Saturday, September 17, 2016

Lorraine the Interpreter

I think her name was Lorraine.  She was older than me. I was twenty three, so she could have been twenty-five.   My first year of teaching she worked as a paraprofessional in the program I was assigned to. She was big and black and there was something about her that scared me.  So I didn't mess with her. She had a six year old son and if he is alive and well today then he is older than the sum of Lorraine and my ages that year.   If I had to ask her to do something, I said please and if she did it I said thank you.  And that was about it.

I did pretty terribly the first year I taught.  I was filled with great ideas, I was filled with enthusiasm. I filled with recent knowledge of the nascent special education laws.  None of this made me any good at my job.  I was assigned a school in the South Bronx, just as the Howard Cosell made famous the line, the Bronx is burning, during a Yankee World Series game. The school where Lorraine and I worked, was on Fox Street.  The school was built in the 1960's but the apartment buildings around it arose decades earlier when the elevated train line first brought families from the overcrowded neighborhoods of Manhattan to the tree-lined streets of the Bronx.  And then for so many reasons, (and everyone has their own theory) it all went bad.  Building after building, on block after block burned.  Across from the  school were a series of  apartment buildings with multi-floors but no facades.  The looked like  doll houses or stage sets.  Or like the photos we had seen of Dresden Germany after the Allies had bombed it. My boyfriend turned husband and I looked at each when we went to scope it out and wondered how we had missed the war.  We lived less than ten miles away as the crow flies.

It is not surprising that the students in a special education program in a neighborhood that was such a conglomeration of stresses, were difficult.

The man in charge of the program, was ill suited for the job. He constantly pointed out my short-comings but had no constructive advice. (That is the kindest way I could put it).  I cried most nights.   But one day he made Lorraine cry too.  I went to her.  I comforted her.  I imparted my best words of wisdom.  "Don't cry- he's stupid."  Actually I probably called him an asshole.   I wouldn't say we became fast friends, but we were allies, we were on the same side and she was my interpreter.  She explained the things that someone living ten miles away, not completely in the suburbs, not completely in a segregated community, but ignorant of that world nonetheless, just didn't get.

Like one Monday morning after a weekend when the thermometer never dipped below 95 degrees, we chatted about our weekend.  I felt annoyed that I had spent it huddled in the bedroom where our one feeble air-conditioner unit was located.  She spent it with a six year old in an un-air-conditioned city housing project apartment. "How did you survive?" I asked.

"You walk around in your underwear, run the fans full blast, and take lots of cold showers,"  she explained.

And then there was the "n" word.    Again, my public school education was not necessarily in schools that were completely segregated.  Just the programs we were in were.  But I learned some rules.  And one was, that the "n" word should never be used for any reason.  A half century later I still won't type it.  But the "n" word flew through that school with a frequency only slightly less than the usage of "and" and "the."

Lorraine found me frustrated after a period of trying to restrain its usage.  By that time, Lorraine had happily taken on the task of educating Teacherfish.    "Don't look so sad,"  she said,  "that's just what we call each other."

I thought about Lorraine all summer.  It was hotter than hell here and now we have multiple air conditioning units and far more expendable cash to find alternative solutions to huddling in the bedroom.  I hope Lorraine does too.  I hope she retired as a teacher with a big teacher pension and her middle-aged son is thriving as well, but I also thought of Lorraine when Isaiah called all of us racists this week.  The "n" word figured significantly in his rant. Isaiah arrived in our highly academically oriented high school where I work half time.  Not because Isaiah is academically gifted, his IEP  assigns him to the Intellectually Disabled category, but because the Department of Education feels it is educationally advantageous to place students with IEPs in this highly competitive program.  We'll see how it works. Its been a difficult week for Isaiah and those around him.

One of the twelfth  graders in the program who got to overhear the discussion asked when did the "n' word replace the "er" at the end with an "a".  For the record I had no meaningful response to either Isaiah or the twelfth grader.

Four decades later I still need Lorraine.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


Last year I went with the Union to Lobby Day.  Our esteemed governor was too busy with the Charter Schools to meet with us but he sent an aide.

I told the story of Mohammed.

When Mario, the esteemed governor's father was running for governor (its a family thing), he ran a campaign ad filmed in a small family grocery store.  His parents were immigrants who found their American Dream  at a grocery store not far from the school.  Not so far from our homes either.  

When my co-teacher asked Mohammed if he wanted to own a chain of groceries like many of the students in the school aspired to, Mohammed shook his head, "my father doesn't want me to stand on my feet fourteen hours a day like him, he wants me to go to college and have a career."

Mohammed came early everyday, and took down the chairs.  Mohammed stayed late everyday and helped clean up, put the homework answers on the computer, bailed me out when I got stuck on the computer, and tutor anyone who came by for help.

I told the governor's aide, all I wanted from the governor was to fund public education so Mohammed would  have the opportunities that his father did.

Yesterday Mohammed graduated.  He was afraid his parents would not be able to make it, so he asked my co-teacher if we could go.  We did.  So did his parents.  Mohammed won the science award, he won several big scholarships.  

Outside we hugged and said goodbye.  

Mohammed thanked me for everything I did. 

No, thank you Mohammed.

You made it all worthwhile.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Still Courting Trouble

I find myself in an old school as the sun sets and the darkening room makes the computer screen clearer.  I called it a career last June and exited from the world of renewal schools, teacher evaluations and common or uncommon core testing.  I made a big party, got lots of plants for  presents and spent four weeks in Europe.  Teacherfishtravels has a lot more to say about that.

But I missed it, and when an old principal called and asked if I would work a few hours in the after school program, I thought six hours a week, that sounds like the right amount of time teaching for me.

Walter tells me he didn't fail because he was stupid, it's his behavior.  I ask him why He isn't smart enough  to behave, and he says his mother wants to know the same thing.  I stop.  One mother is enough for anyone..

Walter, Fenton and Jamal come whenever I am there. There are far more students that need to sit in front of the computer screens and complete a course that it is laid out in six units, four sections each.  And all must be completed by answering correctly 70% of the quiz questions at the end of each section.

Because students who couldn't pay attention with a teacher teaching  his or heart out in a classroom can sit in front of a computer screen for sixty hours and independently complete the coursework. But heck- cracking the whip is what I get paid for.

Fenton is completing a unit on scientific method.  At least that what the screen says.  Fenton is shining his head.  He  continually rubs  his perfectly coiffed head while checking his image on another screen which is rigged so the computer's camera displays his image.

"What is a good experimental question?" Fenton asks me.

"How many times will you fix your hair before Ms. Teacherfish hits you?"  I suggest.

And then I add that surely one of theses days my mouth will get me in trouble.

"Not so easy this behaving thing" Walter chimes in from across the room.

"Nah," Miss, "not today,"  Fenton assures me, "We like you."

There comes a time every Sunday night, that I feel some anxiety, my plans aren't done, my shirts aren't ironed and is this the week the superintendent is coming?

And then I remember- I'm done.

But I do miss moments like that one.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

I Reflect

We were ask to lead a summer service.  Eric usually provides an erudite "sermon" but he would be not be motivated to do so this year.  So I wrote this.  

August 21, 2015
In my email box this week, along with offers to buy books, furniture, vacations and enhancements for body parts I do not possess, as well as encouragement to support political causes on both the left and the right, (I will never understand just how I got on the  Townhall- mailing list) was  a message from Rabbi Ballan reminding me that this is the month of Elul a time to prepare for judgement both G-d’s and my own. 
In the event that  that I skip over all those tempting offers in the other emails, the rabbi offered this prayer .
God, help me through the days of Elul to prepare myself for the New Year with its promise of new life for my body and my soul.
Help me face questions I wish to avoid!
Help me accept truths that do not comfort!
I wish to journey to the light, but the path to it is hidden by all the promises I never kept, by the goodness I deserted.
May the words from the past show me the way of return.
I begin the road of repentance. Meet me, God, as I journey on it.

*From Kol Haneshamah: p. 805

In the late 1970s, early 1980’s just as I began my teaching career, the show the White Shadow, starring Ken Howard as a former professional basketball player turned high school teacher and coach, aired on CBS.  I watched every week, if for no other reason, to see how much better he coped in the world of the inner city school , then I did.  Despite the fact that I could not get a basketball within in ten feet of a standard hoop- (a cause for great mirth at most recess periods) I figured if he could survive, so could I. 
Despite my commitment to avid watching, there is only one scene I really clearly remember from the show.  And it didn’t even contain Howard.  A woman, in the mists of time I can no longer remember her position at the school,  comforted a student who was upset.
And what she said to student has remained with my all these years. 
She said:  Her mother told her there were four types of people in this world. 
People who like you for the right reason,
People who like you for the wrong reason
People who dislike you for right reason and
People who dislike you for the wrong reason.
And the only group you ever have to worry about is those that dislike you for the right reason.
On one of the overheated days on the fourth floor of the hundred year old  unairconditioned high school I worked in, I ticked April off.  I don’t remember exactly what I said or did but she was angry and responded with the comment-  what I really don’t like about you is your always interrupting the other teacher,  when we act out you discipline us but then you take over and don’t let her finish her thoughts.

I reacted the way, I learned to over the years to react when a student insulted me.  I ignored the comment and prayed for the bell to ring soon

I would have ended there – except the next day after class, April approached me to apologize. 
I was hot and tired and I was rude to you and should have never spoken to you that way, she told me.
And for some reason the scene from the White Shadow flooded back to me.  I told her the piece about the four kinds of people in the world and realized,  just why I was telling it.
Yes April is 16 and a student in my class and it was rude and disrespectful to speak to me like that.
But she was right.
When she made the comment she fell squarely into the category of those who disliked me for the right reason.
And out place or not, her comment shouldn’t be ignored. It is a truth that does not comfort.
Eric and I wish to thank you for allowing us to lead the service tonight and we hope the month of Elul brings all of us offers, electronic or otherwise that’s fulfillment makes us happy, political news that helps us all heal the world a little bit, and the time and space to reflect deeply and fruitfully on the people who didn’t like you this year for the right reason so that we look forward to a the new year with its promise for a new life for our bodies and soul.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Snow, logic and rigor.

February is here, along with the new semester.  The weather alternates between just above the freezing mark and just below it, so every morning begins with a decision on whether to shovel out the car,  and risk finding one of the valued parking spots at school or standing on a frozen snow bank waiting for the bus to come.

I have almost mastered the bus time app.  It allows me to remove my finger from my gloves to check my cell phone repeatedly to see if the 6:47 bus will come at 6:47, 6:48, or 6:49.  The first day I tried it the bus arrived and left as I looked at the app.   I decided I wouldn't look again, but just wait and watch the street as I've done for six decades, but alas- I am addicted to the damn phone - just like everyone else.

I am back to teaching a  geometry self-contained class.  The new semester, almost surely my last semester, brought a slew of changes of our teaching schedules, so, at least for 45 minutes a day, I end my career just as I started it, teaching students with disabilities the "general" curriculum in a separate classroom. The topic I was given first -logic.

I am fairly convinced that nothing in education today has anything really to do with logic.  Otherwise I certainly wouldn't be teaching if p then q,  to high school students who are not really sure what folding your paper in half means.  (The professional small learning group community had a discussion on rigor,  and I posed the question  -was asking whether a paper that was folded down the vertical center line was an equal representation of half as one folded down the horizontal line.    I was assured it was rigorous.- by  three of the people in the group- the other four were asleep). 

But I spent the week with questions like:  If its Tuesday,  then it must by Belgium. ) Okay - not really - because that is anachronistic joke  akin, to calling out second floor ladies lingerie - when the elevator door opens and no one gets out.  But surprisingly to me at least, so was the sentence from the text book:  Jedi warriors do not use light sabers.  (One of the girls insisted I spelled it wrong- it should say light savers like the candy. (Lifesavers?)

Bernie had his head down - he was too tired to learn he told me, he had worked until 3:00 am in the convenience store by his house.  I made him pick up his head.  It sounds  so mean as I type it.  But that's how it goes- you come, you learn- with your head up.

The snow fell in spurts outside our window yet again, and in an attempt to derail the logic discussion we talked about where we came from (as in the country we used to live in versus the topic of evolution which was being hotly debated in the Teacher's lounge along with a chorus of Bob Marley songs- but again that is not the main topic- and since I have been sitting through many workshops on writing non-fiction, I am going to attempt to stick to my topic).

Five out of six of the students were from the Dominican Republic.  They talked wistfully of an Island with beaches and mountains and a climate that never required one to decide whether or not to shovel out a car or take a bus. (Of course- the economy did limit one'options which is probably why everyone was sitting in a classroom in New York- even after working until the wee hours of the morning, watching snow fall.

I wrote the sentence:  If it snows then its winter. 

Unless you live in DR Ana said.  
True- even if that wasn't what the answer the textbook said it was supposed to be.

But Bernie's head popped up and insisted it does snow in the Dominican Republic.

The class was skeptical.  I didn't know for sure, but I was once in Hawaii when there was a snowstorm on Mauna Kea.

Off topic- again.  

We went back to finding inverses and converses and contrapositives- because that's what were supposed to be doing
-  Constanza.    Bernie called out, That's the place in the DR where -it snows!

How did he know?  He texted his mother. 

Yes he's not supposed to have his cell phone out.  Yes he's not supposed to be texting- he's supposed to be folding his paper in half ( Ana gave him a sheet, he didn't have a notebook he wouldn't be paid until the evening).   But he was with us  now.

And I know where it snows in the Dominican Republic.
Rigorous?  Maybe. But its our kind of logic .

Sunday, February 1, 2015

When will I use this?

I can complete a square.  Okay, its not like finding the cure for cancer or creating world peace, but its a skill I mastered more than once.  Its like the joke about quitting smoking, it can't be all that hard - I've done it numerous times.

I've never smoked, but from time to time I find myself mired in a mathematical curriculum that defies my usually effective sense of mathematical reasoning- the mathematical acrobatics I put myself through, because it serves some purpose in my life.  For instance, Macy's had gloves on sale yesterday.  The marked price was $48, the sign said 40% off, I have a deal with Macy's I keep buying things and they keep sending me coupons, so I knew that the gloves would cost me  a number that is less than the predicted low temperature for tomorrow.

I bought the gloves.  (For the record it came to $28 with tax and the predicted low tomorrow is 14 degrees)

The Algebra I curriculum includes figuring out percentages of things and coming up with what things should cost.  Of course last week's Regents, postponed  by the prediction of a historic snowstorm that never came, included a question that gave the final price after a 20% discount and the deal was to figure out the original cost.

I'm sure I'll hear lots of complaints about that- we never practiced that scenario.

And what difference should it make- either you want the dress at the sale price or your don't.
If you have to know the original price to think its a good enough deal to buy- you don't  really need the dress. (My father used to say, if you need to ask the price, you can't afford it).

In my humble opinion.

I was watching the Big Bang theory last week.  My cousin is always amazed that a show about a bunch of brainy nerds is the most popular show on TV. Sheldon stood in front of a white board and whined about something or another in his self important life.  But behind him was a reduction of simple radicals,  another skill I mastered in my year of not the most basic concepts of high school math.  I had written something very similar on our very own white board just a few weeks back.  The joke being, that most of the viewers would have no idea that Sheldon's scratching were the mere exercises of the Algebra II curriculum and not the genius level pondering he purported

Every semester I listen to poignant posing of the same the question.
Why am I taking this math?  - I'll never use it.

True, you probably don't remember how to figure percentages that will give you  the original cost of an item in Macy's quickly either, though there's most likely an app for that in the cell phone in your pocket if you really want to.  If you need the current cost, there's a station where you can scan it quickly.

But completing the square or reducing a radical?  Other than realizing that the people who provided the props for Sheldon's whining monologue- its hard to imagine a situation where that's needed- and anyone who actually would require such calculations at work, would undoubtedly have software that would instantaneously do so.

Teacher Koi,  my carpool companion once asked me what would we do if all the computers in the world stopped working at once.

Not being able to solve a quadratic equation would be the least of my problems.  It would rank far behind not being able to get money out of the ATM and not having the digital thermostat control the central heating in our home and this February -the temperature would rapidly sink to a level where  no gloves on sale or not would suffice.

The new semester begins on Tuesday.  I will click on the Algebra II curriculum that arrived in my e-mail box yesterday and again try to learn, plan, adapt and teach the carefully constructed lists of skills and concepts listed in the course curriculum. (Hopefully in that order) Some will get it, some will try, others will whine that the don't need to put much mental energy to these abstractions, they'll never use them.  I expect they are right.   But the in the end we will pass most of them anyway.  The principal told us to.  But that's a story for another day.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Inclusion Teacher

Two days after I began teaching an inclusion class for the first time, the World Trade Towers fell. 

We had a west facing classroom.  We could see the plumes of smoke from the window, We pulled the shades.  We assured the students the world would not end that day, and their parents would be there when they returned home,  but when they left for lunch, we hugged each other after each desperate phone call to our own loved ones ended with good news. We had known each other for two days.

  I worked in an elementary school then, in a district (when they existed) that was pretty progressive.  Although it was part of the New York School City System, because geographic districts operated independently in those days, the leadership of that district often tried out new trends earlier than other places in NYC.  Mayoral control put an end to that

I’ve had a long history with inclusion, the practice of mixing general education students with students with IEPs in the same class .  A friend looked at the explanation, when we first learned about it and predicted we would end our  careers as overpaid teacher assistants. When I began as an inclusion teacher, our district put much thought into how the program would work, how would the teachers be trained, how would the physical space be arranged, how would the parents be informed.  Teachers were interviewed to make sure they’re styles and personalities were compatible.  Co-teaching is like a marriage, we were told, my brand new co-teacher leaned close, and said, “I’m divorced.”

But we were a good marriage, the class worked.  All the students in the class, those with IEPs and those without met standards and were promoted.  The reviewers (they've had so many names and incarnations since that time) said it was the only classroom where they saw adequate differentiated instruction.  We worked so well as a team that we were immediately were broken up for the next year. And although Integrated Co-teaching is now widespread throughout the City schools, I’ve never again had an inclusion class where any  any pre-thought or consideration went into how it would work.

I have had a series of co-teachers that were weak. One, riddled by constant pain which she treated with a series of prescription medicines,  often told the students things like, the Ancient Egyptians had electricity in the pyramids, (she saw that on the Discovery Channel) and Rodin was Renaissance artist (she knew that for a fact and the World Book Encyclopedia must have put a typo in for his birth date).  Sadly, the year after I left the school she walked in front of a car during  a preparation period and was killed. No teacher evaluation program needed, the Darwin Awards sufficed.

That was possibly the nadir in my co-teaching career.

Possibly- last year I had a teacher I called an asshole to his face. Luckily I waited a few nano-seconds after the students left.  It was a Friday afternoon and I was able to storm out right after.

And with all this wonderful  experience, Monday I was sent to a workshop on teaching inclusion classes.

As soon as I beat down the bad attitude demon on my shoulder –it was useful, and when the presenter announced at the end of the day that he would observe us the following morning, I snapped into action and rewrote the lesson plan to match some of the techniques he preached.  The sad thing is that I agreed with him, we can co teach far better than we do.  But in a school based on traditional instruction, where each methodology is broken into 22 distinct, measurable skills, and evaluations are linked to exams that appear way beyond the capacity of our learners, who wants to try anything new?

Although, I had planned the day carefully to make a quick exit at the bell, I stayed late to create a new lesson, immediately deleting the Smart Notebook file and keeping friends from Texas waiting for me at restaurant for over a half hour.

I rewrote the Smart Notebook presentation after dinner, (evidence for sure that some learners, must have a quiet space to be successful), went over the course of the lesson with my co-teacher during our usual co-planning time, the car ride to school.  (Thank you traffic on the Grand Central Service road, we worked out who would teach what,  while we waited three lights to get past the traffic light on Parsons).   And taught our lesson.

The observer liked it.  We didn't quite have enough time to have the students work in groups enough to master the concept, but he didn't come back the next day to notice.

My co-teacher did.  She went back to traditional teaching.  I walked around helping people, feeling like a tremendously overpaid teacher assistant.