Wednesday, August 24, 2005

five days in

Today was the fifth day. I've already covered one class and they asked me to cover another one yesterday but I had a meeting to go to. One teacher broke her collarbone the day before school started and another had some kind of diabetic attack that mimicked a stroke the first day the kids came to school. I'm just saying that to say the absences are legitimate and there's no tomfoolery.
The first couple of days it looked like it was going to be a different year, but things have pretty much gone back to normal, with rivers of students circling the floor, a few students who don't respond to me when I say hello in the hall (they look at me and walk past me), bellowing during classes, etc. I haven't had a problem with people walking into my room because I put up blue paper on the panes before school even started and I'm locking my door. I tried leaving it unlocked the first day but a kid came in and did his little dance, so I'm locking it again.
The strategic reading program comes with a facilitator who is there full time, working with the three of us strategic reading teachers. She put up a "word wall" with colorful borders in my room and I now, for the first time, have POSTERS in my room. I prefer the walls stark so that the children will look inside themselves for the colors and such. But I'm following the program. Trying to. Today I had a tiny argument with the facilitator about the length of time children are given to read in the group setting. I'm going to try. And dammit but the poem I used for the reading showcase (included below) was too hard (my fault) and it didn't really work with the kids, which is not a problem for me because I have no problem saying my bad when I choose something that doesn't work. But the facilitator was in there, watching me. Now I'm thinking out loud here. I think the powers that be believe it's the teachers that need help teaching, not that other things have to change. I feel like I'm being scrutinized, and by a very young woman with I think five years of teaching under her belt. I think she has assumed that I'm not a good teacher and that that's why she's there and that that's why I'm at Douglass. It's a weird feeling. I guess I'll just have to see what's up.
Monday a student of mine from last year, Shonda, told me she had a nightmare Saturday night in which she was riding in a car with two boys and someone shot the boys and she went running out of the car and into Douglass screaming, "Ms Plesh! Help me!" over and over. She screamed it out loud and her mother came into her room and asked her who Ms Plesh is.
A lot of my students from last year have been coming to see me. It doesn't hurt my street cred or my reputation for the children in my classes to see this.

Here's William Stafford's poem, "For All My Young Friends Who Are Afraid":

There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot--air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
afraid. That country is there, for us,
carried as it is crossed. What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That's the world, and we all live there.


Friday, August 19, 2005

Frederick Douglass, the man

As my "reading showcase" for the strategic reading program, (20 minutes at the beginning of every class where I read something aloud and my students watch a good reader read and watch me think aloud through it) I'm reading the narrative of Douglass. That man is a hero. The first chapter deals with the beginning of his life. He didn't even know the date or year of his birth, though from anecdotal evidence he thinks it was probably around 1817. He was the son of his slave mother and his mother's white master, though even that is anecdotal. He was separated in infancy from his mother and she died when he was a little boy and never verified it.
I am going to type some of my school journal entries (that I read aloud to my students) into this blog sometimes. That's what yesterday's was. This is today's:
Douglass was about 27 when he wrote this book. My son's age. I think about the differences. Once again I realize that people really aren't very different. I look at this life at 26, with family and education and power, and I look at Douglass's. But then, Douglass has power. He made his own power. And at 27 he is writing and has risen out of, gotten himself out of, slavery. I guess all our experiences are relative. But to have seen, for example, people treated like oxen, people who were owned, people who were not considered to be people...that's the thing I cannot fathom. I wish I'd let the topic be "iron heart."
Trent said he didn't like what he was hearing, about the whipping of the slaves and all, and part of me doesn't want to read about that, but the better part of me knows that ignorance of that reality only keeps people in the dark. And it's dark enough in this town right now. Dark. It got terribly dark when that little girl was found strangled, probably raped, and darker still when the woman and her little girl got shot for someone else's beef. How iron a heart does it take to do that? And how iron a heart does it take to sell a human being? Are we born humane and learn otherwise? Do we lose it because inhumanity is perpetrated against us? But what about people who are treated inhumanely and become more compassionate? Free will.
Third period. They took a few minutes to get settled into writing. I've discovered that it's a good thing to let them have that couple of minutes to make their noise. Then when they settle down to write they're doing it of their own volition. But Eris just asked Corey if he could think his thoughts in his head because he was disturbing her. Anyway, this idea of being owned...AGH. Writing has almost ceased. I've got to telephone some mothers. Or grandmothers. I wish they could understand that their thoughts are worth their time and space, that their thoughts matter. That the world needs their thoughts. That they're smart and good. All I can think is that they don't respect their minds. All I can think is that it's just easier to clown than it is to think. Maybe they're afraid to try. Maybe they've bought into the lie that all they are is clowns and that they don't matter.


Thursday, August 18, 2005

the first day

This morning I was so nervous and anxious I felt nauseous. I kept remembering October and February of last school year and felt like I was going to be walking straight into an attack. I forgot about Chantelle's warm smile and her kind hug. I forgot about big Vernon the bear and serious Jonathan and Yvonne full of life. I also forgot that I'm in a different position this year than I was last year. I now know what's up, at least to some extent. These children are just children. They want what everyone else wants, to be happy, to succeed, to be loved, to be safe. I know they want to be looked up to and admired and they want to be admirable people. I know that they want people in their lives they can admire. I didn't realize how much I'd learned and gained until they walked in the door this morning and I looked in their faces, even into a face that had a sharp dare in it. I felt right. And good. And not nervous anymore or afraid that I'd forgotten how to be a good teacher. I look at their wanting. It's going to be a great year. I also realize that I have the extra good luck to be dealing with the brand new. I don't have to deal with Malcolm, for example, who has the reputation of a mean clown to live up to. Even if he wanted to change he almost couldn't now, or so he believes. He's Chuckie (which I refuse to call him) and he's made his bed. But I don't have to deal with him. I don't have to deal with a kid who isn't being real and so takes it out on everyone around him. I get to deal with the unjaded, the unreputed, the fresh and the closer to the true. I get to give them a chance to be whatever and whoever they want to be. I get to open the door for them to intellectuality and to the posssiblilties in and of their minds. I am so grateful.
Third period. This is a rowdy class. Thank God it's small. It's the post-lunch class. It'll be a challenge. Corey is used to being a bad boy, I can see that, and has that to uphold, unfortunately. I wonder how old these boys are? I guess I should find out. Corey and George. They can't seem to stop talking. I guess I should mention to them that fear will create stupidity which will keep them silent and/or foolish where it counts. People are so afraid of the pen. It's crazy. I think it means they're afraid of themselves, of their thoughts, of their realities. They're afraid to start maybe because once they start they open something up that they may not want to open up.
I feel an unruly cantankerousness in here. If I can get this chaotic energy directed, held into something rather than into the ether... I feel that these people have power but it's not going toward what they want. I think they're out of control in their minds. And I also see that a lot of kids in this class already have a reputation.That's the hard thing to contend with. They think they have something to prove. They think they're supposed to be bad. They are locked into something. It's sad I think because they're trying to please and satisfy the world, not themselves. And it'll end up lasting a lifetime, this sense that what the world expects of them is more important than what they expect of themselves.


Tuesday, August 16, 2005

the babies

I am scheduled to teach 9th graders this coming year. Not three, but four English teachers quit, two of whom taught freshmen, and since I'm at the bottom in regard to seniority, well, there it is. At first I fought it in my mind, thinking I have the most to give to students closer to graduating, especially about writing. But a little something in me said trust it. Yesterday I went to a workshop to teach 9th grade teachers how to implement a program called Strategic Reading, developed by Johns-Hopkins University. I didn't hate it. The program teaches that each day is divided into four parts: 20 minutes of modeling reading by reading out loud to the students and showing them how one reader(me) thinks through a piece. I already do that all the time anyway. The next 20 minutes is a focus lesson which can be but doesn't have to be tied to the reading. Just a little 20 minute chunk of time where the teacher teaches one something. Like affixes I'm thinking. The next 30 minutes is a bit vague to me, but I think it's a time students read on their own, aloud in pairs, and do some kind of question answering using a booklet provided by the program. The last 20 minutes is supposed to be "centers," which is an opportunity for students to engage in one of four tasks: information gathering, writing, and two others I cannot remember just now. It's extremely structured, and I usually balk at that, but I have a feeling it must be good for freshmen to be so structured. Nothing in the program is the least bit abhorrent to me. And I'm thinking maybe I could be of more use to the students if I started earlier with them, like 9th grade. And I'm thinking, if I could possibly do it, that it might be wonderful to go through four years with a class and then retire with 20 years of service under my belt. And yesterday, at the workshop, I saw a former student of mine, the one I met again after 10 years at the teaching fellows meetings last summer, and that felt like a sign to me that I was where I'm supposed to be. My friend at school who has like 25 years of teaching and has the most seniority in the Douglass English department offered to even trade schedules with me, to give me her 10th 11th and 12th graders (because she likes the structure of the the grade plan). But the little voice in the back of my mind that says teach the 9th graders is getting louder and I told her thank you but no.
I can't figure out if I'm losing my mind or gaining my mind.
The Douglass faculty is warmer than ever and I'm glad to be back with them.


Friday, August 12, 2005

less than a full complement

We're back and I'm amazed to say the first day, yesterday, was way beyond my or anyone's expectations. We had a morning session presented by two women from California, I think they work for IRRE which I think is a company responsible for creating and implementing programs for failing schools. They didn't give us anything new, but showed us how to implement what we already had been introduced to last year: family advocacy groups. Last year we were given what I would call a cursory introduction to family advocacy groups and expected to carry it out and bring forth fruit from it. That's the program where every student in the school is assigned to a small group with a teacher to lead. Last year we met with our groups 45 minutes a week, but what ended up really happening was it gave the kids 45 extra minutes of circling. Nobody understood really what we were supposed to be doing. But yesterday's inservice not only caused us to understand, it gave us ideas to use with our groups, ways to make the 45 minutes meaningful for the children. It was a wonderful inservice. Then in the afternoon we had another inservice about how to make our small learning communities work, another reform idea tossed out to us last year perfunctorily. It too was excellent. What's happening?
I don't know what the next some days will bring, but if it keeps up like this I'm going to say it seems the powers that be are attempting to get things down to the simple, trying to make things work that are already in place. And things were well organized yesterday.
I know of six teachers who are gone, all of their own volition. Four of them were English teachers. Three of them told me they couldn't stand it anymore. Several of the teachers who left were excellent teachers, I mean WAY excellent. I don't know which are being replaced, etc., or if our classes are going to get huge. Oh, and we also got a new assistant principal whom I think I'm going to like. Oh, and the front desk secretaries weren't there, including the lady who was so mean to me last year. But they might just not have reported in yet.
It feels beautiful to be among the faculty again. I feel quite at home at Douglass. I'm so grateful to be back. And all in all, it feels like the same old place (which for some reason I love).


Wednesday, August 10, 2005

the penultimate day, take two

Tomorrow we begin. Yesterday I went to Douglass just to see for sure that I was still working there (this is not me being dramatic. Yesterday it was announced in the news that $48 million was mis-interpreted as being in the budget and it wasn't there and that there'd be something like 400 additional cuts and I'm hearing from people on my teaching fellows e-chat page that several do not have jobs yet.) Anyway, I walked in and went into the secretary's office and said, Hi Ms. Platenburg. Am I still working here? And she said yes.
I've been feeling terrible anxiety the last few weeks. Half of the anxiety has been that I wouldn't be working at Douglass anymore and the other half is that I would be. That's just the honest truth. I've been remembering last year and its trials and the way last year stung my heart in so many ways. And I was thinking about how innocent I was this time last year. But then yesterday, at Douglass, after hearing that my job was once again mine, I ran into two students from last year, and they were both glad to see me and hugged me and all the beauty of last year came flooding in and I am now happy like I want to be. One of the two was the girl who told me last year that I was the first white person she'd ever known. I also saw the assistant principal, the one who wanted me to put up a bulletin board, and he smiled genuinely when he saw me and we hugged too. It feels like home to me there now.
Interestingly, I also ran into a kid I didn't know and he treated me coldly, like a stranger, and I realized that that will still be an aspect of this year, but I also realize that it won't last long.
On the way to school yesterday I stopped at Flora's to get some cigarettes and there was a woman in there who overheard me talking with a friend about being a teacher and she insisted on explaining to me some great new program called eyeq, and that I should try it. I said lady, we can't even get them in the rooms. It reminded me of how little the world really knows about what's going on in the schools. And as I write here I'm thinking that little encounter with that woman at Flora's might be just the way to start the book, because it's people like her (not disparaging her, she just doesn't know) who need to realize what's really happening.
I'm back and I'm thrilled to say so. But the best thing is to say, I'm still innocent.


This is going to be the year.