Thursday, April 30, 2009

Invisible Learning Disabilities

Tonight, a former student of mine hit me up on chat. Yeah, I was a newbie once and let the kids do crazy things like have my IM name. In my defense, I now have a policy that you must be a legal adult with a high school diploma to be my Facebook friend or similar. But I was under duress back then, not just being a newbie but also leaving my first school and I was going to miss them desperately. ANYWAY.

So we chatted for a bit about how college is going for her, and then she dropped a bombshell on me: She had been evaluated at her college and been diagnosed with dyslexia. I was shocked to hear this. Shocked. For one thing, the girl loved to read and write, and I know that many dyslexics avoid both because they are challening for them--particularly undiagnosed dyslexics. She kept a journal, wrote poetry and stories, and read fantasy and "urban" fiction quite a lot. She was incredibly motivated and engaged in school, and we became pretty close.

Now, I know that kids with learning differences can definitely be and do all of the above. But kids with undiagnosed LDs, as we all know, tend to be frustrated students. They need evaulation and services to succeed, which they certainly should have.

But I'm stunned, first of all, to learn that this hyper-driven high achiever had an undiagnosed LD. And I'm also deeply disappointed in myself that I never suspected a thing. She could be a terrible speller when she was really on a tear with writing, but most of the kids at my first school were terrible spellers, and she generally self-corrected pretty well on final drafts. I just never considered for a moment that she had a problem.

She wanted to know if I would tutor her. Of course I said yes. She's away at school right now, but I said she could get in touch with me when she got back and we'd set something up. I gave her encouragement, said that her attitude about it sounded good and that she was still as brilliant and hard-working as ever and everything would be fine. Plus it would just be great to see her again--I genuinely like her, as a person, and it would be nice to catch up as well as help her out.

But I'm still troubled. I'm wondering what else I might have missed.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Sometimes, Teaching in a Middle School Is Very Much Like Attending One

If I've said it once, I've said it a million times: the vast majority of problems at my job stem not from the children, but from the grownups.

Today I spent some time at an after-school club at my school. I don't officially teach in the after-school program, but I hang out from time to time, to be with the kids in a non-class setting and help out one of my colleagues who has his hands full.

This colleague is a very nice guy and well-beloved by his students. We will call him Mr. J. Mr. J's teaching style is pretty different from mine; he's comfortable with a much higher level of freewheeling "whatever" in his classes than I am. But he's smart and compassionate and his students really do some remarkable work, so I suppose it works for him. On this particular day, Mr. J had bought (with his own money, natch) some snacks for the kids in his after-school class.

"That was sweet of you," I commented.

He shrugged. "It's a long time between lunch and dinner for them," he says. "Anyway, Mrs. P [another colleague of ours] told me this morning that all the other teachers hate me."

"Hate you? Why?"

"Because the kids like me too much."

I believe that. I believe that there are some people at my school bitter enough to hold Mr. J's kind nature against him. And I don't believe that Mrs. P was kidding, either--or, at least, she wasn't 100% kidding. There was probably a pretty good-sized kernel of truth in it.

I wish I was making up this story, but I'm not. I also wish I was making up the fact that I recently discovered that there was a party to which everyone on the staff was invited, except for a select few. I found out because another colleague posted the pictures on Facebook. I was especially hurt because I had bought a gift for the colleague in whose honor the party was being held.

I also wish I was making up the fact that there is a union meeting tomorrow, and that the thought of attending it makes me want to vomit. We already voted against an SBO for next year, but SBOs are on the agenda. Way to make a stand, CL.

I love the children. I love the children. I love the children...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My Day Job

I have been trying to "make it" as a writer for quite a while now. Much of my writing has nothing to do with this blog or with teaching, so I don't really talk about it here--this is a blog strictly about my experiences in the charmed, gentle, sheltered world that is the NYCDOE. But today, the twain shall meet.

I have been working on a novel and recently started seeking representation for it. I've had a few agents show some interest, and right now I have partial manuscripts with two agents and a full manuscript with a third. I have been reading writer blogs as well as teacher blogs lately, too, and one blog asked me this question today: What is my ultimate goal as a writer? Honestly, crazy as this sounds, it's to have a book signing at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square. That seems to me to be the definition of "making it." But I digress.

I digress because one of the possible goals was "quitting your day job." And I thought about that, quitting my day job--that is, teaching. Is that my goal? I surprised even myself by saying, "No." I really don't think I want to quit teaching. I like the kids. I really do. Most of my problems with the NYCDOE are with the grownups. Ideally I'll be able to take some time off to do some promotion of my work, should it get sold and published, but I don't know that I'd ever want to leave the kids entirely. Of course, I say this now, but check with me on June 26.

But teaching isn't just my "day job." It's the work I'm shaping into a career, an outlook, a plan, a life.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A great poem for teachers at The Jose Vilson

This is real, folks. I have always enjoyed Jose's blog, but this poem is really something special.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Freedom Writers; Or, Why You Should Not Solicit Book Recommendations from Your Students

One way I've tried to forge "relationships" with my students, and help then to deepen their relationships with each other, is to create a culture of book critics in my classroom. Several times this year, we've done book talks in which each student reads aloud a short selection of a book they are reading or have read and discusses some thoughts and questions the book raised for him or her. I've also spontaneously shared books I've read that they might enjoy, and I've also let them recommend books to me.

On the recommendations of students, I've read Love That Dog by Sharon Creech, The Dream Bearer and Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers, Teen Angst? Nahhhh... by Ned Vizzini, and the entire Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. And honestly, most of those books I enjoyed. I added Scorpions to my author study on Walter Dean Myers. But one recommendation really made me squirm.

"You should read that Freedom Writers book," K, one of my students, suggested to me recently. "I read it. It was real good. It was, like, real."

This was a casual conversation, not a lesson, so it didn't push her too hard to elaborate. Besides, I was familiar with the book--I'd seen the movie with Hilary Swank two years ago. In fact, I'd watched the movie with students at my former school, who'd begged me to watch it. I was a truly new newbie then, and I let the kids do just about anything they expressed an interest in because it was way easier than arguing with them. So we watched it. And, of course, I hated it.

I hate all teacher movies, like most teachers do. (Except Half Nelson with Ryan Gosling and Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas. On a bad day, I can always remind myself that at least I'm not a cokehead [Half Nelson] or a pot-smoking, philandering, failed novelist [Wonder Boys].) Teacher movies make me feel like a pathetic, lousy excuse for a teacher. Teacher movies make me feel like I AM one of those teachers that people complain about; after all, I belong to a union, I don't give out my cell phone number, and sometimes I like to eat lunch by myself in my classroom with my lights off and my door locked. Erin Gruwell, I am not.

Then again, today I reminded myself to tell my principal that I think my grade should go back to having the same lunch period next year instead of being split across two lunch periods. The admins will think it has cut down on discipline problems, but judging from the number of kids in lunch-related detentions, I don't think it has. It also means that I can't lunch with the kids much because I am usually teaching a class when the other class had lunch. I don't mind spending lunches with the kids, really I don't, even a few times a week. Not to do "lunch duty," but to give homework help, provide a quiet space to study, or just hang out and talk. I used to have a group of girls that came faithfully once or twice a week, ostensibly to clean up my classroom library but mostly just to talk about books. And that was fine with me.

But I digress. Since I like to take kids' book recommendations, I picked up The Freedom Writers' Diary and read it. I can say that it is much better than the movie. Gruwell's starring role in the movie is much slighter in the book, allowing the kids to tell the bulk of the story in their own voices and about their own lives. The stories are engaging and moving. And Ms. Gruwell certainly did do an awful lot for her students, who certainly sound like a bright, wonderful group of children--children with challenges, to be sure, but children who deserved and appreciated every bit of second chance she gave them.

My problems...well. My problem is that Gruwell herself refutes the premise of the book, the idea of the "Super Teacher." Yes, she worked three jobs and wrote grants and thank-you notes and begged and pleaded and stayed at school until 10 p.m. and did God only knows what else to make it work. And she did make it work, God bless her.

And then she quit.

Would I have quit? Sure. I'm not sure I would have been standing upright, let alone ready to continue a teaching career, by the time I finished the four years that she did. I would have been out the door right behind her. But she did quit. The pace that she set, the money and time and emotion she poured out, burned her out. Yes, she has stayed involved in education. But she could not be Super Teacher for the rest of her life.

Strange that (darn K and her recommendation!) I should have picked up the book right around the time I read something like this. And the cycle starts over again. Look at everything I don't do, I fret. I don't give out my phone number. I don't work Saturdays. I don't get Miep Gies to come to my school. I'm lucky I managed to cobble together a graduation trip that the kids seem happy about. God, I suck.

Then I have to remind myself that I plan to be in this for a long haul. I plan to retire from this job. I want to be there, year after year, for a long time--possibly in my same school. I love the children I teach, but I am not Super Teacher. And I'm not sure I want to be.

Sure, I can always do more and better. Each year, I select two specific areas in which I want to improve, with the support of my admins. We work together on me improving in those two areas that following year. And then we re-evaluate and it starts over. And, you know, every so often I get an evening or a weekend more or less to myself. It's not a perfect system, but my kids don't seem too deprived and I'm not totally stir-crazy.

I could do what Gruwell did. For about as long as she did. And then I'd quit. And someone else would fill my shoes, starting from Square One like I did (because these days in NYC, no experienced teacher would be hired for my job--they'd hire a cheap noob), guaranteeing at least one shoddy, miserable, desperate year for the unlucky kiddies to populate that class.

Anyway. Thanks, K, for the recommendation. I hope it makes me a Super Teacher that I plan to offer the book to my more mature readers even though I don't like the insidious message it sometimes sends about teachers and teaching. We can agree to disagree on that. And I think K probably just liked the stories about shootings and bullying and things.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hey, It's Been a While!

Hi friends.

I wish I had an interesting excuse for why I haven't blogged in a few weeks, but I don't. March was crazy busy, and I was pretty sick for a little while, but, hell, I didn't even log in over the (glorious) spring break.

I have nothing to say for myself other than that I plan to be back in full force soon. Like, this weekend.

So hi!