Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month, "L.A. Unified board picks Richard Vladovic as new president. By replacing Monica Garcia with Vladovic, the LAUSD board signals the waning influence of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. This begs the question: Are days numbered for embattled Superintendent John Deasy?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Diary of a Rookie Teacher Part 4

Stubborn Teacher Lines Up Against Willful Student, Failure Wins

This post is the fourth installment of a series that examines journal entries recorded by the author of Blocker's Blog, Mark Blocker, during his first year teaching for the Los Angeles Unified School District at now-defunct Henry Clay Middle School. These entries were written 12 years ago in 2001 and appear below with no editing or revisions. They are accompanied by his commentary written now after more than a decade planning and writing lessons, interacting with students from the mean streets of LA and the rural farms and ranches of California's central coast--and observing teachers and administrators with varying degrees of social and educational skills.

SEPTEMBER 20, 2001

Andrew Baxter (not his real name) is in my fifth period class--right after lunch. He is rather unkempt at that time from playing football: grass stains on his clothes, dead grass shards in his Afro. He arrives late. When he didn't have his materials I called his mother who told me he got jumped the previous afternoon.
He complains constantly and never does his work. I've sent him off twice to the counselor. (He likes that--it gets him out of the room and back outside for a while.) Today, I took the class to the school library where they were giving away discarded books for free. He stuffed many in his backpack. He pretended he was stealing some in front of me by concealing them under his shirt with great aplomb. (Other students giggled at his daring stealth, I smiled at rolled my eyes. Andrew enjoyed the attention.)
I watched him while he thought I wasn't looking. (Not because I wanted to prevent him from stealing. Hell, the books were free. I may have been a rookie, but I wasn't that bad of a jerk.) He was moving down the table looking at books. His face was that of wonder. It was relaxed. He was smiling and his eyes were bright, receptive. I hope life gives him opportunities to feel like this more often. He wasn't acting. He wasn't hard. He was Andrew Baxter the kid, and life wasn't so bad after all.

I remember Andrew. He was defiant and non-productive all year, largely due to my lack of professionalism. I was the adult, the professional, so it was up to me to reach out to this defiant kid growing up in the mean streets of South Central LA. I, the king of nonsense to my friends and family, was trying to develop a reputation as a no-nonsense teacher; meanwhile, Andrew was trying to develop a bad-ass reputation that might enable him to walk down the block without getting beat up or shot.
During the year's first open house in October, a distressed, 30-something woman hurried into the room pleading, "I'm sorry...I am so sorry...I'm sorry..." Huh? I puzzled until I saw who was trailing her--a tearful Andrew who glared at me through narrowed eyes, his lower lip trembling. Obviously Andrew wasn't just blowing it in my class. This auspicious annual event where parents and teachers meet for the first time was no pleasant occasion for mother and son.
Andrew collapsed at a desk and buried his face while I proudly apprised mother of her young man's offenses: willful defiance, constantly wandering the room, talking over my instructions, foul language, sexual comments to girls, to name just a few. It felt good back then, but it should've felt like shit. Then, with great aplomb, I showed her the staccato tardy marks that followed her son's name in my attendance book, and the blank squares or zeroes in my grade book that led to an FUU in the final columns. Revenge, I thought. An experienced teacher learns it's a dish that leaves a bad taste and seldom satisfies.
"I'm so sorry," Andrew's mother whispered. She wiped a tear with a balled up tissue. Her voice grew agitated, "How can you explain this Andrew?"
"He's lying mama!"
"All your other teacher's are lying too?" Her response was met with silence and sporadic sniffing.
Andrew was busted. I wonder if he was banking on his mother not coming to open house, or if he lacked the foresight to see this inevitable outcome. I considered my own stupidity at that age, and mused about what must have been going through his mind as they drove to open house, wide-eyed and silent, Andrew searching the windshield in a frantic, fruitless search for alibis. Maybe he thought the teachers wouldn't remember the frustration he caused every day--after all they have more than 125 students. How did the pit of his stomach surge when he realized the bills for bad behavior would be payable tonight?
Exacerbating the problem was this: I was an asshole, too. Andrew was only 12, but I was a 43-year-old teacher albeit a rookie. I failed to reach out to Andrew as a man, and instead engaged in a standoff to see who would win this contest of will. This was my class. I was boss. He was the dumb kid. It was up to Andrew to knuckle under to my authority, I thought at the time. Well, he never did. My stubbornness wasted one living student's 8th-grade academic year.
I saw Alexander's potential that day in the library when he was enjoying himself browsing tables of books without having to put up a hard-ass act to impress fellow students. Sure, he joked about pilfering free books, but that was just an attempt at being funny. He hated the machinations of my classroom because he was In the last year of middle school and busy preparing to enter high school. Andrew was more interested in developing his "street cred" to survive the older, tougher kids at Washington Preparatory High School than he was in developing any scholarly prowess to ensure academic success. He just wanted to survive first; passing classes could come later. Many young people coming of age in the 'hood make that choice. Experienced teachers figure out ways to build channels to interact with difficult but bright students. Head-strong authority figures in urban classrooms are trees that bear rotten fruit.
Teachers working in schools serving tough areas need to be cognizant that they are competing with the streets: the surrounding underground economy and the organizations formed to run that system, and those organizations' consistent recruiting efforts to replace personnel temporarily imprisoned and off the streets or murdered.
I probably could have won a little cooperation from Andrew by pulling my ass away from the table at the staff cafeteria/lounge and venturing out to the PE field to watch him play football. He obviously enjoyed football and worked hard at it as evidence by the grass stains on his clothes and shards in his hair. I could have hollered a few whoops and clapped a little at his endeavors. Kids like to perform for their teachers outside of the stuffy classroom. They remember teachers who go out of their way to watch them do things they enjoy and do well. I could have eliminated those tardies by hanging around while Andrew and the other kids gathered themselves after the bell rang signaling it was time to head to class.
As a kid his age I collected football cards. I still do today. They don't cost a lot. I could have slipped him a Topps 2001 pack of 15 cards for a little more than a buck--a bargain when buying a student's allegiance. I suppose I could have presented him with a duplicate card from my extensive 1968 collection. Of course, that would only happen once I could ensure he was responsible and could sustain long-term cooperation. These simple, affordable gestures would have gone a long way toward letting Andrew know that the big, loud, graying white guy who yelled a lot wasn't such a prick after all.
So, unfortunately, the year ended with no change in Andrew's behavior. Did it mean a death sentence for his chances of graduating four years later? Not necessarily. Contrary to what you read in the newspapers, a lot of kids can have bad years and still pick up at grade level the next year. It depends on their ability to read and encode the words into information they can regurgitate on tests or preferably compare to their own experiences and remember as a truth. Success in school outside of math also depends on a student's ability to develop logical thoughts and describe them in coherent, academic paragraphs. Odds are, Andrew was a proficient reader or else he would not have been so interested in the free books he scooped up that day.
As I recall he selected biographies on professional athletes. It's interesting to note that he ignored the old, over-taught-in-the-ghetto novel, Sounder, set in the Great Depression when a young black boy wanders Alabama searching for his imprisoned father--and learns that a nice English teacher is his best friend. He probably scanned the teaser on the cover and figured it was all bullshit.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Diary of a Rookie Teacher Part 3

This post is the third installment of a new series that examines journal entries recorded by the author of Blocker's Blog, Mark Blocker, during his first year teaching for the Los Angeles Unified School District at now-defunct Henry Clay Middle School. These entries were written 12 years ago in 2001 and appear below with no editing or revisions. They are accompanied by his commentary written now after more than a decade planning and writing lessons, interacting with students from the mean streets of LA and the laborious-but-beautiful farms and ranches of California's central coast, and observing teachers and administrators with varying degrees of social and educational skills.

SEPTEMBER 13, 2001

Writing Prompt: "How are your problems this week different than last week? What insights on your teaching did you notice this week?"

My "challenges" or "issues" (politically correct)that are different this week seems to be that some of the kids who started out quiet are now starting to become a pain in the ass. (Imagine that! They've studied you for a week and figured out what they can get away with.) Then there's Reginald Loans. (Not his real name for obvious reasons. I remember him vividly for reasons now that cause me regret.) He started out rather loathsome (shameful choice of words for a teacher)--failure to bring materials, do work, displaying an indifferent countenance, but this week he seems like he could be engaged. (It was temporary.)
As for insights on my teaching style, I called myself a World War I machine-gun tower earlier this week. I tend to shout down my 4th, 5th & 6th period classes. (Yelling: worst trap for a teacher because it only increases the volume and chaos. Angry shouting destroys the learning environment and turns the room into a punitive cell. Ironically, many kids from tough neighborhoods prefer a jail atmosphere over a scholarly ambiance --especially when they are struggling readers. Who pays the price? Scholarly kids forced by fate to attend tough schools.) I don't think that's good. (At least I was aware of that then.) I could develop an adversarial relationship with my classes. (No kidding. You challenge economically and socially disadvantaged, street-wise students to defy you, and they will gladly take you up on the offer.) Besides, the kids already have enough abuse/noise in their lives.(Again, glad you are aware of the negative forces with which they must deal everyday outside of school. Just don't turn your class into another daily gauntlet they must cross.) But pal, I gotta get control of that class by just about any means necessary. Then we can get work done, learn and have some fun.("Any means necessary"--dude thinks he's Malcolm X.)
The writing prompt means I wrote this journal entry as an opening dispatch in a class for district interns held Thursday nights. The instructors apparently wanted to know whether emergency-credentialed, rookie teachers were adjusting their methods. It's common knowledge that students will usually behave politely the first few days as they study their new teacher trying to figure out what his/her rules "really are." Also, going back to school in the fall is a change of pace for them. After a few days the novelty wears off so it's time to raise some hell to avoid the boring monotony of classroom drills. It is the teacher's challenge to know this and develop management skills that minimize disruptions. This involves limiting activities to 20 minutes, allowing students to briefly interact, encouraging them to responsibly share their thoughts, and providing exercises that address different learning "styles"--visual, linguistic, physical and more.
I'm ashamed that I called "Reginald Loans" "loathsome." I was mean to him, so of course he was mean to me. Looking back, this African-American youngster was dealt a bad hand by fate, society, God--whomever you want to blame. He showed up unwashed, clothes dirty, grass shards in his uncombed hair, continually scratched his itches--and never seemed to have money or meal-tickets for food--all tell-tale signs that he had no parenting or supervision at home. If I would've had the pleasure of Reginald in a class later in my career, I would've had him remain after class, utilizing the "detention" as a vehicle for becoming better acquainted with this distrustful loner who kept to himself even in the halls and communal areas. I would've slipped him a few bucks now and then. Veteran teachers know there's nothing wrong with a well timed bribe. But I wasn't a veteran teacher. I was a stinking, clueless rookie who never taught nor had been in the 'hood for an extended time in decades. Unfortunately it was just more bad luck for young Reginald Loans. Let's hope that big, mean-teacher-in-the-sky has smiled down on Reginald by now.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Diary of a Rookie Teacher (Part II)

This post is the second installment of a new series that examines journal entries recorded by the author of Blocker's Blog, Mark Blocker, during his first year teaching for the Los Angeles Unified School District at now-defunct Henry Clay Middle School. These entries were written 12 years ago in 2001 and appear below with no editing or revisions. They are accompanied by his commentary written now after more than a decade planning and writing lessons, interacting with students from the mean streets of LA and the laborious-but-beautiful farms and ranches of California's central coast, and observing teachers and administrators with varying degrees of social and educational skills.

SEPTEMBER 13, 2001
I started using my textbook today (received and ordered them yesterday) and compared to generating handouts--it made life easy. Heck, it was like getting free money. I even had Dire Straights's "Money for Nothing," going on in my head after lunch. (Yeah? How long did that last?)
The story we're reading is "The Treasure of Lemon Brown." The teacher's edition contains wonderful exercises and insights.(Good God, I sound like a lobotomy patient.)
Even my discipline cases seemed interested. (Reading out of a real book was new to this class. Students enjoy a change of pace.) Several times I had to remind myself to back off and let them slouch at their desks and mutter among themselves once in a while. (Loosening the reins...can't read if you're uptight. Good.)
Yesterday, on the other hand, was awful. Rough drafts of first assignment letters were due. (I assigned them to write me a letter about themselves explaining their interests, goals in life, highlights of their past 12 years, etc. This helps a teacher learn more about the students. It "humanizes" them.) I wanted to work one-on-one with some students. While I did, four started shooting spitballs. (What were they doing, filming an episode of "Little Rascals"?) I went ballistic and made them pick them up with their bare hands. (Oh, tough guy, eh?) Young McKellar (a teacher who helped me quite a bit at first) happened by and gladly escorted them away. He made them write me letters of apologies. DeJuan and Marcus complied. (Marcus was a budding comedian--and likable. His charisma and sense of timing let him get away with a lot of shenanigans.) Lonnel didn't. (Lonnel was a sullen kid. I don't think I heard his voice all year. Never got anything out of him other than crumpled candy wrappers and balled up papers tossed on the floor--his idea of turning in an assignment.) Luciano was absent. (Don't remember that kid.) They are all good kids--just prone to mistakes when they push each other like lemmings. (The image of students running off a cliff is a little strong, here, rook.)

The 8th-grade English textbooks, (Prentice-Hall "Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes" Silver Level) were indeed a God-send. At that time, and for a year or so afterward, I taught the contents in the order in which they appeared in the book. Unfortunately, that meant I was not hitting all the required "power standards"--what the state wants the kids to know in order for them to score high on the mandated tests each year. Instead, I was concentrating on my favorite subject, literary interpretation, while ignoring other 8th-grade content standards such as identifying the traits of different genres of expository writing.
The spitball incident occurred in 5th period. That class soon captured my heart. Eigth-grade students will not listen to a teacher unless he is saying something of interest to a 12-13 year old. But, do they observe! When things are going well, I have a habit of reclining in my chair, fingers laced behind my head, elbows out, and a satisfied smile on my face. One day while the class was quietly writing down answers to a few questions in the book, I was thinking about how teaching wasn't so damned bad after all, and that the kids actually were better daily company than the many smug know-it-all adults in the newspaper biz. I guess I had assumed my favorite posture. When my mind returned to the present I gazed at the class and every single student was leaning back, fingers laced elbows out, smiling back at me. They were jokingly imitating their teacher. It was late September and we had already bonded into a class. They apparently liked me, and I knew I was falling in love with them. We were now ready to learn. Or at least I was. The kids, meanwhile, were going to do a lot of "testing"--of me. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Diary of a Teacher's Rookie Year


This post marks the start of a new series that examines journal entries recorded by the author of Blocker's Blog, Mark Blocker, during his first year teaching for the Los Angeles Unified School District at now-defunct Henry Clay Middle School. These entries were written 12 years ago in 2001 and appear below with no editing or revisions. They are accompanied by his commentary written now after more than a decade planning and writing lessons, interacting with students from the mean streets of LA and the laborious-but-beautiful farms and ranches of California's central coast, and observing teachers and administrators with varying degrees of social and educational skills.

Teacher shortage frees college grads from dull cubicles
This journal you're about to read was required by the LAUSD District Intern program which Blocker  entered at the ripe age of 43. At the time LAUSD had a terrible shortage of teachers, and it was offering a free, two-year program where "interns" were paid to teach while receiving free district classes at night, and some Saturdays, to earn credits toward a California single-subject or multi-subject credential. To qualify, potential teachers had to hold a BA in their subject or pass the California Single-Subject Aptitude Test SSAT (or MSAT for elementary school teachers.) These tests measure whether an applicant's knowledge of a subject is equal to that of someone holding a bachelor's degree.
In 2000, the state's teacher shortage was so severe that the LAUSD even offered classes to "pre-interns." These classes helped people with college credits--and a passing grade on the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST which all substitutes must pass)--gain enough knowledge to pass the SSAT or MSAT. It wasn't an easy route, but many brave individuals wanted to help society--and get a free ticket out of dead-end cubicle jobs.
After 20 years in publishing and the newspaper business, Blocker decided to try his hand at teaching. He had never done anything exceptionally brave in his life, except for entering some tough bars back in his 20s and maybe romancing a few estranged girlfriends of jilted bikers. Still alive despite his youthful follies, he was getting older and wanted to do something better than make rich people richer and poor people poorer. His last private sector job was running the "dummy room," or supervising a staff of four producing page templates for five editions comprising Ventura County's largest daily newspapers all owned by media behemoth Scripps-Howard. It sucked. Newspapers were being bought up and condensed by corporations utilizing new technology to automate many jobs. The days of walking into a building rumbling from an exciting, muckraking newsroom and a giant, independent printing press were limping to an electronic close. Blocker couldn't tell the difference between the paid ads and the news anymore. He was surrounded by yuppie blow and meth addicts; hypochondriacs faking Carpal Tunnel Syndrome; old alcoholics; hacking chain smokers; and fading cardiac patients. Their linking trait: they complained well.
So Blocker answered the call of the nation's second largest school district, LAUSD. Thanks to the amazing book, Understanding Poetry, by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (Holt, Rinehart & Winston 1976) he passed the SSAT English on his first try despite not studying great literature for 20 years; instead writing bullshit about mobile home dealers, and frantically laying out newspaper pages past deadline.  In May 2001 Blocker moved his family from Ventura County down to LA. Soon all hell broke loose, professionally and personally.

Teacher shortage turns into teacher surplus
Twelve years later the dust has settled. Blocker's Blog previously published the downfall of Harry Mills, so you know how this LAUSD career collapsed when the teacher shortage turned into a surplus four years ago. The LAUSD and the state declared war on teachers and their organizations, so top LAUSD brass--answering to their contributors and benefactors in the burgeoning, well moneyed charter sector--began instructing administrative thugs to harass educators out of the industry and give right-wing media misinformation to hasten the impotence of a wilting United Teachers of Los Angeles.
Mark Twain said about numbers used for purposes of deliberately fooling the public: "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." Today, asshole politicians and pundits often cite test scores and drop out rates while deliberately leaving out any context. Their quotes obfuscate the truth but feed the LA Times's and KFI's insatiable appetite to bash and defame the LAUSD teachers and their students. Rest assured, thousands of LAUSD teachers and students arrive at work every day making the best of a very challenging and often unfriendly situation for both groups. Today, Blocker regrets quitting LAUSD and wants back inside. Memories earned during 10 years in rooms 37, 2 and 11 at Clay Middle School run the gamut from elation to disappointment.
Lets look back now at Blocker's journal. It will be posted here in weekly installments with no editing whatsoever. Blocker's comments and thoughts,after reading it--for the first time in 12 years--appear in bold. Readers are encourage to share their comments.

The first three days of teaching saw some interesting peaks and valleys. I believe I have good delivery and rapport with some students. I should have prepared more instructional handouts and decor for the room. (Uh oh: handouts and worksheets--funny money printed by a teacher to buy some time from students.) My 4th and 5th periods contain some potentially massive discipline problems that are forcing me to implement discipline procedures very rapidly. (No shit, huh?) It would be nice to have more guidance from administrators on resources/tools available for instruction: overheads, TV, consumable workbooks. (Those went to the teachers that knew where to find them.) It would be nice to have more cooperation from the kids, (Dreamer) but ironically, and sadly, that won't be the case (See students' job description, rookie.) All in all, the true test in the coming days will be how I can generate quality worksheets, handouts, quizzes and tests both economically and professionally. (You should engage and teach them an interesting concept or useful skill first before you start throwing paperwork and tests at everybody.) It looks like I need a secretary or a cat burglar to accomplish that goal. (You'll soon learn you're loaded with those.) Today the assistant principal visited 4th period after I mentioned the problem. She stayed for half the period then departed. Ten seconds later, the two antagonists started in--but not so bad. They were held reasonably in check the rest of the period.

I remember those two kids. One shares first and last names with a famous comedian who once prided himself on intellectual humor, but now the chickenshit shill competes with Rush Limbaugh for the hearts and minds of xenophobes and sycophants.
Anyhow, this kid, Dennis, was funnier than the famous comedian despite my attempts to suppress him in class. By October, I knew Dennis had a gift that could never be measured in a standardized state test. I still vividly recall the time I was reading to the class Walter Dean Myers's short story, "The Treasure of Lemon Brown." The opening passage describing the setting and bleak tone has the main character, a mixed-up kid, climbing the stairwell of a ramshackle housing tenement. As I read this Dennis got on all fours atop his desk, and started pumping his pelvis up and down while making the sounds of a box-spring mattress coiling and recoiling. Simultaneously he cooed to his invisible lover "oooh, baby, heah it come mama, heah it come..." As vulgar as it was, Dennis was merely providing an appropriate sound effect--if Dean had written an R-rated movie.
I sent him to the back of the room and eventually recovered enough to resume reading. Within minutes Dennis arranged various boxes into a makeshift lunch counter. He had made signs, "Dennis's Wiener Dogs" on scratch paper and taped them to the boxes. He folded more paper into a chef's hat. Dennis was an entrepreneur ready to serve. There also may have been some double entendre on the menu or on his front sign. He turned his detention into a creative endeavor more fulfilling than listening to old man Blocker recite a hackneyed tome about a black kid who learns a wino has painful memories.
The bell rang and the kids left. I had learned a valuable lesson myself that period: These kids needed me like Ray Manzarek's bile duct needed cancer.