Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What I'm up to Now

Hi there. All the posts below this one chronicle the painfully slow process by which a first year teacher completed the 2005-2006 school year.

I am she, and I survived that year. In my second year of teaching, things got much easier. By my third, I was actually pretty good. After my fourth, I was ready for a change.
So I moved across the country to go to graduate school in California. Now, I work at a middle school in Oakland, where I launched a new site for the fantastic youth development program Citizen Schools. For more about me now, look here.

The rest of this blog is just as I left it in June of 2006. It is certainly a commentary on my own privilege that I can say this:

My first year of teaching remains the hardest year of my life.

I was not good at it. I got better because I had good coaches, healthy doses of both shame and stubbornness, and because I came back for a second year. It's a bit hard for me to read some of this now. I've left it in the hope that other first year teachers will feel, as I did, the need to do whatever it takes to improve their practice, and to do this work as well as possible for as long as possible. Our students' lives depend on it.

Thanks for reading,
Macy Parker

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Things I Learned by Accident

The school year finally sputtered to a halt yesterday afternoon. My kids, who had been out of the building taking a self-assigned break or on 8th grade senior trips, all showed up to collect their report cards. My seventh graders were cute, as they have been almost all year, and were sad to say goodbye. My eighth graders were ready to move on to high school, as they have been almost all year, and were nearly as terrible as on the first day. I don't blame them. One kid, with whom I've had a running battle over gum-chewing, stuffed ten pieces of Trident in his mouth in front of me and then shouted, "Now I can chew as much gum as I want! School's out!" And it was.

And now that I know I can survive a whole ten months of this work, next year doesn't look nearly so scary. (Though it is, blessedly, two months away.) As best anyone can tell me, I'll only be teaching seventh grade next year, so I'll only have to prepare one lesson plan a day and only have to teach the new, scared, pliable 12 year olds rather than the newly hormonal and rebellious 13 year olds - a much more palatable proposition. I was offered a chance to move up with my kids and teach them again in an eighth grade honors seminar, but I turned it down for a chance to re-invent myself for new students as the teacher I have spent the past year learning how to be. So next year, when the first day of school rolls around, I'll know where my bathroom passes are and how to get people quiet. Actually, I've learned quite a bit.

Mistakes I now know not to make:

Don't single a kid out by name in front of the whole class - that just causes a whole conflict that you don't want to deal with.

Put your bulletin boards up on time even if you think bulletin boards are stupid.

Don't say you're going to call home if you know you probably won't feel like it. In fact, don't say you'll do anything that you're not 100% sure you can do that day.

Don't assume that kids know the difference between Civil Rights and the Civil War, between the East River and the ocean, or between North and South. Don't assume anyone has any idea what you're talking about just because they've been sitting quietly and not getting on your nerves. Chances are, the annoying kids at least have some idea what's going on, while the quiet ones are on another planet entirely.

Don't go in thinking that you will be the kind of teacher who makes kids see the "real world" and teaches them how to rock the boat. Their world is much realer than yours has ever been and they are constantly bailing water. They need structure, not your grad school deconstructionism, before they can work the truth out for themselves.

Don't wear purple tights in March or you will still be hearing about it in June.

Don't hold grudges.

Don't forget to check your mailbox for memos.

Don't get sick.

Don't be afraid to take a sick day.

Don't be mean.

Eat a good lunch, or you will be.

Don't show movies that you've never watched yourself, or teach books you've never read.

Don't be afraid to tell people that they are wrong, but do have the means to make them right.

Things I did Right Without Knowing It:

Keep your bad news to yourself. Spread your good news around.

Laugh sometimes.

Tell the class you love them.

Ask for money and sometimes you will get it. The words "Title 1 school in Brownsville" open more doors than you might think.

Listen to people who have been doing this job longer than you have.

Do not argue with anyone who has the power to make your life more difficult.

Don't grade everything.

Learn how to fix the copy machine.

And so, this, I suppose, ends my internet experiment. This page will stay up, but it probably won't change after today. I am ready to get back to writing in private. Many thanks to all who have been following along - your words of support have meant more than you know.

Class dismissed.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Prom and Problems

The art teacher was absent, to begin with. Plus, there were blocks in the room. What did they think would happen? Unfortunately for my favorite little hooligans, one of the blocks thrown during the commotion hit the unfortunate substitute. So, confessions were made, friends were ratted out, “senior” (8th grade) trips were taken away, and then, the bomb was dropped. Five of my kids can’t go to their big 8th grade prom unless their mothers (or grandmothers, as the case may be) want to come too. For the first time all year, I saw tears from some of my toughest students. So the tension was thick when the accused parties walked back into my class from their meeting with the guidance counselor.

Clearly, the DBQ (Document Based Question – an essay) I had planned wasn’t happening, so I ended up just reading to them to calm them down, and then let them write in their journals about what had happened. Amazingly, many of the angriest kids snatched up their pens and wrote until the end of the period. One girl took up a whole page talking about how she hates “FONY people – and that’s what all the people at this school are – FONY!!!” It’s nice for them to know that writing can be an outlet for their frustration.

Today I felt like a real teacher for a while as we finished the DBQ from yesterday and continued reading Warriors Don’t Cry – an excellent memoir written by one of the Little Rock Nine. My kids can’t stop gasping as worse and worse things happen to the protagonist. In yesterday’s chapter, a white segregationist tried to hit her with a stick of dynamite. Today, girls tossed flaming toilet paper into her hair while holding her prisoner in a bathroom stall, and then a boy threw acid into her eyes. Maybe not as tough as losing your prom privileges, but it gets my kids’ attention.

I can’t seem to stop teaching Brown vs. The Board of Ed. Ever since one of my students, who was doing her project on it, erroneously wrote that the decision was the reason she couldn’t go to school with white kids, I’ve been trying to make the point that after all that people have done to fight for integration, I’m still the only white kid in our classroom. “Look around,” I keep telling them, “Does this look like an integrated classroom to you?” Well, yes, they say, we’re all from different cultures – some Guyanese, some West Indian, some born right down the street in Brookdale Hospital. We have light skinned and dark skinned black people here.

I find myself talking to them about re-segregation almost as if I think that they can fix the system. It’s not that I necessarily want them to want to go to school with other people. “But it’s sort of a shame,” I find myself saying. “Here we are in the most diverse city in the world…”
I don’t know really know what else to say.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Game

I'm sitting with the guidance counselor facing six young troublemakers and I realize that I have now become the great oppressor. I'm threatening kids with the prom.

"School is a game just like anything else," I'm telling them, "and at this point in the year, you know the rules. Do you know the rules? Yes, you do. Well, now it's play or get played, kids. So if you don't want to go to your 8th grade prom, then, please, keep acting like fools and sit back and watch us play you."

I almost quit my job today. For the first time all year, the thought crossed my mind that I could just walk out of my classroom (driven to near bedlam by my request that they read a "whack" book about the civil rights movement) and never come back again.

But I didn't. Instead, I taught 7th grade in the afternoon, and gave a big speech about why it's important to learn grammar. And - miracle - one usually diffident kid was nodding when I told them that my allowing them to go to 8th grade without knowing proper grammar would be like a basketball coach sending them out to play without ever having taught them the rules of the game. You could be a great athlete and still fail under those circumstances.

"Would that make me a good coach? No, it wouldn't. And if I didn't teach you the rules of writing, I wouldn't be a good teacher either. So, do this worksheet on nouns."

Tomorrow is another day.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

See? Stereotyping can lead to violence.

Here’s a great plan: let’s organize a whole-day rollerskating field trip and invite an entire middle school. Twelve-year-olds on wheels. Just what my nerves, recently frayed by weeks of Math test prep, need.

Though I predicted ten kids in tears within the first twenty minutes of this trip, it went far better than I had anticipated. (Granted, anyone with any discipline “points” had to stay back at school in uniform, while those who had never gotten in trouble or who had worked off their points by helping teachers got to skate in style.) Turns out, I’m better at rollerskating than most of my kids. I spent an entertaining hour with the dangerous skaters assigned to “time-out” at the edge of the rink. We took bets on how many kids would fall in the next five minute increment – the average was around seven.

Back at school, things were dragging. “We already took the test! Why do we still gotta do all this work?” This is what happens when you present a standardized exam as the be all and end all of education. Kids think school is over after they fill in the last bubble. In a way, they’re right – it’s been made pretty clear to me at the beginning of the year that my job consisted of getting them past those testing deadlines. Yes, there's a Social Studies test at year-end, but everybody (kids included) knows it doesn't count for anything. We're doing individual research projects (a region requirement for getting out of 8th grade) but that's our last big deadline.

So I was half-relieved when another teacher arrived at my door during first period to announce that the Assistant Principal had forgotten that some Gang Unit Police Officers were in the school today to talk to the kids about why they should stay out of the Bloods, Crips, Rollin 60s, Rollin 30s, the ACLU, etc. etc. Ok, kids – change of plans today – and I chalk up “presentation” on my blackboard agenda and take a seat.

The main presenting cop was a tall black man in a pinstripe suit. His partner, a portly white guy, hung back by the door for most of the two periods they spent with my 8th graders.

The presenter started by informing my kids that he was here from the D.O.E. and that he worked for the Chancellor’s office.

“Who’s the Chancellor?” a kid in the back wanted to know.

“He’s the boss of all the Principals of all the New York City schools.” For many kids, this guy was the highest authority figure they’d ever met.

He wanted to open with a few words about education. He said it was very important, and that the black community was failing at educating their kids. “It’s a sad state of affairs,” he said, “when I would tell my daughter that if she has trouble in her calculus class, she should find an Asian or Indian kid and ask that kid for help.”

At my desk, I bit my tongue in shock. My A.P., standing against the wall, said nothing.

“And why would I tell my daughter to ask an Asian child?” he asked my children.

“Because Asian people take school more seriously than we do.”

“Because Asian people are better at math.”

Holy shit, I thought, silently – still behind my desk. When my team leader came into the room, I called her over and whispered, "This presentation is all about how Asian people are smarter than Black people. What do I do?" Apparently, nothing.

The guy went on to make the points that he would rather be treated by Black doctors than by the Indian and Pakistani doctors at Kings County Hospital (“We shouldn’t hate them – they’ve had the same opportunities that we have – but everybody prefers their own – it’s not racist to say that.”)

Now, I’ve always thought that any comment that needs to be preceded by “I’m not racist but…” is circumspect, to say the least, but I also always thought that I’d react to direct racism when I saw it.

Instead, I just hid behind my desk while he told my kids that Koreans only hire other Koreans, Mexicans are hard workers, and that Haitians take education seriously. At this, my Haitian Assistant Principal smiled and volunteered, “I’m Haitian.” Jesus Christ.

When finally, as if in answer to my – still silent – prayers, the conversation actually turned to gangs, the guy was able to make some points about the history of the Crips and Bloods that surprised my wannabe gangsters. They were engaged, things seemed to have taken a turn for the better, and I relaxed a bit.

Then, the worst: “I can look around this classroom and tell who is going to end up in the penitentiary.” And -- now he’s looking at one (most improved!!) kid in particular, “They’re going to put pink lipstick and a wig on you when you get to Riker’s Island.”


As I – yes, still silently – watched so much of what I’d done with these kids seem to unravel, I tried to figure out why I wasn’t saying anything.

Was it because I thought it wasn’t actually that big of a deal?
Was I afraid to confront this man with a badge?
Was it because – except for the other cop in the room – I was the only white person?

I spent the afternoon talking to other teachers about what I should have done. Some – more experienced than I – said they would have confronted the guy in front of the class. Many said they might have been as shocked and confused as I was – especially if they were first year teachers with an administrator in the room. Still, I was kicking myself all weekend.

So this Monday we took a break from Anne Frank to talk about what boys say about girls and what girls say about boys. The different genders got to write big lists of assumptions on chart paper and then the opposing side got to cross out the things they disagreed with.

Then we got into small groups and rotated chart paper with labels at the top “White People,” “Black People,” “Arabs,” “Jamaicans,” (the kids chose the groups they wanted to discuss.) And the stereotypes flew:

People think that all Black people sell drugs.
People think that all White people are afraid to be fat and love plastic surgery.
People think that all Jamaican people smoke weed.
People think that all Arabic people work at corner stores.

“Now,” I tell them, “I wanted to talk about stereotypes today because we’re learning about what has happened throughout history when people judge other groups of people.” We review what groups were stereotyped by the Nazis and what happened during the Holocuast.

“But I also wanted to do this with you guys today because I thought that there were a lot of stereotypes being thrown around here on Friday.”

As soon as I said it, everything came out:

“Yeah – he said that only Asian people were good at math!”

“He looked at me when he said that he could tell who was going to jail!”

“He said they were going to put pink lipstick on me! That’s messed up.”

“You’re right.” I said, “That was messed up.” It was good to talk about it.

My kids wrote about times when they had witnessed or experienced bias or stereotyping. A couple of them wrote about the cop’s visit.

“He said you should ask an Asian kid for help. But really, I’m the top math student in the class, so you should ask me.”

One girl wrote about a visit to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens during which a tour guide had pointed out a cotton plant to her and said, “See that? That’s what your people used to pick.”

Another talked about how her mother had punched a white lady on the street who had called the girl’s little brother a racial epithet. “See?” she said, “Stereotyping can lead to violence.” It’s true.

They went home with an assignment to look for bias in the TV shows, commercials, movies, and music videos they watched over the next week. I left feeling a bit better.

After a meeting with my A. P., it’s been decided that she and I will meet with these officers before they present at our school again. If, after we observe their next presentation, we still see a problem (or really, if I still see a problem and she’s forced to accept it,) they won’t be back. And that makes me feel a little bit better too.

I still wish I had said something at the time, because it doesn't make me feel good enough to say – like I keep saying about everything that goes not-quite-right – "maybe next year."

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Over February break, I organized a trip for my students so that they wouldn't have to sit home and watch TV all day or go with their grandma to work and be really quiet while she does accupuncture.

We went to MoMA in midtown Manhattan. This meant taking the train over the Manhattan Bridge, which I love. The kids hated it.

"What if Osama Bin Laden comes?"

"What's that water down there? Is that the ocean?"

"Miss, I heard that the beach is where the ocean begins. Is that true? It is? I'm never going there again!"

The biggest hit of the day was the food - KFC before the museum and fruit shakes from a street vendor afterwards. In between, there was much debate as to what constituted "art" and why certain "whack" pieces had made it into the collection. "I could do that!" "Why is that art?"

We learned to read the information cards on the wall and not to touch the paintings. Or anything else. No, not that either.

My biggest eighth grader, 13 and 6 feet tall (and just got a basketball scholarship to a good private high school) took pictures with his cell phone of every naked body in the museum. As we rolled back across the bridge, he scrolled through all of them so he wouldn't have to look down.

We Real Cool.

It's poetry week in my eighth grade class and today we read Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool." Which, if it's been a while, goes like:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

"The poeple in this poem are gangsters because they dropped out of school and aren't afraid to die." "My brother is like this because he thinks it's cool to die but I don't think so." "I think this is about African-American kids because a lot of us drop out of school." "I think these people must be old because they drink gin. That's an old people drink."

We talk about what makes a poem a poem, and how words have to be carefully chosen. One girl, with whom I got into an argument yesterday about whether poetry has to rhyme, liked the word "lurk" especially. I saw her later in the day waiting around the corner so that her science teacher wouldn't see her as the class filed in. I said, "Why are you hiding back here?" and she said, "I'm not hiding, I'm lurking."

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Taking Stock

In Social Studies, the stock market is about to crash. As soon as we get back from next week's break, we're rushing headlong into the great depression.

Yesterday, we learned what stocks were. Today, we played the market.

I told my class that each person had one share of stock in the class. That share was worth the same amount as the class's section sheet score (1 to 5 -- but for our purposes, it could keep going up and up if they were good.)

That share could also be "sold" for as many candies as its value. We started out at five. A few people, thinking either of their class's history of bad behavior or their hunger, sold out immediately.

We went as high as eight, and a few of the smartest or luckiest sold then. A few even invested half of their winnings back into the market, betting that the class would get more quiet after S. and A. were pulled out for math help.

At the beginning of third period, I warned them, like a good broker, that the class's behavior usually got worse and worse as lunch approached, and, though we were only at a five, it might be best to cut their losses and sell now. Those who held on until the end were not pleased to receive only four candies. That's investing, I suppose.

Grad. School Homework

My mostly worthless four hour long education class requires weekly lesson plans and reflections. Here's what my seventh graders did yesterday, and what I rambled on about it:


January 14, 2006

Aim: How does war affect families?

Do Now: Have you ever been accused of doing something that you didn’t really do? Explain what happened.

Read Aloud: beginning of Ch. 12

Reading Workshop: Students read the rest of Chapter 12 and complete guided reading questions.

WW: sitting with your groups, begin to plan your short story books. First, you should plan each page and write or draw in pencil – then, have someone check your work and give you suggestions, then go back and complete your book in pen – adding illustrations, pictures, or whatever else you’d like to use.

HW: Write sentences with vocabulary words.


My seventh grade class does not get my best work. I see them for two periods after they have just eaten lunch, and I have usually not. The heat in our room is always on full blast and the temperature is usually around 80 degrees. Requests to go get water are constant and understandable. I could open the window or turn on the air-conditioner, and I do, while we’re reading, but while I am talking or reading or while the class is discussing our work, this makes the classroom too noisy. So we usually sweat it out.

This is an advanced class, and they think that parts of our new novel, My Brother Sam is Dead , are interesting, but mostly, it’s just “whack.” Still, we are all relieved not to be doing test-prep anymore.

Sadly, because I can count on this class to be relatively on task if they are assigned to read the book on their own for thirty minutes or so, I regularly ask them to do this. The problem with a school culture that frowns on students taking books home (with lost and/or unread books to back up this frowning) means that we have to read the whole book during class time. When I was a student I remember reading at home and discussing in class, but maybe I am remembering high school. (In seventh grade, I actually do remember reading Where the Red Fern Grows in class, because I know a friend of mine cried when the dogs died.)

At any rate, this lesson went relatively well. The kids are excited to have written short stories and to be putting them into blank books (a school-wide contest of some sort that has been mandated from on high but never fully explained to me,) and they are always excited to work with art supplies.

I got a few complaints that the book was “whack” during reading time, and the usual five minutes were taken out to explore my budding (in their heads) relationship with the new math teacher – speculation about my personal life is constant and creative – but for the most part, students were willing to take the time necessary to read the book and answer the guided reading questions.

Unfortunately, Sam needs to die before mid-winter break so that we can move on with our lives afterwards, which means that many of my students will be encountering his execution today, while I’m out at a doctor’s appointment. I was loathe to leave them alone with this tragic turn of events and a substitute to boot, but we’ll just have to discuss the horrors of war when I return.

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