She’s ELEVEN….

I owe you guys a HUGE update – a LOT has happened since I last wrote and I promise I’ll get you details soon.

For now, suffice to say that I’m working as a long term substitute for a woman on maternity leave and I’m teaching… get this… FIFTH AND SIXTH GRADERS!

I KNOW!  It’s freaking ME out, too!

So far, the gig is good, though I’m insanely glad that I’m only doing this until the Christmas break; I’m sure that I COULD finish out the year, but I’m also sure that I wouldn’t WANT to.  More on that later.

I was inspired to write this, though, because I got a note from a parent this morning asking me to give her daughter an extension on the homework she wasn’t able to do because the math homework took up too much of her kid’s energy.  This is the response I wrote:

Dear Ms. Parent,

Thank you for your note concerning Sweet Girl’s homework.  I wish I could speak to you in person so you could hear the tone of my voice when I tell you that absolutely, under NO CIRCUMSTANCES, is your child to stress out about not being able to finish language arts homework while I am her teacher.

I do my best NOT to give homework beyond asking the kids to read whenever they can, but sometimes, we run out of time and I ask the students to finish at home the work we started in class.  I come to this long-term substitute position from teaching high school and college, and I have been horrified to see how stressed out *fifth and sixth graders* are about academics; I have had 11-year-olds come to me in tears because they couldn’t find three main ideas in a chapter, and it breaks my heart.  I flatly refuse to participate in the stressing out of these kids.

I understand that part of our job as teachers is to give our students opportunities to learn and practice time management and responsibility.  I also understand that putting too much on them at once – and holding them to inflexible standards at this stage in their development – has the potential to do far more harm than good.

I spoke with Sweet Girl this morning and told her that, for as long as I’m her teacher, she should certainly try to get everything done but she is not – EVER – to be frightened if she can’t manage once in a while.  I want the kids to leave their time with me actually enjoying reading and writing and thinking in the ways that language arts classes ask them to; that is going to be much more valuable to them going forward than making sure they finish their homework every single night.

Mrs. Chili
I mean it; I’m HORRIFIED by what we’re doing to these kids, and I refuse to participate I can help it.

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Do Not Lie to Kids. Just Don’t.

I was not expecting to well up while watching the end of The Goblet of Fire this afternoon.
I’ve seen the film a dozen times, at least; I know how it goes. I guess what got to me this time is the fact that Dumbledore refused to lie to his students. Toward the end of the film, he tells them that Cedric was murdered by Voledmort and then tells them that, “the Ministry of Magic does not wish me to tell you this, but not to do so, I think, would be an insult to his memory.”
Not to do so would not only be an insult to Cedric’s memory, but would also be disrespectful to the students.
I have been thinking a lot about what we do and do not tell young people – students, in particular. I’ve never been good at lying by omission. In fact, I lost a job once because I refused to not tell students the truth; I refused to smile and say, “oh, everything’s fine” when it wasn’t.
We expect students to be able to make decisions and to behave like young adults, but we disrespect them by keeping them in the dark about things that matter (whether those things affect them directly or not). If we want young people to grow up to be empathetic, to be able to think critically and well, and to make sound decisions, then we MUST give them the information they need to do those tasks. We have to model that behavior for them – we have to be honest and transparent, and we have to support and guide them as they navigate what we might otherwise keep from them because it’s hard or painful or difficult. We don’t get to complain that “kids these days” don’t know how to handle tough situations while we continue to lie to them by refusing to include them in real life.

In a week, I’m going to explain to my students that I’ve chosen not to renew my contract with the school and I won’t be coming back in September.  I’m not going to smile when they say “see you next year, Mrs. Chili!” and quietly sneak out after the last day.  I do not lie to students – I cannot lie to students – and while it’s going to be tricky to explain to them that I’m not coming back because I can’t ethically remain a part of that staff, I will not disrespect these kids by pretending that I’ll be back in September.


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Yesterday, the poetry club and I did some work with haiku.  I brainstormed a bunch of possible topics on the board and told the kids to just go.  This is what I came up with:

Relief is knowing
you have all your ducks lined up.
The end is in sight.

The smell of fried dough.
Screams from the roller coaster.
The fair is in town.

Walking a mile
in shoes that rip, pinch, and bruise.
Pain is the journey.

She doesn’t know it
but she hates you because you
can do what she can’t.

Breakfast would be great
if it came at ten-thirty
instead of seven.

Babies, I’m begging;
take this shit seriously.
Adulting is HARD.

The ugly and mean
put on display for the world.
Election season.

I’ve tried much too hard.
I just can’t care anymore.
I need to let go.

I just can’t stand it.
All my lines are one beat short.
Haiku is a bitch.

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A Second Opinion

Sometimes, I worry that I’m seeing thing that aren’t there.  I tend to be pretty idealistic and hopeful; I try to see the best in people, and I always think that things can get better, but I recognize that my idealism very often casts a veil over what I’m really seeing.

That being so, it’s hard for me, sometimes, to get underneath bad things.  I tend to be all or nothing; either the bad thing is terrible and needs to be burned to the ground, or I second-guess myself and think that maybe things aren’t that bad and I’m just overreacting.

This is why it’s so wonderful to get second opinions about things.  I have felt vindicated in the fact that several of my coworkers have expressed dismay and frustration about many of the things that *I* see as problematic in the school, but something happened the other day that really confirmed that I’m not making this shit up.

We’ve got a graduate student working here as an aide.  She’s primarily working one-on-one with two of the most needy students in the school, but she also goes to a couple of their classes with them (which is how I met her; one of her kids is in one of my morning sections).  As part of one of her grad classes, she’s required to write reflections about her experiences.

We’ve had a couple of private conversations about the environment of the school.  Most of them have been her expressing her shock over what she’s been seeing; a lot of her experiences thus far have been very different from what she was expecting, and these differences have been troubling to her.  She understands the desire to reject the “traditional” model of kids in desk cranking out worksheets, but she also understands that it’s important for teenagers to have SOME structure – and for needy kids to have a lot of it –  and she’s not seeing the kids get that here.

Her dismay and frustration have increased over the past couple of weeks, and that’s been reflected in her writing for her grad classes.  Here, unedited, is a reflection that she shared with me two weeks ago:

Throughout the semester, I observed several classes in the course of my work as a paraprofessional at  Charter School (CS). In many ways, the experience has been a valuable introduction to the challenges and rewards of high school teaching. I am only more convinced after these observations that teaching is my vocation. The observation has also been useful as an exposure to the alternative approach to learning that CS is modeled on. In the first place, there is no homework. All of the schoolwork required of students takes place in the classroom. Although this drastically reduces the amount of time students are required put into their studies, the hope is that it affords the students the autonomy to direct their learning.
    After two months of working at CS, I am becoming increasingly convinced that this educational model is at best ineffective and at worst, damaging to students’ self-esteem. Unfortunately, the culture of the school seems largely to be one of underachievement. Grades are given on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is the only failing grade. I have yet to understand the minutiae of this grading system, and the academic expectations communicated to students vary wildly from teacher to teacher. However, in most cases, my impression is that both individual assignment and quarter grades are often arbitrary.
    Worst of all, none of this is lost on the students, most of whom seem to be very aware that the expectations placed on them are drastically lower than those found at other high schools. On many occasions, I’ve heard students refer to “CS moments,” in which assignments, activities, or lessons are strikingly watered-down or blatantly age-inappropriate. In one instance, a student asked his teacher if they needed to memorize the material being presented. “You don’t need to know anything,” another student replied, “this is CS.”
    A school with no homework, no tests, no finals. It is as if, in response to the numerous shortcomings of traditional education, CS has thrown the entire playbook out the window. And in its place, CS has established itself as a school that pivots around the concept of project-based learning. What is missing is any pretense of a theoretical framework within which project-based learning is to be practiced and to what ends. In its rejection of all facets of the public school experience, CS has become a caricature of the so-called progressive schools that John Dewey criticizes in Experience and Education, for “assuming that it suffices to reject the ideas and practices of the old education and then go to the opposite extreme” (22).
    Although I disagree with many of the underlying philosophies that structure the classes I have observed, the experience has nevertheless been instructive. It has reinforced for me the value of concrete learning goals in lesson planning. While the concept of learning goals may in some instances be conceived of as being too rigid and inimical to student-centered learning, CS offers a vivid illustration of their necessity in lesson-planning. Most of all, CS has spurred me to heed Dewey’s warning to proceed carefully with branching off from the practices of traditional education––not because those practices are unobjectionable, but because it does not in fact suffice to build one’s educational philosophy on the foundations of the opposite extreme.

and this came as a text message to me this morning:

This. Is. Not. A. School.

Just came from —‘s class. No instructions given for first ten minutes, then a student presentation a la the “Google this shit and present” pedagogy. The presentation closed with a vocab  activity that the kids came up with. And no body. As in not a single goddamn kid even pretended to participate. And — did nothing. So the last 10 minutes were a waste too. Not a school.

My misery kind of loves this company.  If nothing more, she’s confirming for me that I’m not seeing things that aren’t there.


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The Downside of Leaving

I have already made up my mind that I’m not staying at Charter School past the end of this contract.  I had really hoped that I could see some indication that big changes were in the works for next year – not a LOT of changes, but at least a couple of significant ones – so that I could justify staying for one more year, but I’ve seen nothing that indicates that any of the things that I find unethical to the point of being unconscionable are going to change.

Mostly, I’m at peace with my decision.  Sometimes, the only thing that gets me through the day is the knowledge that there’s a clear end in sight (13 more weeks… 13 more weeks…).  Every once in a while, though, something happens that makes me the tiniest bit sad that I’m going to start packing up soon.

One of those things is three of my coworkers.  There are three of the 9 that I work with (well, FIVE, really, but only three I see regularly) whom I’m going to desperately miss.  These people are straight up professionals who care about the kids, care about what they’re teaching, and care about the environment they’re teaching in (and are as frustrated as I am that they can’t effect any change, but aren’t in the same financial position as I and, therefore, can’t afford to bail without having another job in the proverbial bag).

The other thing I’m going to be heartsick about leaving are some of the students.  There are a handful of kids with whom I’ve really bonded, and I’m going to frickin’ HATE leaving them.  This post is about one of them.

There’s this boy; let’s call him Richard.  He’s a freshman in one of my morning sections, and I can already see the gentleman he is going to become.  He is a quiet, observant, thoughtful young man with the kind of humor that you have to look for but, once you find it, it’s one of the first things you see from then on.  He’s gentle and kind, genuine and earnest, and he has bonded with me.  He comes in every morning with a cheerful, “Hi, Mrs. Chili!” and asks me how my day goes.  He grins when I call him out for playing Plants vs. Zombies instead of working on his class work.  He tries to keep his classmates on track and his favorite line when someone’s making me crazy is, “this is why we can’t have nice things!”  I love him, and he knows it, and it’s wonderful.

So, this boy also keeps chickens, right?  He’s my egg dealer, and yesterday I told him I was ready for a new dozen.  This morning, when he handed me the bag, I noticed there was a piece of  paper in there, too.  When I took the paper out, I discovered a note from Richard’s little sister (keep in mind that this little sister is little – I think she’s 8 or 10 – and that she doesn’t come to our school.  In fact, I’ve only met her once, at an open house a few months ago).  On it, she’d drawn a picture of Stitch with an ice cream cone (I have Stitch everywhere in my classroom; the kids know he represents my belief about the importance of chosen family) and wrote “To Mrs. Chili, from Mary.  Thank you for being awesome to my brother and his friends.”

I burst into tears when I saw it.

Think about it for a second.  Why is Richard’s little sister writing ME notes?  How does SHE know that I’m awesome to her big brother?  Clearly, the answer is that Richard goes home and talks about me to his family, and Mary has decided that the things he says are worth writing me a thank you note for.

It’s going to KILL me to leave that kid.

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I Would Have Prefered Monkeys

I assigned my freshman Humanities class a debate about the relative merits of capitalism.  They had an opportunity to line up along a continuum based on how they felt about capitalism after viewing a couple of short videos – one that extolled the virtues of free market systems and one that pointed out that free market capitalism often exploits people, sometimes to the point of effective slavery – and, based on where the kids put themselves, I broke them into two groups and gave them the premise that “the American form of free market capitalism is an ethical and sustainable economic system.”

We spent the better part of a week preparing for the debate.  I gave them handouts, directed them to sources that would be helpful to them in supporting their positions, and encouraged them to meet periodically to clarify who would be doing which job in the team.  I showed them a video of a sample debate and mapped out the way their debate would be run, making clear that every role in the list had to be filled by different people; every member of the team had to participate in some meaningful way.

The debate was today, and one side essentially walked all over the other.  The differences in the groups’ performance was so great as to be…. well…  Let’s just say this; when it was all over, I asked the class to debrief their groups’ work and to reflect on what they might do differently next time (because there WILL be a next time; they really didn’t meet any of the benchmarks for the assignment).  This, unedited, is one of the responses I got:

My team fucking sucked.  Four out of seven people didn’t do any work.  One of these four didn’t even know what the hell we were doing.  A monkey could have done better than half this team.  Next time, I want a new team.  I don’t want to be stuck with people who don’t do shit.  It was embarrassing to be with this team due to the fact that they never work or pay attention.  Overall, I hate most of my team.  I would have preferred monkeys.


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Yes. Yes, This is a Fight I Want to Have

It happened again.

So, the last time I wrote here, I related the experience of having what essentially amounted to a confrontation with a coworker over the expectations about students using cell phones.  Since then, I had ANOTHER confrontation with the same coworker, this time about students not meeting reasonable deadlines.

The culture of this place is kind of a mess.  There are rules, but no one is really 100% sure about what they are and they’re not consistently enforced, anyway, so the bulk of us (those who are bothered by the wiggly nature of the official expectations) feel insecure ALL THE TIME.

I am trying to change that, at least in the spaces where I have some influence and control (like, you know, my classroom).  Case in point; a week or so ago, I handed one of my classes a permission slip to watch a film.  I gave them the slip on a Monday and told them that I would be screening the film on the following Monday.  I told them that, if they didn’t have the permission slip turned in by Monday, they’d be sent out of the room with an alternate assignment.  I sent an email home to the parents of every student in the class, asking for a signed permission form.  I reminded the students EVERY SINGLE DAY that the permission form was due on Monday.

On the Thursday before the Monday due date, I had a conversation with Stan about this.  I told him that I was planning an alternate lesson for the students whom I suspected still wouldn’t have their forms and asked him to find a space for those students to work (because that’s part of what Stan does).

AGAIN, I got the “Chili, is this REALLY a fight you want to have?  If some students don’t come in with the form, is there another movie you can show them – one that doesn’t require permission – that will do the same thing that this R-rated movie does?”

Um… NO.  NO, Stan, I WILL NOT change my lesson plans to accommodate students who can’t be bothered to meet a minimum standard of responsibility.  I WILL NOT push my lessons forward to accommodate the kids who can’t be bothered to meet deadlines.  YES, this is a fight I FUCKING WANT TO HAVE.

Of course, I didn’t actually SAY this, but MAN, did I want to.  Instead, I pointed out that I had put a lot of thought into my lesson arc and felt that this was an important component to the big picture concepts I was teaching in this unit so yes, I did want to have this fight, and I would appreciate it if he supported me in it.

He left the meeting pissy.

That was Thursday afternoon.  Friday morning, I took the bull by the horns and, in our daily all-school meeting, announced that any student in that class who doesn’t have a signed permission slip by Monday would be sent to the office with an alternate assignment.  I made this announcement in front of the principal who, to be fair, probably didn’t know about the “conversations” I’d been having with Stan, but I wanted to make my announcement public and in full view of the guy so he’d know, when it inevitably came down to a fight between Stan and me, that I’d been VERY clear about my expectations and VERY reasonable in the time and latitude I’d given the students to meet them.

Remarkably, it didn’t come to pass that I had to send anyone out of the room; the kids who didn’t have signed forms were absent that day, anyway, so, gratefully, I didn’t have to have the fight I knew Stan wanted to have with me.

I told you that story to tell you this one.

One of the other teachers is trying to run a field trip, right?  ALL week, she’s been making announcements in the all-school meeting that she NEEDS the kids to bring their… wait for it!… PERMISSION SLIPS in so that she can make the trip happen.  The kicker of THIS is that if she doesn’t get a critical mass of kids, she CAN’T MAKE THE TRIP HAPPEN.

This morning, the principal asked her, after her announcement, when the deadline for the trip is.  Her answer?  “Yesterday.”  She’s negotiating with the bus company and the folks at the destination for the trip to give her an extension on the deadline so she can collect enough kids to make the trip happen.

The principal had a meltdown right there on the spot.  He’s “tired” of students missing deadlines.  He’s “bothered” by how little effort students make at meeting their responsibilities.  He’s “disappointed” that he’s hearing that this is even a thing.

The whole time, I’m standing there thinking, “REALLY?!  This is NEWS to you?  Have you TALKED to Stan?!”

When I got to my room, there were THREE DIFFERENT EMAILS from other teachers asking me the same question.  “I found it completely unbelievable. He is so ticked off by this one thing. Why should we expect any different? How does he think WE feel?” one of them wrote.  “Yeah, I think we need to address this with the whole staff. It’s crazy to expect these kids to respect deadlines given the school’s approach,” another one said.

There’s so much more to say about today – the “deadline” tantrum was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg into which our putative leader crashed today, and not a single crisis that boiled his blood came as the least bit of a surprise to the rest of us – but suffice to say that I’ve been biting my tongue – literally and figuratively – all day.

Sometimes, the fortitude it takes for me to be discreet and professional is almost more than I’m cut out for.

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