One Day, All Children

Teach for America’s mission is that one day all children will receive an excellent education across America, no matter their zip code or economic/racial background.  This is a mission that I believe in and have for quite some time now.

TFA has spread their mission and made it into a huge movement.  Thousands of teachers have gone through TFA and continued on to become principals, education reform leaders and more.  Even those who are no longer in teaching, I am convinced, have a few of those babies still in their heart that drive their day to day work.  (How the hell could they not?)

As we go through training, corps members hear several stories from alum about their students and their experience- from the challenges to the amazing growth of students who beat the odds.  The focus is on the achievement gap and this huge movement of closing it.  We want our mission to be real.

I don’t disagree with the mission.  In fact, as I mentioned, I believe in it with very piece of me.  Why else would I go to work every day?  My issue, however, is that I feel as if we are supposed to be so focused on this mission that we do not break.  It’s as if we should have the achievement gap and the horrendous inequalities of public education on our mind daily to drive us.  Duh, you might be thinking, right?  Well…when you go through day-to-day like I do it’s hard to remember.

I am a human.  I don’t always use best practices and sometimes, unfortunately, I yell at my students.  Sometimes I say things that shouldn’t be said and use words that I shouldn’t use.  I lose my cool.  However, I do not always feel comfortable being transparent about this with TFA, or many of my colleagues.

Another reason that this undying focus on closing the gap bothers me is because it’s hard for me to always think of my students as underserved youth who are getting a less-than-excellent education. Instead I see other things– I see Dabrelle who is smart and innocent and has been asking to read Dracula for weeks; I see LeJuan who only does school work when he is sitting in my rolling chair and when the left light switch is off (not to be confused with the right), I see Reginald who can’t stop beating and tapping his fingers like drums; I see Janee who knows way more than she should about the world; I see Broddrick who is incredibly charming and sweet- even though no one would ever guess; I see Darrell who, despite his ankle bracelet, wants to be a vet.  I do not see them for their low reading levels and poor math skills.  I know that they are behind.  I know that there is an achievement gap because I face it every day.  I know that a lot of my students are overage.  I know that many are living in poverty when they go home.  But the thought of One Day, All Children does not drive me in the moment.  ‘One Day,’ a term often used for magnificent teaching, does not happen in my classroom.  But, for a 10 hours a day, I hope my students feel that they are valued as humans.

To me, the meaning of One Day, All Children has changed.  When I think about One Day I will forever remember my 8th graders and their amazing and unique selves and hoping that they are achieving their One Day.

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Rumors and Ignorance…or Maybe Starved For Kindness

I teach middle school.  7th and 8th grade are rumor pools.  It’s like that everywhere- whether you are at a suburban school in Maine, a prep school in NYC or an underserved school in east New Orleans.  7th and 8th graders love drama.  The latest on who is going with who, who did what last weekend and so on.  The worst is that as the adult, I sometimes get sucked into it as well.  It’s hard not too.  You can either yell at and consequence the kids who are talking when you are talking and shut them down for the day…or you can quietly go up to them, ask what is going on, enlighten them for 5 minutes and get them back to work.  After all, they just can’t help it.

This is all fine and good, except when the rumors go too far.

I recently went through the ups and downs of thinking that one of my babies (the term I used for the students in my homeroom who have become just that…my babies..) was seriously injured in a shooting, then he was dead, then he was fine, then he was back to being injured–as the rumor wheel turned and turned.  I was up all night trying to remember if I had said goodbye to him before break, regretting all the times I had yelled at him and that one time I wrote him up, thinking about the time I sat with him watching rap battles on his phone (he wasn’t supposed to have his phone but I wanted to bond with him).  I woke up this morning hoping it was a dream.

Then I got a call from a colleague that it was all untrue.  The kid just wanted to see “who would care if he was gone.”  Then I got another call that no, he was actually hurt.  By this point I just wanted to know something.  I wanted to know so I could then decide how to feel.

So the final answer was that this boy is fine and well (thank god).  And that a girl, one of his friends, started the whole mess.  Are you kidding?  So much ran through my mind, after, of course, I took a deep breath that my baby was fine.  First of all, why do my students do that to other people.  Why have they not been taught that it is a bad thing to mess with peoples’ emotions.  Why do they think their teachers would not care?  People on the ‘outside’ who don’t do this everyday would get mad.  Angry that someone would make them feel so badly.  Bitter that kids messed with their feelings.  But because these are my kids, who I spend more time with than anyone else in my life, I feel sad.  Sad for them.  It hurts my heart to think that these children (they are children…no matter how we cut it or how tall they may be) are so ignorant (for lack of a better word).  Screw reading and writing levels…my kids are behind in much more than that.  There are foundational skills in being a human, a kind, caring, compassionate person that my students haven’t learned and, frankly, haven’t felt from others.

There is a sign on my door that has hung throughout the year- the white poster is browning and the corners are starting to turn.  It says, in my own handwriting “BE KIND.”  It is a reminder to everyone who enters my room that I value kindness and love.  Ironically, most everyone I have hung has been pulled down and ripped except this banner.

Each morning it also reminds me that my students need me.  At the very least, they need to me to be kind.

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High Stakes Testing- Worse for Students or Teachers?

I grew up in a suburban town and went to public schools for allof my schooling.  While my schools were not nationally ranked public schools, they were wonderful and, at times, fit the stereotypical schools in the movies: not a lot of diversity, lockers lining the hall, football games, books, big cafeteria, etc.  My teachers were absolutely amazing and I had a plethora of classes to choose from, including beaucoups (french turned NOLA slang word for a lot) AP classes.  I had all the resources I needed, including a guidance counselor for college, computers and even a gym to work out in after school.  I was able to gain a great education, wonderful life experiences and many lessons from my school.  But never, ever was I subjected to state standardized test anxiety.  Yes, I took them, but I was always encourages that my best would be enough for these tests.  I actually enjoyed these tests because they got me out of the daily grind of school.

There are enough differences between my schooling experiences and my students’ to create an entirely different blog, but lately I have noted test anxiety as a big one.  As an 8th grade ELA teacher, I teach in perhaps one of the most high-stakes situations.  Not only do these tests count DOUBLE towards my school’s SPS score (aka the score that categorizes my school as a failing one), but my students must pass the test in order to pass to the 9th grade.  If they do not pass this standardized test (the LEAP), then they are considered not ready for high school and automatically fail, in which case they have 3 options: summer school, stay back (many of my kids have already stayed back due to the hurricane or bad behavior or…failing the LEAP in the 4th grade) or go to high school as an 8.5 grader (aka humiliating remediation).

What’s worse…this test, the LEAP, is considered a joke in other places around the country.  While my students experience huge amounts of pressure about passing this test, others scoff at it as an “easy” test that does not measure up with the rest of the country (which is true).

I never could have imagined the type of pressure put on these kids.  Unfortunately, I am guilty of squawking the LEAP countdown or telling students they better listen or “they won’t pass.”  My kids have watched a sign on the board go from 50 days to 30 and now to 5 days until the LEAP.  It has been a daily reminder for them that they are here to pass the test.  Our world has revolved around the LEAP so much that my 8th graders, who are in school from 8am to 5pm no longer get recess or PE because they must do test prep.  Their benchmark scores showed that they weren’t quite where they should be, so they no longer have social studies or science.  They have math and ELA all day instead.  All of this in order to get them ready for a test.

But as a teacher, the pressure I feel is also astonishing.  Not only is the state, district and administration breathing down my back to get these kids ready, the stakes have become so high that I find myself suddenly waking up from a deep sleep and worrying.  How am I going to get Wayne ready to read during the test even though he is grade levels behind in reading, or what will Demond do when he is finished because if he talks his test is invalidated, or how will Mya pass when she hasn’t paid attention in weeks, or if Leome will remember literary devices or if Brian will take the test seriously or just circle random answers, like he is guilty of doing.  I have dreams about administering the test.  I worry about how many of my kids will fail…not because I care about my school’s SPS or what the district will think.  I worry because if my kids fail that means I, as a teacher, did not do my job for them.

For weeks I have felt like an instructionally horrible teacher because all my students do is test prep packets.  I do not remember ‘test prep’ ever, unless it was for the final.  And it was called review.  My students are drilled daily with released LEAP questions, boring passages and multiple choice questions about something we simply never learned.  But, when it comes down to it, these children are so far behind that they need the drilling.  They need to know test taking skills (aka read the questions first then look for them in the passage) because, in reality, they are going to look at the test and shut down when they see the first 2 page passage.  Then when it comes time to grade these darn packets I start to freak out at how poorly my students are doing.  Probably because they never had a lesson on poem rhyme or ALL the literary devices, but rather learned them in two minutes by reading the test prep packet notes.

I hope that one day my students (and I) don’t have to go through this.  But right now, we do.  So we might as well work as hard as we can copying those packets.

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It’s a tough world….but school doesn’t have to be that way.

The world is tough.  It’s unfair.  It’s cruel.  There are bad people who do bad things.  Bad things happen for no reason at all.  There are inequities.  People get screwed over.  We know this.  People have written books, movies and newspaper articles telling us about this.  And yes, it is true.

And I have been told not to worry about these kids and not to be nice to them because, well, the world won’t.  And then there’s the key line that I love, “Especially for the black boys.”   I have given a lot of thought to this.  I (and some other teachers who work with me- you know who are are) am considered “too nice” and people say I “care too much” because I am frustrated when  my day doesn’t go well, when scores are down or when my students act out.  I cry.  I show my students love, even when they don’t return it.  I recently realized why…

I have two choices.  I can show my students that the world sucks so that they can continue the pattern of society.  Or, I can show them that there are good things in our world.  There IS kindness.  There are successes.  When you work hard good things will come.  You don’t have to follow what the people before you did.  I can show that they have a lot to be confident about.  I choose the second one.  I choose to love my students even when they are demons.  I choose to care when they aren’t in school.  I choose to spend extra time helping a student who, 5 minutes before, cursed me out.  My students already know the world is tough.  They probably know it better than I do.

What they don’t know is that they have so much to live for.  They don’t know how to care or show compassion.  They don’t know how it feels to achieve a goal.  They don’t know that a tap on the shoulder doesn’t mean I want to fight, but that I care.  They get mad at me for saying good morning.  “Why you always so jolly” one student said to me one morning.  (NO ONE in my life has ever said I was jolly in the morning…)  As their teacher, I refuse to not care because “the world doesn’t care.”  That’s exactly the problem: the world doesn’t care about my black males so they are 4 grade levels behind in reading.  The world doesn’t care about lower income people so they live in bad neighborhoods.  The world doesn’t care.


But I do.  And someday, I hope that when the world gets tougher for my students they will remember that.

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“Why should we waste our time on this kid?”

Well…let me tell you why…

-maybe its because one of my students died this year and another one is in prison.  And countless are in juvi.  I don’t want to lose any more of them.

-maybe because my 8th graders haven’t gotten a fair chance since they were born and it’s time to start.

-maybe because my kids don’t know how to show kindness.  Or love.  Or respect.

-maybe its because of the people who have decided not to waste their time that my students are 2, 3, 4 or 5 grade levels behind in reading.

-maybe because my students think they have nothing to lose and I want them to know they actually have everything to gain.

-maybe because my students don’t believe in themselves and are surprised when I believe in them.

-maybe because that one moment when that one kid actually DOES get it, it makes everything worth it.

-maybe it’s because they are our future.

-maybe it’s the achievement gap.

-maybe I’m crazy.

-maybe it’s because I give my students a fresh start every day and forget about what happened yesterday.

-maybe it’s because my students have dreams that I want to see come true.

-maybe it’s because I have a responsibility.

-maybe it’s because my students don’t all go home to a home cooked meal and a safe place and for 10 hours I get to give them safety and love.

-maybe it’s because they are children, not a waste of time or even a use of time, but amazing beings that deserve the best.

-maybe it’s because there’s no time to waste with these students; they’ve been wasting time for 8 years.

-maybe it’s because I believe in myself.

-maybe it’s because I owe it to them to put my best effort into the day.

-maybe it’s because I expect so much from my kids, why shouldn’t they expect the best from me?

-maybe it’s because I want to prove you wrong.

-maybe it’s because you haven’t seen how much Brian has progressed this year.

-maybe it’s because Wayne didn’t tell you that you’re his favorite teacher.

-maybe it’s because you don’t really understand what goes on in Room #306.

-maybe it’s because Darrell stood up for me when another students was being disrespectful to me.

-maybe it’s because Roland wouldn’t do any work without my patience.


…Until you can come up with 25 good reasons to waste my time, I will continue working myself harder than I ever imagine.  Never, ever tell me that one of my students is a waste.  Ever.  Again.

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Why We Work So Hard…And Why We Need To Work Harder.

My 8th graders have experienced firsthand two prime examples of what can happen to them…in the same week.  The events even happened on the same god damn day.

As mentioned, I recently experienced a teacher’s worst nightmare and had to bury a student.  I thought nothing more could happen.  I thought I had experienced it all.  There would be no more surprises and I could finally buckle down and focus on the the LEAP, my students’ upcoming high-stakes state test.  We have work to do.

Then I heard news that hit me harder than I ever thought possible.

The back story: last week a crime occurred just blocks from my house.  A woman was raped, beaten, abducted and robbed from her home by three men.  While she did not die, the descriptions of what they did made death sound better (not to be crude).  Well, one of the three “men” (they are actually boys) was my student, Sheldon.  Another was another student’s older brother.  Sheldon is 15 years old.  The other two were 16 and 18.  All are being tried as adults and currently in prison (not juvi- county prison) on $1.5 million bail.

When I heard this news my heart sunk out of my body.  We, as teachers and mentors, talk about these sort of statistics everyday.  We preach to our students, especially our African-American males, that if they don’t get it together they will “end up in one of two places.”  It seems as if they are empty threats at times and the students (and us) have an attitude that “it will never happen to me.”  While these statistics are trusted and, yes, true- I never thought I would have to stare them in the face of my student.  Sheldon was involved in such a horrifying crime that he’s probably locked up for life.  Hell, I have taught my students lessons about the schools-to-prison pipeline.  I have told them the numbers and read them the articles.  I have showed them the youtube videos and inspiring movies.  But, now I stare at the mugshot of my student.  My kid standing there in an orange suit.

What’s even more, Sheldon was a student who gave me the first taste of where I actually was and how real my job was early in September when he tried to steal my personal laptop from my classroom.  For the first time I saw these students as different than the boys I went to middle school with.  I think most would have understood if I had written Sheldon off as one that was beyond help.  But, the opposite happened.  I spoke with Sheldon and forgave him.  I didn’t want this to ruin our year together.  I made even MORE of an effort to work with this boy.  I never doubted that I could help him and that he would get it together.  As a teacher, there is no room for doubts or grudges.  There’s work to be done and help to give.

Over the next few months Sheldon and I developed a positive relationship and he began to progress.  I will never, ever forget the afternoon that he came to me privately and asked for his schoolwork for the next month.  When I asked why he meekly told be that he was going “up the river.”  Astonished, I asked him what he did.  He answered even more meekly, “I violated probation and failed three drug tests.”  I slapped him upside the head and told him how he was better than that.  I feel like this moment embodies our relationship.  I had become close enough with this student to be dead honest with him.

I gave him a notebook and told him to journal while he was in juvi.  That would be his assignment.  I expected to see him in a month and to pick up where we left off.  I had high hopes for Sheldon and imagined him as a success story.

Months passed before I saw him again.  He was in the office at school hoping to be let back.  They didn’t let him back.  I never saw him again.  But I thought about him.  I missed him.

I am sharing this story to remind everyone, teachers and non-teachers, why the work we do (any work with children) is so important.  My first year has had its share of ups and (mostly) downs.  I could easily give up, take a personal day, or show movies just to keep my kids quiet.  I wouldn’t be the first to do so.  THis job is hard.  Harder than anyone who doesn’t do it could imagine.  The kids can drive you to your breaking point and then do it again and again (all in one class period sometimes).  And yes, we all talk about the inspiring successes (see my post about Wayne).  There’s the moments when our students remind us why we teach- maybe they thank you or a light bulb goes off or they get an A for the first time (ever).  But I also want Sheldon’s story to inspire.  I wish I could have gotten to him.  I wish I could have made him a statistic proved wrong. I will forever wish that.

And because I wish I had done more, I am going to do more for the students who are still with me.  For the ones who walk in every morning.  For Reginald who is just plain mean.  For Demond who is so darn smart but doesn’t even know it.  For LeJuan who tries to act tough but actually wants to make it.  For Broddrick who has trouble reading.  For Jazmine who I swear some days is just there to DRIVE ME NUTS!  They all deserve to prove the horrible numbers wrong.  And if I don’t do it, who will?

I can’t have another Sheldon story.  One is one too many.

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Hug Your Students Today

I have heard parents speak over and over about the worst fear of theirs being losing a child.  I have seen parents who have lost a child grieve.  I have experienced people important to me dying (thank god- not that many).

I do not have children.  But I am a teacher.  My students are my kids.  Yes, I have 100.  Yes, they are not mine.  I did not raise them.  They make me mad- sometimes to the point that I do not want to have my own.  BUT, I refer to them as my babies.  And yes, I do love them.  For more than 8 hours a day they are mine.  They give me the highest of highest and the lowest of lows.

So as a teacher, it is my worst fear to lose one of my students.  And last night I did.  As a first year teacher…or even if I were a 150th year teacher…what is there to do?  Say?  No college class of Teach for America seminar could prepare you.  It doesn’t matter who the student is or how it happens.  It jolts you.  But then, you look around at the 99 who are left.  Suddenly, you are strong.

This eighth-grader was not in my homeroom.  He was not one of the students who I told stories, or wrote blog posts, or cried about.  But that, in a way, is what made him special.  He smiled.  He did his work.  And yes, we did have our teacher-student moments.  Just last week we had a small blow out.  And today I am wishing I had made it right.

Of all the challenges I have written about, cried about and even laughed about this year, not one tops watching upwards of 90 12-15 year olds’ faces hearing that their classmate was gone.  Then seeing too many sets of eyes look to you for answers.  I didn’t require them to raise their hand this time.  I also didn’t require a right answer.  It just was.  We just sat.  Cried.  Laughed.  And loved.

Don’t change how you are as a teacher.  Or a person.  This is life and it happens.  It  has will probably happen to many teachers.  Death happens to every one.  There is never a way to prepare for it, which is why I think it is so hard.  But- believe it when I say- I made it right with every student that I yelled at today before they got on that bus.  Will I be able to do that every day?  No.  Will I want to do it every day?  Probably not.  Yes, these kids of mind D-R-I-V-E me. They make me madder than I have ever been.  They make me cry.  And this won’t change that.  But do me a favor.  Just give YOUR babies a little extra squeeze when you get a moment.  Hell, let everyone you love in your life know that.  Because you never know.  You just never know when they might be taken.

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