Monday, March 31, 2008

First Day Back

Somehow I knew today was going to be "one of those days." I first got that idea when I realized that I was ironing my shirt with my hair dryer. (I didn't have time for the real iron, and I had the hair dryer on hot heat...same thing, right?)

Today is our first day back after Spring Break. My husband, the firefighter, works 24 hour shifts - on for 24 hours then off for 24 hours for 10 days. Then he's off for six. (Most firefighters, like teachers, work a second job during those "off" days, but that's another story....) Anyway, when the six days are over, they all report back to the station. They call it, every time, "first day back" as in "We'll talk about that new hose first day back." It's a special day to them, but I think "first day back" in a school probably beats it.

So the fact that I was ironing with a hair dryer this morning may have been an indication of how the day would go. We must always brace ourselves when students are well rested. And they were not tired today. I heard them before I saw them - the girls all squeals and giggles, the boys all talking about the NCAA tournament.

Back to the story - I had experienced a major epiphany over Spring Break: my students are bored. Every middle school student in the US of A claims boredom 57 times a day. But as I was looking at my lesson plans, I realized that my students really are bored. There are only so many exciting things I can do in a remedial reading class. My fear is that, this late in the year, I've done them all already. So I decided to get some student imput. I got online and wrote out an interactive survey. I asked my students questions like "Are you bored at school?" and "Are you bored at home?" My favorite - "What can YOU do to keep from being bored at school?"

I was proud to have thought of this idea. The students would surely have buy-in after completing this survey. They would feel empowered. They would have opinions. We would have a life changing discussion! I started class with, "Welcome back! I hope you had a great Spring Break."

I opened my mouth to talk about my boredom epiphany when Christian said (across the room to Matthew), "Did you see Wrestlemania? Man, that dude was BIG!"

"Christian. Matthew," I said. "I want to tell you about my idea. We're going to talk about why kids are bored at school and..."

Nicole piped in. "This is boring."

"Nicole," I said. "How can we work around being bored so that we can get our educations and get good jobs in our future?"

"I want to work at Hooters," she answered.

Then Breana jumped in. "Over Spring Break, I went skating, and my brother's friend was there. His name is Damon but we call him 'Cookies.'"

"Huh?" I don't even know where that came from.

My day continued like it started. Well rested students talked about anything and everything, and we got nowhere. After the final bell, I cleaned my board thinking tomorrow will be a better day.

Then I wrote tomorrow's date - oh no - April Fools Day.

Ugh. I don't think I have the strength....I guess Second Day Back won't be any better than the first.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Other People's Children

This week my baby boy needed me. Okay, he's not a baby. He's 24. But he'll always be my baby and the baby of the family - the youngest after three girls. This week he had a zillion issues - physical, emotional, financial, and career oriented. He just plain needed me. So I left school after finding someone to cover my classes and then drove three hours to him. All I did was pay his water bill, buy him some lunch and groceries (it was four in the afternoon, and he hadn't eaten all day), and give him some gas money. Then we hung out a little, and I drove back home. No big deal - I felt better and he felt better; he just needed a mama fix. My husband said things like "He's 24. He can take care of himself" and so on. Men don't get it.

The next day at school was a little rough. I was tired, having arrived back home at midnight the night before, and as another teacher said, "The sap is rising." Middle school children can smell Spring Break and are exhibiting the fidgetiness and conflicts that are reserved for this time of the year. Two days this week eighth graders had violent fights that left teachers and students shaken, and one day when they didn't fight, they ate their lunches watching seventh graders fight outside the cafeteria windows.

Meanwhile, in the little world that is my classroom, I'm trying everything to calm my students so that they can actually read two lines (it is a reading class, after all) and not walk around the room. I threatened my last class yesterday with cough syrup. I think I was kidding.

Anyway, this story is mostly about my student Justin. Boy, can he be nasty. He's rambunctious and can't stay in his seat; apparently his pencil is never sharp enough. Walking to the pencil sharpener or trash can doesn't present a problem for most students; however, Justin has to smack three people on the way and three people on the way back. I really believe he counts - "SMACK - that's one, SMACK - that's two, SMACK - that's three." And although he can be very endearing when he wants to be, he can also snap at a moment's notice and growl, snarl, and talk back to any authority figure who is within earshot. He can turn a pretty nice day into one of those I'm-stressed-why-did-I-pick-this-career day. My former principal called this type of student "the thorn in your side." Justin's an entire thorn bush on most days.

Yesterday we were scheduled to have a conference with Justin's mother. Justin warned me, "She's coming to cuss you out." I was ready. I had documentation in my hand when I entered the conference room. I had written down every nasty thing he had said in two weeks. I had his binder and his journal. I had stacks of pictures he'd drawn while I was teaching. As it turned out, his mother was late, and I had more time to think about the attack that was coming. Justin's other teachers and I sat around that table and waited....some of us drumming our fingers impatiently. The longer we sat, the more nervous we felt. "You think she's mad?" someone asked. "But we didn't do anything wrong," someone else chimed in. Yea, but what has Justin told her? we thought.

She walked in seconds later. I caught her eye and smiled. She didn't return the favor. She sat down and began "explaining" her problems to us. We had not contacted her as often as we should have considering the conflicts we were having with Justin. She explained that she couldn't deal with his behaviors if she was unaware of them. Our principal promised to call her in the event that there were incidents that required her attention. Then each teacher talked about their experiences with her son.

As my turn to speak came, I looked over at him sitting alone at another table, and then I glanced back as his mother. He's her baby, I thought. I imagined her kissing him goodnight, Justin with the soapy post-bath smell, and the snarls on his tongue just memories of the school day. I opened my mouth to speak and quietly balled up the documentation I was holding in my hand. I started with "He has the funniest laugh," and went on from there.

His mother looked at me, tears in her eyes, and said, "I'm sorry I came in so mad."

I returned with, "You don't need to apologize for caring about your child. I understand."

And I do. Lisa Delpit tells us about being sensitive to others in her book Other People's Children. We teach other people's babies, and from now on when that thorn starts jabbing me in the side, I'll picture my students sleeping as their loving mothers stand beside their beds.

And I'll think about my baby three hours away and hope that someone else's mother is being nice to him.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Am I Just Too Old to Crank It?

I read with interest an article in the current NEA Today magazine. The title, "Teachers Crank That Soulja Boy," as well as the entire article, reminded me of, well, me. It talks about how teachers who are learning this dance are "connecting with students" and giving students "the opportunity to teach for a change." My philosophy of education - relationships with children - was referenced in black and white.

It was in the After School program that I first saw the Soulja Boy routine. After students worked for an hour, they were given the opportunity to break into groups and do non-academic activities. My group chose to dance. A short-in-stature-but-big-on-personality sixth grader, Montez, taught me the steps. I hadn't heard the song. So that night I looked it up on YouTube. (Everything's on YouTube.) Catchy song, I thought. Cute little dance. I was hooked!

I began "cranking" it all over the place. If my students answered correctly, they'd all shout, "Do the Soulja Boy!" I'd crank it in front of the classroom. At the school dance in the fall, I was out there cranking it with the best of them. I even downloaded the "Soulja Boy Instructional Video" for the After School Program so that we all could crank it.

Then at Christmas my son came home. My son is a 24 year old actor who's a whiz at pop culture. It's part of his business actually. I was very excited to show him how cool I am. Minutes after he got home, I started cranking.

He looked at me strangely. "Mother," he said. "Do you know what that song means?" Of course I did. I told him that "Soulja Boy" is a dance, and when we do it, we're "cranking that Soulja Boy." He laughed and then told me that there was no way he had the nerve to explain the real meaning to me. He suggested that I look it up on

What I read was horrifying. I can't even figure out a way to explain what it means to "Superman," one of the repeated lyrics in the song. There is no nice way to say it. It's profane, it's disgusting, and it's not appropriate for the pre-teens that I teach. At the very least, it's only potentially appropriate for two consenting adults.

I wanted to cry when I thought about the times I thought I was "cool" performing it in front of my classroom. I have since stopped doing the Soulja Boy dance. I have dropped all references to it, and if the students ask me about it, I tell them that it's not appropriate. They always snicker - they actually know what the lyrics mean!

I wrote NEA today to tell them about my experience. I ended with "In the future, I'll investigate the products that I promote."

I'll never listen to the song or do the dance again. And I'll do everything in my power to keep lyrics like that out of the hands of minors in this sex-saturated society.

Crank THAT, Soulja Boy.