Saturday, December 12, 2009

Car Talks

I admit it. I used to drive kids around in my car. I used to drive kids around in my car a lot. I'd take them home after school. I'd take them to their grandmother's house. I'd take them to work. I was a regular chauffeur for my students. And I loved every minute of it.

When I first started teaching at MLK, the school was in dire need of some "normalizing." There weren't very many typical high school activities happening after school. During my second year, a crew of teachers came on board that felt we could impact the school's overall climate by providing some after school activities that would make the students want to do better in the classroom. So, we started a variety of things to engage students in the school community. This, of course, was a good thing. However, keeping kids after school meant providing some means of getting them home. For me personally, it meant the beginning of daily car rides with my students.

First of all, riding the neighborhood with students has a language all its own. Kids know the streets, but they don't know how to talk about the locations in any kind of coherent way. I had to learn, sometimes the hard way, that the "neighborhood" that MLK served is (1) HUGE! and (2) divided into several sections. So, I had to learn to ask, in kid lingo, which section a student lived in to at least give me a ball park direction to head. They recognized sections by major landmarks or by major intersections. Sometimes, I'd get a vague "sort of near...". Otherwise, students would let me just drive and wander the streets for hours.

Of course, the wandering driving had its benefits. Students would open up to me in the car in ways that wouldn't even compare to the classroom or school environment. I learned more about my students as real people on those trips through the neighborhood. I learned about their families' culture and practices. I learned about the students' hopes and dreams. I learned about hidden talents and responsibilities. I learned about their fears. I learned about their strength and resilience in a real and almost tangible way when I heard their words of hope juxtapose themselves against the stark reality of their surroundings.

I definitely learned my way around the city, at least the east side of Cleveland. I learned to be cautious without being afraid of that neighborhood. I also came to be recognized by the adults who frequented some of the streets I traveled most often. Even the unofficial (but official enough) "protectors" of the housing projects recognized my car and would let me roll through unchecked and unchallenged. I often wondered what they thought of me with my posse of students, and I heard them mutter "teacher lady" a couple of times, but that was all.

I appreciated those afternoons riding around in the little green Honda. I packed a lot of kids into that car and listened to a lot of stories while driving it. I think the intimacy of the closed space, with no one else to hear, made the car a safe place to talk. I think too that my eyes were on the road made it easier for some kids to talk about personal things than they might otherwise have done if eye contact had been required. I also didn't force them to talk about anything. We were just two (or three or four, sometimes five) people out for an afternoon drive, having a "Car Talk."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Birthday Ritual

After the initial haze and flurry wore off, I started to watch the behaviors of my students more closely. I noticed their subtle and creative ways to cover up how they didn't have much cash available. I recognized how much care they gave to the few really nice things they had in order to prolong their life. I acknowledged how many times they celebrated the small nuances of life with a resiliency that seemed to belie the struggles underneath the surface. Perhaps that's why this ritual took me by surprise.

A couple weeks into the school year, I noticed random students walking around with dollar bills pinned to their clothes...ones, fives, tens, even a twenty. Well, I had to ask why someone would walk around school with their life's savings pinned to the OUTSIDE of their outfit. My students just laughed at me and said, "It's birthday money." I pressed for an explanation. Basically, the school (community? culture?) had a practice that a person would receive cold, hard cash on his or her birthday.

In a show of gratitude, the person was expected to wear the money, usually pinned with a safety pin, like a corsage. There was a certain flair to how to wear the money: fan-style, flower-style, pinwheel-style. People were also expected to put the larger bills to the front of the stack to demonstrate their wealth. In addition, some donors of the green gifts would write messages on the pieces of paper in bright markers, thus making the "bouquet" even more colorful and intriguing. Donors were permitted, though discouraged, from making change with the recipient's booty.

I turned 30 the fall of my first year at MLK, Jr. I happened to mention this to my 4th period class, which was a group to which I had grown close in my mere month and half of teaching there. I was giving a test (great birthday present, right?), and students were to walk their test up to my desk when finished. I'll never forget when one of my beautiful children placed a grubby, crumpled, barely recognizable dollar bill next to her test on my desk. I looked up in wonder and asked, "What's this?" She whispered in return, "Happy Birthday."

Honestly, I wasn't sure what to do. I wasn't sure of the ethics of accepting cash from a student. By the end of the period, several more dollars had appeared as well as the donation of a safety pin. Clearly, the students were making a statement. Ethics aside, I felt an obligation to honor the fact that the students were accepting me as one of their own. That sensation of joy outweighed my doubts about taking money from those who could ill afford to give it up, and I went with it. I gave myself over to childish jubilation and excitement at getting to wear a "money corsage" and asked for help from the girls. They giggled and helped me ready my fan of money to pin to my sweater, signed their dollars with markers, and we had a good laugh. I walked around proudly the rest of the day collecting more and more money.

This seemed to set some sort of a precedent. Each year, my students liked to see if they could outdo the students from the year before in their generosity. Each year, I made sure I had a safety pin, and I would prance like a peacock wearing my bouquet of money. Now, let's get one thing straight. I never spent the money on myself. I always bought something for the classroom: a set of posters, props/costumes, a cd player, etc. That's how I kept my conscience clear. I always made a big deal about telling the students what I bought so they'd know they helped contribute to something for the class to use.

It was a precedent in another way as well. I'm still the only teacher I know who was honored by her students in this way. No other teacher was granted the wearing of a student-generated money corsage. I don't really know why I was singled out. Maybe because I embraced the whole thing with childlike innocence. Maybe because I used the money for the class. Maybe because I have such respect for rites of passage. Whatever the reason, I'm proud to have been part of the Birthday Ritual.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Basketball Lunches

I don't really remember how they got started. What I do remember is the laughter. And the level of conversation. And the trash talking. Always the trash talking. And, while the individual days may blur together, and no individual conversation may stand out, I will remember the Basketball Lunches as some of my favorite personal experiences as a teacher.

Our school scheduled lunch at the end of the day for a variety of reasons. Mostly, though, it kept the students in school until their classes were over. So, students who were involved in after-school activities had a weird 2-hour lapse between the end of their last classes and the beginning of their activities (90 minutes for lunch and about 30 more minutes before anything got started). When the security guards started cracking down on kids being in the hall, a couple of the basketball players gravitated toward my room because I had a toy hoop and Nerf ball game in my room. So, they'd show up, play a bit, and we'd talk while I was supposed to be grading papers and planning for the next day.

Granted, I went to their games. Every single one. Home and away. I loved watching the boys play the game. There was something magical about seeing these young men, who were not always academically secure, become self-assured, graceful, competent, even aggressive in an assertive way, out on the basketball court. I would sit, mesmerized by their ability to work together to pass the ball blind, shoot the ball under seemingly impossible situations, rip the ball from unaware opponents, and win. I enjoyed analyzing what they did well, where they could improve, and I started keeping stats...lots of stats.

So, during these lunches, as more and more players started showing up, we talked numbers. What I learned to appreciate was that the boys really wanted to get better and they weren't afraid to look at the data to see where they could improve. Roosevelt wanted a double-double-double every game, and he was disappointed when he didn't get it. Deon liked improving his number of assists. Bobby enjoyed working on his accuracy; he didn't like to waste shots. Each young man had an area of pride and an area on which he wanted to improve. It was a whole new way of looking at teaching to me. We'd rehash glory moments and talk about ways things could have gone differently.

Eventually, we limited the number of participants in those lunches to just my "light bulb boys," although I didn't openly call them that: Roosevelt, Deon, Bobby, Lil Ric, Basheer, Rodney, Brandon, Anthony, and Daniel, when he came along. We didn't just talk about basketball. We talked about girls, we talked about college, we talked about life. The conversations were real, honest, and deep. Well, not always. We laughed a lot too. However, the place was safe for talking about the things that were on the minds of these young men, and I cherish that cocoon that we created together during those Basketball Lunches.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

No More Mute Button

Michael and I were fated to spend a LOT of time together. Of course, we didn't know that when we first met, but I don't think it would have mattered. He's just a likable kid. To me. I'm pretty sure he had some teachers who would argue. Let's see if I can paint a picture to give you some idea of The Michael.

First of all, Michael is an albino African-American, which makes his appearance unusual and has caused him to develop quite a thick skin for teasing. Second, he was adopted very young, and his adoption was a formative event for him in his home life. Third, he was diagnosed as ADD/ADHD but he never managed to have or take any medication (ugh). Fourth, he was (and is) absolutely, unequivocally, brilliant. However, Michael struggled academically due to some combination of the other social and attention factors.

Michael's freshman year was my first year of teaching at MLK. He presented perhaps my most challenging classroom management obstacle. I simply did not have the strategies for how to deal with someone who could not/did not sit still and try to do their work...ever. He's just one of those kids who can get under a teacher's skin. Ask obnoxious questions like a three year old: why? why? why not? Or, get smart and ask provocative questions that the teacher can't answer. That gets REALLY annoying! After failing first quarter, we worked it out that he would be my assistant to help work out some of his energy. He did better after that.

Sophomore year brought increased challenges. I was in a classroom in a different part of the building, and it had no windows. I thought Michael would seriously bounce off the walls that year. When I finally found a strategy that would contain his energy, I couldn't believe it worked. I also couldn't believe I actually resorted to using it on a regular basis. Michael responded positively to an imaginary remote control. I could hit an imaginary "pause" button, and he would freeze and stay frozen until I hit the "play" button to return him to action. I would placate him occasionally with a "slow forward" or "rewind," and he would behave for entire class periods at a time. Oh, "mute" was a true lifesaver! I think the other students appreciated a break from his constant motion and interruption. Anyway, other than poetry, which seemed beyond his rather more science/math sensibilities, we managed to get through that year.

Believe it or not, Michael and I were together for junior year as well. By now, I would have thought that Michael would have been tired of me, but no (at least, not that he told me!). I was in a third classroom; this one had big windows and was in a remote part of the building. Michael was working a job now and the responsibility seemed to settle him down academically as well. He was also taking more difficult science and math classes, so he was being challenged in other classes. In my class, he was more than capable of reading and answering questions. However, formal writing continued to be a struggle. He's actually a good writer of standard English; he's just overly succinct. He's clever, witty, and quite humorous, when he's not being absurd. On the other hand, it was quite refreshing to have a student capable of being absurd and who knows he's being absurd, so go figure.

Senior year, and Michael and I were free of one another in the classroom. However, he couldn't stand the thought of a year without me, and he came to visit each and every day. Actually, I shared a classroom with another favorite teacher of his, and he was able to visit both of us with one "pop in." He took great care of the computer lab that we had in our room. It was during this year that Michael discovered girls. Well, one girl in particular. Tonia was a lovely, intelligent, quiet girl, and I thought they made a great couple. What I didn't expect (and I suspect they didn't either!) was for them to get pregnant. Michael freaked out, had his panic moment, then settled into the idea of being a father and support to Tonia.

During his freshman year, my students got on a kick about wanting to know my middle name. I told them that after they graduated, if they asked, I would tell them. Immediately after his graduation ceremony, Michael bounded up to me, huge grin on his face, and said, "You have to tell me. You have to tell me." I had no idea what he meant. When he reminded me, I couldn't believe he had remembered all that time! So, of course, I made good on the promise. ADD he may be, but there's nothing wrong with his memory.

Michael and Tonia are married and have 2 beautiful children. She is a stay at home mom, and he works to support his family. He's in school to turn his fascination with computers into a career. Recently, he found vital information to help him on his search for his birth mother. He's still as hyper as ever, and he can still drive me crazy, but I haven't had the urge recently to hit the mute button. May his "play" button continue working for a long time to come.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Life Goes On

My second year at MLK brought its own set of challenges and obstacles. One of the most intriguing was a "mixed" class of students. First, I had a small group of 10th grade boys who were decent students but needed personalized instruction to stay in school. They were going to be a challenge all on their own. Then, my department chairperson came and asked me to take on four additional students. A group of academically advanced girls needed junior English first thing in the morning before heading off to the local community college for most of their classes. As the junior English teacher, I felt compelled to take them on. However, that meant adding them to the mix of struggling boys. What a crew!

The girls were wonderful and incredibly self-motivated. Ultimately, they graduated high school with associate's degrees from the community college, and they all went on to get college degrees. I believe at least one of them already has a master's degree. I enjoyed the time I spent with smart students doing good, solid academic work. 

However, this blog entry is really about the boys, well one of the boys in particular. 

Robert intrigued me from the first time he stepped into my classroom. He looked like a thug, carried himself like a thug, and, well, was in fact, a thug. He lived in a world filled with a code of ethics based on violence, deceit, and twisted loyalty. However, he was a polite gentleman and downright chivalrous to me on a daily basis. He was also eager to learn. I mean wide-eyed-"what-are-we-doing-today"-ready-for-the-hard-stuff eager to learn. But don't let his friends know that! His tough guy exterior belied his interest in words and language. He would slough into class with a devil may care attitude right as the bell would ring or maybe a few minutes after, but I could see his eyes light up when I would start teaching something new. 

He could write! His poetry about his life was heart wrenchingly honest and provocative. He had a clear, crisp voice and perspective about the life he was leading. He would slip poems into my drawer on the sly and come see me later to get my feedback (privately, of course...his friends could never know!). I loved those conversations about his work. He so wanted to be a good poet. He wanted to be better.

Then came the day that almost ended it all. On the morning under discussion, Robert walked into class wearing his winter coat all zipped up and slumped into a desk. He looked tired. When I asked if he was okay, he simply nodded and leaned his head against the wall. I left him alone for a couple minutes before going to check on him. 

When I glanced over at him again, he had unzipped his coat a little. I could see blood on the t-shirt he was wearing under the coat. I didn't want to alarm the whole class, but I had to know what was going on. So, I took Robert to the back of the room and asked what had happened. Well, that didn't really help because there were only 8 students in the room. So, Robert ended up telling the whole class what had happened.

Robert had been out workin' the neighborhood with his cousin overnight. They'd been driving their territory looking for customers who wanted to buy their product. Robert had been riding in the backseat of his cousin's car. Apparently, they got a little too close to a rival gang's turf because someone shot a few warning shots in their direction and a stray bullet hit his cousin who was riding in the front seat. Blood had sprayed all over the car and the other three passengers. The driver had gone straight to the hospital where they'd spent the rest of the night getting his cousin the help he needed.

When I asked Robert why he hadn't gone home to change before coming to school, his reply was, "I didn't want to be late for class, Ms. Hoskins. You said we was doin' poetry today. I didn't wanna miss the chance to read my new stuff. I got it right here!" He took a wad of wrinkled paper out of his pocket and grinned at me. I couldn't believe this guy wanted to be in class after the night he had spent. I couldn't frame my mind around the horrific events and the normalcy of coming to school. However, in a world of crazy events, I guess life goes on...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Cheesecake Apology

This may be one of those "you had to be there" times, but I'll try to convey the spirit of the occasion. For those of you who have been following along, you may remember in "Recovery from Failure" I mentioned 4 students who went from F's to A's. I promised to take these 4 students out to dinner. It just so happened that there were two girls who were good friends and two boys who were also friends. Based on the original offer, I let them decide where we would eat, emphasizing "the sky's the limit." After extensive, prolonged, belabored discussion, the quartet announced that they would like to go to Olive Garden. Only one of them had apparently been there before, and he had done a sell-job to the other three. So, Olive Garden it was.

Perhaps I should describe the players involved a bit more to help paint the scene. Natasha was the actual "winner" whose grade had shown the most improvement. She was a petite girl with a spitfire personality and a quick wit. Next was Sheree, a quiet girl with a heart of gold. Third, Roosevelt, who has already featured in an entry, tall, dark, handsome, and wickedly funny. Finally, the surprise entry in the group, came Bobby. I don't think Bobby had ever tried to succeed in any academic endeavor before this competition. I will maintain that this experience turned his whole educational career around. Anyway, I learned on this evening that Bobby has a drive and a commitment to a "schtick" that rivals any working comic today.

So, after school, the 5 of us piled into my Honda Civic to go to Olive Garden, which was on the other side of town. The smack-talking and joking started right away. Bobby was in back with the girls, and he and Natasha were relentless in their teasing of one another. It was clear there was a beyond-friendship interest by the time we reached the restaurant.

Fortunately for the other paying patrons, the hostess seated us in a out-of-the-way corner table where we would be least likely to bother others with our silliness. And, we were silly. The kids had not been to many restaurants, and so they were very curious about everything on the menu. That meant lots of questions and funny pronunciations and, well, explanations. They weren't very experimental in what they were willing to order, so we had quite a time coming up with things for them to eat.

However, when the salad showed up, I thought they were going to kick us out. I really thought that dumb pepper was going to fly across the room. And, God help the olives. The kids went after that salad bowl with a fine tooth comb before anyone could take a bite! We were laughing so hard at the injustice of putting "foreign" food into such a basic staple. Bobby had us rolling in our chairs.

Eventually, somehow we got through the majority of the meal. We decided to all order dessert and share. Allow me to be abundantly clear. Bobby ordered the cheesecake. It was supposed to be Bobby's cheesecake. The server placed the cheesecake in front of Bobby. You know how much something can mean when it's special? That's how Bobby felt about that cheesecake. Well, a couple of cute girls walked in, and Roosevelt tried to get Bobby to check them out in a subtle way. However, Natasha caught the peek and didn't like it. So, she took her fork and took a bite (the TIP no less!) of that cheesecake! I thought we were going to lose Bobby. I really did.

Bobby turned back around, took one glance at his maimed cheesecake, and stared at a rather guilty-looking Natasha, who had a bit of cheesecake on her lip. He said, "You'd better apologize." Natasha said, "I'm sorry, Bobby." He said (and I'll never forget it), "Not to me. You'd better start apologizing to the cheesecake." Well, honestly, I don't think Natasha quite knew what to do. Bobby had a straight face. The rest of us were lost in peals of giggles, but Bobby was in apparent earnest. Now, she liked this boy and she had offended him. Now, here he was demanding that she apologize to the CHEESEcake. Believe it or not, she did!

I suppose she didn't feel like she had a choice. Either apologize or never have a chance with Bobby. At any rate, our giggles turned into full-fledged belly laughs the likes of which legends are made. When I reconnected with Roosevelt recently, one of the first things he said to me was "Remember when Bobby made Natasha apologize to that cheesecake?" I sure do. What a simple way to impact students' lives...with a good, old-fashioned laughfest.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

In the Process

Melissa was one of those students who could not show up for class for a couple weeks, then show up for a day, and show me she knew everything the class had learned in the interim. School did not impress her; it bored her to tears. So, she didn't come very often. However, when she did deign to grace my room with her presence, she was smart, witty, funny, and thoroughly engaging. I got a kick out of her ability to see through my leading questions and get at the heart of my lesson way before anyone else did (although, truth be told, it was also kind of annoying).

One day in the dead of winter Melissa showed up for a random day of class, and the students were taking a test. Considering she had missed the entire unit, I told her she didn't have to take the test and that I'd give her some make-up work to do. She offered to take the test in lieu of the make-up stuff, so I let her. About halfway through the test, she stood up, walked up to the trash can, quietly retched once or twice, grabbed a tissue off my desk, and calmly returned to her seat. The students all looked at her, then looked at me, then backed at her. I asked if she needed to be excused, and she said no.

A few minutes later, she got up, grabbed the trash can and took it back to her desk, which was in a remote corner of the room. Every couple of minutes, I would see her body convulse but nothing would come out, so I let her continue. So went the rest of the period. At the end of class, I asked her if she was okay, and she replied in the affirmative and headed off to lunch.

At lunch, she walked up to me and said (and this is exactly what she said), "Ms. Hoskins, I would be in the process of getting pregnant."

I grinned and said, "Good Lord, I hope not." She stared blankly at me. I don't think this was quite the response she wanted or expected. So I continued, "Darlin', 'in the process of getting pregnant' would mean you're having sex right now. I suspect you're already pregnant."

We went to my room and talked. Eventually, I talked Melissa into telling her mother that she was pregnant. However, it took some convincing. She was scared. I'd met her mother, and I would've been scared too. I reminded her that her momma loves her and that she'd need her mom's help to raise the baby. The father was a stable young man (also a student of mine) who held down a full-time job while in high school and who was madly in love with Melissa, but the two of them were going to need help. I offered to go with her to tell her mom; I even offered to ask her mom to come to school so Melissa could tell her on neutral ground. After lots of talk, we planned out a conversation attack and practiced a few times. Melissa talked to her mom on her own and was surprised at her mother's supportive response.

Melissa and her boyfriend had a healthy son, whom they named Michael, after his father. Melissa took a GED class and got her diploma and started college at 16. She continued to bring her baby boy around to see me, and we'd chat about books and babies and life. When Michael was about 2, Melissa told me she was pregnant again (she and Michael were still together). I told her she could keep this one, but if she got pregnant again, I might have to raise the baby for her.

About 8 months later, she brought her children to see me. Her baby girl was absolutely beautiful: big brown eyes, long curly lashes, smooth baby skin, adorable bows in her hair. She reached out to me when she saw me like she knew me, so I picked her up right away. With a huge grin on her face, Melissa said, "Alexandra, I'd like you to meet Alexandra. Sweetie, this is the nice lady I've told you so much about. Without her, I probably wouldn't have, well, anything, including you or your brother or my education. So, say hello!"

I may not have children of my own, but I know this: Lives are different because I have wandered through them. Melissa taught me that being "in the process" means accepting that people feel my influence, whether I'm aware of it or not. In this case, I'm proud of my namesake baby and of her mother. May they both live long and prosper.

Monday, July 6, 2009

You People

"Why do you people put your windows up when you drive through our neighborhood?" "Why do you people turn the other way when you see one of us trying to cross the street?" "Why do you people grab your handbag when you see a group of us walking in the mall?" My juniors began hurling these questions at me once we got to know each other well enough for the tough questions to be asked. Well, that's not quite accurate. I had us read To Kill a Mockingbird, which kind of opens the door for frank discussion. I think I was prepared (mentally if not emotionally) for the introduction of a dialogue about race relations. Actually, I think I was looking forward to it. However, what I was not prepared for was the poorly veiled anger and resentment of my students. As the lone representative of the white race in the classroom, I was called upon to try to account for an entire history of prejudiced behavior.

It wasn't the whole class who raised the questions. It was one student in particular. She was a ringleader and vocally articulate student, perhaps one of the most intelligent girls I ever taught. Gina (name has been changed) was quick to point out stereotypical or hypocritical behavior in others, especially me. She and I had lively discussions and encounters that bordered on arguments but never quite escalated to that level. Frankly, I enjoyed our banter because I think she needed to be challenged in a healthy way, and her questioning usually helped the rest of the students gain a better understanding.

When we started reading Mockingbird, I tried to prepare myself for the types of discussions that would arise. I tried to steer conversations into safe waters where I would be comfortable with the level of intensity. However, Gina started throwing the "you people" questions at me in rapid-fire succession. Now, she would have never, and I do mean never, have tolerated my usage of the words "you people" directed at the class. Not that I knew this at the beginning of the year. I was totally unaware of the near equivalency of "you people" to "the N word." I didn't know the connotative impact of such a small pairing of words: you + people = hatin' words. During the course of the year, though, I had come to understand their significant meaning.

So, when Gina started throwing those words at me, I was offended. I mean, genuinely, personally, core-of-my-soul offended. How dare SHE call ME a "you people"? Hadn't I proven myself to be the exception rather than the rule when it came to representing my race? Hadn't I labored all school year to build bridges of understanding rather than prolong the myths of perceived differences? Who was this girl to use those words with me?

I'll tell you who she was. She was a girl who was learning and growing. She'd finally found someone with whom she was comfortable enough to ask the questions that had plagued her for a very long time. When she asked the questions, she was unveiling her own prejudices that were surfacing themselves right before our very eyes. So, I had a choice. Do I react as the offended white woman, which I was, and escalate the situation? I don't think the students, who stiffened at Gina's words, would have blamed me if I had. Or, do I try to reach out to this young woman and help her to learn a better way to approach this opportunity? As usual, I chose the latter approach.

This is what I said: "Gina, I don't know any 'you people.' I only know me. So, I'll speak for myself. I usually roll down my window in your neighborhood 'cause I'm usually hollerin' at my students. I don't look away when I see someone crossing the street 'cause I'm usually trying to figure out if it's one of you. I don't clutch my handbag in the mall for two reasons: one, I don't carry a purse; two, I don't go to the mall. If you want to know why SOME white people do these things, maybe you could ask me again in a different way. I'll do my best to share my opinion with you. However, I don't ask you to speak for an entire race of people, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't ask me to either."

You could have heard a pin drop in the room. She was a social keystone in the class. Without her support, I was going to have a tough time getting any kind of cooperation from the class. However, I couldn't let her speak to me that way and think it was acceptable. I had made my choice. The next move was hers. Fortunately, Gina said, "I hear you, Ms. Hoskins. The only question I really want to know is why do you...I mean SOME...white people roll their window up when they come down Euclid by Cleveland Clinic? I mean, do they think we're going to spit in their cars or something? They'd rather be all hot and sweatin' in their cars rather than share the air with me?"

I realized that her concerns were legitimate...and deep-rooted. I wasn't going to be able to answer her questions to her satisfaction that day or possibly ever. On the other hand, she had asked the question in a more respectful way. I took that small victory, and we began a discussion that was ongoing to the day of her graduation from high school. She never used the term "you people" with me again, and I learned to be ever more sensitive to the profound role I played in being the exceptional representative of an entire race.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Recovery from Failure

During my first year at MLK, I failed my students, miserably, in more ways than one. In one class, 23 out of 25 students failed the first quarter of the year. I actually bubbled in "F" twenty-three times on the grade reporting sheet for that one section alone. Now, as a reflective teacher, I had choices about how to proceed. Here's how I saw it at the time. I could continue to teach the way I'd been teaching. After all, I set high expectations and assigned work college-bound students should be able to complete. It was up to the students to meet me where I was instructing. Conversely, I could change how I was teaching and try to address my students' needs. After all, my job was to make sure they learned the skills regardless of how they got to the goal. Obviously, I chose Door #2, but allow me to say that many teachers choose Door #1 each and every day and continue to fail students on multiple levels.

Having made the choice to change how I did business, I needed strategies for helping the students be successful. As a new teacher, my toolbox of options was rather limited in the whole "teacher makeover" area. So, I looked to role models as examples. I had been impressed by Lou Anne Johnson's teaching in many ways, and I decided she would be a perfect inspiration for my new classroom approach. Ms. Johnson is the subject of the movie Dangerous Minds, which had recently been released, and she has written several books about her experiences teaching in Los Angeles. Actually, I could also say she is the inspiration for this blog, but that's another story.

Ms. Johnson chose to combine several factors in her instructional approach: (1) down-to-earth delivery, (2) her own passions/interests, and (3) knowledge of her students' cache'. I'm not sure if "cache'" is the right word or not, but it's the word I've adopted for a teacher's leverage over his/her students. If I know what my students value in the scope of my influence, then I know how I can motivate them to act and, therefore, learn. So, I adopted each of these three tenets into my own classroom approach during the second nine weeks.

Really, I have always taught with a down-to-earth delivery approach. I'm just comfortable addressing groups of people as though I'm only talking to one person. I am simply the latest in a long line of orators in my family, and the role comes naturally. So, this tenet was basically a continuation of my previous practices.

By teaching a novel that I had taught during student teaching, I was able to bring a natural enthusiasm to my approach that had been lacking during the first quarter. I wasn't teaching what I thought I should be teaching; I was teaching what I wanted to teach. Big difference in my personal investment.

The students' cache' or my leverage is what puts the spotlight back on the students. My students revealed two important factors about themselves as a collective group during the first quarter: (1) they value social time (what teenagers don't?), and (2) they value/enjoy competition. So, I chose to combine these two characteristics of typical teens into the format for the second quarter. As we read Lord of the Flies, I tried to creatively apply social outlets in a competitive atmosphere as often as possible.

I arranged the students into authentic cooperative learning groups for the duration of the 9 weeks. They read together, did questions together, took quizzes as a group, did projects as a group. The groups named themselves, had tribal flags and mottoes, bonded as friends, and generally learned a whole lot. I thoroughly enjoyed the synergy that came from the groups working together to help each member be successful.

I offered competitive incentives for the "tribes" to out-achieve one another as we read Lord of the Flies. I offered a class incentive for overall improvement: If the whole class (NO exceptions!) passed for the quarter, then I would pay for a movie/pizza party. I also offered individual incentives for improvement: For the student whose grade showed the greatest improvement from first quarter, I would take the student out to dinner anywhere in Cleveland on my dime. You would not believe how motivating the competitive elements became! I might also mention that food was a secondary element to the students' cache'.

At the end of the quarter, there was one student who had attendance issues who was in danger of failing. I let his tribe know he was in danger so they could help remind him to do his make-up work. Well, the tribe let the whole class know, and those kids would not leave that boy alone! I will never forget the look on Mikail's face when he brought in his dog-eared, smudgy pile of make-up work, all complete, and presented it to me as though it were on a velvet pillow. I have no idea how much help he had, and I don't really care. The look of accomplishment on his face was worth the passing grade. So, the class won the pizza party.

For the individual competition, I ended up with 4 students who went from F's to A's, which they had genuinely earned. At that point, it didn't matter which one had the greatest increase. They had all improved tremendously, so I took them all to dinner.

I learned a valuable lesson, though, about recovery that nine weeks. Students will forgive me for failing them if I admit the failure and try to fix it. I can forgive students in the same way. The problem is in the lack of reflection or in the hubris that won't allow for an adjustment in teaching approach. So, while I am very proud of my lightbulb students who learned a valuable lesson in their own efficacy that quarter of English I, I too learned a valuable lesson in my own ability to recover from failure.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Case Study

Robbie has the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen. They are the most unusual color and have the longest lashes. He has more wit, humor, and charisma than almost any person I've ever met. He also harbors more sadness than one person should know or bear. In my first year of teaching, he became my earliest "case study." His entire life reads like a file from a social worker's case load. His reality contains details that, up until he and I started talking, I thought were contrived by "Made for TV" movie writers to seem trumped up and impossible to fathom. However, as Robbie's life story unfolded during our time together, I came to realize that perhaps TV did imitate life.

What would the social worker's file say? Robbie, aged 18, grade 10. Father: Unknown. Mother: Prostitute, drug addict. Siblings: 5 (5 different fathers). Occupation: Recreational Drug Distributor.

I don't think it's the recitation of that combination of facts that surprised me so much. It was more in the attitude and acceptance of a sequence of events. Robbie's mom was a crack addict who had several children by several fathers. Because of her habit, she was essentially unable to care for her family. Robbie, as eldest child and as a male, felt compelled to provide for his family. Well, at 8, what's a boy to do? There are limited professional opportunities for 8-year-old boys. So, he began selling weed. And, he continued to sell through elementary and middle school.

But that's not all. Not only was Robbie going to school full time and working throughout most of the night, he was also raising each of his siblings as they came along. He cooked and cleaned and cared for his brothers and sisters as essentially a single parent would. He also took care of his mother when she needed his help. Amazing.

When Robbie entered my classroom, he was so enmeshed in his pattern that he saw no alternative future for himself. He didn't see himself earning a diploma, and he certainly didn't see college as an option. It was probably unfair of me to even suggest that he pursue another path. However, the boy could draw. I don't mean cute little critters or sinister comic creations or even adequate copies of existing works. I mean, Robbie had the vision, creativity, and perception necessary for graphic design and/or architecture. I hated to see all of that potential go to waste.

Not only that, but Robbie didn't even see himself graduating from high school. He basically wandered in and out of the school to sell to a few clients and socialize with a few friends. This was one time when my naivete' served me well. I actually expected Robbie to do his work! I had Robbie for three different classes during the day, and he enjoyed my classes. However, his attendance was understandably erratic. He was honest and open about why he only showed up occasionally ("Ms. Hoskins, I'm saving up for a whip. I gotta work them streets. I can't make no paper sittin' in these here seats."), but my middle class values wouldn't let him go.

I knew that drawing was a cache' for him. He'd never had real drawing pencils of his own. He'd stolen "nubbins" from art class, but he'd never had his own tools. So, I went to an art supply store and bought a supply of pencils. I bribed him (no need to mince words 'cause that's what it was) to come to both classes every day by offering him a pencil for each week of perfect attendance. It basically worked! He came to class, did his work, and contributed greatly to class activities and discussions. My lunch was between two of his classes with me, and we would sit and talk each day. I don't have any idea if he went to a single other class, but he made it to English every day.

At the end of the year, he told me he was transferring to another school that was closer to his home to reduce his commute time. It sounded like lies to me. However, I had to respect his decision, and with teary eyes, I said goodbye. Imagine my surprise a year later when he walked into my classroom, wearing the hugest smile on his face, waving a small ivory rectangle of paper. I jumped up to greet him, and he extended to me an invitation to his graduation. His mom, well, she wasn't going to be able to make it, and he thought I might want to see him walk the stage.

I went to that graduation. I saw Robbie walk that stage and get his diploma. I hugged him when it was over and told him how proud I was. He thanked me for not letting go. My case study turned out not to be the rule...he was the exception...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Hair Lesson

On the first day of school, Shawnte' walked into class as a bright-eyed, absolutely adorable, petite 9th grade student. The first thing that struck me was her voice. She has a cartoon character's baby voice. I was looking at the young woman explaining to me how she lived with her grandparents, and I was thinking, "She sounds like a Disney character." Then I realized that my fascination did not stop there. I was entranced by her perfectly coiffed braids that covered her head and ended in mysteriously simple ends that were exactly even all over. Although I'm sure I'd seen hair like hers before, I don't think I'd ever paid much attention. Every day for a few weeks, Shawnte' would come in with her braids in some slightly new style: all down, partially pulled back, ponytail, pigtails, etc. My fascination continued.

Until one day, she walked into class with a smart, stylish, BUT VERY SHORT hair style. I scooted up to her and exclaimed, badly concealing my consternation, "Shawnte', what the heck did you do to your beautiful hair?" Unfortunately (or not), I made this comment in the hearing of the majority of the students right at the beginning of class. The entire group of students erupted into uproarious laughter. I looked around in confusion. "What's so funny" I asked.

"Ms. Hoskins, That wasn't my real hair," Shawnte' tried to explain. "Them was microbraids."

That explanation did not help. Brow wrinkled, I looked at her and said, "Microbraids? Not real hair? Explain, please."

At this point, Rachael piped in, "This ain't my real hair either. You'll never see my real hair. No one but my hair girl ever sees my real hair. Shoot, I barely know what my real hair looks like!"

Trust me, this was a whole new world to me. Several other girls in the class contributed their "non-real" hair realities to me until my head was spinning with cultural overload. They started throwing all of this information at me until I threw my hands up.

"You want us to show you, Ms. Hoskins?" asked Rachael. "I could bring in some hair, and we could explain it all to you." She seemed sincere, and the rest of the girls were looking at me with eager expressions on their faces.

Frankly, I liked that idea. It seemed more concrete than the abstract explanations they were giving me. So, that's what we did. The next day, Rachael brought in plastic bins of hair. She laid it out all over my desk. She and the other girls started telling me about all the different types of hair (human, horse, synthetic). They told me the different ways it's put in (sewed, glued, braided). They gave me different names (weave, extensions, microbraid).

The boys in the class got into the act by explaining to me about boar's hair brushes and doo-rags, waves and clippers. No one was left out of the conversation because everyone has their own grooming style.

I learned so much that day about hair and culture, and, yes, the it was an important lesson. However, the willingness to simply ask my students to explain that which I didn't understand was an even more important lesson.

What I gained that day was the students' trust in ways I didn't begin to understand until one day Rachael walked up to me as we were both walking down the hall and said, "See that girl up there, Ms. Hoskins?" I nodded and said, "Yep, Bad weave." She said, "You got that right!" and continued walking. I had learned my lesson.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

One More Windmill

I had spent the week battling the teachers in my building, and I felt like Don Quixote after fighting windmills on my own. My will had been crushed, and I wasn't sure I was up to the "windmill" of my last class. My students had been rowdy all day, and I was just plain tired. I stood at my door and greeted my students, but there was no smile on my face. I felt weighed down by the mere effort of standing on my feet; my heart wasn't in it. All I could think was, "It's hot in my room. I'm tired. I hope the kids aren't hyper today. I need peace."

I had written the assignment on the dusty chalkboard; I put it there deliberately to minimize questions. I didn't want to touch or talk to another human being. I just wanted to put my finger to my lips for quiet and point to the lesson. It was as though some other being occupied my loving, giving, teaching body. I was feeling totally contrary to my normal self, and my students noticed right away.

"What's wrong, Ms. Hoskins?" asked Roosevelt, whose 6'4" frame barely fit into the student desk. He's also my protector and can usually bring a smile to my face with a flash of his pearly whites. During the year, his teddy bear presence had brought me comfort at the end of many a long day.

"I'm in a rotten mood, I guess," was my taciturn reply while I rubbed my forehead.

"How come? You need somethin'? You wanna talk about it?" he inquired, his brow wrinkling with concern as he crawled up to sit on top of his desk.

"Nah, I just need to frown for awhile, okay?" I replied, hoping he would let it drop.

"No way, Ms. Hoskins. You don't let US act that way! You make us smile and do our work. You can't do US like that!" piped up nasal-voiced Jackie, punctuated by finger-pointing, head-wagging gestures. I was stunned to hear this from her. Jackie was usually so wrapped up in her own world that her support almost overwhelmed me.

Next thing I knew, all of their beautiful faces mirrored Jackie's concerns, wondering how I'd respond. I looked back at them, sighed, tears burning my eyes, and said, "You're absolutely right. Why don't we do this together?"

Shoulders relaxed, smiles lit up, and the air lifted as our heads bent to the assignment, one more windmill. This time, though, we tackled it together.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Spade Days

Most teachers look forward to the last day of school with almost the same level of anticipation as the students. They are eager for the chance to finish calculating grades, store the final evidence of the year's activities, and wrap up the minutiae of the end of the school year. I, however, was not one of those teachers. The last day of school was a special one for me. Every year. I would rush through my end-of-the-year duties in order to enjoy spending that delicious day in the company of my students.

Most students would rush out of the building with a whoop and a holler, glad to be free of the brick walls for the next few months. Not my kids. They would seek me out and settle in for a long game of spades. Why spades? Well, you can chat over spades. You can talk smack over spades. You can laugh over spades. If someone comes in to take their leave for the summer, you can easily put spades on hold in order to chat. I will say this, however. If we did stop to chat, we had to watch Jerome. He would stack a deck, slip a card out, and generally cheat to his advantage. Of course, it didn't bother me quite as much when I was his partner, but we still had to watch.

The first year, I was genuinely surprised that kids showed up for their scheduled "class." No one else had kids coming to their classes! My kids were there! Random collections of students, just hanging out. We played music. We played cards. We ate pizza. After a couple years of this pattern, we remembered. A large part of the ritual of last day spades seemed to involve a reminiscing about the year's events (and it wasn't even my idea!). Brandon and Rodney would show up, and we'd sit around chattin' until someone started dealing the cards. Generally, we'd start playing 3-handed 'cause Brandon would get impatient to win. Rodney would be impatient to talk smack. I'd be impatient to start the laugh fest. Whatever the reason, the chemistry worked. We'd get our fourth player (A-Dub was a likely suspect) and begin playing in earnest. Eventually, we'd end up with a peanut gallery of folks watching, advising, cheering on favorites.

We basically had a party. Roosevelt would wander in, closely followed by Lil Ric (who now prefers "Rico," but I can't quite bring myself to call him that) and Deon. Basheer would flit in and out, usually trailed by underclassmen or a random girl or two. When Bobby chose to show up, I always knew the festivities would be turned up a notch; Bobby has a young person's body but an old person's soul.

What I think I loved most was that, for those brief hours, I was valued as one of the crew. I wasn't just a teacher; I was appreciated for what I contributed to the fun of the group. And, I felt I'd earned the chance to just hang out and enjoy my students as people. Even the students I thought I knew pretty well would reveal new facets to their personality in those final hours. I took those revelations as precious gifts, unconsciously offered, and I cherish them still.