I hosted Fluency Olympics in my Rewards classes during this past week in New Orleans. This was my favorite short answer from my students, although many of them were similarly toned. I love that he’s not not afraid to read aloud in class! Watching my fluency students’ incredible growth was inspiring, solidifying my desire to continue to be a teacher in New Orleans. We are officially out of school for the summer. Next stop: summer school. Tomorrow.
I flew to Durham to meet my new nephew. On the cab ride to their house, I had the most beautiful conversation with my Syrian taxi driver. He asked where I came from, what I did.
A teacher in New Orleans carries days worth of stories. (I like that.)
He asks me, Do I think Katrina is more affecting, or is war more affecting? What changes kids more: natural disasters or bombs, guns, warfare?
He’s clearly close to the subject.
I tell him that both affect the children in different ways. Katrina is a natural disaster, although the after-effects were also man made. But war is only man-made. It’s injury we inflict on one another. So both, but for different reasons. How do we as humans hurt our brothers and sisters?
I ask him what he thinks.
He tells me, when he was a child in Syria (since this has been going on for 60 years), he saw death and gore and war. Heads missing. Blood. Body parts blown off. He was just 10. And it changed him.
I wish I could have recorded the conversation, although the conversation’s perfection exists in cab 86 alone.
He asks what stories of the kids I know.
I tell him some. Floating on air mattresses, losing your mother, wading through water for miles and seeing your siblings being carried in an empty, floating refrigerator, living with no food for 5 days with 20 people, your mom not even looking for you for 2 years, thinking she’s dead. I share with him, but speak tenderly and respectfully of my kids, for it’s their stories I share.
He tells me his heart hurts with what I say to him because he went through hell, too. He lived through war, too. He was changed as a child, too, and will always suffer the effects.
When he dropped me off, he got out of the car to tell me a story about always getting speeding tickets on I-70 between Denver and Salina. He had to get out. Too many gestures to stay seated. I bid him good night and told him I would be thinking about his kids, his family still in Syria living in a war torn country, struggling to survive. Literally. To survive.
And once again I am reminded how how lucky I am. And you.
We had a meeting last night for incoming students for next year at our high school in New Orleans. There was a really tall, broad-shouldered kid who was sitting in front of me with 2 pig tails on the crown of his head, the rest of his twists of hair sticking out the back of his head like his fist was clenched on an electric fence.
I introduced myself. He did as well. He had a tender voice, a bit sheepish. Hunched over.
He said he’d be a 10th grader next year. Well, he said, he was 17, but he had recently been incarcerated so he was a little older, but he was gonna be in 10th anyway.
It always stuns me when our students use the word incarcerated.
I told him I’d be his teacher, and I asked him if he liked English.
Yes. He likes to write, and he can rap too. His grades haven’t always been great. He slowly listed his classes and grades one by one. He wants to play basketball. We talked about GPA requirements, classes he’d be taking, opportunities for activities, and coming back to school after being in jail. He said he was worried about it. That he wanted to do well.
I ask him if spending time out of school, being incarcerated, made him change his feelings about school.
He said yeah. I wanna do what’s right. People always told me that it takes bumping your head to get it on straight. I bumped my head pretty hard. But it’s on straight now.
A kid had a wadded up piece of newsprint in his pocket today that he was showing other students. It was a photo of his brother that was printed in the Times Picayune with “Second Degree Murder” under it. Brother is being tried for murder. The kid who was showing the photo has been in jail recently for 5 months. Two days before he got out, brother was arrested. And yes, it’s constantly on his mind.
A girl told me today her family lived in 6 places after Katrina before coming back to New Orleans. When they lived in Texas, her little brother burned down an apartment complex they lived in. He was flicking a lighter under the bed and poof, the mattress caught fire. Her mom grabbed the baby “by the Pamper” off the burning bed and they fled.
Another kid shared the line, “Money is a pacifier,” from his journal. He also wrote down the words pacifist, tenacious, tremendous and trepidation during class. He’s a brilliant writer, rapper, free styler.
Another writerly student revealed that his girlfriend is pregnant and her family is moving her to Georgia next week. He’s distraught. Never going to see his baby. He’s 18, in 10th grade, and excited to be a dad.
Same class, a kid told me that freedom in America is having the right to bear hands. He also drew an automatic weapon on his white board in class today.
Another girl wrote a letter to her brother during my class. He’s in jail, and will be for life. She gives money to her mom to put on his account at Angola so they can talk on the phone, but mom spends it on other stuff. So she writes letters all the time. She had her own envelopes and stamps in her purse.
Students often have letters from family members or boyfriends from jail they pass around for others to read. One kid recently came back from youth study (a.k.a juvey) and held court in advisory telling everyone what it’s like, what not to do, and how much house arrest sucks. Attempted car jacking. Out on $1500 bond. Another kid freely shared how much it sucks to take showers with other dudes. Reason enough to stay out of jail, according to him.
Another kid I had last year who I also have this year told me he’d rather be in jail than school. At least in jail, he told me, they’d just leave him alone. At school, they make him do things. He’s mad at a guy at the convenience store down the street from school for not giving him the right change, so he’s going to steal his car. I asked him if he knew what happened to people who steal cars. Yeah. He does.
The vocabulary word premeditated prompted a discussion about manslaughter through 1st degree murder, and other things judicial. I’ve never seen such a captive audience.
Since last year, 6 of my 8th grade girls have had babies or are pregnant. One girl is having her second child. Since last year.
My favorite student of all time has been talking to his father for the first time. Dad will never get out of jail, but lately he’s been calling. They have man-talk. Their relationship is growing. Dad was 14 when son was born and may never see him face to face.
Today was the start of our end of course exams. Two boys gave me goosebumps when they told me they knew they passed algebra because of me. (I should have been an algebra teacher!) Scores come out early next week. Fingers and toes crossed!
There is a charcoal grey kitten who lives on the street who meows in the most heart wrenching way. Every mew kills me. I want to bring him in but Harry the Cat would not be happy to have a little brother who won’t shut up. Harry is living his senior years in peace. I must remember that this new street kitten is learning the ways of the world, and that I cannot save them all. And then I think of my 11+ hour days and realize that I’m dying trying.
I found a mushroom growing out of the kitchen threshold today. INSIDE the apartment I’m staying in until my partner arrives next week. The mushroom wasn’t there this morning.
Things grow even when we’re not watching. In the damnest of places. This is what keeps me going.
I was spending the late afternoon hours combing through racks of clothes at Goodwill on Tulane and Jeff Davis in New Orleans today when I noticed a young boy staring at me. “I like your dress.”
I smiled at him. Thanked him. Unusual for a young kid to have that confidence. I guessed him around 10.
A few minutes later, I saw him again. “I just really like that dress.”
I told him I had actually bought it at that very Goodwill. It’s a bright orange and purple African fabric patterned dress.
He was wearing a Lemonade Day shirt. Today was Lemonade Day in New Orleans, and the town was bustling with hundreds of kids selling lemonade at their makeshift lemonade stands. Kirshawn told me that he alone sold over $100.
We talked for about 5 minutes. He told me he loved school so much that he asked to go to summer school. That he loved his teacher. I told him that I was a teacher too. His eyes got big. I told him maybe he could be one of my students some day. He told me about his 17 year old sister and 13 year old brother and 5 month old little baby brother. He told me he was a good student. In 3rd grade. And which teacher he wanted for 4th grade and why.
I said, “I bet you have a wonderful mother.” He shook his head and said, “I do. I love her so much.” Then he walked me over to meet her. She and I chatted about the One App process of school selection and how she’d like all her kids to be at the same school. I told her what a bright and confident young son she had, and that he said how much he loved his mother. They both glowed. And then he hugged onto her.
When they left the store, Kirshawn came to tell me goodbye. I told him he made my day.
Today was such a New Orleans day. The sun was out. Seventy degrees. The French Quarter was alive with tourists in for Jazz Fest. I watched with gratitude the city’s inhabitants, so glad to be home. A perfect day to celebrate my birth and my rebirth as a New Orleanian once again.
This morning during advisory a kid turned the lights out in the art room. It had been raining overnight and through the morning in New Orleans and was still overcast, and when the lights went out it went pitch black and I found myself in a room of 15 16-year-olds who don’t believe in ratting on each other and I became afraid for my life for enough seconds that I reevaluated my choice to visit the advisory I visit every morning.
During my reading intervention class I asked the kids to read this word.
Try again. Look at the first part of the word. Not BRIDGE-room. BRIDE-groom. Say it with me?
Good. Does anyone know what a bridegroom is?
A bride and a groom! Ms. Summers! That’s a he-she!
No, Joseph, it’s not a he-she, although it could be. That’s a topic for another day.
Yesterday, another boy was using a stapler as a faux hand-gun. Shooting everyone from the corner of the room. Backed up in the corner, and picking off every kid in the room with a stapler. Disturbing. And I don’t know what to do about it because that’s what happens at home, and even if we pretend that education and home aren’t completely separate, we’re lying to ourselves. Plus I don’t know how to be a 15-year-old boy.
Three students had a full on screaming match in my room today about words in the provide family. Provision. Providing. I stopped them mid-fight, told them how proud I was of them that they were fired up about school, and instructed them to continue. Work it out.
I re-met a kid at school this year that I had as a student 2 1/2 years ago in summer school when I first taught. Back then he free-styled a rap about my coffee breath and how ugly I was, and I distinctly remember thinking that he must really like me, and that he must really want me to pay attention to him. He was little and rough, and when I gave him one-on-one attention he lit up like a stadium.
Now I see him every day. And he’s much bigger and still rough. When I recognized him, I reminded him about his rap (no recollection) and told him how funny I thought he was. He was just a little kid then, in summer school for 6th grade, but I was a brand new teacher with less than 10 classroom teaching hours. He affected me so much, but he didn’t even remember my coffee breath. (I told the story to his sister, who told me I do, in fact, have coffee breath, but it’s no big deal. It’s not that bad.) Every time I see him, he brings back that memory of being brand new in a scary situation.
Monday he was having a super rough day. I asked him if he had gotten a hug that day. No, of course not. So I gave him one. And then we made a deal that we share 3 hugs per day. Everyday. I pretend that the hugs are for him. But just as much they’re for me.
There are certain days, as a teacher in New Orleans, that you wonder how you are going to survive. This is a pep-talk to myself.
You find out a student has taken the city bus from the hospital to the school, dressed in his hospital gown with bandages from the shooting that happened the night before, because he has no where else to go. Because the family he was staying with left town overnight because their house was shot up.
And you wonder how any one of your kids will survive, how they keep getting to school, why New Orleans is so messed up, why violence has been and will continue to be the problem and the solution, and what the hell you are doing about it anyway. And then?
You keep plodding along, smiling at everyone, giving too many hugs to the stinkiest kids, loving the ones that no one loves, having tough conversation with the frequent fliers, encouraging, begging, bribing kids to do what’s right by your standard but somewhat foreign to them. You start to see results.
Yesterday we had our first benchmark for my intervention classes. I set a goal for my kids to grow 15 correct words per minute (CWPM) over a 20-lesson program called Rewards. Rewards helps to increase fluency and therefore comprehension by reprogramming the brain through repetition and exposure to sounds and word parts and word families.
To do a quick check for fluency, we just do a leveled, one-minute oral read to check correct words per minute. I figured, with just 5 lessons completed so far, they’d maybe have grown 5-10 words per minute, or even stayed the same.
The reading passage was about the Iditarod. That word alone could incite acute frustration in my flight or flight students.
But my kids were incredible! Some grew 5 CWPM. Some grew 10. Some 15. Several 30. Maybe it’s just being invested this time, or having a teacher who is invested. Maybe it’s the actual intervention. I don’t even care at this point. When I told them their old scores, their new scores, and how supremely impressed I was with their hard work and dedication, they were ecstatic Giving me high fives. Jumping around. Telling everyone. Telling the principal. Telling other teachers. Best. Day. Ever.
When it’s 5 in the afternoon and you’ve already put in 10 hours at work, and you haven’t even started preparing for the next day, those are the forever-moments that will get you through. You, Ms. Summers. You.