I teach!?.

February 27, 2007

White. Male. Teacher.

Filed under: Fellow Teachers,Students — mistermiddle @ 9:25 pm

I have a confession to make. I had a belief/assumption going into this teaching endeavor that turned out to be untrue-for the most part anyway. For reasons right or wrong, I assumed that being a male was going to be an advantage in my classroom. I thought that since many of my students grew up without positive male role models in their lives that the mere presence of me would help them in some way. I could not possibly pinpoint why I thought this or HOW this gendered presence would be an advantage. I simply thought that it would be.

Fast forward through two short months in the classroom and I have to come to see myself differently than I ever thought I would. Or rather, I have come to see myself through the lens of many of my students. They see me in three layers that all build upon one another. I preface this by saying that not ALL the students see me this way, but plenty do. They see me first as white. Second as a male and third as a teacher. To break this down further, I have to look at each layer.

White. I had no idea-and I bring forth my naivete in all its glory here-that students would be so visceral in their hate of white people-gender entirely aside. They are distrustful, rude, and often unwilling to listen to ANY white authority figure in the school. How they came to this notion is kind of unclear to me. It may be a learned behavior since it does not seem that they have had many interactions at all with white folks in their young lives. Like so many other types of intolerance, it may simply be a function of lack of familiarity. It may also be a function of hearing negative things and absorbing negative imagery within their families and within the African-American community about us white folks.

Male. I erroneously thought that since many of the students lack positive male stability in their lives that my presence would be immediately positive. My feeling was that my gender might help bring some light (surely no pun intended here) to their female-dominated lives. It would provide perspective, depth and a new feeling among them that men could be trusted adults, people worthy of sharing and developing with as young teenagers. But since I am seen as white first, the gender is secondary. To watch the same exact teacher/student interaction in my school between a white male teacher and student and an African-American male teacher and student is enough to make my heart scream-in equal parts anger and jealousy.

Teacher. I believe that teachers are seen as one step above police officers in the mental hierarchy of the students. We are fighting for the bottom wrung on the totem pole. Teachers are seen as authority figures who have the power to put students into positions that are viewed as unjust and unfair. While there is no validity to this claim in a rational and philosophical way, it still persists. I know from my own experiences that teachers were not highly regarded professionals-mostly because they had power and access to my parents to get me into trouble. While this feeling obviously subsided with increased age and intelligence. it still remains nonetheless for a current generation of students looking to do as little as possible and NOT get into trouble at the same time.

All this being said, I recognize that I operate in the netherworld of “most hated.” And that is fine with me. To be honest, it almost excites me. It gives me the rare opportunity to change and expand minds. Content area totally aside, I see this as an opportunity to let these students know that being white, male, and a teacher can be a good thing for them to come into contact with. I can be a white person that turns their visceral hate into more positive feelings. I can be a male that gives them a trusted ear, a sense of caring and a stable presence. And lastly, I can be a teacher that helps them understand the stake they have in their own successful futures by empowering them through their education.

February 25, 2007

This Bitter Pill

Filed under: Students — mistermiddle @ 4:40 pm

After the trauma/drama of Tuesday, the next two days of the week went real smooth. We had to utilize a school-mandated lesson plan on main idea/inference for the first two days of the week and it must have been clear to the students how bored WE were with the lesson. It was pretty dry and I guess us teachers did not do a good job of masking our impressions of the lesson. Got to work on that one in the future…..

On Thursday and Friday, I was able to give a lesson that I had worked fairly hard on compiling. It was a “localized” lesson plan that attempted to engage the students with the local history of slavery and the abolitionist movement in their hometown. I had created map activities to engage their geography knowledge as well as locally written materials on slavery and abolition. It seemed to spark an interest in some of the students, and I hope they learned a little more about their hometown. I am of the belief, naive or not, that one of the ways to connect with my students is to introduce materials in class that they can have a tangible relationship with. We can all speak of familiar peoples and places. Like the “breaking down of the fourth wall” in acting, I hope that local connections can engage the students in a way that makes them see relevance and meaning in materials otherwise deemed irrelevant and uninteresting. A connection with the audience, so to speak.

Friday was a different story altogether. We had a nice little melee first period between a boy and a clique of girls we have quietly dubbed “The Fearsome Foursome.” The girls believed that the boy, who almost NEVER shows up to school, had ratted them out for cutting class and decided to confront him in our class about it. Pretty soon, projectiles were flying in class and one of the girls was beside herself in anger. The fight spilled into the hallway and almost all the classes on that side of the building ended up in the hallway as the drama unfolded. Suspensions ensued and we eventually got all the students back into our class. What this event highlighted was two interconnected ideas.

The first is the obsession (and that word may not even do justice to the intensity of feeling among most of the students) that students have with “rats” or “snitches”. This whole theoretical concept deserves it own post and will get one in due time, but because the girls believed that this young man had ratted on them, they were willing to go absolutely ape-shit on this student.

The second idea, related to the first, is that they get so wrapped on the idea of ratting and snitching that they do not have the forethought to recognize that this type irrational fixation on a concept is often terribly misguided. In this case-as I learned later from the teacher whose class was cut-that she was well aware the whole time, without the services of the alleged rat, that these girls were cutting class. So, in essence, they got themselves worked into a total frenzy over nothing. They become so fixated on the concept that they fail to see when it is either a “warranted” feeling or simply an excuse for them to unleash their unbridled anger onto someone else.

After the dust settled and we neared the end of the class period, we got into a discussion with a bunch of the students about how they believed that we did not care about their education at all. How we got to this point is unclear to me, but both myself and my co-teacher felt compelled to respond. They were truly angered and full of conviction on the point that NO ONE in our school gave a damn about their education. We attempted to reason with them-a huge mistake with 8th graders frankly, no matter where they come from-and asked them to explain their argument in an orderly and articulate way. We got absolutely no coherent answers from them at all. And whenever we tried to counter that we did in fact care about their education enormously, we were rudely interrupted and given some garbled rationale that made no sense.

This whole exchange was dripping with irony. Just moments before, they had escalated a full scale melee in the middle of a carefully planned and executed lesson, but then had the gumption to tell US we did not care about their education. Education, much like many endeavors in life, requires a semblance of ownership from ALL parties. They had failed on their end to take a legitimate stake in their own education by fighting in such a gratuitous manner, but then had the audacity to tell us we did not care.

This whole exchange was a very bitter pill for me to swallow. But as with so many parts of my day, the most productive thing I can do is move forward and try to silently press onward in the hopes of SHOWING, not telling them otherwise. As we tried to reason with them, our presence in the midst of such systemic failure, apathy and indifference is a deep manifestation of caring.

A fresh week begins anew tomorrow…..and I shall remain eternally hopeful.

February 20, 2007

Fuck White People

Filed under: Administrative,Fellow Teachers,Students — mistermiddle @ 9:00 pm

So the feeling of God’s little acknowledgement of solace and reprieve went away before the students even arrived back from a long weekend this morning…..Shit.

The classroom next door to ours is a Language Arts/English class that also has two teachers-one male, one female-both of whom happen to be white. When the teacher opened the door to the class, it had been pretty badly vandalized. All the books on the shelves had been thrown onto the floor. All the filing cabinets had been rooted through and folders were everywhere. The back chalkboard had many savory quotes on it, including “Fuck all white people” and “Suck my big fat dick.” How lovely. The white screen that they use as an overhead projector had another quote that read “Fuck dat fat white lady” and “Bitch-suck my dick” written on it in permanent marker. It was written in huge letters-enough to render the screen unusable.

Disturbing and traumatic for sure, but that really only scratches the surface. A few minutes later, the male teacher and I were in the office getting our copies for the morning when the grade principal (who had been to the class and seen the vandalism) came in. Here is the conversation that ensued:

Teacher: “Do you think I should say something to the students and see if I can find the culprit?”

Principal: “No. Since we have no way of proving who did it, just let it be. No point in trying to find out who did it.”

Teacher: “Ummm…okay.”

This is the question that I posited to the teacher after the principal left:

“If the race of the people written in such deragatory terms had been reversed, what might have been the reaction?”

I dare say the answer to that question is a rhetorical one. All I can muster to articulate in written response having stewed over it all day is that these children do NOT HAVE A FUCKING CLUE WHAT RACISM IS. As I have waxed about in other posts, racism is wholly and completely cheapened when it is perpetrated by anyone-white, black, brown, yellow or red. These students realize that they can say something like that and it goes unpunished so therefore they have no reason to rise above the irrational ignorance they harbor. Racism has become their excuse for insolence, laziness, and ignorance and it goes unpunished.

The town I went to elementary and the beginning of middle school in was void of any real racial diversity, but if someone wrote something offensive to a group that did NOT even exist at the school, there would have been hell to pay. This type of behavior is only allowed to perpetuate itself by the inaction of adults and others in power.

And that was only the first incident of the day.

Our grade goes to lunch after their class ends at 12:35. No more than thirty seconds after our students had left the class, a whole WALL of lockers got pulled out of the wall and crashed down onto the leg of one of our students just leaving the class. He got himself out from the lockers but his shin had split into two different pieces. All the while, students rushed to the scene and mayhem ensued. Students were jumping up and down on the lockers that were now laying on the floor, laughing, and thinking it was the funniest thing they ever saw. As we tried to clear the scene and get the student who was hurt of the chaos, we called 911 for an ambulance and tried our best to re-direct traffic to another stairwell.

The paramedics, police, and fire departments all responded-at least FIFTEEN minutes before any administrator in the building cared to show up and see what was going on. The students ended up having to stay in lunch for almost a full hour before the paramedics could stabilize this students leg and get him out the building on a stretcher. Our last period ended up lasting 45 minutes instead of the normal 90.

Trying to find WHO pulled this wall of lockers out was a futile task. These students are way more concerned about not snitching on anyone than the safety and well-being of one of their fellow students.

What do these two incidents highlight….

1. Crumbling facilities with no maintenance upkeeps.

2. Absent and unconcerned administrators who are about to get their asses smeared all over the bureaucratic wall-AND RIGHTFULLY SO.

3. Students utter lack of respect for one another and the adults-both the black and white ones.

I smell a lawsuit. If if were my kid, the lawyers would already be at the school banging down the fucking door of everyone there…..

Sad, sad day.

February 15, 2007

Community Building

Filed under: Students,Touch and Feel — mistermiddle @ 7:08 pm

Totally another snow day. So-this week will turn out to be a 2 1/2 day week before a 3 day weekend. Nice…..Maybe these are God’s little subtle acknowledgements.

Given that I have had all this time this week, I have have been able to complete a book on community building among prisoners and ex-prisoners by a gentleman named Robert Roberts (strange but true). He started the work as his doctoral dissertation trying to see if he could increase literacy rates in a Southern prison by first instituting a close-knit learning community where people were free to share all the hardships in their lives. After people trusted one another in this learning community, Dr. Roberts could help increase literacy through both himself and model mentors. His control group was attempting to institute literacy programs in non-community based learning communities in the prison. The rates for the community-based learning soared, while the control group remained flat.

It eventually evolved into a program on the outside where he would use the community model to help ex-prisoners stay out of prison. The thrust behind both the prison and later program was that people in desperate circumstances needed to feel part of a positive community before they could trust, heal, learn and ultimately prosper.

Can this type of model work in a school with students/children? I think it could in a modified sense. I think the major hurdle would be the hesitation to make yourself so vulnerable to the group that one must share secrets, fears, shames, etc. The enforcement of strict confidentiality would be imperative, but if we could get beyond that, I think that level of connection to others and a feeling of being in a positive place would be astounding.

I think it could also be modified to include the adults that are responsible for the children. This might have the potential to open channels of communication between adult and child as well as help build new avenues of trust with other students and adults.

I can feel walking down the hallways and watching/hearing the interactions of students that so many of them are simply starved of positive attention. They turn (and this list is by no means exhaustive in the slightest) to classroom disruptiveness, gang activity and risky sexual behavior as outlets for that need to feel paid attention to.

The bureaucratic part of the educational process spends so much time trying to figure out why these students do so horribly in school and subsequently mandate some form of curricular modification. What they fundamentally fail to do is address needs like community and positive relationships with their peers, parents/guardians, teachers and others that this child NEED in order to do better academically.

Like literacy rates in prison, the educational acheivement of these students will continue to remain flat until we come up with alternate forms of intervention.

Me for one likes this learning community model.

February 14, 2007

Snow Daze

Filed under: Students — mistermiddle @ 4:10 pm

So we got out early yesterday and the whole day was cancelled today…..Snow days really are better when you are an adult as opposed to a student. The hidden downside is that it really disrupts your rhythm in the classroom. Because we only see the students every other day, it complicates lesson plans and makes everything a little askew.

When I came into the classroom, the teacher I was assigned to work with was in the midst of giving a oral history project to the students. They were being asked to find certain individuals over the age of 50 and interview them with a set of questions about their lives and experiences at various moments in history. It was being done in a step-by-step process so as not to make the whole endeavor too overwhelming. Some of the students were resistant to the idea, but it really had the potential to be an awesome experience.

The school is nearly 100% African-American and because of that, the oral history project really had the potential to bring out some very powerful (and painful) recollections about civil rights, segregation and a whole host of other issues that we both believed the students would find meaningful. Some of the students really seem into this project and that is an awesome thing.

In the limited classroom time that we have had this week, we have spent a good deal of time reading local oral histories about the Civil Rights movement as it relates to their hometown and it is really exciting to see how much the students like reading about events in their own community. We are now asking the students to record the interviews at school so we can compile an audio collection of the various histories that can be used both for the students and for future classes. These interviews will essentially become part of the public record. I am genuinely excited to see this long-term project come to fruition.

On a personal note, one of the reasons I find this to be such a cool project is that I have seen how much this type of experience of relating oral history can really help foster and develop a familial relationship. A few years ago, when my sister, brother-in-law and I were visiting my grandfather, he shared with us his video memoirs that he recorded during World War II. He was the narrator in the video and it was such a great tape. It was one of the few times that my grandfather shared his lived experiences with us and I realized that I knew so precious little about his life and his place in history. (It also made me realize that I have NEVER asked about it) It made a connection for me to him and I hope the students here can garner that same type of meaningful experience from our oral history project.

On an unrelated topic, I started grading the benchmark tests yesterday. I do not think that I was particularly surprised by the failure rate. It was at least 50%. But I did have a moment grading one particular students paper. This young lady is a genius in all senses of the word. Her work is absolutely flawless. I have no idea how she maintains that sense of integrity and discipline in an environment that is so chaotic nearly all the time.

While most scores were lucky to hover in the 50% range, she got a perfect score. 48 out of 48. I am not lying or exaggerating in saying that it warmed my heart to the point that I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. She is so smart, kind, and truly respectful that I am reminded of the scene at the end of the Vietnam War where the helicopter arrives at the embassy in Saigon to take the last Americans away before Ho Chi Minh and his people take over the city.

Only this time, I am the pilot and she is one of the people on the roof needing out. She would get shotgun on my helicopter eight days a week.

February 12, 2007

Thoughts on Our Test

Filed under: Uncategorized — mistermiddle @ 9:22 pm

I feel like the past few days at school-including the two before the weekend and today-were relatively stable and calm. I am not sure if that is a sign of things to come or simply a recognition that my centered-ness has adapted to my new surroundings. We shall see….

The students took a test the final two school days of last week and I was surprised at two things. The first was how resistant some were to taking the test at all-those students were outwardly defiant and unwilling to take it. Honestly, they did not interest me since they were not even willing to try after some coaxing. Their mindsets are toxic and to go into their reasons opens a whole can of worms for another post.

The second, and more interesting point was a recognition from watching their behavior taking the test and seeing the questions they asked me during it that many of these children really believe they are unintelligent. They ARE NOT stupid at all. They would ask for the answer claiming they did not know anything about the topic. After a few probing questions, it became clear that they did in fact know a lot of the material and simply needed help in articulating their feelings/knowledge and transferring it to the test.

I did not know whether to be happy for these moments or sad. On one hand, it was a satisfying revelation to see that they realized they knew this information and to see them get over their own intellectual hurdles was a great scene to witness. On the other hand, it was sad to see a whole cohort of children who seemed to expect to be given the answer in an entirely self-defeating mindset.

Where does the blame lie for that type of behavior?

I think the answer is more complex than a few sentences, but needless to say, I think the blame lies in equal part with the schools, parents, and the students themselves. Much like believing that a successful individual succeeds because of a variety of environmental factors-both internal and external, failure has to be seen in the same light.

It is at moments like that I truly realize why I became a teacher-to deal with that exact ambivalence and attempt to establish a strong link in the chain that somehow helps fortify things for these kids.

February 8, 2007

Ahhhh

Filed under: Uncategorized — mistermiddle @ 11:03 pm

It is rather cliche really, but sometimes all we need is a few mellow days to help not only recharge, but also to reflect. I got that starting yesterday.

I awoke not to my alarm yesterday morning, but a text message alerting me to the fact that a snow day was upon us. I had not had one of those in over ten years, and boy, it was even BETTER as an adult. Did not get out of my pajamas until after 6pm and that was only to go to the bar for a few beers….If only every Wednesday could be like that.

I had a meeting this morning with all my fellow new teachers. It is always nice to get together with a huge cohort of people-many of whom are experiencing the same types of traumas/sorrows/revelations/joys and just sort of reflect and share.

The feeling of knowing you are not alone provides a huge emotional lift. Sometimes, the experiences in the classroom makes you crave adult interactions. You yearn to not only talk to people in similar circumstances, but also to simply talk to adults. To have a conversation that revolves around things you find stimulating. I left the meeting and headed to school with a recharged purpose. I knew it was going to be a rather ephemeral feeling, but it felt good nonetheless.

As I walked into the school, no less than five or six of my students called my name as they were in the hallway. They asked me where I was all morning and that I had missed their classes. I smiled to myself and then politely asked them why they were in the hall….I knew they had somewhere else to be. I was able, in all my month and half in their lives, to get them to where they needed to go cooperatively and quietly(relatively).

I knew this Thursday was not going to take my spirit. And tomorrow is Friday…..nice.

February 7, 2007

Articulation

Filed under: Students,Touch and Feel — mistermiddle @ 1:35 am

As promised, I will get back to the middle class social order issue that I raised yesterday in terms of behavioral standards/acceptable conduct, but I first want to share an example from class today. It may seem rather tangential, but I do not think so later on…

We are engaged in a role-playing activity that is asking the students to simulate the roles of various actors involved in the Underground Railroad. They advance to various safe houses and avoid capture by answering review questions from the test they have later this week. Fun, interactive, and educational….

When we ask for volunteers to play the various roles, we do not have trouble finding people to play the parts. But when one particularly light-skinned girl raises her hand and says she wants to play the role of the slave, another students says:

“She cannot play that role. She is too white to be a slave.”

You could see the pain in the girls eyes when that comment hit her. You could almost feel the thousands of other times she has heard this in her short life, and I realized this:

To be looking white to these students is as close to a mortal sin as it gets. To talk white, to act white, to look white-its all bad to many of these students.

That brings me back to my comments of yesterday. I believe that many of these children, race entirely aside, have NOT been brought up to understand how to interact socially with both their peers and other adults, including teachers. These interactions skills are taught and learned behaviors. They, as plain as it is, totally lack these skills. And in an educational setting, it is difficult to teach them effectively when they lack these social tools.

That comment has the perception to make me look culturally myopic. It may seem as though I lack sensitivity to their different, predominantly lower class social order. I am middle class. I was raised to interact with different people in different ways. I believe that these children lack those fundamental middle class social skills. They need these skills because these are tools that are necessary way beyond your interactions with me and my desire to teach you about American history. They are successful tools in part because they are middle class tools. What many of us want as educators in these types of environments is to help these kids OUT of the cycles of poverty and degradation. Middle class social skills are an important part of that process in my mind.

Where the disconnect occurs is why I shared the example above. These students tend to see that middle class social order as being tied to whiteness, rather than an issue transcendent of race. They see white as bad, and therefore any action-including talking and acting or LOOKING “white” in their minds-is bad form.

Looking and acting more white means being less black-poverty and lack of education be damned.

February 5, 2007

Case of the Mondays

Filed under: Students — mistermiddle @ 11:11 pm

Today was so overwhelming that as I was driving (NO, racing) away from school this afternoon, I was thinking to myself that my post was going to be overextended, long and excessively dramatic.  As I ate read, and relaxed, I have come to a little more clarity and peace…

I shall not go into the gushy details of the brawl that took place at 830 this morning-my first morning without my co-teacher. The morning I was supposed to get a formal observation…Suffice to say, by 9am, four of my students had been suspended for the remainder of the week. Desks, chairs, textbooks, and the worksheet that had taken over two hours to think, type, and copy lay in obvious ruin all over my class. Not to mention the soreness of taking more than my fair share of shots as I tried to break up what essentially became a three-on-one girl fight….

(There seems to be a general consensus that girl fights are something to avoid at all costs while boy fights are easy to deal with-no nails, weaves, and big earrings to accessorize the fight. My problem with that logic as a teacher is that you are witnessing people pound the shit out of each other in YOUR classroom…You cannot simply stand there and wait for help while the cheering section grows and the peacemakers lay silently paralyzed by the mob mentality.)

No…the fight is NOT what got me down today. It was a realization that these children know, despite the veneer they choose to publicize, how to act appropriately. By appropriately I mean acceptable middle-class standards. The social order that is successful….I will get into this one later because its really loaded and really interesting, but not now…

After the fight, I had an experienced teacher come into the room to do a little emergency classroom management. Get things calmed down for a while….

These children, who moments before were re-creating their best impressions of the spawn of Satan, were acting their Sunday-best for this woman. Raising their hand to go the trash can, yes ma’am-ing her, doing their work diligently.

The realization that the potential for great behavior exists in these students got me down more than believing it did not exist at all. It means they have chosen me as a doormat, a human piece of toilet paper and that hurts….REALLY bad.

Onward I go to tomorrow. No interest in sugar-coating this evening.

February 4, 2007

Disrespect II

Filed under: Students,Touch and Feel — mistermiddle @ 5:50 pm

In a conversation with a friend about the whole disrespect issue, she made a great point to me that had totally eluded me before….

When you have nothing, and with so many of life’s often turbulent circumstances treating you cruelly, all many of these students have is their honor. The essence of that manifests itself in a constant obsession with disrespect.

My question then becomes-and my job to a certain degree boils down to this…

How can we make these students understand and realize that they have control of their education in addition to their honor? The choice to engage in their own education positively is such an unrealized tool for these students.
Thank you for the insight. It really helped…..

I fear for tomorrow. Details to follow soon.

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