Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Stanky Leg

I worked my first football game this weekend and in the back of my mind I am convinced that is why they lost 8 to 21. They were playing our biggest rivals, who clearly take football much more seriously. They came to our stadium with a full marching band, cheerleaders, and a much more prepared team, complete with back up dancers. Needless to say, we were categorically shamed on our home turf. The game, however, was not the most interesting part. Half time definitely stole the show as the marching band took the field complete with three different "dance" groups. Now I am not sure that you can call what they were doing dancing, as much as gyrating with anger. Each of the dance groups would take their turn shaking their butts as fast as humanly possible, until it was time to be relieved by the next dance group. I was honestly very surprised by the sexual undertones of the dancing, and intrigued by the fact that the dancers did not seem to view it that way. At one point I found myself believing that this was the only logical way to move to marching band music. It was as if booty shaking was merely a cultural dance equivalent with modern day Indians engaging in a rain dance around a bonfire. I was also immediately impressed with the intensity of the performers. These girls could literally have snapped their spinal cords in two with the deliberate intention behind their movement. As a people they do not do anything half way, including dancing. The grand finale began as the drummers all pulsed their hips in a forward motion each time they hit their drums, while the dancers went into a complete frenzy until they all ended up lying on their backs. Even though we were completely outdone, the audience could not help but clap for the ostentatious fashion in which is was accomplished.
The dance that followed the game was another highlight of the evening. Each of the students made their way to the dark gym that was complete with a makeshift D.J. holding a microphone up to a boombox. I was surprised to see the number of elementary school kids at this function, and even more surprised by the manner in which they were dancing. These 4th and 5th graders could literally move their backsides in ways that will not be invented by club goers for another 20 years. Their rhythm and the sheer ability to move is literally astounding. I have never been to a dance before where people were literally dancing with as much intensity as they possibly could, and I have never felt more at home. I know the feeling of needing to move so intensely to get something out. At one point I couldn't hold back any longer and joined in with a common dance called the "stanky leg." I have to say that my students were pretty impressed at just how stanky my legs could get! On a side note, Chiquita found me at the dance and said she will be back from the learning center in 45 days. I am mildly sure she was only speaking to me because here friends wanted to meet the guy from High School Musical, but I am glad that I was able to tell her that I miss her. It was clear that she was by far one of the best dancers in the entire school. I think we may have found a way through to her. I have to admit that I was very concerned with the amount of students I was convinced were either drunk or high. Now I know that this may not be totally uncommon for high school students, but the openness of it all is what caught me by surprise. Many of the students did little to hide the fact that they were intoxicated, in fact I had a conversation with one of my students about protecting his brain from marijuana that I'm positive he won't remember. Apparently drug use is very common in this county. One of the kindergarten teachers mentioned that she was a witness to her 5 year old students rolling "doobies" the other day in class. Once again, I am just trying to be an observer and not judge the situation. I know there is a whole host of reasons that drug use runs rampant in these extremely poor communities.
On the upside I actually had a wonderful day with parent teacher conferences. At the risk of showing my own prejudices, I will admit that I did not expect many parents to show up. That hope was quickly shattered because I was literally in conferences from 10am until 4:30pm. The parents and students I spoke with were also surprisingly concerned about their grades. This was also another aspect of the conferences that I did not expect. There is an urgency here, because many of the parents have witnessed first hand what happens when you squander an education. There was one mother today that had to have her daughter sign her name. I now understand their fear because many of them do not understand what their children are learning, but know that the only way their children will have choice in their lives is if they are privy to a quality education. That is what it all comes down to...choice. The one thing I took away from today is that these parents love their children fiercely and wish nothing more than their success. They also mentioned that they want me to call them so they can "whoop" their kids if they get out of line. It is a great relief to know that I have so many parents standing behind me...with paddles :)

P.S. I wanted to include some more pictures, so here is a picture from the day that 2 of my students poured ethyl alcohol on a pile of salt and started a fire in the lab!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Farewell to Chiquita

I learned today that Chiquita was sent "down the hill." Now I am not entirely sure of what this means, but I do know that it is for the worst of the worst students. These are the students that spend more time in ISS (in school suspension) than they actually spend in the classroom. They call this place the "learning center," although I would be very interested to see what kind of learning is actually taking place there. One of my roommates informed me that his students were passed on in English from their previous teacher because he would give them A's for a dollar. I also hear that this particular teacher now teaches at the learning center. Maybe I should have sent Chiquita with some dollars. I have to admit that I am not the best teacher, because a part of me wanted Chiquita to go there. Whenever she was in my classroom she would fight me on the smallest requests. She spent an entire day standing outside my door because she refused to put her backpack under her seat. This was when I thought that she might actually get more learning done at the Learning Center. I haven't been able to get her off my mind since that incident. Until now no one has been able to get through to her. I just want to take her by the shoulders and shake her until she realizes that she is sealing her own fate. Whatever problems her home life is creating that affect her behavior at school, they will continue to be there for the rest of her life unless she can open up opportunities through education. She will forever remain the "the girl from nowhere with too much attitude." I have to admit that she intrigues me and that I wish I had a deeper understanding of what she struggles with. I watched her pick a fight with a boy twice her size in homeroom today, and then watched a completely different side of her light up when they asked for volunteers to dance at the homecoming assembly. I kind of perked up when I saw this reaction, because I realized that dance may be the one thing that will get through her impenetrable exterior. However, it was right after she volunteered that she was called down to the office, only to disappear down the so called hill. I hear she might be back in 45 days and hope I will have another chance with her. A part of me is grateful that the students in that class will now be able to learn uninhibited by Chiquita's baggage.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On their turf

I had an incredible experience after my disappointing day yesterday. I was on my way to another town to pick up a few supplies, and I saw four of my students get off the bus coming from football practice. I decided to turn around and pick them up, and ended up driving each of them home. It was such an eye opening experience. I have never been so involved with poverty at this level. Each of them live in run-down trailers with only blankets covering the windows. The yards were littered with all manner of debris and I could barely even drive down the poorly paved roads. All of the sudden I came to a fuller realization of what my students are up against. Up until this point I viewed their poor behavior merely as a nuisance to myself. However, I am quickly learning that the behavior expected from them in a school environment, is very different from the expectations they receive at home. I want to make it clear that I am trying not to judge this situation in any way. I am only attempting to describe what I am learning as I observe this foreign culture unfold around me. I was able to stop and converse with many other students that I did not expect to see, and felt a twinge of joy because they seemed genuinely happy to see me. On my way out of the town, I also felt somewhat frightened as I drove through numerous groups that all seemed to stop and question my motives for entering their community. Many of the people refused to acknowledge me as I nervously waved to ease the tension. This reaction only further seemed to prove the undercurrent I have felt coming from my students since day one. It seems to say why are you here, and why should we care? News traveled very quickly the next day that I had made the trek onto their turf. Many of the students seemed genuinely impressed that I would come to visit their meager surroundings. I approached the day with a newfound understanding for my students, and even though I refuse to lower my expectations because of where they're from, I can now stop punishing them for it. Instead I will teach them how to act in this environment, and how to be successful in many other professional circles.
I also had quite a few breakthroughs with my students today! Robert who usually sits in the corner and laughs incessantly, told me today that he now knows that water forms hydrogen bonds. This is a huge leap for Robert, because until this point he would stare at me and mumble something that always ended in a chuckle. Now I do not always understand what he says to me, so I began assuming that he found either me trying teach or learning in itself hilarious. However, I now know that he is very capable of learning, and it helps if marshmallows are present. I had the students make water molecules out of marshmallows and bond them together today. Most of the students were more concerned with eating the marshmallows than actually "bonding" them with anything that could potentially get them dirty. I don't think they are getting very much to eat, because I ended up feeling sorry and letting them eat all of the marshmallows we didn't use. I am truly coming to love these kids.
I learned today that some of my 9th graders are reading on a 2nd grade reading level. No wonder those students refuse to write anything on the board, and usually spend most of their time running around my classroom. I will have to find a new way to get through to them, although we are working on literacy daily in the classroom.
Finally, I will begin a dance club next week. I know this will be a great opportunity to get through to the kids. They have such a natural feel for rhythm and dance, and I can't wait to tap into it. The young man who was just voted most popular in the school will actually be the president of this group. Imagine that a young man who loves to dance can be accepted in this culture as one of the "cool kids." I know my high school experience would have been much different :) He told me today that he wants to complete a dance minor in college, but that he has never had any formal training. Even if he is the only one to come to dance club, I know that it will be worth it. Our first calling is to put together an egyptian dance for the homecoming presentation. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The first fight

I need to take a break from describing the history of this situation, and express the emotion I am feeling. I had my first fight break out in the classroom today. It was during 3rd period, which is honestly the period that gives me a daily knot in my stomach, and I finally realized that things cannot get much worse. I tried to run between them and break them up, but the more I pushed, the harder they fought. Now I guess I can't say I didn't see this coming at all, because I felt myself losing control of the class progressively throughout the period. They insist on talking to one another and whisper all kinds of remarks anytime I try to get them to do anything. I spent a lot of time carefully planning a laboratory exercise for them to complete today, but instead we spent the time talking about how I could be a better teacher. Their main points were that I make them take too many notes and that I'm too nice. I am not quite sure how to respond to that, except that it is clear that I am going to have to get a lot more creative with my teaching strategies. The only thing most of these students are competent at is copying. They will copy from the book or the board, but don't ever ask them to think about what they are writing. For instance, if the question is not multiple choice, they don't even bother doing anything but copying down the question. I can see why many other teachers resort to having them copy so much, because it keeps them occupied until they leave their class. But I don't want my students to just be occupied, I want them to learn. Some days this job is too heavy. I am literally fighting them to learn something. My feet are sore, my voice is hoarse, I have completely worn out all 4 of my dry erase markers, and the thought of doing this again tomorrow is too much. I asked them today if they were learning, and they said they were. The question still remains as to whether it will be enough. The more I look at the statistics of this county and how far these students have to go, I am not so sure that we are fulfilling the creed of the school district: "preparing students to leave here college ready."