Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve

In September of 1979 I finally got the early childhood special education class I so longed to teach. I spent hours at the end of the summer planning my bulletin boards in my head, cutting letters and designs out of construction paper and thinking about pithy titles to place above my designs. So I was ready when I finished the paperwork in the main office, climbed the steps to the fourth floor and entered my classroom.

And there standing on a child's size desk, putting the final staple in the final decoration of final bulletin board was a woman.

I don't know what divine inspiration made me keep my mouth shut, a sudden flash of maturity and self control that neither my 23 year old self nor my 53 year one, displays that often. But I did.

"I'm the teacher for this classroom," I told her-
"Oh," she said climbing down from the chair, I'm the paraprofessional.

And that was the beginning of a relationship that changed my life professionally and personally.

I might have known some things about pedagogy and teaching children with learning issues but Mrs. Nieves taught me of compassion.

On the day before Christmas break, a student brought her a package wrapped in shabby paper and marked with a shakily drawn "N". The student lived alone with an elderly grandfather and the "N" represented just about the total mastery of the written language the grandfather and grandson contained. Mrs. Nieves received the gift as if it was the crown jewels of England.

I learned that school was not just a place where a-b-c knowledge was dispensed. On weekends and before long holidays she would stuff backpacks with boxes of cold cereal that she had to carefully hoard for weeks, since the cafeteria lady carefully monitored the flow of food in the lunchroom- Mrs. Nieves became adept at stealth and slight of hand, in order to provide the neglected child with a hedge against a long hungry vacation week.

I learned that a bag of used clothing could be presented in a way such that the recipient felt honored do the giver the favor of receiving it rather than shame of appearing to have the need of charity.

I learned that no child was too angry, too unresponsive or too smelly to deserve kindness and attention from an adult who went home to warm house and lots of food.

I learned other things too. I learned to speak Spanish a bit better. I learned to navigate the streets of the South Bronx and how to make the mimeograph machine spit out cardboard outlines of bunny rabbits and Santa Elves. I also learned to crave rice and beans and pasteles at holiday time.

By the following September, Mrs. Nieves was moved to a new classroom and I've moved to different classes and schools over the following years. I've met many people who have blown me away with the strength and devotion to the children they worked with but none more than the woman who had completed my bulletin boards before I ever stepped forth into the classroom.

Tonight we will pile into the car and drive North a few miles and eat rice and beans and pasteles with Mrs. Nieves and her family once more.

Shortly before midnight, Mrs. Nieves' son will don his Santa hat and dispatch presents to the crowd and we will receive plenty, but the best gift is being able to share the time with a family that is a true representation of the holiday spirit.

Monday, December 21, 2009

It takes more effort...

Quote of the Day- from Nathan
"It takes a lot more effort to excel than just get by"

I made a comment about Nathan's ability to figure things out quickly and he pointed out that he was really smart- just not particularly successful in school.
See above

Short snippets today.

Usher was involved in a brawl last week and is facing a long suspension
E-mail from the principal
So need your input on the hearing. He most likely won't show up. If we show up and he doesn't, he will get 30 days. If we don't show, he will
be reinstated. Any thoughts?

My response:
I read Push (the book by Sapphire, about the abused teenager- it was made into the movie Precious)this weekend. Made me wonder who and what am I missing as a teacher. Usher is number one on the "am I failing to notice a life going down the drain list?"

Final decision email from the principal:
That’s how we all feel. We didn’t go to the hearing.

I'm a fucking snitch
Evan told me so.
I had to cover 9th grade math. Evan didn't show up. I called the office and reported him "cutting".
Evan showed up and called me a fucking snitch.
So I opened the door and told him to get out.
And there was the principal, right outside the door.
Long discussions. Lots of talk about respect. Final decision-Evan would not get suspended if he would come to me for extra help. Evan did for one day and has been missing in action ever since.
Evan is number two on my "am I failing to notice a life going down the drain list."

I have two strong candidates for number three and four also, but too depressing to write about tonight maybe during the break.

Last snippet (less depressing)
After a day of serious whining and holiday cookie eating I made it to the second half of the basketball game- which we won by a lot.

"Did I work with any of the players?" my husband wanted to know?
Every one of them.
With a twenty point lead and less than five minutes to go, the eleventh grade math teacher, changed her usual game cheering strategy from assisting the players and the refs with helpful advice, to yelling- at the coach to substitute in the players who had warmed the bench the entire time.

So finally he did. Nathan got the final basket. Sometimes even a little effort pays off.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Observing Strangers

The ninth grade English homework was to observe and write about a stranger.
I am not in the ninth grade English class, but it must have been an "exciting" assignment because I heard about it all day.

I am always observing strangers. I would like to say its because I fancy myself a writer, an astute observer of the human condition. My mother (and then curiously my children as if advice and the need to keep me in line can be passed on genetically) would say that I am a yenta, the Yiddish word for one who can not mind their own business.

Also I ride crowded city buses. This affords me lots of time to observe strangers.
Tuesday night was the winter concert. With half a century of winter concert going as a performer, parent and educator I am the one in our building who thinks about the need to get the music teacher a bunch of flowers. There are no flower sellers by the school (that I know of any how) so I jumped on the bus to the subway- where the flower shop is tucked in a nook behind the stairs.

With a large bouquet of flowers I took the bus back to school, accompanied by many, many people who were heading home as the winter night was fully dark at 5:30. In front of me were four pretty young women returning from dance practice at the Catholic High School. How do I know it was dance practice?

They danced the whole trip. They practiced their, moves critiqued each other's styles and checked rhythms and counts. All on a very crowded bus and one that lurched forward and backward at every stop light. They apologized to me for the inconvenience.

"On the contrary," I replied. "You have provided quality entertainment on a boring trip."

How did I know they were from the Catholic High School?

I asked.
I already told you I am a yenta.

Time to go to school. More about the winter concert later.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The week slipped by without a chance for much blogging.

I ended up at a workshop in a "campus" high school. To follow up to the last the post about the closing of my old high school, the city converts big old "failing high schools" into "campus high schools" which is four to five high schools each with their own separate staff and administration. This somehow improves graduation rates.

It also means you can't get a cup of coffee since there is no longer a teacher's cafeteria. I had to empty my pockets, produce produce id and walk through a metal detector to get inside. Depressing to go through such security measures and not be on my way to vacation spot on the other side.

Tuesday- The day started in the principal's office (actually it started with a 'coverage" a stand in and babysit the absent teacher's first period class, until I was relieved to go sit in with the science teacher for her formal observation debrief) The lesson included a simulation of the natural selection process that included groups of students competing for Cheerios using forks with a range of one to four tines. The lesson broke every rule I have for observations
-never teacher a new concept for a formal observation
-never attempt a lesson that you have not taught successfully before
-never ever include something in your lesson that can be used as a projectile

About three minutes after the Cheerios had been distributed Victor popped the cup of Cheerios out of Benny's hand who immediately responded by attempting to scoop up the remaining Cheerios to throw at Victor. He was unsuccessful. Like a prehistoric raptor, I swooped down and removed the tray from the table, rearranged the Cheerio scooping groups, with exclusion of Victor and Benny and crawled around the floor picking up Cheerios. All the while hoping to be invisible.

I wasn't. Chubby middle-age support teachers are rarely invisible.
And everyone knows prehistoric raptors did not adapt to changing environment and subsequently did not make the natural selection cut.
Or maybe everyone doesn't know that. The lesson was not rated satisfactory.

A Mr. Copernicus Story
Mr. Copernicus was teaching the Doppler effect. The last time I learned about the Doppler Effect was with Mr Friend in ninth grade. (Mr. Friend was really the name of my ninth grade Earth Science teacher- he qualifies for the more than thirty year rule, if the story happened more than three decades ago -I don't change the name)
I learned then, that the Doppler Effect makes fire engines sound differently coming and going. Must have made an impression - I still remember it.

What I learned from Copernicus is that the Doppler effect explains the expansion of the universe- by providing evidence that most stars are moving away from the Earth. (If Mr. Friend taught that- I don't recall it - too busy thinking about fire engines)
It has something to do with wave lengths and blue or red shifts. Of course, helpful support teacher me, turns right to the practice Regents questions and it all comes down to knowing that a blue shift indicates a star's approach while a red shift indicates it's retreat.

"We should make a poem," I helpfully suggest- and within in minutes -I'm jumping and cheering:
Shift to the blue- coming towards you!
Red you say- moving away!

Copernicus was at the back of the room doubled up with laughter.
Not the class- they've had my helpful input for three years- they know I'm weird.

"Don't you think it's important they understand the concept?" Copernicus asked.
"I think it's important that they pass"

And remember why firetrucks sound differently coming and going- for forty years.

My resolve to not make this a whining blog has kept me from including all the details about why the week was going downhill. But it was.
If co-teaching is marriage even the good marriages have their bad days.
And my spouse yelled at me, loudly, in front of the students who hardly give me any respect in the first place.
So I was pissed.
I was really, really pissed.
Had to stay for the monthly steering meeting so I needed to go out and eat a large plate of lasagna, a whole buttered Italian bread, and three Reeses Peanut Butter Christmas Trees before the meeting- where I was voted in as Recorder despite my campaign against myself.

Friday- Finally
Okay- by Friday I was in a pretty mean mood.
I was mean to the teacher who hadn't handed in the IEP I prepared 10 days ago when it was due, and all she had to do was copy it and submit it,
I was mean to the ELA teacher, her co-teacher, who dutifully handed me the incomplete, improperly prepared copies- because the special ed teacher had left early.
I was mean to school secretary who left Medicaid letters for me to distribute to the 85 students in different grades and homerooms , on my desk.
I was mean to social worker who handed me the attendance sheets that were due last week, along with the progress reports that shouldn't have been torn from the packet until June.

I left immediately at the closing bell.
I was not mean to the man at the liquor store who sold me nice Beaujolais and had the kid carry all the bottles out to the car.

Eight days and counting 'til winter break.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The end of an era or to steal from another blog, Bye Bye Jamaica HIgh

It was the Sunday morning around New Year's Day, that nexus of melancholy, the time of year that remembering the past is supposed to be fun and insightful but often makes me feel like the years are passing too fast, and there are so many things I was supposed to do; I was watching CBS Sunday morning on the televison. Nancy Giles, a commentator who appears as so many women of African descent do, to be aging far more gracefully then their European descent counterparts, was telling a little story about her high school career as a musician, while painfully scratching out Auld Lang Syne on a viola. I am not sure I recall the whole point of the segment, but as Ms Giles described climbing to the fourth floor of the large high school and sitting on folding chairs with other enthusiastic if minimally talented orchestra members listening to Mrs Stevens, exasperated directions, that I started to suspect that I was one of those minimally talented viola players

And sure enough Nancy Giles ended the segment with (and I paraphrase here) "and that's what I learned from playing in the viola in the orchestra at Jamaica High School in the early 1970's."

There was a time in my life that I thought the a good portion of the world went to Jamaica High School, I was talking to a friend in Florida about that conclusion once, and the stranger next to us in a store, leaned in and told us he had gone there too.

But somehow after, Ms Giles and I left, the school started to fade as the star of Eastern Queens, no longer did people fake addresses or interests in obscure coursework only offered at JHS to get in, but exactly the opposite began to occur. To this day, the "zone" for Jamaica includes large swaths of middle class neighbors but staying out of Jamaica was the common goal among the many families I interacted with as my children approached the high school years.

Jamaica High School got the reputation of a troubled High School. I am not sure if that is a euphemism for "Black" high school. Surely when Nancy Giles and I played viola together the school was racially mixed, and I had no illusions about the "whiteness" of the world as so many of my college friends did. But the school, that perches high above some of the most expensive real estate in Queens was abandoned by the middle class.

Last Friday, I read in the New York Times the Department of Education had scheduled it for closing. I read through the comments, many of which fondly recalled their years there and lamented its passing. I looked at lists of famous alumni, (Francis Coppola, defrocked attorney general of the Nixon years- John Mitchel, and several Olympians including the most famous- Bob Beamen). And I wondered if our "small secondary school" could move in.

Saturday night, I spoke with a friend, who works at Jamaica. I listened to her angst and told her of my secret wish that I would end my career at the building where I began to want to be a teacher. Her comment:

"Tell me one good thing about the small high schools.- What's one advantage.?"

I answered, we graduate almost everyone (though as I write there are several students weighing heavily on my mind).

But it got me wondering. I don't know that we will be able to move, or in the end if that would even be the best thing. I realize that my friend and her coworkers, are like the GM factory workers tossed out of jobs they thought were secure,jobs that they did well, by people of power who make decisions that effect everyone's lives but their own.

I love the school I work in, and I realize I work with a whole community of people dedicated to educating young people. Does that mean all small schools are good? All big ones are bad? Even I am not that naive. I often long for the accouterments of a large school, from a teacher's cafeteria to a variety of sports teams (let alone- the obvious a cadre of people who do similar jobs to share worries and strategies with).

And I wonder if years from now, random people in different corners of the world will realize, the tv commentator or the people next to them on the supermarket line all have fond memories of the their high school on the hill.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Effing Math

Short entry today:

Harrison: I don't fucking get this (math)

Me: Would you like me to effing help you?

(and I did)

Harrison: This is so effing easy once you showed it to me.

Today math
Tomorrow profanity control

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

So much fun

Kenneth was in a snit.

I was working with the 11th grade geometry classes. Amazingly, the second geometry class of the day was getting through the quiz successfully. The teacher and I had drilled midpoint of triangles down to "halve it or double it" and everyone was busy halving and doubling and getting problems correct (even Leona who had neatly copied someone else's answers onto her page -still I pushed her through the process she managed to produce the right steps )

I asked Leona -didn't it feel better to get the right answers herself, and I got a slight nod of ascent. Hey it wasn't much but it was more than I've ever gotten before.

Kenneth was at the back of the 11th grade classroom- steaming. Kenneth is not in 11th grade, he's a tenth grader. He had gotten thrown out of music,(for tapping) and landed in the geometry teacher's room. Now the music teacher is one of the kindest most patient teachers in the school and she's married to a drummer-and has a high tolerance for tapping. There was something else definitely going on.

Kenneth was hitting a wall- the science teacher, and maybe the English teacher too. I wrote about Kenneth's trouble with the science teacher in the the Parent Teacher Conference entry. I reminded him that I was there for him-while trying to figure out in my brain what I could possible say to science teacher and then I told he could work on English projects in our room during lunch.

Third period, I surrounded myself with the attendance booklets that need to be sent out this week and all the other special service team filling out attendance booklets, with the exception of the team members who didn't pick up the blank attendance booklets in September so they didn't tell me we didn't have enough and we have to order more- even though they have to go out this week.

Fourth period Kenneth showed up and melted down. All six feet of him collapsed into tears.

"I just want to do well- I got to do well- I got to get into a good college."

I calmed Kenneth down enough to sit in front of the computer and went down to pick up sliced apples for him from the lunchroom.

I ran into the social worker (eating sliced apples) on the stairs and sent him into talk to Kenneth (and pick up the attendance booklets to fill out)

I could get no apple slices from the lunchroom (I'm not going to go into it)But Kenneth was in a better mood whenI got back and dictated a script about masculinity-short version a skinny guy with arms like twigs decides to bulk up to impress the girl who in the end tells him she liked him better when he was more cerebral and less of a musclebrain.

And then I listened to a whole bunch of personal essays and even more excuses about why people didn't have their personal essays in tenth grade English

And then I went to the eighth grade science to make timelines about the whole history of the earth (on one sentence strip)which I was supposed to take home to mark but I forgot to grab as I was on my way out to the Emergency room. (don't worry that parts coming)

And then I took part in an IEP meeting with Usher a repeating ninth grader with a third grade reading and math level. The gist of the conference was even though things had been totally screwed up for him for the last 14 years we were still willing to teach him to read if he would just show up to school on time (preferably not high) and stay for extra reading help.

And then I called the help desk (unsuccessfully) twice to order more attendance booklets.

And then I sat in on a discipline meeting in the principal's office as a Union rep.

And then I got to ride in the ambulance with Jolene a senior who passed out in the music room (afore mentioned music teacher had a busy day too)because she (Jolene- I don't know if the music teacher ate) didn't eat all day.
Note that with everything that happened today- I still managed to stuff in a meatball hero.

I could retire this June.
How could I possibly fill my days with so much fun?