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.