Saturday, September 22, 2007

My life is all I have

Ok so check it out. Detention is bullshit. For how progressive and liberal my school is (or claim to be), they (that’s messed up how I refer to MY school as THEY when it comes to this! Lol).. Let me back it up. The school that I’m at holds on to detention like drinking water from a water fountain. You can get detention for anything: for breathing when you weren’t supposed to, for smiling when you were supposed to be screw faced, for enjoying life- or rather singing too loud during lunch when you were supposed to be calm, orderly, and ‘appropriate’. Well, some of those things I exaggerated with, but you catch my drift.

So like my schedule isn’t full enough, I had to give up my lunch break (my only ‘prep’ on Fridays) to be the detention room overseer supervisor. So when the period before lunch let out, I popped in my stuffed chicken in the microwave and headed down to the cafeteria to pick up the criminals students. I got the Jena 6 middle school 8 but on the way back to my room, I had to make two stops: I had to get my chicken (lol), and I had to get the mandatory detention forms from the office that the students need to fill out once they finish their lunch. As we are all walking back to my room, I’m reading the student detention form. WHAT? Write an essay about Abraham Lincoln….????? What???? I get to my room and the first thing I do is set down my chicken, then I take the sheets and toss them in the trash. I tell the kids that they have ten minutes to eat their lunch and then we have work to do.

After each student finishes, I tell them that they need to come up to my desk and tell me why they have detention. One student says because he was chewing gum in the hallway. Another student became teary eyed and told me that she has detention because her mother decided to make her breakfast because today is her birthday. It was the first time her mother had ever made her breakfast before school. On top of that she lives an hour and 30 minutes away by train and she arrived to school 8 minutes late. Two best friends were in detention because the day before, they didn’t come inside immediately after the bell rang.

All of these offenses seemed extremely minor. So minor that I felt like not only was this a waste of my time, but also of theirs. So to turn a major negative into a positive I had them write poetry, starting with the line from one of pharoahe monch’s rap songs, My Life. The first line is: My life is all I have. I told the kids I wanted them to write a poem, a rap, or a song starting with that line. They got to work. Pens skated across their pages. They were into it. It was relevant. It was self-reflective. Isn’t that the point of detention? To get the students to think about their actions and their lives? I felt like I circumvented the unnecessary BS about good ol Abe Lincoln by throwing in some relevant stuff. They want differentiation right? Well here you go.

When it came down to ten minutes left, the kids were still heavy into their work. Out of nowhere, I delivered mine:

my life is all I have
like a KING I am free at last!
for our lives im scared cuz even Brooklyn has Baghdad blasts

my life is all I have!

no phones or gold, degrees or clothes
my life… so controlled yet free
sometimes even I forget it belongs to me
sometimes I forget to just, be

so i.. ‘do’ instead of ‘be’ black
i act wack
i gum smack and talk back
i walk back and arrive late
i have good intentions but it was my mother that made me…
and I wanted to go in, but on the yard we had a friendship session

but next week is new…
and this life is too…
and its mine, forever

I saw the eyes that make teaching worth it. I saw the eyes of students that want to control their destiny, their minds, their education. I saw eyes of re-focusing, re-determination, re-mind(ers) of why we are here, our purpose. And it was reflected in their poetry that I asked them to share before heading back to their class after lunch.

Mission accomplished.

I had to write them all passes for being a few minutes late to their next class. Surely I didn’t want to be the cause of yet another detention!

Sunday, September 16, 2007


I was trying. I was trying hard. One thing that stood out to me the most during my pre-service classes at my university was the necessity for special education teachers to accept their role as an advocate for their students. We spent almost two or three sessions on advocacy.

A reoccurring theme that I was starting to notice was that with special education students, many times the train leaves them at the station, so to say. Nobody pushes for them, nobody fights for them. And there are many factors for this. Parents often times do not activate their power as the primary advocate for their child for two main reasons- either they do not have time to navigate and learn the bureaucratic machine called the Department of Education (DOE). To know this machine requires knowledge of its language (similar to a foreign language!), the way it’s organized, and patience! Or the parents simply just do not know of the parental powers of which they have.

So when a situation came up which I figured could use some beginner’s advocacy assistance from my end for one of my students, I jumped to the occasion. However, I realized only later that I was going up against a monster, even though it appeared at first to only be a molehill.

Bus service.

One of my students has bus service per his I.E.P. This means that the DOE provides door-to-door service to him at no cost. Bus service for general ed students stops at 5th grade, so it is really only special education students that have this type of service. I became aware of this particular problem while calling “Mike’s” family in the days before school started. I decided to call all of my students’ families to 1) introduce myself to them, and 2) to see if they had any pressing issues or concerns before the start of school. Mike’s Mother told me that everything was fine except that information about Mike’s bus service hadn’t arrived. Ok bet. I told her that I would look into it and I would call her back. Surely I could have told her that she needed to call the Office of Pupil Transportation (OPT) to ask why the information hadn’t been arrived. But naw yo, ‘I got this! Let me try out my roll as an advocate,’ I thought to myself.

So I called OPT. I waited on hold to speak to someone for 27 minutes. Come to find out, Mike’s NYC DOE ID number was not even in the system so the lady on the phone couldn’t help me whatsoever. Ok bet. No problem- let me call the DOE. After holding for 46 minutes, the lady who picked up the phone was ready to help me until I told her that Mike is a special ed student. She cut me off mid sentence and in a matter of fact way (I don’t blame her, she was probably tired), she told me that the DOE does not deal with services as it relates to special education students. Ok, let me try the Office of Special Education Services- surely they would be able to help us because after all, it is on their very own paperwork (IEP) that grants Mike this service!

They were able to locate Mike. They saw that he in fact has bus service, but the destination school was incorrect!! The destination was for PS XXX, the elementary school that he graduated from. I repeat- the school he graduated from last spring.

I’ve spent over a week calling what seemed like the entire NYC DOE and I have had very little luck making progress. There really is no positive end to this story. Mike still doesn’t have bus service to the correct school, and his mother daily calls me wanting an update. I asked my principal if she could help to resolve this problem, and she has been working on it for a few days.

My work as an advocate is clearly going to be a difficult task- no matter how big or small the battle is that I attempt to resolve.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Beginning of my NYC teaching career

My first week and a half of teaching in New York City has been possibly the most amazing ten days of my life. The energy of my students, their chaotic passion for learning, their promise to be scholars now and collegiate scholars later, have all been very inspiring for me as teacher, an advocate, and a person.

Let me back it up a few weeks….

August 24th at 9 AM.
It’s the last day of professional development week at my school. In about a week, the hallways will be filled not with empty boxes that once carried brand new text books, staples, paper, and chairs, but will be capacitated with bouncing and rambunctious middle school students- eager to show off their new fits, talk about their summers, and grow into their slightly larger frames than the school-year before.

So there I am- standing and about to speak to the entire staff- my hands wet with nervousness, my documents neatly in piles waiting for distribution. On the program for the day, the first section was listed as “Special Education Workshop.” Special Education is new to this school, being that it has only been open for two years. Whoa. I have barely finished my first set of graduate level classes and I just completed a crazy summer of student teaching, and all of a sudden I was leading a content workshop to my staff on Special Education and Collaborative Team Teaching. Since when did I become a special education specialist?! I was up late the previous nights preparing for this workshop.

Just three days prior, I had been emailing my professors from the summer to try to figure out what I can possibly say to my colleagues, some of whom had been teaching for over ten years. I was also nervous about my abilities to teach about disability for other reasons. Over the summer in my formal introduction to education through university coursework, differentiation was presented as an educational strategy to be implemented within the realm of special education. Interestingly enough, our entire week of professional development had an emphasis on differentiation. It became very clear that differentiation was not just a crucial teaching method for special ed students, but really just means “good teaching” in a general sense.

Based on the already solidified emphasis on differentiation at my school, I asked one of my professors how can I possibly be in a position to teach my colleagues what good teaching should look like? I was given encouragement. He said, “you know more than you think you do- your experiences both inside and outside of the classroom will be extremely helpful to your colleagues.” And it was. We did powerful simulation exercises on dysgraphia and dyslexia, I described and modeled the different methods of collaborative team teaching. I also discussed some of the realities and strategies of some of my students’ needs, as well as going through the information on some of my students IEPS. The workshop was about an hour and a half, and almost all of the teachers commended me on the quality of the workshop.

Fast-forward- September 4, 2007: The first day of school.
A day I will always remember. I had my fresh cut ‘Fro-Hawk,” I sported my Dashiki that I got in South Africa, and I had the confidence of a seasoned teacher. I kept thinking about why I’m doing this: I’m here because my heart said so… my heart told me so. I’m here because if it’s not the streets it’s the prisons that are getting our youth. And if it’s not the prisons, it’s the army. I am here because I don’t just want to encourage my students to go to college, but I want to prepare them- academically, mentally, and crucially for LIFE. This year, my 6th graders will be preparing for the rest of their lives- so of their lives, they can THRIVE, not just SURVIVE.

These past two weeks have been very very busy- so busy that I have not played much basketball or written much poetry- two great passions of mine. Needless to say, I have definitely not been able to write on this blog- lol. But, I am getting into a routine, and I am looking forward to continuing my passion of playing sports and writing, and I am also looking forward to re-joining this blog community.

Big respect,
eh Mista! (as they call me- lol)