A Break in the Link

Twenty-four hours after the end of the 2010-11 school year finds me still trying to analyze why this year was so difficult. Why was it that so many students in the past group were such a challenge? Did my teaching change? Is my tolerance level low? Have I lost “it”?

The more I think about it, there were things that I had no control over that impacted the dynamic of this classroom more than I imagined. Teaching in an urban district comes with challenges of trauma – social, familial, economic. Sometimes these are easy to surmount, but often they are not.

When school works best, there is a partnership between student, teacher and parent. When one of those links is broken or dysfunctional, the possibility of success is lessened — this is what I believe. The value of an education is undermined when there is lack of support from home.

Within the group that has just moved on, there were quite a few broken links in this triumvirate: children who did not have the medication that would enable them to focus (enough times that it started to seem as if the parent was purposefully withholding). Children who did not arrive at school on time, not by a few minutes, but by hours and missed valuable lessons. Children who did not arrive, period. Absenteeism of 25, 30, 40 days of school. That’s a considerable amount of time away from school when no reason was offered.

School works best when there is a partnership. We did the best we could together, broken link or not. But I am so hoping that next year things are more cohesive, that I can convince parents – engaged or disaffected – that without their involvement, interest, and input their student cannot achieve all that they are capable.

Homeless children and faces of poverty

In case you missed it, here is a link to Scott Pelley’s outstanding and heartbreaking story about the effects of homelessness on our children. As a teacher in a high poverty urban public school, I know what he is reporting is true. At least two of my students began the year in hotels; in previous years one of my students lived in the U Haul carrying all their worldly possessions after they were evicted. Some children have infrequently shared that they did not have electricity as the service had been shut off. Still others come to school and scuffle for food, for breakfast items that were not consumed by their peers. Clearly they do not have enough to eat.

The most jaw-dropping piece of information Mr. Pelley shared was that the United States – the land of plenty – considers a family to be living below the poverty level if they are a family of four with $22,000 per year. Who can do that; who can do that with 4 people?

For me, this fact points to the fallacy of statistical information as applied by our government. If the poverty level is defined as 4 people living on $22,000 each year; there are many more families in actual poverty than our government track with this skewed classification. $22,000 is not a living income for a single person – at least here in the Northeast – that amount applied to 4 is beyond the pale.

Recently I read an article stating that the income gap between rich and poor is the widest it has been in 80 years. The “recovery” has not trickled down to those living on the margins. Social services are facing cuts in budgets and services that will only make this worse.

I do not hold out much hope for our government to provide a safety net for children of poverty. These children sadly seem to know better than I, that the situation is not hopeful. That, in this land of plenty, they are faceless and nameless, and sadly, powerless.

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.

What the Tour Bus Would Miss….

Junia Yearwood is quickly becoming one of my favorite Boston Globe reads. The article, “If Only Visitors Could See My Students“, provides insight into an urban classroom — and warns of the dangers of believing what one reads or learns via the fifth estate.  So, here is what visitors might miss in my classroom.

The quiet girl who transferred in about 2 months ago. Homeless, her family had been living in a local hotel until recently. She is an accomplished reader and is becoming an accomplished writer; a sadness envelopes her most of the day. She write poetry and song lyrics in her native Spanish – and then translates them for all of us to enjoy when she musters the courage to open herself to sharing. In her journal she writes about her father who died suddenly in hospital. If a classmate is in trouble, she is the first to help or provide support. While her mother works the night shift, she watches over a school-age younger brother and 2 twin babies. In her eyes you can see the strain of having to be responsible beyond her chronological years.

Engaging and social, nearly always the center of things, the student sitting next cannot read. Oh he tries, but the brain connection between what he sees on paper and what he is able to do disconnects. He has no IEP, yet struggles to read at a beginning grade 1 level. The process for getting him evaluated for special education services may take an entire year of data collection. Meanwhile, he and I do the best we can to make the connections.When he is working with me, he is serious. He wants to learn to read but is terrified his friends will find out that he can’t.

The next student is a better-than-average third grade student with the potential to be brilliant. He has told me he wants to be a scholar and a scientist. He is a big boy – as wide as he is tall. Though he is often in someone’s personal body space, he cannot help himself. Oh how I hope he comes back to visit when he grows to be comfortable with himself! And how I hope he’ll hold on to that dream of becoming a scholar and a scientist even when so many temptations surround him that would take him off the path to his goal.

Another nearby student exasperates with his absent-mindedness. His brain is working all of the time, though,  and when he expresses an insight into reading, it is mind-blowing. He is convinced he is bad and talks about how his “bad” alter ego needs to take a hike. He is the only student I’ve ever taught who was convinced he was on Santa’s naughty list – and gave detailed reasons why and how he was planning to change the situation. Here is child who is used to people who expect little of him. He hoards food from our breakfast program and from the cafeteria at lunch. Is his family unable to put food on the table? My guess is yes.

So many hardworking, complicated students. It is not simply the academics in an urban classroom. As Junia Yearwood points out, a visitor would witness the will of the human spirit to overcome what life has dealt. It is the spirit of my students that inspires, that keeps all of us coming back to work another day.

Not everything is academic

School started a week ago.  I can already see the work ahead of us – and that is NOT a reference to academics. This group of students has lots of trouble transitioning, especially outside of the classroom. And there are a lot of them this year – my class size is at what used to pass for the maximum in this district. Any wagers on when it surpasses the maximum? I’m thinking maybe tomorrow is the day.

In the mix this year – 2 students who are living at shelters for a variety of reasons. I guess given the economic conditions, this should not be a surprise.  One parent that I have been able to conference with told a heart-wrenching story of being forced to move from another state, being forced out of an apartment, losing furnishings…. matter-of-factly, the parent revealed that the family was on the way to pick up furniture from our local WISH foundation (a group providing furniture to transitional families). In another place and time, would picking out your new sofa from cast-offs have been so nonchalantly revealed?

Domestic violence and the trauma resulting from students who witnessed this violence also impacts a couple of my students. Sign of the times? Another parent reveals the story behind her son’s acting out – the grief in this woman’s voice is palpable.

And of course there are the “usual suspects”. Students for whom academics are challenging, for whom language acquisition is in the beginning stages, students whose self-worth has been wounded nearly beyond repair.

This is the group that has been thrown together. We are working at attempting to become a community – a caring, sharing community of learners.

So far figuring out the puzzle has been more than a bit challenging for me; the pieces that need to be in place are not there yet. We are working on it, but it will take time. Before we can begin our work on the curriculum, we need to build our community. There is simply no other way.

Everyday Lives of Students

Monday was our first day back from Winter Break — I suspect this is only a New England school vacation as I never experienced it growing up in northern Ohio.  A week-long escape is a welcome respite from the stresses of teaching – and yes, I am aware that I chose this profession – but it also serves to highlight the stress of teaching students in urban education.

Our Monday morning meeting brought forward three stories from my 8- and 9-year old students. Stories that are told in such a conversational way that they seem as normal as a visit to grandma’s. Again, Ruth Payne’s fine chronicle of trauma and poverty, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, helps me to see the events outside of my middle-class white Leave It To Beaver upbringing. For these children, life is what it is.

Story number 1: “my cousin was arrested with his pit bull.” Now sometimes “arrested” takes on a rather broad definition in the mind of an 8-year old. In this case it was true; I verified it by reading the local newspaper online after school: the cousin had been taken into custody after allowing his unleashed and unrestrained pit bull to lunge at people walking in the downtown area, had refused the request of a police officer to leash the dog, and resisted arrest.

Story number 2: brother – who the student had recently revealed was in jail – was rearrested.  This student reported on the event as if it were an everyday normal occurrence.” Had I seen X’s name in the paper? He’s going to jail.”

Story number 3: a tenant living in the same apartment complex as my third student triggered the SWAT team to swarm the building after said tenant threatened a cab driver with a gun. The student had lots of details and had obviously seen most of the confrontation – her details matched the newspaper article too.

Now several things come to mind here.  First of all, the traumatic distractions in these students’ every day life are unbelievable. Secondly, yes school is a “safe place” and expectations for what happens in school remain high. But the distractions and worries these children must overcome to even be close to ready to focus and concentrate are, most of the time, unimaginable.

This is what stresses out urban teachers.  We come to know the human story, the reality these children deal with.

CHOICES Character Education

In my school, we have been grappling with student behaviors, choices and what to do about them.  Our Green Team – the staff guiding us to a cohesive K-4 plan – is incorporating and blending ideas from Ruth Payne’s outstanding book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Linda Albert’s book Cooperative Discipline, and Responsive Classroom. As a staff, we are exploring this further in a graduate level course offered after school hours.

The deeper I delve into the topic, the more complicated things seem. A majority of our student come from trauma: financial, emotional, social, even academic. I am beginning to understand the role this plays in driving less-than-acceptable behaviors that appear in the classroom. Explicit and direct teaching and talking to children seems to be a key to helping students be and achieve their best. What does effort look like? What does it mean to work hard? What is a good choice?

This morning, I came across this resource. The CHOICES program itself may not necessarily fit with our school’s plan, but the literature lists for introducing and teaching character — making choices, honesty, integrity, caring, etc. seem to offer  some great ideas for creating a literacy link to classroom discussion.

For more information, click on CHOICES Character Education.