Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Soul Rock!
In my coursework at grad school I’m always reading inspiring stories of teachers who unlock the vast creative potential of their students, soliciting hilarious and heartwarming tales and poems from children everyone else has given up on. It doesn’t happen like that for me.

I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to encourage creativity and critical thought. I’m constantly designing lessons involving drawing, poetry, graffiti, record reviews, whatever, it never works. What’s really depressing is, it’s not like the kids are really into the arty stuff - having a ton of fun as they produce a bunch of hackneyed, clichéd, worthless crap – which I would love. No, they’re actually even more bored and apathetic about this stuff than they are about rote grammar worksheets and other useless busy work which they tend to actually concentrate on and even enjoy.

The drawing is particularly bad. Stick legs protrude at odd angles out of vaguely circular, flat, heads. I taught a basic perspective lesson once where all the students had to do was copy what I was demonstrating in very clear, step by step process (vanishing point, horizon line, etc..) and none of them even approached looking like a three dimensional object.

“No, Meester,”
they will whine when I hand them a marker. “No se dibujar.”

Their writing is even worse. I’m not talking about their non-existent grammar, or their atrocious spelling, I don’t give a shit about that. I’m talking about ideas, humor, images, emotions. It really is that bleak. I’ve been doing Haikus all week, and tried to get the kids to write about the Bronx, seeing how they all live there and since it’s where, like Fat Joe Crack so eloquently says, shit happens.

First I had my little Terror Squad write down the first 20 things that came into their minds when they thought of the Bronx. This was great. The kids were crazy excited about this and yelling all kinds of inspirational gold at me like there was prize or something.

The Zoo!
Yankee Stadium!
Spanish People!
Crotona Park!
Drugs yo!
D train nigga!
Bad Schools!
Naw son, Bronx Science a good school!
Hunts Point!
Oh shit! Ho’s yo! Ho’s!

And on like that, with me making such teacherly interjections as, “So maybe the Bronx has good and bad schools? I’ll put that, ok, Rocio?”

“Ho… uh, prostitution. That’s good. Yes, Hunts Point is known for prostitution, thank you Stanley.”

The whole Haiku concept went over pretty well. Most everyone was familiar with syllables, so I gave them an example to keep things straight.

Haiku is a poem
Of three lines with syllables
Five, seven and five

And we were off.

The results were monumentally disappointing. The following was one of the better poems.

The Bronx Zoo is good
The Yankees Stadium too
I can go by bus

Woo hoo. Great job, Jose. Seriously. My best, most enthusiastic, funniest, sharpest kids were coming up with poems like that.

The best one I got was from a girl named Loida. It has a certain blunt force to it.

The gangs in the Bronx
Bloods hate Crips and Crips hate Bloods
Both hate each other


Given the usual creative output I get from these kids, I was blown the fuck away when a tiny little African boy who shows up 40 minutes late to class everyday delivered to me some seriously out there fiction. Unsolicited too. He did not, he told me, want to be associated with the inferior story he and some classmates had come up with together during groupwork. He gave me a frizzy-edged page-and-a-half of notebook paper covered in chicken-scratch.

His story was titled, “The Soul Rock,” and I have to admit, he’d pretty much already won me over right there. It was the story of a boy named Popsoul. Popsoul is a regular kid. He likes a girl, but there is a problem. There’s a blood-guzzling vampire named Napster who Popsoul battles and then lures to an all-night party. Napster has so much fun at Popsoul’s party he loses track of time until Popsoul, crafty little Popsoul, opens all the doors and windows to reveal that it is daylight and put an end to Napster.

Then - nope, it’s not over yet - Popsoul bumps into a guy named Heroshark who is winning all kinds of money in a dance contest. This leads to the following climactic passage of unedited, unabridged, completely unaltered, brilliance.

Popsoul put $500 and the other guy put $1000. lets Rock! Who said that? Everything is technology. No just don’t work like that. We have our new chapion. We’ll call him Soulrock. Yessss. Now girl go get a new house because we’re rich.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Back to Normal
Things are getting back to normal at Shitty. I witnessed two fights the past two days and broke up a third between one of my students and some kids in the hall who came by in the chaos after a fire-drill and stood in the doorway pegging him with pennies. (I'm somehow still maintining my exemplary record of no fights in my class.)

My 6th period in the basement was interrupted yesterday by the slapstick sounds of a high-speed foot-chase down the hall.

A kid ran by, hauling ass, a blur of oversized pink t-shirt and pink accessories. Shortly, he was followed by a cop huffing along as he tried to pull his handcuffs out of his belt. The cop took a spill and went sliding down the hall, his handcuffs ricocheting ahead of him.

My students were naturally curious, and I scrambled to keep them in their seats and focused on the task at hand (something about literary elements, plot and character and whatnot) as I tried to get a better look at what was going down.

Another cop came stomping by, hyperventilating, all blue and black and keys and utility belt bouncing wildly up and down, and then another and another and then one more, four in all counting the original who had initiated his pursuit of the perp in a face-first fashion. Then they were gone, and we were back to trying to puzzle out just whether the setting of Titanic (the example the kids had chosen) was in the past or the future, as if nothing unusual had happened, because, really, in the basement of Shitty, that kind of shit isn’t weird at all.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

I will no longer complain about my schedule. This is not because it has gotten any better, or because I’m embracing positivity, or even for your benefit, dear reader. No, none of that. I won’t be complaining about my schedule any longer because I have learned of one that is infinitely worse, so much so that it renders petty my own woes and mute my bitching and moaning.

There’s a new guy in my department at Shitty, a kid really. He’s a first year Teaching Fellow from Connecticut. Fresh faced, eager, and oh so naïve, Mr. M, is downright adorable in his enthusiasm. He’s been peppering me with questions for weeks.

“How do I go about implementing a unit plan?”

“What sort of mathematical formula do you use for determining final grades, and what weight do you give to homeworks? Do you weigh all the homeworks equally, or is there some sort of scale?”

I tried to help the guy out, giving what advice I could, and trying not to just snicker and say, “Dude, as long as nobody cuts or fucks anybody in your classroom the first couple of months, you’ll be doing just fine. Worry about unit plans once you can keep them in their seats with their clothes on for five minutes at a time.”

I didn’t say anything like that though. I hemmed and hawed about utilizing different intelligences and remaining flexible and establishing routines and all kinds of other crap that made it sound as if I actually know what the hell I’m doing in a classroom.

Let him float on in blissful illusion, I thought. No sense in bursting his bubble now. Maybe he’s a natural. Maybe he’ll actually enjoy this shit.

Well, Mr. M got screwed. He’s spent this entire week with wildly overcrowded classes. Mind you, more than thirty-five kids in a room is illegal, twenty-four if they’re ESL (that’s never enforced though, because there’s no money tied up with it). Mr. M has sixty kids in his class. Sixty. No bullshit. For three periods a day. Someone in administration was kind enough to allow him to conduct his lessons in the grand Shitty auditorium, but no-one has fixed anything. In fact he got ten more students today. That’s seventy, putting him at exactly double the legal limit.

This sucks for Mr. M, a rookie who is having a hard enough time with his two other, regular sized classes of thirty-two kids, and it’s certainly not fair to the children, who clearly don’t stand a chance of learning a damned thing. Not that they mind, I’m sure they’re having a grand time hanging out in the auditorium, yelling and screaming and smacking each other upside the head.

Mr M hasn’t given up though, plugging on with missionary zeal, scribbling notes on a notepad and hollering to the crowd of children about parts of the body and the alphabet and whatever else he feels these struggling English language learners need to know.

I suggested he put on a talent show, or stage some sort of protest where he and his unruly bunch march down to the Principal’s office and just hang out until the press arrives or someone breaks something.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Pizza Chant
My schedule this year absolutely sucks. I’m on the late-shift again, 9:25 – 4:05, which is good, because I live almost an hour away by Subway, but can get a little rough in the winter when it’s already getting dark by the time I actually leave. It also makes it a bitch to get to my afternoon classes at Grad. School on time, but as the amount of times I’ve even mentioned that place on here may indicate, I don’t really give a shit about that.

I was lucky last year both semesters, because I had my first period in the morning free, allowing me to do all my planning then and only have to take work home when I got way behind on my grading or had to write a test or something. Not anymore. Now I show up and immediately must jump into a double-period of Level 2s.

I was also lucky last year in that three of my five classes were in the same room, and that all of them were decent sized rooms. (No-one at Shitty is afforded the luxury of actually having their own room, in which they could do important things like create some kind of positive learning environment, focusing creative and intellectual energies through décor and furniture arrangement, or at least keep all their stuff). This year is bad, though. Now, three out of five classes are in Shitty’s mildewed, maze-like, basement.

These rooms are half the size of a regular room. My rosters are not, however, half the size of a regular roster. They are the same as last year, so far. Twenty-five plus kids in a class, and growing. I’m not joking about the maze thing, either. The hallways are very narrow and full of twists and turns and doors marked exit which you must enter to move into yet another, narrower, hallway. This causes un-navigable bottle-necks of students who push and shove and bump and grind, and won’t let poor Mr. Babylon through to get to his class on time.

The mildew is real too. You can smell it, and a number of teachers claim to have gotten sick from teaching down there last year.

Being in the basement, though, is only the beginning of my schedule’s problems.
I have another “inclusion” class, which means half Special Ed kids, and a crappy Special Ed teacher to “team teach” with. Then, my last two classes, periods 9 and 10, are two different classes, but with the exact same rosters, rendering them essentially a double-block as well.

The thing is, by law a teacher can only have three different classes to prepare for (or “preps” in the parlance.) Technically my schedule complies. I have one Level 2 class, and two different Level 3 classes. A double period, though, which my L2 class is officially and two of my L3s are by default, is a lot more work to prepare for than a regular class, you can’t dilly-dally away any time the second hour with attendance and settling in, and other such valuable time-wasters. Let’s be conservative and add a “real-life” half-prep for each of those. Then my inclusion class will run at a different pace and do different things than another class of the same level, so that’s an extra prep and blah, blah, blah… do the fucking math, I have way more to prepare for than three classes.

To make things worse, the L3 kids from the afternoon pseudo double-block aren’t really L3s, or even ESL, at all. They’re all native New Yorkers. Yeah they speak Spanish, and yeah they can’t write so well, but they speak English (or a Bronxed-up version thereof, at least) just fine.

Yesterday we were having a discussion about class rules, and I let the class suggest rules of their own. If they could give me a good reason why, I told them, I’d consider using their rules. I got a number of suggestions like, “We ain’t gotta come to school if we don’ wanna, cuz sometimes we be bored an’ ain’t feel like it.”

“Hmm,” I would say, scratching my chin. “I don’t know about that. If you don’t come to school you can’t learn anything, so that won’t work. How about I try to not make class boring, okay?”

No-one seemed particularly convinced that I would somehow manage, unlike every other teacher they’ve ever had, to render class interesting.

Sometime during all this a kid named Gabriel, with eyes bearing a remarkable resemblance to those of a turtle, wandered in late. He came in through the back-door and settled in with a group of wise-cracking guys in the back who were already giving me a hard time. I asked him and one of the other kids to please move to the front, and after considerable consternation they complied. Gabriel moved to the corner by the window, threw a t-shirt over his head and tried to go to sleep. This, of course, is not allowed, and I had to tell him so.

In the middle of this little back-and-forth another kid, one of the guys from the back, raised his hand.

“Mista, hey mista. I got a rule.”

“Yes Stanley, go ahead.”

“Yeah, like, my rule is ‘Don’t be comin’ into class late lookin’ all high an’ shit.’”

In the midst of my spiraling classroom management I hadn’t stopped to consider that tardy young Gabriel, with his swollen eyes covered by an over-sized t-shirt, was clearly blazed out of his skull. My naivety, combined with the slowly forming, glassy look of surprise and anger on Gabriel’s face was too much, and though I knew I shouldn’t do it, I couldn’t stifle a big grin at all this.

Stanley and few others then began to refer to Gabriel by a new nickname, Smokey.

“Okay, who wants to read the first paragraph? Come on guys, let’s have a volunteer.”

“Smokey’ll do it. Hey Smokey, c’mon, you wanna read, right?”

Keep in mind these kids are classified as Level 3. That means the text I am ostensibly required to use with them contains such intellectual English language challenges as this actual, no shit, this is actually in the book, “Food Chant.”

“Okay kids, repeat after me! Everybody now!”

“Pizza, pizza, pizza!”
“Pizza, pizza, pizza!”

“I’m hungry!”
“I’m hungry!”

“Hot dogs are good!”
“Hot dogs are good!”

“I’m hungry!”
“I’m hungry!”

And so on.

Actually, come to think of it, Gabriel probably could go for a pizza right about now.

Year 2, Week 1
The first week (or first 3/5 week, actually, Jewish New Year suckas!) is over, and the reviews are mixed. It’s certainly easier than the first week last year. I know where I’m going, how to deal with the attendance and other various paperwork, and have a somewhat better idea how to keep the kids in check and get a little something done. I also know a number of my students from last year, which helps a lot.

Some are kids I had in Level 1 last fall who have now advanced to Level 3. These kids are for the most part absolutely fucking awesome, at least by Shitty standards. They do enough work to get by, show up mostly, appear to actually want to learn English, have not yet been fully criminalized, and generally behave with a modicum of respect towards me if not their peers. This is because they had me when they first got here, I feel quite confident.

Other students that I know already are ones I failed in the same class last Spring or even last Fall, and while we have mostly (and grudgingly) developed a mutual and inexplicable fondness for one another, these kids are, to a one, big pains in my ass. For some reason these are not the kids who tried to work or listen or behave and just weren’t prepared or mature or confident enough to pass, who just needed a little more time and practice, they are the ones who could give a fuck about learning English, who respond to anything I say (no matter how polite or charming) with a sneer and snarling “Que?” The ones who right after I ask them to be quiet stand up and begin to clap and sing and grind their big round Dominican ass against one of their classmates, the ones who see me in the hall and smile and then cut my class anyway.

I also have a student - a really smart, self-confident and mature kid who is in Special Ed., as far as I can tell, because he has poor penmanship – who passed my Level 4 class last semester and is now, through a quirk of scheduling that ought to be resolved in 6 weeks or so, in one of my Level 3 classes.

So it’s easier, but I still wake up every morning full of woe and the desire to flee. It’s great that I have a little better idea of what I’m doing, but I also know exactly how much everyday sucks and will continue to suck, and bear no illusions of one day figuring it all out and being serenaded “To Sir, With Love.” (I do, however, still fantasize about looking like Sidney Poitier, but that’s a post for my other website, iwishiwasagoodlookingblackdude.blogspot.com). I was thinking the other day how much easier this year was so far, especially just being here from the beginning, and not getting thrown into things the third week of school. Then I thought about the fact that this year would therefore be two weeks longer than last year, and it was if my heart had been ripped out of my chest and shoved down my throat, and I was choking on my own dread.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

School Pride
Shitty Bronx High School is now officially known as the Shitty Bronx Campus. This name change reflects the fact that the building now houses, up from two last year, a total of four ”mini-schools” in addition to the regular old high school.

The idea behind these mini-schools is not a bad one. A close-knit, small population of students and teachers focused around a specific interest or talent or need, art or business or bilingualism for example, is probably a very good thing for many people who are lost inhte shuffle of a giant, anonymous schools. Being the educational movement du jour, they have money (courtesy of a hefty Bill Gates grant) and support from the powers that be.

The problem is there is no room in the city to build new schools, so they are creating schools and then housing them within existing, already over-crowded, schools like Shitty.

This is no good for anybody. We at Shitty, especially the veterans, resent having even less of our already insufficient space and resources given to these interlopers, who never seem to lack for a book-room or a teacher’s lounge or a faculty bathroom (we’re going to have to go all Ally Mcbeal unisex this year) or have to teach classes in a converted broom-closet in the basement the way we do. There’s also the fact that regular Shitty students are likely to feel even more like born losers when compared to all these “special” students from “special” schools within their midst.

The mini-schools aren’t happy either. They don’t have their own space, have to deal with all the bureaucratic bullshit that a giant school entails, and have to worry about getting jumped or stabbed by Shitty’s roving student criminals. These poor kids from a music mini-school are going to have a hell of a time coming through the metal detectors every morning with their trumpets and tubas and flutes and flugelhorns.

They’re terrified and pissed and have been raising a big stink in all the papers about being put into such a violent, chaotic environment as Shitty. It’s funny, as much as I agree with their assessment, I think they’re a bunch of whiny little bitches. We deal with this crap every day, and, while not the most wholesome educational environment (unless you consider a minimum security prison to be a wholesome educational environment) I never fear for my safety.

Part of me wants Shitty kids to help all their worst fears come true, to rise up and take Shitty back, to beat down all these uppity band-dorks.

“Welcome to Shitty, nigga! Wha'appen? How you gonna win your choral competition with a clarinet stuffed down your throat? Yuh yuh! You ol’ punk-ass bitch…”

Saturday, September 11, 2004

The Coming Distribution Super-storm
Our new principal, Ron Popeil, started off with a flash and a sizzle. He’s certainly more enthusiastic than was the witch. He read, “modeled,” for us a bed-time story, Stone Soup, and even provided a sumptuous breakfast spread of pancakes and eggs and bacon and coffee (sumptuous compared to the stale bagels and war-rations of cream cheese that were such a rare delight last year). He even winked at me, creepy touchy-feely, Christian guy style. Perhaps he’s trying to put one over on us.

By Friday he’d gone from a suit and tie to t-shirt and jeans, and we’d already exhausted all three of his promised limit of dreadful faculty meetings with nary a trace of any more bacon or eggs.

There has been, however, a major snafu. We received our Distribution assignments on Thursday. Mine is G1W. This means that whenever there’ is something to be given to the students - programs, grades, free-lunch applications, Metrocards – we have a special schedule with an extra period, and all the students in a Distribution group report to their assigned Distribution class to get their stuff.

This is a poorly designed system to begin with. It screws up the day by shortening all the other classes, and more importantly, it puts a group of 30-odd kids with a teacher they don’t know at all. Thus chaos ensues with kids dicking around and sitting on desks and walking around the room and leaving as soon they have their stuff (or rioting like Russians in a bread-line to get their precious Metrocards; they aren’t nearly as concerned with their Report Cards). Because what do they care if their Distribution Teacher gets mad at them?

Other schools have certain periods designated as Distribution periods, and on those appointed days, their regular teacher gives out the necessary materials, thus the day proceeds according to regular schedule and you don’t have roomfuls of kids with teachers they don’t know. Other schools also have the radical idea to give students their schedules before the first day of school, so that the first day of school can be used to, you know, begin teaching.

Not Shitty. We received our assignments and a schedule informing us that Monday was to be a special hour-long Distribution. We were also given, in a move rather insulting to our nominal status as professionals and adults, 12-point step-by-step instructions of how to seat the children, take attendance, and distribute the materials.

This is an inconvenient and poorly designed system, but it is a system none-the-less, and the students generally end up receiving the papers they need and having some vague notion of what their schedules are.

This year there was a problem, though. The students were never informed of which Distribution class they are in, so when they show up on Monday no-one will know where they are to go, at which point they will begin to fuck like monkeys and/or rip the flesh from each others bones.

The solution to this problem was to create an entirely new, temporary, set of distribution assignments based upon an alphabetical list of the students’ last names. For some reason this required a three hour meeting to explain.

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