Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Those kids are my kids

I taught English to poor kids in New York, the richest city in the richest country in the world. I have some incite, now, into the “ism” our culture still doesn’t talk too much about: “classicism.” After five years working with poor kids and socializing with middle to upper class adults, I’ve noticed that Americans with any money maintain a ridiculous fantasy about who the poor are: they look sad and humble; they’re abused and malnourished. Or, they’re Che style angry, only sometimes violent, intellectuals; think Forest Whittaker in Ghost Dog. This image, I think, makes it easier for us to rally behind the poor on issues of education, health care, food stamps, etc. But most poor Americans don’t resemble anything so sympathetic. Americans know that; liberal Americans just don’t like to talk about it. I’d like to talk about it, though. As an English teacher in a New York City public school, I saw how the hard, shiny wealth in the streets carves sharp edges into poor kids. Some of them become not so nice people; neither humble or intellectual. I’d like to talk about those kids, the not so nice kids, the kids in my class.

After seven years, though, of teaching high school, I realize I’ve experienced what may be rarer than the Dodo: compassion for what may be the most loathed type, the bad teenage boy. I’ve loved bad, scary New York teenage Black and Latino boys from poor neighborhoods. And I’m not talking about the sweet ones who succeed despite the odds; I’m not talking about the inspiring types in the movies. I’m talking about the bad ones who stay bad, the ones you probably can’t stand. I don’t blame you. But because I’ve loved them, I want to talk about how bad ghetto boys are a large part of “the poor” we rally behind. Why? Because, I’m not sure we can detest and care about the poor at the same time. Look at them.

The impoverished New York City teenager does not wear tattered rags; he does not walk barefoot; he does not look away from you in shame. His layers of “bling” hide any humility poverty may have given him. He walks with a scary frown and a slow, wide strut, bling jangling along the way. He listens to loud, gangsta rap on the subway and talks loudly along with it without looking at the other passengers’ disgusted faces. He clearly articulates lyrics like, “I’ll fuck your fucking face, bitch,” but the same teenager mumbles incoherently when he gets beyond a counter to take your order. You ask for the third time, “Are you still serving breakfast?” and finally you make out, “Shopservinatleven.”

“You stop serving at 11:00?”


“I see, thank you.” The teenager slouches and looks past you, or if he has co-worker friends he talks to them in a dialect barely comprehensible to you.

“Excuse me, if you don’t have breakfast, then I’ll have a sandwich.”

“Ah Haaaaaaaaa. Nigga, I told you, I told you Nigga, that she crazy but you all wanna front and be like, nah, I hit that, Nigga, but she be gettin tight wit you, I told you, Nigga.” Then he turns to you and finally says, “Wha?”

“A sandwich, I’d like a chicken sandwich, please.” You add the polite “please” to hide your disgust for this teenager; the disgust makes you feel racist, and you are not a racist. You feel guilty thinking he’s a useless human being, but that’s exactly what you feel. Here is a human, practically a man, who cannot seem to talk, who cannot stand up straight, who cannot perform at a minimum level of competence at a minimum wage job. You think that maybe we can solve the immigration problem by just offering to ship this teenager and all others like him to live in Mexico and to bring hard working Mexican men to replace him.

You also hate the detritus they leave behind in the parks and streets where you like to walk: empty 40s, chicken bones from spicy chicken wings, fake hair from pulled out weaves. And you think “gross;” why do they let the fucking rappers dictate their choice of libations, why do they eat so much fucking chicken and why do the girls think purple polyester works as a hair substitute? And then you hate yourself for not respecting another culture’s sense of aesthetics.

But you wonder what they’re thinking throwing the goddamn chicken bones on the streets where their prized killing machines choke on them. Surely the choking disturbs the bravado of the daily pit bull show. The dog looks slightly less menacing puking cartilage than it otherwise would. You also wonder if the shit on the streets is part of this dog show, because they sure as hell don’t pick it up.

You see the New York ghetto youth on the nightly news: celebrity rapists and robbers and killers, and despite what you and your liberal friends say about racial profiling and the biased media, there exists the simple truth that black and Latino men commit more violent crime than any other demographic, and no amount of police sensitivity training or balanced reporting will change that fact. The fact does not become less menacing with social commentary on the impetus for the crime. The crimes of history committed against Black men do little to allay your fear of today’s “gangsta” youth. You fear them now, because they commit crimes now, and you hate them a little bit for making you too afraid to walk to the corner at night. Your condemnation of the bigotry they still experience does not expunge your hatred for them. The history of Black oppression and the modern prejudice against all poor people only silence the words to express the hatred you feel in response to that fear. You don’t want to say it, not even to yourself. You won’t think it. But once in awhile when you’re really scared, like when you’re the only white lady on a subway late at night with five other teenage black boys all laughing about somebody they “fucked up,” you let the hate thoughts out. And, of course, it’s like breaking a dam; you can’t stop them. Once you start giving the hate a name you find more people to hate than just the kids who scare you. When you’re alone on the subway, you also hate all the minorities and the white liberals, including yourself, for making you feel guilty about being scared.

They scare you when you see them on the corners and the stoops hanging out in front of someone’s car blasting reggaton or rap, and they scare you when you see them standing in front of delis on their cell phones clearly selling drugs. As ridiculous as it is, they scare you with their pants hanging down to the middle of their ass cracks. And they are all yelling “nigga” all the time and part of you wants to just say, “Yeah, and that’s what you are, you useless pieces of shit.”

These are the kids I taught. “They,” “those kids” are my kids. This is who I spent the majority of my life with for five and a half years. I don’t blame you for hating them. I’m not going to bore you with a saccharine tale of the little Harlem kid who could, the kid who will make you believe all those scary ones might be just like him. They’re not. Most of them are nothing like Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happiness. When I see them on the street I’d sometimes like to punch their stupid faces, but I don’t because I’m afraid they’ll shoot me. But when they sit in my class, I feel differently. I feel like each one of them is an important and good person for different reasons, even though a lot of them are objectively neither.

There’s something insane about being a teacher. I believe a teacher is someone who can look at that ass-crack showing kid and at least see the decent person that student can sometimes be. A teacher is also someone who can look at that ass-crack showing kid and sometimes see the best person that student never even imagined he was. Because I am a teacher, I can sometimes see these great people, like apparitions, like magical visions. I sometimes see them even on days when I am not sure all children can learn, when I am not sure education can improve underprivileged students’ lives.

For example, I had a student named Latique, a name that is a French pre-fix and suffix without a root word. His diminutive name belied his 6 ‘5 height and line-backer girth. At 19, Latique had never passed an academic class outside of summer school and night school. He was in my class for the second time where he continued to do nothing. When he came to class, he came late, entering the room with some sort of joke and kissing all the girls on their cheeks as he sauntered to his seat. When he was in class, he either tried to sleep or attempted to do work but was so lost he monopolized my time with his incessant questions. When he wasn’t in class, he was usually cutting in the school, choosing to loiter the hallways with younger lackeys rather than skip school altogether in New York. Latique had showed me no ambitions or skills. He was bad, but not a bad ass. He didn’t cut school to roam the streets as a thug or a drug dealer. I’m sure he did drugs, but he did not seem to have the ump to actually go into the business. He had enough of a ghetto aesthetic and ghetto attitude to scare white people and to avoid abuse in his own “hood,” but neither fame nor infamy followed him at home or school. In short, Latique was a loser by middle class and ghetto standards.

One day, he came to class on the day we were watching a video about Malcolm X. I watched him pay attention. Not once did he try to put his head down. He raised his hand once and asked me how old Malcolm X was when he died, how old he was when he went to prison and how old he was when he got out. I told him and he replied, “Humph.” He looked sort of hopeful. I figured Latique figured that if Malcolm X could become a famous activist after going to jail as an illiterate drug dealer, Latique might be able to do something. I’ve felt the same way about Malcolm X. I’m sure a million other people have, too, but at that moment, I almost felt like only Latique and I understood how Malcolm X inspires initiative. I sat next to Latique for the rest of the video, and I felt like we empathized with each other’s reactions. This is really hard to explain. I don’t want to exaggerate, because it’s not like I had an epiphany or anything at that moment where I thought, and “yes” Latique can achieve greatness or “yes” poor black boys and middle class white women are actually not so different after all; we can all live together in peace and harmony. I didn’t think any of those things at the time.

I just felt like Latique and I had a functional teacher-student relationship, and I’ll define “functional” as a relationship where we’re understanding and meeting each other’s needs. I wanted to teach something, and Latique agreed to learn it. Latique wanted to learn something, and I agreed to teach it. And that simple teacher-student functional relationship became a medium through which we could recognize one another’s humanity.

After the video, Latique would talk more when he actually came to class. He liked to tell funny stories. In one class, I taught them about introductions in their essays. For the hook to the lesson, I asked them how people introduce each other to a romantic interest. Latique told us the story of how his dad romanced his mom; his dad apparently noticed his mom’s failed attempts to catch a cab in the rain, so he caught one for her. He asked for her number and she said “no.” Latique’s dad responded “ok, get home safely” in such a “g-way” as Latique put it, that his mom succumbed to his charms. Despite the banality of the story, the whole class laughed. Latique was good with timing a plot. He also laughed easily, even at my corniest jokes.

Latique was in my last class of the day, a time when inner city teachers need to laugh or collapse. When he showed up, I can’t pretend I was thrilled. I continued to believe he might succeed, but I also recognized he might not. So, when he showed up to class, I did not feel deep and inspiring hope that he would choose to learn. I did, though, feel like I recognized someone specific. Here was someone who could tell a funny story and who appreciated Malcolm X’s initiative. If he could do those things, he could probably do a million other things that other real people do.

I continued to laugh at his stories, but the more I laughed the more I fought with him about his life’s direction. I yelled at him, called him a mama’s boy, a wannabe gangsta. He would get upset, but he kept coming to class and telling funny stories. Sometimes we liked each other, mostly we didn’t, but I knew that to Latique I was Ms. Mettle and not “Ms.,” and I think he knew that to me he was Latique and not “them.” We had a real relationship and just like in any personal relationship, we believed in each other whether or not either one of us was actually worth anything.

Think about some of the wastoid friends you’ve had, but you knew they could be great with a little more initiative. We see the greatness in our laziest friends and family not necessarily because it’s there and only intimate relations can see it, but because there is something inherently great about connecting to another human being. Connecting makes us believe in each other whether or not we’ve ever said or done anything to actually merit that belief. Maybe when we connect we see ourselves in each other, and then to doubt the other person means to doubt yourself, to believe in the other person means to believe in yourself. We have, I think, more hope for our selves in others than for our own ambitions. If Latique wants to stop procrastinating I believe he can, sometimes more than I believe I can.

I did believe in Latique. I didn’t think he was going to college to become any sort of great professional, but I did come to believe that he could pass my class and by doing so learn how to write a competent essay. I put one of his essays on the “great work” board; he claims it was the only time in his life that had happened. I thought he could maybe work for the MTA where he could get a high paying union job. Latique and I began to talk about ways to make this happen. He brought me the job applications. Despite my belief, though, he still failed my class again, and he is not working for the MTA. Last I heard, he’s still freeloading off of his mother. I’m sure he’s still intimidating white working people in the streets, but I have to say, despite his failure, if I ran into him, I’d be happy to see him. I’d give him a hug, just because we had a relationship.

I didn’t change his life and make him a great man, and he didn’t inspire me with his ability to beat the odds. But I still think our story is important. When people on the corners scare me, my story with Latique helps me remember “they” all consist of an “I.”

I have realized through teaching that the “they” of poor. urban America has become a singular collective noun that looks like Latique. “They” is menacing, but the “I,” less so.

Because I know that Latique is not a “they,” I actually feel more comfortable deriding loud music on the corners, chicken bones on the streets, etc. I think I can dislike parts of another culture without being racist or classicist. Can’t I detest the mini-mansions of the suburban middle class without hating all middle class people? Can’t I scorn the pet accoutrements of the rich without hating all rich people? I don’t want to patronize people by pretending to accept something I can’t stand: “Oh, it’s ok if that’s what you people do.” I also want to be compassionate enough to criticize. If you care about me, you tell me I have lettuce in my teeth. You don’t say, “Oh, Ms. Mettle, she’s just being Ms. Mettle with that lettuce in her teeth. I’ve got to respect that.” Maybe if you tell me I’ll come back and say, “I like this fucking lettuce, back off,” at which point you’ll back off and I’ll go try to find like-minded friends. We might still get together for drinks, though. Surely we have something in common besides the way we eat. If you insist on not criticizing the lettuce in my teeth, maybe it’s because you define me as a food in the teeth person. One epithet, food in teeth.

But a culture has so many facets. There’s always something you can appreciate about another culture; it’s not all or nothing. Poor urban kids act scary in the streets, but they’re also hilarious and really generous. And besides, individuals are more than what defines one culture. People, of course, live in multiple cultures at the same time. Latique was an African-American, a New Yorker, a man, a son, a student, etc. Each of those epithets envelope books of stories, all potential mediums for connecting to all kinds of humans. To strangers, though, Latique of course, is only a scary, poor, urban teenager. People don’t want to talk to people who scare them. So, the middle class people sit around big conference tables and talk about ways to help “those” people, but people who look like Latique are almost never actually at the table.

The idea of it is kind of a joke: someone walking in with all the bling and all the lingo, sitting at the table actually hearing what the people with any money had to say about him and talking back. I can see it as a Chapelle-like sketch:

“Thank you for coming today Mr. Johnson.”


“We’d like to talk to you today about your son, Latique. First of all, the name you gave him automatically acts as a disability in today’s professional world. People will read his name and think he is not intelligent or qualified. Did you know that? Also, did you know that all of those chains you’re wearing make people assume you’re uneducated, lacking good taste? Oh, and your language. Please, Mr. Johnson, we are really bothered by your unwillingness to use the linking verb. ‘Latique is my son, not Latique my son, please. ”

I have no idea what Mr. Johnson would say. I think it would be fine if Mr. Johnson said he didn’t give a fuck what the professional world thought of his son’s name; they’d better learn to deal with it. Maybe he’d threaten to sue. Maybe he should. I know, though, that the people with power, especially the liberals, are not telling Mr. Johnson these truths. They just pretend he doesn’t represent the poor they want to defend. In my view, a failure to voice the criticism in our hearts is covert bigotry, the worst kind because it goes around masquerading as compassion.

We liberals defend a demographic that barely exists in America: the humble and intellectual poor and we discriminate against the demographic we claim to champion: the urban poor. Let’s be real.

-Ms. Mettle

Be Brave, Teacher

In my favorite movie, Underground, a Serbian warlord tells his son, “All brave men look like me.” He says it and the audience laughs at the absurdity. But I sympathize with the warlord and with all admirers of courage. I like the line. I wish I could say, “All brave people look like me,” but I’ve had few glaring opportunities in my life to test my bravery. There’s been no war in my neighborhood or people hanging from a nearby burning building. The most I can say outside of enduring typical personal trauma is I stand up for all kinds of liberal causes in the typical ways, but writing a letter, marching a protest, giving some money has never felt brave.

Two years ago I read Samantha Powers’s A Problem from Hell, a book about the history of genocide since the creation of the word after World War II. It’s a wholly horrifying book about a world that allows evil dictators to take power easily, a world where few people are brave. The book made me wonder about my capacity for bravery. I think all of us believe we’d be on the right side of the conflict if thrust into it; we’d hide the Jew. This book, though, really spells out how few people stand on the right side when the right side endangers them. But after reading the book I decided to check where I was standing in my own life, and I realized that even while living in relative comfort I stood on the wrong side, when the right side inconvenienced me: things like avoiding expensive organic food or not visiting grandma. After the book, I shouldered the inconveniences in the name of courage fairly easily, but the reflection made me realize I need the courage most at my job as an English teacher.

I need the courage to expect my students to come to class daily and do their work and to fail them if they do not. The expectation will at best endanger my reputation with the administration; I will become a failure as a teacher. At worst that expectation will get me fired. In my school, teachers with high expectations tend to have high failure rates, and the administration admonishes high failure rates but ignores lenient teachers. The administration can barely remember the names of the teachers who show up later to class than their students, who pass students who cut 50% of their class, who don’t grade the essays the assign. If that teacher passes 80% of her class, she has succeeded. If I really hold to my standards, the administration will make my life uncomfortable. I’ve witnessed them intimidate three of the best teachers I’ve ever known into quitting. I am trying, though, to accept the risk in the name of what’s right. So, toward the end of this semester, I looked closely at my gradebook and quickly closed it before I vomited in the dismal record. The next day, gradebook in hand, I knocked on my boss’s door.

“Yeah,” he chirps.

“Hank, sorry to bother you, but if you have a minute I wanted to talk about the different things I’ve been doing with this group of slacker sophomores to motivate and pull them up,” I try to sound chirpy in return.

“Sure, awesome!” he beams. The whole school knows about the problematic sophomores.
I tell him about my new dog and pony shows to get them to want to come. “So, you see, I’ve made the class into a sort of island with two teams… like in Lord of the Flies. And they’re in competition for grades. Each team elects a president without any guidance from me, and the president then acts as an ‘educational advisor’ to me. I have meetings with the presidents each week…” I go on.

“That’s incredible. So, you’ve restructured your class around your content?”

“Yes, basically.”


Then, I explain that I still have a huge problem with chronic cutters, kids who are absent more than present; in response Hank sympathetically throws up his hands and sighs, “I know, I know. But what are you going to do? You’re not a miracle worker.”
“I know,” I say, “But I think kids continue to cut when they feel there’s no way for them to catch up from what they’ve missed, so to help with that I make a calendar of all the homework and classwork two months in advance. I post it on my website and hand it to them, so when they are here they can look ahead and see the sequence of skills and content we’ll cover.”

“That’s great,” he says.

“Also,” I explain, “at the beginning of the year, I gave them a list of everything I wanted them to know by the end of the semester. I put it in a table with skills on one side and evidence on the other. So, they know exactly what they are supposed to learn and exactly what they are supposed to produce at the beginning of the year. I think a lot of kids fail because they don’t know what they have to do to succeed. This way, they know exactly what they have to do.”
“That’s really great. That fits right in to the ‘understanding by design concept’ we’re pushing,” Hank replies.

Hank has a gift for empathy. His phrases might sound rather pat but his delivery always makes me believe he believes in me. I want to keep talking to him, just to keep feeling good, even though I know his job is in part to blow smoke up my ass.
“And I also created a writing partners program this year, wherein the kids always work with the same person for their revisions. I did some lessons to help them build report and take responsibility for each other.”
He shakes his head “yes.” “That’s great. And the more they take responsibility for each other, the less responsibility you have to shoulder.”

“And the final new thing I’ve done this year is to do much more writing in class to ensure that the kids who refuse to do homework are still getting time to develop their writing skills.”

“That’s so important,” he says. “Because this homework kills some of our kids.”

“Well,” I say. I look sad. “I’m still a failure as a teacher.”

“What!” he expression is not unlike Pee-Wee Herman’s when a child has given Pee-Wee mildly bad news.

“Well,” I want him to be serious, “despite my efforts, at least ten kids per class failed.”

“Oh!” His brow furrows. I need my bravery. “That’s too many.”

“I know. That’s what I’m trying to say. I failed.”

“Well,” he shakes his head hard, “don’t say that. But there is SOME disconnect between what you expect and what they’re delivering. So what are you doing to bridge your expectations with their work?”

“Well,” I try not to look annoyed but I want to choke him, “that’s what I was just trying to explain to you.”

“Yeah,” he gesticulates something that seems to mean he’s thinking of the “big picture.” I nod.

“Yeah,” he still gesticulates, “but listen, something’s just not working if you’re failing that many kids.”

“Clearly,” I say. “Do you think my class is too hard?” I ask.
He pauses.

“Well, uh, no, no. You should have high expectations.”

Now I will be brave. “But I have a question. I know something is not working if I fail that many kids. But do you assume that a teacher who fails fewer kids has a class that’s working better than mine?”

“Well, no, not necessarily.” I continue before he can elaborate. “Do you automatically assume that teacher X who passed 80% of her class while I passed 50% of mine has students who have learned 30% more than my kids?”

“Well, no, not necessarily. But look, you shouldn’t be comparing yourself to other people.”

“I have to,” I point up toward the principal’s office, “because the administration has said that teachers who fail kids are failed teachers. Teachers with high failure rates are called in and intimidated. So everyone’s inflating grades, of course. I just want to stop it. I want to be honest.”

He shakes his head, “no, no,” the nod says. He opens his eyes wide, against with the Pee-Wee expression: “Teachers here do not inflate grades.”

His delusion, or feigned ignorance does not surprise me. After five years in the urban public school system, I believe self-delusion is a prerequisite to an administration appointment.

“Oh, come on,” I say. “You can’t honestly believe that.”

“I don’t know why you believe they do,” he responds.

“Because everyone says they do!” I’m annoyed. I am friendly. I talk to everyone at the school, and I know everyone inflates their grades. They have showed me their gradebooks. Many teachers have told me that if they gave exactly what the kids earned all but a couple of kids would fail. So, when you look at their final grades, the majority of the kids in their classes earn a 65%, which is just passing. Our administration, though, will not draw a connection between a long list of 65s and grade inflation.

Hank changes the subject and begins again to talk about the disconnect between my expectations and my students’ work. “Look,” he says, “If I were you, I wouldn’t care what the principal thought or how I was doing compared to someone else. I would just be having a heart attack because my students weren’t getting it. Somehow you’ve got to get them to meet your expectations.”

“Ok, yes, that’s what we’ve been talking about, and I’m agreeing with you. But I want to have this conversation now, because as you said, I shouldn’t have to compare myself to other teachers and I shouldn’t have to worry about what the principal thinks, but I’m human, and so it hurts my feelings, frankly, when my bosses tell me I’m a failure as a teacher. And, as a non-tenured teacher I worry that if don’t inflate my grades like most everyone here does, the principal will try to find a way to not grant me tenure at the end of the year. Yes, my kids aren’t all getting it. A lot of them aren’t. But nobody’s kids are getting it. We just pretend they’re getting it when they are not, across the board.”

He shakes his head again as if he has no clue what I’m talking about. His refusal to admit that he knows exactly what I mean tortures me. I feel like I’m speaking under water and the suffocation, I’m embarrassed to say, makes me cry. I don’t cry to manipulate, but I am lucky in this case to be dealing with a man who can’t take tears. He gets up, quickly shuts his door and in what sounds to me be a more earnest tone concedes, “Ok, ok. I get it. People inflate grades. I get it. Look I know you’re good. You’re a great teacher. You really care about the kids. I see what you do.”

“Thank you,” I try salvage my dignity. “But hearing you affirm your confidence in me despite my high failure rate is not why I wanted to have this conversation. I want to spell out why I think it’s important for me to be honest about who’s failing.”


“School is a safe place to fail. If you get an “F” in English, the only real consequence is you have to repeat the class, and you may have a little kick to your self-esteem. But if you don’t have a work ethic or skills, chances are you already have a low-esteem. You might argue that we should pass kids who make some effort whether or not they truly pass in an effort boast up that self-esteem.”

“Yeah, that’s how I see it,” he says. “I teach like I coach. I want the kids to believe in themselves. So, I’m not the type of teacher who goes strictly by the grade book. I don’t necessarily say, ‘bam’ you got a 50 in my grade book so you fail.” He hits an imaginary grade book and delivers the last line in a scary schoolteacher voice. “Look, I feel sorry for these kids. They come from shitty systems and a lot of times shitty homes. What am I supposed to do? Punish them for where they came from?”

“I agree,” I said. I begin to enjoy the conversation. Hank seems to have dropped the bullshit. “I don’t want to punish them for where they came from either. So, I want to hold them to a high standard. I really want it to be as high as if they hadn’t come from some shitty inner city middle school and didn’t live in the projects with a single mom.

And I think when we pass kids when they show no work ethic and exhibit no skills we communicate one of two things. The smart ones know the grade is crap. They know that the teacher just passed them to cover herself or because she feels sorry for the kid. Kids tell me this themselves. I’m serious, they do. One student told me she passed all of her classes her first semester freshman year even though she had cut at least half the days in the semester. She said those passing grades made her feel like her teachers did not care about her education. Her exact words. The less astute actually think they’ve learned something. These are the kids who tell people they plan to become a doctor or a lawyer but they can’t write a clear sentence and they don’t know their times tables. You know we’ve got a lot of those kids in this school. And when we pass these kids we keep feeding them the lie that they can achieve their dreams without working, and that they’ve actually acquired the skills necessary for them to hold down any kind of white-collar job. So, we keep lying to them, and the not so bright ones feel great about themselves until they leave high school and become someone else’s problem. If they’re lucky, they’ll end up at one of those corporate colleges that’ll take anyone who’ll take out a huge student loan to learn how to get a ‘fast growing career’ that will keep them solidly in the lower middle class forever. If they’re lucky. So, when we pass them with no skills, I think we set them for failure later. We’re writing their future for them. For me, it’s classist; it’s racist.

My parents grew up poor. My dad was dirt poor, white trash. He’s complained many times that people around him ‘just didn’t care what the hell’ he did. It wasn’t until he was in the military that he realized he could do something other than work in factory. The military was the first place that expected any self-discipline from him, and in response he gained enough self-respect to put himself through college. I see the same pattern in my students. So, I expect my kids to be disciplined enough to do their work, and I fail them if they don’t. Then, some of them change. By telling them they’re failing now, I think I’m increasing their chance of succeeding later. I don’t want my kids to have to go looking to the military to find opportunity once they graduate.”

Hank looks tired. I have to say Hank is actually pretty great. I think he’s a kind person who sincerely cares about kids. Hank and I just have different philosophies on education that I think reflect our background. He comes from a much richer family than me and grew up among much richer people. Poor people represent an “other” to Hank more than they do to me. “I see what you’re saying,” he says, “but look, when a kid comes to our school and can hardly write a sentence I just don’t think it’s possible for him to learn to write a decent literary analysis. I just don’t think that’s possible.”

“Well,” I was relieved. We were having a real conversation. “Thanks for your honesty and all the time you took to talk to me. That’s where we’re different, though. I think it’s possible. Please, do me the favor of explaining ”

-Ms. Mettle

Monday, April 16, 2007


For teachers to survive in the NYC School system it is vital to pick your battles. The advice given to novice teachers who are in an uproar of righteous outrage is to simply "close your classroom door and teach". While this method may help teachers maintain their sanity, it concerns me quite a bit the way that this mentality isolates and disempowers us as educators and people. The abiding sentiment in the NYC public school system seems to be “Nothing is going to change, so why waste your breath complaining?”. When our expectations are thus lowered, teachers are easier to manage and “lack of student motivation” can be blamed for a maelstrom of educational ills and failings. If all teachers simply close their doors and teach, then they are not forced to confront the fact that violence reigns in our hallways. I call this attitude “The Culture of Silence”—and teachers who violate it are punished like the Amish—with shunning, banishment, scorn and derision. And that’s just from the students—wait until the administration gets wind of your “We Are the World” one-woman chorus and your life will really turn into a nightmare.
A school or school system's failure to ensure a safe learning environment for all students is a gross injustice to all students, teachers, and administrators forced to work in an environment where violence has no consequences and vulgar behavior is the norm. For our students, this environment is particularly unjust-- let's face it, we all go home to our relatively middle-class lives after the last school bell of the day, but some of our kids get no respite at school from the violence that they experience in their home environments when the school becomes an extension of that environment rather than a safe haven. This situation exists because it is easier to ignore than it is to fix. I am not saying that I know what the solution is to this, but when we all go in our rooms, close our doors, and teach, we are tacitly consenting to maintaining the status quo.
I am reminded of a quote from Berthold Brecht, (which I will paraphrase for the purposes of this discussion), "For art to be non-political is simply for it to ally itself with the ruling class". So by ignoring the fact that our schools protect neither us nor our students, and going along our merry way, we are allying ourselves with the administration and the culture of that school-- like it or not. Furthermore, by making a choice to do nothing, say nothing, see nothing, and hear nothing, we are isolating ourselves and wasting the $90 that we pay the UFT to represent us because we are not speaking out. But what does one do, when silence is consent and dissent is dismissal? How can we as teachers find a way to say, "Ya Basta" and put a stop to this divide-and-conquer, “survival of the quietest” mentality that is so pervasive in the Board of Ed? And when are we going to stop being asked to lower our expectations to keep our jobs?

-Ms. Mouthy

The Darker Side of Lunch Duty in the City School

With a smile on her face, the principal signaled for me to go over to where she was standing. She was about 5’ 5”, light skinned, and loved to wear outrageous outfits. “Ms. Pluck, come quickly, I want you to meet the manager of the lunch room!” She said with eagerness in her voice. Following a brief exchange of hellos, her face tightened up, and her usual grave expression signaled that we were about to talk business. Turning toward me with her eyebrows scrunched together she leaned over and said, “Ms. Pluck, as you know we have had many ‘situations’ here in the lunch room and it is very important that we keep our eyes and ears open so that none of this continues to happen. There have been too many fights in here and some kids have been arrested because of incidents that started in the lunchroom. Jose, the manager, and I were talking about approaches we could take to keep this a safe environment. And other issues I want to address are that students cut the line, and then take too many condiments and salads from the salad bar. And this place is a mess!”
I knew about the ‘situations’ she was referring to, because since I’d been in the lunchroom there were instances when a small scuffle transcended into a brawl before security responded to any attempted call. To make a call, we had to find the nearest classroom and hope that the phone worked, otherwise it was impossible to get security in there quickly enough.
In 2006, the teacher contractual obligation changed. The city and the teacher’s union agreed to the “Circular Six assignment,” a 45-minute a day obligation to perform some school duty outside of regular teaching duties. Every principal has a choice about what those duties will be. Our principal instituted “lunch duty” as one of the assignments. The idea is that if teachers want more money, then they have to work more. Ironically though, we are working more and still not getting paid enough.
Jose, the manager, and Mrs. Johnson walked me around the room, pointing to the places where they thought I should stand. Jose dictated his concerns and Mrs. Johnson listened.
“O.k., so what exactly do you want me to do during lunch duty?”
“Walk over here with me for a minute, will you. Ms. Pluck, the lunch aides are complaining that you just sit in the back and don’t help monitor the room.”
“I sit at the desk by the back door to block kids from sneaking out into the stairwell.”
“Do you grade your papers while on lunch duty?”
“Sometimes, when I’m sitting at the desk, but I always make it a point to walk around the room, and make sure things are under control. I have overcrowded classes, and it’s impossible to get all my work done before I leave and I never leave before five.”
“I understand you have work to do. Everyone does, but this is not the place for you to do your grading. That should be done during your prep period.”
The circular six assignment replaced one of the two prep periods originally set aside for preparing units, grading papers, and meeting with students, to say the least. What the principal of the school was signifying, was that forty-five minutes was enough time to assess my one hundred and eighty six students. I had 76 English honors students with an additional 110 mainstream kids, so every minute of my time was valuable. Each one of those 186 students were required to pass the English regents exam that June to graduate high school, and it was becoming almost impossible for me to productively assess their work. I was already taking piles of work home almost every night.
“Ms. Pluck, all the schools in the city are overcrowded. There is nothing we could do to condense the classes, it is a city wide issue that can’t be dealt with right now.” Her eyes hurled echoes of frustration.
We walked over to the where students were standing in line and she told me I should stand there at the beginning of the period, to make sure that no students cut the line.
“When the line subsides,” She said, “move to the condiment area and salad bar and make sure the students are not taking too much.” She continued, “Fifteen minutes before the period ends, do a sweep of the room with the garbage can, enforcing a clean environment.”
There are sixteen activities from the Circular Six menu of procedures that administration could implement into their school. Among these are common planning time, hallway duty, one-on-one tutoring, bus duty, and cafeteria duty. Activities like curriculum planning, one on one tutoring, inter-disciplinary articulation, and professional development are also on the menu of procedures, but are already part of what we do as teachers on a regular basis. Our principal could have recognized the amount extra work we already do with pay; instead, she used her power to turn me into a part time janitor.

-Ms. Pluck

Authoritative Parenting

As a public school teacher at one of the most economically, racially, and ethnically diverse schools in New York City, I teach students from all walks of life, all social and economic classes, and with varying degrees of support at home. Parents often ask me what they can do to help their child succeed in school; my unpopular answer is be an authority figure in your child’s life. Look, adolescence itself is the age of entitlement: children suddenly make pronouncements like, “I’m FOURTEEN! You can’t tell me what to do/ Give me a curfew!/ Run my life!” etc etc. The problem with permissive parenting is that the child becomes a bully; and like all bullying victims, overly permissive parents believe deep down that they are worth the bullyer’s derision and negotiate with the bully, thereby validating the bullies’ claims as well as the bully’s authority over them.

The results of permissive parenting in the classroom are:
• Lack of personal or academic discipline.
• Inability to comprehend the word “no”.
• A misunderstanding that rules are negotiable (try this with the IRS, kiddo).
• An abiding sense of entitlement to except oneself from every rule, while severely limiting authority over them.
• A failure to value others’ time (tardiness and late work).
• A culture that thrives on failure and lowered expectations.
• The misconception that “It’s all about me” or that anyone in the real world actually cares about your feelings.
• A cunning and persistent desire to get around the rules any way they can: usually by the most annoying pestering involving copious amounts of whining in the same drip drip drip fashion that forms stalactites in caves.
• Parents who fail to support the tough decisions and occasional serious consequences that teach kids the “life lessons” they need to learn to succeed in school and in the world at large.

What permissive parenting does to the public school classroom:
• Wastes time and resources arguing with students who have no authority and deserve no authority.
• Lowered work standards to prevent “stressing the children out”.
• Inability to enforce deadlines in the classroom because endless accommodation is made for students who don’t do their work—and parents who make excuses for their children.
• Rewards the efforts of children and parents to run interference for a miscreant child rather than allow the child to suffer any consequences for his/her actions.

If you are a permissive parent, there is hope. Here are the steps you need to take to become authoritarian:
• Prepare to be disliked.
• Prepare to be respected.
• Now, make rules. Do not consult your child about these rules. You are the parent: this is your job. Set clear, direct, enforceable consequences for these rules (Ex: Each time you curse at your parent, you lose your phone for one day.)
• Inform child of said rules and consequences.
• Enforce the rules, and the consequences. Do not give in; do not alter the consequences for good behavior.
• Accompany the start of rigorous rules with rigorous responsibility: assign your children some chores to do around the house, and consequences if they are not done. This will give you time to go in the bathroom and cry if you feel guilty for being such a meanie.
• Reward kids sensibly for good grades and good behavior; make their comfort dependent upon their behavior and hard work.

As you read this article and try to Google me on the internet to have me fired, I beg you to consider a few final questions: Whose child would you rather have as a tenant? As a doctor? As an employee? As your payroll secretary? Handling your money at the bank? Giving you medicine while you are in a coma? Eat dinner with in public? Deliver your eulogy? Because ultimately, these children of permissive parenting are going to be filling those professions, and let me tell you—they cheated on their Final exams, plagiarized term papers, and never turned in that final project for English class. And then their mothers called me an my colleagues into the Principal’s office as though we were the offenders rather than the whistle-blowers. Give me the products of an authoritarian regime any day of the week—I’ll let the dice roll with people who understand that their needs don’t always come first, that greatness is the result of hard work and sacrifice, and that the entitlement of permissiveness really just gives a few people license to make life miserable for the rest of us who value our integrity and play by the rules.

-Ms. Mouthy

Does Homework Matter?

I know two chefs who took different approaches when learning the art of cooking. Tom got through cooking school setting little time aside for practice, thinking it’s detrimental to his personal life. He went through four jobs in one year and after getting fired from the fourth, he went back to cooking school. On the other hand, John would sit attentively in class, memorizing the recipes and then spend endless hours in his mom’s kitchen, cooking and re-cooking the dishes, adding his own ingredients or taking one or two out. With practice, he perfected each of his specialty dishes, and went out searching for work. He took over a newly opened restaurant and within a year, they were written up in the New York Times. The difference between the two chefs is that one of them spent time practicing the skills; while the other didn’t think repeating the steps was important. Implementing the same ideas as Tom, into the classroom, would weaken a student’s ability to master the skills he or she needs to become a productive learner.
To eliminate homework would be criminal to a student’s knowledge and would lower expectations. Teachers have 45 minutes of classroom time to teach skills, and then homework allows students to practice those skills so that they won’t have gone astray the following day. Limiting homework does injustice to continuity. Most kids do not study on their own and need direction and discipline; homework not only is necessary, but crucial in their development as independent thinkers. So ignoring the importance of continuity lowers student expectations. The lower the expectations, the worse students will do. The higher the expectations, the better they will do. Period. Say we eliminate homework all together. What would happen? After spending endless hours discussing the topic in graduate school, I was conditioned to believe that I could spend one-day teaching skills, and the next day, putting them into practice. The idea was that by limiting homework, students will have more down time to spend with family and friends, strengthening their ties within their communities. I agree that students need down time, just like adults. And they also need to build strong community ties, and in some cases work, but that doesn’t mean through cutting out homework they will build a stronger sense of community, or hinder their time with family. If we subject ourselves, as educators, to the idea that less homework will increase student achievement, then we send out the message that we are lowering expectations and also telling students that practice isn’t important. In Tom’s case, he learned that the lack of practice took him right back to where he started.

The role a parent plays

At one point or another a parent will gripe over the amount of homework teachers give, saying that their kids study too much or that they don’t have time for anything else. At a recent parent teacher conference thirty-five out of the one hundred and seventy parents showed up, some of them ecstatic about the high grades their child received and others oblivious to how awful their children were doing in school. During the conferences I made a point to ask every parent if they worked on homework with their children, how often, and if they thought about reading the books their child is reading in English class. I found that the student whose parent actually worked on homework with him, excelled. On the contrary, the kids who continuously fail, are on their own. The problem with the loner is that he lacks discipline and guidance. The parent who doesn’t make the extra effort to get involved in his child’s schoolwork is sending the message that he doesn’t care about his child’s education. These types of parents feel safe with the idea that their child is going to school, but not whether or not they are in class, and trust that they do their homework, but lack the effort to understand what the content of the assignments are. At a time when children need the most nurturing and monitoring, most parents I’ve encountered in the city schools draw a blank.
If a parent got more involved with their child’s schoolwork, it would create valuable family time. For example, Arturo is a tenth grade student who lives with his aunt. The other day, he said to me, “Miss, my aunt read Native Son and she knows what happens in the end and she won’t tell me!” I asked him if he talks about the book with his aunt and he said, “Oh, she reads all the books I read. We always talk about em! We sit at the dinner table and argue about this book sometimes, because I think Bigger is bad and she thinks he has good intentions. We sometimes start fighting over who’s right, it’s really cool.” Arturo is one of the few students who is learning to think independently and assess actively, because he not only practices the skills applied in class, he has direct guidance and support from home. Limiting or abolishing homework is detrimental to continuity, but it is also detrimental to a parent-student-teacher relationship.

-Ms. Pluck

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Arms of Esau, The Voice of Jacob

This winter our school spent several weeks gearing up for the facility-wide version of high-stakes testing which No Child Left Behind mandates for public schools, called “School Quality Review”. We have been instructed to be “on top of our game” for the visit; our classrooms were observed, our bulletin boards critiqued, our answers to the Quality Review board virtually rehearsed for us in a series of mind-numbing 1984-esque brainwashing sessions called “faculty meetings” to make sure we do not say anything that might give the reviewers anything other than the rosiest accolades for our oh-so-wonderful urban school. Yippeee. Under the current review process, schools are held to a series of system-wide standards determined by the people who know the most about quality education and best instructional practices: Businessmen.

While it is important for schools to be assessed by teams such as "Quality Review", I am naturally suspicious of all the consultants and experts who descend upon us with all their sense from the business world; the fact of the matter is that capitalism as we know it is a failing model that is essentially underwritten by the taxpayers, and corporate welfare is what keeps most businesses afloat-- so why are we basing the model for educational success on a corporate system that is in fact the model of failure and corruption? I may be going off the deep end here, but I am reminded of Maslow's hierarchy of needs--- in that until physical plant needs for safety and nourishment, learning and art cannot flourish.

As far as the impact on teaching goes, I have an abiding sentiment that we are being forced to play the marching band and the condemned, and provide the entertainment for the masses as we march ourselves toward the gallows. If these consultants want to help, why don't they hang out for three days calling lame-duck parents, conducting sweeps in the hallways, corralling truant students from the streets and the cafeteria, and act as "temporary deans"? I do not think that these suits would last fifteen minutes trying to manage our student population, let alone actually structuring curriculum and overseeing instruction itself.

I must also ask this group, who really benefits from this? The consultants are making a pretty penny. The results are posted on the internet (which half my students cannot access because they do not have computers at home and there is no computer lab at school). Look, it seems obvious that everyone knows that a big part of the problem with the board of Ed is the bloated bureaucracy; and here we are, feeding the beast and starving the children. While these $350 hour consultants trot around my classroom grilling me about why Johnny can't read, I'm getting emails from the Operations department at our school that teachers are making too many copies of instructional materials and that we are over budget for the year. They insist that we "avoid making copies" of the worksheets, graphic organizers, short stories, poems and other materials that I need for sound instructional practice in my classroom. The science that needs to be examined here is not the science of teaching-- this is the science of bunglers who hoodwink the public into enriching themselves at the expense of resources out of my students' reach while I grovel for copy paper.
How much longer are our kids going to be asked to "go without" while we spend millions on examining what they need rather than giving us the technology and supplies to do our job? Whose needs are being met? Let’s look at this: one hour of consultant pay would keep me in copy paper for a month; two hours would fund a decent classroom library; three hours would put a computer on a child’s desk; four hours would pay a tutor to help provide after school homework help for a week; five hours is more than my weekly pre-tax salary. These expenses give my students “measurable outcomes” instead of a bunch of folks staring at them during class time and typing frantically into their laptops as though my kids were animals in a zoo.

All this hoopla about business model being the best model for school reminds me very much of a Bible story my grandfather used to tell me. He told me how a long time ago; an old man named Isaac had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Before the Isaac died, he needed to give the birthright blessing to his eldest son Esau. Jacob wanted the blessing from his father, and wanted it very badly. So Jacob conspired against his brother. Jacob knew Isaac was senile and blind, and so Jacob disguised himself as Esau. Jacob put animal skins on his arm to make himself hairy like Esau, he ate food so he smelled like Esau, and he made his voice sound like his brother’s. (Sara, Isaac’s wife, had a role in this nonsense, but I digress). Jacob approached his father, but Isaac was suspicious. Isaac made Jacob speak, and he heard Esau’s voice come forth. Isaac smelled the boy, and he sure smelled like Esau. Finally, Isaac felt the boy’s hairy arms and was convinced that Jacob was Esau. In good faith, with tears in his eyes, the old man gave the birthright blessing to his cheating, no-good son. This just goes to show you how far some people will go in this world to earn a buck: you will know them by this; they come with arms of Esau, but you will recognize the voice of Jacob.

This time around, Jacob dons a fancy suit and carries an expensive ultra-thin laptop loaded with a bunch of excel spreadsheets. Jacob comes to my school, introduces himself as Esau, smiles and shakes your hand. He promises he’ll show you how this whole education thing all ought to be done, and swears he is fully capable of bringing God’s people to the Promised Land where everybody can read and write and speak good English. “Excuse me”, he says, grinning “I meant to say proper English”. You notice then that his wrists are thin and his socks keep slipping down, and is that a forked tongue? But he just talks and talks about numbers and outcomes and measurable results and alternative assessment and data until you, too, want to go to the Promised Land where everybody can read, write, and do math AND speak good English. However, above all the din (That’s the sound of a stampede as thousands of children are left behind…) you can still hear the voice of Jacob. Is anybody listening?

-Ms. Mouthy