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...