Sunday, March 22, 2009

Parent-teacher therapy sessions

This past week we had parent-teacher conferences at my school. I always dread the day because it takes so long and it is emotionally draining. We are supposed to schedule the conferences for 10 minutes each and basically do 5 hours of conferences with a "break" in the middle. This never really works out. First of all, I always find myself behind schedule after just the first conference because they take at least 20 minutes each, especially with the group I have this year.

Here is how a typical conference might go: It usually starts out with me talking about the academic progress of the child from September until now. I show examples of work from the beginning of the year and recent work to talk about the progress (or lack thereof in some cases). I then show the parents the report card and in many cases explain why the "Promotion-in-doubt" box has been checked. The parents usually ask questions like "How can I help at home?," in which case I give them concrete examples of how they can support their child. I then explain the parent survey in the green envelope and how their feedback is important and how they need to send it in the mail and send them on their way.

Unfortunately, not all conferences go this way. In many cases, parents become defensive and insist that they have seen progress and that I am mistaken. At this point, I show them examples of books their child is reading and books that are at grade level and explain the difference. Sometimes parents cry and I have to give them the time to explain why their child isn't progressing. Many times it is a story of parents in the process of separating, custody battles in which the parents spend their time at court and not with their children, delinquent teenagers at home, spouses in jail, families torn apart by immigration, homelessness and living in shelters, etc. For many parents, this is the only time where they can talk about these things in a private and confidential place. I feel like their therapist, reaching for the box of tissues, and affirming that life is hard, but that we need to work together for their child. Sometimes I offer gentle suggestions for busy working moms. I might say something like "you don't need to give you full attention to your child when they are doing their homework, just set up a quiet place for them, or have them do it at the kitchen table while you are cooking. Tell them to do everything that they can by themselves first then help them for a few minutes after they have done everything else." Many of them cheer up when they realize that maybe we can do something, but what I can't do is change their lives. I'm always left with a heavy heart.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Can you teach resiliency?

This week, a lot of gossipy, mean-spirited, messed-up crap has gone down amongst my first graders. I've had stealing, punching, hitting, exposing one's private parts, inappropriate touching, nasty words being said, destruction of property-- general mayhem. The main part of the problem is that it is NOT happening in the classroom, but in the cafeteria, during recess, and during my preps... basically them times when I am not personally in control of my students. As I've said before, I maintain a no-nonsense atmosphere in the classroom and I can quickly identify the source of any issues and immediately punish those who started it and give them an opportunity to give a genuine apology. I can make a child cry for their misdeeds (those of us that are teachers know the importance of a child feeling remorse for their actions) and build them back up convincing them that they are a great person despite what they have done all in the matter of 5 minutes and without disturbing the flow of the day or involving other students. The problem is that they are not internalizing standards of behavior or the conflict resolution skills we practice in class. The moment they leave the room all is forgotten. It doesn't help that their punishment for misbehavior is not being able to go out for recess. They sit in our indoor yard watching other students misbehave and enduring a noise level that I am positive has reached the decibel level that can damage their hearing. Then they are led to the cafeteria where again, the noise level is insane and they see other students misbehaving without consequence.

When I finally come to pick them up, the recess aide has nothing but complaints for me and tells me disgusting behaviors that my students have practiced of the the last hour that I now have to explain to parents. I am so tired of this!!!! It makes me almost want to have my children eat in our classroom and take them personally out to play when we are finished, but I can't.

If I were in charge of lunch, we go to the cafeteria and bring our food back upstairs to the classroom. We would all wash the tables, wash our hands, pass out food, napkins, silverware, etc. sit together in a quiet environment and have real conversations. We would identify the food that we are eating and be thankful for it, not destructive and wasteful. The children would clean up. Two kids would walk around with a trash bag collecting from everyone, a handful would once again wash the tables. We would separate the recycling. On our way out to recess, we would deposit our trash in the proper receptacles so as not to attract rodents into our classroom. We wouldn't go to recess in our school yard, but rather walk to the public park that is two blocks away for some real space and nature. Maybe we'd go with another class, so I could have some adult company during this time too. We'd bring frisbees and balls. I'd let the girls bring their dolls without worrying that they'd get stolen or broken. If kids wanted to bring books, they could sit next to a tree and quietly read.

But I can't do all this myself. I too need a break. I have been working so hard and sacrificing every prep in addition to taking them out of after school programs over the past 2 weeks to assess their reading levels, I just don't have the energy to endure all of this. I need support from my administration, but they offer none. As I've said before, we need everyone on board to make our school work and it just feels like no one else is on board.

Now I get to the question in my title. Can you teach resiliency? Obviously, the chaos of their lives is not going to change and even at schools we can't control every moment. I want so badly for my students to make it in this life and be productive members of society. I want them to know how good life can be and that they too can be happy. I want them to know that there are so many possibilities for positive change, but I can't do it all. I've started some conversations with them after lunch to talk about resiliency. We talk about the disrespect and outright disgusting behaviors they see from other students during recess. I tell them, "It doesn't matter what someone else does, you have the power to decide for yourself if it is right or wrong." "You can decide what kind of person you want to be." "You are not your brothers and sisters, you are your own person and you make decisions for yourself." We talk about examples of children making their own decisions, like the brave children who helped desegregate schools. I want to infuse more of this into my curriculum. Although I am conflicted about teaching them such an individualist way of thinking, but I really think that they need it because the collective behavior and thinking they are exposed to is doing a lot of damage both in school and at home. What do you think?

Monday, March 2, 2009

I was almost out the door when...

My boyfriend yelled from the bedroom "wait, you might not have school." "What?" I asked. I had watched the news and listened to 1010 WINS, all of which said that New York City Public Schools are OPEN. I had gotten dressed, straightened my hair, packed my breakfast, lunch, and a snack, and was putting on my boots. So we sat listening again to 1010 WINS and they said OPEN again, but the CBS 2 website said CLOSED. Hmmmm. Tried calling 311. The message said OPEN. It took me about 10 minutes and several phone calls to colleagues who also got mixed messages to confirm the good news. The schools were indeed closed. While I am grateful, you'd think they could announce before 6AM. It is the largest school district in the area. I know a lot of my colleagues were probably already on trains or on the road when the announcement was made and parents need to find childcare. It wasn't a freak storm they didn't see coming. This storm had already left a trail of destruction all along the eastern coast and had been going on since midnight. Just a future suggestion. I'm still happy!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Where is the VISION?

I haven't posted in a couple of weeks because I went on vacation to a fabulously faraway place where I got to practice my second language and enjoy the pace of a different culture with different priorities. In my travels, I ended up at an art museum. At this art museum, scattered across many galleries, they were showing vintage film footage of different kinds. They had old movies, performances, and documentaries, all without sound. I found myself seated for over an hour watching film footage from a school in the 1950s. I watched as the children began their day and filed into the classrooms with their teachers. They did reading, writing, and math. It all looked so similar to what we do each day. Then the children went out for recess in a simple yard, much like what we have in the NYC public schools. Some played ball, others were play-fighting, again, much like our children.

When it was time to go inside, that's when the similarities stopped. The children lined up to wash their hands. A teacher supervised as they scrubbed with soap and water. Then, the smaller children began setting the tables in the cafeteria. They spread clean table cloths on each table and meticulously placed each fork, spoon, knife, napkin, plate, cup, etc. The older children were in the kitchen cooking. One older boy was slicing fresh bread and plating it for a middle child to take to the tables. The older kids brought the hot food out. When everything was ready, the children took their seats in multi-aged "family" (that's what the subtitles called them) groups of 4 or 5 children. The little ones sat quietly as the older children served each portion equally. Nobody ate until everyone was served. Even the teacher presided over a "family." She looked so joyful as she sat conversing with her little group and eating fresh homemade food.

All I could think was "WOW!!!!" Think about the responsibility and real-life skills these children were learning through this process of setting up a meal and eating together. I can't help but think about my students and how they NEVER have a family meal at their homes in this way. I think about our 5th graders who act out all the time to the point where the police are called to the school. What if they were in charge or serving lunch to my first graders and engaging them in conversation and being role models for them? I bet their attitudes would change. In the video, it seemed like lunchtime was one of the best times of the day for everyone, including the teacher. For us in the NYC public schools, it is a time of total utter chaos for the school aides, and complete disengagement for the teachers as soon as we drop of the children. The cafeteria is a free-for-all with frozen reheated food served on Styrofoam trays, dirty hands fresh from the playground, no manners at all, no appreciation for the food or company, and older kids bullying the younger ones. How far have we really come in the last 60 years? It makes me sad.

I can't change the system myself. We need a VISION from the janitor to the chancellor, everyone needs to be on board with the highest standards for everything they do. If I were an administrator, I wouldn't let anyone set foot in my building who did not share this vision. It is just unthinkable all of the things we have to deal with on a daily basis. Let me list the things that happened this week that undermine everything teachers, students, parents, etc. are trying to accomplish.

1. On Monday (first day back from vacation), I had planned to have a relaxing day and enjoy the students. At 1:45 in the middle of my math lesson, a school aide came into the room. Can I help you? I asked. No response. She just pointed to a list. What do you need? I asked again. Vision, she responded. Okay, but what do you mean? I asked. At this point, I had to get up from my chair, and leave the kids on the rug. The school aide could not express that my children needed to go get their vision and hearing checked. I was speaking to her in her native language too. After about five minutes of me asking what she meant, asking her if she needed the yellow forms for vision and hearing, or if she had a list of kids she needed, she just kept pointing to the paper with the number 203 on it. I asked, do you need room 203 or class 203? No response. I ended up having to call the office. The AP confirmed that my class needed to go get their vision and hearing checked that very minute. I was mad. I had to stop my math lesson and take my class to another room to do this. By 2:20, I told the vision and hearing people that I needed to take my class back to the room to explain the homework and pack up. A woman proceeded to YELL at me in front of the children about how dismissal wasn't until 2:40, so she was keeping them until then and that this class is MANDATED and blah blah blah. I had to defend myself and say, "Well, then you will need to go pack them up and dismiss them yourself because I am finished at 2:40." It was not pretty. I tried to keep my cool. I ended up taking the first six kids who were finished back with me to the classroom and we packed up everyone's homework and laid their stuff out on the tables. The school aide brought the rest of them back at 2:45 and I dismissed them late.
  • I ask: Why couldn't administration have told me that my class was getting their vision and hearing checked so I could have brought them there packed up with all of their stuff, taken out the yellow cards, and canceled my math lesson and math homework?
  • Why do we have a school aide who cannot express the most basic information? (I have another story about her for later).
2. On Tuesday, I was told that I had to go to a full day PD on Wednesday. I did not have enough time to again, change the math homework (which is dependent on the delivery of a math lesson, not from a sub), or tell the parents. I really like to keep my parents informed. Then I had to make a sub plan as well. I was mad because I had already wasted the afternoon on Monday and already had a full day PD planned for Friday. This was too much!!!

3. On Wednesday, I learned that our children's school photos had been taken by a company that was running a scam. All of our parents' money was taken (we're talking about thousands of dollars), and apparently my school has no legal recourse (according to the lovely DOE lawyers). They parents have to sue since they were the ones who were wronged. I want to call 7 on your side or something. This is UNACCEPTABLE. If I were the principal, I would be sending someone to JAIL!!!

4. On Thursday, during my math lesson again, I get a phone call. It is the school aide from the vision and hearing story. She wants to take her granddaughter home (who is in my class). Okay, I say, Is there some sort of an emergency? I have a vested interest in keeping this girl in school and with the structure. "No," she responds, "I have to leave." "Okay" I say, "I'll pack her up and you can come get her." "No, send her down." She says. "Send her down where?" I ask. No response. "What room are you in?" I inquire again. "She knows," she says. Then I said "Well, I don't know, and I'm not sending her. You need to come upstairs, sign her out in the office, and come get her." "What time is it?" She asks. ARE YOU KIDDING ME???? I'm thinking. I politely reply "It's 2:00." "What time is dismissal?" she asks. now I'm getting annoyed. DON'T YOU WORK HERE???? I'm thinking. Then I had to get a little bit rude, "Look, I said, I'm in the middle of a math lesson, I will get her packed up and ready for you when you come upstairs to get her," and I hung up the phone. Of course, she never came upstairs. I ended up dropping the girl off in the late box after extended day because no one came to get her. Side note: My room is on the 2nd floor.

Etc. Do you see what I mean? There is just no VISION. I think this is pretty typical of all schools. They can restructure and charter all they want, but when it comes down to it, we need a VISION and we cannot afford to settle for anything less than the BEST at all levels.

ps. I had a great week with my students. They are learning so much and I'm so proud of them!