind today is that I have been this year the victim of racial prejudice, which gives me an understanding of racism that a white person cannot understand from merely living in the theoretical world. I have a lot to say about this, which I will say in a lot of detail eventually, but not this second. I'll just say this, it really hurts having these children making such rude racist comments, like about how when white people get wet they stink, or that all white people look alike, or that white people don't know how to love, or that white women don't have an ass. This morning a boy I don't know walked down the hall and said something disparaging about white paople and I've just had it, really had it, so I said, loudly, get out of here you son of a bitch. I asked three of my students in the room if they ever hear racist comments hurled against them by white people and they all said no. HOWEVER, I think the kind of racial prejudice hurled against them is much sicker. It's systemic and subtle. It's a society insulting them and keeping them down, with a smile on its face.

18 May. Today. I had a look at the LEAP scores. I have to figure out how to interpret what I'm reading. I've decided to discuss each student and how their education went this year. But that's for tomorrow.


Monday, May 09, 2005

the prom

Saturday night was the prom. It was on the Delta Queen, though somehow I got it into my head, wrongly, that it was to be on the Natchez. When we got to the Natchez's dock there was no boat and there were no girls in tiaras. Strangely, who do you think shows up, also looking for the Natchez, but the secretary of school, the woman who not only would not talk to me or acknowledge my presence for the first six months of my time at Douglass, but who wouldn't even say hello back to my hello. How flipping ironic was that? Fortunately, she had a cell phone and called someone on the boat and found out that the boat was docked FAR AWAY, behind the Hilton, at Canal Street, the other side of the ferry. We were walking and her feet were hurting so she took off her shoes, and I mean we forged ahead, including walking over a patch of rocks. She was awesome!
The prom was spectacular! (exclamation marks are called for when discussing excellent proms) Most of the girls were wearing tiaras, and damned if I didn't think about wearing mine but in the end decided not to. The usual prom dramas played out, with individuals sitting alone eschewing their friends and their friends' pleas to allow them to help her, girls and boys together that one wouldn't have conceived of before, and so on. The girls were gorgeous. So were the guys. I mean they were gorgeous. One girl had an aqua dress and over-the-elbow aqua gloves. She was like a queen. That's what it seemed like, that we were in a room full of queens, and the men were cleaned up and dressed up, trying to get themselves one.
The music was through a dj, which was good fun. A girl, someone who was in my class a few times, said, "do you know who I am?" and, due only to divine intervention, her right name came out of my mouth. Then she insisted that I dance with her, which I absolutely had decided before the prom that I would not do but which I did with very little coercion. Now I'm not going to say I've got THE moves, but I have SOME moves, and I moved and they didn't laugh at me. Well, just a little bit. But only because they're accustomed to laughing at me. One of the girls taught me yet another line dance. (this same girl asked me, as we were walking on Canal Street after the prom toward our next destinations, if she'd passed my class. I told her to come see me today. She had not passed my class, and she did not show up today.)
But here is the special thing about the night. My friend, Karen, who graduated from Douglass in 1963 (in her time the school was called Nicholl's) agreed to accompany me to the prom. She wore a coral chiffon dress (with a sateen-like underslip, all coral) which had dragonflies on it. As another friend of mine said of her, she looked like a character out of The Great Gatsby. She was beautiful, and like a wisp. A teacher at Douglass who'd arrived at our school in 1965, while it was still Nicholls, to whom I mentioned that I was bringing Karen, brought me to his archives of old school newspapers (The Rebel Yell, which was a fantastic school newspaper) and we found all the 1963 editions of the paper there were to be had, and I gave them to her before the prom. In one of the papers she was acknowledged for having delivered a speech at a Future Teachers of America convention, which she didn't even remember having done.
It was a magic night. As prom nights are supposed to be.


Tuesday, May 03, 2005

the door

A student took my doorknob, which brings me back to the earliest reflections I made about the day-to-day at Douglass. The door. Lock it or not? Leave it open or not? Paper it over or not? And with what? And how? Answer the knocks on the door or not? Blow out the door like a beast when I hear shit out there or ignore it? Push a kid out with my shoulder and risk his mother's ire or let him come in and fuck up my class?
Here's the current status of my doors: one of my students went to the office and got some translucent blue paper and papered over the glass with that. However, she used duct tape, so it fell two days later. I have discovered that simply stapling the paper up seems to be enough. So the doors are papered in blue. They look so cool from the hall. (Maybe that's why I have so damned many children hanging around in the hall outside my door. The blue is very soothing.) A kid who is not even my student but who came into my class a couple of times and read Hamlet with us taped a sign on each door, "Do not disturb. Reading Shakespeare. M Plesh" I think I already may have mentioned that here in this blog.
Excuse me. I'm TIRED.
The door that lost the doorknob is the main door, so the lesser door, the secondary door next to my desk, is now the primary door. On this door, the once secondary, now primary, I have a sign, "please use other door." Now I answer all knocks at the new secondary door (formerly the primary door, but no one seems to NOTICE that the doorknob is missing), and I bellow down the hall, "YES???" Once it was a security guard knocking. Once it was the assistant principal.
A lot of kids and other people come to my door. I have finally made one particular boy understand that we actually have class inside my door, because yesterday he came to my door, for approximately the millionth time. I answered his knock, and before he barged in he actually asked me if we were busy. I said yes, and he said okay and left. I of course later admired him loudly and profusely and publicly for that.
Teachers are so patient.
The seniors have finished their classes this week, so it's a melancholy time. I have more to say about that, a lot more, but my chicken is ready.
What I do realize is how much love there is in my classroom and among the students who hang around. And in my heart. The trial is over. Now it's just love and joy.
Two weeks before the school year ends.