Saturday, November 29, 2008

Exhibit A

One last Tyshaun story (for today). This one is a Thanksgiving story.

Yesterday, we celebrated Israel’s birthday. As we always do, we danced with abandon to “Birthday,” by the Beatles. The song lasts five or six minutes, and we jump and bounce and boogie all over the place to it. It is very good for all of us.

I noticed, partway through the song, that my class was dancing in small groups, and they were mostly dancing with the people they are closest to. There was a small group of four girls over here; three boys danced together over there. Some students stood outside the groups, including Alex.

Alex is new to our school this year, he’s the only Asian student in the class (and nearly the only one in the school), and he is somewhere on the autistic spectrum. We have been struggling since the beginning of the year with kids being mean to Alex. He has strange mannerisms, and pretty poor social skills, and is different in so many ways from everyone else.

As we danced, I suggested over the music that everyone try to dance with “the people you don’t talk to all the time.” This is the same language I use during our greeting at Morning Circle every day: I remind them to choose someone who is not their “very favorite friend” to greet, and it really helps mix up the order of the greeting. It ensures Alex doesn’t get greeted last, and that boys don’t only greet boys and girls don’t only greet girls. Sometimes someone goes to greet someone else, and their greeting is rebuffed with, “You talk to me a lot. You should choose someone else.”

I wasn’t sure if they really heard my suggestion, but then I looked across the rug at Tyshaun. He has been one of the worst offenders in terms of picking on Alex. I watched as he unselfconsciously extended his hands toward Alex. “Want to dance, Alex?” he asked. “Come on, dance with me.”

As I mentioned, Alex isn’t so strong with his social skills, so he didn’t answer or even acknowledge Tyshaun. Tyshaun tried two more times before giving up and just dancing next to Alex, smiling.

I didn’t say anything to Tyshaun about it at that moment. I wanted him to hold on to that feeling of doing something caring for someone else just because he wanted to, not because he thought I was watching. It was such a tender moment: the tough, cool boy holding his hands out to the autistic kid, offering not only to dance with him but to hold his hands. And not feeling rejected by Alex’s failure to respond, but dancing near him anyway.

That’s Exhibit A of why I like Tyshaun so much.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Trying again

This may sound strange, but I sometimes feel like Tyshaun and I relate to each other in very traditional male-female ways. I tell him how he makes me feel when he is unapproachable and try to get him to express how he is feeling; on a good day, he begrudges me a monosyllabic response through which, for a second, I catch a glimpse of his interior emotional landscape, and I feel rewarded and pleased with this minimal success.

After he took something from my desk, and treated me with hostility because of how embarrassed he felt, I wrote him a note. I thought a lot about why he might be acting so terribly after stealing from me, and made some good guesses about how he was feeling. I told him that I still cared about him even when I was disappointed in him – that we were still “tight,” and nothing was going to change that. I told him that just because he made a mistake didn’t mean that he was a bad kid, so he didn’t have to act like a bad kid. It was half a page long, and it was a really nice note.

Tyshaun read it, grabbed a pencil, and scrawled “OK” in the margin. Yep – I poured my heart out in an effort to help him feel better, and he gave me a one-word answer.

I felt good about it anyway.

The way Tyshaun enters the classroom in the morning affects my day a lot. I notice that I wait for him to arrive with anticipation, because I can tell a lot about how his day is likely to go just by his body language when he comes through the door. When it’s a bad entry, I can feel my heart rate quicken, because I know it could be a rough day.

The other day he came in.

“Good morning, Tyshaun,” I said. He ignored me.

“What kind of milk do you want with your lunch today?” I asked. He ignored me and kept laughing and joking with some boys by the door. I could feel my irritation building.

“You all need to come in now!” I said sharply. “Tyshaun, this is the second time I am asking you what kind of milk you want with your lunch!” My voice became shriller as I spoke.

“God!” he snarled between his teeth. “I’m just coming in. God! Leave me alone. Chocolate milk.”

I hate starting the day like this. And I had decided a few days earlier that I had to set stricter limits about him talking to me disrespectfully.

“You cannot speak to me like that,” I said. “I told you that if you talk to me like that, you can’t stay in our classroom. Come on. I’m taking you upstairs to Ms. Cruz’s room.” Our agreement was that if he was rude to an adult, he took his work upstairs to a fourth-grade classroom for about half an hour. He hates not being in our room, with us.

“No!” he answered. “I don’t want to go.” He didn’t move toward the door. “I’m staying here.”

“Tyshaun, I told you you can’t talk to me like that. It is not okay to start the day out like this. Let’s go. You can come back in half an hour and try again.”

His tone softened as he saw that I was serious, and he tried to figure out what might work with me. (He probably works just as hard to figure me out as I work to figure him out.)

“But you made me mad because you talked to me like that when I came in,” he tried to explain. “Can we try again?” I couldn’t help but smile. I am always amazed when I hear my students use my words, when what they say sounds just like me.

“I’m sorry I talked to you like that,” I said gently, taking a deep breath. “But you hurt my feelings when came in the room and ignored me. I don’t want the day to start like that.”

“Sorry,” he muttered. And we agreed to try again. I asked him what kind of milk he wanted, he responded in a somewhat pleasant tone of voice, and the rest of the day went smoothly.

It is generally not considered good teaching practice to announce a consequence and then let a student talk you out of it. I gave in for several reasons. One, I had spoken to him sharply, partly because I was stressed about other things, and him coming in like that pissed me off. Two, he used a good strategy to deal with me – he told me how I made him feel, and he suggested we try again. I have to admit it, I’m a sucker for kids who use the strategies I teach them. And three, I knew that if we could manage to re-start the day, there was a good chance the whole day would go well. Whereas, if he started his day by spending 30 minutes in the fourth grade, his day might be a wash. And every good day at school is money in the bank for Tyshaun.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

How to win friends and influence second graders

For a long time I have been wanting to write about Tyshaun, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to do it. I have been his teacher for thirteen months of school now, and we have a tumultuous relationship. He is one of the main reasons I decided to loop up to second grade with my class this year, because he is a student with a lot of sweetness hidden under a tough exterior, and because he is very, very vulnerable to many things that entice him now, but could hurt him in the long run. The idea of letting him go at the end of last year, of putting him into the hands of a new (though very competent) teacher, was too much for me to stomach.

Here is an introduction to Tyshaun, who is much more complicated than I’ll probably ever be able to show.

Tyshaun approaches most new people, and most transitions, with a growl and a scowl. When learning specialists come to work with him, his face darkens with displeasure and he frowns deeply, slamming a folder on the table. It can challenge even the most seasoned of educators to be greeted like this, day after day, and still treat him positively and optimistically.

When he comes in the room each morning, I greet him with a cheerful “good morning,” and I have no idea what response I’ll get. He may smile shyly and come over to tell me something exciting he made or discovered in the before-school program; he may ignore me as he stomps across the classroom to his desk; or he may answer me as if I were the last person on earth he wants to talk to.

Tyshaun is often oppositional and sneaky, and has a hard time not taking things that he wants, even if they belong to other people. He has difficulty with expressive and receptive language, word retrieval, and processing information; reading and writing are very hard for him, and he needs a lot of help with math too. He is tall for his grade (because he repeated first grade) and walks more like a tough teenager than a second grader. There is a vulnerable little boy inside him, who he keeps tightly under wraps nearly all of the time.

There is nothing Tyshaun wants more than to please the people around him. Give him an order, and he will openly defy you; motivate him with positive feedback and he will rise to your highest expectations. Talk to him like he is a child, and he will be unyielding before your demands; consult with him as if he were an adult and he will respond with maturity and thoughtfulness. Part of the reason I like him so much is the challenge of figuring out how to approach him, and the amusement and pleasure I get out of seeing how easy it can be to get him to do the right thing once you figure out the secret to relating to him. You have to work for it with Tyshaun.

One small example from last year: we wanted to get Tyshaun to meet with the school therapist, a white woman. (The poor guy is surrounded by white women. What I wouldn’t give for a black male therapist.) I knew he would be reluctant and possibly hostile toward her; I also knew he would end up loving his one-on-one time with her, and that it would be really, really good for him.

She came by one afternoon to check in with me about a time that would be good to meet with him. I decided that the more autonomy I gave him in this decision, the better.

I introduced the two of them, and told him, “Tyshaun, Ms. Larson’s job is to talk to kids about how they are feeling and help them figure out what to do when they don’t feel so good. I know you’ve been talking to me about how you haven’t been feeling that good sometimes lately, and I thought you might like to meet with her. What do you think about that – does it seem like a good idea to you?”

He thought about it for a minute and then nodded quickly, carefully veiling his enthusiasm.

“Great!” Ms. Larson said. “When would be a good time for me to come get Tyshaun?”

“One day at lunch might be good,” I answered. “Tyshaun, how would Thursday at lunchtime be for you?” I knew that Thursday lunchtime was the time Ms. Larson had available for him, but I wanted him to feel like he had some choice in the matter.

“Um, how about Wednesday?” he asked. “Wednesday would be better for me.”

I smiled inside. Tyshaun’s Wednesdays were indistinguishable from his Thursdays; he was letting me know that giving him some say in when he would like to meet with her had been the right thing to do – he wanted influence over what happened in his day.

“Unfortunately, I’m not here on Wednesdays,” Ms. Larson answered.

“Oh, that’s too bad!” I said. “Tyshaun, since she’s not here on Wednesdays, do you think you could do it on Thursday?”

He nodded. He had been consulted, we had let him know his opinion mattered to us, and as long as he felt that regard, he would be flexible and open to trying this new thing out. That’s the secret to Tyshaun – if you can just approach him in the right way, you can move mountains, but it’s often easier said than done.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Snowy Day

We have been doing an author study of Ezra Jack Keats. As a culminating activity, we made a 3D mural of Keats' neighborhood. Most of his stories take place in one neighborhood in New York City. We brainstormed all of the characters, settings, and objects that should be included, and each student made several pictures for the mural. Our plan is to make little puppets of the characters, so they can act out the stories against the backdrop of the mural.

Many of you have read The Snowy Day, which was the first children's book published with a child of color in it (and as the main character, no less). I read The Snowy Day to my kids every year on the day of the first snowfall. It is a simple story of Peter, who explores the snowy city outside his house. The dramas he encounters are small: some big boys having a snowball fight; the snowball he saves in his pocket; the tall snowy hill he climbs. The world in the story is entirely peaceful, bringing you into the muffled silence of the world the day after a big snowstorm. No matter what, even with the excitement of the first snow falling outside the classroom windows, this book always makes my students quiet.

I was struck by the detail and beauty of their versions of Keats' illustrations, and most of all, at how well they emulate his style as an illustrator.

Here is Peter walking through the snow. You can see the small footprints he leaves behind him. He himself is tiny, which is just how he is in the book, where he has the perspective of a very small boy surrounded by the big, snowy, white world.

See the black lines? Those are the grooves he draws in the snow, as he walks, with the stick he picked up.

Here are the snow angels Peter makes. The blue one is already finished; the red one is the one he is making right now (that's him in it). Lying across him is the stick he carries around and drags through the snow. Next to him are the bare, wintery trees.

When Peter goes inside, he puts a snowball in his pocket for later. Here is a picture of his coat, hanging up.

If you look closely, you can see the snowball melting in the pocket, and dripping onto the floor.

Finally, Peter takes a hot bath after his day of exploration. Here is his bath.

Not to toot my own horn, but these illustrations were done almost entirely independently of adult input, although some children worked with a partner. I never felt like I was very good at art, and certainly didn't imagine I could teach it well. But we spend so much time in the early years at our school teaching about sketching, paying close attention to detail, getting the colors right, making decisions about the background, and zooming in on the subject, that by the time they are in second grade, their independent work displays the result of this instruction. They are also highly invested in doing excellent illustrations, and work very, very hard to produce their best work.

I will put more pictures of the mural on as we put it together.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

I found this the other day. It's a recycled card -- we use the blank side for spelling words, but Jerry turned it over and filled in the locker side. He is one quirky kid. I love it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Neighborhood Walks

Yesterday was our first neighborhood walk. We explored the neighborhood around our school, just down to the train station. Each group took inventory of some aspect of a neighborhood: transportation, green spaces, public art, infrastructure, buildings. I am in charge of the transportation group (so I can brainwash them about alternative forms of transportation and why driving is bad, I suppose).

We left school equipped with clipboard and pencils. On their clipboards was a list of things to tally: bus stops, buses, trains, train stations, cars, people walking, bikes, bike paths, bike racks. We forgot to put motorcycles on the list, but we saw them too.

What I hadn't expected was the excitement this endeavor would generate. We exited the school building, walked down two steps, and my 8 kids started to exclaim, "A car! I see a car!" "Look! There's a person walking!" I hadn't anticipated that we would start counting that soon, but they were unstoppable. Their papers quickly filled with tally marks (some more accurately than others, I might add). As we continued toward the train station, they continued to call out every time they saw something on the list. Every city bus was cause for joy, every person walking was met with elation. We didn't see any bike racks for awhile, so when we came to our first (we counted 7 in all), they swarmed and climbed around it as if they were opening their presents on Christmas morning.

Needless to say, it was a terrific afternoon. When your main job is to slightly temper the boisterous exuberance of a group of children who are enthralled by their assignment -- just enough so that they don't run in front of a passing bus -- it is a good day of teaching.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Barack Obama's Life

Here are excerpts from my students' writing about Obama's life after reading Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope by Nikki Grimes. Each sentence or paragraph is from a different student. I put it together into the story of his life in a more or less chronological order.

I have edited the spelling and punctuation so they are conventional.

Barack Hussein Obama had a black dad and a white mom. His dad was from Kenya. Barack was born in Hawai’i.

He was light brown and his father was dark brown.

When he was little, they called him Barry.

When he was a child, his mom and dad got divorced.

His dad moved far, far away.

His heart was crushed. He only heard stories about his father -- he didn’t get to see him. Then his father called. They took walks and shared talks, but his father was just visiting.

He didn’t know what to say to his dad. He moved to Indonesia with his mom. He was happy, then sad, because he saw poor people.

He told his mother, “How can I help these people?”

Barack was the one keeping his family together.

He did not know who he was. He said, “I am not my mom or dad.” And his head was filled with words of what he thought he was.

When he was growing up, he thought “What am I, black or white, or do I look like my mom or dad?” People at his school said, “You’re you. You’re not your mom, not your dad, you’re just yourself.”

Then when Barack was a teenager he was thinking about education, and he went to Harvard Law School.

He heard everyone say, “Education is the way, education is the path you should stick to.” He heard Hope saying, “Be the person that you are. Stick to the path you are on.” Hope said, “You’re the bridge that will bring black people and white people together.”

He went to another country called Kenya to see his dad’s family.

He decided he wanted to change his name to Barack after his dad’s name. He went to church with his mom and his mom squeezed his hand.

He decided he could change the people and he could be both black and white.

His dad passed away. He went to see where his father was buried.

When he was at his father’s grave, he heard God talking to him. God was saying, “Go now, be free like a bird.”

He went to church to pray for his father and he was talking to Hope and to God and he seen God in his mind.

He wanted to be president.

And the Latinos and the black people and the white people said, “Yes we can.”

Sunday, November 9, 2008

High Expectations

I've now watched Obama's acceptance speech several times. The second time through, when I was no longer too dazed to take it all in, I was struck by the history he told, in the context of the life of 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper. He talked about many historical events of the past 100 years, both positive and negative, but they were all put in the context of change, and hope, and how the world has been made a better place by common people. There was no mention of September 11th in his history of the past 100 years. Instead of motivating people through fear, like the last administration, he uses hope. He is able, by speaking positively, to inspire people to be better, to want to work for their country, to feel united. He holds up a high standard, and lets us know he believes we can rise up to that standard. As my mom said tonight, we now have a leader who will help us be our best selves, rather than our worst selves.

This is how good teachers motivate their students to be better people. It is what we are taught time and time again. No matter how hard it is to like a particular student, or to expect good things of him, we say, "I know you can do this. I know you can be a leader for your classmates. I know you can solve this math problem. I know you can use your words to tell someone how angry you are without hitting them." We hold up examples for them, examples that demonstrate our high standards and our belief that they can rise up to meet them, whether we use Dr. King or another second grader as an example. And, many times, they do live up to these expectations, because when you expect good things of someone, that's what you get.

Teachers can motivate their students through threats and fear, like Bush and his cronies, or through hope and high expectations, like Obama. I have seen the latter approach work over and over again in my classroom. Here's hoping it works in the larger world as well.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The day after the election

"I love my planet," Israel said happily, looking around him at the trees and people as we walked to the train station yesterday.

Most of us were feeling that way on Wednesday.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Hope and Fear

There is a buzz of excitement in my classroom these past few days. You can imagine why. We are talking elections left and right. My kids are fuzzy on many of the details, but they seem to be quite clear on who they want to be president. (They also don't seem too fond of the Republican party. I guess they've been brought up in households like mine...)

There have been LOTS of questions. "Why can't we vote?" (Because you're not old and wise enough.) "What happens when you go to vote?" (I acted out the process.) "What if someone gets there before you and says they are you and gives your address and votes for you?" (I wasn't really sure on this one.) "What if you change your mind after you vote? Can you go back and change it?" (Nope.)

There were many, many questions about the fairness of voting, and cheating, and things going wrong at the polls. Yep, we're all worried about that.

"If Obama wins, will they still call it the White House?" This was asked seriously, not as a joke. Which made me think about all the kids of color around the country, thinking that the White House is so named because only white people can be president.

This one took my breath away:

"My cousin says that if Barack Obama wins, he'll be shot."

This was quickly followed by another student chiming in: "Because some white people don't think a black person should be president."

I sat quietly for a minute, thinking. The best I could do was: "Yes, some white people don't think a black person should be president. There are millions of white people who are going to vote for Barack Obama tomorrow, who think it is good and wonderful if a black person is president, but there are also some white people who don't think it's okay. And there are a lot of people whose job it is to keep Barack Obama and his family safe, and they are working very hard to keep them safe all the time."

Another student mentioned the two men recently arrested for plotting to kill Obama, and again I pointed out that the people keeping Obama safe are doing such a good job that they caught those men and arrested them before they could hurt him.

But the next comment was about Dr. King, and how he had been shot. Of course, it comes back to him. I thought of an editorial I read recently by James Carroll, who wrote about the assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy:

"We knew that, if ever gripped by passionate hope again, we would see it snatched away unrealized, although we could not bring ourselves to say by what. And why shouldn't we, right then, have stopped being young? One of the joys of the current season is to see a fresh generation respond to the promise of Obama without reflexes of worry. Young people have a right to uncomplicated hope, and Obama is himself young enough to nurture it."

But no. Even 40 years later, Dr. King's death is part of the collective memory of children who are only six or seven years old. His story, mixed with their families' experiences of racism and alienation, make them afraid that if Obama wins, he won't live long.

This thought sobered me all day, and continues to weigh on my mind. The consolation I have found is in their discussion of the freedom fighters they have learned about in our school. Besides Dr. King, today we talked about Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez. They are well-versed in their histories, and in marches, boycotts, and strikes. They remember our conversations about these leaders from last year, and the way that people who were poor rose up to fight, and became leaders of powerful movements. These things are also part of their collective memories, and will stay with them.

And maybe, maybe, maybe, their ideas about who can be president will be changed tomorrow, and Barack Obama will die in a long time, of old age, and a little bit of their fears will be erased.

A last question: someone asked, "Was Barack Obama alive when Dr. King died?" I said yes, he was, and tonight I did a little research. It turns out that Obama was 7 when Dr. King died, which is exactly the age of my students. Maybe Obama is going to be a little too busy, but I think we should write him some letters about all of these questions.