Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pen a Poem about Poverty

The thing about poverty is that is indefinable, untenable, unreachable, and untouchable
But never ineducable, is it?
Poverty is that thing I am said to deal with, though I never see it.
No one says I am poor. No one says I live in poverty.
When in fact, no one really does.
We talk about poverty. But where is poverty?
Have you seen him? Have you met him?

Poverty is bankruptcy. Now that’s poverty.
Poverty is that students are bankrupt.
Bankrupt of critical thinking skills.
Bankrupt of reading comprehension skills.
Bankrupt of basic levels of literacy and numeracy.
There lies poverty. Right there. It runs perpendicular to its
Cruel first cousin, ignorance.

Poverty is in the dearth, the dearth that surrounds the
Earth where I teach. The dearth of intellect.
The dearth of administrative oversight to know
that I teach students, not content.
The dearth of intellectual curiosity.
The dearth of logic, reason, and passion.
And not the passion the students have for each other.
The passion this teacher has for the content.
The dearth of best practices and common sense.
I wrote common sense not Common Core.

Poverty has a conceptual framework
Nowhere to be found in the state frameworks
Poverty is sly, quick-witted, and slow-footed
Poverty is deceptive, expensively clad
Hold up, wait
Maybe not.

The thing about poverty is that is definable, tenable, reachable, and touchable
It is educable, yes?
Poverty is the thing I am said to deal with and I see it daily.
No one says I am poor. No one says I live in poverty.
When in fact, everyone does.
We talk about poverty. Where is poverty?
It is here. It is there. It is without care. We stopped
Saying poverty and got socially conscious

Critical needs are needs that are indefinable, untenable, unreachable, and untouchable
Hold up, wait
Maybe not.

Favorite Student

Describe one of your favorite students. It seems easy enough. If I think about it, I can write and say they are all my favorite students, but honesty appears. In truth, I do have a favorite, and I try not to let it show. I think sometimes it does show. My favorite lamb is fresh out of alternative school, sent there last year for a seemingly innocuous crime. He one day brought a knife to school to show off. Violating a zero-tolerance policy, he was shipped off to Holly Springs for the alternative program. He returned this year, a free man, happy to be back out among his classmates.

Said student comes to school just about every day. After is, it is Mississippi. Who in these parts has perfect attendance? He is in my first period class, the class is unusually quiet not because they fear me, but rather it is first period, and they are still half-awake, half-dead. He sits in the front near the projector, where I placed him. He is of great assistance, which explains why he has such prime real estate. He scrolls down for me, adjusts the display, and tinkers with the cords when need be. Reading is not his strongest subject, but he tries. And trying is what counts. I know I can expect effort from this student.

There are days when he is a little grumpy and will express that he cannot do the assignment because it is tough or difficult or confusing. That is when old Mr. Farmer trudges out the student’s nickname and urges the student to get back on task and work diligently. This grumpiness has lead to a few disciplinary issues for the student. With other students, he is not as attentive or respectful as he should be. Thus, he has taken a couple of trips to the wood shed and had his behavior modified. Indeed, the favorite student has been on the receiving end of some tough love. Being the good kid that he is, he shrugs it off and chalks it up to momentary lapses in judgment (my phrase, not the student’s, though he will agree that is what it is). Work and behavior are improving for him.

Finally, my favorite student is reliable and helpful, always there to help me change my bulletin board or pass out papers or sweep the room. I am pretty grateful for this student. Preconceived notions laid bare, I fully expected this student to be trouble when I met him. Granted, he is small for his age, the stigma attached to a stint in alternative school was ever present.

In sum, my favorite student is a good kid. There most of the time to handle his responsibilities and work, he is average and decent, interested in sports and girls, wanting to go pro and leave his small burg and chase dreams in the big city. I know not what the future holds in store for him, but I hope he does well in all his future endeavors. He is a good kid; he deserves it.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The First Days, Compared

Indeed, there are few differences between my first days of school in either year of Mississippi Teacher Corps (MTC). Both days were uneventful in that I picked up my students, took them to the classroom, and immediately started going over the rules and procedures over and over again. Were it not so uneventful and rather forgettable, I would have a true story to tell.

Of course, it is worth mentioning that the nerves were there. I could teach for twenty years and still be nervous on the first day. Feelings rush forward. And what was once an innocent task appears daunting. Something negligible now looms large and imposing. The first reactions. Will the students see me as a good teacher, one who enforces the rules quickly and fairly without reservation? Will the students trust me enough to take away my presentation of the content? Yes, somewhat instinctively, I make mountains from scattered pebbles. The nerves are what get me. Moving, inching closer toward the classroom, I am overcome by something raw, a mixture of worry and excitement.

Certainly, this year, I have more classrooms and more students. Last year, I was blessed to teach just two sections of sixth-grade students. At present, I have five sections of eighth-grade students. Still, the changes are relatively few. Students are students no matter where I go, whether I have five or fifty.

The very concept of time matters more in this new year. I went into my first day of school knowing I had a full week to teach my rules and procedures. Last year I was not so lucky. I knew I had two days to do everything. Further, the similarity that sticks out is the trip to lunch. In either school the trip to lunch was not immediate. Moreover, in my new site, we make a trek to the cafeteria, literally across the campus. Time was a huge factor for me on the first day of school for both years. Never feeling like I had enough, I knew I had precious little to waste.

In short, my first days at both schools were short and simple. Nothing major or unexpected occurred. I held homeroom for a long while. I had the students fill out student information sheets, reading surveys, and the typical “Getting to Know You” sheets where I ask for banal information that I rarely and never really intend to use or incorporate. For sure, the first days of school were as nice and normal as they should have been. Anything less would have been surprising. I did not write "surprises" on the requisite MTC-style lesson plans.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Open letter to first years

The things that the first years need to know reach out into the infinite. As such, I must pare my list down to a few key words. These key words are explained and given due measure, as they are applicable to not only the classroom but also.

1. Patience. Unless you met your charges in a former life, you are new to them and they are new to you. Your expectations and their expectations will differ dramatically. Accordingly, be prepared for the growing process. You have a full year to learn the likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, tragedies and triumphs, etc. Never rush with anything. That is, you will find that things you think can and should be done in a minute will take three. Concepts you found to be inexplicably simple in high school will test the students’ mental endurance. Patience should be easy to have in Mississippi. Everything moves a little slower.

Another aspect of patience is it is needed when dealing with any school-related technology. Copiers, computers, printers will all stop working in your most desperate hour. Need four emergency copies of your nine weeks test? Yep, it’s broken. Need Internet access for a killer set you spent all night planning? Yep, Internet’s down. Here, in the program, patience is more than a virtue; it’s a survival tool.

2. Creativity. You must have a thousand and one ways of getting your lesson across. Students now are part of the generation where they lose interest quickly. It’s up to you to engage them and keep them engaged. Further, you must simply create stuff. You will surprise yourself when faced with challenges. Far from it to disturb someone when you can make it or do yourself. You’ll learn to make tablecloth using sticky craft paper or sharpen a pencil with a box cutter. Also, find ways to be creative in your discipline. Sick of doling out copy assignments? Have a student stand in the corner. Make him or her clean the classroom. Play late 80s heavy metal during detention. If they happen to like it, play ballads and standards from the 1940s. Use your brain to keep your students on their toes.

3. Silence. Quite possibly, the sweetest sound there is. Not all of your classes need to involve student chatter. There will be days when you and the students need some silent time. On days when they are composing essays or working out problems in mathematics, there are moments that demand a noiseless environment. Too, when dealing with school bickering among co-workers, silence is golden. Your next-door neighbor’s complaining about how another teacher tries to run the hall is your opportunity to remain silent. Staff meetings, dreadful as they are, require silence. Take the time to listen to the nonsense administrators spew. Think to yourself, “Wouldn’t be easier if we….”
But remember it’s an administrator’s job to attempt to fly when walking will more tan suffice.

Patience, creativity, and silence are three keywords guaranteed to get you started off right. Here’s to a grand first year. Go forth.

Trying to be Different

Though summer school teaching for a second year is limited to the month of June, it is not in any way a limit on instructional creativity. One problem area I know that needs more focus is differentiation. I hope to take this month and use it to challenge myself into employing differing instructional strategies and overall presentation of material. More and more, I realize how diverse the learners are after a full year, especially in my grade level.

Gone are the days of straight lecture and instant student mastery. I hope to make my instruction more visual and hands on. I want students to see the product. Trying to combine grand showmanship and Language Arts does take its toll though. How exciting are clauses? I want to bring in manipulatives and graphic aids that put the lesson into students’ hands. Talk of parts of speech does little to generate interest. The plan is to constantly keep the students’ mind going by making them think and visualize

The days still exist where one student picks up the skill near instantly and another must have it retaught before mastery is gained. I plan to use everything I know. Remediation flash cards, foldables and graphics for those students who need practice, and enrichment writing are necessary to gain full understanding. Such is needed for summer school and the classroom. That it took me so long is a little problematic. But I hope to remedy the situation. There must always be at least three different ways to present the material to the learners.

Of note, I want to bring in more color to impart the material. I realize how important color is. Plain notebook paper and copy paper can only do so much in the classroom. Colored paper and construction paper, even in note taking, provide such a visual that it may aid in remembering content. The simple act of making trifolds with colored paper and writing definitions in colored pencils and markers is an act that aids in mastery. Bringing in color more often shows that breaking away from the ordinary is a simple step toward helping students.

In sum, this summer need not be a grand experiment. It does, however, need to be one for delivering information in different ways. Students are nowhere near the same. As such, delivery of content must cater to their learning styles. Creativity need not involve whimsy, either. Just the act of bringing in color and remediation and enrichment can lead to greater successes with material. That’s the plan. Employ differing instructional strategies and make sure there is something for every learner.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Open Letter to the Second Years

I find that, similar to most people, I am much better at hello. The good-byes ring too empty, too hollow. Further, a natural extension of good-bye is the evitable feeling of loss. To be sure, the second years have come full circle. Off to return to the lives they lead before this excursion, some will remain in public education. Others will run away, far away, hoping the students do well and avoid the inevitable crises associated with poverty and lack of quality education.

So every year, the Mississippi Teacher Corps takes a hodgepodge of fresh faces from all over the United States and trains them to be teachers for the underserved youth of the state. Bonds develop, friendships forged, plans written, apartments shared, unions created, etc. Within two years, a lot happens. Without going the road of trite axioms, I suggest the people of the cohort have a more measured effect on your life than the students. Granted, you see the students more. But seemingly you crave the presence of a peer for empathy, for commiseration, for drinks. The hodgepodge becomes something more, something special. Accordingly, the Class of 2009 is not just a name and year assigned to those who entered the program during that term.

The Class of 2009 encapsulates an era. Be it a brief two years or no, it is time and space where twenty-odd people shared common moments in disparate places. Just as one member of the cohort in Holly Springs uttered exasperated sighs, surely another in Jackson slammed a right foot hard into the oft-broken copier in the workroom. Their roles were reversed, I’m sure. While I still struggle with the loss of the group, I feel exceedingly content knowing that they gained a lifetime of experience and stories. Many of the stories and storytellers will enthrall future members of the program. With each passing year, the entering class finds a new generation of students. Conversations years hence will include phrases such as “Really? They were not like that when I was there.” The era is well-nigh over for the Class of 2009.

In sum, good-bye suggests too much finality. I expect none will go to parts unknown. I know many will try to do something, anything to keep making lives in the state of Mississippi better. Within the group, there will be one who takes a leadership role in the corps, one who moves into administration, and quite possibly, one who fixes the problem. The Class of 2009 comes full circle. Those returning for the third year are hooked. A calling is there. We are the better for it. The members not returning will still keep in touch with the students and faculty who impacted them in the most unexpected of ways. As crazy as this post is, it reveals what I could not deny. I am much better at hello. As such, I offer to the second years: Hello to the next chapter of your lives.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Ugliest Word Known to Kids

Around this time of year, the principal sends out her second e-mail. The first one was sent out in mid-December/early January. Said e-mails ask a simple question: who will be retained for the upcoming school year. Ah, yes, retention. The word that makes the kids buckle down in the last quarter. The word that makes parents query what more can be done. The word that makes teachers question their instructional practices. Retention.

By January, my retention seemed a little long. I had listed too many students as possible candidates for failure. Luckily, many students got on track for the third nine weeks and improved their chances. Even now in April, I fear it—the List—is too long. True, no teacher wants to see any student held back. But then, I counter what of my students made a goal this year to play in class, to never do any homework, to never complete any project, to never pass any test, etc. The realism walks in. The punishment for doing nothing is harsh but fair. The list starts to make sense.

While realism has its place, to be sure, common sense and practicality speak, as well. I know the research suggest nothing positive comes out of holding back a student. Further, it actually serves as encouragement to drop out in the later years. And our administrators strongly urge us to work with all students in danger of failing the grade. We meet with parents, set up tutoring, give more practice and remediation, and suggest the possibility of the child and the parent working together at home to better improve the child’s chances at promotion to a higher grade. I know that should one of my students be held back, I want it known I documented every attempt to save said student from drowning. Still, it will hurt. Then, I think back on what the research says of social promotion.

In short, retention is the short phrase that sends students and parents reeling. Everybody grows well-nigh apoplectic at thought of a student being held back. A string piece combining the main title themes from Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List plays hourly on the school’s PA system. At the heart of the matter really is that no one wants any child to fail. Do all you can really means do not let it happen. Work feverishly if possible so that it doesn’t happen. Long regarded as the dirtiest word in the schoolhouse, retention comes in at the last minute of every school year to whisk some child—somebody’s child—into its ever-capacious arms. I simply hope and pray it will not be (too m)any of mine.