Thursday, August 31, 2006


I am at that point in stress where I am fucking exhausted down to my bones yet my mind just won't stop racing.

Monday is a holiday and I go to a day long in-service on Tuesday. Friday is just one day. I can do just one more day. Really. I can. I think.

This is not a drill.

I just got home after the worst day since school began. Yesterday was an in-service on how to enact a "shelter in place" in case of danger or disaster. So of course, when they announced over the intercom that we were sheltering in place until further notice, I thought it was a drill. Nope. The teacher I was team-teaching with got a call from the police (she's an ex-cop) asking what was going on at our school. Not a drill, in other words. Turns out, some fifth graders saw a man with a gun and he brandished it at them. We were under lockdown for an hour. So much for reading class.

The day was also shitty due to some personnel type issues and special education, but I don't want to talk about it.

I guess this means I am officially an inner-city teacher, when I've gone through my first real lockdown.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

¿Que estas comiendo, maestra?

I brought some veg. sushi for lunch today. My kids were utterly fascinated. I had to tell them every ingredient, in English and Spanish. They are amazed by my vegetarianism (I'm about 98% vegan). Enrique informed me that hippies are vegetarians and didn't understand why I cracked up and almost fell out of my chair.

The things they eat alarm me, though. Pretty much everyone gets free lunch (I think it's over 90% of the school) or reduced lunch (the other 10%). Breakfast is free for all students in my district. For some of my students, I suspect most of them, those two meals are the cornerstone of their nutrition. The things I see on their lunch trays make me shake my head. Milk is a staple, of course. I don't think that my concern over that is just because of vegan sympathies. When I have girls in 4th grade who have never failed a year, yet have breasts and are menstruating, I really wonder what all these hormones are doing to them. But not only is dairy a problem, it's the sugar. The school offers highly sweetened chocolate and strawberry milk, as well as reconstituted fruit juices (20 grams of sugar in 4 ounces). At breakfast I see Frosted Flakes and sausages floating in grease pools. The fruit, when they get it, consists of apples (hard, small), bananas (questionable ripeness), and small, poor quality oranges. Lunch is completely meat-centered. I see entire tables full of children with not a single vegetable on their trays. Today they had sausages and eggs on biscuits, with an option of a chicken patty that was more breading than meat. They also had red sausages. So it was sausage with a side of... sausage.

In the meanwhile, research is telling us something everyone already fucking knows. When super-refined grains, added refined sugars, and processed, low-quality meats are the foundation for these kids' nutrition, it's no wonder they grow up to have diabetes and heart disease. Look at the instances of those illnesses amongst blacks and latinos. That's what my students have to look forward to.


The more I learn about my students' family and home situations, the more my heart sinks. My Enrique has two younger siblings and a single mother. They all live in one room in the grandmother's house. The grandmother's husband does not like the children much, and throws a fit if they make any noise, so they just stay in their one room. My impression of Enrique's mother is that she is a very caring, conscious woman who is just overwhelmed by life, poverty and her responsibilities. She told me flat out that Enrique has very little stimulation beyond television and video games and no real hobbies, and that he doesn't get out of the house much. He used to have karate classes, but she can no longer afford them.

I spoke with our instructional coordinator. Her recommendation was cub scouts, because a local church often will pay for the uniforms and outings for low income/at-risk children. Personally, I dislike the boy scouts. For one thing, they don't belong in public schools, being a discriminatory organization. Second, I hate anything that smacks of paramilitary bullshit. But, like with many things in my professional life, I compromise. Enrique needs something outside of the classroom that I can't give him. He has no friendly adult male influence (that I know of). And he needs to get out of his house and find something positive to do. So this week I am having two of the male teachers talk to him about their experiences in boy scouts, and when the recruiters come, I will just hope.

Speaking of at-risk children, I may have a new student tomorrow. New to me, at least. He was expelled from our school last year. He is a bright boy with some sort of behavioral issue. Issues. He spits on people. On purpose. Constantly. He gets up in the middle of class and takes off. I know the teacher he had last year. That teacher is absolutely brilliant, he's not one of the authoritarians or jeezers. And he had this child for two years and had a whole slew of problems. The crowning moment, however, was when this student brought a knife to school. When my kids saw him being re-enrolled, they all came up to me and told me they were scared to have them in our class. My principal seems to be on our side about this. I don't know what will happen. My principal did announce to us before an in-service that Satan was coming at us from all sides. I guess that explains it all, huh?

On a completely different note, I'm constantly being stricken by how much No Child Left Behind has damaged our educational system. I had art, music, library class, and P.E. several times weekly, if not daily, when I was in elementary school and junior high. Not only are these things essential, in my opinion, to child development and cultural understanding, but they were a time for kids who had different talents to finally have a chance to shine. Sure, I want every child to be an effective reader and to comprehend mathematics. But there will always be kids who struggle in those areas, while other kids excel. Having music, art, and physical education gives children with a wide variety of talents to not only get a time to be the ones who excel, but to discover talents in those areas. It's painful for me to think that my students could have some great musical gift and because they are poor and in a school without those resources that they may never develop or even discover that specialness. My school is instituting before-school clubs for the children to choose from. One of the clubs is arts and crafts, but it's just not the same. Children who are not making the test scores are barred from these clubs. These kids' families, for the most part, make less than $1,000 a month. They need every opportunity they can get. I try to incorporate these things into my lessons as much as I can, but I only have so much time. It's frustrating and I just want to stomp my feet and scream that it's not fair, it's not fair.

We start after school tutorials next week. Three nights a week. And, starting in September, we are doing Saturday school twice a month. What was that about teachers getting paid too much again? Life? What life?

Dashing off to class...

Heard yesterday in the hall:

Teacher: We must always follow the rules. If we break the rules, that leads to chaos.

Students: (intimidated silence)

Teacher: And that leads to ANARCHY.

I so wanted to cheer. I didn't. I was, however, wearing a paper hat one of my students made me, emblazed with "Captain Güerita, the Chief!" across it. Actually, it said "Cheef." I am a bad anarchist.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Special Ed. and a word I hate

I hate the word retarded. It's something that instantly makes my lips press together and my muscles tense. If one of my students bumps his or her toe and the word shit tumbles out of their mouth, I'm 100% likely to ignore it. But woe to the person in my classroom who calls someone else a retard or describes something or someone as retarded, whether the speaker be adult or child.

Seriously, is it so fucking much to ask that a blameless segment of our population be treated with some dignity?

Anyway, I have at least three special education students in my classroom. I may have another whose family refuses to sign off on it, which puts me in a frustrating position as an educator. But special education has changed a whole lot since I was in elementary school in the 80s. I remember special ed as being kids who had significant, sweeping developmental difficulties. Down's kids, for example. Nowadays, special ed encompasses a lot of issues. A student can be both special education and gifted/talented. I have one boy in my classroom who sort of encapsulates the new version of special ed, at least for me. I'll call him Enrique. Enrique is a hyperactive kid (ADD diagnosis) with hands in constant motion and eyes that refuse to look directly at me. He's a complete smart ass who is entirely too cynical and negative for a ten year old. Maybe that's why I like him so much. Everything I introduce is greeted with a groan and a "but I hate that..." from him. Yet during classroom discussions, his hand never goes down. He wants to answer every question and when I call on him, he does so thoroughly and insightfully. He comes up with observations I consider very mature even for a student several grades above him. Then I saw his journal. Enrique writes on an approximately kindergarten to 1st grade level. His handwriting is the scrawl of a much younger child, as if he is drawing a representation of the letters instead of just writing them. It all runs together, with no real breaks between sentences and no punctuation to be seen. All I get are a list of modifications to be made (preferential seating, allow use of highlighter markers during reading, shortened assignments, more time for completion, etc). I don't know what the actual issue is.

Enrique is just one example of what special ed means now. It's not so easy anymore. To make it even more complicated, I have two sides tugging at me over what to do with my special ed students. On one hand, I have my principal saying that we want full inclusion. That means keeping special ed students in the classroom with non-special ed students for every subject. But then I have the resource teacher pulling them out, or trying to, for every subject. And the principal doesn't seem to have a problem with that. Honestly, I have no idea what to do with them. Enrique's English is excellent. He doesn't even have a trace of an accent. I'm not sure why he's in the bilingual class. But my other two special ed students are extremely limited in English proficiency. The resource teacher speaks some Spanish, but isn't bilingual. We pay a lot of lip service to the concept of "No Child Left Behind," but I have the terrible feeling that two of my students are going to be left in the dust, no matter what I do. I can't teach them if they keep being pulled out of my classroom. But, even though they keep getting yanked over to resource, I'm still held accountable for their testing.

And that leads me to a bit of terror about the testing thing. There is a shitload of testing kids have to take, to the point where I think we spend about a month of combined days of what could be instructional time taking standardized tests. Since my kids are 4th graders, they now have to take their tests in the same level of higher, academic English that native speakers do. They are graded by the same standards. From what I understand, the special education students are also required to be tested, the only difference is that they receive a test with fewer questions. I have been told that some of the tests don't count towards our school ratings (and my personal accountability), but that some do. I can't seem to get a straight answer about which is which, though. So, in a nutshell, I have limited English, special education students who, despite being severely under their grade levels in reading and writing, are being held to the same standards as regular education students. And, despite them being constantly pulled out of my class, I am responsible and accountable for their scores.

Maybe I should start taking steps to prevent ulcers right away.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Things I need to post about...

... when it's not my bedtime:

1. Using the threat of the Wrath of the Baby Jesus as a classroom management strategy
2. How I ended up giving a lesson about the Chief Amongst Cusswords
3. Less than two weeks of school, and we already handed out a suspension.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Anarchism in the classroom

I'm trying to put together a post on authoritarianism in public schools and how I try to use anarchist principles in my classroom, but I'm afraid it's not coming out as very coherent. Maybe I'll get into it another night. For now I'll just say that so far my students are responding very well to how I conduct myself and what I expect of them in the classroom, even if they do seem to be very, very cautious about things. I've noticed that when I give them freedom and choices, they tend to stop everything and look up at me for reassurance that, no, they won't get in trouble; that yes, I do mean it when I say they can decide for themselves when they need to leave the room to go to the restroom. It's a sort of sobering experience for me, to have a concrete example in front of my face of how kids are only being taught to "think for themselves" under extremely limited, controlled circumstances. I know that part of it is them feeling out what my limits and their limits are, but I also feel that they honestly haven't had the opportunity to make any real decisions in a school environment. No one has ever extended them any trust, and without that, I don't know how they will be able to develop the good judgment we in education keep saying we expect from them.

On another note, one of my students has been talking about a lot of gun violence in his journal. He is a small, bright, boy who has been writing very frankly about seeing friends and family members get shot and shoot back in return. It amazes me, how quickly I start to care about my students. One week and I am already worried. I write back to them in their journals, but I was at a loss about this entry. I just told him that if he wanted to tell me how he felt about seeing those kinds of things, that I would listen.

[note: Our classroom rule about journals is that other students must ask permission first before looking at any part of someone's journal. However, the teacher may show it to or discuss it with other adults. My classroom came to a consensus that the rule was something they could live with. I believe in following my own classroom rules and wouldn't ever mention, even anonymously, something that was in a student's journal unless our class agreement allowed it.]

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Total Physical Response

I realized that most of the people reading this (all, what, five of them) have no idea what the title of this blog means. Total Physical Response is a method of language instruction that uses the physical body. An example of a TPR practice would be, say, in a pre-kindergarten class where the teacher tells a group of children, "Let's raise our hands in the air," modeling the action herself, and the children would respond by raising their hands. It engages several different learning styles. They hear commands, see their teacher and classmates responding to the commands, and use their bodies (kinesthetic learning) to respond as well. It allows children with all levels of language skill to participate. There's a lot more to it, but that's a basic example. I liked the name because it sounds pretty dramatic for such a simple concept.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dame un burro, por favor

Do you have any idea how heavy teachers' editions of textbooks are? The other teachers in my hallway lug around these hilariously ridiculous carts and keep trying to convince me to get one as well. Alas, I ride the bus home and must strap these enormous tomes to my back.

I gave my class their first real homework assignment yesterday. I think that when they turn it in, I will open my backpack and show them that I did my homework as well. It's only fair.

Lordy lordy

I've always kind of wanted to smack people who wail about prayer being illegal in public schools. Any time I venture into right-wing blogania, I run into folks who think that it's time we put god back in schools, where he belongs, so that people quit shooting each other and copying homework and all that stuff.

Well, I would like to inform each and every one of those people that (at least at my school) they have gotten their wish.

At the (endless) inservices held before school officially opened its doors to the students, I quickly figured out that my school had a strong contingent of what a friend of mine likes to call jeezers. My principal casually threw the words "I'll pray on that" around and was answered by a chorus of amens. I was feeling less and less comfortable when the bomb finally dropped. My principal asked us to all join hands. I thought it would be another one of those hokey team-building exercises. Nope. She nodded towards a teacher who was firmly in the jeezer camp and next thing I knew, all heads were bowed and my jaw was on the floor. I might have been able to (grudgingly) deal with it, had it been an interfaith-y sort of positive feel-good thing. It wasn't. It started with an "Our heavenly father" and ended with an "In Jesus' name we pray, amen," and blessed everything you can think of in between.

So, yes, I can tell you with 100% certainty that there is indeed prayer in public schools. Or at least one public school.

What gets me is the sheer in-your-face nature of it all. Prayer is brought up frequently. Everyone is, apparently, praying for and about everything. One of the teachers brought up, at a meeting for the entire faculty and support staff of our school, that she had anointed her classroom's desks with oil and prayed over them to drive out the devils. This statement was received as it were as normal as her discussing how to covering a bulletin board, with approval and encouragement. Our principal talks about having faith and doing great works in the name of our faith. Our faith. Because everyone at our school is apparently under the same umbrella of faith. Even the Hindus, new-agers, agnostics, and atheists.

It's not something I've discussed amongst the general faculty of my school (nor will I ever do so), but publicly, I am an avowed atheist. I guess I would describe myself as a political atheist. Having grown up Pentecostal and then running off, joining, and eventually leaving a cult, I am officially Done With Religion. I am also pretty done with spirituality, to tell you the truth. The only thing along those lines I really have any interest in are some of the folk traditions of marginalized groups (voudoun/voodoo, for example), but interest does not necessarily equal faith. I have to admit, though, that I was sorely tempted to wave the red flag in front of the bull. I have some voodoo oils in my possession. Jeezers aren't the only ones who anoint things with oils. It was so very tempting to casually inform the group that I, too, had performed rites in my classroom. I don't think that anyone I have in mind as I'm writing this would fail to see what I'm saying here. When people say they want god and religion and prayer in public schools, they invariably mean their god, religion, and prayer. I know that's what my mother means, at least. She told me I was being religiously intolerant and not respecting diversity. It's funny when the jeezers start to learn that vocabulary. It's even funnier how when a jeezer is shouting about being marginalized, it's usually because someone is refusing to allow them to shove religion in their face.

It isn't just on the school level, though. At an inservice for the several hundred teachers in my region (the district is zoned into internal regions), there was an amen corner. One of the presenters outright asked the assembly, "I know religion isn't supposed to be for schools, but can I get a praise the lord?" She certainly got it. People high up in the district's administration were present, watching, and participating.

I could complain. I am within my legal rights to complain, though anyone who knows me knows I don't care much about legal anything. They can't fire me for complaining. Not exactly, at least. I can, however, have my classroom scrutinized with a more critical eye. I can have increased visits to my class for observation. I can face the seething resentment of my colleagues for forcing the issue and making everyone stop something that is painfully uncomfortable to me but joyously positive for them. I'm very angry to be pushed into a position where I am expected to participate in a religious expression. I feel that my colleagues are genuinely well-intentioned, but it upsets me that a group of educated adults could behave so inappropriately in a workplace, especially in an environment that is meant to be accessible to people from all cultures and backgrounds. It also upsets me that I would be taken more seriously if I were a member of another faith with enough numbers behind it to lend an air of legitimacy to my complaint. A Muslim could raise a complaint based on how practicing another faith's rites is against their own faith. I, however, would just be seen as someone who has something against religion. Public education pays an enormous amount of lip-service to diversity these days, but I'm not seeing it.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The first bell has rung

It's 9:15 on a Monday night and I've finished my first day as the official teacher of record in a 4th grade pre-exit bilingual class. I'm tired enough that I think I could lie down right now and be out, but I'm trying to hold off a little while longer.

The impetus to start this blog actually happened a long time ago. A friend of a friend, one of the Corcoran Brothers made some comment about teachers being overpaid. I had taught private school years ago, so of course I knew he was essentially talking out his ass. But since then, I've heard a lot of comments from people who aren't even libertarians to the effect that teachers have a cushy job. It's a hard thing to address. On one hand, I love my job. I love school and all its trappings. I love educating. I love books and desks and boxes full of crayons. I have always felt very at home inside a classroom, even when I hated my teacher and the other students. But there are also plenty of things that make my job very difficult.

As far as being paid too much goes, let me break down how much time I spend with my job:

My official duty schedule is from 7:30am until 3:15pm. I am, however, expected to be there before duty starts, and to stay until well after it ends. So my hours, at their least, are more like 7:15 until about 4:00. I supposedly have a half hour for lunch, but by the time I get the class down to the cafeteria and then go to pick them up again, it's more like 20 minutes. And, at any time, I can be called to duty during lunch if whoever is supposed to be watching the cafeteria can't. So scratch lunch. This is the basic, a bit more than 8 hour day.

But there's more. I work at a school that has struggled monumentally to achieve not only an "Acceptable" academic rating, but the much-coveted "Recognized" status. For an extreme low-income inner city school, this is a nearly miraculous feat. I'm not a fan of the obsession with standardized testing, but it's a reality I can't change. And the Recognized tag has gotten the school some good things. To achieve this status, though, has meant an even bigger time investment for teachers. Last year, there were after-school tutorials at least twice a week, plus many of the staff gave up their lunch periods to tutor right at the table. There was also Saturday school. On top of the regular duty hours, this adds up to about 10 more hours a week. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Admittedly, it's a crude average.

Now add in the take-home work. It's the first day of school, and I just spent about an hour going through my students' writing journals and penning responses to them. I promised them their journals would be interactive, and I meant it. As the school year moves forward and I am doing more assessments, I will probably spend a minimum of an hour a night grading them. Likely, I'll spend more time than that.

There is still more. While we have a certain amount of days on the calendar set aside for professional development, it doesn't cover all that is required of us. There are all sorts of conferences, meetings, and classes to be had. Since I am on a probationary certificate, on top of everything else, I have to spend every Monday night, after teaching a full day, at the certification center in training. Every Wednesday night I have to go to a graduate education class (I took three of them over the summer). There are also some Saturdays I will have to give up to training. Some of the costs of training sessions we can get our schools to cover. Some, we have to cough it up ourselves. Our math specialist spent $700-$800 going to a special training update last month.

When am I supposed to plan? Oh, yeah. I have a 45 minute a day planning period. Only, this planning period is also used for parent conferences and the seemingly endless meetings with the principal and other teachers. So I will be doing this at home a lot, too.

What about summer? In my district, we start school mid-August and end it the last week of May. Teachers report to duty early August. So there are really only June and July. But then you have summer school. Sure, we get paid extra if we teach summer school. But sometimes it's not as much of a choice as we'd like. It's all about testing, remember? And summer school is for kids who did not pass the standardized test, or for English Language Learners. And my students will all fall into at least the latter category.

Every single teacher I know purchases classroom materials with his or her personal funds, un-reiumbursed. This is a fact of teachers' lives. In some states, teachers receive an automatic tax credit based on this fact. That credit has been taken away recently where I live. I still buy things, though.

So that is the financial life of a teacher, and now I am bound for bed.

Please note that I am requesting anonymity from any commenters. Any reference to my district or my name will be deleted. Thank you for understanding.