Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Conquering Crisis.

I know I'm asking for psychological trauma when I ask my students to write essays about a crisis in their lives, and how they learned to cope. It hurts to know that they've been through so much pain. I had them start by writing a poem and then pinpointing the crisis in one word. Then we outlined our thesis and topic sentences together. I was trying to talk about how the thesis is the heart of the essay when I looked up and realized how many of them were lost in thought. Realizing that I had opened an industrial size can of worms, I had to stop the lesson and play social worker for awhile. We gathered into a circle as I explained that I wasn't trying to hurt them by forcing them to tell difficult stories, I was trying to help them remember how strong they are in their ability to learn how to heal. Their lives are hard and the expectations on them so low. Please just let me raise the bar they set for themselves.

Walking the line between getting too involved in students' stories and coming off callous and uncaring is difficult. I sense myself galvanizing, protecting my mushy heart. I am starting to understand the professional distance that you must keep from your students, or you will hold their pain in your chest cavity, too. It still amazes me what they will tell you about themselves and their lives if you provide the opportunity. M came out to me today, while A wrote a seething poem about his father's death. C talked about being neglected by her parents. R talked about being sexually abused. S talked about being beat up daily for being the smallest kid on the block. All of them laid out narratives about pain, fear, hatred, feeling unloved, not belonging, being depressed, being unhealthy, not having enough to eat. Living in darkness at home because their parents can't pay the bills.

Talk about perspective. Fuck the digital divide, what about the quality of life divide? While it's true that my students aren't being exposed to technology in the same way as their suburban counterparts, which is horrible... that's really not high on my priority list right now, when they have such basic needs that aren't being met. I always bring my lunch but I rarely eat it, I usually give it to my students. Last year, we noticed that they were wearing hoodies to school in January, because they didn't have coats. I started raiding thrift stores for warm things to slyly pass to them as gifts when no one was looking.

I tell these stories not to shock you, not to bring praise to myself or to tell you that everyone should work in an urban public school. Clearly, not every teacher enjoys, or is meant for this struggle. To me it's not an option, it's not a choice, and I don't say that heading for martyrdom. I feel an intense connection to this struggle, which was my own, and in helping these students find value and purpose in their lives. I know that these students are going to be responsible for the widespread cultural change in this country that I hope I live to see. I know that they will be the ones to ask the right questions, demand answers, unite and stand up for their rights.

Pac said, "the elevation of today's generation, if I can make them listen." They weren't listening today. And I was asking the wrong questions. I've learned that being stern is how they see that I care for them. Having high expectations and maintaining consistency is how I gain their respect. Calling them out is how they know I'm looking out for their backs. They're still crazy, self-involved and won't get off of myspace, so I grab their myspace addresses and remind them to finish their essays.

I don't know what I'm trying to say, I'm just trying to speak their language. On Monday, they caused a first draft that I've been trying to write for a year. I love this group already, too. This is going to be a long life of saying hello and goodbye to students, and hoping that I can give them skills that will help them work hard on this world.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

jeopardy as a test of skillz

their homework for the weekend was to go around the neighborhood and find 5 signs or business awnings that are grammatically incorrect. i specifically instructed them to NOT go inside to the business and let them know about their spelling errors, that's not the point, ha! the point is to get them thinking about grammar outside of my classroom.

speaking of grammar, this all came about when i was grading their first essays of the summer. while there is differentiation within every class, i was impressed that their skill level is higher than many of my detroit students, but there are certain students (mostly those who grew up elsewhere and have recently moved to the US) who need desperate help. while i love assessment and am constantly assessing, i hate tests, especially grammar recitation and memorization. ugh. so we played jeopardy and i also treated it as a grammar test. they received a group grade and 5 points for every correct answer, toward a 50 point test. every second wasted was one less question they'd get to answer towards points.

i was picking my jaw up on the floor when i saw how they would write down a sentence, pass the paper to each group member for approval, go over it, read it out loud and then answer the question. different students were coming to the board for each question and they were pooling their resources like it was a job they'd been doing for years. in the end, the lowest grade on the test was 40/50. not too shabby, though i need to figure out what that mental roadblock is between knowing the grammar rule but not using it in your writing. laziness, i think that's its name.

i have been blessed to receive astoundingly positive feedback from my students, who are apparently telling their parents that they love my class. my supervisors have asked for my curriculum for the summer, so that they can try to replicate it next year if i decide not to teach summer school again. we'll see how it goes, but it feels fabulous to know that i'm enjoying the work so much, and am doing well at it. the math teacher, however, is having trouble getting them to behave and focus in her class. i suspect that her approach is more traditional, and i also suspect that they're acting out to hide low skills, as most of them are in this summer program for credit recovery in math.

but leaving on a good note, i'm halfway through the program and yesterday the highlight was again johanna. i just talked to my co-worker (who i'm subletting from this summer) about johanna, because she had her in math last year. she told me that 1/2 of the emails she would write about student stories were about johanna, so i laugh that this is the 2nd blog in which i've mentioned her. we had a roundtable dicussion (i'm scaffolding towards a socratic seminar) and i told them that it was crucial that there was no handraising and that i was not a part of the conversation. they had to figure out a way to communicate with one another. she suggests using one of thomas' drumsticks as a talking stick, and what began as a heated argument turned into a great discussion. hassid brought in jelani's opinion, by asking him about what he thought. i'm thoroughly impressed by these students, for real.

and with that, i'm headed off downtown to go see krs-one fo' free, suckas!! you wish you were in new york during the summer time!


Monday, July 14, 2008

"Whatupdoe?" you mean "What's good?"

so i played "whatupdoe?" with my students on the first day, and they laughed because "that's not how we do, Lauren." but it's Detroit, and i miss Detroit, so they played along and got all exaggerated in their "What Up DOE?!?!". they're great. already, johanna is giving me excellent feedback about my teaching style. coming from 9th grade at the school i'm teaching at in the fall, she knows the culture and whether she knows it or not, is inviting me into it.

i feel at home in the bronx already. i live in an industrial district turned arts and antique district, within walking distance from the summer program with ASPIRA. my students are great, but don't tell my Earhart students that. making the transfer from past students to present is going to be difficult, especially when i still keep in touch with them via email. oh, and myspace. (see links to the right)

i have very quickly built a 6 week summer curriculum for this pilot program, based on building basic reading and writing skills that the students will need in high school. i'm currently reading a ton of young adult novels to nail down the fall, see what they already have on the shelves before i place a book order. there's a lot that i could make work. i love being able to take an idea and go with it. will communicate more about the English/Global aligned curriculum asap, especially for you, trigger.


p.s. missing my smacdown team. you're all in my hearts and in my lesson plans. ha.

gotta roll...