Saturday, September 26, 2009

White kids

From Abe the other day, when talking about the history of our school and its mission to provide high-quality math and science instruction to kids of color in the city:

"Are white kids allowed to go to school here?"

Oh dear.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Quick Diagnosis

We've been in school for nine days, and I am quickly diagnosing behaviors. Why is Danie giggling uncontrollably and loudly during Afternoon Circle? Why is Sonny yelling at kids angrily every five minutes (it seems)? Why does Kyle suddenly need the bathroom or the nurse or a drink of water every day when it's time for math? Why is it that any time Howard is faced with any kind of frustration, no matter how small, he begins to whine or shout loudly and insistently, and will not stop?

These questions exhaust and try the patience of even the most experienced teachers. They are also par for the course at the beginning of the year. As I coast down the hills on my bike ride home, I go over the events of the day and try to figure out the motivations behind the behaviors that sometimes make me wonder if I've chosen the right profession.

According to Cooperative Discipline, there are four reasons for misbehavior: attention, power, revenge, or avoidance of failure. I think I was taught this years ago, but I didn't really remember it until someone reminded me recently. Whether you know these four reasons from instinct or instruction, you respond to each kind of misbehavior differently, addressing the underlying need rather than the superficial behavior.

I have a bunch of attention-seekers in my classroom. So, I've turned on the anti-attention machines full-blast. I think I said this phrase about 12 times today: "I will give you some attention when you're doing the right thing." This is followed by very purposeful, very intensive ignoring, and lots and lots of loving, positive attention for the kids around the room who are doing the right thing. As soon as the student making loud noises, thrashing around in his seat, or just being silly stops, I turn the same force of warmth and attention on her, noticing what she's doing right, and creating lots of positive energy around her academics.

This positive energy is really the meat of the thing. Building relationships, building relationships, building relationships. Creating intense, powerful connections, whether because we both like kittens, or baseball, or math. Getting excited together over something we're learning, or some progress he made, however minuscule it seems. I think I've heard the Queen Mother say this about 700 times in the years I've worked with her: "Some children crave intense relationships no matter what. It doesn't matter if the intensity is based in negative responses to behavior or positive ones. They will do whatever gets an intense reaction." The answer? Respond matter-of-factly to misbehavior, and intensely to the right behaviors.

The other thing I've been working on honing this year is my ability to preface nearly any redirection or suggestion with an honest compliment. "Abe, you are sitting flat on your bottom. Now all you need to do is make your mouth quiet and you'll be ready." Today we were working on writing beautiful, perfect letters for a name tag project. Before I let myself tell anyone what they needed to do better in their letter, I always looked for something that was already good. Sometimes it seemed hard to find, but there was always something. "That line of your A is very straight." "Your L goes all the way to the bottom line of the handwriting paper." "I noticed you used light, careful lines to make the letter." Once I started that way, enthusiastically, I would give one piece of feedback for their next draft of the letter. "On your next one, do you think you can make the line as straight as you just did, and at the same time see if you can make the A bigger?" The kids were overflowing with enthusiasm, and eager to do another draft. They could feel the progress.

It feels a little unrelenting, this process of diagnosis and treatment. But the sooner I nip them in the bud, the sooner things will get easier.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Teaching school is like climbing big mountains

This past summer, I spent 9 days climbing some very tall and very steep mountains with two friends. The trip was harder than I had anticipated. The weather and company were excellent, but the trails were poorly marked and very rough. Sometimes we couldn't figure out where we were on the map; other times we could read the map but couldn't find the trail. Many days, it was hard to keep our footing on the loose rock or boulders, and the constant uphills and downhills pushed my legs to the edge of their limits. All of this was with 40 pounds on our backs.

After 6 days of this, I noticed I was having a hard time enjoying the beauty of the incomparable scenery around me. I was still mostly in good spirits, but I was worried a lot of the time about getting where we were headed without getting lost, injured, or caught in bad weather. I was surprised at the fact that I was able to keep up my spirits, laugh, and make good decisions, and that I hadn't cried. But on the morning of Day 7, from the bottom of a valley, I woke up, gazed at the jagged peaks we had to cross, and had a very whiny thought: "I don't want to go back up in those mountains!"

It's pretty unusual for me to look up at high, rugged peaks under a clear blue sky and not want to climb them. So I knew something was wrong, and I was pretty sure I knew what it was. My inner resources were low because I wasn't getting enough time to slow down and just enjoy the mountains. Every day, we were getting up early and getting going quickly, without those moments over the cookstove, waiting for the water to boil and watching the morning come. At night, we were collapsing into our sleeping bags and falling asleep immediately, without much time for reading, chatting, or watching the stars. During the day, even when we remembered to sit down and rest, we were worrying about the route and trying to decode the map instead of enjoying the canyon in front of us.

Most expeditions involve days like this, but partway through our trip I realized we should have planned a few shorter days in between the long days. When we had looked at the maps last winter, and read about the routes, we kept adding miles, days, and peaks onto our itinerary, because all of it looked so good. We didn't exactly bite off more than we could chew: we were capable of completing our planned itinerary. But we bit off more than we could chew and enjoy to the extent that it deserved to be enjoyed.

The first weeks of school are making me feel the way I felt on Day 7 of my summer trip. I've been keeping up with things at school, staying positive, and working well with my expedition-mates. I am excited in the morning, most days, for what lies ahead. But when I come home at night, I am sad. There aren't enough things nourishing my soul. I'm not taking any breaks. I'm worrying about what lies ahead, and if we'll make it. Things are getting done, but with little enjoyment. I could expand the metaphor even more, but you can do that for yourself: the trail is rough and uncertain, the map is unclear, and the pack weighs 40 pounds.

The transition back to school in the fall is a particularly abrupt and harsh one. In July, I went from a week of sitting on the patio of a rented house in a French village, consuming cafe au lait, wine, croissants, and cheese all day, to grueling days of climbing. At the end of August, I went from owning my own schedule, with languid mornings and warm, slow evenings, to being in my classroom from sunrise to sunset 6 days a week. I have lost the luxury of balance and free time, and that makes me sad.

Things will even out soon, and I will work hard to add some shorter days to the mix. In a few weeks, teaching will be more like a thoughtfully-planned expedition, with long, hard days mixed in among easier days with great views and mountain streams for swimming. Right now, though, there are few options other than to look up at the peaks and keep on trudging forward.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


It's September.

September, for teachers, usually involves a lot of shopping at the dreaded big box stores, a lot of cutting and gluing and laminating, a lot of making charts and lists and labels. And that's all before the kids even arrive, when the real work begins.

This year, September promises to be different for a lot of kids and a lot of teachers at my school. We have moved, and expanded, going from 350 students to about 575 in one year. The city closed a "failing" middle school and moved our "successful" pre-K - 8th grade school into their building. In addition to their space, we inherit their students: about 150 7th and 8th graders who have been learning, or approximating learning, in a school that was more like a prison than a garden. "Pre-prison" is what my principal called it when she visited last year: a school that's getting kids ready to fail, in the best-case scenario, or to be locked up or killed, in the worst.

Moving and expanding presents some challenges, to put it mildly. Doubling the size of our middle school, which was already the newest part of our program and probably the shakiest, seemed like a somewhat crazy idea. Taking on these students, whose reputation precedes them, sounded somewhat like professional suicide.

Don't get me wrong. These middle schoolers are not a different population of kids than those we've been teaching for years. But students at my school have been treated with respect, nurtured, and taught well for years. Our new charges have been in a failing school. If the rumors are correct, it was a chaotic, unsafe, and miserable place to be. High percentages of the students were placed in special education classes, wholly separated from the regular education students (a practice my school does not believe in, but which we will have to continue for at least the first year or two). These kids have been treated as if they aren't smart and can't learn and won't amount to anything. So, they've been acting as if they aren't smart, can't learn, and won't amount to anything. Go figure.

[I want to take a minute to be clear here that I don't imagine any of this was exactly the fault of the teachers or administration at the old school. I bet if you talked to those teachers and administrators, you would find a lot of committed, hard-working people who cared about kids. You would also find professionals struggling in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear in this world of test scores and standards, where we are expected to force students to learn and meet arbitrary goals, but with no support and few resources. You would find teachers who felt disrespected and oppressed by the school department and the administration, and administrators whose hands were tied. Surely you would also find some deadbeats, who should have been moved out years before. But many of them would have become teachers for the right reasons, even if now, years later, they were disillusioned, exhausted, and helpless.]

Our school works hard to build relationships with children and families. So we've been trying to start making positive connections before the school year begins. (Instead of starting out by calling home Week 2 to say "Your son was disrespectful today"). Many of the new students and their families got home visits from current families of our school last spring. Over the summer, middle school advisers paid home visits to their advisees' families. Last week, they came back to tell us stories of these visits at a staff meeting. They talked about teenagers who wouldn't turn off the TV or put down their Game Boy, who had no interest in talking to this new teacher from this new school who had come to their house to get to know them before school starts. (Normal teenage behavior, no?)

But gradually, advisers found a way to connect with many of the students. They asked for stories about the old school, and found out that most of the students had experienced bullying by other students or disrespect from teachers. One girl told how some kids took her shoes and ran off down the hall with them and no one, not even the teachers, could stop them as they raced through the building. Another student talked about being yelled at by teachers, talked down to, publicly shamed. Kids dreaded coming to school.

The advisers told these students, "That will not happen this year. No one is allowed to make anyone feel unsafe at our school. It is our job to make sure that doesn't happen, and we will do our job."

Advisers connected with families because they spoke the same language (Haitian Creole, Cape Verdean, Spanish), because their families were from the same neighborhoods, or because they loved the same foods. If they didn't speak the language of the family they were visiting, they brought someone else from school who did. They asked questions, expressed interest, and shared stories about themselves. And the students and families who were supposedly checked out, out of control, and unable to learn started to check back in.

Some of the inherited students have been coming into the building to visit over the past few days. Their school has been transformed over the summer. Where once there were peeling walls, broken furniture, and doors hung askew, there is now fresh paint, spotless bulletin and white boards, and untouched furniture. There are brand new science labs, and motion sensor lights in the bathrooms. It looks beautiful. ("This is like a private school!" one teacher whispered to me in the sun-filled library lined with antique wooden cabinets.) It looks like a school, where people are expected to teach and learn, and where those teachers and learners are valued. Two middle school boys came in my room the other day to introduce themselves. They were delighted by the changes, and amazed. They barely recognized their old school. They were warm and friendly and excited.

School hasn't started yet, and I'm sure that it will not all be smooth sailing. (It never used to be last year, so why would it be any different now?) But these kids, about whom we have been hearing rumors for a year, seem just like any other kids, if you treat them with high expectations, respect, and humanity.

On the one hand, this is not surprising at all. It is something we know and believe in, which is why we treat students and families with warmth and an expectation of partnership. On the other hand, it makes me scratch my head and wonder what the hell other schools are doing. This isn't rocket science. It's not easy, but you don't have to be a genius to figure it out. It's common sense: treat students like you know they will learn, and they will. Treat teachers like you trust their professional judgment, and they will work hard and have good judgment. Create a building that feels like a learning environment, and it will become one. It's not nearly this simple, of course, but these are pretty good places to begin.