Tuesday, January 31, 2006

El Bronx Comics

Jonathan is 17 and in 9th grade English for the 3rd year in a row. I'm not sure how this happened when his vocabulary easily rivals mine. When our word-of-the-day was ephemeral, Jonathan wrote (without looking it up in the dictionary), "Compared to trees, the lives of humans are ephemeral."

The main reason Jonathan underachieves in school is because he sleeps in class (probably partially due to meds), and for years, when he sat sleeping in the back of big, general ed high school classes with no special ed support, nobody woke him up. One teacher told me that last year, Jonathan "was so far gone on anti-psychotic meds" that he would just sit in class drooling. Keep in mind, though, that general ed teachers at my school tend to view special ed students as far less teachable than they are. Jonathan does have a serious mental disorder, but he's also extremely bright and teachable. Now that he's receiving the professional support he should've been getting all along, he's beginning to excel.

He's getting 100% (or close) on every vocab test, and he wins every spelling bee. My students have insisted on regular spelling bees ever since we watched Spellbound. Jonathan and Manuel always end up competing for first place, and they take the spelling words up to a ridiculously difficult level. Last time, we got to disingenuousness, and Jonathan got it right. So when he's not sleeping, Jonathan is actually somewhat of a savant. But today he slept. Or so I thought.

Today we began reading El Bronx Remembered by Nicolasa Mohr, which is a huge student favorite. It's a collection of short stories about Puerto Rican families living in the South Bronx from 1946-1956. The first story, "A Very Special Pet," really got the students cracking up. When we finished the story, it was time to write. I insisted again and again that Jonathan put up his head, and he said again and again that he didn't feel like writing. So I finally encouraged him to at least draw some scenes from the story. Whoa, did I strike a chord! I've never seen him perk up so quickly. "That's a good idea!" he said, and he quickly got out the beat up sketch pad that he carries with him wherever he goes.

In no more than 15 minutes, Christopher produced this (click to see enlarged version):

Holy crap! He memorized every last detail of the story when we were reading it out loud. "A Very Special Pet" is (in essence) about the Fernandez family and their beloved pet, Joncrofo la gallina. Joncrofo is named after Joan Crawford, Mrs. Fernandez's favorite movie star. The family bought Joncrofo so they could eat her eggs, but Joncrofo turned out to be a cantankerous old hen who never lays eggs. Still, the children love her. The Fernandez family is poor, and Mr. Fernandez has a cold, so Mrs. Fernandez decides to kill Joncrofo so her husband can have chicken broth and her eight children can have chicken and rice for dinner. (Okay, so it's a little predictable.)

Now the part of the story depicted in Jonathan's comic strip (in progress) begins. Joncrofo lives under the Hernandez's kitchen sink. When Mrs. Hernandez tries to grab Joncrofo to kill her, Joncrofo bites her finger, and Mrs. Hernandez yells, "Ave Maria!" Mrs. Fernandez then gets angry, gets a broom and says, "Ok, you wanna play games. You dumb hen!" Then she unties the twine fastened to Joncrofo's leg and the sink, and she pulls Joncrofo toward her.

You'll have to get the book or stay tuned for the rest of Jonathan's comic strip to find out what happens next.

After class, I excitedly showed Jonathan's comic strip to other teachers in the teachers' lounge. I said I thought Jonathan could pursue a successful career as a comic artist (our school is supposed to have an emphasis on the arts). The general ed math teacher scoffed and said, "A successful career as a comic artist? Yeah, that sounds promising."

What the hell? Who's more mentally ill? The brilliant kid who grew up in foster care and thinks so far outside the box that his teachers and society don't know what to do with him? Or the smug math teacher who can't think outside the box to save his life?

Somebody out there, give this kid a job! I'm also going to look for Jonathan's drawing of the character Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis (which we read last semester). I hope I can find it!

Friday, January 27, 2006

"Miss Dennis is a Latin King"

Darryl never ceases to amaze me with his outrageous comments. Today was teacher/student crossdressing day - no, not that kind of crossdressing. Students dressed up as teachers and vice versa. I wore my old Earl Boykins Warriors basketball jersey and baggy jeans. I thought my students would laugh at how ridiculous I looked, but I have in fact never been more popular.

When Little Charles (who was wearing a dress shirt and tie) saw me, he said, "Whoa! Miss D! I knew you was down like Missy Elliot."

Uh, not quite Charles. (Charles calls me Missy Elliot whenever I unwittingly wear something associated with hip hop, such as my North Face jacket or my pink Kangol hat. Who knew?)

Not to be outdone by Charles, when Darryl saw my jersey, he shouted, "Miss Dennis is a Latin King!"

Darryl has a knack for blurting out statements that are at once hilarious and horrifying (such as the title of this blog). The Latin Kings are a Puerto Rican gang still thriving in the South Bronx (despite Bloomberg's insistence that gang activity in New York City is under control). My jersey happened to have the Latin Kings' gang colors - gold and black. Darryl proceeded to draw me a gold and black crown during English class.

While I can laugh about how ridiculous this moment was, it was also hearbreaking to see this kid becoming so entrenched in gang culture. Every kid around him also knew exactly what he was referrring to. To Darryl and his classmates, it is perfectly normal to see gold and black and think "Latin Kings."

When I was a kid, when I saw gold and black, I thought "bumblebee."

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

How to Put on a Durag

I am too angry today with incompetent Dept. of Ed. and NYC Teaching Fellow bureaucrats to write anything reasonable, so I offer you fluff. (How do those people live with themselves?) Oh yeah, the fluff. (But seriously.)

How Googlers found this blog:

1. Your Mama
2. Naked Mad Thumb
3. How to Put on a Durag
4. Art Teacher Vent About Principal
5. Bronx Chat Room
6. Catfish and Mandala Themes
7. John Stossel Rubber Room
8. Transit Strike Teacher Attendance

Yes, I am addicted to statcounter.com. And in other news, I am still trying to understand how a propagandist who stole a catch phrase from Kit Kat is allowed to be a 20/20 "reporter."

Monday, January 23, 2006

Teacher's True First Crush

Now that I work with Pre-K students after school, I've realized who my TRUE first crush was. I always thought it was Fernando Valenzuela (Dodgers pitcher - I grew up in L.A. during Fernandomania). But no. Forget Fernando. My first crush was Harold!

I must have been three when I first discovered the boy with the purple crayon and feet-in pajamas. I now believe the purple stapler incident was subconsciously connected to my early infautation with Harold. High school and Pre-K aren't so different after all.

I've also realized that my current crush, despite the suits and gray hair, possesses every ounce of Harold's boyish charm. Realizing who your true first crush was explains so much.

(Is it wrong to use the above image? This is Crockett Johnson's artwork. The great Mr. Johnson died in 1975. Here is a wonderful site devoted to him: Crockett Johnson Homepage.)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

AdSense Musings

How do you do it Google? How do you know my readers so well?

I just signed up for AdSense, and when I clicked on my Purpleville post, an ad for "Marijuana Addiction Rehab" appeared. The next time I clicked on Purpleville, it said "Marijuana Addict Recovery." I'm banking on those ads.

Also, an "Upholstery Staplers" ad made an appearance with my Purple Stapler story. "American Made Skull Caps" accompanied the Du-Rag post (this should be especially helpful to the Australian who found this site through the keywords "how to wear a durag"). And of course "Manhattan NY Psychologist" popped up with the Stand and Survive post in which I mentioned a school-induced panic attack.

I wasn't sure if I should commercialize my blog, but I think I'll stick with Adsense just to see what crazy ads appear. Of course, as Google sternly warned me, I am not to click on any of the ad links myself or I will be fired. So I'll have to look elsewhere for a psychologist and marijuana treatment.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Teaching "I Have a Dream" in Vietnam

For the past two years, when teaching I Have a Dream to high school students in the South Bronx, I've received eye rolls and snickers. Not from every student, but from enough to make me realize that some inner city high school students feel they have been over-exposed to Martin Luther King, Jr. This, of course, is not the most mature attitude to have, but the attitude exists nonetheless, and I have to wonder why. Could it be that some of us in America have heard this great man's name and his moving speech so many times that we have become jaded? Forty-three years after our country's most moving speech was delivered, are we already taking it for granted?

Five years ago, I had the opportunity to teach I Have a Dream to English students in Vietnam who had never read or heard the speech before. Their responses were amazing. Each year on MLK Day, I get emails from former students in Vietnam who were inspired by Martin Luther King.

I didn't exactly have the easiest time in Vietnam. I lived for a year in Thai Nguyen, a seedy steel town north of Hanoi. Thai Nguyen was the first major center of the Viet Minh revolution, and it is still arguably the most communistic area in Vietnam today. While internet cafes and tourists with camcorders abound just 50 miles south in Hanoi, I had to argue for months with officials in Thai Nguyen before I was allowed to use email or make unsupervised telephone calls. I taught at a medical school in Thai Nguyen, so my students were about my age. Students who befriended me were questioned by police. After I snapped photographs around town one afternoon, rumor had it I was a spy. Of course, it didn't help when word got out that my father is a veteran fighter pilot who flew more than 200 missions over North Vietnam. I spent many nights alone in Thai Nguyen crying.

To put it mildly, I had a difficult time living and teaching in Thai Nguyen. I had become extremely cautious about what I taught in my English class. Two of my best students had walked out on my class when I taught a chapter of the book Catfish and Mandala, which was written by a South Vietnamese refugee who grew up in the U.S. I was not yet fully attuned to the lingering hatred between northerners and southerners. The term "escaped from Vietnam" in the book offended my students, whose history books did not include the perspective of South Vietnamese refugees. During another lesson, I decided to introduce "American song day" into my curriculum, and when I played an Aretha Franklin song, students literally plugged their ears in disgust. They were expecting to hear the New Kids on the Block-type American pop that had been over-marketed in Asia. Aretha was just too messy for them.

So when I decided to take the risk of teaching I Have a Dream in Thai Nguyen, I was nervous about how it would be received. I cautiously explained to the class that it was Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in the U.S., and that I wanted to share an American holiday with them. (My Halloween party had been a big hit in Thai Nguyen, so I thought the holiday angle would help.)

Halloween in Thai Nguyen - Get me the hell outta here!

When we began reading the speech in class, I was amazed by how excited and moved my students were. They had never studied this aspect of American history before, and their questions about MLK and America’s Southern states came pouring in. They wanted to understand the exact definition of every word of the speech. One advanced English student wrote that the class could understand the meaning of the speech so well because "Vietnam is still sadly crippled by the manacles of colonialism." (From the second paragraph of I Have a Dream – “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation…”) I'm sure some students also wanted to mention the manacles of the Vietnam War, but perhaps out of respect my father's experience, the class stayed on the topic of French colonialism. A week later, one student turned in a voluntary project. He had re-written I Have a Dream from the perspective of a Vietnamese plantation worker.

It was refreshing to experience (in Vietnam of all places) the raw emotion of young adults reading and hearing I Have a Dream for the first time. Like my current students in the South Bronx, I had become somewhat immune the speech. I couldn't remember the first time I’d heard it or how it made me feel. Was it in second grade that I was introduced to MLK? Growing up, it seemed I always knew who he was and what I Have a Dream was about. But it wasn’t until I taught the speech 8,000 miles from home that I experienced the full emotional appeal of MLK’s words. For once, I was crying for joy in Thai Nguyen.

Friday, January 13, 2006

John Stossel: Stupid in the Studio

A Play-by-Play Reaction to 20/20's "Stupid in America"

Round One: I am so tense right now watching 20/20's special, "Stupid in America." Serious flaws in America's public schools do need to be exposed (that's what my blog is all about), but John Stossel is way off base. He started the show by mocking teachers and polarizing educators vs. parents. He has yet to include an interview with one American teacher about the issue. How could he and his 20/20 producers miss the fact that he is so blatantly doing exactly what many of the bureaucrats who run America's public schools are doing: disrespecting America's teachers by ignoring our voices and diminishing our professional experiences.

Round Two: Now Stossel is interviewing Joel Klein, Chancellor of NYC's public schools, about how hard it is to fire "all the bad teachers" who do awful things, such as a teacher who sent sexual emails to a student. As NY Times Education Reporter Michael Winerip pointed out, the problem is not how hard it is for the NYC Dept. of Ed to fire the relatively few awful teachers. The real problem is that NYC cannot, to save its life, hold on to its good teachers. The teacher turnover rate in NYC is out of control - so out of control that the Dept. of Ed literally has to go up to Canada to recruit teachers. Two of my Canadian colleagues who took the bait are absolutely horrified by how teachers are treated here. One of them, an amazing teacher, just quit. I'm almost out the door myself. Why? Because I feel thoroughly rundown by administrators like Klein who don't support special education, and I found a private autism group that respects me. So while I agree that America's public schools could use more competetiveness from private education groups, the manner in which Stossel is "reporting" this issue is only making me feel more beaten down, disrespected, and misunderstood as a teacher in America. His point about economic competition is overshadowed by his clear cluelessness about my job.

Ding ding ding! Round Three: The predictable anti-union tirade. Okay, as anyone who's followed this blog knows, I am not exactly a fan of my own union. I get what's ridiculous about it. I have been yelled at by colleagues for not supporting it. I'm not happy about having to pay $85 a month in union dues. That said, Stossel is so blatantly biased against UFT (United Federation of Teachers) leader Randy Weingarten, it's embarassing. Seriously, this interview is an insult to journalism. Stossel's just waiting for soundbites to prove his pre-conceived point. What happened to fair and accurate news reporting? What about pointing out the ever-abounding absurdities of Joel Klein and the Dept. of Ed's bureaucracies? When did 20/20 become a sounding board for Stossel's libertarian theories? (And by the way, "The Rubber Room" portion of this show was a total rip-off from local reporters. Actually, everything related to NYC was ripped off from local stations. None of it was new.)

Round Four. Stossel's laughable predictability continues with his complaints about how easy teachers have it because we only have to work six and a half hour days. How does he not get that those are the bare minimum contracted hours that we are required to stay in the school building? Most teachers I know stay beyond those hours. Add to that an average of at least 15 hours a week at home planning lessons, grading papers and calling parents. Sure, some teachers don't do those things. I know a teacher who doesn't. And I know about 300 who do. For new teachers who are still struggling with lesson planning and learning to efficiently grade papers, it's more like an extra 30 hours a week. And even without these extra hours, six and a half hours of teaching classes with 25-35 kids in each class is enough to put anyone in a post work-day stupor. Guess what Stossel? I've worked as a journalist. Now I'm a teacher. Teaching is harder. And you shouldn't be calling yourself a journalist anyway. I don't know about you, but I went to a school where journalism ethics were stressed. If you don't have ethics as a journalist, what do you have?

Round Five: Fifty minutes into the show, and Stossel is finally interviewing some teachers. Well, not really interviewing them - he has a few soundbites from charter school teachers about how they are anti-union and anti-tenure to prove his point. He still hasn't interviewed one public school teacher, and he has not even touched on the issue of teachers' barely above cost-of-living salaries. Nice, coming from a guy who makes six figures, if not more, for emulating Geraldo Rivera.

Wait, did that show really just happen or was it just the hallucinatory nightmare of a hard-working, exhausted public school teacher? If I'm this upset, I can only imagine how all the union-supporting teachers I know are feeling. But you know what really knocked me out? What really makes my blood boil? I missed an hour of swooning over Anderson Cooper for this crap. Never again 20/20. Never again.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Dear Principal, You Want Me To Do What?

Dear Principal Puffschmuck,

I received your written instructions today to begin writing Individual Education Programs and scheduling annual review meetings for four special education students that I do not teach. As I discussed with you last week, the following students have never been on any of my rosters. I do not know them:

Jorge Largo
Juliette Johnson

Virginia Gonzalez.

The following student was in my Resource Room class during fall semester 2004. I have not taught him in almost a year:

Dashawn Jackson.

I feel strongly that it is not in these four students’ best interests nor in their parents’ best interests to have me write their IEPs and run their annual review meetings. I am disappointed that no effort was made to pair up special education students with teachers who actually teach and know them. Rather, the assignment of special ed students to teachers for the purpose of writing IEPs was done in a completely random fashion. This is very troubling to me as a special education professional. I attempted to discuss this with you last week, and I am concerned that you indicated that it was not an issue up for discussion.

I am also troubled by the fact that Miss Sandberg has been assigned as the general ed teacher to discuss the educational needs of all special ed students at IEP meetings, regardless of whether or not she actually teaches or knows the students. Miss Sandberg does not, in fact, teach any of the above four students. I do not see how she and I can create meaningful goals and objectives and hold meaningful meetings with the parents of students we’ve never taught, and, in most cases, do not even know. The above four students do have special ed and general ed teachers. Those teachers should be writing the students' Individualized Education Programs and meeting with their parents to discuss their educational needs. This would not only be the best practice for our school; it would also be following basic federal and state education laws.

I am more than happy to write IEPs for my 36 special education students. I am also willing to stay and help other teachers through the IEP writing process and annual review meeting process. I will not, however, prepare or sign any legal special education documents that involve creating detailed educational plans for the above four students or any other students that I do not teach.


Miss Dennis

Friday, January 06, 2006

Old-School Wisdom from a Burnt-Out Counselor

There’s a crazy, burnt-out old guidance counselor at my school who falls asleep during faculty meetings and repeatedly schedules students for classes they’ve already passed. Most of the other teachers have completely written him off. I’d written him off too until I realized he had a pearl of wisdom for me about the New York City Board of Education.

The first time he saw me, he cleared a path for me in the crowded hall and said, “Watch out! Here comes Sandy Dennis!” If I’d had a clue about who or what he was referring to, I would've realized that he was actually being quite witty. But I had no idea what he was talking about, so I assumed he was crazy.

Over the next few months, he'd pop into my classroom at least once a week, point at me good-naturedly and say, “Sandy Dennis! Up the Down Staircase!” He would sometimes interrupt my lessons with this proclamation. I usually smiled politely and went on with my lesson. Finally, one morning, he came to my classroom, pointed at the suggestion box on my desk, and started cracking up. I really thought he was losing it, so I stopped my lesson to check in on him.

“Let me guess,” I said. “Sandy Dennis. Up the Down Staircase.”

“Have you seen that movie?” he asked, still cracking up.

“No, never even heard of it.”

“You must see it. Doesn’t she look like Sandy Dennis?”

“Who's Sandy Dennis?” asked 15-year old Jessica, whose lesson on prepositions had just been interrupted.

“Oh, you guys are too young. I’m a dinosaur.” He walked away, muttering, “But nothing has changed .”

I had absolutely no idea who Sandy Dennis was or what Up the Down Staircase was. For some reason, I had assumed it was an old Alfred Hitchcock movie. When I finally checked it out online, I found this synopsis from Hollywood.com: "Up the Down Staircase, 1967 (Feature Film - Drama, Adaptation) Teaching in an inner-city high school becomes a tough prospect for a young woman.”

Okay, so the burnt-out counselor’s comments were relevant. I tried adding Up the Down Staircase to my Netflix queue, but the film was apparently too obscure for Netflix, so I ended up ordering the VHS from Amazon.

Guess what? The crazy counselor was right. I AM like Sandy Dennis in Up the Down Staircase. In fact, I’ve never related to a character more. Sandy Dennis plays Miss Barrett, an idealistic yet dedicated and somewhat rebellious first-year teacher at a crappy NYC high school. She has a suggestion box just like mine, and she is straight out of a Master’s program like me. She teaches English to special education students (then called “special slows” or “non college-oriented”), and she struggles to share her love of literature with them. Miss Barrett also develops an incisive sense of humor about the ridiculous bureaucracies of the NYC Board of Education. This humor, I’ve learned, stems from Bel Kaufman, author of the original Up the Down Staircase, a bestselling novel published in 1964.

Kaufman’s book is now a major inspiration in my life. So thank you, crazy burnt-out old counselor, for recognizing in me the spirit of Sylvia Barrett. You’re right. Nothing has changed. There are still up staircases and down staircases. I walk up to the fifth floor of the school building every day for fear of getting stuck in the elevator that is always breaking down. Occasionally, I'll go out for coffee at the bodega across the street, and on my way back up, I'll get toppled by a group of teenagers running down to the basement for lunch at 10:30am (their scheduled lunch time). I must be literally walking up the down staircase. There are still Delaney Cards and petty Admiral Asses. Bells ringing off schedule and mixed-up Joe Ferrones. Drab faculty meetings and ineffective administrators. How can it be that so little progress has been made in forty years? Could it be that the quality of New York City’s public schools has actually deteriorated since the 1960’s? Should I get out? How long can a Sylvia Barrett last in this system?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Word-of-the-Day: Tedious

Each day, we begin our English class with a word-of-the-day. Students are supposed to write the word in a sentence in their journals, but they have a clear preference for shouting out the first sentence that comes to mind. Today's word was tedious.

Angel: I'm tedious!

Me: Nice try Angel, but tedious means boring, not bored.

Sean: This class is mad tedious!

Me: (Swallowing my pride.) Good Sean! Just take out the "mad," and you’ll have a good sentence!

Darryl: (Quickly stands up and points angrily at Sean.) Your mama's mad tedious!

Me: Thank you, Darryl. Thank you.

My thanks were sincere. Darryl is one of the school's "most challenging" students. In other words, he's a complete pain in the ass. He's one of those smart kids who manages to get kicked out of every class for disruptive behavior. Just last week, he called Walt Whitman "wack," and he threw Leaves of Grass on the floor.

Yet there was Darryl, standing in ardent defense of my class while using the word-of-the-day in a sentence. It was a truly great moment in teaching. "Your mama's mad tedious." Little did I know, when I decided to become a teacher, that I would one day be honored by such a sentence.