Class Notes

IMG_0228A few years ago, I read a story about one of those life-changing teachers that lifted her students’s self-image by having them write one thing that they admired about each person in their class. It was a sweet story and one that I knew I could never replicate because the amount of censoring I’d have to do with so many notes would be brain-numbing.

But by the end of this school year, I started to wonder if maybe it’d be worth it. God knows, my students could use a little encouragement from their peers, and my classes seemed a little more likely to cooperate than my previous year’s students.

So in the last few weeks of school, I stood in front of each class with a big smile and announced that they would be writing notes to everyone in their class–good notes! Positive notes! Just one good thing about each person in the room.

The students groaned.

“Everybody?” One of them asked.

“I ain’t got nothin’ good to say about him!” Another said, pointing a finger across the classroom to a boy who stuck his tongue out at her.

“Come on,” I said, dropping my smile, but trying not to drop my hope. “You guys can do this! You’ve been with each other all year! You know each other so well!”

It took a little more coaxing before they were willing to try. But all I needed was for them to try.

Now, I don’t know what the legendary teacher of the tale had done to help her students find positive things to say about each other, but for me, it was an interesting journey. I knew the students would draw blanks on a lot of their classmates, so to help them along, I made a chart filled with words like “dignified,” “meek,” “funny,” “leader,” and “mad scientist.” For one full day, we worked on putting students into broad categories that might jog their minds about what to say.

It was supposed to be a simple warm-up, but I was glad that it became much more involved. The students spent the first bit of class asking each other how to spell their names, arguing with each other about who belongs where, and defending each other for their positions in the chart.

After they had settled a few things between them, I gave the students an opportunity to come up to the front of class and share where they put someone on the chart and then explain why. “Try to tell us about someone that maybe other classmates forgot about,” I said, hoping that my more difficult students would get a chance to hear something nice about them.

This turned out to be pretty inspiring! Students who normally caught a lot of flack from others had the chance to hear accolades about them. “Ariel is a ‘superhero’ to me,” one student said about a particularly abrasive classmate. “Whenever someone is picking on me, she always stands up for me!”

“Omarion is a mad scientist.” Another student got up to speak about an autistic boy in the class who really struggled with social interaction. “He’s always on technology.” This made Omarion rock back and forth in his chair with little happy sounds. It was the first time his classmates said so many positive things about him. Normally they just directed him around class.

The verbal accolades for each other stretched on until the bell rang that day, and even then, a lot of students wanted to stay after and say just one more nice thing about someone else. The few students I had that couldn’t read or write really soaked up this time to be able to tell the class how they felt without ever writing it down. Students who normally get ignored were acknowledged and discussed with more and more students adding on what good thing they noticed. And at the end of the day, I had learned a thing or two about my students that I had not known before!

And then it was time for the note writing. I gave the students colored pieces of paper to write their notes on and then told them to make sure they got to everyone in class. Each class responded differently to the task. In one block, I had students writing notes and then wanting to run around class, or call out across class to tell the other person immediately what they had written about them. It brought instant joy in sharing the sweet thoughts.

In another class, the students were a lot more secretive. And in another class, I had a handful of students who purposefully thought through all the students that might get overlooked and then take time to write profoundly edifying notes to those students. One of my students who could not read or write begged me to help him write a note–just one–to the classmate that had affected him the most–it was the girl that had the patience to work with him and didn’t make him feel humiliated for not knowing how to read and write.

While the students wrote their notes to each other, I, too, wrote notes to each of them. When I started, I thought it’d just be a really nice way to end the year and say something encouraging to each of my students. But after a while, I really started to understand how big the number 85 was. And by the time I made it through 60 students, I was running out of ways to be encouraging.

But, class by class, I wrote notes to each student on the back of their envelope. And for the next few days, as I worked to complete those notes in all of my free time, the students begged to see what I said about them. Some of them tried to steal them off my desk to take a peek. Several students, when they saw that I was writing them notes, started writing me notes, too.

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Quick note about the green one on the right: The “hateful comments” she’s referring to are things that she said a few weeks prior to this. It was especially encouraging to hear her say she respected me after the things she had said to me earlier.

In the last week of school, I started handing out the envelopes for each student, filled with notes that his or her classmates had written. On the back of each envelop was the note I had written to each of them. I passed them out to the students at the very end of the day, as they were getting ready to go to the buses or to their cars. And all through the halls, 6th graders walked with their heads down, reading their envelopes, or pulling out the notes to see what others had said about them.

Honestly, I don’t know if this activity will be as life-changing and influential as the story that inspired it. But over the last few days of school, the students showed a lot of care and tenderness for each other. They constantly came up to me to say how much they appreciated my note and talked about what others had said about them. And by the end of the year, after the students had run out of paper and lost all their pencils, my classroom was filled with more notes:

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The Cow-Tail Switch and Family Values

One of my favorite stories to read with my classes is The Cow-Tail Switch. It’s a short, African folktale about a hunter that is killed by a leopard in the forest. It takes all of his sons to bring him back to life, and after he returns form the dead, he makes a cow-tail switch (a sign of honor and authority in the village) and wants to give it to the son that did the most to bring him back home.

The funnest thing about this story is that, traditionally, there was no real ending. The point of it was to argue over which son did the most important thing to bring him back from the dead, but it’s impossible to say which was most important because each brother’s work was useless on its own and dependent on each other to bring the father back. So how do you decide?

“Let’s have a death match over it,” one of my students said in 3rd block. We had just performed a little reader’s theater with the piece, which really put the students in the mindset of the characters. Then we started a class debate over who should get the cow-tail switch. Both previous classes had argued and voted, civilly on who should get the switch. But my 3rd block always made things interesting. “I can take all ya’ll,” he said as if he really was the son that gave his father blood to live.

“That’s not fair, Zion,” I said. “The youngest brother is only two years old by the time they find the father. You can’t fight a two year old!”

“Yes, I can!” he said. “He’ll be the first one out!”

“I think we should just burn it,” one of the girls said as if the switch was really sitting front of us. “It’s causing too much trouble.”

The verbal battle over the imaginary cow-tail switch (an item that no one in the class understood or cared about when we first started the story), went on until the bell interrupted us, signalling the end of class. My 3rd block students argued all the way out the door and into math class.

Then it was time for 4th block. We went through the story in the same way and when it arrived for the big celebration where the hunter, Ogaloussa, chooses which son to give the switch to, we began our debate.

At first, it was a debate very similar to every class before us, they brought up each of the sons and weighed their contributions to their father’s reincarnation. But then something strange happened.

“So what do we do?” I asked to wrap things up.

A tiny little doll of a girl raised her hand. “I think we should share it,” she said. “Can we share it?”

A few other students nodded their heads.

“Oh yeah!” another student added on. “We can put it in one of those glass cases and the whole family can keep it in their house!”

“How about if we just make more of them?” Another student said. “Then each son can get one.”

“Or we could take it apart and use each piece in a new switch so that every son gets a piece of the first switch.”

This class came up with more ways to share the switch than there were characters to give it to! I had never heard any idea like it in all the times I’ve taught the story. But I had to stir up some kind of controversy. So I said, “Let’s assume we only have the one switch and we have to give it to only one person. Who would we give it to?”

They thought for a moment, and then someone raised their hand. “What about the mother?” he said “She’s the one that raised all the sons. She had to raise all seven of them! She’s the one that kept the family together when the father was dead. She’s the one that must’ve taught them to do all the things they know how to do. She deserves it the most.”

All the students nodded.

We took a vote in the last minute before the end of class and the mother won in a landslide.

It struck me how odd that was. The mother is barely even a character in the story. She has no lines of dialogue and is mentioned perhaps twice in the whole passage. She could have just as easily not existed and it wouldn’t’ve changed the story.

But the mother figure of any family is not so easily overlooked by my students–most of whom live with single mothers. To them, that invisible mother in the African village was the cornerstone of the family. All of the arguments spoken on her behalf were just as true for each student’s own mother. And when they took that vote in the end, they weren’t voting for a fictional character. They voted with a heart dipped in the reality of their own lives.

It was beautiful.

Confession of a Wrong

I must confess to a mental wrong doing: I am guilty of a hurtful and possibly harmful judgement made on a boy in my class. I am not telling this story to try to explain away my crime, or excuse myself. I am telling this story so that others might recognize their own symptoms of stereotyping others.

This young boy appeared on my classroom roster before school started, but he did not come to class the first day. His cousin did, though–a cleanly dress, tall girl with glasses and colorful school supplies. I asked her where her cousin was and she simply rolled her eyes and said, “he wants to pretend we aren’t related.”

He did come to school the second day. As soon as I saw him in the hallway, I took a breath and thought, “oh, boy.” He had a face that looked much more mature than an 11 year old should, but not in the “I know better than to cause problems” sort of maturity. His solid jawline and squarish features indicated that he was either older than the others in the grade, or that he simply matured, physically, much faster than everyone. Either way, it screamed trouble to me and gave me flashbacks to some of my most difficult students of previous years–the ones that ran gangs and got girls to do things that 11 year olds are much too young to be doing.

He smiled broadly at everyone–the kind of smile that was less friendly and more mischievous–and stepped into my classroom with a swagger that made  him look like he owned the room.

That smile never left his face as he squatted with his feet in his chair and raised his hand to volunteer to read out loud just before saying, “psych!” And pulling his hand down.

When I asked him to sit properly in his chair, he jokingly tried out several positions with his feet on the desk or wherever he knew would be bothersome.

His cousin sighed loudly across the room.

I wrote him off after only 2 attempts to call on him, deciding that he probably wouldn’t give a reasonable response to anything, regardless of the fact that he raised his hand constantly. I gave up on him before the first week of school had ended.

But I was wrong. And this isn’t a “people can change” story. No. This boy didn’t suddenly change his attitude. He is still the playful kid he always was.

But in an attempt to be “fair” I called on him the second week of school to answer questions. “Nah, I don’t want to answer,” he said with a smile and yanked his hand down. I gave an internal eye roll and looked to someone else to answer, but then he said, “I’m just kidding, I’ll answer.” The next string of words that came out of his mouth proved to me that everything I thought about him was exactly wrong. Not only had he been paying attention to our class discussion when I thought he had tuned out, but he had solid insights to offer.

I called on him more often after that and was greatly impressed with his level of positive participation. The one thing he still would not do was read out loud (though, he did manage to psych me out about it a few more times).

But even that barrier got crossed eventually and I realized why he was much more comfortable playing games instead of reading. Three syllable words were not easy for him. And as I listened to him struggle to read a few sentences out loud in front of the class, I realized that it took a lot of courage for him to go through with reading instead of psyching me out.

We’re into week 5 in school and he has become a lot more comfortable with trying, even when he sees those big words and knows he’ll stumble in front of everyone. He keeps that mischievous smile on his face and volunteers more than most students to do/answer/read anything. And I am so grateful that my first impressions of him and my reactions to him did not harm his desire to try, do, and learn.

Thank you, Michael, for teaching me a valuable lesson so early in the school year.

NaPoWriMo

It’s National Poetry Writing Month! And you know what that means!

 

It means that school is almost out

But the kids are getting antsy.

As each day gets warmer outside

I have to try harder not to get angry.

 

It’s not that they’re so terrible

But they squirm and want to play.

No one wants to sit still for hours

When outside it’s such a nice day.

 

Sometimes I lose my temper

Though I try to control it a while.

But even when they drive me crazy

There’s always a few that make me smile.

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Alayah 001

I Survived!

When I first started this school year in my new school, I was warned by all that it was not going to be easy. I had blindly signed up to teach the hardest class of students who had run off so many teachers before me that they didn’t even know what it was like to learn.

The few teachers that stayed for more than a year were called survivors. The ones that fled before Christmas break were called normal or sane.

Even with all the warnings, I could have never been prepared for what I walked into on that first day and every day after. Between the verbal abuse of the students trying their best to make me cry and the constant threat of physical fights breaking out in my classroom, it was hard for me to maintain order well enough to teach.

But I am happy to say that I am a survivor! I went through the fire of October, February, May, and everything in between, and came out on the other side–alive, exhausted, and maybe just a little more refined… or at least in some ways. My awareness of new profanity has certainly increased as well as my understanding of colloquial terms for topics I have never wished to discuss with anyone. Ever. But in terms of my perseverance and abilities in the classroom, I have become refined.

There has been a lot of learning and teaching and learning even more–on my part, I mean. The students have been fighting against learning all the way. But I have been picking up all kinds of little pieces about their life and culture. Little phrases that they say a hundred times a day have become ingrained in my brain. Things like:

Triflin’ “you’re triflin'” “that’s triflin'” or “they be triflin'”
Petty (used in the same way as triflin’)
“That’s doin’ too much” (meaning I don’t like what you’re doing)
“Why are you wri’in’ so disrespectfully” (meaning sloppy) “That’s just extra” (meaning unnecessary, or more accurately, I don’t want to do this)
Fleek (beautiful)
“Look how you feel!” (You should be embarrassed)
“Rachet”
“Rusty/dusty”
“Turnt up”

One line I really like is when a kid asked me, “Why are we called colored when you guys turn all different colors? You’re red and blue and purple…” as someone who turns splotchy red when emotional, I couldn’t disagree. We’re pretty colorful people. Of course, I tried to tell him that the term refers to the amount of melanin in the skin, but that doesn’t really negate his point.

Most interesting insults that a student has thrown at me all year-
First place: voodoo doll
Second place: cracker star

Best compliment from a student:
weirdest teacher

Best critique from a colleague:
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re like a Mary Poppins. And I like Mary Poppins. But a spoon full of sugar isn’t going to fix these kids.”

I have come a long way since my first day of teaching in the ghetto of Charlotte. My understanding of the kids, of their culture and upbringing, of the most unfortunate circumstances that affect them all, has grown exponentially. As dark as some of those fall months were and as much as I dreaded some mornings, I know that God had me go through it all for a reason. It was His strength that got me through every day. And now that the year is done, I am stoked for my next year teaching in the same school.

Because I am a survivor. I didn’t run away and I have signed on for another year. The same God that gave David his fearless courage to go against a giant has given me the courage to teach the most difficult student (even if I have to do it from a bit of a distance because he likes to pickpocket me.)

I learned so much this year on the west side of Charlotte, but I still have a lot to learn. I think another year is what I need for some more refining. Bring on the fire!

Hidden Struggles

In the midst of my  frustration in trying to control a class of 20 students who want to undermine me (and everything else), I sometimes fail to see the struggles that they go through. It’s too easy to feel my own pains and difficulties. Rarely do I catch a glimpse of theirs.

In the middle of my day, I have a student who has always been the top of his class. Sitting in the middle of a classroom full of loud, angry, rebellious children, he was one of two in that class that actually wanted to learn. He worked extra hard to get something meaningful out of my most turbulent class.

I noticed a sudden change in his behavior a few months back. He became withdrawn–keeping his head down and fidgeting with things on his desk. He no longer did his work. I received word that he was attending a counseling group for those who have lost family members.

Then he started acting out. He became loud and problematic–provoking others to fight him and disrupting my teaching. For the first time ever, I had to threaten to call his mom… and then follow through with it. I left several messages for her until one day she showed up at school.

He was having a particularly bad day. Everyone in the class was picking on him for not wearing socks. He had already been the subject of talk for wearing Wal-Mart brand shoes instead of Nike Jordans or the like. As someone who grew up barefoot, I couldn’t even begin to understand how this mattered. But to too many of my students, it means everything.

Before they picked on him about shoes and socks, they had picked on him for how bad he smelled. Thank God, I have a terrible sense of smell, because apparently a number of my students are quite rank. But I never notice. I’ve just been warned that the ones that never take their coats off, are most likely the ones that smell.

I met his mother in the front office during my planning period. He was with her, fidgeting with his hoodie strings in a nervous way. I smiled warmly and began by saying as many positive things as possible, “I know your son is a very bright boy and he was doing so well at the beginning of the year, but I’ve seen a change in him recently and he’s falling behind in work.”

That set the mother off. She turned on him in the front office like she had just heard that he had murdered someone. The boy’s hands were shaking like leaves as he twisted and tied his strings in silence. But he kept his chin up and his eyes on her face as a show of respect. He had a very dignified look about him that masked the fear, which was evident in his hands working the hoodie strings.

His mother tore into him for quite a while as I stood by. I couldn’t betray her parental rights, but it hurt me to watch.

In the hopes of looking for more positive resolutions, I asked, “Is there something I can do to help him focus better in class. Perhaps moving his seat–”

But my plan backfired as she cut me off to turn on him again, saying, “Why is your teacher having to ask me how to keep you on task? You should know how to behave in class. She should not have to ask how to get you to focus.”

After the boy returned to class, I asked the mother, “Is there something going on that I should know about? He didn’t used to act this way. I just want to make sure I’m sensitive to anything.”

“Oh,” She said, as if to shrug it all off, “He’s just upset. See, he used to live in a car with his father, but his father died of cancer, so now he’s living in the shelter with me… but that is NO excuse for his behavior in class.”

Suddenly so many things made sense. I didn’t want to contradict the mother, so I politely said goodbye and made a mental note to only ever say nice things to her about how her son is doing.

The Man with the Teardrop Tattoos

He had three teardrops outlined on his cheeks and five stars spread across his face like a constellation. He towered over me in a way that would be intimidating if I had met him anywhere else. But this was a classroom and he was a caring parent of one of my students who had come on his own initiative to see how his son was doing in my class. He was fresh out of prison and anxious to be a part of his kid’s life.

I called him on multiple occasions when his son was acting up in class. It’s not that his son is a “bad kid.” He’s just very talkative. And hyper. And goofy. And likes to play fight in class; and rap in class; and do anything except his work, really. So his dad came in twice to check on him and have a conversation about his behavior. As they say in school, “His dad don’t play.”

“I know he’s is smart,” He said one day in the cafeteria. “I was the same way. I had a full scholarship to college too–on academics, not sports. But my temper got me in trouble… I want my son to do better. I don’t want him to end up like I did.”

That stuck with me. In a school like this, there are so many parents who just don’t care and others who are just worn out. But this man was adamant about his son’s education. And poured out his pent-up hope on his future.

Shortly after that encounter, I was given the unfortunate news that he had died. I had a gut feeling that it was a violent death. The story ended up on the local news. He had been jumped by gang members and shot to death in a convenience store.

His son was out of school for 2 weeks. When he came back, he drew a teardrop on his cheek with a sharpie.

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