Faces of Poverty

If you look, if you don’t avert your eyes, you can see the effects of poverty and trauma on a person.

One of “my” parents happened to come to the classroom this week so I could confirm she was indeed the parent of one of my students. This was so that the student could be released early to her; the parent was not carrying a picture id.

On first glance, she looks older than me. Her shoulders and body frame seem stooped, she shuffles somewhat. This day, however, as we chatted, I noticed her face. Her skin does not sag as mine does now, her eyes lack wrinkles; those wrinkles are reserved for worry spots – the brow, her forehead.

She carries the weight of her family’s problems: her husband has been in a nasty public hospital since before Christmas. Her children are her world, all four of them – she lost a fifth child a few years ago to illness. The family’s new apartment, an apartment they recently found after living in a shelter, was recently the scene of a Keystone Cops-style criminal gun chase. To hear my student tell the story the police chased a suspect right through the front door and out the back with guns drawn.

Honestly, I don’t know how this woman holds herself together. The daily barrage of trying to survive in such a hostile environment would do more than make me look older. She must be one of the most resilient of spirits that I have ever met!

And she is a face to remember. A face of poverty in our land of plenty.

Adventures with Flat Stanley

We’ve read the book, we’ve done the project with our kids (honest truth: not one of the 25 got a single Flat back!). This week my class has been hosting my niece’s Flat Stanley. And we are having a blast. Sorry, can’t post pictures of kids, but trust me on this.

Working on multiplication riddles? Flat Stanley can help.  Daily 5 Rotations? Stanley watches over us and keeps us on task. Assemblies, Bank presentations, whatever we are doing Flat Stanley is there to share the experience.  We’ve got one more week’s visit with Stanley and then we’ll have to say good-bye; however, in the meantime, we’re enjoying sharing our school and our experiences.

Thanks M for sharing your Flat with us.

A Thanksgiving Tale

It’s really easy for me to get wrapped around the axel over lack of parental support in a school where poverty is pervasive. I’ve had 3 teacher assistant team meetings for one child so far this year. The parent never attends and never responds to the meeting invitations. This parent continually writes nasty notes about me, the school, and the classroom. My frustration over no-shows for meetings to remedy this, to conference about the student’s progress, or anything else that might involve a little parental effort is only exceeded by the daily interruptions to our afternoon to change a dismissal routine (and I know routine as applied to this student is an oxymoron). This is only 1 story in this classroom.  The other 21 can be just as interesting.

Or not. Yesterday offered a glimmer of hope that by inviting parents in, we can forge a working relationship to benefit students.

My class has just finished writing our small moment narratives and we put each students’ writing into a book which we “published”. Yesterday, the half-day before Thanksgiving break, students invited a parent or loved one in to read our inaugural book, to be complimented on their contribution. Knowing some parents may not be able to leave work, I had prepared students whose parent might not be able to come that I, too, had been a working mom — and offered to be their parent for the celebration.  Being third graders, this of course led to some hilarious moments as classmates considered themselves “brothers” or “sisters” — if only for an hour.

But, back to the topic – getting frustrated with the status quo can lead to lowered expectations. Yesterday, however, helped me to realize that maybe I am focusing on the wrong things.  I met so many parents – sometimes both parents AND a grandparent – who were able to come, to hear their child read their thoughts and writing. One parent offered to help me pass out the apple juice we were offering, another stood in to read with a friend of her own child. And our school administration – Principal, Assistant Principal, and Literacy Specialist – all graciously read with each and every child in the room.

The energy, the enthusiasm was right there. It could not be missed. Something special transpired yesterday and not just for the students. On this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful for the administrators who support me.

And I am most thankful for the parents of my students who are willing to share themselves and their child with me.

Reason #1: I touch the future… I teach

Some years ago — probably more than 10 now that I think of it — I was eating my lunch at a MassCUE conference when Grace Corrigan sat down with her tray. That name may or may not mean anything to some, but it was an exceptional thrill for me to sit and chat, however briefly with the mother one of my education heroes, Christa McAuliffe.

Sharon Christa McAuliffe may have faded from some memories, but not from mine. When the Challenger explosion happened, I was in the midst of my career rebirth — the M.Ed. program at University of Lowell — and my own child was a first grader. I still think of the day Challenger burst into flames to the horror of everyone watching and I’m willing to bet that any child who happened to be watching the event on the television that day, certainly can recall it vividly.

While I did not know Christa McAuliffe personally, her choice to train to be the first teacher in space, was a huge impact on me. For me, teaching is not about following what is expected. It is about learning to take chances, to try new things, to have a curiosity about life and parlaying those opportunities into moments of educational euphoria.  It is not about the safety of doing what we’ve gotten used to; it is being on the edge of disaster or success and not necessarily knowing how things turn out until much later. And for me, that is what Christa McAuliffe inspired in me on day she boarded a space shuttle for what should have been the adventure of a lifetime.

So many years later, I try to remember this when experts tell me to be successful I need to do this, that or the other thing. Education, even in the era of unprecedented scrutiny where taking chances on what might work seems tougher and tougher to do, needs to be about trying new things even while being mindful of standards and accountability.

Christa McAuliffe’s mission ended in a tragedy that those of us on the sidelines can barely appreciate. The loss to her family, her friends, her colleagues, her students had to be immeasurable. But her courage, her insatiable curiosity inspires me to keep on taking chances no matter what the odds.

Reflections on the Fourth of July

It is no secret that politics in the United States are a puzzlement to me. Things I believe in – the common good, generosity and understanding in treatment of those who are not like me, a belief that freedom is a treasure that should not be eroded – these things are often not valued, if one can believe what gets reported by the fifth estate.  Can the media today be trusted to report on the facts, to dig deeper than the public relations of a situation? It is all so confusing, and often discouraging. Often I don’t know what to make of things.

Last night, however, I was watching a program on the History Channel about the Revolutionary War. As a matter of fact, this program was in the middle of the series and mostly what I learned was about how the United States came to have any kind of government at all.  Post 1776 was a chaotic time; a slight change would have taken this country down a different path.

As you might expect, the emotional fervor with which colonists became part of the Revolutionary War turned into a “now what?” situation once the outcome of the the actual battles became apparent. By 1781, Cornwallis had surrendered to General Washington, but an actual Peace Treaty with England would not be signed until nearly a year later. The Continental Congress would form a government which little by little gained recognition of other countries – first Spain, then Denmark and then Russia. It must have been quite difficult to fly in the face of England, a world power, in support of this newly formed United States.

Obviously everyone did not give this new United States much of a chance for success.  In fact, in 1783, General Washington had to persuade the remains of the Continental Army not to rebel against the newly formed government. When I consider all that happened after the battles, after the Declaration of Independence, it is a miracle that this country indeed exists as it does.

So how does this history connect to the current state of affairs? For me, it is hopeful that over 200 years ago, despite all that could have gone awry, the United States came into being. It became the great and welcoming country to my ancestors, the country where differing views could be tolerated, where it wasn’t a crime to think – and to say – what you believe.

The United States is still a place where you can disagree and not end up in jail. And despite the discomfort with some of the politics of our time in history, I am glad to be here in the United States. If our country could endure the chaos of its beginnings, then there is hope. Hope that we will speak out when personal rights are challenged, hope that we will speak up against wrong and not just accept what is reported by those who may have an agenda. And hope that we will continue to be that welcoming place for all.

Happy Fourth.

Amazing Teachers Need Not Apply

If you have been reading the postings of the Massachusetts DESE, you may have noticed their new campaign for “Amazing Teachers”.  This appears to be a recruitment program to entice teachers to work in the Tier 4 Schools — those who are being carefully scrutinized because test scores haven’t moved out of the sub-basement.

So, let me understand this, DESE. You are going to stick with the notion that these 37 schools are under-performing because of the teachers on staff? Parent involvement – or parent uninvolvement – has no bearing in these students’ success? Presto,change-o with the change of the knowledgeable and dedicated teaching staffs, all will be well.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Have the politicians and educational leaders in our state become such political kiss-ups that they are afraid to do anything more than make teaching faculties scapegoats? Or do they truly believe that experienced teachers working their asses off  in urban, multi-lingual, traumatized, high poverty classrooms can be quickly replaced by successful teachers from exurbia? Seriously?

I get that there are teachers who should not be in a classroom — the Bell Curve makes that a no-brainer. But there are many, many, many others who are those “amazing teachers” the DESE is looking for:

Amazing teachers…

  • Are relentlessly committed to high achievement for all students. They demonstrate tenacity and persistence in pursuit of the goal of ensuring that every child develops the knowledge and skill necessary for college and career success.
  • Have demonstrated success in enabling students to make significant academic progress. They have a track record of results with students and are skilled at using data to analyze and improve student performance.
  • Build and value strong relationships with students, families and the community. They create a sense of community in the classroom that celebrates success, empower students with choice and responsibility and make content relevant and accessible to all.
  • Thrive in diverse, multicultural settings. They respect and support families and students of all backgrounds – regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, language or ability – and actively engage them in achieving rigorous academic goals.
  • Work collaboratively with school leadership and their colleagues to help foster a culture of teamwork. They welcome and seek out opportunities to lead, plan, learn and collectively solve problems in pursuit of student achievement.
  • Have deep content and pedagogical knowledge and skills and constantly strive to improve their practice. They have a strong understanding of content and learning standards, maintain strong classroom management skills, and differentiate instructional strategies so that all students comprehend key information.  They reflect on their teaching performance and seek feedback and new learning to improve.

Most of the people I teach with have these very qualifications; they are amazing teachers. We cajole, inspire, and open our students’ eyes to the possibilities that effort and a great education can bring.

We celebrate our students milestones and achievements no matter how great or how small — our students are progressing. We would give our right arms for a partnership with parents. Sometimes that’s possible, sometimes it is not – but we still try no matter how many times our outreach is rejected because maybe the next time, we will not be turned away.

We are challenged by a multicultural society, and despite those challenges, we love teaching in a diverse classroom because more often than not, we learn as much from the children as they learn from us.

We work collaboratively; we know our content; and we keep growing.

So DESE, look no further. Those amazing teachers you are looking for? We are right here, right under your nose. What we need is a little respect, a lot of support, and less of the blame game.


Teaching third grade is just about as good as it gets in my humble opinion.  Over the span of my teaching career I’ve taught every level from pre-school through 12th grade. There are inherent challenges at each level – and rewards as well.

Last Friday, my students begged and begged and we finally convinced my husband Adrien, who had been their community reader, to visit us. Friday was a special occasion in Room 207; our school has a large Southeast Asian population and we celebrate Cambodian/Lao/Viet Namese New Year every April with a Whole School Meeting. Students bring in tons of delicious homecooked Southeast Asian foods to share and we have a troupe of dancers who perform a traditional dance. Adrien was invited to taste some of the food my students brought to share.

This week was a big one for Adrien as he was one of several artists from Western Avenue Studios interviewed for Chronicle. I shared this with the kids and about half of them actually watched the broadcast!  It was not assigned as homework – honest! Without prompting on my part, some of them mentioned the art they had seen and talked about seeing “their” Mr. Bisson on television. Rock Star status was conferred.

One of the best things about teaching third graders is their unabashed enthusiasm for everything. Some days I even get a “thank you” when I give them a test. And usually there’s quite a bit of cheering when we change things up and go “off  task”. So when the office called the room to tell us Adrien was coming to visit, the excitement was electric. Students were practically airborne when he entered the door — and quite a few ran up to him with paper and pencil for his autograph.  I have to tell you I’ve never seen THAT before.

So when you’re feeling under-appreciated, here’s my prescription: Get yourself to your local elementary school and find a group of third graders.  You’ll feel much better in no time.