Thursday, September 25, 2008

This is why I'm hot

Today we had "extended division"=shortened classes due to another random standardized test for the Freshman and Sophomores. The actual tests will be held on Monday and Tuesday, and the lunch period classes will be cut to 30mins a piece while the other classes will be cut entirely.

I imagine most of the kids not testing won't come at all.

On extended division days, all classes are cut from 41 minutes from 46 minutes. Students usually have 4 minutes for passing time and extended division days are no different. The extra time is put into the "division period" which is basically what most folks know as "homeroom". In fact, officially, last year, they rebranded "division" as "homeroom", but none of the other vocabulary using "division" got changed. So you get "extended division" days where you sit in "homeroom".

The extended division days are relatively frequent and they are used to allow for paperwork to be done, and assemblies and the like. However, we aren't usually told ahead of time, so sometimes you find out that it's an extended division day when you are in the middle of your first lesson and suddenly the bell rings and everyone runs out of the classroom while you are in the midst of saying, "We only have about 5 more minutes left, so make sure you get the home---*ring* oh crap!"

Then you have no idea what you are supposed to be doing during the time, so the kids all rush in and say, "Do we have extended division today?" and you say, "It looks like it!" and they say, "Why?" and you say, "Well, that is the critical question!" and they say, "Do you know the answer?" and you say, "No."

Some teachers have told me that you never say you don't know because then the kids will think you are weak. That's not my experience. The kids aren't stupid. If you get stern or change the subject, they don't think you are strong, they think you are a liar.

I'm not a liar. So I just tell them that things are broken and I'll tell them everything I do know.

This sounds doom and gloom, but it's definitely not. I love my division, I mean homeroom, like nothing else in the world, and you really must hear about them.

My homeroom is a "demo" division as in "demoted". It's basically treated like a quarantine cell for people who are about to no longer be with us. Most divisions or homerooms or whatever have a number like "913" where "9" stands for the year the class is going to graduate. For example, "2009". However, if you are in a demo division, your number gets pushed back, so instead of "913" you will be "050" in the whole wrong year, and with a number in the middle of the rank like "050", "060" or "040".

So when anyone sees my kids' schedules, they say, "Oh! You are in a demo division! Demo! You slow or something?"

My students are Senior age, and they are in there for different reasons. A bunch failed a ton of classes their freshman year. Another handful transferred in and they've been waiting for like 2 years to get their credits to transfer. Others didn't do service learning hours, or they were entered wrong. A couple are actually Juniors, but the computer system put them in the wrong division, so they have mixed feelings--they still get mocked for being in a demo division, but they are hoping they can graduate early.

In most demo divisions the average GPA is approximately 0.8. The vast majority of students in such divisions never see the stage as they drop out.

I don't like the name "demo division", so I call it a "second chance division". In some cases, it's a "third chance division", but regardless, I really love my time with them.

On most days, I have them for just 12 minutes, and then they run off to their next class, or at least I hope. In those twelve minutes, I am scrambling to prep for other classes, but we manage to chat a bit and mostly troubleshoot.

I'm a little too lax on them, but I think it's actually helped them stay in school. For a kid who's thinking of dropping out, I don't see how arbitrary authoritarianism is going to help the situation. So they know that they need to publicly follow school regulations, but I try not to dress them down if they need to use a piece of contraband to call the doctor's or sit on a desk instead of in it or pull out their hat for a minute.

When they come in reeking of weed, I ask them if they know what they smell like, and how they plan to keep it from messing up their days if they run into security or messing up their teetering grades.

Mostly, I just commiserate when they get mistreated over something stupid like the fact that they are Seniors with a Junior division number, or told that since they aren't going to graduate anyway, they don't get choice of which classes, even though they really need flexibility in their schedules the most since many are taking regular school, night school, Saturday school, and Summer school to get caught up.

I tease them, "For how much you don't like school, you sure are here a lot..."

I ask them daily, "So are you going to make it?" "Of course!"

So I ask them, "I know you are. So what's your plan? You need to get up that grade in Math! Talk to you teacher!"

But I live for these extended division days. Some kids bring homework--as I encourage--but many don't. I used to bring in movies. I try to bring in something thought provoking and entertaining. Lately, though, they go into crazy debate mode. They choose the topics, and I let them go; interjecting once in awhile. One week it's sexual orientation, the next drugs, sometimes sports, housing policy, crossdressing, school rules, sexual protection, and on-and-on. Yesterday was politics. They really don't seem to like Palin. Today was, "Who is the greatest rapper alive?"

They'll get up in each others' faces, but then moderate for each other as well. They'll quiet everyone so their opponent can explain, "Gucchi repeats himself too much and just makes up words! That's not flow, that's just garbage!"

It reminds me how they pass the time brilliantly when they aren't sitting in a structured class teaching them about something they aren't particularly interested in.

When I want to interject, half a dozen kids wave their arms and say, "Hold up, Barrett wants to say something!" and I explain how mainstream rap is too competitive, and collaboration is what's really powerful. Jay-Z battles Nas, but Jay-Z never gets big in the first place without Nas. Some pick it up and others try to tear it to shreds. One asks me, "How do you know this stuff if you don't have a TV?"

They begin to critique the songs they bumped last year and the year before, "Mims, that was weak! Why did we ever like that?"

One of them, AM, was an expert on Chicago Housing Policy--brilliant. But it mostly just jaded him to school in general. Why should he try to learn from a system trying to push him off the face of Chicago. We talked and I tried to get him to stay, but he ended up dropping out and getting him GED.

When grade reports come out, I go over them with them, and we talk plans. "You are failing Ms. C's class?! How do you even do that?!" "Yeah, I don't make it on time..." "Go talk to her! You need that class!"

And they do make it. Of the thirty I had their Sophomore year, most have transferred or dropped out, but some have been transferred in. I now have a core of 15. Most "second chance" divisions graduate about 10%. I expect to be able to read at least 10 names in June and see at least another couple walk in the Summer after the Summer term.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Something I needed to tell you

"A" was a troubled young man. He was charming and attractive, and basically a good kid. He would do fine when I sat down with him and talked things out, but could not function in a class of 40. He was angry, and it would often come out in seemingly ridiculous behavior. Once he wiped dogshit all over the inside of the classroom because he was struggling with an issue outside of school and wanted to hurt others.

On Friday night, it is still unclear what happened, but what I understand is that an argument erupted into physicalities--as often happens in our environment. It was broken up and A headed home--about a block away. The young man he had fought with was waiting for him. A was shot straight on in the chest. He was rushed to a hospital that my wife has often worked at, where he died on the table. He was not a good student and tried his best to grow into a good man, but he was 17 years old. He never really got a chance to grow into one.

When the shooter is found, he will be crucified, but it won't really solve anything.

The school is full of good, smart, attractive young men and women, who have had the worst indignities visited upon them. Some grow into amazing leaders in the face of adversity, many grow hard and bitter and sociopathic, and most just do what they need to survive and get through and end up somewhere in between; a reasonably large number die before they see their twentieth birthday.

On Monday, or some rapidly approaching other day after another good youth dies, the Mayor will go on the TV again and remind everyone how much he cares and give the police some bigger guns and vilify students for gang involvements and tell everyone he will lock up the evil shooter and throw away the key.

And then the next day or the day after another gunshot will sound, and another good young person will be dead.

When people feel powerless, they seize power. The rich play games and toy with others, the middle class buy stuff and the poor, well they grab anything they can have the tiniest semblance of control over.

Or any of us can devote our lives to service and improve the world and help others in a kind of power that does not melt.

However, as I walk into school tomorrow, students will sit in classes, 40 of which have no regular instructor, many of which are core subjects with over 40 students enrolled in them, and no funding for the very extra curricular programs which teach students to turn to community improvement instead of violence to feel meaningful and powerful. And they will grieve and try to come up with a thoughtful response. In some they will be berated by their instructor or sub for not "paying attention" or "sitting quietly". If they are lucky, they'll be able to see a counselor.

Can you imagine just sitting in a classroom, told that you are ignorant and need to take your education more seriously, and not having anyone in that room to qualified and interested in educating you? It's enough to drive any person insane.

Of course, that's not every classroom, and there are a good number of teachers--many smarter and stronger than me--who try to make up for that, or what I do--try to grow the tools so that the students can voice than injustice and demand change.

We have told the district again and again that the students need a loving, consistent, competent adult in every classroom from day one. Instead they point to a dearth of funds, pour millions into their pet schools, and sit on their $500 million surplus.

When your (and I don't mean you personally) kid grows up and makes a mistake that swindles ten thousand people out of their retirements or homes, he'll give a simple "my bad", we'll pay our taxes to save his ass, and he'll parachute into a beautiful pile of millions he made off of his incompetences and improprieties.

When my kid makes a mild mistake or no mistake at all, he'll won't see another sunrise.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? I see none of the three.

But I don't say this without hope. Everyday is a beautiful struggle, and while today is far stormier than most, it has meaning and tomorrow I will be ready, and I will be a healing drizzle misting over the scorched earth that my students miraculously burst forth from, and grow along their prodigious paths.

In the end, many will inexplicably make it, and I hold hope that they will forgive you and I for the sins we have visited upon them.

Peacing out the TV

Liz and I finally got rid of our TV. My old folks took the one that lived on our landing for a year and a half to their new place, and we moved Grandpa's ghost television to replace it.

Grandpa's ghost television is one of the many artifacts that I ended up with after he passed early in 07. It automatically turns itself on or off frequently. It was kind of comforting to interact with all of its quirkiness on a daily basis--it reminded me of my grandpa.

I got home last month and a whole bunch of nice furniture had appeared in the living room. I guess Liz ended up buying some stuff. I threw the old Target entertainment furniture to the curb. Usually I feel like crap throwing out anything, but this was more something that should never have been bought in the first place. At this point, the wooden backing was coming off and was too flimsy to reattach. The nails kept jabbing me while we dragged it outside.

After we set up the new furniture, we weighed the TV. It was too heavy to sit on the new furniture. So we put it on the landing and set up the stereo. We went out to look for a new TV.

After an hour or so, we realized we didn't really want to drop $600 on something that would make our quality of life worse. So we just headed back home and left the mini-compo (stereo) in the center of the new entertainment system.

For the first week, everyday when I got home, I would sit on the couch for a few minutes and stare at the stereo. I think I've gotten used to it. We still get together and watch the news on one of our computers every other day or so.

I think it's working out. I'm no less busy, but I'm going to try to blog again. It's been about three weeks now, and I've been getting more work done.

I'm still thinking about snaking an extension cord out to the landing--not to watch TV, but so Grandpa's ghost TV can turn itself on and off.
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