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.