Weekly Vocabulary Words Spell Trouble As Do the Bare Walls of His Drab Classroom Inside Low-Performing, Demoralized School
The following is the 10th installment of a series of “fictional” stories detailing the final days of a teacher’s employment within the Los Angeles Unified School District. The names of the characters and locales have been changed because when the series started, the author was still employed by the LAUSD and thought it wise to cover his ass in case somebody with power read this blog and decided to fire him despite what would, of course, be disapointingly futile intervention by his expensive union that is always too busy anyway resisting sensible change. Now, after resigning and enjoying gainful employment in another, highly functioning public school district 200 miles away, the author is considering naming names and identifying the fouled-up schools. Until then, enjoy the story which is written more to amuse the reader than promote a political agenda.
By Mark J. Blocker
So called “experts” in the field of contemporary education advocate doing away with weekly vocabulary words. Instead, they recommend teaching vocabulary solely within the context of what the students read. Meaning—no weekly vocabulary words pulled out of a teacher's ass. Teach words gleaned from the literature surveyed during the course.
Harry Mills, a nine-year veteran teacher and refugee from the publishing business only partly agrees. By all means, study selected words from reading materials, but also instruct students on how to identify patterns in words. Do this by employing a systematic, weekly vocabulary program stressing spelling and usage of words with common structure.
Some would agree
It was early in the 2009 academic year when Mills was sitting in the office of Ms. Moon, his principal at the now-defunct Missouri Compromise Middle School asking her permission to continue augmenting his curriculum with weekly vocabulary words—in addition to vocabulary from that year's literature.
She answered, “Although the (Big City School District) prefers you teach vocabulary in the context of literature, I’m not going to dissuade you from continuing your vocabulary program, Mr. Mills. It seems you’ve thought this over well and have planned out a rigorous course of study with high expectations for your students. It also adheres to California content standards for language arts in your grade level. So I’m fine with it.”
“Thank you, Ms. Moon.”
“Thank you, Ms. Moon.”
Getting up from her desk she smiled, “Besides, I had weekly vocabulary words as a child. So did you. And we turned out fairly literate and educated.”
Mills liked and respected his principal Ms. Moon. He admired the way she administered a tough urban school despite her diminutive stature and quiet demeanor. She was the opposite of Harry, who used his big size, loud voice and bombastic instructional style—and a lot of self deprecating humor—to disarm his ghetto born-and-bred students—plus the ESL children secreted across the border sometime during the not-too-distant past.
It was a shame the BCSD Board handed over Missouri Compromise to a private charter operator, despite the retiring superintendent’s recommendation that Ms. Moon and her faculty be awarded stewardship of the school.
A study later released by the University of California suggested schools operated independently by district staff outperformed charters. Furthering the insult, crooked charters were getting popped left and right for doctoring scores and giving students the answers to State standardized tests that measure a school's performance. Furthermore, members of the public and some staff were complaining about the School Board’s collusion with charter operators. The relationship was so fraught with illegalities that, after conferring with the teacher’s union, the new superintendent issued an edict declaring that proposals from current BCSD employees “should be strongly considered” before bids from private, for-profit charter school companies. To avert yet another lawsuit in an otherwise unending series, the Board agreed via a unanimous vote conducted out of the public eye. That's about as much consolation now to Mills as a low-tar cigarette and cure for cancer are to a cooling corpse.
Back in the principal’s office
So there he sat, now late September 2011, in the office of Wanda Sharperson, his new principal at his new, low-performng school--defending his vocabulary lessons once again. But this time it was to no avail.
“Please understand that I also teach vocabulary in the context of the literature," Mills pleaded. "It’s just that I believe students need a program where they are taught patterns of words. I start out with long and short vowel sounds, then cover singular versus plurals, then we go on to Greek and Latin roots and so forth,” Harry explained while Sharperson closed her eyes and shook her head side to side.
She bared her teeth. “You must teach vocabulary in the context of the literature, sir. It’s a mandate from the district. It’s a mandate from me.”
“But these kids need . . .”
“These kid,” she interrupted, “They are our students, our children, sir!”
Mills momentarily imagined he was married to Sharperson, and they were fruitfully multiplying, producing offspring. Little Mills-Sharpersons running around greater LA. She wasn’t bad looking, but God, was she turning out to be a bitch. Mills, now wizened in his mid 50s, chuckled to himself trying to calculate how many young dopes eventually end up with a similar mantra.
“Is there something amusing, sir?"
“Well, I don’t need you here dumbing down my curriculum and laughing about it,” she snarled.
Deployed to a dying school
Mills absorbed the reality of Sharperson’s hostility. He also contemplated the irony of dumbing down a school which the previous year had an even lower API than the school from which he came. Yep. The BCSD had displaced Mills from one abandoned sinking ship, Missouri Compromise, to another that was in the final year of “program improvement.” Only this one was so demoralized that the staff wasn’t even bothering to write a proposal to operate it. What’s worse, no private charter operator wanted it. And here was Sharperson, a raving lunatic of a captain, waving her verbal sword at Harry while he considered his options: 1) Kiss the bitch’s ass and suck up the shit; or 2) Roll the dice like he did 10 years ago at the shrinking newspaper and switch careers in mid-life.
Your room is ugly, too
Then Sharperson raised the ante higher. “And what about your room? You’ve been here two weeks now, and except for those posters your kids made the first day the walls are still bare! May I remind you, Mr. Mills, that State standards for the teaching profession require you to create a text-rich environment conducive to learning? A pleasant, culturally inclusive environment for your students.”
“I know, I know,” Mills stammered. “It’s just that I spent two weeks and over two hundred dollars of my own money at the start of this academic year to get my former classroom at Gibson prepared, and then I was abruptly transferred here.”
“I had nothing to do with that! You could’ve brought your materials along with you.”
“I suppose so, but it seemed a shame to rip apart the room after the children seemed to enjoy it. Those materials were geared toward 6th graders anyway. I’m now teaching 7th.” Harry thought about the 10 years worth of class decor and supplies he left behind at Missouri Compromise.
Mills assured Sharperson he'd set up the room, then he walked out of her office about as pissed as he had been in years. He placed his hand over his heart to check if it was pounding. It wasn’t. He slid his tongue over the top and bottom molars on his right side to see if they were grinded down to nubs. They weren’t.
Life beyond school
As he walked along the grimy, hock and gum-stained halls of Darwin MS toward his unprofessional classroom, Harry gazed though the 10-foot-tall, fortified-iron fence and across Payton Avenue toward the business across the street. There was the garishly painted “Rodriguez Tranmisones” in hand-rendered red letters across high-gloss blue enamel on cinderblock walls. Ol’ Rodriguez was there, legs sticking out from under a 32-year-old, root-beer-brown dented Toyota Corona. Lounging in the sun was Rodriguez’s German Shepherd who, despite his apparent freedom from chains and fences, seldom ventured far from the patch of sunlight that moved back down the driveway as the workday wore on.
Harry unlocked his classroom door. Despite the summer sun, the hall and room were cold and dark thanks to overgrown fichus trees planted years ago along the parkway and now lifting up chunks of sidewalk and street causing tires to loudly slap as they rolled over the ripples and cracks all day.
Harry turned back to the dog he nicknamed Sunshine. Miraculously their eyes met despite the ongoing traffic between them. The prostrate dog’s tail lazily lifted up then fell back down. He slowly gathered himself and sat up to look at the strange teacher across the street. It was almost like he wanted to come over. Then he lied back down again. Harry observed the dog's deep sigh, and took a nice deep breath himself.
There was about 20 more minutes until his first batch of students would arrive, so Mills went over to the Title 1 room to see if there were any available materials with which to decorate the room.
Ms. Jefferson, who reminded Harry of Red Fox's antagonistic sister in law on Sanford & Son, sternly stared back at Harry. She listened to Mills, frowned, and shook her head no. “You need to go to a teachers supply store. We don’t have anything like that.”
“OK, thanks.” Mills muttered before returning to his room. Back inside he sat down and surveyed the drab walls. Sharperson was right, the room is ugly. This whole school is ugly. My entire career is now fucked up and ugly as all hell, Mills fumed.
He shrugged, went back outside and gazed across the street back at Rodriguez and his decrepit cars and satisfied dog. Then the bell rang, and soon the students would arrive. They'd make Mills feel better. They were they reason why he got into this business in the first place.
First to arrive was Aaron Rodriguez, a big boy with a tousled mop of black hair who kind of reminded Mills of himself when he was a kid.
“Hey Rodriguez," Mills asked, "is that your dad’s shop over there across the street?”
“No. My Dad’s in jail, mister.”
“Oh, ho! His Daddy be locked up,”taunted Ray-Ray Jackson. Ray-Ray was the kid in the previous story with a fist full of Red Vine licorice who was the first student to introduce himself when Harry arrived at Darwin three weeks ago.
“Shut yo ass, Ray-Ray! Yo’ daddy a muthahfuckin dead nikka cuz he . . .” With that, the two lads tore at each other and commenced fighting like a pair of bucks trying to sharpen sprouting horns.
“Here we go,” Mills said while thrusting his arms between the two.
It was going to be a trying day at Darwin MS—where only the strong survive.