Friday, October 29, 2010

Day #35

Last year was the first time as a public school teacher that I didn't have all African-American students. I had a Latino student at the March. This year I have 3 Caucasian students and a Filipina. My new school is so diverse!

Vegas is a hulking 7th grade white kid who grew up in Nevada, but who moved to B'more at age 4 after his father died. He's a smart kid and his two friends are smart black kids and the three of them are hilariously nerdy with their Japanese card games and video game lingo and whatnot. They've been friends for years: a southwestern kid who loves Texas hold 'em, a black kid from B'more's West Side with a Biblical name, and a Muslim who grew up in Yemen while his Dad was stationed over there doing who knows what for the government.

Vegas was jawing with Dr. Cotton yesterday, the way 7th grade kids in B'more always jaw at each other. They were "packing" each other's clothes, hair, shoes, and then it evolved to include family members, and as it usually does it started out good-natured and quickly got ugly. Dr. Cotton said "At least I have a father," which was the wrong thing to say, and Vegas put his head down and started bawling loudly, which is a tough thing to have happen in front of a tough class of tough kids. And Dr. Cotton is not a jerk, he just said the wrong thing without thinking about because 7th grade boys are just silly and asinine by nature--they're not intentionally cruel the way 7th grade girls tend to be.

And today they friends again. Yesterday I thought they were going to fight for sure, because Vegas's nerdy 'crew' were talking all kinds of smack about Dr. Cotton, but no, they worked it out. There's hope for these clowns.

My Filipina student helped grade the vocabulary quizzes I gave yesterday. I said "let me make you an answer key Nako" and she rolled her eyes at me. "Um, I don't need an answer key. We Asians take our education very seriously." The entire time she was grading quizzes she was sighing in deep exasperation: "Ugh! An influx is most certainly NOT a number which limits--that would be a QUOTA." or "I can't believe that someone would confuse the word 'immigrant' with the term 'indentured servant,' especially someone who has been in school for five years with an immigrant--me!'

I find my students very entertaining.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Day #33

Highlights from Northbay:

'Sleeping' in the cabin with the 7th grade boys. I was up until 2am before finally kicking off because I didn't want to get punked; soon as I fell asleep Slick Lorr was up in my grill. I'm a light sleeper so before he could do whatever he had in mind I had him wrapped up in a sleeper hold on the floor.

"Dag, muthafucka like a cat," Lorr said. "Even his eyes!" He shone his flashlight in my face. Lorr was up half the night hunting stinkbugs with his flashlight. Every time he found one he would talk to it before killing it.

At around 4:30am Tiefighter was up on his top bunk delivering a monologue right out of Dostoevsky: "When we finally get to that damn Northbay gift shop I am buying myself a pair of fucking Northbay earmuffs. Gottdamn Nimoy I cannot sleep with your trifling ass snoring all night. Bitch! Why don't you shut that noise out?" He went off in this vein for more than 30 minutes straight, 'packing' and 'riding' Nimoy for his snoring, 'packing' his family tree all the way back to the 1830's, 'riding' his breath, his 'lame ass thumb-sucking self,' etc, etc. I observed this soliloquy alone--even Slick Lorr was asleep at this time. I found it fascinating. Nimoy's snoring wasn't even that bad.

The sixth grade boys were no fun either. I was their companion teacher during the day, accompanying them on their various excursions and classes. Their behavior was often ridiculous. On a trip into the woods to study vultures they totally disregarded the educator; shortly after he told them to stay behind him on the trail they rushed out ahead. He and I chatted briefly and decided to follow them. We had a PLAN. After about 30 minutes they got stuck in a briar patch. We arrived and the educator said "you didn't stay behind me on the trail. We are no where near where we are supposed to be. You have to come together as a team and figure out the way back." What followed was somewhere between Lord of the Flies and the Blair Witch Project. There was crying, fighting, shrieking, hissy-fits, panic attacks, glossolalia, episodes of possession by assorted Loa, spontaneous recitations in Enochian, and at least one manifestation of the stigmata. It took 90 minutes for them to even circle up and start communicating. It is one of the most disturbing and wonderful things I've ever seen.

The next day the 6th grade boys vandalized their cabin by urinating all over the floor. Because of this, we didn't get to ride the Human Swing. Instead, we had to do a circle and figure out a way to pay back the fine folks at Northbay. The kids voted to ask how they could repay the damage they'd done, and they were assigned a 90-minute work shift with Housekeeping. They cleaned rest rooms, they picked up trash, they folded laundry, and did themselves proud.

I was sad, because I wanted to ride the Human Swing. It looked terrifying! I'd already done the zipline, the rock wall, and the rope course with the boys.

Northbay is a cool place. Their focus on environmental ed is awesome, and their character building presentations were mostly cool. It got a bit cultish at the end, however, with laying on of hands and some sort of brick worship ceremony which I found awkward. But whatever. I'll go back next year. Maybe I'll stay in the Teacher's Roost the whole time. Those nights in the cabin were off the hook. I worked like 90 hours last week!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Day #32

Teaching Social Studies is hard. Teaching it and Language Arts together is ridiculous. I keep having to push stuff back because the kids ask questions and I don't want to narrow down exploration--but we need to narrow it down! Every avenue of historic investigation opens up many others: immigrant groups lead to push and pull factors and cultural and ethnic and religious and political differences, all of which are rich and interesting. Ireland alone (we're about to get heavy with Ireland because of the Irish immigrants in Pigtown) leads on and on forever if you let it. Push factors include religious persecution and oppression and dare I say genocide--where do I tell the kids "we don't have time to answer these questions. Just accept my little blurd explanation." Ugh.

I'm tired. Last week I clocked more than 80 hours of work, then this past weekend I blasted sidewalk tree wells with a jackhammer for 5 hours on Saturday, and I am wiped. Election Day will be a nice reprieve next Tuesday, though I'll of course have to spend it grading and planning (and voting briefly).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Farewell to All That

Lewis Lapham has ended the Notebooks column in Harper's after 26 years. His appearances have been sporadic of late as he's moved on to found and helm Lapham's Quarterly. A monthly pleasure for much of my adult life has expired.

I was struck by his quotation of Montaigne:

I have no doubt that I often speak of things which are better treated by the masters of the craft, and with more truth. This is simply a trial [essai] of my natural faculties, and not of my acquired ones. If anyone catches me in ignorance, he will score no triumph over me, since I can hardly be answerable to another for my reasonings, when I am not answerable for them to myself, and am never satisfied with them...These are my fancies, in which I make no attempt to convey information about things, only about myself. I may have some objective knowledge one day, or may perhaps have had it in the past when I happened to light on passages that explained things. But I have forgotten it all; for though I am a man of some reading, I am one who retains nothing.

That's a good Mission Statement.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


C.G. Jung denied he was a mystic or guru, and claimed always that his theories had firm grounding in post-Enlightenment ideals of scientific reasoning. His labyrinthine books are punishing because he was at great pains to provide volumious evidence in order to avoid the charge he was some sort of shaman or witch doctor.

And yet I've always found him so interesting precisely because he was a shaman who at the same time had the intellect, training, and capacities of a scientist. Jung's life-long experience with poltergeists, portentuous dreams, and waking visions indicates a consciousness encompassing multiple modes of awareness and a facility for using them in the productive construction of a rich inner life.

This is the tack Gary Lachmann takes in his brief bio of Jung. We get a nice summary of Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and some key incidents from his association with Freud, and Lachmann neatly builds his case that Jung was "never embraced scientific rationalism," but rather struggled all his life between at least two different personalities based in different world views. The bio is refreshingly "warts-and-all": the affairs, the rants, the aloof and distant relationships he had with his wife and children--all get an objective appraisal here. Lachmann's examination of the controversy over Jung's supposed anti-Semitism and Nazi associations is the most clear-headed I've read as well. I recommend it whole-heartedly for those who are Jung at heart.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Day #26

Professional development today. It was a bit dry, but it was useful, because it dealt with assessment. I fucking hate grading and all that jazz, and I'm glad to be at a school where grades are regarded as a necessary evil rather than the be-all end-all of education. We assess for learning as much as possible before doing assessment of learning, and grades are done with the students rather than done to them.

Yeah, it sounds good, but it's beastly hard to do. It's all part of teaching the intrinsic value of learning and excellence, rather than rewarding or punishing with grades. And yet we still have to report whether or not they get what we teach. So we're spending a couple of days working on how this happens at our school. And a lof of the process is still up in the air, so we're working on hashing it out.

What does one do after a day of such work? One walks across the street from school and drinks a few down with co-workers. The staff and barflys had very complimentary things to say about the school since we took over, telling us that the kids were much more respectful now and the environment around the school was much improved. Good to hear!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Day #25

6 weeks in!

Ahmad is a nut, plain and simple. He can't sit still, he can't keep his hands off things, he looks at you quizzically when you give him a command the first time, and ignores it. The second time you tell him something he inevitably calls you a bitch. The third time he walks out your room and leaves school. He has no social skills. He thinks it's appropriate to run up and shank someone with a paperclip or a nail file in order to make friends. He doesn't understand why some kids find this troublesome behavior. And ten minutes after driving you crazy he wants a hug, or he wants you to drive him home. I drove him home a few times, hoping to get through to him. He immediately switched my car stereo to 92Q and cranked it each time, before putting his head out the window like a puppy.

Because he's so unmanageable, and because his antics routinely blow up the entire 7th grade boys class, Mr. D the school counselor did a home visit. "It's the worst situation I've ever seen," D said. There's no door on his apartment, which is in a housing project off Lexington Ave. When D. entered there were a couple dozen hop-heads lounging on the floor, some in the act of shooting up. Nobody knew Ashad, and nobody could explain where his parents were. Ashad lives there, but his mom is missing. Let's just say she left him in the care of a bunch of George A. Romero film extras.

Like many kids in urban schools, Ashad acts the way he does for a reason. He doesn't have anyone who gives a fuck about him except his teachers. He acts the way he sees junkies act, meaning what he wants is paramount, and he will get what he wants by any means necessary. There are no boundaries for this kid. And yet he manages to be sweet and charming at times, and you can see the diamond in that thick and brambled rough. Maybe it's not to0 late to harvest that sumbitch.

The next two days are professional development days. Thank God I go to a school which does its own in-house PDs. I couldn't bear the City-wide bullshit again! Next week I'm off to North Bay for a week with the 6th and 7th grade. I'll be doing the zip line, the rock wall, the boating, the hands-on science lessons, and sleeping in a cabin with my 7th grade Crew. I can't wait.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Day #23

GIRL FIGHT! How I've missed you. My 7th grade boys class is coming in, and I'm standing in the hall to greet them when I see a 7th grade girl mouthing off and looking in my direction and then I hear one of my 6th graders mouthing off behind me and I start moving just as the 6th grade girl is getting over there and the 7th grade girl pushes her away saying "getthefuckouttamyface" and then punches are flying, beads are spilling on the floor, and I am between them taking most of the shots as they hold each other's shirts with one hand and throw blows with the other. Fortunately they're both wee little nothings, or I'da been messed up.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Sixth World

The new season at Single Carrot Theater has begun, and the Carrots are genetically pre-disposed to material like Natural Selection. The action takes place a bit into the future, when our experience of reality is even further filtered through the internet tubes. Kids take swimming lessons via Skype while sitting in their bedrooms, and play in school orchestras in the same way. Most animals are extinct, and indigenous people are increasingly difficult to find. When Henry--the manager of a Native American exhibit at Culture Fiesta them park--loses one of his Navajo "performers," he has to go out in the wilderness to bag a new one. It's quite a feat for Henry, who is descended from Kit Carson, to go anywhere which is not a conference center, and much of what we've become in the civilized world is ably lampooned.

The play reminds me a lot of the writer George Saunders, whose book Civilwarland in Bad Decline has a very similar theme; the play, like that book, made me laugh loudly several times.

I don't think I've seen Christopher Rutherford before, but his work as Henry is exquistely fine. He's got great comedic timing, and can switch gears precisely when the role requires genuine anger, worry, or fear. He was a pleasure to watch, and he fits in quite well with old Carrots faves. The same is true of Lyndsay Webb, who plays multiple roles without missing a beat. The Carrot regulars are always on point: Elliot Rauh works himself into a Hulk Hogan frenzy as an incompetent outdoorsman with a flair for the dramatic, Jessica Garrett tweets and updates and blogs with depth and sensitivity, and seeing Aldo Pantoja at work reminds me how much I missed him since the last time I saw him on stage (I think it was in Eurydice).

Go see it! The Sun was right about this production!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Day #22

One of the most interesting things about my new school is the fact that we do field work investigations: kids go out into the community to do research, do surveys, do interviews, and to visit and study local sites of interest. Having never taken kids on field work before, I was a bit worried today about taking all three of my classes on an urban hike to visit a local mural and a historic marker. We walked a mile each way, and took notes and cultivated questions for our expedition into local history and immigration. The kids were awesome, even the nutty 7th graders (though 10 of them were absent, or suspended, or out for a soccer game). I had a great time today.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Day #20

"I don't understand," I said loudly into a sudden silence, "why it is taking us 40 minutes to do the GODDAMN WARMUP! And WHY is it taking so long to do a ten-minute activity? Because of 'he touched my notebook,' 'he got my gel pen!,' 'he packing my gramma,' 'he farted...'" At this point I was in full thespian mode, mimicking certain kids' voices and mannerisms and practically foaming at the mouth. Just then the Big Cheese walked in, but I kept right on going. "You guys had a good week last week. Now we have all this childish nonsense AGAIN. SOMEBODY EXPLAIN TO ME WHAT HAPPENED." Nimoy pulled out a little toy skate board and started rolling it on his desk at this point. Usually I just grab them and hold them, but today I grabbed his and snapped it in two. At this the Big Cheese walked out.

This is how I deal with 7th grade boneheads. The touchy-feely stuff isn't working. We're a month in and the behavior is still not where it needs to be, and is occasionally drifting toward the redonckulous. After my rant I had them for 45 peaceful minutes, and nearly completed my lesson. Tomorrow they'll go off again and I'll have to think of something else.

Jerky is a mouthy kid who likes to cuss out and threaten teachers who call out his annoying behaviors. But over the past few days I've been getting somewhere with him, and he's been trusting me more. I found out he went for testing at Kennedy Krieger, and I filled out some paper work for him. Today I found out he's started medication for anger and depression problems, and I'm supposed to watch him for two weeks and record his behavior on a sheet. "I feel hot," Jerky said. "These medicines is fucked up. I feel like staying in my chair." And he did. And he answered questions. And he did his work for the first time. And he didn't cuss anyone out. And when I told him he couldn't sit in my room and use my laptop during lunch he didn't flip out, but instead he listened to the reasons why, and said "that makes sense. I understand. Maybe some other day!"


Monday, October 04, 2010

Day #19

Month two begins with one of those blurry Mondays. I'm at school @ 6:50 and I leave school @ 5:10 and I don't really remember stopping for a breath along the way. Copies and planning and set-up, then Crew, then two consecutive 75-minute classes, then a 2-hour planning and brainstorming session, then some printing, breaking up a fight, then a 75-minute class and an hour-long parent conference after school.

And somehow I didn't have time to grade anything or plan tomorrow's lesson. But yeah, you just fall into these weeks at this time and you either make it or you don't.

The 7th graders who fought were ridiculous. One bashed the other's head on the cement and gave him a nice knot. Once I got them to the office the one with the knot decided to throw a kick at the other and they tried to throw down again. Right in front of a police officer!

Still, a month in and only 2 fights? C'mon! This is awesome. I'm used to two fights a day in my classroom. I haven't had a fight in my room (yet).

Y'all killing my Donors Choose project. I appreciate tha love!

Saturday, October 02, 2010

2 Much 2 Dream

Bizarre dreams all week. Human corpses in the stew pot, evicerated beasts, long-lost friends showing up with current students to play basketball, etc. Thursday night I had a long dream about catching a flight at 6:30 in the morning, and every 15 or 20 minutes I woke up to look at the clock in a panic that I'd overslept and would miss the plane, and then I'd think "It's just a dream, I don't have a flight," and I'd go back to sleep and repeat the cycle.

I love dreams, however, and the freakier the better. It's strange how they seem to disappear for a while, and then suddenly return with a vengeance.