Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Very Urban Funeral

I've never been to a funeral for a person who has been fatally shot. I couldn't go to Joe's funeral (the first student I experienced this tragedy with) because they needed staff to stay behind and cover classes. I did attend Izzy's viewing and funeral yesterday and what an interesting experience.

Let me first say that I've apparently become hardened because when I went to pay my respects, I didn't cry at all. Of course, I cried the whole way over and prepared myself for what lie ahead and I think that helped me stay strong at the viewing. It was terrible seeing him dead and lifeless like that. I hate that this is the last memory I have of him - bloated and without a soul. I want to remember him when he was alive, full of life and energy and being a pain in the ass, not like that in a coffin.

Anyway, I introduced myself to his mother (I hadn't met her prior to this), who was holding up remarkably well for someone burying a son, whose death was an act of violence. This was a Muslim funeral and all the women were wearing white dresses and head scarves, except his mother, who was wearing a black head scarf.

One of the nicest parts about this funeral was the distribution of mints. At the end of the funeral, the leader (who looked remarkably like Kanye West, right down to the sunglasses) of the service told the attendees to eat the mint and whenever we have memories of Izzy, let them be sweet and not sorrowful. I thought that was a very comforting ritual.

Now, let me get to the top ten list of perfectly acceptable attire at an urban funeral:

10. Baseball caps
9. Sneakers
8. Shorts
7. Mini-skirts
6. Pants so low they reveal the boxers
5. Cut off shirts that reveal one's stomach
4. Thigh-high boots
3. Sunglasses
2. Wife beaters

And the #1 most acceptable thing to wear:
T-shirts with an iron-on photo of the person who was shot.

So, the very best thing a poor, black kid (who has turned to the street), can hope for is to end up as a face on someone's t-shirt that says: "R.I.P." Something is wrong with this picture. I hope we can find a solution to help fix the prevalence of violence on the streets for poor minorities. I think education is still the leg-up for these urban minorities, but we have to fix the urban school systems.

R.I.P. Izzy, I'm sorry I failed you too.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Izzy, the Way You're Going, You're Going to End Up in Prison Or Dead."

It turns out it was death that was waiting for him. I found out yesterday at work. I received a call from one of the staff at my former school. She said: "We just got confirmation that Izzy was shot and killed last night." There I was, standing in front of employees of DCPS' Office of Special Education, with tears welling in my eyes. I had to run to the bathroom and finish the conversation in a stall.

After hanging up the phone, I burst into tears. "Pull yourself together." That's what I told myself because it was the start of the day. I couldn't have my eyes moist with tears every few seconds, thinking about a former student. I'm at 825 for God's sake! Show no signs of weakness.

So, I managed to get through the rest of my day without crying, but when I got into my car on the way home, that the tears really starting flowing. Izzy was such a pain in the ass kid. He had ADHD to the extreme. The kid couldn't focus for longer than 2 minutes at a time. He was wildly inappropriate, always talking about sex or drugs or some other crazy thing that happened to him over the weekend or the night before.

But the kid was smart; sharp as a tack. As much as he got on my nerves, I wanted nothing more than for him to succeed because he had the wits about him to do it and he had the swagger to smooth people over. He wanted to get into business and he would've been the best damn salesman there ever was. The kid could could sell rehab to Amy Winehouse, he was that persuasive.

We had to implement a system, as a staff, for Izzy to keep him on task during class time. Every time he entered a classroom, he got a sticky note next to him. Each time he was off task, I would give him a tally mark to indicate his off-task behavior, with a limit for how many tally marks he could receive in a period. It was a visual cue to help him attend to academic tasks.

This was the greatest tool I utilized in the classroom with Izzy. He hated seeing the marks because it reminded him that he wasn't completing his work. It brought him back to reality and didn't allow for any of his BS. One afternoon, he was close to reaching the maximum amount of tally marks for my class period, which meant he'd be removed from my class. When he realized how many marks he'd received, he crumpled up the sticky note and had a little fit. I knew it was working because he hated it.

One day, Izzy was driving me over the edge. I was ready to strangle him. He was completely out of control and his language was extremely foul and crude. I finally pulled him out of class and was real with him. I explained how I thought he was so intelligent and was just throwing his life away on this "gangsta" lifestyle. I told him he could do so much better. "This is it," I said. "The end of the line, you're either going to jail or you are going to be dead, just like some of my other students."

I can see his face so clearly, now, staring back at me with that condescending look he would get. The face of youth; the face of invincibility. "Stupid, white lady." That's probably what he thought at the time, but it was that day that he knew that I really cared about where he was headed in his life.

If I had placed that bet on Izzy, like I wanted to with other staff members, that he'd be one of our first graduates, I would've lost. I thought for sure he'd see there was more to life than selling drugs. I'll never know, but I would guess that right before he was shot, he was running that smart mouth of his. The kids who shot him, probably did so to shut him the hell up. Maybe that's why there were multiple gunshots. He was just arguing his point of view right to the very end.

So, what is the lesson learned? I told you at the start that this wasn't the kind of blog with a moral. The reflecting, revealing type that comes with examining what's happened in the past and being able to learn from it. When it comes to untimely deaths, I have no answers, no great insight. But to quote one of my favorite lines from The Wire: "It all matters. We thought it didn't, but it does."

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Deja Vu with DCPS

I've started my new job working for DCPS in a non-instructional role. What a different world! Central Office is a strange place to hang out and get work done. I'll mostly be school based once this current school year gets started, but for now I've been reporting to what we used to call "825." It's not located there anymore, but I think it will always be 825 to me. Anyway, it's a weird place to work.

Just the other day, I'm sitting in what they call the "Touchdown" room. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, but it's basically an area where people have informal meetings to discuss God knows what. So, there's all kinds of people who come through the Touchdown room. Right now, there's a master educator, who observed me a year ago, having a meeting with some reading specialists about classroom interventions for struggling students. The new director of special education, Dr. Beers, passes through. There's a group behind me trying to figure out the daunting task of transportation for the coming school year. Everyone is talking education policy and I feel like I'm finally somewhere that I can make a difference.

Or at least make a different kind of change. So, I won't always be working at 825 or Central office. In fact, I'll only be there about once a week when school starts back. But I like being in a position where I can effect change not just at the local level, but with people who supervise special education policy and make changes district-wide.

Well, I plan on continuing my blog with its focus on education in the District. I'm sure once everything gets going in this new position, I'll be bitching about DCPS again and how horrible their policies and practices are. For now, I'm keeping an open mind and trying to learn as much as possible in order to utilize this experience for my (hopefully) long career in education.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Back in the Saddle Again

Well, well, well, I'm once again going to be working for the DC Public Schools, as a contracted employee. I'll be representing the school system in IEP meetings for special education students who have received private placement. I can't tell if I'm excited about this new job yet or not. On one hand, it's working for DCPS again. On the other, it's not teaching for them. We'll see...I start Monday.

This means that my summer is cut short, which makes me kind of sad. I think about the benefits of teaching and really this is the only one that comes to mind. Everything else that goes along with it is a hassle and a heartache. But I think I might miss it or at least miss the kids and my interactions with them every day.

The grass is truly always greener on the other side. If I had to go back to teaching at the end of this summer, I'd be in hysterics and a nervous wreck and here I am reminiscing about it. Good God!

So, that's my update. I'm sure I will have some amazing stories to tell again working for DCPS. Or maybe it won't be so crazy and chaotic as it was when I was in the classroom. We'll see, only time will tell, my dear readers. Thanks for all of your support.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Son, If You Want to Make It in This White World...

You had better pull up your pants and put on a shirt that isn't a wife beater. If you can't learn the language of this white society, you'll never make it. Racism still exists in America and it's more prevalent than ever.

I realize that I may be stirring up controversy talking about white society and the rules that go along with living in our good ol' US of A. There's no question that we live in a country that is dominated by white culture and therefore by white rules. If you grew up in middle class America, you learned these rules at a very young age. They are instilled in you and you utilize them daily without thinking. It's almost second nature. You also learned how to maneuver among classes and how to act in different social situations. You say "Please" and "Thank you" without batting an eye.

One of the biggest problems I encounter with my students is that they have never been taught that certain behaviors are unacceptable in certain social situations. It's rude to listen to your iPod without headphones. That's not acceptable behavior on the train or on a job. My students don't understand this concept.

So, it has to be taught. My students have to be taught and reminded about the rules of mainstream America. They didn't learn them because their parents or grandparents or aunts/uncles didn't know them. But you can't make it in this world if you can't follow the rules of those in charge.

I'm definitely rambling and making too many disconnected points, but I was talking to some teacher friends on Friday at Jazz in the Gardens, and this is a problem that seems common in the DC area. Kids not being taught respect or how to behave in public and generally just running amok.

What's the answer to make it better? I guess to lead by example. I've told my students in the past that I wouldn't hire a single one of them if I owned a business. This hurt some of them at first, but when I explained that their behaviors were not acceptable for the workplace, they began to see that they needed to act differently in my classroom.

So, I continue to have arguments with students about what's acceptable. Just the other day a student walked into the school lunchroom with no shirt on and his music blaring. I went ballistic (and rightly so). Unfortunately, this kid will never be much of anything because he can't learn the rules. He's destined to walk the streets and he'll probably end up on disability for the rest of his life because he can't hold down a job. It's so sad and I wonder how to change this...To make my students aware that there's a time and place for everything.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Are You There God? It's Me, Angela.

Well, I decided not to renew my contract at my current school. I think I'm done teaching (I think). I've been praying. Yes, I must be desperate for some heavenly guidance because I've been praying to God for a sign. A sign for what? I'm not sure. Should I stay or should I leave this profession?

I think all of this is due to an existential crisis that I'm having about the meaning of life. Why am I here? Why are these students in my life? Why do I feel like I'm abandoning them? What does it all mean? I don't have the answers to these questions, but I am waiting for a little direction.

Am I missing all the signs? I think being depressed about my job and what I do is a big enough sign that I need to quit. But I hate to think that I'm quitting on the kids. They are the ones that I truly care about. I wish I just didn't have to teach them. I wish I could support them in other ways.

And so, here it is, a week from school ending and I feel like I'm ending another chapter in my life. But who knows what's in store for me? I might end up like a Godfather quote: "Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in. " We'll see...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Once You Know the Truth, Can You Walk Away?

I had happy hour with two friends from my former fellowship tonight. It was great seeing them and catching up on old times, sharing tales, and discussing education policy. **News flash** I love talking about educational policy. I live and breathe urban education. I love reading about it and I even more thoroughly enjoy having someone to talk to about it.

The only people that get it are the people who work in it. I guess in that sense, it's like any job. The ones who work in this field are the only ones who understand or care about what I do. It was the same when I served tables or worked for a law firm.

So, here I am writing about happy hour when I should be sociable to the guest that's visiting my new apartment. But I can't help it, I'm obsessed. Still obsessed, what is my problem?

Tonight, we talked, among other things, about DCPS's decision to close down Shadd and Hamilton and send severely, emotionally disturbed students back to their neighborhood schools (Ballou & Prospect, respectfully). Granted, the students will be in self-contained units, but the change in placement is significant.

DCPS just cleared up the Blackman-Jones suit and now, it feels like they've taken a step back in special education. Someone at the top made a seemingly harmless decision (based on the budget) for the students down at the bottom. Who suffers? The kids of course. What is going to happen to these students who continue to be ignored and treated like bastard stepchildren? My guess is another class action lawsuit based on discrimination, if the students are lucky.

Knowing that poor, black students in the DC area are continuing to be discriminated against based on their race and disability, the question I ask myself is this: "Can you walk away? You know the truth now, can you just abandon them?" Even as I write that question, tears start to form in my eyes as I think of the many students I have come into contact with over the last three years. Can I walk away from them? Knowing all the discrimination, pain, abuse, and suffering they have endured?

I contemplate this as I examine whether I can teach special ed students in DC for a fourth year. I feel as though I need to be in a different role, but what is that role? I haven't decided, but (much to the chagrin of my husband and loved ones) I don't think I can just leave it for some lousy desk job.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Well, When You Read This Article, You Will Know Where I Used to Work

So, I'm commenting on this article by Washington Post's, Bill Turque, much too late, but I've been busy and also I've been trying to digest DCPS' decision to move Transition Academy at Shadd to a self-contained space at Ballou High School.

My first thought was: They'll burn the school down. The Shadd kids will literally burn the school to the ground. What was the former sad, shithole high school in Southeast will be reduced to rubble and ashes. I guess it wouldn't be such a bad thing.

The students at Shadd are in a self-contained environment for a reason. Their behaviors are intense and extremely severe. Many were students who grew up in self-contained special education classrooms and haven't been with their non-disabled peers for years. Other students came directly from residential treatment facilities that had been shut down. Shadd is like the "Lean on Me" school times 1,000. My former colleague and I used to joke that it was "THE inner city school." The mother of all horrible urban school settings.

My second thought upon reading the above article was: How in the world do they plan on servicing the needs of these students? Don't get me wrong, Shadd was not the therapeutic setting that it claimed to be. In fact, there are many things that went horribly wrong at Shadd in the one year I worked there. But there were enough staff members to help maintain student order and most students felt they had a slight connection to some staff member in the building.

I've read that they are reducing the staff at Shadd from about 60 or so to approximately 14. I had to read that a few times because I can't imagine how 14 staff plan on containing the behaviors of 70 emotional disturbed students. I spoke with a former colleague yesterday and we were discussing the other students that aren't going to Ballou. I asked where they were going and he said that he didn't know. Where are all these disturbed kids going in DC?

Until DCPS recognizes that students in special education have unique needs, they will continue to get sued by advocates and educational attorneys. If DCPS wants to throw emotionally disturbed students back to their home schools, they are going to have to deal with the consequences of those decisions. I hope that DCPS can take a step into the future and begin to comply with the laws that protect our most vulnerable and fragile students.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What Motivates You to Get Up in the Morning?

For me, it's my alarm that continues to ring, even after I've long silenced and snoozed the thing. I contemplate throwing my phone (which serves as my alarm clock) every single morning because I hate waking up. I don't know if I would get up more readily and easily if I had a job I enjoyed, but in the last three years of teaching, waking up in the morning has been unbearable.

So, it's not my job that motivates me to get out of bed, so much as the paycheck I get from working at this job. Oh, and now the harsh judgment passes on the faces of those who despise teachers who just educate for the paycheck. Well, yeah, I like getting paid and it's not much for the 60+ hours a week I put in, but it's still nice when it hits the bank and I'm not broke, as usual.

Okay, so it's partly the paycheck. Most special education teachers that I know aren’t teaching for just the money. In fact, when I figure in all the hours I work, it's usually something along the lines of like $6 an hour (that about $2 under minimum wage in the DC area, FYI). I also do it partly because I continue holding out hope that maybe today will be the day that I get to actually teach students.

Gosh, that's a great feeling. You teachers out there know what I'm talking about. It's the moment when you've engaged students in the classroom and captured their attention. This feeling is what I hope for each and every day when I come in. I guess after all this time, I'm still an optimist.

In any event, I began this post about what motivates me, which naturally has to lead into the question: what motivates our students? Especially inner city school students, because the middle-class and rich kids in the suburbs have a different motivation entirely. But what motivates urban youth who come from generations of poverty?

I often wonder why my students even bother coming to school at all. Some come and do nothing. Some come and are a complete disruption to class. Why are they here? I think they come because they have built a connection with their teachers. They are holding out hope (just like me) that maybe today will be the day they learn something. Today will be the day that it clicks in their brains.

Well, here's to another day of teaching. There's only about 24 left in the school year for me, so I'm going to continue to fight the good fight while I'm still in the battle.

Monday, May 2, 2011

"They aren't going to take my America. We have the best food here."

This was said by a student today in response to a class discussion we were having about the death of Osama bin Laden. I am always caught off guard by some of the funny things students say. They blurt out nonsense sometimes and it's the most amusing thing in my day. I've often thought of writing down all of the funny things students have said to me and just making a book of those quotes. But maybe that would only entertain me.

Today was a pretty good day, except my homeroom class (which is a class I teach in the morning and is also my last class). They were quite silly. I think spring fever has hit these kids. They've been coming back from lunch high and for some, this helps. Others, just get stoned and silly. Really silly.

Bill, who was very high today, was claiming that he was having muscle spasms in his legs. This turned into him eventually dropping and rolling on the floor due to the agony of the spasm. This kid weighs at least 250. I, for one, think he was being a drama queen. I was so annoyed. This kid is 20 years old and he's rolling on the ground writhing in pain. He loves drama. Of course, his actions have the entire class in hysterics and I'm forced to be the mean teacher. Grasping and trying to maintain control of my classroom.

Speaking of control (or lack thereof), I know that every teacher knows the feeling of losing control of his or her classroom. It's that feeling of desperation, where nothing goes as planned and everyone is going absolute ape shit. It's when you are shouting, nearly crying, and doing everything in your power to get the class back on track. Those are the days when I want to run out of the building screaming bloody murder and never, ever return to the classroom.

I hate those days. I fortunately only have them once in a blue moon. But it's the worst feeling in the world. I think the kids know when it's happening too and they feed into it. Does this make me a bad teacher? Who knows? Probably, but then again, I've never claimed to be any good at this job. In fact, I usually feel like a lousy teacher, but at least I care. Also, I keep showing up, that's got to mean something. Maybe one day, I'll get the hang of this teaching thing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Very Insightful Article

I read the above article this morning and was truly saddened (again) by how incredibly screwed up education is for urban youth. Reading that article made me realize how the lack of quality education is a serious civil rights issue that is currently segregating students of poverty in our country. I continue to question: Will the rich always be rich? But more specifically, will America continue to oppress people of color with its lack of educational opportunities for all students. If education is the key to success, we, as a country, need to examine how education is presented to all students, not just the wealthier, whiter ones. More rants later. Thanks for listening.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Kids with Guns

Every time I read about a shooting of a teen, I think to myself: "Is it one of my students?" I guess I'm nervous. I've had a student pass away. I have a colleague who has had several students die to the violence that's happening in the DC streets. What is going on here in urban America? Why does no one care about these poor kids?

This was the article I read today which made me think about these shootings:

It's only going to get worse now that the weather is getting warmer. More kids will be hustling, more kids will be outside, more kids will be shooting...

And yet it's spring, and love is in the air, which means there will be more babies being made and born into poverty. What is the answer for this generational poverty that is plaguing DC?

I believe that education is the key to success, but with students who are 5, 6, and 7 grade levels behind, how does one teacher make up for all that lost time? I have students who can barely add or subtract, let alone do long division or multiply!

There is no greater sense of urgency than in my classroom. Every minute spent off task and not working is a minute that's lost to the race for closing the achievement gap and helping these students reach out of poverty. I guess that's why I'm such a tough teacher. I know what we're up against.

I'm still fighting the battle, but it's getting tiring...

Friday, February 18, 2011

It All Comes Down to Building Relationships

I went to training this week about transformative learning in the classroom, which, from what I could gather over the course of the day, is an approach to teaching that gets students to trust the teacher and eventually leads to critical thinking. Please don’t ask me to explain how getting to know and care about a student leads to critical thinking. The trainer never quite connected those dots for me, but it got me thinking about how important relationship building is with my students.

For some reason, relationships have been strengthened by food with my current and former students. Chips, cookies, candy, gum; you name it and I’ve bought it in for my students at one time or another. It started out as a reward thing, but then I just gave it to the students because they needed it for one reason or another.

Sometimes, kids would come to me because they hadn’t eaten breakfast and a bag of chips would hold them over until lunch. Those empty calories helped them in class and kept them from freaking out at a math or history teacher. Other times, students would come to my room looking for candy so they could see me and tell me about something that happened last night.

I guess this was one of the ways I learned each student’s name in the building. I made it a point to get to know everyone’s name because it’s important for a kid to know that someone made an effort to get to know them. These were some of the little things I did to build relationships.

Somehow, this relationship building stuff is way more important than teaching some days. There were times when I had to stop class and basically hold a group session because a student was so emotionally frustrated by what was going on in his or her life. I don’t know that this is the best approach to teaching, but it’s one that worked with some of the most volatile students that I had.

I continue to foster relationships with my students. I went to the hospital today to visit a female student who went into premature labor. I didn’t know it until I got there that she was delivering the baby. So, I met her cousin and dropped off some magazines and snacks for her. I’m worried about her and the baby because the baby’s about two months early. Now she knows I really care and when she gets back to school our relationship will still be solid.

There’s nothing quite as powerful as a visit from a teacher to a student outside of school. I’ve found that I’m able to teach better when I know my students, and not make excuses for them, but help them overcome the barriers they have to education. I guess I just try to make a difference, some way, somehow.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ballou Library Needs Books

So, if you are feeling the need to de-clutter your bookshelves and live in the DC area, read this post:

A Very Sad Post for a Very Sad Day

It’s Monday again. Another useless staff meeting so early in the morning. I’m sitting with all of the other teachers, wondering if they are wishing the weekend could be just a little longer. It’s February and I’m in my second year of teaching. It’s cold and I’m depressed again and out of ideas for the classroom. I want it to be Sunday or Saturday, but not Monday.

This morning, my principal is running the staff meeting, which is very unusual. He hardly ever comes out of his office. He’s a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, which doesn’t work well in school for teenagers who are completely out of control. He’s a horrible leader. Today, he’s a humbled leader, then again we all are about to be.

“I’m afraid I have some very bad news. Over the weekend, Joe was shot and killed.” There’s a silence that falls over the room. It hangs in the air and isn’t broken until Joe’s homeroom teacher bursts into tears. I sigh heavily fighting back the tears. I can’t cry about this, he wasn’t my student. Just a student that I knew, who I saw in the hallways, and now he’s dead. He was 15.

“What could I have done differently? What could we have done differently to save him? It’s our fault. All of us.” This is what I’m shouting to one of my good friends, Arnie, a few days later. I’m shouting this while crying because I’m upset about Joe. I’m so angry because I can’t help these kids and I feel like no matter what I do, it’s never enough. Once again, I’m a failure. This seems to be a recurring theme in my teaching career.

Arnie tells me that there’s nothing that any of us could do. It wasn’t our fault. He isn’t helping. Nothing comforts me about the reality of the situation. I’m just a teacher, I’m not a savior. Why can’t I be more of a positive force in these kids’ lives?

I still get sad thinking about Joe sometimes. Thinking about all of my current and former students. I think about my students' lives and how hard each of them has it. Single parent homes, poverty, drug addiction, physical and sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy – the list goes on and on. Do I make a difference?

When I get overwhelmed by it, I try to remember the good times I’ve had with my students. I think of the laughter and the smiles I’ve shared with many of them. It’s those pieces of joy that I try to keep in my mind. The memories of the good times, of learning and finding out about new things. That’s all I can give them. A bit of hope through education because I know now that I can’t save them from their lives.