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.