updates for 01.10.2011
My geometry class was learning about Euclid’s postulates last week. I started the class with a quick introduction to Euclid (lived from 365 – 275 BC in Alexandria, Egypt, then part of Ancient Greece, back in the days when great mathematicians debated the concepts we now teach eighth graders). This being a middle school classroom, nothing about this introduction went as planned. “Wait, how come the years are going backwards?” [I had to draw a timeline and explain the concept of BC.] “What does BC stand for?” [I paused long enough to let a student call out “Before Christ”, as that’s what I know it as but I wasn’t sure if there was really a Latin phrase and I don’t know at what point me saying “Christ” gets me in trouble with church and state.] I try to change the subject from religion to postulates, which are statements that are accepted as true without proof basically because they are so fundamental there’s no way to prove them. One of my students volunteers the example, “A postulate could be that Jesus existed!” Oh dear. I was thinking more like, “Given any two points, a line segment can be drawn that connects them.” I carefully explain that the existence of a person is typically provable and that Jesus is a little more controversial than mathematical postulates. He comes back with, “Well then how about that everyone in the world came from Jesus? Or that Jesus came from God?” Ok now I’m really stuck… I don’t think anyone in any religion thinks that Jesus spawned humanity, and I don’t need to debate Jesus’ parentage. Luckily, one of his friends also laughs at the humanity-spawning idea and leans over to explain things to him. I switch to the next slide right as this boy lets out a gasp of comprehension and replies loudly to his friend, “OH!!! That’s why they call her the Virgin Mary?! I GET it!” The whole class erupts into laughter. This poor kid has clearly gone through his life not getting what being a virgin had to do with it and suddenly he sees the light. He announced that he was going to tell his mother that he learned something useful in school for once. I can hear the conversation already… “Mom, guess what?! In math class today I learned why she’s called the Virgin Mary!” This is how people get fired for First Amendment violations. Awesome.
I am thinking of Sarah, tilting her head and pursing lips, saying, "I can't describe it. I really can't. It just gets... better." and yes, Sarah, you are right. On Monday I was homesick. I wanted to call my sister, who was unreachable in India. Wanted to be sharing couches with friends and conversation with family and a state with all the people I love. My classes were fine. I had little motivation to plan well for them, but they were fine. And my planning wasn't horrific. We almost finished a full week of writer's workshop. Each essay gets closer. I'm grading a whole batch now, only one class left. I want an essay a week from now on. The girl that tried to get me fired is now in my homeroom, and sweet as pie. She sits in the back corner, quietly asks for help when she needs it, and doesn't seem interested in anyone or anything. She asked to be the "lesson manager" for her class job. She made up the idea-- it's the person that is always on track with notes and work, and can help people that get behind. Seriously? I gave it to her. Yesterday three of us went to Little Rock and worked at the place we always go to. My computer still shuts down an average of once an hour, which was frustrating, but I was fairly productive. I can actually plan, now. Like I'm learning how to semi-productively. I can even kind of a little bit predict what students are going to struggle with and what they'll breeze through. I'm utilizing songs and chants that they lo-o-ove. We're doing persuasive writing right now, which is the second to last unit (INSANE). This month I'm taking a day for professional development to go to a workshop run by the curriculum we use-- The Learning Institute. I'm going to another one in February as well. I'm proud because I found both workshops and did what it took to make them happen. I even get to drive a school car the 2 hours it takes to get there. :) February is also the TFA 20th anniversary summit, which I am anticipating more and more! It's going to be so amazing to share an event with soooo many incredibly talented, driven, ambitious, successful people. My jaw will be on the floor constantly, I'm sure. Hopefully it will re-light the fire? Fixing my car came to a grand total of TWO GRAND, and I get to pick it up tomorrow. I'll be glad to have her back. I wish I could explain things better... I was talking to an Auntie on the phone today and I hesitated to process then said, "I kind of feel like I'm getting my life back." My life since my mom died has not seemed normal or altogether comfortable. I feel I've been in a chronic state of stress and feeling like everything, everything is surreal. Part of why I was enthusiastic about moving to the Delta was because I knew that despite the undoubted stress and pressure TFA would put on me, I would have time to think and regain myself. I knew the pace of life in general would be different, time would be different, human expectations would be different. They are. I know that over the next year and a half I will continue to learn and grow so much personally, as well as professionally and as a human... Don't think I'm not still a mess, or mostly baffled by my job or life, but I will admit it, Sarah was right. You can't explain it, things are just better after Christmas break. (My fingers are crossed and I'm knocking on wood that I'm not speaking too soon-- but my gut still says this is right....) Excellent Anecdote My kids are graduating from elementary school this year, 2011, so I had them write one thing they'll never forget and one thing they wish they could forget about elementary school. One student, one who caused massive problems in the beginning of the year, who used to walk out of my class three times a week muttering, "I hate this class!!" who also happens to be hysterical and one of my favorites, wrote as part of his paragraph:
I will remember the teachers mainly Ms. L (me) and Ms. Reading Teacher. Because they always supported me in school. Ms. Reading Teacher was very cool and loved to play around. Ms. L is cool, but outgoing when she is all pumped up on candy and coffee. But they are the best teachers in the sixth grade."I could have cried when I read it, if I wasn't laughing so hard. It's weird to realize that the students are getting to know me just as I get to know them. It may seem generic for someone to love candy and coffee... but he is always teasing me about my mouth full of sweet teeth. And the fact that he recognizes how much we care about his education is... It's all about context, but this boy is one that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Since its publication more than 125 years ago, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain has been at the core of literary controversy. A professor at Auburn University-Montgomery, an institution of my home state - Alabama, has stirred conflicting feelings with his well-intentioned removal of the word "nigger", appearing 219 times in the text's rawest form; moreover, his revamped version of this classic replaces "nigger" with the term "slave", as though it is much of an improvement. According to NewSouth, Gribben's publisher in Montgomery, Ala., this effort emerged because the American masterpiece has been blacklisted from curricula across the nation. According to Gribben, increasing, teachers are discovering it horribly difficult to navigate and facilitate conversations because students are too uncomfortable with the repeated use of the racial slur, and that a revised version, devoid of any racial slurs, will make the text more accessible to children across the country. This may be true. We may have more children read the revised text than ever before. But, at what costs and to what end? An effort to lighten the sting of injustice is an effort to whitewash history, to cover up what actually happened, and to make the same stains of our past susceptible to repeating themselves. We are not providing racial understanding or edification. We are not protecting anyone from the stains of our country. We must teach history as it happened, which is the purpose of history. Period. Growing up as a black youth in a largely segregated Alabama, I am no fan of any semblance of the protean N-word; however, by removing the slur in 'Huck Finn', we duck essential conversations that we absolutely must have with children. The language of the text is precisely why it is a masterpiece. An edited version allows for children to move forward in comfortable darkness with no gauge of how horrendous our country once was and treated fellow Americans. Worse, it rebuffs rightful celebration of our collective progress as a nation. If there is anything our country can be proud of, it's always been our ability to make progress and weather obstacles as collective people. Truly, a watered-down 'Huck Finn' will present a far different, more compassionate antebellum South, an America that did not exist at the time of this work's publication, post-Civil War. Further, it will depreciate the quality of what our country has been about since its inception. Teaching at a 99% black all-boys' high school in West Philadelphia, PA, I hear semblances of "nigger" more than 219 times in a week. Polling all one-hundred of my black students, they agree that the word in its historical context is still painful, yet, in a society where my same young gentlemen use the painful epitaph as an endearing sentiment without regard to its historical and cultural context, I question what children are "traumatized" by this word? Had I polled my white, middle-class, high school classmates in Alabama, I have no doubt that the removal of "nigger" would be popular option, which is more reason to teach the original text. "Slave" is not equivalent, nor do I ever believe it will be, in impact or meaning to "nigger", the most offensive word in the English language. Thus, the responsibility to teach lies in the ability of teachers. We, as teachers, must be prepared to sensitively and carefully teach the original text, not a watered-down version that makes everyone feel good. Slavery was not a comfortable time for blacks centuries ago, and, rightfully, it ought not be a comfortable reflection in any educational discourse. It should be provocative. It should be somewhat offensive. It is appropriate to feel discomfort. Yet, if taught correctly, it should not (and would not) be traumatizing. If we cannot teach racism's history as it happened in America, then we will never overcome the racial injustice that continues to plague our country in the future. Mark Twain choose to use "nigger" for a reason, much like any other artist or writer chooses to create and produce works in a particular, specific way. Mr. Twain choose to use "nigger" 219 times for a reason, and that's to reproduce the severity of the harm that racism does in America, not because he was racist and pro-slavery, because he was neither. It will never be appropriate to rewrite history or recreate the original work of an artist in the name of children. Yesterday, it was the decision to ignore the histories and near genocide of the indigenous populations of the Americas, peddling that Christopher Columbus, the greatest mass murderer of world history, is a courageous explorer, and so much so that he deserves his own American holiday like Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, it is efforts to diminish the turpitude of the Old South's past enslavement and subjugation of African-Americans by NewSouth. Tomorrow, who knows? Where will it stop? Only history will know.
Growing up in a public school, even in a upper-middle class district, I remember constantly hearing teachers say how they bought us things out of pocket. It goes without saying that 10% of your salary goes right back into your classroom... This year I have invested in notebooks for every student, tons of pens and pencils, manila folders, file folders, pens for grading, markers for the whiteboard, markers for chart paper, milk crates to organize, bookshelves, treats and prizes for my kids, and whatever else. You might say, Don't you have a supplies budget? and I might answer The teacher from last year (whose job I have) spent it all on things that never showed up & the $200 worth of supplies I ordered with school funds three months ago never showed up... Anyway, note to self: One time buy:
When I first learned I would be teaching elementary school, my favorite memories turned to 4th grade. I had an absolutely remarkable 4th grade teacher who would go on to be a semi-finalist for my state's teacher of the year award. I remember reading Shadow of a Bull in literature circles, being told my new favorite book was at an 8th grade level, singing along with the girls at recess to the popular songs of the era -- either Spice Girls or Titanic. I remember being bullied and picked on, but for things like being really smart and wearing glasses. My memory, however, is overall pretty foggy on many of the details. I do remember having a crush on the same boy throughout elementary school. He lived right around the corner and every so often growing up our families would have playdates with all the kids. I tried my hardest to hide that I liked him so using my skills in logic, I was mean to him and said I hated him. I've learned from my girls this is no longer the accepted rationale in 4th grade. Being mean to a boy is so he doesn't think you're easy. Duh. One thing I have no memory of is how certain bodily functions were dealt with, especially farting. The only thing that sticks out is the phrase "Whoever smelt it, dealt it" I began to realize this would be an issue in my classroom fairly early on. In the middle of class one day, I had a girl raising her hand, anxiously bouncing up and down in her seat. I let the kids get started on the activity and walked over to her. "Do you need to go to the bathroom?" I asked (at this point we weren't really supposed to let students leave by themselves) She shook her head quickly."Do you need a drink of water?" I inquired, now curious why she was so agitated. "No, Ms. Astronaut. I need to go in the hall" she replied. I'd let students step out in the hallway if they needed a minute to cool down, but this girl did not seem upset. "Why?" I asked. Her neighbor looked at me and rolled her eyes. "Ms. Astronaut, she's got to toot." I agreed to let her leave, and as she walked away I turned toward the board and laughed to myself. How ridiculous it seemed that she would get so worked up about farting in class. Little did I know it was the start of a long saga with farting. I discovered as the year went on that she would not be the only student who would ask for a reprieve to relieve themselves in this way. Finally, each time that laughter would erupt over a noxious smell I would say "Guys, it's not funny. It's natural." Some of my better behaved students have started to echo this phrase whenever a farting incident occurs. So why am I just writing about this now? This week, one of my students was having routine flatulence issues. He was clearly embarrassed and it seemed as though something out of the usual had to be going on in his digestive system. We were sitting in a circle on the floor to introduce a math game, in fairly close proximity to one another, when it happened again for the upteenth time that day. One girl almost always leads the charge in laughing and she was not holding back this time. I could see the boy beside looking nervous, worried, and on the verge of tears beside beside me. So I did what I had to do. I took responsibility for his fart. After I claimed responsibility for the smell that was quickly dispersing across the carpet, there was silence. Then the ringleader began to laugh even harder. In my most serious teacher voice, I asked her what was so funny. "But Ms. Astronaut, I ain't never had a teacher fart before!" As the class erupted into laughter, I couldn't help but smile. Even though my kiddos are in the scary discovering hormones phase, they still are fascinated to learn that their teachers are real people. You own skinny jeans? You have a family? You eat lunch when you're not with them in the lunchroom? You like who [insert almost any popular artist here]?!? Lesson of the year: Real people can make mistakes. Mini-lesson of the day: Real people fart.
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