I work my butt off to make sure my kids don't fail my class due to missing work. I issue detentions, I write notes in agendas, I harangue them to stay after school or come in early, I call parents, I have them call parents, I harass them in the hallways and at lunch....I spend a ridiculous amount of time on it. Because, frankly, I think it's dumb for kids to fail because they just didn't hand the work in. That's just stupid.

First trimester, I had only one student fail. Everyone else I managed to badger into getting enough in to pass. They may not have passed WELL, but they passed. This one....not so much. And it killed me.

So I started working on DC (he's a skater and loves the brand - nothing political) harder. A little more individual attention, started pulling him in at lunch every now and again, pointed out how one more assignment turned in would get him to a B. And it worked. Sort of. He was passing, though only my class, which wasn't going to be enough to get him out of summer school (okay, technically he was also passing gym and band.)

I started working more on his grades, asking him to stay after school to catch up, both in my class and in his other classes. Every day, he agreed. Every day, he booked it out of the building. I'd look for him in the hallways, and nothing. I'd ask (or even bribe) other students to remind him, and nothing. I got nowhere. Then I got creative.

My core changed his schedule. (Okay, relatively creative.) We swapped when DC had Social Studies and Language Arts (me). The 8th period Social Studies class was really big, so it took that down a kid, and put him in my 8th period, so I could hold him hostage after school and just kinda....not let him leave. When we did it, I talked to him about the reasons for it and asked if he was cool with it. He hemmed and hawed a bit, said he wasn't really happy about it, but...he guessed it was okay. We got his dad to agree to it, which was an achievement in and of itself, and we went for it.

DC stayed after school three days a week for the last three weeks of the trimester. He'd dropped to a D for me; he pulled it up to a C. He got his math grade to a D. He got science and reading to really HIGH Fs (he still failed, but only by like one or two percent - okay, it's not ideal, but it's progress, right?) He was into it - toward the end, I said something about how next trimester we were going to aim at passing everything with at least a C. He said no way; he said at least a B in everything. It was great. He'd never had any real academic success before - even in elementary school, his grades were almost all Ds and Fs, with a C here or there. That didn't reflect his capability, because on his state test scores, he was proficient in math, very close in writing, and not too far off in reading. He's very funny, very nice, very kind to others. But he's a sensitive kid, with asshole older brothers and an unstable family, and he'd always met the expectations they'd laid out for him. DC loved being successful for one of the first times in his life, even if only partially.

A couple of weeks before spring break, though, he changed. During the day, he was fine. Into my class, talked about what he was going to work on after school that day, totally willing and excited. But when 3:45 hit, that ringing bell turned him sullen. He'd make excuses as to why he couldn't stay, or if he did, he'd sit there and stare into space. When I'd try to persuade him to work, I got glares and monosyllabic answers. It sucked. Hard.

I thought about a lot for a couple of days - what had happened? Why was he suddenly acting like such a pain-in-the-ass teenager? I mentor three seventh graders, kids I had last year and who just need some extra support, and though they're a year older, they act way less like obnoxious adolescents - why was DC different?

The day before spring break, I talked to him about the whole thing. I told him what I'd been seeing, and how these after-school sessions had become really unpleasant for both of us, and how neither of us needed something else unpleasant in our lives. I gave him my theory as to why this was happening: he'd never had a choice. When we changed his schedule, he hadn't had a choice. He'd been told the schedule was changing, he'd been told why, and he'd been told that he'd be staying after school to work on his grades. I'd asked him if it was okay, but really, the times, they were a-changin', whether he liked it or not. That wasn't fair. No one can make you want to change your life. It has to come from within. DC'd never had that chance.

I told him to think about it over spring break, to decide if he wanted to continue this but that the decision had to be his. If he decided yes, the attitude would have to change because bleaaaaaah; if he decided no, then....then he decided no. He nodded. He left.

Spring break, I worried about this. Habits take a long time to change and this kid was in the habit of failing - he needed support to change that and he wasn't getting it anywhere else. And he's 12 years old, which is not an age at which one is fully capable of making all one's own decisions (at least in my opinion). If he said no, if he said he didn't want help anymore, he wanted to try it on his own.....I was pretty sure he'd fail at that too. What would I do?

I saw him in the hall a few times today. He didn't bring it up and neither did I - I knew he was going to refuse any more help and I was heartbroken about it. Finally, a few minutes before the end of the day, I asked him if he could talk to me after school for a bit. Mondays I sponsor the school newspaper, so he hung around while I got my writers going.

Once everyone was writing, I asked him if he'd thought about what we'd talked about.

He had.

What had he decided?

He still wanted to do it.

....Do what? Quit? Or start staying to work again?

Wanted to stay. Wanted to pass. Wanted to succeed. Apologized for acting like a tool before break. Had a plan for work for the rest of the week. Will be ready to go tomorrow.

I'm so relieved.

Why would you call your students skanks?

A few days ago I went to see the French movie The Class (Entre Les Murs).  Spring break!  What better time to watch a movie about an urban school - with subtitles, no less?  I went solely for the teacher-y aspect of it - though I enjoy independent films, I don't see a ton of foreign films, mostly because I simply don't have time.  But spring break, free time, a non-teacher friend who wanted to see it too....seemed a perfect combination.  Not so much.  

The movie clearly isn't intended to be inspirational; rather, I THINK it's intended to be a realistic portrayal of the Western public educational system.  I say think, because frankly I hope it's not.  I hope it's intended to show the inadequacies of some teachers in the system, but that those teachers are the exception rather than the rule.  But, um, based on the movie?  Yeah, nothing in it actually supports my ideal interpretation.  

The movie follows a fourth-year teacher, M. Marin, and his French class (but French like English classes here are about literature and writing as well as the English language, not just the language.  Since, y'know, it's in Paris.  And the students all speak French already.  Anyway) in a Parisian high school.  The kids are around 8th grade and very diverse - much like an urban American school, but with different nationalities.  M. Marin clearly cares about his students and their education, but is decidely....imperfect.  

I spent the whole movie cringing - the way teachers complained about their students, the way students were allowed to speak to each other with complete disrespect and few consequences, the insistences the teachers made that they were above the rules the students had to follow, the incredibly inappropriate interactions between teachers and students (including the one from the title of my post), the utter lack of consequences for the killed me. Caring about your kids only goes so far when everything else has fallen apart.  

About a third of the way through, I leaned over to my friend and asked him if he found M. Marin sympathetic.  He said yeah right away, then stopped to think about it, and amended his response to he didn't know.  When we talked about the movie after, he said he thought the movie was trying to show what education is actually like.  And that makes me want to throw up.  

I don't want this to be real.  This can't be real.  This can't be an accurate vision of what most teachers and most schools are like, because if it is....if it is, we're failing our students worse than I realized, and that breaks my heart.

It's not the same.

I went to a wonderful banquet Friday night to honor one of my former students, who I'll call the Eyeliner Queen (obviously, she wears a lot of eyeliner). The banquet was presented by a county mayors' group, which honors students who have made a positive impact on the lives of those around them or have overcome adversity in some way. This was the second round of the award; the first round is done by city, and everyone who has been nominated receives the award, but the second round narrows considerably.

My school had originally nominated
around 30 kids for the award; there's no reason not to nominate a lot, and for many of our students, this may be one of the only times in their academic careers that they'll be recognized for something positive (which is something else I take huge issue with, but that's for another time). Of those 30, two of ours made it to the county level.

The Eyeliner Queen was one of those recognized for having overcome adversity in her life. Without going into too many details, she was removed from her birth parents because of drug abuse (her mother later OD'd and her father has vanished). She was adopted into another family, a situation which presents some additional challenges including past physical abuse and potentially current emotional and verbal abuse. She's a good kid, but a bit of a mess, and I mentor her to try to help her stay focused on the future and positive parts of her life rather than the hell that she's been through.

The banquet was lovely. A seated dinner in a local country club; entertainment by a neighborhood high school; an inspiring keynote speaker; each student individually receiving their award after a paragraph about their struggles was read; photos with mayors and city council members; gift baskets including a sweatshirt, free passes to an amusement part, candy, and a plaque; drawings for more prizes; a really nice evening for a lot of kids who don't always have a lot of those. As I sat there, applauding for each winner and listening to their stories, seeing the shy pride mingled with embarrassment as they stood in front of the group, I thought how nice it would have been if the Eyeliner Queen had been there.

Because she wasn't.

Her mother wouldn't let her go. She'd been sick, and her mother thought it was a bad idea. I'd called three times earlier that week about it, and three times day of, trying to persuade mom to agree, and got nowhere. Mom insisted that the Eyeliner Queen was tired, didn't feel better, wanted to stay home, was asleep - every time I called, I got a new excuse or two as to why they wouldn't be there.

Every time, I talked about what an honor it was, how nice it would be for the Eyeliner Queen, how much I thought the family would enjoy it, how they could leave early if they needed. We'd talked about transportation and found options; we'd talked about if younger siblings needed childcare and found options. And nothing.

The Eyeliner Queen has struggled this year. She consistently passes only 4 of her 7 classes, and three of the ones she fails are academic content classes. Her attendance is spotty, and her attitude is shaky, and I don't blame her for any of it. Because with a family that doesn't just not support you but actively works against does a seventh grader overcome that?

When we're back from spring break, I'll buy her lunch, and give her the gift basket, and try to recreate the night for her verbally at least. But it won't be the same. And that breaks my heart.

That's Not My Name

I say that several times a day, and not because I’m singing along with the Ting Tings’ song. None of my kids call me Stacey or Jane, or even Joleisa, but I do get called “Miss” all.the.time. And a couple of months ago, I decided I was done with it. So I don’t accept Miss anymore – they gotta use my name.

A few kids have said that it’s because it’s disrespectful to not use my name. Nope. It’s not about respect. I know they respect me, whatever they call me. A lot of my kids are from Mexico, and in Mexico, my understanding is that it’s very respectful to refer to teachers by Senor or Senora.

But the thing is, I want my kids to be able to be successful in middle class American society, wherever they are originally from. In middle class American society, people are going to look down on them for not using a teacher’s name. They’ll think the kids are rude, or dumb, or hoodlums, or God knows what else. I don’t want anyone to ever have the chance to think less of my kids, because my kids kick major ass, every single day, and I want everyone to see that.

I tell them that when they ask, because they know how our school is perceived in the district. They listen to the explanation (though I don’t actually use the word ass….), look thoughtful, nod, and never call me Miss again.

It’s a little thing.

The little things add up.

Now they all know and use my name.

Stories are what I do.

A couple of weeks ago, I was getting a bikini wax. (Now, I know this sounds like oversharing, but it’s relevant, so bear with me.) It can be an awkward process, particularly if your waxer isn’t someone you know well, and this was my first time at this salon. To make conversation, I mentioned that I appreciated the convenience of their online booking system. The waxer (Christy, maybe?) perked right up.

Christy: Yeah, isn’t it awesome? It’s so much more private that having to call in the middle of the day with everyone in your office listening to you announce you need a bikini wax.

Me: And I’m a teacher, which would make that even MORE inappropriate than in an office.

Christy: Oh, you’re a teacher? I got called one at Safeway yesterday because of my shoes [something from the Nike composition pack]. This woman was like, “oh, you’re a teacher? I'm a teacher! Where do you teach?”

Me: How weird.

Christy: Yeah, and I was like, “Ummmm….no.” I guess she thought only a teacher would wear shoes that look like paper.

Me: I guess I can see that….but still.

Christy: And even if I was a teacher, I don’t know about you, but when I’m not at work, the LAST thing I want to do is talk about work. Right? Like I go out with friends and they’re always telling people that they should ask me waxing questions, and seriously I don’t want to talk about it, I’m just like, “Call me on Tuesday between 10 and 7 and we can talk then.” Because I’m not working then and I don’t even want to think about work.

Me: [noncommittal noises]

We chatted about this and that for the rest of the wax, but I kept thinking about what she’d said. That when she’s not at work, the last thing she wants to do is talk about work. The thing is, that’s not true for me. I LOVE to talk about work. I love to tell stories about my kids, because to me, they are endlessly fascinating. The stories are sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartrending, sometimes horrifying, but always, always, always fascinating. Plus I'm an English teacher; stories are what I do.

And so that’s why I decided to start this blog. To tell my stories about my kids, all the stories that I come home bursting to share with someone, whether my husband, my sister, a friend, my mom, a stranger at the grocery store – now I’ll put them here. Christy and I will just have to agree to disagree on this one.
"I'm a dreamer but I ain't the only one Got problems but we love to have fun" -K'naan, "Dreamer"

I teach eighth grade Language Arts at an urban school. My kids kick ass and will change the world. I want everyone to know.
Copyright 2009 I'm a Dreamer All rights reserved.
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