Saturday, July 31, 2010

We have these tomato plants on our back porch. We put them in pots since last year's crop was consumed by blight. We fertilized, we nourished, we inserted bamboo poles and meticulously wrapped the vines around them. We schlep gallons of water to keep them hydrated during this long, hot, NYC summer and they are growing like crazy. A wall of leafy green separates us from our neighbors yard.

But they won't produce tomatoes.

I feel like I could make a comparison of my tomato growing affair to teaching, and testing and test scores. The state changed the evaluation system (not the test, not the standards, not even the scoring-) just the cut off line between proficient and not proficient the educational jargon for passing or failing. And the scores in our school, like the rest of the state, plummeted.

No "tomato" test scores for us this year.(not like last year when the Mayor was running for re-election)

But hey, summer school ended Thursday and I'm through taking about how good writing has voice and creates strong images with metaphors and similes and other literary devices.

Except maybe I'm not.

I spent two hours, four mornings a week with the students who were deemed not proficient in literacy before the actual test scores were sent to the school. How that was decided is no more clear to me then why my plants won't produce tomatoes.

We planted seeds (okay- I know you might think-Give it up already TEACHERFISH- but I am not easily dissuaded) we measured them, we studied ecology and we read Seedfolk by Paul Fleischman, a short sweet collection of multicultural stories of the founding members of community garden in Cleveland. One culminating project required the student to write their own Seedfolk chapter.

Jose, tall and lanky enough that folding himself inside the student chair was a process that required much motion and commentary each day, told me, "I'm supposed to be in 11th grade, you know, but there gets a point in each school semester when I just quit coming to school.(This was a class for students entering the 9th grade) Jose showed up everyday of summer school.
Jose wrote about Charlie. Charlie is a young man of similar description to Jose, likes gardening, but talking about gardening with your friends is like talking Chinese- nobody knows or cares about what you are saying.
The line was so good, I had to spend a good hour that afternoon searching the book to be convinced it wasn't plagiarized. Charlie likes gardening but gardening is for chumps (chomps in the original version-but I corrected it). In the next two hundred words Charlie grows a tree and convinces his friends that gardening is cool. (now I wondering if has tomato advice?)

Evangeline, was the quiet, pretty girl, who came to the country less than a year ago from an English speaking Caribbean Island. In the past I've written if you have the good fortune to enter our school system from a non-English speaking school system, then you get to have services and perks like standardized test taking exemptions. But no such luck for Evangeline. She got to take the test and fail (I mean score not proficient) despite a year of "butt-busting" hard work. Evangeline, who kept herself apart from the overall "exuberance" of group of "non-proficient" adolescents wrote about a character who organizes the community, stops all vandalism and brings together the various factions of the community gardens with her strength and wisdom.

When the visiting guidance counselor applicant asked the student next to her to pick an animal that described Katie, the student picked Hippo. The principal stopped the activity and the applicant did not get the job. But there is some accuracy in the description. Katie is large. Not that she is so overweight, no more than many, but she has one of those large personalities that overwhelm the room as soon as she enters. Katie used her real name for the character. She wrote about a young woman whose life's was being destroyed by drugs and alcohol. And then one day in a rehab center she decides to bury all her drug paraphernalia in the community garden. She plants bean seeds over it so no one will know its there. And as the plants grow strong and healthy so does Katie.

The re-take test is August 9. I will be on a plane to Mexico. Will Jose, Evangeline and Katie score proficient? Who can tell?

Sometimes you plant a seed and get tomatoes. Sometimes you just get good stories.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Summer School

Sad, sad story in the news. A class from Harlem takes a trip to a beach. A kid drowns, teacher fired, principal only reprimanded.

My husband wants to know what "they" were thinking.
Newspaper makes it sound like there were no permission slips,that there wasn't enough supervision. That is was an incredibly awful idea from the start.
And I guess it was- since the kid drowned and more than one life was ruined. But it wasn't something I couldn't imagine doing myself. In fact I used to do it myself.

I used to take students from the concrete rubbled, garbage strewn, Dresden-after-the-war streets of the South Bronx, on a hot sticky subway car to Orchard Beach. Where I let them wander in the surf. And when the hour got late, I cleaned their feet and got back on the train.

We called it summer school.

And then we were told that wasn't teaching it wasn't helping kid's test scores. Now summer school is serious business. In some schools it's hour after hour of a prepackaged program (a teaching fellow applying for a job at our school told us that was what she was doing for her summer internship - which would prepare her to work as a fully licensed teacher in the fall- not in our school, her resume did not get the "smiley face" stamp of approval- when she couldn't tell me the name of this "miracle" program)

In our school, it's just hour after hour doing paper work assignments with students who don't want to be there. Sixteen hours of a class in summer school makes up for your failure though out a 180 day school year. At least you get course credit so you can graduate on time and Klein/Bloomberg can brag about the graduation rate success

I'm lucky. Nobody drowned on the trips to Orchard Beach. And if I'm lucky I will make it through this summer school without poking my eyes with a pre-packaged pencil or slitting my wrist with a pre-packaged sheet of copy paper.
But I wonder, do those kids who waded in the surf at Orchard Beach all those decades ago have some memories of a summer with sunshine on their backs and sand in their toes?(Many had never been to a beach before)

Or will a summer of serious teaching, make the reality of our current students really so much better?