Saturday, October 31, 2009

Loss, Grief, Growing Up

I have a pain-in-the-butt kid in my pain-in-the-butt advisory. Advisory is just generally a pain in the butt--it's not a "real" class and there's no curriculum for two of the three days in the week. The day that does have curriculum consists of lessons discussing our academic goals, important qualities for being a good student, and really stupid videos on these and related topics. The kids make fun of the videos and talk through them, and I am reminded of how lucky I am that for the most part I am in control of my own curriculum and don't have to teach stuff that I can't get behind. Anyway, of the other two days, we're supposed to use one as a study hall, and the other day is a pep rally once in a while, and the rest of the time it's just a pointless half hour almost at the end of a Friday afternoon. I tried to play games with them once on a Friday early on, but they were way too cool--I might try again now that they know me better and we're a little more united. But mostly we just do a little homework and then hang out on Fridays.

Anyway this one pain-in-the-butt kid, D., might be my favorite kid in advisory, though I have several I like in there--they've been growing on me. D. wasn't in advisory on Tuesday or Thursday, though, and I was vaguely annoyed because I assumed he was skipping. I make my kids work during advisory study hall--I'll give them an assignment of my own if they don't have anything to work on. They fought me at first but apparently I'm a hardass teacher and now they know to at least just pretend to be working. They also know that if they are quiet and work for a while, I'll give them free time at the end. Even the Caitlins don't skip as much as they had been, and when they're there they don't give me quite so much attitude as before (there are three Caitlins total in my advisory of twelve students, but two of them are a united force of rebel, and the other one is mellow and separate).

But D. He's failing a bunch of his classes but is way too cool to work on anything during study hall, so I pulled him aside and worked one-on-one with him some, got in touch with Mrs. Matz, the teacher who works with kids with behavioral problems and specific academic needs and who knows D. very well, emailed a couple of his teachers, and got him actually finishing and turning some stuff in. Apparently he told Mrs. Matz that nobody ever tried to help him with anything in advisory, but Ms. Nelson actually cares about him. This was good to hear, since what he was saying to me in advisory was "They're not working! How come you're not saying anything to them? You're picking on me. I'm the only Mexican kid in here. How come you're not talking to them? They don't do work in here." My response, over and over, was some variation on "You're not passing. You could be passing. You're totally smart enough to do this, I know sometimes you just need some help getting focused. We don't have anything better to do in here, why not get your work done?" Plus I would point out when the other kids were doing work, and make a point of calling them out and reminding D. that he wasn't the only one who had to work. So he'd come sometimes and fight me, refuse to work and just talk to everybody; come sometimes and actually get some stuff done; and skip sometimes.

Yesterday he came in just as the late bell rang and he said, "Look, I can't be in here today. I can't be in here right now. I have to leave. I just have to go."

Something on his face, something in his voice, made me say simply, "Okay. If that's what you need. Okay." But he got halfway to the door and I said, "But wait, hang on, D.--" I went over to him--"Where are you going?"

"I'm just gonna sit on a chair in the hall. I'm just going to take a chair out. I just, I just can't be in here."

I was kind of surprised. He just wanted to sit in the hall? "That's fine. You go ahead."

A counselor came in to pull out another student and I chatted with him a little... I graded some of the eighteen thousand projects that students are turning in this week and next week, before the end of the quarter... and then I remembered D., sitting out in the hall. I grabbed a book off the classroom bookshelf--D.'s not a reader, he's told me a bunch of times how much he hates reading, but he was sitting out there with nothing at all. I brought out Yes Yes Y'all; Oral History of Hip Hop's First Decade, which has been popular with many a non-reader since I bought it. It's one of those books I bought for myself but realized would be worth more in the classroom library than on my shelf at home, though it would stay in much better shape at home and would be much less likely to disappear forever. I think about the books I stole from school libraries as a kid and how I still have many of them: Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie, Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House, Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (which I stole from the library long before I ever heard of the Cure or the song by the same name)--those are three that come immediately to mind without even consulting my bookshelves. I'm not checking any more big expensive graffiti art books out of the public library and loaning them to students, but my own books and books bought for my classroom will probably keep disappearing. I just imagine that they're disappearing because someone wants to have it, wants it near them at all times, which is why I stole books--not just because they're lost under someone's bed, or thrown out a school bus window. Plus sometimes they don't disappear, they get read and returned and then the same kid will ask me for another book because I actually gave them a book they liked for once.

Anyway. The book was also just an excuse to go out there.

"Hey," I said. "Brought you a book, something to look at--you're just sitting out here." He had his phone out, maybe he had been texting or playing some game, but even so, he really was just sitting, mostly. D.'s an active, loud, gregarious kid too. And he looked so sad. He had way more of his feelings on his face than I'd ever seen. Way more than you usually see on a high school kid, especially a boy.

"What's going on?" I asked him. I put a hand on his shoulder, but he didn't respond to the touch, and I took my hand away. He was too tight inside himself for that.

He told me the whole story. His aunt died. She'd been sick, then she was feeling better, then all of a sudden she was really sick and then she was dead. His mom's only sister, forty-four years old, and D. spent every weekend at her house, all weekend, just hanging out with her and her son, D.'s cousin, who is like his brother. "She was like my other mom," he said. He told me that's why he hadn't been in school all week.

I said some stuff. Maybe it helped. He reminded me so much of me and my sister and how wrecked we were after my dad died. Too awful, too sudden, but totally real and there's nothing you can do, it's done.

I don't remember what I said, except I remember saying, "Try to have some fun this weekend. But you won't." I got half a grin, not amused but recognizing the truth of it, and a nod. I said something about how I lost my dad and I know how hard that can be, how much it can hurt. I wish I would have told him to do something that makes him feel good about who he is, something that means something to him. I don't know if I would have lived through losing my dad (yeah, I would've, you do, you just do, but you know what I mean) if I hadn't had my journal. Writing is that out for me. I wish I would've told him just to play video games, go shoot hoops, to watch his favorite movie and call out his favorite lines along with the characters, listen to his favorite music really loud. Let his brain and his heart have something else to hold onto a little bit and stop working full speed at being overwhelmed and horrified and heart-broken, let the grief step back for a moment and something that feels good move forward, even just for a second. But I didn't think of it then. I thought of it after school, on my drive home. I did think to talk to the counselor at the end of the day before I left and I asked him to meet with D. on Monday. If I see D. Monday maybe I'll try to tell him something about trying to do things you love so you don't totally sink into the loss so that it's all you are for a while, even though it will probably be all you are for a while even if you try not to sink. Even just the effort of trying not to sink can help a little bit, maybe. (I hope I can figure out a way to say it that might make some sense to him.)

So I am thinking about that tough kid and how much he's hurting. Grateful that he could tell me what was going on. Wishing I could do something to fix it but of course I can't, nothing can fix it. Time, sort of. But even that only sort of. A book about hip hop and graffiti maybe a little bit for a little while. A few things for a little while, and the whiles will get a little longer, eventually, and the rough spots will get further apart. I was proud of him for letting himself hurt, at least. That more than anything might get him through it the best.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Student Wisdom some more

Told my fourth period class that my sub on Monday, Kathleen, left me a note that said, “These guys are Rockstars! They worked so hard you could hear a pin drop in this class!”

Alan said, “Actually, that’s not how rock stars would act.”

Friday, October 16, 2009

Standardized tests, editing inappropriate materials...

At parent/teacher conferences last night, the parents of one of my Junior English students mentioned that they felt an article I had read in class with my students was inappropriate. The article was a New York Times editorial about how standardized tests are graded, and who is grading them, written by a former test grader, Todd Farley. I thought the article made a lot of good points about the subjectivity of these tests, and I gave it to my students for several reasons: I think it's a great example of an editorial, it's extremely relevant to them and their experiences, and I thought it would make for good discussion. We read mostly fiction in my classes, so I try to bring in current non-fiction whenever possible to vary things and to help those students who don't like to read fiction connect with my curriculum. (I am also really sick of students deciding they are "bad writers" or "can't write" or just generally are stupid on the basis of their standardized test scores.)

The parents' primary problem with the editorial was that one of the examples the author gives of a subjective decision test-graders are forced to make is that of how to grade the movie review of a ninth-grade student who chooses to review Debbie Does Dallas. The parents told me it just wasn't appropriate, that it would give a teenage boy ideas, that maybe if the article didn't name a movie specifically it would be okay, but to say Debbie Does Dallas! Maybe if it just said "an inappropriate movie," they suggested--I said, "or a pornographic movie?" and they nodded as if maybe that would be okay, and told me that I should have changed it. The dad said, "Because it was printed in an adult newspaper, the New York Times is for adult readers, and they're teenagers, so not everything is going to be appropriate for them."

He also told me that since these tests are so important, maybe it wasn't appropriate for them to read something so critical of the tests, and at the very least, if I was going to have students reading something like this, they should read something giving the other side too. I said that we discussed the article at length in class, and students came up with those points on their own--I didn't want to give them both sides because I wanted them to think it through, and they did. I told the parents that we had a very good discussion of the article, talking about the tests, and testing, and who should grade them, and how these problems could be fixed. We talked about what was good about the author's opinions, and what wasn't.

I was proud of myself for how I handled this. I didn't argue, I nodded a lot, I addressed their concerns, and when they left I said, "Thank you for sharing your opinion, I can see where you're coming from on this, and I appreciate you letting me know. I'm sorry you felt it was inappropriate." They smiled and nodded and walked away.


I wrote my students a letter at the beginning of the school year, and their first assignment was to write me a letter in response. I asked them to tell me a few specific things about themselves--what was easiest for them in English class, what was hardest, that kind of thing--and to tell me anything else they wanted me to know. One of my junior girls wrote that she wanted me to know that she had a beautiful two-year-old baby boy, and she was "ready to have another one." I referred her to counseling, not sure whether this meant she was pregnant or trying to get pregnant.

She's visibly showing now.

I was talking with another teacher about this today. I said, "I just want to put a bowl of condoms on my desk. Some of the kids would blow them up and bounce them around the room, or shoot them at each other, but I don't know if I even care."

I said, "Obviously abstinence-based sex education is not working. They should be able to get the pill from the school nurse if they want it."

We talked about how nobody's addressing the fact that some of these girls are getting pregnant because they want a baby. The student mentioned above? Her two-year-old isn't a baby anymore. Condoms on my desk wouldn't make a difference for her, if she wants that baby.

So much more to say about this and nothing more to say.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

What Jamie Saw

I just finished Carolyn Coman's What Jamie Saw, a short novel (126 small, wide-margin, large-print pages) about a third-grade boy, Jamie, who sees his mother's boyfriend, Van, take his infant sister (Van's daughter) out of her crib and throw her across the room in anger. Jamie's mom catches her, and they pack up and leave Van right then.

This is also a novel featuring an amazing teacher, Jamie's third-grade teacher, Mrs. Desrochers. Jamie likes her, and third grade is much better than second grade, "when he had had Mrs. Gimber and everything felt stale and hard and what he knew best was how much he wasn't very good at."

Mrs. Desrochers comes to the trailer that Jamie and his mom and little sister eventually move to after they leave Van. She shows up after Jamie hasn't come to school in a couple of weeks, and Jamie's mom, Patty, lets her in, but "Jamie knew she was hating it as much as he was--and he even liked Mrs. Desrochers. He was remembering that just then, that he actually liked her, the way she didn't make him feel stupid. She just wasn't supposed to be there."


"You visit all the kids in your class who get sick?" Patty said. She sounded to Jamie like she was trying to pick a fight.

"No," Mrs. Desrochers told her. "I don't. Just the missing in action."

"Listen," Patty told her, "this is a good place for us, we don't need any help. Jamie's safe here."

"I believe you," Mrs. Desrochers said, and after she said it, it was like there was nothing Patty could say back. The fight Patty was trying to pick was a fire that couldn't get started, and Jamie didn't know what would happen next. "He's safe with me too," his teacher said.


Jamie is sent to watch TV while they talk, but "He knew how Mrs. Desrochers talked to people, how she didn't say things as if there was an answer and she was the only one who had it. She was going to talk that way to Patty--she already was--and Patty would go over to her. Jamie knew that." Jamie is right, of course. Eventually he hears his teacher say, "Jamie needs to be in school if I'm going to find a way in... I believe there's a way in or I wouldn't teach. But I need my kids to show up."

When she leaves, Patty tells Jamie he has to go back to school, and says that Mrs. Desrochers is "all right. She'll help us."

"Help us what?" Jamie wanted to know. Did they need help?

"Oh, Jamie," his mother said. "You know. Just help, give us a hand."


This is one of those chapter books for kids that I think everyone should read, especially those of us who spend lots of time with kids; never hurts to be reminded that kids appreciate people who don't "say things as if there was an answer and she was the only one who had it." It's beautifully written, with details drawn so clearly--the kind of details most of us don't notice, or leave out.

What Jamie Saw also made me think about audience, because it seems to me to be a book that would be very difficult for most children this age, especially if they were reading it to themselves on their own. It could be a great read-aloud, but I could see it being a very controversial read-aloud choice for a classroom teacher. I'm not sure an older child would choose it on their own, though it might be best for an older elementary student. And, as a huge fan of children's literature myself, it's a novel I only ever ran across when I posted to a children's lit listserv asking for suggestions of novels "for middle-grade readers, maybe fourth, fifth, or sixth grade, talking about an abusive relationship between a mom and a dad? Doesn't have to be central to the story at all, just present or even referenced" even though it's a Newbery Honor Book.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Public Performance

A while ago, walking through Laurelhurst Park, I noticed a group of people getting ready for some kind of performance. I asked one of them, "What's this about?"

He said, "It's a Hamlet."

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Between classes I see Leandro and one of my Yasmins walking through the hall, and I say, "What are you troublemakers doing?" They are not troublemakers at all. Leandro is holding a pass.

Yasmin smiles at me. Leandro says, "Don't you see my--" and he gestures to his head.

"Your halo?"

"My halo. There is my halo, and there is the little angel on my shoulder."

"Halo!" says Yasmin. "Is that what it's called? So that's why the Beyonce song--'Halo'. That's what she's talking about when she says 'I can feel your halo.'" Yasmin is so excited to have figured this out, made this connection.

The song barely makes sense if you do know what a halo is. But this is how to teach vocabulary: link it in with student interests, with relevant vocabulary in their lives. I wish it could always be like that.

(Lyrics here if you've managed to avoid the song and don't want to watch the video linked above.)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Wandering around on the internets

From the Wikipedia profile of actress Teresa Wright, who was in the stage production of Life With Father and then had a long screen career, including Bette Davis' little sister in The Little Foxes, this quote from her Hollywood contract:

"The aforementioned Teresa Wright shall not be required to pose for photographs in a bathing suit unless she is in the water. Neither may she be photographed running on the beach with her hair flying in the wind. Nor may she pose in any of the following situations: In shorts, playing with a cocker spaniel; digging in a garden; whipping up a meal; attired in firecrackers and holding skyrockets for the Fourth of July; looking insinuatingly at a turkey for Thanksgiving; wearing a bunny cap with long ears for Easter; twinkling on prop snow in a skiing outfit while a fan blows her scarf; assuming an athletic stance while pretending to hit something with a bow and arrow."

How awesome is that? Heh.

(I was writing, then needed to figure out what the fall play was that my main character's best friend's new love interest was in, so suddenly I'm online looking up Life With Father, and that's how we don't get our writing done, Ms. Nelson. But we do learn some interesting things.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Another Moment

I got this email from a student today: "my dad shot him self today, so i wont be in class. can u e mail me the hw?" After a couple hours of panic and waiting to hear more, then some further investigation (which included asking her sort of boyfriend if he knew anything, and him promptly texting her) I discovered that her dad did in fact shoot himself today--in the hand. So they spent the day in the ER. (She would have had to go along because her family takes care of her two month old baby.)

Those Moments

So I am going to Holocene tonight for this, so decided to go to Floyd's and hang out until I met up with Megan, rather than go home first. Then I remembered that it's Thursday and I love the farm market at 20th and Salmon, which is Thursday evenings! So I swung by--and no one there. I knew maybe it would be closed already--my local one was supposed to end last week, and they extended it through October, but how lucky can one girl get? (I know, I know--I'm alive, etc. I'm lucky. I'm so damn lucky. But yeah.)

No one there except two women pulled up next to the parking lot where it's held, one in the driver's seat with the door open, the other hopping around in the street next to the car saying, "No! No! No!" very plaintively. The one in the car is holding a vase of flowers.

I say, "No farm market this week, huh?"

The woman in the street says, "No, last week was the last week."

"That's what you were here for?"

"No," they say. "Memorial service." (The farm market parking lot is next door to a church.)

"Oh, I'm sorry!" I say.

The woman hopping in the street says, "Also, I'm doing that Weight Watchers, and I didn't lose enough. I have to go weigh myself now! Argh!"

I say, "Well, I can add one more. I totaled my car on the Fremont Bridge yesterday. This is a rental."

We commiserate for a moment, they tell me how fortunate I am, and the two women discuss giving me the vase of flowers, how maybe I need them. I say, "No, no, I'm fine. Thanks so much. Bye now, take care. And you, Ms. Weight Watchers, you look fabulous." I drive away in the rental car leaving them both laughing really hard.