Friday, July 9, 2010

Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

I haven’t posted any Tales in a while.

But that doesn’t mean I have ceased thinking about my students and the meaning of my teaching, and looking for ways to make more and stronger connections with these boys. Even though I am very short on time lately, I wanted to put something down about what’s going on here at G House. But what?

If I spin my teacher’s roulette wheel of memorable moments over the past few months, here’s where the little ball lands: Cesar. He’s the kid who threatened a teacher (not me) in a way that made her both laugh out loud—and wince visibly. What he said to her was, “Miss, I’m gonna stick a pencil up your ass.” I know that this is crude. But this is par for the course in the clink. This isn’t Sunnybrook Farm, you know. Cesar, with shaved eyebrows, eyes the color of wet, dark chocolate, and long, dark, curly hair (always pulled back in a ponytail), was excused from the program. Today. Cesar was brought back to secure treatment in Westfield. Today. It wasn’t only because of this comment; it was because he had threatened plenty of other staff and residents, with words in various languages and dialects, as well as behaviors that translated rather clearly across every culture.

Why? I ask. Why is Cesar so angry? Is it anger? Is it a mental health issue? I only had a sum total of seven short days, truncated by extended bathroom breaks, to try to teach him to read, most of them in a hot, cramped classroom. With one very small, very anemic air conditioner, and with books and materials I had such lofty hopes for, but that never got used. By me. And Cesar. How will he fare? I do not know. I’d like to remain optimistic. Some of these kids can - and really will make it. But sadly, my mind keeps coming back to the word recidivism. I cannot help it. I don’t think Cesar is going to live much of his life beyond prison.

Friday, May 14, 2010

shifting gears

Folks, this is to be my last post for a while. I've decided to shunt my blogging juices in a different direction, away from one thing I love, teaching in the juvenile justice system, and toward another: food.

Now you may be wondering why someone would want to add another food blog into the already well-saturated blogosphere. Who would read it? Why would anyone care about what yet another food-obsessed American has to say about a topic that has been whirled around the world wide Cuisinart too many times? Who cares?

It may well be that, in fact, no one does. Besides me, that is. And that would be fine. My new motivation for writing about food comes from how moved I am by the little farm that my family and I have bought a share in for the past several years. It is a little jewel of a place, rich with biodynamic soil and people who believe in the vitality of food, community and sustainability. Honestly, when I think about the upcoming farm season, which begins in just two and a half weeks, I feel myself start to shake a little bit. It's just a farm, I know; but what I've realized is that its presence in my life has a deep and profound effect. In big and little ways. So I'm going to write about it, on a daily basis, for 22 weeks. We'll see what happens. If you care to, follow me on over to my new blog, Big Onions, at Salon:

And, if not, thanks for following Tales From The Clink.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Tase Me, Bro

Today in my Title I reading workshop we're taking a look at an issue that has made recent headlines: the fan at a Phillies game who ran onto the field and was subdued via taser by police. I've just completed 90 or so hours of state-mandated Category 1-4 English Language Learner (ELL) teacher training. Much of this training has focused on methods of modifying instruction for students whose primary language is something other than English. This population of students, which is very culturally diverse, makes up a majority of students within the juvenile justice system. In my ELL training, there's a lot of emphasis on building background, in explicitly linking concepts to students' own personal experiences.

In preparing for this lesson, I think a lot about how I can build background for my students. I'm guessing they've heard about this issue, because the TV is on in the living room downstairs somewhere between frequently and always, and it's tuned to ESPN about 90% of the time. It's a sports issue, I reason, so they'll have to have at least heard of this, right? I pre-teach some of the vocabulary in the NY Times Bats blog post by Justin Sablich ("tased," "appropriate," "force," and "stunt" are a few); we watch a 45 second You Tube clip of the kid running on the field and being taken down; we do a shared reading of the NY Times sports article, "To Tase Or Not To Tase?"; and we listen to a podcast excerpt of the Tony Kornheiser Show in which several sportswriters/commentators discuss the ins and outs of this issue.

True confessions: before teaching the lesson, I pretty much make up my mind that the kids are going to love the fan who ran out on to the field and hate the trigger happy stun gun cop. How could they not? Kids in juvie hate cops, don't they? Plus, every teenage kid probably wants to get his 15 minutes of fame somehow, some way. They'll think the fan is cool and the cop's a jerk. I'm totally convinced of it.

As we finish reading the blog post, Carlos blurts out: "Miss, I've been tased before. It feels like a big shock, and your arms drop and you go down. Oh, and it leaves a big red mark." Raul adds, "Yo Miss, I haven't been tased before, but my brother has. The cop had to hold the trigger down like, mad long, because my brother's really fat, and he had to like, aim it at his ankle and his back and stuff. My brother had like a heart problem and had to go to the hospital when that happened." By the end of the day, I find that all but one of my students have direct experience with being tased. They know how it feels. I don't.

So much for the freshly-trained teacher building all that background. I half laugh to myself as I realize something: they've built the background for me.

We compile a pros and cons wall around the issue, and each kid contributes something to it. Some play devil's advocate, some not. We discuss the rights and wrongs, the who-did-whats and what-would-you-have-dones. At the end of the class, each kid writes a reflection statement in response to the appropriateness of the use of tasers on fans who trespass at a major league ball game. "People need to act right when they're in public," Pablo writes in his response statement. "We couldn't know what the kid was going to do. No one can know. He could have had a weapon. And if the cops had taken him down in a tackle, he could have gotten way more hurt. The taser was an appropriate use of force in this case."

By the end of the day, every kid agreed that it was the fan who was at fault for making a poor decision to run out on to the field. Every kid sided with the cop for using the taser to subdue the fan and control the situation.

I begin to realize that this happens all the time. By 'this,' I mean the prejudging of my students. Lots of people take these kids of color, these kids in lock up, put them in boxes and attach labels: 'Trouble.' 'Lazy.' 'Stupid.' And although I definitely don't see my kids as any of these things, I had sized them up in a certain way because of their status as juvenile offenders. I 'knew' their opinions before hearing what they really thought and reading what they wrote. I made them guilty of something, in my own mind, before hearing their testimony.

Now, some may say that mine isn't such a horrible gaffe. But thoughts, even the tiny, invisible ones, can lead to meaningful behaviors and actions that are detectable by others. I really want my students to be sure, as often as possible, that I believe in them, that I give them the benefit of the doubt. I think all teenagers need guidance by adults who have this attitude. As I reflect on today's lesson, I feel a bit disappointed in myself. I'll try not to make this mistake again. And I suppose what I feel the most is gratitude to these boys for reminding me that teachers, not just students, can learn important lessons in their own classrooms.

It's true I've never been tased. But today I felt a little stun. And it felt good.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

indulge yourself

Just ducked out at lunch to fill my gas tank and grab a delicious iced caramel latte. While in the quicky mart, I decided to throw caution to the wind and buy a scratch ticket. For ten dollars, I could make retirement happen way sooner than when I'm planning to, which is, by my calculations, age 93. A bargain, I reasoned.

Well, my visit to the quicky mart cost me this:

gas: $34.10
iced caramel latte: $3.31
scratch ticket: $10.00

TOTAL: $47.41

Moral of the story: gambling, as well as lattes, are for suckers.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

where the wild things are

I have a student named Robert, the likes of whom I have never faced in my decade or so of teaching. Robert is a fairly adept reader, reading and comprehending at close to a 9th grade level, and he likes reading, so right there we seem to have two strikes in our favor, right?

Wrong. When Robert gets to my classroom door, he's accompanied by a one on one staff who's ready to apply restraint techniques at the drop of a hat. Or a pencil. Or my laptop. Or anything that Robert feels like flinging across my classroom. If we could see Robert biochemically, I think it would look something like a Jackson Pollock piece. He's all over the place. I think he's on a molotov cocktail of personality meds, and from what I can tell, no one can seem to find a good combination. One may not exist. Normally, a kid who's as much of a powder keg as Robert is would not last here at G House. He'd be shipped back to secure treatment, most likely. But Robert is going to age out in three weeks, at which point he'll become a ward of the Department of Mental Health. So here he will stay, until he turns 18.

How do you teach a kid like Robert? What are a reasonable set of goals and expectations? Two words: harm reduction. My goal is to reduce the possibility that Robert freaks out and hurts someone or something. I've decided to take this approach to Robert's remaining time here not so much to protect myself - although I'll admit that's part of it - but to offer this kid at least one 45-minute period each day during which he might be able to feel a little bit of calm, perhaps a touch of peace. I imagine it must be very, very hard to live inside this kid's body. I believe in empathizing with kids, but I would never want to walk in his shoes.

At one point Robert indicated that he liked Scrabble. So this is what we do during Robert's class time. I have Scrabble on my laptop, and we play together pretty much every day. We talk about words, we strategize, and maybe here and there I sneak in a little writing exercise (if he's having a good day, which are few and far between).

When Robert ages out next month and moves on to his next facility, I, along with many other teachers, staff and residents, will exhale loudly. You'll probably hear it. But in spite of the relief we're sure to feel, I hope Robert finds some of his own, some kind of peaceful plateau. We all deserve to have a slice of it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

spring break

It's finally here: April vacation week. I'm sitting in a coffee shop while my little guy is at a birthday party at a movie theater around the corner. I'm having nearly two hours of ME time! Imagine that! Moments like this seem rare, but it's the perfect way to kick off my spring vacation. I get a chance to let all my thoughts settle and sift while the idle cafe banter plays in the background.

I'm letting my mind just wander, but it's making its way back into thoughts of my professional life. Clink stuff...

I think of William, who is about to graduate next week but doesn't want to, because he's so tied into the gang culture and he knows he is going to have to face the kid who stabbed him before he got locked up.

I think of Paco, whose girlfriend just had a baby girl, and who told me, after his last home pass, that he gives the baby extra Tylenol just to make her sleep.

I think of Kyle, who was going to graduate yesterday, but instead got into a fistfight with another resident. His transition into the next stage of his life is now tainted. I hope and pray it doesn't set him back.

I think of Alex, who has bragged to me about his prowess at many things, including dealing drugs and as a ladies' man. He told me a few days ago that a girl claims she's pregnant with his baby. By the way, Alex's girlfriend is expecting in June.

I think of Manny, who read with me last Thursday a short story published in 1996 about Tiger Woods. He told me, "Miss, even though I can read this, I love it when you read out's like the words become alive when you read."

It's 11:10 and I have to pick up my son from the birthday party. May we all have a peaceful, restful week, and do something that gives us pleasure.

Friday, April 9, 2010

friday at the masters

Today is Friday--with a capital F. It's the end of a long week, one that somehow feels as though it's lasted longer than five working days. I thought today would be a perfect day to introduce writer's journals to the kids. They could take the stack of magazines I keep in my classroom and cut out images and words that reflect their personalities and strengths, then decorate their journals in a way that has personal meaning. Hopefully, with a touch of their own style, the kids will be more likely to feel connected to their writing, and more motivated to share authentically in it. They dive into the magazines with zeal while I point out that the words and images they choose need to be appropriate.

"You mean no gang stuff?" says Jerome.

"Right," I respond.

"What about booze?" queries Paco.

"Yeah, we need to leave that out, too," I say. The boys seem unfazed by these parameters and go about their searching, cutting and gluing.

To go along with this relaxed atmosphere, I'm streaming live coverage of the Masters tournament. A few of the students here have been lucky enough to have been out on a golf course with a particularly kind staff member who happens to be a golf fanantic. Most, though, don't like golf. They don't follow it, don't care about it, and don't know of any golfers aside from Tiger Woods. But, I reason to myself, there's nothing like the sweet, tinkling sound of the piano music that they play during Masters coverage, the tweeting birds in the background, and the hushed voices of the commentators to set a relaxed tone. It's this kind of aural accompaniment that I think can really help keep the most explosive DYS resident fairly tame.

During 5th period, Alex remarks, "Yo Miss, you got any better music than this?"

"Why, you don't like it? This is the music they play whenever the Masters is on. It's supposed to be soft and calming, I guess," I point out.

"They don't got no Puerto Rican music? You know, bop bop bam bam, bop bop BAM!" Alex mimes.

"Yeah, I can see how that might liven things up a bit. But they tend not to play Puerto Rican music during golf tournaments. Especially this one. They like to keep things pretty chill."

I giggle to myself, imagining the brass at ESPN or CBS Sports or The Golf Channel trying to reach out to the Hispanic audience, experimenting with salsa music during the biggest golf event of the year.

Hmph. No wonder these kids can't relate to golf.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

fringe benefits

One of the fringe benefits of teaching in the DYS system is that teachers have no extracurricular requirements. You aren't forced to supervise any after school clubs, coach any sports, or suffer through detention duty. This is not to say that I don't value the educational opportunities that out of school time programs offer. I simply welcome not having to be an unwilling supervisor. But because we're mandated to work an eight hour day, DYS teachers are on the job site for a significant period of time outside of acadmic instruction, and some of that time includes those morning hours when the boys are getting up to start their day, eating breakfast, doing their chores, etc. I try not to get in their way, and they seem to go about their morning routine in a fairly calm and resolute manner.

In a way, I've come to enjoy this part of my working day. I have a full hour in my classroom before my students arrive. I greet the boys quietly in the second floor common room as I make my way up to my third floor perch. I leave the door to my room ajar, leaving open the opportunity for boys to say hello, or not say hello, or ask what we're reading in class today. Simple stuff. Chitchat. Conversation that won't be graded or judged in any way.

This morning, Omar's face appeared at my doorway. "Miss," he chirped. I saw that he had rubber gloves and three or four trash bags in his hand. "Miss, you need your room cleaned, or your trash taken out?"

This program, like others in the system, operates on a point system. The kids need to earn points to maintain their status level. Points are earned and lost for good and poor behavior, academically and otherwise. Kids who might be a little lower on the points ladder might go looking for creative ways to earn extra points. In Omar's case, I know that he lost points for getting into a squabble with another resident over the weekend. But he's always been a very willing, very cooperative student with me. "Well, sure, that would be great. Are you looking to get some extra points?"

Omar nods. I glance at the trash barrel, which is overflowing with garbage left by the third shift staff who uses my classroom like the basement of a frat house. "Can you take the trash out?" I ask him. "Yeah, uh, that's my chore this week anyway. So, I'll sweep the floor, wipe the desks, and take your trash. Is that okay?"

Omar's face, like the faces of all of these boys, seems so innocent right now, so freshly scrubbed. Sometimes I truly wonder how so many of these boys got into so much trouble. "That'd be great, Omar. 25 points sound okay to you?"

Omar smiles. "Yes, thank you." He goes about cleaning the room as I begin my morning routine of starting up my computer, putting out supplies and arranging my plan book. Omar finishes his job pretty swiftly, gathers the trash and heads down the stairs. In a minute, he reappears in the doorway with a funny look on his face. "Miss, staff is busy right now, and I need to take this trash out." I know very well that Omar can't exit the building without a staff present, but this seems like an unusual circumstance. With a high-risk kid, I would never agree to it, but Omar is such a straight arrow, no-nonsense type of resident. "I'll come out with you," I offer, and I grab my keys and we head out.

It's a beautiful morning. The cool air feels refreshing, invigorating. Omar trots out to the sidewalk with the trash bag, and as he does so I notice a woman to my right, walking down the driveway next door to G House. I hear her high heeled shoes before I see her. She's light brown skinned, maybe in her late twenties, wearing a very tight, revealing dress that shares more with the world than I can say I'm comfortable with. I glance up at the front porch of the house next door and see a man. Wearing only a towel. As my eyes take in this information, it all registers. There's business being conducted next door. Before I can bring my attention back to my charge, I hear the man on the porch say "good morning," and I look up in time to see him drop his towel, exposing his manhood to the brisk morning air. And to me.

Immediately, I see Omar fling the trash bag down and run toward the neighbor. "OMAR!!!" I yell. "Omar, get over here!" I manage to grab Omar by the sleeve, and somehow push and shove him back toward G House, where another staff, who has obviously heard my outside voice, comes to my aid.

"That guy can't do that shit," says Omar, breathless and clearly heated, once we get safely inside G House.

"Do you think he was trying to offend me?" I ask Omar.

"Yeah! Miss, that guy was so rude. I had to stand up for you."

"Omar, it means a lot to know that you would stand up for me. But I would never want you to get in trouble as a result. I tell you what: the next time you need someone to escort you outside, we'll find a male staff to do it. I'll stick to teaching. Deal?"

Omar smiles. "Deal," he agrees.

I head back up to my classroom, and Omar goes to wash his hands. I stifle a smirk as I consider how authentic learning opportunities can be found in the most unlikely places.

Monday, March 29, 2010

the best way out

I follow someone on Twitter called @thedailylove, who populates the twitterverse with a variety of uplifting quotations and statements, some of which resonate with me. Today's daily love includes a quotation by the beloved poet Robert Frost.

"The best way out is always through."

"Out" is a place my students long to be, and some of them even earn this before they leave the program by demonstrating good behavior and strong commitment to education. If they play their cards right, they can qualify for home passes, and some of them manage to earn the chance to get home on a handful of weekends before they graduate. Still, a 36 hour home pass is nowhere near the same as the sustained freedom of being OUT. They pine for this. Wistfully, they talk about life on the out as if they are permanently marooned on a desert island, yearning for a mouthful of fresh water.

Up until recently it seemed that although they wanted nothing more than to return to life on the out, they were unwilling to take seriously the academic and clinical work required to complete their programs of adjudication. They wanted the fruit without doing any of the labor. Some have gone to extremes to try to avoid the direction of "through" by jumping out of second story windows and limping for their lives. Most stay put physically but show clear indications that they intend to go right back to their gangbanging, streetwalking, drug-selling ways. They're here, and they go through the motions, but they're going around, or under or over, not through. But I've noticed something happening lately in my classroom. My students are engaged in learning. You can see it. They're becoming willing readers. These oppositional boys, whom I have seen in full blown fits of rage in varying stages of bipolar freefall, are settling down to read. With me. In my classroom. Wow.

I feel an enormous sense of accomplishment, but I'm not the one that owns it. What I really want to do is this: take a picture of each class, each combination of boys, and blow it up to a large size that anyone and everyone can see. This is newsworthy! I want the world to know what changes have happened here in the clink! Look at what you boys can accomplish when you allow yourselves to go through the juvenile justice system. Above all, I want them to see themselves. This is what you look like when you're learning, I want to tell them. Isn't it beautiful?

Friday, March 19, 2010

The 'Hoodest White Girl You Know

Overheard a moment ago at the end of my 5th period class:

Tariq: "Miss, I'm gonna start calling you Shaniqua. No, Shanaynay."

Me: "Oh yeah? Why is that?"

Tariq: "'Cause you is the 'hoodest white girl I know."

Me: "Wow, thanks Tariq. No one has ever said that to me before."

I try to connect with my students, to work and interact with them in such a way that they don't see me as some uppity white woman who's trying to teach them a brand of literacy that they can't relate to. I want to create a teacher-student connection that makes it easy for them to become better readers.

But I didn't see myself as being 'hood. Oh well. Maybe it's a good thing, after all.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

come on baby, light my fire

From the archives of Barbara J. Feldman, the purveyor of the web's Light A Fire daily inspirational quotations, comes this little nugget o' truth:

"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great." - Mark Twain

This reminds me of the people who I've been lucky enough to know who are among the "really great." I remember how they have made me feel: powerful, capable without limit, warm, positive, benevolent. People who seemed to radiate goodness in such a way that I could practically absorb it, like sunshine, and shine brighter myself as a result. I just want to be that kind of teacher, that kind of person. It's the kind of fire that I want to light for my students. Some days, though, it seems it's all I can do to fan the embers enough to light my own way.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Dope Sick

Here in the clink, there's no rest for the weary. We're moving right along, from yesterday's rhyming whimsy of Dr. Seuss straight into the harsh realism of Walter Dean Myers' Dope Sick. Actually, it is an impulsive choice to read this book aloud, mostly because of a first period scheduling error (I had two students of drastically different reading abilities paired together in the same class). At 8:00 am, I decide to go for it, and dive right in:

"My arm was hurting bad. Real bad. The bone could have been broken. I couldn't tell. I just knew it was hurting and swollen. I felt like just taking the gun out and throwing it away and giving up so I could get the mess over with."

Glancing at my two students, I can tell immediately that I've got them. Hooked. I swear, this job is so much like being an angler. That I love both fishing and teaching reading really comes as no surprise. There's this thrill I get when I know I've got a bite. I feel as though Dope Sick is great bait for my students, my (mostly) reluctant teen readers. So I let out the line, and give them more:

"I started to lift my arm to look at my watch and the whole arm just lit up with pain. The bone had to be broken. I figured it was two or three o'clock in the morning. Skeeter had called me just past midnight and told me they got Rico. I knew Rico was going to punk out. In a way I was glad they got him, but I knew he was going to blame everything on me."

"Yo Miss, what's this book? This book is crazy," remarks Jose. Jose, who reads at about a first grade level, is a self-proclaimed "non-reader." I think that this status is probably less a result of him not wanting to be a reader, but due more to the fact that reading brings such frustration. And shame. Jose knows that his classmate, Denzel, is a much more able reader, probably at a 7th grade level . But I'm reading aloud to both students with purpose, to level the playing field, to make the same text as accessible to one as the other.

"So, guys. What's happening here so far? Why do you think this character's arm is broken?"

I sit back and listen to their responses, and we talk about making predictions based on what we know so far and how it might relate to the title of the book. Before I can continue, Jose implores me to keep reading, and he wants to know if we'll be reading this book every day this week. "Well, I imagine we can fit this into our lessons this week. You like this book, huh?" Jose, wide eyed and alert, nods vigorously.

Hah, I say to myself. I got me a fishie.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Yo, Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss

Today in the clink we're celebrating the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss. Here are some sound bites from the day so far:

"What? Man, Dr. Seuss is like for babies, Miss. What we readin' that for?"

"Yo, you didn't show me the pictures. Show me the pictures after you read the page. I mean, please show me the pictures, Miss."

"You skipped one. You skipped a page. Miss, lemme read that. Gimme that book. Miss, can I read now? I can read better than that."

"All that brother had to do was rhyme, and he got rich? That's easy, man. I'm 'bout to do that."

After building the background of the legacy of Dr. Seuss, including the fact that Theodor Geisel was born in the city in which most of my students grew up, the boys appear to warm up slightly to the fact that I am reading a "babyish" book to them for today's lesson. "Go get your pillow, if you want," I tell them, and I see a little glint in their eyes, something that reminds them of the magic they perhaps used to feel when they were in early elementary school, and someone read to them while they got to lie on a soft carpet, listen to a kind voice and look at pictures. The idea of reading for pure pleasure...they go to their rooms and get their pillows (one brings back his blanket) and off we go.

"The news just came in from the county of Keck / That a very small bug by the name of Van Vleck / Is yawning so wide you can look down his neck..." I begin reading, with my most animated reader's voice, from Dr. Seuss' Sleep Book. I happen to be reading this one to my first grade son's class this afternoon, but I also thought this to be the PERFECT book to read to these kids, who are constantly telling me how tired they are, how all they want to do is go to sleep, how weekends are all about sleeping as late as they can. Ah yes...teenage boys. They can't help it, I suppose.

I finish reading the book and remark how similar the rhyming patterns that Dr. Seuss used are to rap and hip-hop lyrics. "Here, Kyle," I say, handing the book to a student. "Read a page as if you were rapping." Kyle, an aspiring rapper, easily obliges and puts on a little impromptu show.

"Everywhere / Creatures / Have shut off their voices / They've all gone to bed / In the beds of their choices," Kyle raps, complete with a puffed out chest and lots of hand gestures. "Miss, you're right!" Kyle chuckles. "That's funny."

We talk about the different rhyming words in the Sleep Book, and about rhyming patterns, including the difference between perfect and slant rhyme. I can tell they're getting into it. I assign a short writing exercise in which they create a rap, poem or song using whatever rhyming pattern they like. "Think about what you want your rap to be about. What kind of story do you want to tell? Or, what question could you ask?"

They jump right into this assignment. I don't have to say another word. What they come up with is clever, hilarious, and intelligent. And it all came from a lesson based on some "baby" book.

Friday, February 26, 2010

one simple thought

I'm not going to wax too poetic on this blog entry. But I feel an urge to put down this one simple thought: that all of the materials I use to teach comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, phonics, and all the ins and outs of turning out better readers - would never lead to my desired outcomes if I left out one key ingredient: love. There is a certain kind of love that exists in my classroom. It cannot be defined, but it can be detected. My students come from places where they cannot let their guards down, where they lie, steal and cheat to survive. Somehow--I honestly don't know how--I figured out that my success depends on my being able to offer these boys a place where they feel respected, valued and safe on a consistent basis. Mine is a small classroom, but it offers deep dividends in potential for learning. And it's because of love. Without it, I'd be a failure. And I could never live with that.

Monday, February 15, 2010

10 Things On My Winter Vacation To-Do List That Will Help Make Me A Better Teacher

Well, it's Day One of Winter Vacation. Most of the kids at G House didn't even realize that they had this week off when I told them last Friday. From the looks on their faces, you'd have thought I told them they were getting out of the clink early. "You know, you get a week off of school every February," I pointed out. They remained incredulous. I think that so many of these kids have been either incarcerated or truant for so long that they have lost that certain intrinsic rhythm that goes with the public school year.

I have to say that I am every bit as psyched as my students are. I felt this thrill this morning when my eyelids fluttered at 7am, a full two hours later than my normal Monday morning waking time. "Ahhhhh....yesssssss!!!!!" I thought to myself. Vacation week. I closed my eyes, smelled the coffee that the hubs started brewing (normally my task), and made a mental list of all the battery-charging things I will do this week that will, I tell you, WILL make me a better teacher once this week is over and I return to my third floor classroom to fight the good fight and teach my students how to become better readers.

And here's that list:

1. Olympics, Olympics, Olympics. It's all about the Olympics, baby!!! I am an Olympics addict, and this condition started when I was three years old and I watched the 1972 Munich games on a little black and white TV in the house I grew up in in New Jersey. I loved everything about it then, and I have watched every Olympic Games broadcast since. My first job after college was with CBS Sports, where I worked as a runner at the '92 games in Albertville. I didn't "run" as a competitor; rather, "runner" is/was a term that CBS used for temporary hires who worked for the duration of the games. I worked in the videotape archives. CBS housed us in a little ski resort called Valmorel. When we runners weren't working, we skied. There was a little pub at the bottom of the slope, and another one at the top. By the end of the games, Valmorel had been dubbed "Val-immoral." In '98, when I was pregnant with my first son and went into preterm labor at the end of January, I was thrilled out of my mind, because it meant that I would be able to watch each and every second of the Nagano games! The baby ended up being born past his due date. Uh, anyway, I'll be watching as much of the Vancouver 2010 games as I can. Thank goodness for DVR's.

2. Snowshoeing. If there's snow on the ground, I want to put on the 'shoes and go! I am lucky enough to live adjacent to conservation land and a state forest in western Massachusetts. When I want or need to be invisible, commune with nature, and get an excellent workout, opportunity is at my back door. Snow is forecasted for tonight and tomorrow. In the spirit of Napoleon Dynamite, I say yessssssssssssss.

3. Yoga. Why? It's simple, inexpensive, and centering. Plus, I can supervise my kids while practicing my asanas. Om.....

4. Spend time with my kids. I want to do lots of stuff with my sweet little red headed sons: read to them, play games with them, make popcorn, play outside in the snow, make indoor blanket forts, watch movies. I love having more time to do this kind of stuff, because the work/school week is always so darned structured that we tend not to get time to do the fun stuff.

5. Go see the new Percy Jackson movie. My older son is an avid reader, and he devoured the Percy Jackson/Lightning Thief series as soon as each book was published. Some of my students who were formerly reluctant readers have been really turned on by this series. So I'll take the kids to see Percy, and I'll consider it professional development (I'll need to preview this film in order to use clips in my classroom...some day).

6. Watch Season Two, Disc 1 of the HBO series "In Treatment" with Gabriel Byrne and Dianne Wiest. If you haven't seen it, it's a must for your Netflix queue. I could listen to Byrne's Irish brogue all day long.

7. Continue my nightly PTI "date" with the hubs. PTI stands for Pardon The Interruption, which is a show on ESPN that airs at 5:30pm Monday thru Friday evenings. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon review the day's athetic events in a mock-debate format, offering their colorful commentary and critical insight. The Mr. and I are both lifelong jocks and, I guess you'd say, scholars of the connections between sport and culture. Eww, that sounds so erudite. Mr. Tony would probably tell me to SHUT UP if he read that.

8. Get myself to a museum. I've been wanting to hit Mass MOCA for a while now. I'll take the kids and load us all up with a bit of cultcha.

9. Do a few pedis. As some of you may know, I am indeed a licensed nail technician. Long story. But it's something I do on the side, and I have a few steady clients. And they pay me well. So I'll continue this little moonlighting gig, saving up for that sick mountain bike I've got my eye on...

10. Make my birthday cake. I turn 41 at the end of this week. I want a cheesecake for my birthday cake, dammit. So, over the next few days, I will peruse a few cookbooks and foodie blogs in search of the penultimate cheesecake. And then I will make one. And it will kick booty. And mine will get larger as a result.

There's nothing standing in the way of my accomplishing every task on my Vacation Bucket List. I know that completing each one will make me a better teacher, the way that students become better readers when they have more life experiences to draw from in building that necessary background for richer comprehension. I wish the next week would take a month. Even though it won't, I plan on making the most of every moment during my vacation week. I hope you do, too.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


I did the biggest double-take on Friday, the last day of school before the winter break, and also the last day before Valentine's Day, which typically ranks up there among the biggest candy holidays in the school year. Walking past the common room on my way up to my classroom, I glanced in and thought I saw kids eating fruit. NAHHHHH, I said to my inner cynic, not believing what I was seeing. I looked back again and confirmed not my fears, but my hopes: every single kid was eating a piece of fresh fruit. "What are you eating?" I asked Jamal. "An apple, Miss," was Jamal's nonchalant response. "I'm hungry," he continued. "Is it good?" "Yeah, Miss, this apple's real good."

I didn't bother to ask where the fruit came from, or why I haven't seen the kids eating it more often. I left well enough alone, glad to see something nutritious going on at G House. In a very small way, it helps to balance out some of the less healthful things that happen there, such as kids who escape by jumping out a second story window at midnight because their withdrawal symptoms due to cocaine addiction force them to. Yes, people, fruit consumption in the clink is significant progress.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

greens, blacks and browns

So the boys came back from horticulture class this past Monday with an abundance of vegetables: salad greens, radishes, russian kale, parsley. During fourth period, under the guidance of Mrs. H., the horticulture teacher, they assembled a beautiful chop chop salad with the bounty of their harvest, adding hard boiled egg, bermuda onion, chopped apple, carrot, Chinese noodles, and more. It was stunning. "Miss," they said. "Are you going to have some of our salad for lunch?" "If there's any left over, sure!" I replied enthusiastically.

They looked at me kind of funny. I realized later that this funny look meant "we don't eat no stinkin' vegetables." It's true - I've never seen a kid at G House eat anything green and fresh. Or orange and fresh. Or anything that grows in the ground in its natural, unprocessed state. When I've asked them why they don't eat vegetables, most will say they simply don't like them. They were never offered them as young children, and so they have developed anti-vegetable palates. I observe what my students do eat, which consists of meat (chicken, pork, sometimes beef), rice or pasta, potato chips, and soda. That's all, folks. No fresh fruit. No salad (only on special occasions, and then it's in the form of iceberg lettuce, January tomatoes, and unidentified salad dressing).

And so my students--who are predominantly black or brown, 96% of whom are on behavioral medication, all of whom get little to no exercise, and all of whom eat unbalanced, unhealthy diets--are expected to learn, grow and meet the academic standards set forth by the Massachusetts DESE. This is a nutrient- and activity-poor recipe for failure, no?

What if...

-kids in juvenile justice facilities were provided with a wider array of nutrient-rich foods and given junk/treat foods only occasionally?

-there were reasonable limits set on the amount of time spent watching television and playing video games - for all kids, including those in juvenile justice facilities?

-each juvenile justice facility offered some kind of comprehensive physical fitness program?

-Mrs. H.'s horticulture program were expanded beyond the limits of the DYS program and right into the communities that these kids come from, so that kids and families could be connected to affordable and nutritious food sources while building up the communities at the same time?

-these efforts were pressed into action, if only to a minimal degree. Would we see increases in academic performance and decreases in behavioral issues?

It occurs to me that the latest national efforts to create standards for healthy lifestyles are far from becoming reality in the educational setting in which I work. The federal crackdown on getting junk food out of schools...the First Lady's Let's Move program, which addresses childhood obesity...even the quasi-hip Mediterranean these concepts have any chance of becoming part of the reality at G House and programs like it at any time in the near future? Or is the juvenile justice system not considered part of "our nation's schools?"

I just read an article heading: "Low I.Q. Predicts Heart Disease." This comes from the latest headlines from the New York Times. I'll have to read it later but I can't get past this thought: that it is the cycle of generational poverty that weaves the web of academic underachievement, chronic health problems, drugs, crime, etc. We can't cure any one problem or issue using one single method or effort. It's like trying to perform social liposuction: it just isn't a healthy, sustainable solution. We have got to take a holistic, broad brush approach to all of these issues, not just waging little wars a la carte. Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone is the best example of an anti-poverty effort that offers education, social service and community building programs. The data show that HCZ is working, and not just marginally. To read more about HCZ's dramatic success, take a moment to pore over its website at

I hear that President Obama intends to replicate Mr. Canada's success by creating 20 new "Promise Neighborhoods" across the U.S.. I cannot wait for this to happen. In the meantime, I'll keep fighting the good fight, teaching reading to my kids at G House, and figuring out a way to get some veggies into their mouths. Maybe I'll have to resort to bribery. Hey, it works for Geoffrey Canada.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Time With TED. Enough Said.

Short post today - I'm home with a sick child - but one of the things that a family sick day allows is a little time to explore and peruse some of the more worthwhile links shared by people in my Twitter community. Someone retweeted a link to a TED talk by Eve Ensler about "embracing your inner girl," which was mildly entertaining, but it prompted me to wander a bit through the TED site. Funny, I never regret the time I invest in TED, yet I can recall practically hating myself for the time I used to squander on Facebook (I recently deactivated my account).

In any case, I'd like to share a link to Dave Eggers' 2008 talk on creative engagement with youth and schools via community-based tutoring centers. He points to the critical importance of the one-to-one teaching/tutoring model - something so rare in education today, but so effective and vital to the success of students who struggle most. If you've never checked out a TED talk, consider this your lucky day.

Friday, January 22, 2010

recidivism bites

Last Friday we had a graduation for Jonah, a sixteen year old kid who is the father of two children and has another on the way. At the ceremony, we all bestowed our best wishes upon Jonah, saying positive words of encouragement and reminders about responsibility, hard work, and healthy goals. Jonah thanked everyone, including teachers, staff and other residents, and said he would keep his head up and stay out of trouble. To be honest, I had strong doubts about Jonah's future and his ability to make it out there (and by 'make it' I mean finishing school and getting a legitimate job, as opposed to earning a living as a purveyor of illicit drugs).

This morning I learned that Jonah was arrested for possession of marijuana, which means a few things:

1. he's going back to secure lock-up after only 6 days on the out
2. his community re-entry and education plans are totally derailed
3. I now know why I had such doubts about Jonah

In reading workshop, when I would ask Jonah to describe something in either oral or written format, he used to say to me, "Miss, I know what I am trying to say, but I can't find the words. I don't's's so hard for me." Jonah had also confided (in a very open way) that he had been smoking pot regularly since he was ten years old, and that he didn't know how he was going to make any money in life other than by dealing drugs. I asked him if he thought that plan would work for him in the long term. "What are my other choices?" he replied. "Well, education would be a good start, don't you think?" I offered. "Which would lead to a career path of your choice. It can be done, you know," I told him.

But I always saw a dismissive expression on his face when we had conversations like this one. I never got the impression that Jonah wanted to complete his education and get a job. Maybe he was addicted, to a number of things for a variety of reasons. But I still feel mournful at this latest twist in the tale of Jonah. I'd rather be writing about all the success stories of kids in DYS who actually use their time in custody to turn their lives around. These stories exist and are worthy of wide public broadcast. For now, though, I reflect dolefully on Jonah. Perhaps his latest learning experience will be the catalyst for some sort of positive change.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Man On Wire

I just finished a mini unit on courage and perseverance using the Academy Award-winning documentary film Man On Wire as my focus story. Before watching the film, I indulged in a read-aloud of Mordicai Gerstein's The Man Who Walked Between The Towers. I'm sort of sadly amazed at how much background I need to provide to my students on things I used to think everybody automatically knows, such as What Was The World Trade Center and Where Is New York City and Why Is The World Trade Center Not Standing Anymore. That last one, having to do with a lack of awareness of 9/11, is rare among my students, I must admit. But it is a fact that the kids who come into custody of the Department of Youth Services tend to be 1)lacking in formal schooling, 2)from families that either cannot or do not support learning, and 3)are ELL's. Hence, I need to pre-teach a lot of stuff. On the other hand, that's why I'm here, right? I love teaching, reading and learning side by side with my students. So I guess I'm in my dream job.

"Can you 'see' yourself in this story?" I ask them, reminding them that we comprehend stories in many ways, two important ones being feeling and visualizing. "Miss, I would never do what he did. To walk on a wire up in the air, that far up? No way. Maybe I'd try it if there were, like, a trampoline or something underneath me."

I give an empathetic chuckle. "I hear you on that one. I can't see myself as a wire walker, either. But what do you think Philippe Petit's story has to tell us about things like following a dream and never giving up? Is there a message there for us?"

One of my students, Miguel, raises his hand. "Miss, it's like he's telling us that we are powerful beyond our wildest dreams. All we have to do is think it, dream it, and we can do it. I hear his message. I get it."

I look at Miguel, my eyes wide and glassy. "Yes, you get the message. You are all so capable and powerful," I tell them.

May my students set their goals in high and healthy places. And may they embody the true meaning of perseverance. I'll help in any way I can.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

the smell that surrounds you

I realize that this isn't the most savory topic for my first blog entry of 2010, but I've been moved to write from the heart. Whatever the substitute cook made for lunch today is causing every single resident to make painfully obvious their resulting indigestion. Every kid has passed gas since lunchtime. I can also hear staff members downstairs having the same problem. It is now 2:31 and I am contracted to be here until 3pm, but, dear Jesus, let's remember that heat rises, and it's becoming unbearable up here on the third floor. There's no escaping it. So, let this be a parting farewell, or a farting parewell, take your pick. I'm OUT.