Category Archives: Teaching Middle School

The Power of Reading: My response to Neil Gaiman’s ‘Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming’

Standard
Reading Rainbow was the bomb...

Reading Rainbow was the bomb…

As a teacher, (and a young one at that),  I often wonder what makes schooling today so much different than when I was in school. No matter where I’ ve taught ( charter or public school, Urban or Suburban…) , its all so very different than when I was in school, which was again, not that long ago ( graduated in ’07’) !      So, I was pretty moved after reading Neil Gaiman’s lecture in the Guardian
 ( http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming)  I think it touches on I i’ve  why the gap between educational experiences is ever widening.
One of the main differences I’ve seen is the school culture around reading and appreciating fiction has vastly changed… whether through the take over of standardized testing or the push for an English curriculum that values informational texts over creative texts; its impacts are far reaching and speak volumes about what how we see ourselves and connect to each other.   I remember reading endlessly and being read to from all teachers in all subjects, I remember being the audiance to several school sponsered puppet shows, storytellers, and fairytale events.   I remember library being an actual class where we learned to work the card cataloge and put together multistep projects and work as a team.
reading in the 90's was wicked awesome!

reading in the 90’s was wicked awesome!

What is interesting to me is that as a Palestinian woman  growing up in post 9/11 America, I didnt realize that is wasn’t my work as an undergrad antiwar activist or as a spokesperson for students for justice in Palestine that was going to spark a revolution, but my imaginiation that will. How empowering it is to be reminded that one of the most revolutionary things I could be doing right now is exactly what I’ve worked on and wanted to do all my life; “make stuff up and write it down”.
ok, so what this wasnt a book? still pretty great...

ok, so what this wasnt a book? still pretty great…

When Gaiman states, “We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy” I am reminded of how I was taught to teach- just hook kids into reading anyways, anyhow… ( so I had creative control and freedom of what I was teaching them)    It was life or death…  and for the group of students I primary taught it was.  It didnt matter if I got teens reading graphic novels, or those hood novels which some schools thought were too violent…just get them to read!  Now its about reading informational articles that are short and boring as hell… last year, the public school had me teaching a scripted cooperate program ( so much for creative freedom or even professional respect) about polar bear habitats to English language learners in the 7th grade.  This was supposed to be an English class… and yes getting poor students  of color in Providence reading is life or death:
                      “The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners  are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.”
The most important thing reading did for me anyways is to build empathy with others.  I didnt know a lick of English when I immigrated from Kuwait and didn’t understand a thing about American culture.  Needless to say there were times growing up I felt awkwardly lonely and very misunderstood. Gaiman says that [reading helps] “you get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well.”  That other world, for me, was America.
Alex Mack was the BEST

Alex Mack was the BEST

He goes to say, “you’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”
I certainly was.
I learned about the Black struggle through fiction, about slavery and immigration and other wars and other times besides my own.  I wasn’t simply born political by way of nationality as others like to joke ( Ive known many a palestinian with sucky politics…) Reading helped me form my own thoughts and ideas about the way things could be.  Reading provided me with the background and the historical context I needed to build from, its not only personal experiences that shape one’s politics, its all these things and more.
 Reading fiction assured me I wasnt alone, that I had a place, that there were others out there like me who I could one day connect with, organize with, change the world with… This was revolutionary given how cut off my mom and I lived from any Arab or Muslim community, how sedated my suburban white environment actually was and how drowning that felt as a youth.  Reading was my savoir, the key that unlocked the wider world and my future possibilities.  More than anything reading fiction gave me hope, it taught me that “the world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”
My son and his friend with Big Nazo puppets at PRONK festival, imagining a different world...

My son and his friend with Big Nazo puppets at PRONK festival, imagining a different world…

Gaiman goes on to talk about reading as a form of escapism, arguing that “escapist fiction opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”  As a child witness to war and domestic violence and now as a teacher of students with varying levels of  trauma, Ild agree that reading is certainly a real way to cope with and in turn, change reality.
I wholeheartidly reccommend reading Gaiman’s lecture.  Here’s the link again: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming
                      “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all” and the truth is, all of us, whether or not we are teachers or writers, have the power to imagine and create a better world and the obligation to provide for others to do the same.
Sunset over Providence

Folks marching at Providence PRONK festival

Advertisements

Teacher Confessions: Headless Chicken

Standard

I know, I know. Its totally cliche… but this has been the sort of week where I have running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

thats one sexy chick

thats one sexy chick

Now, I usually take on a ‘fake it till you make it’ attitude when it comes to remaining calm. Its part of the job ( like a doctor or nurse of other life saving professional…) to remain calm in the face of stress. But today, I almost lost it. So why has it been so stressful?

-Testing, testing, testing…

-New teacher evaluation system

-Surprise visits from school department observers

-deadline to hand in 2nd quarter grades

-deadline to give and grade”post-tests” ( more testing) for one ( of the three) of the courses I teach…

– “normal” chaos of middle school which includes but is not limited to:

aah puberty...

aah puberty…

-Fights, Crying fits, Puberty related distractions “Hey my Adams apple is bigger today Miss!”

middle school is great!

-Thanks ‘no pass policy’, I teach periods 4-6 ( all after lunch) and yes those kids need to pee and aren’t holding back what they think of this ‘no pass policy’.

-Cuss words of every shape, size, color and national affiliation

anger

-Kids who dont eat lunch and almost pass out in classroom  ( I gave up that banana i was saving for later…)

images

-VARIOUS  wardrobe malfunctions

yup. that happens.

yup. that happens.

Actually now that I write it all out, its all just a little bit amusing, isn’t it?

sad-banana-2

aah the absurdity.

Next Week: my take on RI’s proposed NECAP testing graduation requirement…

Teacher Confessions: “Dont Be a Squeaky Wheel!”

Standard

“Dont be a Squeaky Wheel!”

wd402

Ive only been teaching at this public middle school for about 6 months now but it feels like much longer.  It is an ever engrossing, emotionally draining job. I constantly feel at odds with my  ideals of how humans should interact with each other and the world around them.  I never realized how holding firm beliefs in justice has left me stranded on a lonely island out there in the sea of factory model education.

'squeak'

‘squeak’

And just when I think Ive found an an ally I am immediately let down when I am told not to rock the boat. Below is just a smattering of some of the ‘advice’ Ive received from well meaning colleagues:

“You really wanna survive this job? Well, don’t be a  squeaky wheel!”

squeaky_wheel_

Now, if you’re anything like me, being a squeaky wheel is hard to avoid regardless of time, place, or situation. In others words, I have a big mouth.

changing_education

The End of Times

But, is it just me, or is it getting harder out there in public school land to NOT be considered a squeaky wheel?In my short experience working for Providence schools, Ive noticed a negative reaction is elicited regardless of intention.  It doesn’t seem to matter whether I  ask the stock room for paper or  actually bring up issues about my ESL student’s placement.  I get immediately shut down…But, Heaven Forbid, if I am late inputting test scores, then its a combination of every apocalyptic scene ever conjured by the human imagination.

_end-of-the-world_2433119b

So excuse me, I don’t mean to interrupt your asteroid riding, robot chasing, ice-sheet expansion end of the world melodrama, but these are just ideas…and pretty good ones in fact.  After all, I kinda know the deal… I didn’t just fall off the teach for America wagon (nothing directly against anyone who became a teacher through that program, its the system, not the individual I have issues with…)  but I digress…

The most interesting thing about being labeled a squeaky wheel ( yes, I even got called down to the principal’s office for a chat about my perceived lack of participation in a math class where I am one of 4, yes FOUR adults in a class of 20, however my class of 20 beginner ESL students gets only me. Uno.

halflogo

Its not that I wasn’t participating on purpose.  I just honestly didnt know what I was expected to do, frankly, it can get a bit overwhelming having all those adults in one classroom…and the result of that conversation?  I was told to ‘co-teach’ ( even though I am not even a math teacher)

and oh, I was informed that my test scores were of course, late…

test-comic

From Squeak to Shriek

wheeld_729139

Its simultaneously inspiring and discouraging that I work with teachers who have amazing, simple, smart ideas to improve school for all our students but have remained silent (and haven’t forced the union to get it together). okay, okay, i might be new here, and not know ( thankfully) all the layers of history… But lets imagine if all the squeaky wheels unite, what a gloriously ear-splitting shriek that would be!

Squeak proud brother

Squeak proud brother

Middle School Teacher confessions: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Standard

sooooo…. It has been an interesting couple of weeks… I have expanded my vocabulary and now (sort of) know like three different acronyms for various documents I need to fill out relating to students, my teacher evaluations or something… all of which are due this week after discovering I was required to do them like last Friday….still haven’t really wrapped my head around everything or anything…  but I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, I technically have two months of working here under my belt.  For a minute I actually fooled myself into thinking I knew what I was doing.  Apparently I know very little… but that’s okaayy?! ( cause I dont think other people know either and they have been here much longer than me).

So, for this post I decided it was best to express this current episode of middle school teaching with a little comic relief.

What my classroom looks like at the end of standardized testing:

How my 12 year old’s react to still being expected to do work after said testing:

My reaction to getting a 15 year old in my 7th grade class ( they kept him back 3 years):

How  15 year old interacts with 12 year olds in  the classroom:

What I want to teach this 15 year old:

What I have to teach this 15 year old instead:

What 12 year olds want to talk about instead of reading corporately produced learning materials:

What I look like after a week of ‘teaching’ corporate ‘learning’ materials:

What I feel like after being informed of required (job dependent) paperwork and having less than a week to produce said paperwork:

What I try to remind myself to keep it all in perspective:

Middle School teacher confessions: Parent Night

Standard

One of the things I appreciate about my teaching job is location, location, location.  It’s one my neighborhood middle schools and since I live only 5 minutes away from where I work, I often run into my students.  They are often much more surprised than I and I can’t blame them.  I remember the very few moments I ran into my teachers and feeling really confused and out of place while I thought ‘what? This person has a life outside the school?’  I am sure it is much the same for them, especially when they see me with my son, Ali.

 

This week alone, I ran into my students at the public library down the street and on the way to school at the bus stop.  I am sure the school year will be filled with these run-in’s, or at least I hope so.  I think it’s really important that young people get to see and interact with role models who are like them; who went through similar life circumstances and struggles.   I know it was very important for me to see myself in others as a young person.  This was for many reasons; I was an only child, an immigrant to the middle class burbs, a female of color in a mostly white town, one of very few Muslims in the fear ridden era of 9/11…the list goes on and on.  I still remember the first time I ever came face to face with another Palestinian woman artist.  I was 21 and recently returned from my study abroad in Cairo.  I left Egypt reluctantly ( the first time in 14 years I got to interact with fellow Arab-Americans) and I came back to a rough and lonely RI winter. Brown University hosted Suhair Hammad, a Palestinian spoken word performer/ poet/ writer/ artist.  I cried after every piece she performed. I felt like she was talking to only me.  When I approached her at the end of the performance, I was in total awe that I was in the presence of someone who ‘got’ me, who understood what it was like to live in my skin.  Of course she wasn’t as enamored with me… she was a seasoned performer who meets with and interacts with tons of other arabs all the time. Not to mention she grew up in Brooklyn, home to a pretty large Arab American population, not my lil ol’ Johnston RI. So, I am pretty sure meeting a fellow Arab wasn’t as life changing to her at that point…

Time goes on, but that is something I remain sensitive about; the realistic role model…the relevancy to a young person.  This takes on an entirely different level when I start to talk about teachers of color in a mostly minority community…where over 90% of the teachers are middle class and white, most do not live in this hood, and most do not have English as a second language… although most are great, understanding, kind teachers, they remain rather untouchable as living, breathing examples of role models to these students who are growing up in a much different (and constantly changing) world.  Although slow, I am seeing the shift; more and more teachers are emerging from these very communities and it’s making a difference.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Tonight was Parent-Teacher night at my school and it turned out that it was parent night for everyone…even the teachers.  Nothing like bringing a three year old to work to bring everyone feel a little cozier!  Thank goodness for one of my students who, as a big brother himself, jumped right in and took over for me when I needed to speak to parents.   As soon as we arrived, Ali decided this particular 12 year old was going to be his new best friend. This student was one of three boys, raised much like Ali by a young single mother.  I knew I liked this mother before I met her because he started off the school year by complaining to me about how much his mother makes him read and write.  He is one of my better readers because of it. I saw myself reflected in her and I hoped she saw the same.

We are all so, so connected…

Middle School Confessionals: charter v. public

Standard

Whew! So I haven’t blogged in what feels like a very long time.

Typing feels awkward and my terrible spelling has managed to get worse from disuse ( I already have to spell check like 52 times!) But I came back on because I really miss writing in this form.  I still can’t wrap my head around how fast this month flew by.  I shouldn’t be surprised considering all the preparation, summer professional development ( who ever says teacher have summers off is living under a rock!), and late afternoons spent in my classroom making sure everything was prepared and set up for the next day. This isn’t my first time working with this age group or teaching, but I totally forgot how exhausting all this can be.  Pile on the single mom of a toddler thing and you got yourself the potential for one frazzled lady.

Luckily for me, I have taught before and have been working with young people in educational settings since I was 19, so I feel pretty comfortable with little people and at times actually enjoy them.   My latest teaching experience was at a charter school where  I could easily spend all my days, nights, and weekends totally absorbed in my work and my students. (and weekends!) And contrary to what I previously felt, this time around I am grateful for public, unionized schools.  It means I get to go home at a reasonable hour, have dinner with my son, and actually have a life outside work. If someone told me  five years  ago that I would end up preferring  work at a public (as opposed to ‘state of the art’ charter school) school and actually love it, I would have totally scoffed in disbelief.

What?

Far left me? Accepting my fate as a corporate test proctor in an overly hierarchical urban public school?! Just allowing myself to serve as a cog is this evil school-to-prison pipeline scheme?

Yup.

And here’s why:

1. My job is protected.  When I signed my first teaching contract at that ‘innovative’ charter school I didn’t realize it was ‘at will’ employment. That’s the same type of employment I agreed to as a holiday worker at the mall as a college student-where employers had the right to fire me anytime without reason or warning, and I had the right to simply quit at any time without warning as well.  I wasn’t too phased by it then, but after I started at the charter school I quickly realized that ‘at -will’ employment is not what I spent years and thousands of dollars going to college for.

2. Transparency.  Accountability is important… not via the one dimensional no child left behind act testing nonsense, but from top down.  Everything from job postings, sick days, student progress- is measured and kept track of in a systematic, transparent, no-surprises kinda way.  Not like my experience at said charter where  individual were moved up a few pay grades and into administrative positions without them having proper training or certification, where positions suddenly appeared and folks hired to fill them without there ever having been a job posting… Now, I fully understand it was probably just this particular charter ( because since then, I have worked in other charters that were much, MUCH better than that one…), but it just goes to show…

3. Teaching is a profession. Not just a job. and I greatly appreciate that every other teacher in my building has been through the same or similar hard core training , legal certifications, and all that jazz. Why? Because I have seen what happens when individuals who have not been properly trained or educated are given the enormous responsibilities that come along with  leading groups of young people ( or groups of  teachers) and its just not pretty.

5. I believe in public education (as someone that immigrated from a place that didnt have free public ed, I appreciate it’s potential to be the great equalizer… ( of course that hasn’t been the case here in Providence, but we can dream and work towards it…)

6. I am supported.  By fellow teachers in my building, by others that teach in the district (even if they work way across town), and by my district office. Why? because its such a large system there are many resources available (and because there is a system of accountability in place), unlike my time at the small charter school where it felt very much like every woman for herself.

I am still learning and growing and I am open to new and better ideas.  I still love the emphasis our charters have placed on safe and comfortable learning, student-centered communities where students take risks and grow in multiple ways, not just what can be measured with some culturally biased standardized test. I also still have the desire ( which is family and economically dependent) to home school my child.  But I believe there is a way to combine the best of all worlds, to think creatively and work together to meet young people where they are at while pushing them to grow.

I am interested to see what happens in the next couple of years with some Providence public schools applying to change over to charter status…I wonder if those federal resources will really be worth it, if teachers will still have the same union protection, if our work day will stay a work day and not a work day, evening, and night… ( where we get to teach other people’s kids and not our own) all of that is yet to be seen.

Until then, I will try and keep up my blog and share my adventures teaching middle school:)