Thursday, June 30, 2005

Let me at 'em.

After two exciting but grueling weeks with the same thirty future educators in the same stuffy classroom, I'm ready to get out into the public school wilderness and wield all this heady new educational theory I've picked up.

Bring me children, and I will teach them to question their particular realities, but not the rules of my classroom.

All of this sounds fine in the vacuum of our inexperienced discussion groups - no, really, it actually does - but I can't help but feel that classroom discussions among my peers will get a hell of a lot more interesting once we get some actual face time with the students who, after all, were supposed to be the reason we took this job.

So I'm looking forward to Tuesday, when I begin my summer-long stint as a student teacher.

I'll be cutting my teeth at a small public academy in the troubled East New York neighborhood. This isn't the school where I'll teach next fall, but it is the place where kids from that school go for the summer if they fail their classes or their end of grade tests.

From what I've heard so far, summer school is tough on everybody: the students who have to give up half a day of cartoon time, the teachers who are faced with an entire classroom of kids who have just been told that they are failures, and the district who (Please, God) has to pay to keep the air-conditioning running through July.

But in a way, I'm glad I'll be thrown into a difficult situation from the beginning. Some of these kids may show up in my class on September 8th, so I'm going to pretend that they all will, and try to start being the teacher I've said I want to be right away. I'm looking at this as a bonus month of orientation.

After all, it wouldn't hurt if, on the first day of my class, a kid who'd known me all July leaned over to her neighbor and said, "Oooh, I had her in summer school. She was hard."

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

District 23, a brief history

We had a sudden T-storm (fun to say aloud) in the city today, and all the skinny black girls on Flatbush Avenue and the rich old white ladies on 5th Avenue were ducking around with grocery bags on their heads - trying to save their hair-dos. In my teacher training, we've been talking a bit about reconciling cultural differences; maybe these women are already doing this, whether they know it or not.

I have now been the property of the New York Department of Education for about three days, and I'm feeling surprisingly content. My F.A. proved much more likable on the second day of class, and my education professor, who will teach me from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon for the next two weeks, is pretty much a godsend.

The man is a bottomless well of useful information. He knows everything from what to do if a kid throws a baseball at your head (as Mr. Sydney Poitier did in the clip from "Blackboard Jungle" that we watched in class today) to the entire history of the New York public school system - from its formation in the 1840's to today's new Regents requirements.

Turns out, my Professor was a first year teacher in Brooklyn once too, only he started in 1968, the year that the city gave the primarily minority Brownsville neighborhood autonomous control of its schools - the neighborhood board had the power to spend money and to hire and fire teachers as the community saw fit. This power was promptly taken away when the community tried to transfer out a few white teachers who had been very vocal in their disagreement with the new power structure.

The result was a massive standoff between the United Federation of Teachers (the union to which I now belong,) who wanted the white teachers back in the school, and the community leaders, who wanted their children to learn from teachers who supported the community's right to control its own places of learning.

After the standoff ended in a stalemate - the communities were given almost all the power, except the power of the purse and the power to hire or fire teachers, which meant the situation was almost worse than before - thousands of people marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to demonstrate at City Hall in support of community-run schools.

All this happened in District 23, and this district, where children once had to cross picket lines to get to school, and where my Professor once taught in a Freedom School, also happens to be where I'll be teaching come September.

So it is invaluable to have this man's background knowledge and his practical optimism. He knows every subway stop in the borough, and manages to make "You're not teaching English, you're teaching Children," sound totally new, and I am grateful for that.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Boot Camp, Day One

I and 1799 other new teachers gathered this afternoon in Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center to see the usual symphony orchestra replaced by third graders with violins, high schoolers with steel drums and stilts, and a parade of the city's education officials, speeches in hand. The chancellor of Education said that he wanted to kiss all of us, even the guys.

Today I heard several students speak to the question, "What makes a good teacher?" The answer seems to be pizza party related. I also learned that I am now in a Union when a rather angry woman took the stage to demand that I be paid more.

And I caught a glimpse of just how tired I'm going to be this year when, after speaker after speaker after high school step team after speaker had finally left the stage, I was tossed a bag of pretzels and told not to stop for dinner on my way to my first Fellows Advisory (F.A.) meeting.

In the throng of bright eyed do gooders, it was amazing how many faces I recognized. There was the girl with the great suit I'd seen at the placement fair - now wearing the same pants, different shirt. There was a guy who had been in my original interview group, and who had taught a great lesson on adjectives, and another I recognized because he'd had the interview before me for a high school position.

And, even more amazing, after I had located my F.A. meeting and eaten the whole bag of pretzels (which I happen to hate,) the woman standing in the front of the room was the same one who had originally interviewed me for the fellowship.

On that day last winter, I'd thought she was a little brusque and a little loud and a lot rules-oriented. But I was also nervous and so sort of appreciated the structure and the stopwatch she brought to the interview.

I have to say, though, I was chagrinned to see the stopwatch come out again today, and more than a little put off by the fact that, after forcing us to play exactly six minutes of "Human Bingo" as an ice-breaker, she went down the list of "getting to know you" bingo questions and asked people to raise their hands if something applied to them. Then we were to introduce ourselves and give our name and where and what we were teaching.

First of all, we were all in the same group because we were all teaching English in Brooklyn. Second of all, she yelled at anyone who gave any other information about themselves. It was bizarre.

She'd pick a trait from the bingo card, like "people who are coming to teaching as a second career," but when someone raised her hand and said, "My name is so and so and I am teaching English in Brooklyn and I used to work in P.R." she'd counter with, "See? Now I am getting information that I did not ask for. This is just the type of thing that your students are going to do to you. I'm just trying to prepare you for the fact that your students are not going to follow directions."

The whole thing served to reinforce what I've been hearing for some time now: that students decide within the first minutes of class whether or not they are going to respect the teacher or put forth much effort at all. Five minutes in, and I was doodling "Life Sucking" next to "Human Bingo" on my list of the things we'd be doing during the period.

I was feeling myself slump in my seat and pull away - just like I used to do when I had a teacher whose rules seemed pointless or who seemed more interested in how big the margins of my paper were than in what was written in it.

But I am trying to use that frustration to figure out how I don't want students to react to me. I'm also attempting to remain open-minded. After all, stopwatch or no, this woman has a lot more experience teaching than I do, and she has promised to get me ready for September 8th.

All in all, a fruitful day. I am now proud owner of a Teaching Fellows tote bag, a few books on classroom methods, and a spot in a thirty-person support group that has spent exactly four minutes committing ourselves to a "Culture of Excellence."

Tomorrow: grad. school.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Job: check.

So now I've finally caught up to the present, which is a tiny sublet in Greenwich Village - I'm about ten feet from Washington Square Park - and a new job teaching middle school.

I moved in just a few days ago, and I'm starting to settle back into the rhythms of subway travel and overpriced grocery runs. Every dollar I spend is breaking my budget, but I stopped for a New York Times this morning, early, on my way out to a school in Brooklyn.

The weather forecast: Hot.

The school I was visiting: Un Air Conditioned.

So I had sweat running down my forehead by the time I got up in front of the class I was observing. The teacher decided to let twenty four eager seventh graders - each of whom has about a fifty percent chance of having me as a teacher next year - interview me.

"What grade are you going to teach again?"

"Are you going to be hard?"

"How do you feel about fighting? I mean, if someone is hitting you and beating you up, shouldn't you fight back?"

"Where did you go to college?"

"If my cell phone rings in class, and it's my mom and I really need to get it, will you take it away from me?"

"Can I have it back at the end of the day?"

"Do you like us so far?"

"Have you ever taught before?"

And then, the kicker:

"How old are you?"

I was going to add a couple years, at least, but the real teacher cut me off:

"She's old enough to be your teacher, and that's all you need to know."

So then I got marched down to the principal's office and offered a job, which I gladly accepted. this school has been my first choice throughout the placement process; I get a good feeling from the students and teachers I've met so far. So that's that then.

In about a week, I'll start my grad. school classes and my summer boot camp teacher training sessions. For now, I am taking time off to celebrate the fact that, for a few more days, I have nothing at all to do.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Talking in class.

I sat in on a ninth grade English class taught by a Fellow - a nervous, balding, bespectacled Fellow - who seemed tired. He had scribbled a writing assignment on the board:

"What do you like and dislike about your neighborhood?"

"How come you never answer these questions?" the girl in front of me asked. Her teacher sighed.

"I like that my neighborhood is close to Central Park, and what I don't like about it is that it's too expensive. Ok?"

And then, among his exasperated "speak up please"-es, the class read their answers.

"I like that, when you're from my neighborhood, you can represent."

"I don't like all the crack-heads and drug dealers in my neighborhood."

"I like that there's a lot to do in my neighborhood, but I don't like that they closed my favorite basketball court."

All the while, I slumped in a back row desk, trying not to feel like a ninth-grader.

The same talkative girl in front of me turned around to whisper,

"Are you gonna work here next year?"

I glanced at the teacher and tried to make it quick,


"Did you teach high school where you moved from?"

"Yes." (Lie.)


I told her the name of my high school. It just came out.

Then her teacher called her name and she whispered,

"I hope I get you," and turned back around. Trusting kid. Little does she know that I'm not going to allow whispering in class.

Through the metal detector.

Luckily, I had driven to the city, brought an extra pair of interview pants, and was staying with a most accomodating friend, so I could afford to stick around for an extra day. The next morning, I got a call from an eighth grade teacher at another school where the principal had seemed to like me, so now I had two schools to visit.

After wandering the wrong way for a bit through the Cypress Hills neighborhood, I finally found the first school on my list - a high school. Turns out, taking off your shoes when you go through the metal detector is just for airports. The security guard in the school's lobby had to call on her walkie talkie to the guard upstairs to let her know I was coming up to the second floor.

(Back at my high school, I used to be able to wander out of class, pick up orders of Bojangle's chicken and biscuits for all of my friends, and make it back in before the substitute noticed me missing. Guess that kind of stuff doesn't fly in Brooklyn.)

After I had found my way to his office, the school's Vice Principal for English took me on a tour. This involved him unlocking classroom doors at random and barging in on some surprised teachers and students, and then making loud comments like,

"So, this is a tenth grade English class. They seem to be working in groups at the moment. Ms. So and So is one of our better teachers - oh, and she's a Teaching Fellow too! Maybe you can talk to her after class! Ms. So and So, come over here."

He didn't seem to see any problem with this, but it made me pretty uncomfortable to be thrust into the front of twenty-five surprised looking kids and some slightly annoyed teachers.

"Step on in," he kept having to tell me, and I mumbled, "Sorry for the interruption," as I shook the teachers' hands.

A few seemed to welcome the break, but others seemed to think this was some kind of surprise inspection.

In one classroom, students were walking around at random, all talking. When we burst through the door, the harried looking teacher started screaming at them about some assignment they were supposed to be working on. The Vice Principal gave a few kids a look and told them to sit down. They seemed not to have thought of that.

"She's one of our weaker teachers," the VP told me as we left the classroom. "But we're supporting her, and she's getting better." I didn't say that I'd hate to have seen her classroom in September, but it must have been ugly.


So now it falls to me to find a school in Region 5 that needs an inexperienced white girl to teach Secondary School English (my assigned subject area.) A few days ago, I trekked up to the city to attend a placement fair at a middle school. Principals or administrators from the three districts in my region had distributed themselves among the classrooms like prizes on a TV game show. Behind door number one, a beleaguered guy from Queens who smirked at my resume and told me about his failed high school.

"The city is shutting it down," he said, "restarting from scratch. And I gotta tell you - you seem like an intellectual, and these kids, well, these are very very needy kids," who are going to eat you alive, his face said. Great.

But by the end of my five minute interview, I'd convinced him, if not myself as well, with the same script I've been giving everyone who asks me why I'm doing this:

Ahem. I want to tackle something really hard - to do something that'll jolt me out of this easy college lifestyle I've developed. That's why I chose this program - I didn't want to teach at some private school - I wanted to challenge myself. I think I'll be able to manage a classroom well because I understand the importance of setting strict boundaries on the first day and sticking to them rather than putting out fires for the rest of the year. (Here I joke that maybe I'll get my hair cut really short, maybe get some fake glasses so I look more teacher-ish. -- Not a joke. Already happened. ) Oh, and I've worked with elementary and middle schoolers before, so high school is something I'm excited to try.

A few more lines about how I went to public school and blah blah blah I believe in the public school system and I've pretty much got principals as pals. Actually, it is dishearteningly easy.

One assistant principal grilled me on what book by an African author I would assign to tenth graders, and was so satisfied with my answer of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (which I'm pretty sure is standard for tenth graders everywhere,) that he invited me to visit his school the very next day.

What you've missed.

To bring us up to speed, a brief recap:

This past spring, while some of my college friends bemoaned their lack of job options, or work ethic, or both, and some others kicked back, assured of thier spots at top I. Banks or Important Consulting Firms, I was working up a practice lesson and interviewing with principals and programs. The first job I landed was a yearlong, all expenses paid position teaching third graders at a private academy in the Dominican Republic.

Let's pause here an imagine me shepherding well-behaved eight year olds across a white sand beach, enjoying my comp-ed apartment, working on my Spanish and my tan, and question my sanity for what I doubt will be the last time. Go ahead. Question it. But teaching wealthy kids English didn't exactly serve my recent-college-grad idealism, so I said, "Gracias, pero no," to the Dominican school.

I also turned down an offer from Teach for America that would have sent me to a high school in Newark, New Jersey. I nixed this job mostly because I'd already been accepted to the New York City Teaching Fellows program.

I was taking a gamble - hoping that the NYC Fellows would place me in Brooklyn rather than the Bronx, either of which, frankly, seemed preferable to Newark. My bet paid off when I was assigned to Region 5, a large swatch of purple on the educational district map encompassing East Brooklyn and some of Queens - mostly places I'd seen on the subway map but never visited.

People kept telling me that Teach for America was a more prestigious program, or that it offered more support, or that the Dominican was certainly beautiful this time of year, but the restless Southerner in me had her heart set on a first real New York City apartment.

"I can't really explain it," I told a friend, "but I get the feeling that if I'm not living in New York, I'm not really starting my life."

Joan Didion explained this feeling best in her essay Goodbye to All That:

"Was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was."

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