Tense Moments

The first long stretch of school ended on a crazy note. The main event of the day was the rematch of the legendary pre-Thanksgiving student-faculty basketball game. Much like the last time, it was a pretty epic game. In the end, I don’t even know or care who won, because one of my students ended up leaving school in an ambulance.

We were in the last couple minutes of the game, and the score was close. I was taking the ball to the rim, looking to draw a foul. One of my students stood in the lane to try and take a charge, and two others homed in from the side and behind to try to block my layup. I side-stepped to avoid running directly into the kid in the lane, and went up for the shot. I don’t really know what happened, but next thing I know I was picking myself up after slamming into the floor.

I got up, and not hearing a whistle, I ran back to defend, assuming that there was no foul called. But then I realized that the student who was in the lane was on the ground, and must have been for a while. Then when I looked more closely, I saw that he was out cold and convulsing.

Reportedly, what had happened was that after I went up, the player who jumped from behind me to block my shot knocked the kid in the lane over, and when I came down, my foot or leg hit him right in the head, slamming his head into the ground.

The teachers and the principal stopped the building panic in the stands and got everyone in their seats and quiet. The kid didn’t seize for very long, and he regained consciousness, but he still could not get up. I sat on the gym floor and watched and waited for tense minutes while we waited for the paramedics to come. It was a crappy situation–a freak sports accident, but a highly awkward situation, nonetheless. There was nothing I could do but pray that he was okay, because I had to leave before the paramedics arrived so that I could be on time to catch my plane back home for break. Fortunately, I heard the next day from the principal that everything is okay, which is a big relief. But still, what an awful good way to end what had been a very fun and hard-fought contest.

On lighter note, I’ve made it to winter break! This is the longest period of time off I’ve had since Induction, in mid-June. I’m going to try hard to savor it! When I’m done relaxing, I might write something a bit more retrospective.

Fighting Back

This past week has gone fairly well. Late December is known to be a time when students are “off the hook”, and that has rang true, but I’ve been dropping the hammer in response, and generally speaking, things have been manageable. I hope it’s not just a temporary phase or transient holiday joy, but things do seem to improving on the whole. Another big part is probably that I’ve really been putting a lot of effort into turning my outlook around. Oh yeah–and Hopkins is done for the semester!

We had our bi-weekly 9th Grade All-Men Meeting on Friday, which seemed to go reasonably well. We’re trying hard to start forming these 9th grade males into disciplined men, and I can see it coming along bit by bit. Right now, we don’t really have a set plan going into these meeting, which is something that’s going to have to change for them to be successful. But for my part, I’m trying to establish a culture of manhood, based not upon machismo, or even traditional masculinity, but on self-control. I’ve been doing this by framing disruptive and disrespectful behaviors I want to eliminate as boyish, and productive behaviors I want to foster as manly. This has been pretty effective for about 90% of my 9th graders, particularly the ones who aren’t deeply involved in the street culture. You can see it every day; these kids are still planning out their developmental route.

For the other 10%, they’ve already decided what “being a man” looks like, and it typically involves bucking authority. We’re going to need something more comprehensive to reach them. In the meantime, continuing these meetings is going to be key to making sure that their twisted idea of manhood isn’t the only perspective out there for those 90% who are still up for grabs.

On a lighter note, I taught what was probably my best lesson yet on Thursday and Friday. The big difference is I cut the lecture to a minimum, and got started with real-world application right off the bat. I had a rude awakening last week when I looked at the Benchmark assessment my students would be taking. I realized that the majority of the questions were word problems, and that the HSA was going to be quite similar. Unfortunately, I’ve put very little emphasis on word problems all year, and I feel like that has really set my students back. I thought that incorporating word problems in the lesson might make learning the skills more complicated, and maybe it has, but at the same time it makes the math a bit more engaging.

Just two more days until some much-needed rest and relaxation!

Hanging In There

Last week was not my best week, even though I was only at work for 3 1/2 days. I felt like I was running on fumes. But I think/hope I’m starting to come around. I’ve been really trying to work on my attitude. It kind of feels like little by little, I’m gaining perspective on what I should be doing. I’ve been trying new strategies to get control of my classes, and I think I’m making some headway. Changing my classroom culture is going to be a long process. The biggest thing I’ve had to change for myself is holding higher expectations for student conduct in my own mind.

At the suggestion of one of my roommates, I’ve tried one little thing that has made a notable difference. It’s one of those new-school strategies with stupid names that sound like they would never work: “accountable talk”. The idea is, instead of repeating expectations or directions, I say them one time, and if I notice someone is not moving, I ask them what they’re supposed to be doing. Sure enough, it often gets them moving. When it doesn’t, I still do not repeat the directions. I ask if there’s someone who can explain the directions, or I give hints by pointing out groups who have the hang of it. It’s not the magic bullet, but the strategy has been very helpful for students who are daydreaming or engaged in benign off-task behavior. As it turns out, it really does seem to empower students, and reduces the number of direct commands I have to issue.

I feel exhausted, but the good news is that grad class is done for the semester, and there are only a few days left until break. I’m told that I can expect things to come together for me a little bit more after Christmas, and I’m going to do my best to make sure I come out swinging in January. As for tomorrow, judging by the fact that I’m still awake at 2am (thanks, 5-Hour Energy!), I can only imagine it’s going to be a bit of a rough day.

By the way, thanks to everyone who’s read about my adventure and lent support. It means a lot to me. I’m going to try to continue to document the experience, so keep checking up.

A Day Away To See The Pros In Action

As promised, Friday was a good day! I was sent by my principal to observe other teachers in action at the high school where he was resident principal last year. I got a lot of great ideas that I want to try to put into practice.

Having seen each of them in action, I can tell that they are excellent teachers, and I can see why. Each of them had clear control of their classroom. They also had ways of engaging off-task students without eliciting the negative reactions I get so frequently. I also got a lot of insight into “the System” and the city culture from some math teachers that all came up in Baltimore and who are all veteran teachers. They told me about the ebb and flow of public schooling. It was almost kind of funny; all 3 had started off in middle school, which all 3 agreed is generally a mess, city-wide. All 3 lasted less than a year, but eventually came back to the System.

One particularly interesting topic that came up was the major emerging crisis across the district concerning the high-stakes tests for graduation. The students have been taking exit exams for years, but until this year, they have only been required to sit the exams. Now they must pass all 4 exams in order to graduate. The problem isn’t actually that the System is unprepared for the fact that Baltimore City students are not going to pass in high numbers. This is well-known, and the state has contingency plans for that, in the form of alternative tests and projects, and across the city, an enormous amount of resources has been directed toward ensuring that the students have access to all the preparation they need. The problem is that students are still not taking advantage of those resources. It’s becoming increasingly clear that, come graduation time, there’s going to be a catastrophe in the graduation rate, even by Baltimore City standards. As far as I can tell, there’s no concrete plan for what can be done to prevent this, or what happens to the students who don’t pass the test.

The teacher I was speaking to doesn’t blame the System—-after all, this situation is unprecedented, and who knew that even with all hands on deck to get the students up to speed that we’d still be coming up way short. I responded that it still was important that the students know this stuff. After all, the exit exams test only subjects from freshman and sophomore year, albeit pretty rigorously.

She replied, “See I disagree. It used to be we tested the kids on functional math. Can you go to the store and find a discount? You go to work at 7:00 and leave at 3:45, how many hours and minutes is that? Can you do your taxes?

“This algebra I stuff doesn’t mean anything to these kids. They’re not walking around thinking, ‘what’s the mean of that?’ They’re not looking for box patterns. We need to be teaching them stuff they can use.

“When I was in middle school, they taught us how to do taxes. We were filling out the 1040EZ. I didn’t plan on going to college when I was in high school, but when I decided to go, there were placement tests to see what math class I belonged in.

“What if a kid wants to be an artist? What kind of math is he going to take in college? Probably not higher-level math–probably whatever the easiest class that’ll give him that college math credit. He doesn’t need to know this stuff”

She’s got a point, especially since she teaches at a neighborhood school, not a college prep school like mine aspires to be. Rigor is important, that’s for sure, but maybe we’re fighting a losing battle if it’s just rigor for rigor’s sake. Although, the one thing I would say is that nowadays, opportunities for people with a high school education are drying up. So I don’t know what the answer is. I suppose if there were an easy answer, we’d already have figured it all out.

Tommorow Will Be A Good Day. Even If It’s Not

I am frustrated.

My Hopkins adviser came through for what’s become my bi-weekly beatdown. As usual, the theme is that I’m not standing up for myself, I’m letting the kids walk all over me, I’m too nice to them, I’m too tolerant, I’m too patient, I don’t raise my voice enough, and I need to be much more domineering. I think she thinks I’m not getting the point, because today she spent about 20 minutes lecturing me on it. To really hammer it in, while I was out handling something in the hallway, she interviewed my students and when I returned, she reported back to me that their consensus is that I’m too easy on them and that I let the class get side-tracked. The point was even further punctuated by random chaotic events going on outside my room. What’s hard to swallow is that she has a point. She knows it, the kids know it, any visitor to my classroom knows it, and I know it.

I take a lot of criticism for the many things I’m not doing and not doing well, but it really felt like an attack on my persona. I prize my patience and ability not to take things personally. But at that moment I found those very same ability lacking. It really feels as though these aspects of my personality have been a liability for me in the classroom. It’s hard enough doing what I’m doing without having to be someone I dislike.

I was still chewing on that dilemma when I was called down to the office to conference with the parent of a kid who had gotten kicked out of my class the day before. In my haste, I forgot to lock the door. In the meantime, my students for my next class had been released for lunch in my absence, and had began to walk into my room, by the time I arrived, I knew from the shouting coming from the room that something was amiss. As I approached, a bunch of students ran away, and one of my students emerged, bleeding pretty heavily around his eye. And out of a roomful of kids, not one actually saw what happened and who did what, if you can believe that.

During the next class, we had a brief group discussion about what had happened. Most of the kids–who were in the room, mind you–felt really bad for the kid who got beat up. They said it was unfair that he was getting suspended when he was the one who got jumped. Person after person chimed in to say that even though they found him annoying, he really is a cool kid, and is extremely nice. They lamented the fact that he was constantly getting picked on. I told them all that their boo-hoo’s didn’t mean crap when not one of them had the stones to stand up for him. It didn’t have much effect. Apparently guilt doesn’t mean much in a place where “snitches get stitches”. Sad.

I guess it’s not to say the day went by without pleasantness, because there were some small and large victories, and some productive steps taken. So I’m going to go ahead and be upset tonight, but in the long run, I’ve got to find a way to brush the really negative stuff off and constantly celebrate the good stuff. It’s probably the only chance I’ve really got in the long run. No matter what, my next post will be celebratory, I swear.

Culture War

Although I spent most of my break stressed out about the fact that I would going back into the same quagmire I had left behind, the good news is that I am actually feeling a bit better since return to school than when I left. I guess it would be hard to feel much worse. To be completely honest, I spent a lot of time during break pondering, weighing my options if I decided not to come after the summer, in the event that my life might not improve. Well, I certainly wouldn’t call my first few days back blissful, but for one reason or another, I’m not quite so pessimistic. Maybe it’s the turkey, who knows…

But sadly, the theme of the past few days from my point of view has been the losing battle I am fighting against discipline. It’s only a small comfort to realize lately that although my personal management skills are pretty weak, the problem is much bigger than myself. We are up against some extremely alarming social issues, but I just don’t feel like there’s a systematic plan to manage the insane amount of baggage our students bring into our building.

For instance, I have been cursed out by the same girl for two consecutive days, which is a problem for several reasons. I have made considerable effort to try and mentor this particular girl, despite the fact that she has tremendous distaste for me. She’s one of my most challenging students, and she has the ability to completely destroy a lesson. She’s often extremely volatile, crass, and loud. It’s been a major challenge to socialize her, but we had been making gains lately. The only real strategy to deal with her is to try and contain her by appealing to her very real desire to make something of herself. But when she’s having a bad day, you’re going to have a bad one too.

I probably should have known things were going to go badly when she initiated, at full volume, what was probably one of the most vividly sexually explicit conversations I have ever heard front-and-center in my room. I managed to put an end to it, but the damage was done. From that point on, she wasn’t interested in any directions I had to give. Along with 2 other students, she walked out of my class without permission before being dismissed. When I spoke with her other teacher about holding the 3 of them at the end of the day until I could get them for detention, she informed me that she wasn’t coming to my f***ing detention and that I was a b****-a**. I was shocked, sadly not that those words came out of her mouth, or that I was being cursed at; these are fairly normal things. The shocking part was that she would do something so stupid as to curse me out in front of witnesses, knowing full well what the consequences would be.

Even more shocking was the fact that she back in my classroom the next day. I make an effort not to hold anything against my students, so I talked to her for a couple minutes in the hall to make sure that if she was actually back in school and coming to my class that at least we were on the same page. She clearly wasn’t a big fan of me, but I felt like she understood that she had been out of line the day before, and was ready to change her ways, for the time being at least. Wrong.

During She marched out of my room at some point to go do goodness knows what. When I followed her to get her back into the room, she told me, “Get out my face Mr. Johnson. That’s why you got cussed out yesterday. I’m so f***iing tired of you!”, as if I’m in her way for doing my job by enforcing the rules. This time, I was just disappointed in her. What could possibly have gotten into her to curse me out two days in a row? I wrote her up and had security take her down to the office.

Imagine my surprise to see her back in my classroom, unescorted, 10 minutes later. I would find out later that she was sent up to collect her belongings, but she arrived with no documentation or apparent purposed. Needless to say, this sent the wrong message to the rest of my students, who promptly went ballistic–mind you, this class is composed of our most academically struggling students, and naturally, some of our most challenging to manage.

This time, surely, if this girl wasn’t suspended, I’d at least be seeing her parent for a conference before she returned to my class. Wrong, again. She was back in my classroom again today. We managed to pass the day without any serious behavior issues (well, besides her cursing out her boyfriend in the middle of a quiz). And honestly, I was just happy to see her working hard. Still, what message does this send to the other students, that she can curse me out 2 days in a row without major apparent consequence?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming anyone. The way I can’t even handle my own business, I’m hardly in a position to do so. I’m sure the situation was handled, I’m just not sure exactly how. After all, the girl did come back (this time) at the very least ready coexist with me and get her work done. I’ll take what I can get. I just don’t like where this slippery slope leads.

Sadly, this is just the tip of the iceberg of the behavior I’ve been dealing with, just since the beginning of the month. But it’s not really the kids I’m struggling with, it’s the street culture that’s twisted their worldview and the results of years of bad schooling that have left them unprepared for formal education. Sometimes I wonder, even if I did manage to pump these kids full of math, which is far-fetched to begin with, how are some of these children going to survive in the world outside this brutal urban culture, where just one incident, like the ones they witness everyday, could be the end of their shot at better life opportunities? Unless we can achieve some major social changes, only the very cream of the crop–the brightest, shrewdest, and most adaptable–are going to make it. And that scares the heck out of me.