Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in the Clink

Today was the last day of school at G House before the holiday break. Keeping with tradition, we had a huge midday feast, complete with roast ham, pernil, roast turkey, seafood salad, rice and lentils, and loads of sweet stuff for dessert. As I sort through my mental snapshots of today, I call up images of lots of smiling faces, both staff and residents alike. The kids all received Christmas presents, consisting mostly of clothes, games and candy. Those kids from local neighborhoods were encouraged to invite family members to the feast. I truly enjoyed meeting the grandmother and aunt of a new student of mine, Antonio. It's been a rare experience to be able to make face to face contact with the families of my students in DYS, and I felt lucky to have the chance to see another facet of Antonio's life.

While chatting with Antonio's grandmother and aunt, I noticed a very quiet Manuel over my left shoulder, sitting in a corner chair. He had his hoodie zipped up all the way so that it covered his face. That's strange, I thought. Manuel didn't seem tired just a second ago. But then I noticed Manuel's chest shuddering, ever so gently, beneath that hoodie. Suddenly, I got it. Manuel's family. They're local. He invited them. They didn't come.

It's easy to look at these kids as statistics on paper and just dismiss them. If most people saw Manuel's rap sheet, they wouldn't have a shred of sympathy for the kid. Manuel has done some pretty bad things to pave his way into lock up. Most of these kids have. But they're kids. They're human beings, and they've got so many unmet developmental needs. One of those needs is love. The kind of love that's demonstrated by showing up for an hour to see your kid and get some pretty damn good free food at the same time.

So that's Christmas in the clink. Some good times, some bad. I suppose it's just like everyone else's Christmas, with bits of sadness sprinkled in with the holiday joy. I know I can't ask for a world without tears. But I'd really like it if misery would walk through the back door of these kids' lives a little less frequently.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

little triumph

Last Monday, as Luis walked into my classroom, I could tell something was wrong. When something's wrong with Luis, I can read it all over him: a scowl on his face, heavy, deliberate steps, throwing all his weight into his desk chair, slumping down low in his seat. His eyes are the color of hot, black coffee when he's having a good day; on this day they looked like dark brown charcoal.

"Hi Luis. What's wrong?"

"Awwww, Miss," Luis began, his cranky tone easily making its way through his thick Puerto Rican English dialect. "I got dropped."

"Well, actually, I heard. So now what?"

"So now I can't graduate nex' Monday. I been good here for 7 months, never got in trouble once, and now they drop me down to C level and I can't graduate? Man, that got me so..."

"Angry?" I offered.

"Yeah," Luis replied.



"Do you think it wasn't fair? Tell me what happened that led to your getting dropped."

Luis and I took the next ten minutes or so to talk about what led to his loss of level. Getting "dropped" means that a resident is moved from a higher disciplinary level with more privileges, which he earns by displaying good behavior, to a lower level with fewer privileges, usually as a result of bad behavior or some other sort of transgression.

Luis told me that on that Monday, he went to his first period class and "didn't feel well." From what I know of Luis, Monday morning is not his friend. He, like many teenage boys, is often sleep deprived on Monday mornings, his circadian rhythms thrown off by a weekend of late nights and later mornings. He was tired. He felt frustrated in an early morning academic setting. And, in his frustration, he began to speak to another resident in Spanish. Now, granted, this is a Hispanic group home, but the kids have to speak, read, write and listen in English during the academic day. The teacher whose class Luis was in had gotten a little tired of his act, and she deducted points from his total, thereby dropping Luis' level. Thereby preventing him from graduating. All because of one incident on one morning involving a tired kid who got frustrated and spoke Spanish, his primary language, instead of English.

"So, I'm heated. I wan' write a letter to Mr. G. I wan' appeal this. I asked the other teachers and they say they can't help me right now." There was no way Luis was going to be able to write a sentence, much less a letter, on his own. In the three months that Luis and I had worked together, his reading level had risen, but he still tested at no more than an early first grade level in fluency and decoding. He would need significant help with this letter. If he didn't graduate, it could lead to further, more serious setbacks with far-reaching consequences.

I glanced at my lesson plan for Luis for the day. "Let's go then. Let's write that letter."

Together, for the next 45 minutes, we composed a letter of appeal, addressed to the director of the program, asking for reinstatement of Luis' level, apologizing for disrespectful actions, and describing how important it was to Luis to be able to leave this program on a positive note. We used proper grammar, accurate spelling, and complete sentences. Luis read it - slowly - out loud.

"This is good. Thank you, Miss."

Flash forward one week to today, Monday, December 21. We just had Luis' graduation luncheon. He received a scholarship award for academic success and a framed diploma. The smile he couldn't seem to wipe off his face was priceless.

I know how it feels to visit a foreign country where you don't speak the language, yet I can only imagine how it feels to be Luis, whose language skills in both English and Spanish are so very weak. People tell him to try hard in school, but it really isn't that simple. Luis is challenged by not only his ELL status, but by a home environment that doesn't support or value literacy, a learning disability, and, I suspect, lead poisoning. He's a great hands-on worker, however, as evidenced by his efforts in the local school-to-work initiative and the DYS horticulture program. I believe that Luis, in spite of his challenges, can create his own brand of success out there in the world. I'm still holding out hope that he follows through on his promise to get a library card.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

two juicy tidbits

Just a couple of things to chew on this chilly Tuesday morning:

"Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest." ~~ Mark Twain

And, on the left, this delectable duo...though I don't recommend actually masticating these. But they're very enticing!

Monday, December 7, 2009

candy girl

Recently, I had a vision. I imagined little Starburst candies as earrings and thought they'd look adorable. So I made them, and guess what? They're adorable! They look exactly how I wanted them to look: little, lovely and luscious. It's like having sugar all the time but never rotting my teeth. It's ear candy that grabs the eye. I thought other people might like them, too, so I made a bunch and created my own Etsy shop where, if you're so inclined, you can buy a pair and give them as a gift to the sweetest girl you know. And, if that girl happens to be yourself, then all the better!

Here's the link to my shop:

One of the other reasons I wanted to make these earrings is that I knew they'd be instant attention-getters. In my DYS classroom, where my students are not always the most motivated readers, every little effort to get these kids to perk up makes a difference. If they're watching me, they're more likely to listen to what I have to say, and less likely to look out the window at the crack house next door. Teachers, take heed! Score yourself a nifty pair of my starburst earrings and watch your students' test scores skyrocket! Pretty far-fetched, I know. But at the very least, kids (and adults) will notice these. And that's a start...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

view from an urban fault line

each morning
driving up the avenue, I see the palette on my right:
prim clapboards, freshly painted
in warm, classic tones
tall, sloping rooflines
wide, sweeping porches
antique, stained glass,
sidewalks well-tended
and fertilized foliage.
freshly scrubbed,
expressing seriousness
and careful intention
on getting somewhere.

on my left
not fifty feet away, another painted scene:
scattered, overturned trash barrels
belching out debris,
cars, not new, disabled
Cracked foundations,
siding in obvious need of repair,
plywood sheets
where single-pane windows used to be.
in tones of varying shades,
all of them darker
(or is it dirtier?)
than white.

Here is the polarity
of my morning city commute.
Here is has,
and there is has not,
divided by route 83
and the apparent intentions of a few
to make the lives of so many
Less than.

The Talented Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss brings me my daily nugget of wisdom today. He's quoted as saying:

"Sometimes the questions are complicated, and the answers are simple."

Yes, wise doctor. You speak the truth.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

an afternoon, and an ode to Miller Williams

We had yet another graduation today. About an hour ago, Jonah walked out the front door of G House, carrying a white plastic garbage bag with all of his belongings, as well as a visible parcel of pride and sense of accomplishment. Jonah came to G House via a lock-up facility in western Massachusetts after he stabbed someone last March, blind drunk and high.

I'll miss Jonah. I know he's got a tough life to go back to, but he's developed a solid array of coping skills and behavior management techniques during his time here. He went up at least two grade levels in reading during the three months I spent with him. Sure, he has challenges, but he's also acquired some newfound protective factors in his life that might just be the difference for him. I'll remember Jonah in my prayers.

After graduations here at G House, classes are suspended for the remainder of the day, for what feels like a of two-period holiday. On days like this I find myself with extra non-instructional time, which I can fill with lots of tasks on my never-ending punch list. I could be doing lots of Title I-related paperwork, updating student individual reading plans and combined record sheets, calculating fluency rates, planning lessons. But what I'd rather do is put my feet up and read Miller Williams' beautiful poetry.

Williams has spoken of poetry as a modern day life support system in a time when we are so tempted to pull away from the world, when the world offers so much to withdraw from, when we feel so frequently the urge to want to be a little anaesthetized, or a little more than a little. Poetry is the real amidst the fake. It's the rhythm among the chaos. It's the reminder to see things like compassion, and relations, and the loveliness of order within language. Miller Williams writes in a way that when I read his work, I feel like I am touching a grounding wire. His poetry removes the static, the low grade anxiety that seems to go along with how it feels to go about my day, each day, in this day and age.

Williams reminds me of something I feel I need to remember in order to stay alive when he writes, "We need poetry as we need love and company. It's a matter, finally, of whether we bring into our lives the real thing, naked and demanding, or something we simply inflate to look like the real thing, which neither demands nor gives."

On my way home from work today, I am going to stop at a bookstore, purchase a copy of Mr. Williams' work, wrap it up, and give it to my husband for Christmas. I look forward to discovering it, over and over again, with him.

come on, baby, light my fire

Today's Light A Fire educational quote of the day struck a chord:

"When we are unable to find tranquility within ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere." ~~ Francois de La Rochefoucauld

I gotta hand it to that Barbara J. Feldman, the purveyor of Light A Fire quotations. Sometimes they really hit home with me. Thanks, Babs!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

a small thank you

Well, after previewing the photo I just attached, I realize that either I had the shakes when I took this shot or the resolution on my phone camera is pretty subpar. The picture I took is of the tender good-bye note from Mr. Lopes, who did, in fact, leave the program (on good terms) yesterday. I had let him borrow a book over the Thanksgiving break, which he read cover to cover, and he did, in fact, return the book to me - much to the surprise of several staff members and one clinician. Seems like people here thought J-Lo was either going to 1) never crack the book, or 2) steal it. Neither of these scenarios took place.

It warmed the cockles of my heart when I arrived at my classroom door to find Hoop City sitting on a chair with a handwritten note. I realize that Mr. Lopes' inscription isn't quite legible in the image above, so I'll transcribe: "Thank you Miss, I loved this book. It's a graet book and I want to tank you for what you started in me becuase I think I love to read now. Thank you again. J-Lo."

This is the kid who, on his recent home pass, decided to drive a stolen car without a license and got himself arrested, no less than 48 hours before he was to have graduated from G House. This is the kid who everyone says is never going to make it, because of a lack of common sense and sound decision-making skills. It's true, J-Lo may be the kind of G House graduate who ends up in the adult system as a lifer. But in my eyes, I have to celebrate this tiny success story: a kid who announced to me on our first day of class, "Yo, Miss, I don't read" became the young man who thanked me for lighting a little fire of literacy in him. What a dramatic change.

I found Mr. Lopes before he headed out with his caseworker yesterday. I thanked him for all his hard work and dedication he showed in my class. I gave him two books to take with him, wished him the best of luck, and gave him a hug. Then, I went up to my classroom, sat at my desk, and had myself a quiet little cry.

I'm getting a new student tomorrow. And the story begins again...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

pomp and (unfortunate) circumstance

As I drove to work on Monday, I thought about the noontime festivities that would await. Another graduation was going to take place, which meant 1)there'd be a house-wide gathering in which I, as well as the other teachers, would be expected to speak about the graduate-to-be; 2)one of the "old timers" (a kid who's been there a looooong time and was a wee tad older than the rest of the crowd) was finally gonna fly the coop; and 3) it didn't matter that I forgot my lunch, because with graduation comes a feast. Mmmm...I hadn't had much breakfast I guess, which is why I kind of meditated/obsessed on that last thought. The line staff at G House are excellent cooks, and they have a knack for using spices in a way that makes me salivate every time I hear the word "graduation."

So I was psyched for this day as I bounded up the front steps, bookbag on one shoulder, laptop case on the other. I punched in the code to unlock the front door, but it opened before I hit the last digit.

"Good morning, Miss," I heard a male voice say with a certain sort of intention. I peered around the corner into the office where the voice came from.

"Good morning?" It was a question, not a statement.

"Just to let you know, we will not be holding graduation today. Mr. Lopes was arrested over the weekend during his home pass for driving a stolen car without a license. He has gone back to lockup."

I see. So much for all the text-to-self connections we made to real life situations from our reading of realistic fiction. So much for comprehension strategies, for all of the work that the clinicians and line staff did with this young man. We all create our own learning curves, it's true. I had just hoped that this boy would have realized that the city in which he lives is crawling with cops, just waiting for him and other kids like him to screw up.

Cops 1, Young Mr. Lopes 0.

Today Mr. Lopes returned to G House for what I hear is another week and a half's worth of "hard time" before giving graduation another college try. November 30 is his next shot. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tuesday 10 November

I spent the better part of this morning administering a post-TABE test to Jonah, a nice kid who's going to be leaving the program in the next few weeks. As I was filling out my portion of his bubble sheet, in walked Jonah.

"Good morning, Miss."

"Hi Jonah, good to see you. Take a seat and I'll be done with this in just a sec."

I glanced up to see some weird looking red mark on his neck. For a split second I thought: HICKEY?!? Then I realized that this would be very, very unlikely. At least I hoped that's not what it was.

"What's that on your neck?"

"Oh, that," Jonah remarked, pulling back his shirt collar a tad to expose the mark in its entirety. It now looked less like a hickey, and more like he had gotten into a fight. Well, lo and behold, I was right. "That kid, Tyler. He kept comin' in my room last night, talkin' shit and messin' with my stuff. I told him to stay out, said I'm tired of his bullshit. Next thing I know, I'm in the bathroom, and I come out and the kid just frickin' jumps me."

"Really? He just went at you?"

"Yeah, so, like, what was I supposed to do, right? I just went at him, popped him in the face pretty good. The kid was crazy."

"Did staff file a report?"


"What's that on your leg?"

"Oh, that. That's from when he tried to grab my legs, and I kneed him in the face. You should see that kid's eye!"

"Well, actually, I think I'd rather not. Listen," I said, trying to steer the conversation away from last night's Mixed Martial Arts bout and toward the task at hand. "I'm sorry to hear that there was a fight. Why don't we get this test started. The sooner you finish, the more time you'll be able to get outside with the rest of the guys."

Jonah completed his test with diligence, with enough time to allow him to get outside before the afternoon classes started. I went downstairs, looking for Tyler. I know Tyler has had some issues with his temper, both in this program and in previous settings.

Coming down the stairs, I practically knocked over the program director. "Good morning, Mr. G.," I said, stepping aside.

In a low voice, he said, "Good morning, Miss. I was just coming up to your classroom to tell you that Tyler will not be in your class today." I studied his face for a second, then realized that what he meant is that Tyler will not be in my class any day. Ever again.

Damn. Damn. Damn.

The kid got booted back to lockup, a western Mass version of the place in which I taught last year. I totally get it, why he had to go. Tyler had gotten into/started at least four fights since arriving a month ago. Jonah was not the first kid who sported battle scars as a result of a scuffle with Tyler. But I had been rooting for Tyler to get it together! He had admitted to me, in private, that he had been working on his anger issues, and he'd even been able to work with a boxing coach while he'd been on the out. "I miss boxing, Miss," he had said one day. "I know it sounds like a violent way to manage a violent temper, but it gives me discipline. It's harder for me to deal with things without it." In class, we'd started reading the book Fighting El Fuego, about a young punk kid whose brother gets locked up and starts getting into trouble. Can't control his anger. "Miss, this kid is just like me!" Tyler exclaimed after we'd read the first couple of chapters. "My brother got locked up, too. Ever since then, I've just been, like, crazy. Only in the story, the dad is still there. Who knows where mine is."

I'd like to know, too. Where do all these fathers go? I keep wondering about this as I work with more and more kids whose dads are just absent. In the meantime, I'll keep Tyler in my prayers, and hope that somehow he finds his way.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Swine Flu in the House, Yo

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all of my students for sharing so generously their virulence with me last week. Because I've been FLAT OUT this weekend - this, of all weekends, with its unseasonably glorious weather - with what I believe to be the Scrabble flu (yep, H1N1). The group home where I teach is a perfect petri dish, I've found, for all things that produce fever, phlegm and inflammation. Even though I'm so heavily armed with Clorox wipes, sanitizing spray and Purell, I guess there's no stopping this virus, especially in a place that's this dirty and inhabited by so many young men with poor personal hygiene.

I feel like there's a small elephant sitting on my chest. I'm tired, in spite of getting 12 hours of sleep last night. I don't feel like watching football, and my bloodshot eyes can't follow more than a line of text on a page. Typing this blog entry is exhausting. I think I just caught myself starting to drool.

But I'm dying to get back to my reading workshop tomorrow. We have to keep reading Fighting El Fuego so that we can find out how the book ends before two of my students graduate this Thursday. FEF is about a young Puerto Rican-American kid who has a big anger management problem and gets into fights all the time. I have some of the most reluctant readers actually begging me to read this book with them. No need to build background here, folks.

So, it's off to bed with tea and cough drops. And my rally cap.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

she's got a gripe

It's rant time.

For one thing, I still don't have internet access in my classroom. All the cool web-based lessons I used last year - poof! Gone. I keep hearing that a wi-fi hookup is coming, but I've given up hoping and waiting. It'll never happen. Sure, there are plenty of other paths to literacy, methods of instruction that don't require electricity, much less a computer. But what about the "new literacies?" Those podcasts, wikis, blogs, video technologies, gaming software, technologies that establish communities on the web, and search engines are a huge part of the changing landscape of reading and reading instruction. If we are expected to prepare our students as readers, writers and thinkers, we need to include in our instruction the kind of information that they will be accessing at home and in the workplace. No internet = no brainer = no wonder there's such a growing gap between the what students do in school and what they do at home. This has to be addressed. YES, EVEN IN THE CLINK.

The other half of my bitch session has to do with other unenlightened colleagues who think that if you only see one or two students at a time, you've really got it easy. There's one co-worker in particular that comes to mind here. She has a tendency to imply this sort of thing when in conversation with me. It's getting to be pretty irksome. Title I reading is a pull-out, intensive, individualized method of reading instruction that offers, as a perk, a shitload of paperwork for progress monitoring and tracking. It isn't the regular classroom; it's not supposed to be.

Okay, enough for now. I won't get into the cleanliness issues I face in my new classroom (remember, it's a third shift hangout for staff who "need" to watch TV to stay awake). I won't mention how I come in each morning to find food containers, greasy handprints and God knows how many strains of viruses on my desk. Oh, and the adjacent bathroom? Oh golly, I won't go into how it has paper towels littered all over the floor...ramen noodles clogging the sink...pee splattered all over the toilet seat. Nah. I'll keep those juicy tidbits to myself.

Wait...what's that sound? It's Gloria Gaynor's voice, loud and clear. I hear ya, Glo!And I'll do more than survive.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

modern love

A quick post, on this beautiful Sunday of Columbus Day weekend. I wanted to share a link to my brother in law's essay that was published in today's New York Times. He writes about my nephew, Michael, and the unique beauty and challenge that comes with raising him. It's lovely. In a modern sort of way.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

hot child in the city

The kids in my program have access to a great horticulture class in which they learn the basics of gardening and composting. One day each week, the kids travel by van to the greenhouse on the other side of the city and tend their plants, get their hands dirty and, I'm guessing, resist the temptation to assault each other with shovels and spades. Last week I became the lucky recipient of some of the fruits of their labor. "Miss, would you like some peppers to take home?" Umm...would I? I like peppers, especially those toward the really mild end of the heat spectrum. I remember eating a whole jalapeno as a teenager on a dare. I thought the resulting inferno in my mouth would never go out. Ever since then, I've been sort of timid when it comes to anything beyond the blissfully sweet bell pepper. Okay, maybe straight up chickenshit is more appropriate a description than "timid." But when a smiling, wide-eyed Josef offered me two tiny red peppers that he had cultivated and produced with obvious pride, how could I refuse?

Tonight I learned about the potency of Josef's classwork. I made a pot of chili for dinner, and I thought I'd play it safe and add roughly an eighth, maybe less, of one of the peppers to my recipe. Just to be sure I didn't set my family's mouths on fire, I decreased by half the amount of chili powder the recipe called for. This'll be fine, I thought. After carefully mincing the miniscule amount of pepper and adding it to the pot, along with the sauteeing garlic, onions and ground beef, I had the weird sensation of sunburn on the fingers on my left hand. It smelled really good, though, so I continued adding chopped tomatoes, green bell pepper, tomato puree, and a little cilantro. It seemed a little wanting for liquid, so I poured about half of the beer I was drinking into the pot, gave it a stir, covered it and let it simmer for about half an hour.

The final product? Let's call it "well beyond warm." We each ended up giving our bowls very generous dollops of plain yogurt, plus lots of shredded cheddar cheese. It was still hot, but not inedible. The fact that my little guy ate two big bowls of the stuff is enough proof that I didn't use too much of the mysterious pepper. But my hand still feels sunburned, even after washing several times.

I think I'll save a pint of my chili to bring in for Josef on Tuesday, just to show him I appreciated his thoughtfulness. After all, it's the little things we do that mean a lot.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

graduation day

A kid in my program graduated today. In this program, "graduation" refers to the day when a kid leaves the group home and goes out into the real world, whether it's back to his home, a foster home or an independent living situation. In the case of today's graduate, Nico, he went to a foster home in a town about 45 minutes away, where he'll live, attend high school and, hopefully, graduate and go on to college. I have to admit that most of the time, when a kid is discharged from the system, I think the chances are likely that he'll get out, do something dumb, get recommitted and end up back in the same or a similar program. It happens all the time, and although I hate my pessimistic outlook, that's just the reality here. If you looked at Nico's case history and track record, you'd peg him as the next poster child for recidivism, too.

My money's on Nico.

Now, I did not inherit the gambling gene in my family, and I've been advised that if I am ever in a betting situation, to always bet with my head, not over it. I've only been working in this program for five or six weeks. I counted the number of class periods I've had with Nico (nine). Knowing what I know about the likelihood of kids in the system getting out and continuing to steadily screw up their lives, I should know better. Especially after today's graduation ceremony, where Nico's biological mom and dad showed up in what had to be a combination of drunk and high (but hey, at least they showed up), it's so clear this kid comes from such a fucked up background. How do you shake that, at age 17, and transcend it?

I remember the first day I had Nico in class. I gave him a basic diagnostic fluency screening, having him read a hundred-or-so-word passage out loud while I timed him. I practically dropped the stopwatch on the floor as he began to read. Even though the passage was just some sterile excerpt from an assessment book, Nico's voice had feeling, expression, warmth, and flow. Not the monotone staccato I typically hear from my students the first (and second, and third) time I do a fluency screen. Nico was polite, cooperative, and willing to make eye contact. And I could pretty much tell he wasn't just selling me a ticket.

What I've come to realize is that Nico is done selling tickets (among other things). By all accounts, he is poised and ready to use his natural skills and abilities to move forward with his education and his life. At the graduation ceremony, everyone - staff, clinicians, caseworkers, teachers, and residents - spoke so warmly and supportively on Nico's behalf. Even his foster dad, who blessedly seemed a full 180 degrees from Nico's mom and dad, said positive words of encouragement. Everyone expressed sincere well wishes for Nico, and I believe that he will truly be missed by all.

I know I'm really going to miss this kid. Not just because he was willing to do what I asked of him in reading workshop. Not because he was a beacon of light in what can be such a raw and rough environment. Nico definitely had a sort of positive osmotic effect on the other residents. He brought the whole program up a couple of notches and, just by being there, made my job a lot easier. But it's funny: I've never felt more strong a desire to never want to see someone again.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Return of the Clinkmistress

Actually, I've been in the new clink for a little over three weeks now. Sorry for the delay, my three fans. I guess I've been "settling in." It has taken some time for me to absorb my surroundings, and to realize that I'm in a completely different place than the one in which I worked before. I have a hard time calling my new teaching site a clink. Mostly because it isn't one. This isn't jail. No bars, no shackles, no state-issued uniforms. It feels more like off-campus housing for some unknown Hispanic educational institution. I teach in a group home, kind of like a halfway house for kids who have just come from secure treatment and are spending a few months in this facility before being released to their parent(s), or other family members, or foster care, or independent living. My classroom - which functions (apparently) as a third-shift lounge for support staff - has its own bathroom, which, like many college apartments, is in screaming need of a woman's touch. Or just a shitload of Lysol.

There are three classrooms on the first floor: two regular education classrooms, and one special education classroom. My classroom is on the third floor, adjacent to two student bedrooms. I call it the Reading Penthouse, because 1) it's at the tippy top of the building, and 2) although it may not look like it now, I vow to make it the slickest, most tricked-out reading nest EVER. Kids are going to make HUGE strides in reading with K-Bizzle! Um, I mean, with Miss. Yep, that's right: "Miss." Residents call teachers and staff by Mr. or Miss throughout the program. The first time a student called me Miss, I confess that the thought "do I honestly look like a fucking waitress?' drifted through my mind. I realize that it's just part of the way this program works, that no, they don't expect me to serve them up a plate o' buffalo wings, and that "Miss" mirrors in English the Spanish term "Senorita," which in Hispanic culture is perfectly respectful. Plus, it's easier to say "Miss" than it is to try to remember the name of the 198th teacher you've had in your life. Maybe I should simply take it as a compliment that they think I look young enough to be a Senorita.

Anyway, I could go on about the differences between the job I left in hard core juvie and the one I've taken on in Halfway House Hood. It will take time to settle in. I'm writing this post from my hotel room at the New England Reading Association conference, where I'm soaking up lots of ideas and practices for engaging reluctant readers. The best I can do is to arm myself with lots of teaching tools, march right up to that third floor on Monday, and welcome my new boys with open arms and high expectations. And Clorox wipes.

Monday, August 17, 2009

getting out of jail

I'm leaving the clink. Well, at least, I'm leaving the particular DYS facility in which I currently work. You see, my husband and I have this house out in the western part of the state that we tried to sell this past year but were not able to. Stupid, stupid housing market!! To make a long story short, we're going back, for either a long time or a short time, to make some improvements to the property and to try to sell it again, soon, or maybe not soon.

It's kind of funny. I never thought getting out of jail would feel like such an undesirable situation. I really love the work I do here. I teach these kids because I think they need me. And, in a weird way, I think I need them. There's a feeling I get from teaching in the clink, a kind of personal and professional satisfaction that I have never gotten from any other kind of work I've done. I'll miss these kids.

Fortunately, I have a boss who is very understanding and very good to me, and she worked to find me a position doing pretty much the same job out west. I may find pastures just as green ahead of me. Or maybe I won't. The hubs is going to keep his working situation in Providence (he's an independent artist/designer), so I'm going to be a one-woman show for much of the time. It's gonna be hard. But, as my mom always reminds me: it's going to work out...because it has to.

So, this is probably my last post for the next two weeks or so. Look for new tales from the new clink in September. Let's all try to enjoy these waning dog days of summer.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


If I were writing the supermarket tabloid version of my experiences in the clink--the kind where only the Most Shocking And Outrageous Headlines made it to print--here's what you'd see:

"Cell Phone And Charger Found In Resident Rec Room! No One's Admitting Anything!" (editor's note: remember, in jail they don't let you have cell phones...or chargers)

"Three Residents Infected With MRSA! Really Poor Hygiene Or Illicit Sexual Contact To Blame? Or Both?!?"

"Resident On Anti-Psychotic Medication Regularly Cheeks His Meds - And Gives It To Other Residents So They Can Get High!"

"Generous Parent Donates TV To Juvenile Detention Center - With Hidden Gun Inside?!?"

"Resident Steals Scissors From Classroom, Eludes Guards And Holds Case Worker Hostage!"

(related to previous scandalous headline) "Although Guards Were To Blame For Not Noticing Scissors In Resident's Sock, Guards Get Mild Reprimand While Teacher Whose Classroom They Were Taken From Gets Shit-Canned!!"

"Guard Engages In Sexual Activity With Resident On Third Shift While Others Either Sleep Or Look Away!"

It's a crazy, crazy approach to teaching in this place. It's a far cry from Waldorf education. Being a teacher in the clink requires a certain constant watchfulness that I never had to muster when I was teaching in public schools. There is much possibility for chaos, and even more chance for danger.

So why do I do it?

I teach reading to these kids because they've gotten the short end of the stick in life, and they need someone to give them a chance to succeed, in spite of everything. And that "everything" means their criminal records, their angry dispositions, and their convictions that they're still going to keep hustling when they're discharged. That's the hard part: when I overhear my students making plans to get back on the street to keep dealing, stealing and gangbanging. Makes me disappointed, dejected, depressed.

But I won't give up.

Monday, August 10, 2009

certainty and doubt

Just checked my e-mail inbox, where I found Barbara J. Feldman's daily Educational Inspirational Quote du jour:

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain
of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." ~ Bertrand Russell (1872 -

Hmm. This one resonates.

Monday, August 3, 2009

19 down, 11 to go...

It's day 19 of 30 here in summer school in the clink. I know what you're thinking: HAH! Sucks to be you! I used to think that any teacher who has to work during the summer must be either broke or psychotic, or both (ooh, bad combo). While I'll admit to being somewhat financially challenged, it's far from a miserable existence here in SummerClink 2009. I've decided to do a completely freestyle approach to literacy, taking into account my students' individual preferences. Here's a rundown on what each of my boys are reading/thinking/doing in my reading workshop:

Danny: My most willing reader, my most agreeable student in general. I sometimes wonder what on earth got him into a place like this. Anyway, Danny is totally into Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief series. I just went out and bought him book 4 of the series, The Battle of the Labyrinth. You should have seen the look on his face when I pulled it out of my book bag this morning. He immediately opened it up and started reading, but then strangely, he put it down. I said, "Let me guess. You don't want to blow through that book during reading workshop time, and you'd rather read something else now and save this for when you're in your room." "Um, yeah," he said. So I brought out a big, hardcover Mythology book from the "ology" series. It's part book, part scrap book, part pop-up book. But not babyish. Just interesting and cool. I thought Danny would find interesting the Greek mythology stories that are so closely linked to the storyline in The Lightning Thief. From what I saw, he digs it.

Sha'Vaughn: Another very willing reader, but one who is somewhat hampered by the medication he's on for behavioral issues. It's really hard for Sha'Vaughn to stay awake in my class, but he manages, and it's probably got to do with the fact that I bought him the first two books in the Pendragon series. He loves them. We talk about the plot, the characters, the predictions he makes and the visualizations he sees.

Mauricio: Mauricio is yet another willing reader, but his attendance in my class has been affected by his behavioral issues during second shift. Mauricio is bipolar, and this condition takes him to incredibly angry places at times. When his behavior is good, we read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. We read it out loud to each other, which is such a powerful way to read a book. In fact, it was Maya Angelou herself who said, "Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning." I really look forward to Mauricio's class time. We just finished chapter 6 of IKWTCBS, in which she describes a fanatical churchgoer she witnessed as a young girl and the hilarious way her brother imitated this woman. Mauricio and I were both laughing so hard we had tears running down our cheeks.

Jimi: One of my youngest, and less willing readers. Jimi declared to me months ago, when he first arrived on the unit, that he wouldn't need reading because he was going to be a pig farmer in the Dominican Republic when he grew up. He was really obstinate, Jimi was. But I think that over the past several months, Jimi has really matured, both as a young man but also as a reader. He shows a greater ability to comprehend, both text as well as greater life issues. Jimi had struggled with decoding earlier in the year, but he has really improved in his fluency, decoding and comprehension. I think he still wants to be a pig farmer, but he's warming up to the idea that even farmers need to be literate. I'll support his dream however I can. We read shorter texts, excerpts from longer texts, and different forms of electronic media, like podcasts, blogs and wikis. He likes street literature, and he loved a book called Black & White that he read in another class.

Dominic: Dominic is still here. Dominic is my oldest student, and he recently took his GED test. A huge, huge step for him. Dominic had been reading The Yankee Years for some time, but when he finished that we really focused in on preparing him to take the GED writing test. Dominic finished the test about a week and a half ago. The day after he took the test, he found out that a dear friend of his was gunned down and murdered. Dominic has withdrawn considerably, and I know that his future rides on his GED results. I fear that if he does not pass, he will go back to his former lifestyle, the one that got him into this place. He's going to find out his test results any day now. Until then, we've been relying on the NY Times Bats blog and any related Yankees online literature to get us through. That, and Scrabble.

James: My newest student, my least willing reader, and one with comprehension levels lower than I have ever seen. James is my biggest challenge. He has great difficulty remembering anything he's read. Even from one paragraph to the next, from one sentence to the next. I believe he has a pretty severe learning disability. Until that gets figured out, I turn to short stories, word games, puzzles, and anything else that's fun to keep his interest level up. We have to work on his comprehension, but that task has to be approached carefully and in small doses. James comes from an urban/street background, so anything in this genre will be good for James - as long as it contains a message of non-violence and redemption. Suggestions welcome.

That's my classroom in a nutshell. SummerClink 2009. In eleven days, I'll get a chance to do my own free reading. Maybe even on a beach...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

don't wipe that smile off your face

Following is a transcription, more or less, of a conversation that I just had 20 minutes ago during my 4th period class with Mauricio. We had just finished chapter 3 of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and we sat down to play a quick hand of Scrabble Slam:

Me: Want to listen to Pandora while we play? We can put on that Michael Jackson station you made.

Mauricio: Yeah, that's cool. That music's ill.

Me: You know it! (sings in a mock-MJ falsetto) "You got to leave that 9 to 5 up on the shelf, and just enjoy yourself..."

Mauricio: (looks at me, smiling, shaking his head) Can I ask you a question?

Me: Shoot. But pick a word first, then deal.

Mauricio: Are you ever, like, not happy?

Me: (giving him quizzical look) Well, sure...why?

Mauricio: Because, you're like, always happy. You're always in a good mood.

Me: Well, you see me when I'm at work. You see me here. And I'm really happy here. I really enjoy working with you guys, teaching reading.

Mauricio: (keeps dealing cards) Yeah. I was talkin with Duggan (another student of mine) and we was sayin' how, like, there's something wrong with you. 'Cause you, like, are always happy.

Me: (chuckling) Oh yeah?

Mauricio: Yeah, Duggan goes, "I beat her at Scrabble Slam, and she goes 'Oh well, guess I'll have to do 9 pushups!' That's wack, yo!" (laughs)

Me: So? He beat me, and I throw in that little rule, which I only make myself adhere to. (laughing) Is that bad?

Mauricio: (laughing) No, I guess not. We're just...not used to someone like that.

Me: Not used to being around someone who's happy?

Mauricio: Yeah.

Me: I see. Well, I could change that. But I really don't feel like it. Besides, I have someone's butt to kick at Scrabble Slam. Let's go. Play.

It doesn't bother me that they think I'm unusual for being happy all the time. I don't wear a maniacal grin on my face 24/7. I have my ups and downs like everyone does. But it is an absolute truth that I adore the work I do and the population I work with. How did I get so lucky to reach this professional nirvana?

What does bother me is that there aren't more happy people in the fabric of my students' lives, both in the clink and on the out. People who smile and look them in the eye upon seeing them, people who ask them how their day is going, people who care enough to listen to their good and bad and in between. The realization of this bums me out. But I save these thoughts for moments outside of instructional time. Class time is sacred, and the attention I give my students is best delivered undivided.

5th period starts in 11 minutes. Gotta go.

Friday, July 17, 2009

nails from the clink

Brace yourself, dear reader, for what I am about to confess is going to sound weird:

I want to do my students' nails.

For those of you who either know me personally or have read my full profile, perhaps this isn't such a sick, twisted declaration. Several years ago, while I was working for a holistic skin care company, I enrolled in a nail technician licensure program, the intention being to create a natural nail protocol in my company's education & training department. The only problem with this plan was that, upon attaining this license, I realized that I desperately missed working with kids, kids with tough lives, real needs and big problems. Dealing with the skin care dramas of people who have never known the meaning of hungry or broke was, I realized, not going to be a satisfying vocation.

So I'm three years back in the classroom, yet I still carry this funny nail tech license in my wallet, which I sort of use, mostly in the summer, for the occasional pedicure party. I don't think of myself as a member of the Nail Care profession. But lately, I've caught myself looking at the hands and nails of my students as they hold their books and thinking, "God, if I could only trim those cuticles." WHAT? I've tried to shake those thoughts clear out of my head, reminding myself that this is my reading workshop in a house of corrections, not Katie's House of Nails. SNAP OUT OF IT, I tell myself.

But their hands, for all of the mischief they've encountered and crimes they've committed, are beautiful. They have long, healthy nails. None of my students are nail biters, from what I can tell. All of them could stand a manicure, if for no other reason than to get their nails down to a more sanitary length. They'd love the hand and arm massage that I provide, and with the biodynamic skin care products I use, it would be like a little slice of heaven right here in the clink. There's not a lot of nurturing human touch in this place. And they don't have free access to nail scissors for the same reason that sharp, weapon-like objects are generally frowned upon in jails. Plus, some kids have been known to use their own torn fingernails as tools of self-mutilation. If I gave them regular manicures, there'd be fewer opportunities for them to hurt themselves (and others).

Sounds like plenty of good reasons to offer up my services, right?

Here's why I won't do it. These kids have already had all of the boundaries that should exist in normal, healthy relationships skewed up and screwed up. Most of the female role models in their lives thus far are women who want to have sex with them for drugs, money or both. At best, the women in my boys' lives have been dishonest and unhealthy. If I, as a reading teacher, were to introduce a layer of physical touch to my students, even if it were as part of a 15-minute therapeutic nail treatment, it would change EVERYTHING. Our relationship would change permanently, and for the worst. I would never again be an effective teacher. I'd be just another woman who crossed a line and touched. It would confirm what they've suspected all along.

So I'll continue to watch their nails grow and grow. We'll just keep reading.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

happiness is...

I have decided that I love my job. I love teaching reading to kids in jail. In fact this is, hands down, the most satisfied I've ever been in my life, career-wise. May the deities of DYS and DESE in the Bay State continue to smile down on me, and keep funding the mega-grant that keeps me working with these very challenging but very capable boys.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

the reader

Note to self: do NOT show movie The Reader to students just because title suggests good pro-literacy flick...can you say S-T-E-A-M-Y?!? Ja.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Check It Out - I Won An Award!!

Wow! I've been bestowed with the Honest Scrap Award for honesty and authenticity in my writing. My friend Colleen Sculleigh Osman, who writes a fabulous blog called Bay State Brumby, is responsible for this coronation. She herself is the essence of everything real and authentic. Yes, you are, Sculldawg! If you haven't read Brumby yet, you ought to:

Honest Scrap is an honor that comes with a few obligations:

* Say thanks and give a link to the presenter of the award.

* Share "ten honest things" about myself.

* Present this award to 7 others whose blogs I find brilliant in content and/or design, or those who have encouraged me.

* Tell those 7 people that they've been awarded HONEST SCRAP and inform them of these guidelines in receiving it.

So, here are my ten honest things:

1) I was born in an elevator. My grandfather nicknamed me "Katherine the Impetuous" as a result of my grand entry into this world.

2) I am competitive to a fault. I find it incredibly, incredibly difficult not to kick my students' asses at word games such as Scrabble. I know that if I let this part of my nature take over, I would be a bad teacher. So I let them win 99.5% of the time. This is hard.

3) When one of my students was about to be discharged recently, I made him promise me that he would walk a straight line when he was out in the real world. Two weeks later he was arrested for holding up a gas station with a bb gun. He's in adult prison now.

4) I believe in sustainability. I believe in art. I believe in being a locavore.

5) I once broke my neck in a diving accident. I was 21. I was drunk. I learned a lot from this mistake and it made me a wiser person. It's embarrassing to talk about it.

6) I knew I wanted to teach reading to kids in lock up when I learned that Anne Lamott and Wally Lamb teach/have taught writing in correctional facilities. It felt like a calling.

7) I live around the corner from a seafood processing plant near Narragansett Bay. When we moved in, the smell of steamed quahogs was absolutely nauseating. Now I love it. I can smell it as I type this. Mmmmmmm.

8) The coolest job I ever had was right after college, working for CBS Sports at the 1992 Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France. I worked in their videotape archives. Saw tons of events, in person. Did lots of skiing. Had so much fun!

9) The second coolest job I ever had was as a pool caretaker. I drove all over northern New Jersey one summer and cleaned pools for wealthy people who spent their summers down the shore. I'd clean a pool, jump in, take a swim, and then move on to the next one.

10) My husband is the most real, authentic, no-bullshit person I have ever met. He inspires me all the time, and I rarely tell him. If he were a blogger, he'd be my first choice to receive an Honest Scrap. Dave, you're the real thing. It's why I married you.

Now, here are my Seven Honest Scrappers, whose work really lights up my world!

The MashUp: A blog about books for teens. Connected to Jamie Watson is Adlit's consulting blogger/book reviewer. Promoting reading and literacy for all kids. Awesome site/blog!

Bitten. Mark Bittman, food writer for the NY Times, writes a blog about the glory of food and simplicity. I love his ideas, his recipes and his angle.

Books on the Nightstand. Just a site devoted to blogging (and podcasts) about books. I get great recommendations from this site.

I.N.K. Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. An assortment of contributing writers comprise the work for this wonderful resource.

LiteracyLaunchpad. Amy is an early literacy teacher who, like me, is passionate about getting kids interested in reading. Amy's writing is honest, tender and funny. She's so deserving of an Honest Scrap (I bet she's gotten a slew of them by now)!

Lastly, Bay State Brumby. I realize that my friend Colleen is the one who gave me my Honest Scrap, which would mean she's already gotten one (yes, quite recently) herself. But listen, folks: no other writer I know puts as much authenticity and transparency out there. She tells it like it is from the saddle of her paint mare. She's that good.

p.s. thanks, Scull ;)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

some thoughts while on summer break

Summer school starts next Wednesday. I wonder how many of the books I loaned to my students will actually be returned to me? I find it simultaneously surprising and unsurprising that my books, particularly the popular ones, get stolen in jail. Um, like, isn't this a secure facility? Then again, a lot of the kids I work with have extensive experience with five-finger discounts. Oh well. When my books go "missing" I hope it means they're out in the world somewhere, enriching a young mind. I'll go buy more.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

bring the noise

This past week was the last week of school, and to celebrate, my program welcomed world renowned drumming master Tony Vacca for three days of percussion instruction and performances. Let me tell you folks, he was loud with a capital L. But he succeeded in grabbing the attention of everyone--kids, staff, and teachers alike--and by the end of his stint, we had a bonafide drumming ensemble going on in the clink! It was a sight (and sound) to behold.

Tony didn't just show up and go, "Ok kids, here's how you play the drums," whambamwhambam and then let them go off and play willy-nilly. No. Tony talked about his experience with drumming, some of the people he's met in his drumming travels (he's been all over the African continent and beyond) and--here's the best part--he talked extensively about the drum as a voice. Drumming, like all music, is self expression. But the drum has the unique ability to capture the simple essence of rhythm. It can be done with very little in the way of knowledge and materials. And when you add the sung and spoken word, as Tony did with a set on drumming, poetry and creative writing, you've got something magical. I saw it happen. Kids of all "reading" abilities were engaged and able to shine. It was beautiful.

During a break, I talked to Tony and told him I loved what he did with the kids, how they really seemed to respond to his presence and open up to a stranger. Not something they do easily. It occurred to me that Tony and I are both literacy teachers. I work more with the traditional "big 5" of textual reading instruction (phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension). But Tony's bent on literacy has to do with developing and expressing voice, and becoming literate about the self and our relationship to the world. How can you have one without the other? To be a truly literate person, you gotta crack the books and bring the noise.

I'd love to be able to weave pieces of Tony's drumming workshop into my instruction during the regular school year somehow. Suggestions welcome!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

do you hear what I hear?

I listen to an NPR radio program called The Takeaway on my drive to work every morning. This morning, John Hockenberry was interviewing the BBC's Kate Arkless Gray, who is spearheading a cool project called Save Our Sounds, which has to do with collecting, cataloguing and archiving audio data. Seems like we're all more inclined to save and preserve visual information, but what about sounds? How is sound a valuable piece of historical data? How do sounds define a place and time? A culture? A region? What sounds are common, and are any actually endangered, as Arkless Gray postulates?

I've thought about the specific sounds of the place I work and teach for some time now. These sounds are unique, distinctive, thought-provoking and, at times, sort of scary. The one that rises to the top of my audio-consciousness is the sound of shackles. I can't get used to this one. It's metal on metal, which by description seems pretty ordinary, but the sound of shackles is different. Hearing this always makes me sit up straight, eyes open wide, a bit more alert. Throws me into a mild state of fight or flight.

The shackle sound isn't perpetual in the clink; that is, my students don't walk around in them 24/7. Here's how it works: a kid gets put into shackles when he is adjudicated and transported from court, and they're taken off (just outside my classroom door, coincidentally) upon being admitted to the unit for detention and treatment. The kids are also put into shackles any time they're transported from the unit (court dates, doctor/dentist appointments). I hear the shackles and I think: Who's coming? Who's going? And I'm reminded, sort of against my will, that no matter who's arriving or leaving, it's a felon. Watch your ass.

Other clink sounds include: the slamming of locking metal doors, the strained shouts of residents and staff during fights and subsequent restraints, the shuffling and sliding of cheap, institutional plastic flip flops on the concrete floors, the coarse profanity that seems to seep into everyone's lexicon, in spite of visibly posted rules against it.

The BBC Save Our Sounds project offers lots of options for people to submit their audio, from high tech (.wav and MP3's) to low tech (cassettes mailed via post). There's a really cool Iphone app called AudioBoo that allows you to record and upload sound to the web. Tag your sound with "BBC_SOS" and it gets fed straight into their map via an RSS feed. Geotags then enable the sound to be placed exactly where it was recorded. Clever. I've just downloaded AudioBoo, and I plan on uploading some audio samples from the unit today. This project has a focus on "endangered sounds." I'd like the sounds of the clink to fall into this group, but I have a feeling they're going to stand the test of time.

You can visit the Save Our Sounds map at and follow them online at

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

the wise Bobby Frost

Today's Light A Fire quote of the day comes from one Robert Frost, who once said:

"Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self confidence."

Really? He said that? I thought he was all about bent birches and rustic stone walls, and New England roads taken and not taken. But apparently he had some insight into some other arenas. I cannot picture a straight-up, pissed off Robert Frost, nor can I envision him diffident and unsure. I didn't realize he knew these qualities. But I suppose that he was human, at one time, after all.

This quotation makes me think of my students, a bunch of young fellows who are so prone to losing the above personality traits at the drop of a hat. I half wonder whether some of them have ever known what it feels like to be confident. I know they all think they're cool, but at what point does the adolescent male trade in cool for aplomb?

I can hear it now: "Yo, what the fuck is 'aplomb?'"

I shall print and post Bobby's quote in my classroom. We'll see who notices it. Thanks again to Barbara J. Feldman for distributing her Light A Fire daily educational quotations. You give me, and my students, plenty of food for thought. Here's the link to her page, once again:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Grammar Girl

Something about the phrase "free book" has a knack for catching my reading teacher's eye. So when I saw that Grammar Girl was having a contest to give away free copies of her book Quick And Dirty Tips For Better Writing, I sprang into action. Here I am, posting her contest on my own blog and hoping that I'll be the lucky girl chosen to receive a copy of her book. Grammar Girl also does a neat little podcast on English grammar. She's witty, smart and fun. Here's the link to her contest:

Long live grammar. Long live Grammar Girl!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Scrabble Slam!

I love Scrabble Slam, the new hot game in my Reading Workshop. What is it? Scrabble Slam is a deck of 55 cards, each with a letter on the front and the back. Start by making a four-letter word, then change that word one letter at a time, rapid-fire, until someone plays all their cards. That's it! No taking turns as in regular Scrabble...that's too priggish. This is the clink, baby! Builds on sight-word recognition, word attack skills, even phonics and phonemic awareness. Take that, National Reading Panel!!

The best part is the special rule (which I made up, naturally): the number of cards left in your hand at the end of the game is the number of pushups you have to do. Hit the floor, dawgz! That's a direct quote from one of my students...I'm guessing at the spelling of 'dawgz' but I realize I should check I don't actually force anyone to adhere to this rule, but after they see me drop and bang out a quick ten, my students can't seem to let themselves get outmuscled by KBizzle. We're getting huge in Reading Workshop.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Summer Reads 2009

I'm teaching summer school this year, for the first time in a while. So this means that, in July and August, I'll have less time for that thing called Reading For Pleasure in the setting like the one above. But dooooon't you worry, I'll manage to get my feet in the sand, avec bathing suit, beach chair, boogie board and book bag. Topping my list of what to toss in the tote? The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. It's a tome that's caught my eye primarily because it was so effusively recommended by one of my favorite authors, Wally Lamb.

Mr. Lamb writes, "I savored Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain for many reasons: a dog who speaks, the thrill of competitive racing, a heart-tugging storyline, and--best of all--the fact that it is a meditation on humility and hope in the face of despair. Since finishing this engagingly unique novel, I’ve found myself staring at my own dog, thinking, Hmm, I wonder ..."

Sounds good enough for me, Wally. My personal reading aside, I continue to look for good reads for my students, to build up my classroom library but also to deepen the wells of their literary worlds and experience. Clearly, they won't be chillin' on the beach under an umbrella this summer, but that doesn't mean they should also be deprived of access to the lighter, fun reads of the season. So, gentle reader, I ask you: what's on your summer read list? Please share your recommendations for teens, adults, & kids here. Thanks!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I'm in love with a guy named TED

Okay, it's not a guy, but love is not too strong a word to describe the way I feel about the website TED, which stands for Technology/Entertainment/Design, is an audiovisual collection of talks and presentations by the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers. At an annual conference, they present the talk of their lives in under 18 minutes. Over 400 lectures are available at the TED site. All free.

There are so many that have gotten my attention, but one that I plan to show in class today is a performance by a beatbox group called Naturally 7, who assembles an orchestra's worth of sounds as they perform their cool single "Fly Baby." What does this have to do with reading? Not that much, I suppose, in terms of things like decoding and fluency. I don't necessarily plan to weave in a reading or writing lesson to this particular TED piece, but I want to expose my students to a wide range of ideas and culture, so that we can simply engage in discussion, expand their thinking, and perhaps even sow a few seeds for future dreams. I like the sound of that.

I'd love to hear what others think of TED. Check it out! What are your favorite talks?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

the new literacies

Happy Memorial Day Weekend, everyone. Here in the Northeast, it looks to be a rainy start, so I'm not that disappointed that I have to wait for my car to be serviced before taking off for the Cape. I thought I'd post my latest Clink-related musings, while I've got a moment or two to spare.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about "the new literacies," those newer, more technology-oriented types of reading that include podcasts, blogs, wikis, Kindle, and other web-based texts and resources. There are more avenues to reading now than ever before. To keep my students up to speed with these new literary paths, I've been giving some of them a road test in my classroom. I've managed to sell a few tickets to the young men I teach, and I've been pleased to see them buy 'em up and come back for more.

For Domenic, whose main goal is preparing for the GED test, we've been using baseball and the New York Yankees as an inroad. In addition to reading The Yankee Years (see previous post), I've introduced the Bats blog on to Domenic's reading rotation. On a daily basis, Domenic starts his first-period class with ten minutes or so of reading Bats, which provides in-depth coverage of the Yankees and Mets. He reads both the posts made by the writers (Tyler Kepner, Jack Curry, Joe Lapointe, and others) as well as the comments posted by readers. It's a great daily lesson in language mechanics, grammar, punctuation, topic development, and more. One of Domenic's mini goals is to compose and post his own comment on Bats. Not only would he be refining his writing skills, but he would get the huge ego boost and satisfaction of seeing his words, his voice out there in the real world. To me, I see this as a vital part of the plan to reconnect Domenic to the world and transcend the incarcerated existence he's known for many of his developmental years.

I've also taken a liking to a little vocabulary-related podcast called Hot For Words, produced by a very attractive woman named Marina. Hot For Words podcasts are a series of educational short films that explore the meanings and origins of words and phrases. I've been able to use Hot For Words as a means of pre-teaching vocabulary words prior to reading other articles or texts, so that the kids can ultimately gain greater comprehension of what they read. Put simply, they love it. They can't take their eyes off the screen (which is pretty small, given that they watch it on my IPhone). After watching a podcast, which lasts anywhere from 60-90 seconds, we discuss the word and its meaning, write it, speak it, and use it in sentences. It's a great word-attack strategy and vocabulary-building tool. I do need to be judicious in which podcasts I allow the boys to watch (for example, I elected not to show the podcasts titled "Pull A Boner" and "Peeping Tom." I'm sure I don't have to explain my reasoning here). But Marina's podcast for the term "Kangaroo Court" was a great scaffold for the Bats post that described the mock court used in the Yankees' clubhouse as a way of cultivating a lighter team atmosphere. Check out Hot For Words and see what you think. Am I using sex to sell reading? Maybe. But I see it like this: I'm meeting these boys where they're at, and I'm using this platform responsibly to teach a few simple words and concepts that they can then build upon for further learning.

The new literacies could never be a replacement for real books. But as a teacher, I believe it is my responsibility to prepare my students for the real world and offer tools they can use to engage safely and productively with their surroundings. I hope I can make a difference.

Friday, May 15, 2009

the man who walked between the towers

For some time now, I've been fascinated by the story of Philippe Petit and his historic, astonishing wire walk between the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Earlier this year, in an effort to bring more picture books into my students' lives, I grabbed a copy of Mordicai Gerstein's The Man Who Walked Between The Towers off my younger son's bedroom bookshelf and placed it on display in my classroom. I've read it a few times to some of my students, and they always fire off question after question at the book's conclusion: Yo, did that dude fall? How'd he do that? Was he crazy? Is he still alive? I've realized that the themes in this story are particularly meaningful to the population I work with: having a dream, safety, right vs. wrong, crime and punishment, radical self-expression.

I recently got a new student, a 14 year old kid who has been in the system for too many years of his young life. I was warned before I got him: "Watch this one. Started a lot of trouble in the last program he was in. Tough kid." When She'Vaughn saw the book on display on my shelf for the first time, I couldn't help but notice the changes on his face. His eyes got wide, his lower jaw went a little slack, and--he smiled. "Yo, I remember this book. Read it when I was in 4th grade. This book's ill."

"She'Vaughn, I love this book. We'll read it here, if you'd like to."


Today we read it, and talked more about the story. I loved watching She'Vaughn hold the book, flip through the pages, feel the raised Caldecott stamp on the cover with his fingers. I asked him to imagine himself as Philippe at the moment he stepped out onto the wire and describe how he felt, what he saw, and what he heard. Here is what he wrote in his writer's journal:

The Man Who Walked Between The Towers

If I was him, I would see, a huge city! A lot of cars.
I see me up high. Watching the statue of Liberty. Saying hi
to it. Hearing birds chirping, asking me why am I so high
in the sky? I say I'm livin the dream I always dreamed. Feeling
free away from all of the Bad and the Good. Relax! Having fun,
feeling amazed of what I'm doin here. Praying I don't fall.
Screaming I'm on top of the world!!....Being told nothing.
Feeling what the towers feel. Knowing I'm making history,
knowing that no one could stop me until I feel like I had a nuff
of the day. Looking at New York harbor, saying I'm free as a bird.

My eyes got glassy. I told him I loved what he wrote.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Beavis and Butthead Do Reading Assessments

Butthead: Hey Beavis, check out this stupid reading assessment.

Beavis: Yeah, heh heh. It’s like, really stupid.

Butthead: Why do stupid teachers spend so much time giving us these dumbass assessments? It’s not like they show everything.

Beavis: Yeah, heh heh, heh heh. That’s why it says ASS at the beginning of ASSESSMENT! Heh heh.

Butthead: No, you moron, you don’t pronounce it that way! And besides, assessments do show some stuff…like how much you get what you’re reading, and how many words you know…

Beavis: Yeah, but does it help you figure out how to get CHICKS? Heh heh…

Butthead: Shut up, Beavis! This is about reading assessments, and how teachers just hafta know that they can’t tell everything about a reader using just a bunch of stupid tests. Teachers are stupid.

Beavis: Yeah, heh heh, they're really stupid...

I’m sure that after I administer a series of reading assessments to my young teenage male students, they may have a dialogue sort of like this one going on in their heads. Mind you, I do not think teachers as a whole are stupid, but sometimes, to be smart at our game, we need to consider what our reading assessments don’t tell us as much as what they do. Sometimes teachers (and administrators, and districts) focus too much on assessment, effectively inundating students with redundancy and repetition without considering how much value lies in the result, and to what extent the result will be used to inform instruction. Teachers need to be aware of the inherent limitations of assessment results.

Different reading tests measure different skills. That must be why I have a forest’s worth of reading assessment materials on multiple bookshelves in my classroom. Being new to the gig of “reading specialist/Title I Teacher,” I have taken my boss’ instructions to heart to focus significantly on the DAR (Diagnostic Assessment of Reading) as one of my primary assessment tools. The DAR offers data on student performance in the following areas: print concepts, phonological awareness, letters and sounds, word recognition, word analysis, oral reading, silent reading comprehension, spelling, word meaning, and fluency.

Results of DAR tests have given me good jumping-off points for instruction. I have used them to create lessons and activities that my students seem genuinely interested in. All of my students have made steady progress on periodic testing using the DAR. Then again, wouldn’t we expect fluency scores to increase the more a student reads and rereads the same 100-word passage over time? I’d imagine pretty much every kid would get at least somewhat more familiar with and read with more accuracy the passages by sight and by sound. I’ve also wondered to myself: what do I do with these fluency scores, aside from placing them on each student’s IRP form and showing it to my boss when she comes to observe me? Not that much at all.

Except for this: the one useful thing I use these fluency scores for is motivation, which is not an aspect of reading ability I can measure using DAR or any other kind of test, yet we educators know that this is the biggest key to reading success. I make it a point to show these scores to my students in an effort to point out to them that they’re making great progress, and they don’t have to take my word for it. They can see it in black and white. I’ve seen kids sit up straighter, strut around the room, even brag openly to their peers about how they’ve made great strides in K-Bizzle’s reading workshop. They take more pride in their reading and they’re generally more invested in the learning process.

The DAR, as well as other similar assessments, might not always bring out the best effort in a student. And in this setting, plenty of my kids have an automatic bias against anything that smells like a test. In order for them to buy into what I’m trying to sell, many of my kids have to have a genuine interest in the material in front of them. The DAR doesn’t necessarily bring out everyone’s A-game. So will my results be reliable?

While the DAR and other reading assessments offer a lens through which to “see” our readers, we teachers have to keep it all in perspective and not let assessments cloud our view of the big picture. The overarching theme I try to promote in my classroom is that reading brings joy, so I try to toss at least a little joy into the lesson every day. My students – and thank God they’re not as challenging as Beavis and Butthead – all tell me they like reading more now than they used to. Wow. And they had to come to jail to realize it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

team-teaching with the yankees

I've used basketball to sell reading with Matt de la Pena's book Ball Don't Lie, and I've succeeded in getting the attention of several reluctant readers. Recently I acquired a new student and, in the course of discussion during our reading interview (in which I gauge a new student's interests, academic strengths and challenges, and so forth) it became clear that I have a baseball fan on my hands. Not just an everyday baseball fan, who can tell you the difference between a ball and a strike but not the difference between a batting average and a slugging percentage, nor the distinction between Joe and Dom DiMaggio. No, this young man is of a different ilk. He is a Yankee fan. Upon realizing this, I thought to myself: HAH. Little does he know his reading teacher is a life long, bona fide, jock lady Yankee Fan who, if left to her own devices, could easily spend a day reading the New York Post sports section and listening to WFAN radio as she could showing up for a day of work.

We've got ourselves some common ground, I thought. Until I heard him say, "I don't read." What? Sorry? Come again? "Miss, I just don't like to read. I don't read on my's not something I do."


"You say you like the Yankees, right, Domenic?"
"Have you read the new Joe Torre book?"

Domenic looks at me with a stare that could win all staring contests. "I've heard of it," he finally says, still eyeing me with part curiosity, part shock.

"Let's go shopping. Come here." I motion for him to move his chair a little closer to where I'm sitting at my computer, and I pull up the Amazon website. In a flash, I have the order placed. "I should have this by the end of this week. I've been dying to read it, too. This will be fun."

Well, fun it has been, but it's taken some scaffolding to get the party started. Domenic's assessed reading level is roughly 5th-6th grade; The Yankee Years, by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci, is written at about a 12th grade level. Ah, the learning curve of the first year reading teacher. Whoops. But, I figure, that's okay. We'll read it together in class, out loud, together, whatever. This kid needs to read something that he has genuine interest in, something that's current and relevant. Domenic started reading TYY a few weeks ago. He (we) are on page 49. Pace is not something that concerns me. Steady progress is. Discussing this book with Domenic, making connections to his experiences, using it to create writing lessons - this is where the real value of The Yankee Years lies.

Recently, after the Red Sox took their fifth win in a row from the Yanks this season, I asked Domenic what he thought of the Yankees' hopes for playoff contention. He gave a thoughtful response and pointed to many angles, from the pitching staff to production at the plate to managerial issues. "They've made some mistakes, sure," Domenic said. "But if you look at the whole picture, they're made of good stuff. They have hope."

Kind of like you, Domenic, I thought. No. Just like you.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

the joy of fishing

I've been fishing again. Okay, still. The kind of fishing I do in my classroom, where I toss out my bait (cool books) and wait for a tug on the line, brings a similar kind of joy and satisfaction to that of real fishing, which I also happen to enjoy. I try to load my tackle box with all the stuff I think my fishies will like: realistic fiction, non-fiction, sports themes, urban literature. They don't always bite, but sometimes the reward comes from just knowing they're considering getting caught.

My latest catch comes using Matt de la Pena's Ball Don't Lie, a story about a hardscrabble inner city kid who devotes his life to playing basketball. Sticky is a young man who makes his home in a variety of foster settings but lives primarily at Lincoln Rec, the gritty L.A. gym where he has found a family among the serious players, mostly black men. Told in the rhythmic, hip-hop language of the street, Sticky’s is a riveting story about a young man’s struggle to attain a college basketball scholarship and deepen his relationship with his girlfriend. Some readers may be thrown off by the disjointed narrative, which loops between past and present. Others see the nonlinear storyline as a reflection of Sticky's own internal struggles as he comes to terms with violent childhood tragedies, numbed emotions, and his sometimes-compulsive behavior (he repeats certain actions such as shoe-tying until they feel right). Teens are strongly affected by the unforgettable, distinctly teen male voice; the thrilling, realistic basketball action; and the questions about race, identity, self-worth, and what it means to build a life without advantages.

Ball Don’t Lie seems to capture both the angst as well as the attention of many young men in the DYS secure treatment program. Kids gravitate toward this book because they can see themselves in it. It’s been particularly rewarding to see kids open themselves to this story – kids who would have previously described themselves as either non-readers or not lovers of reading. BDL is something of a pivot point for many DYS kids; this appears to be a book with the potential to change a young person’s mind about reading. I see it as a great, engaging story that holds keys to further doors into the world of literature.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

picture books and teen readers

I've been thinking a lot lately about how to make more inroads with my students in my reading workshop. I consider all of them to be reluctant readers, with some being downright hellbent against reading anything that's not explicitly part of their deal to get out of lockup. It occurred to me, after a few months of teaching in DYS, that not only do my kids lack literacy-rich backgrounds, but they also lack exposure to art. Maybe I could bring more picture books into the fold, I mused. Would they think these to be too "babyish?"

Little by little, I've been testing the picture book waters by bringing in books that have sparked my interest. At first, I don't say anything about the book, but I display it in a prominent place in my classroom and wait to see who picks it up. It's kind of like fishing. So far I think I've used some good lures: Mordicai Gerstein's The Man Who Walked Between The Towers, which tells the fascinating story of Philippe Petit's 1974 highwire walk between the World Trade Center towers in New York; and Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which is such an artful, literary gem of a work (see my review in an earlier post). Both books have succeeded at getting the attention of all of my students. Doors that were once shut tight are now opening, shedding light on new ideas, new thinking. It's exciting to see - and I realize I have to keep a steady flow of these books coming.

My latest discovery, thanks to Barbara Lindsay, my Literacy Learning For Older Children instructor, is Eve Bunting's Riding The Tiger. Barbara read this book aloud last Thursday night to a class of twenty or so teachers, and it was as if the words themselves came to life and rose up off the pages. Bunting, along with David Frampton's distinctive woodcut illustrations, tells the story of young Danny, new to town and eager to belong. She uses the vivid allegory of the tiger, who befriends an impressionable Danny, to represent the allure of gang culture. Danny believes in the tiger's promise of respect and power, until he realizes that fear is at the core of the tiger's prowess. Riding The Tiger offers a powerful message about temptation, submission and loss of control that comes when we accept a ride on any kind of tiger.

Thematically, I don't know how much more relevant I can get than this. Tomorrow I plan to go fishing with a tiger in my classroom. I wonder who I'll catch?

Friday, April 24, 2009

i heart vacation

Well, another vacation week comes to a close. I should be spending some time on my Reading Specialist licensure coursework, but the day is so beautiful and the weekend promises even better weather. Girls, we know what this means: it's pedicure season! I had to invest some time today in my feet. I chose this robin's egg blue for my set of ten.

As much as I love my job, I also love the necessary battery-charging time away from it. I had a great week off. Time for a weekend full of baseball, fun and flip flops. Somehow I'm going to have to make time for my classwork. I'll put it off as long as I can.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Walter Dean Myers is on my wish list...

Saw this article today via a tweet from Adlit. How I would LOVE to get Walter Dean Myers to speak at the program where I work!

I now have to read Monster, his book about a 16 year old who goes on trial for homicide...the pile on my nightstand grows taller and taller...

Friday, April 17, 2009

light a fire

I get a daily e-mail from someone named Barbara J. Feldman, who distributes, among other electronic educational material, "Light A Fire: Education Quote of the Day." I'm as likely to actually open these e-mails as I am to just send them to the trash folder, unviewed. Today, for some reason, I decided to see what nugget of wisdom ol' Babs had to share:

"We all need someone who inspires us to do better than we know how."
- anonymous

Isn't this the truth? It's a magnificent feeling of empowerment when we find that person who inspires us, but it's even more impactful when that person recognizes their role as S/he Who Inspires Others. I hope that I can be that inspirational someone to my students. Even to just one kid. That's what I really, really hope.

I know who my big inspirational someone is. I'm married to him. And I'm going to make sure he knows this, too--by telling him, not just by forcing him to read my blog.

Here's the link to those educational quotes, for anyone interested:

Thursday, April 16, 2009

a reprieve for grief

first period, under the din
of singular staccato oral reading,
into my left ear
the husky, supervisory voice
carefully murmurs
the tragic news
nearly inaudibly.

I make this much out:
next period.
bad day.
best friend.

our eyes meet,
a brief transaction of significance:
prepare yourself
a seventeen year old world
got shaken to the core
is probably not in the cards
for him

I hear a familiar shuffling,
a pace slower than usual.
Good morning Melvin, I say
to an ashen face.
tight braids, once exact
now transformed
into a wild afro,
a soundless scream of grief.

with radical compassion
I become his accomplice,
conspiring with the youthful offender
to grant him freedom
(the kind I keep in my classroom)
We escape
for a while
with a young French wire walker
dancing in the clouds
between tall twin towers

That dude coulda fallen
he finally says,
and I nod.
But he just didn't,
he says, looking up.
And I nod.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ill Colors

Sometimes the best things come in the smallest packages. Over the weekend I invested in a 4 pack of neon dry erase markers. I came in a tad early today and washed my white board 'til it squeaked. Let me tell you, every one of my students has commented on how bright and springy my board looks. "Yo, K-Bizzle, those day-glo colors are ILL," remarked one. I take that as the highest possible compliment.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

April is Poetry Month

In a nod to Poetry Month...

ready to learn

I always hear them before I see them
the unmistakable shuffling
the slow, methodic pace
State-issued plastic sandals

scuffing on concrete
sliding down the hallway

Making their morning commute

to my classroom.

pausing at the doorway, we greet each other
gaze to gaze
silently asking permission
to enter the room.
Good Morning, Augustin
comes out of my mouth
and nothing comes out of his,
but I know
he is glad to be welcomed
somewhere. Here.

ready to learn looks like this:
loose, khaki pants
suspended--by some miracle--
below the hips,
dark green, poly/cotton

illogical golf shirt
and those (hideous) sandals.

perfectly patterned
beautiful cornrows,
sparkling smile
eyes the color of dark chocolate
making brave contact with mine.

in spite of everything,
is standing at attention
at my classroom door
for today's lesson
to begin.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

I finally bought The Invention of Hugo Cabret for my classroom. I attended a Title I conference last fall where Megan Lambert, Instructor of Children's Literature Programs at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, conducted a great workshop on using picture books in the older grades to develop visual thinking. Someone mentioned this book, and she remarked that it was an "essential" book for struggling teen readers. I returned from the conference, got it at the library and read it aloud with two of my students. Instant hit.

Brian Selznick's artful words and charcoal sketches combine to tell the unforgettable story of Hugo, a French orphan boy who lives in the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930's. Hugo lives a lonely life maintaining the station's clocks and repairing the automaton, a strange mechanical man he rescues from a burned out museum. When he repairs the automaton, Hugo believes it will write a note that will save his life. Hugo's world is disrupted when the old man who runs the train station's toy shop confiscates his precious notebook--the one in which Hugo records notes on the automaton. Without it, he can't repair the mechanical man, upon whose existence Hugo's life now depends.

Hugo Cabret is a story of magic, survival, hope and triumph. Because it is equal parts novel, old movie, graphic novel and flip book, Hugo is a one of a kind experience that is sure to hook even the most reluctant reader.

I had planned on bringing Hugo into the classroom tomorrow, but when my sons, who are eleven and six, saw me tucking it into my school bag, they both cried out, "HUGO!" The pleading looks that followed said it all. There's no way I can refuse. Classics are meant to be read again and again, aren't they?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Just A Schema Dreama

I love alliteration. In fact, I recently created the first Alliteration Poetry Slam in the program in which I teach, which was pretty enthusiastically received by students and staff. So when I read Debbie Miller’s nugget of wisdom related to explicit modeling in Reading With Meaning (Stenhouse, 2002)—“proper planning prevents poor performance”—it pressed the on-button of my schema, my background knowledge, to make a meaningful connection. “Explicit modeling requires thoughtful planning,” she writes. We’ve all winged it at times in our storied teaching careers, but do not attempt this approach when it comes to modeling our thinking for our very impressionable students. She couldn’t be more right on the money. These are the years during which we as teachers have a fantastic opportunity to imprint our kids with thinking strategies that will last a lifetime. We’ve got the chance before us to mold their pathways of thought by modeling ours. Is this wing-it time? Heck no.

I love Miller’s comparison of book shopping to clothes shopping. Talk about tapping into my glorified schema of retail therapy. If we don’t select books intelligently – meaning yes, we’ve got to try them on to be sure we can make authentic connections with them – then they’re sure to remain the books that sit on our shelves with stiff, intact spines and pristine pages. Unopened, unused, undiscovered, unloved. I'm describing the books, but we might also use these words to describe the minds of the children we’re being paid to shape. Interesting.

In my current teaching setting, I am working with students who generally have a hard time using schema. They have weak literacy backgrounds, combined with a lack of enriching life experiences that we hope teenagers would have at this point in their lives. There’s less with which to connect. As a teacher, I realize that I have two choices: give it my best shot and model authentic questions, connections and inferences, using texts my students are more likely to relate to; or not. I have to go with the first option. After all, time spent in lock-up counts as gaining personal experience. We can start preparing them for future connections by building schema right here, right now.