Happy New Year! Yesterday and today my students were visibly distracted. One girl had her head down and couldn’t work. When I asked her to sit up, I could see that she was crying. “La Migra” is all that students would say. They showed me a video of a raid. A mother had 10 minutes to pack her own and her daughter’s bag for deportation. Students are telling me that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) police are making raids on homes, stopping cars in traffic and showing up at the mall. “My mother doesn’t have papers,” one girl said. “But my brothers were both born here. What will happen to them if my mother is deported?” Another student told me that her mother is afraid to go to the supermarket because immigration police are there. “We don’t have any food in the house,” she said. I assured her that school is a safe place to be. ICE cannot enter school property and teachers are not required to give out information.
I don’t understand this new policy of tearing families apart. The newspapers report here that El Salvador has become the murder capital of the world. These families are fleeing extreme violence and should be welcomed as refugees. Many students have already lived through warlike trauma. Why are we retraumatizing them? Most are law-abiding participants in the U.S. economy. They work and pay taxes. They perform jobs that many Americans will not take: cleaning houses, construction, retail sales and restaurant work.
We are about to enter TESTING SEASON. My students will have back-to-back tests. The first is a semester exam that includes separate Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing sections administered over two days. The second is the WiDA ACCESS, a state-mandated test for English Language Learners that also includes Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing sections administered across several days. Some seniors will also have to take High School Assessments that will determine if they can graduate in June. On top of that is MAP-R, a computer-adapted Reading test that some students will take. How can they concentrate when so much in their lives is outside of their control?
I wish the politicians could see the effects of their policies in my classroom. So many students are suffering horribly through challenging family situations, yet they come to school and sit through a barrage of (meaningless) tests because we ask them to do so. They want a high school diploma and are very motivated to stay in school. The American Dream is still alive. Why are we making students sag under such a heavy load?
This article about an unusual boarding school in Washington DC just might change my mind about charter schools. I applaud how the Monument Academy is trying to address the social-emotional needs of students who experience ongoing trauma. I am not an expert, but I see some of these same behaviors in my own classroom. If students are placed in a stable, supportive, home-like environment, can the care and attention possibly make up for years spent with violent, abusive role models or moving between foster homes? I’m sure that I won’t be the only one following this story eagerly in 2016.
I spent the Christmas holiday in my hometown visiting with family and friends, and taking a much-needed break from the treadmill of teaching. Somehow it just speeds up about halfway through November. Good thing I’m in pretty good shape, both physically and mentally. But we all need to stop running and catch our breath about this time of year.
At a holiday party, I spoke with a friend’s daughter, who was sharing her thoughts about being a first-year teacher for Gifted and Talented 4th and 5th graders in a STEM program. I asked if she spent more than an hour a day contacting parents. She laughed. “Fellow teachers understand what I’m going through,” she said. “But I’ve been crying a lot since Winter Break started.” She said that half her student-teacher classmates didn’t make it past their practica.
“Teaching is hard,” she said. “My students feel so entitled and the parents are second-guessing every decision I make. I’ve started a Kindness Wall to help students develop empathy. Now if I can just get the parents on board, I’ll know I’m making a difference.”
I talked to her about my students, some of whom won’t be celebrating much during the holidays. Many are from what we used to call “broken homes.” Some are working full time. Most receive Free and Reduced Meals (a government program for low-income families). Maybe we could start some kind of correspondence between the two schools: my students could practice their English and her students could develop an understanding of the challenges some teens face and how hard they work to get an American education.
I’m only halfway through Winter Break. It’s amazing what can transpire when you get off the treadmill and connect with other people.
Have you ever had one of those days when the loudmouth in the back row delivers a teachable moment? I had one of those days this week. I’m the one who learned a lesson, though, not the students. Loudmouth was shouting for attention for the umpteenth time. Can I say the grammar was just abominable? I would have ignored it if this student hadn’t been so rude. So instead of answering the question, I corrected the English. I guess I showed my annoyance and corrected a little too vigorously. Loudmouth completely shut down, arms crossed, slumped in the chair, suddenly refusing to answer questions or participate. Another student told me that Loudmouth was very offended and hurt. I sighed and made a comment about too much drama. I said I would write a pass to see the counselor if the offense was so great. Otherwise just be quiet and do the work like everyone else. So loudmouth gets up and asks to see the counselor. Good, I thought secretly, now the classroom will be quiet.
So when I followed up with the counselor to see if Loudmouth actually made it into the counseling office, I learned that the student was thinking about quitting school because of low self esteem and feelings of incompetence in the classroom. I suddenly felt horrible. I’m not that kind of teacher. I don’t belittle kids. I’m usually the most patient, supportive teacher imaginable. I can understand how difficult it is to read, write and think in a non-native language all day every day. When I lived overseas, it was exhausting to speak French, even when the stakes weren’t that high. These students have to deal with so much more.
What I have learned from this incident is that no matter how rough my day is, the students deserve 100% of my attention, compassion, and support. Inappropriate behavior can mask insecurity and a need to overcompensate. I guess my response was also a symptom of my need to stay in control and keep moving through the curriculum at the right pace.
So next time a student shouts a comment from the back row, I’ll take a deep breath and ask, “Would you care to elaborate?”
Twenty years ago, I was living in the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros Islands with my husband and two young sons when we experienced a violent attack. But it didn’t come from Islamic extremists; it came from a white Frenchman named Bob Denard, legendary soldier of fortune who inspired Frederick Forsyth’s novel Dogs of War.
My personal experience is nothing like the horrors faced by Syrian refugees. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if Kenya refused to let us into their country when we fled Moroni. We were not part of a mass exodus, but we were the last “official” Americans to leave the islands.
In the years since we left the Comoros, I can reflect on what it was like to live through a moment of terror and to have our lives completely disrupted. But we were welcomed everywhere we went. I think about the personal relationships we developed that transcend international politics. I think about my children’s earliest memories being from a place where the culture and climate was so completely different. I still have a bottle of ylang-ylang perfume. And I still have good memories of living among kind, peaceful people.
Republican rhetoric about keeping dangerous Muslims out of our country is counter to my experience. I’d like to write about that one day.
I’m sure there are other professions with such extreme highs and lows, but I can only write about the one I know. Today was one of the lows. Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. I love teaching. I love my students. But this afternoon I spent three hours in front of a computer screen for “training” on the new test that I will have to administer in January. The WiDA ACCESS test is moving online this year and I fear for my students. We’ve only been to a computer lab twice this year — and I learned that some of my Level 1 and Level 2 students didn’t know that if they hit the RETURN key, their cursor would go down to the next line in a document. How could they know this if I didn’t teach it? Just because they’ve got smart phones constantly plugged into their ears doesn’t mean they know anything about creating an essay in Microsoft Word. They’ve become experts at texting under their desks while pretending to look in backpacks, but how will I teach them to navigate a page of instructions written in a language they are just acquiring? I’m frustrated because I know this move to online testing will cause some students to give up. We don’t have access to computers on a regular basis, so my students are not developing the computer literacy skills that will measure their academic success. My school and my district will be judged by how well they do. I’m all for moving into the digital age, but what are we really testing? When lack of access to basic computer instruction creates a huge gap, what can the test possibly accomplish?
Maybe I’m approaching this all wrong. Maybe so many students will fail to meet exit criteria that my district will be forced to hire dozens of new ESOL teachers. And they’ll make sure we have enough access to computers so that scores will improve. That would be awesome. I already feel better.
Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. It is no wonder if we sometimes take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously.
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
This is my desperate endeavor to be heard above the cacophony of post-Thanksgiving excess. People were out on the trail this afternoon with dogs and children running in t-shirts. I met up with an old friend walking with her family as I walked in the opposite direction with mine. It was wonderful to happen on a chance encounter. I find that these events occur on a regular basis: when I am thinking intensively about someone from my past, he or she just appears out of nowhere and we make plans to see each other soon. I will write more about this in the future.
I am still finding my voice.