A lot of my artwork has to do with students and teachers, and of course, the schools they attend. I wonder where this obsession came from?
There’s a lot of science fiction elements in school. After all, we are preparing students for the future.
It is hard to tell just by looking whether this school is in the past or in the future. The secret is, this illustrates a science fiction novel I haven’t written yet. It is on another planet three thousand years in the future.
This picture of one of my last high school ESL classes is not realistic. Students are far more cartoonish than they are pictured here.
Of course, school is not about the teachers. It is about the students.
These two are Blueberry Bates and Mike Murphy.
They are fictional people.
But they are based on three different seventh grade couples I taught in Texas.
One set actually grew up and married each other.
You know how you can tell that this school is from science fiction? The student in the picture is actually a robot who looks human.
Teachers are not supposed to fall in love with students. Of course, when the school district tells you that, at the beginning of the year, they are talking mostly about high school students, and they are talking exclusively about romantic love. I have never had a real problem with that rule. Romantically, little half-brained and totally immature middle school students are downright icky. Especially the walking, talking, and sometimes farting middle school boys.
But schools, even though they can’t really say it, and some administrators don’t believe they want it to be so, they want teachers to have “teacher love” for students. That means, in a vaguely defined way in administrative brains compatible with the real meaning of “fully funded,”that they want teachers to become surrogate mothers and fathers to students, the kind of love you have for an orphan you have adopted because you can plainly see they need someone… anyone… to love them and care for them… no matter how ugly they might be on the outside.
“To be a good teacher, you gotta learn to love ugly,” Head Principal Watkins said to us all for the two years he managed to love our faculty. And he meant it. I was not the only teacher I heard him tell, “You are a wonderful teacher because you care about kids.” And he meant it. Not like most principals.
But when you see a picture of David, the way he was back then, you can see he was not ugly. Just his situation was ugly.
He was one of six kids that lived with his single mother in the housing project for low-income families. His mother had, at the time the principal called me into his office, been cited by authorities twice for neglect of her children.
“Mike, I know you have mentored and helped several kids outside of school. And we have a boy coming into your seventh grade class that we would like for you to help out however you can. We know you went through the whole social-services and foster-parent training from San Antonio. And David Gutierrez could really use a bit of a boost from you,” the Head Principal told me behind closed doors.
Boy, was that ever an understatement. I was spending considerable time hanging out with the pretty blond reading teacher. The first time I cooked for her, fried hamburgers and instant mashed potatoes, David had a plate already at the tiny table in my little apartment. And, skinny little thing that he was, he ate three quarters of all the food I had badly cooked. Annabel didn’t mind. And not because the burgers were burnt and the potatoes were runny… I am still not a great cook. She would become David’s second mom for those next three years. She gave him as much if not more “teacher love” than I did.
He was not a good student in any of his classes. But he was an adequate reader, and he actually improved noticeably in the time he was hanging out with us.
But he gave us a turn during that first fall when he got sick. He had the seventh grade History teacher first period every morning. And one day in October he reported to class all listless and red-eyed, And Mrs. Finch was a sharp and capable teacher, knowing what drug problems looked like, and what they didn’t look like. She sent him to the nurse. It was a fever of one-hundred-and-three degrees. The parent was called, but the parent didn’t answer. So, immediately after school Annabel and I took him directly from the nurse’s office to the doctor. And after it was determined he had a bad sinus infection, we took him to my place and put him in the spare bedroom (all apartments on North Stewart Street were two-bedroom, but there was only one of me.) Annabel stayed with him while I filled the prescription for antibiotics. We got him dosed and rested at least before his mother returned from her cleaning job in Laredo, sixty miles south. We told her everything that happened. And she took him home. His two older sisters took over nursing duty.
But when the school contacted the doctor, it was explained that the infection was severe mainly because David was malnourished and dangerously anemic. Of course, that was evidence of neglect and had to be reported.
In order to avoid having to give up custody to the State his mother moved him to Laredo, closer to her work. Both of the older sisters, Bunny and Bea had advised their Mom to give him to Annabel and me. But, of course, we were not married and in no position to become his actual parents.
So, David spent two months in Laredo, calling me every night from a pay phone. His grades in school tanked. He was miserable and lonely.
The problem was worked out in David’s family. His older brother sent money every month to his two older sisters. And Bunny had a job and kept the apartment in Cotulla for herself. So, as a compromise, since Bea was already living there with Bunny to attend high school, David came back to live with them, along with his younger sister. They returned to the school where all their friends were.
Through the rest of David’s seventh grade until the end of high school he was like a son to me. He was constantly at my place, playing computer games, watching VHS movies, and charming my girlfriend. (Annabel had the apartment next door for three of the next four years.) I played games with him. I fought with him about getting his homework done. I basically did the Dad-thing for him, something no other man had ever been bothered to do. In later years he would work as a substitute teacher for me. He would introduce me to new girlfriends. And the last time I saw him, in Uncle Moe’s Mexican Restaurant, he introduced his pregnant wife to me and my wife.
In Hebrew, the name David means, “Beloved.” Hence, that’s the only part of his name in this essay that is real.
Rule #2 : Raise your hand to talk or leave your seat!
That rule was one of the two classroom rules broken most often in my classroom. The other was Rule #3 : Be respectful to everyone. Fortunately #2 was a rule that could be enforced without immediate detention, or a trip to the principal, or a call to the parents… Or being buried in the sand up to your neck so ants could eat your head. (And I almost never had to use that last option on #3 either.)
Kids in a classroom, especially the middle school ones between 12 and 15, are never going to be completely quiet in the classroom for the entire 45 to 55 minutes. And, truthfully, you don’t want them to be.
You see, no kid I ever taught learned only by sitting and listening. And I found that kids who actually learned from the talking teacher were rare, weird birds indeed.
If a question needs to be answered for a kid to learn something, the answer must never come from the teacher’s mouth. If the teacher says the answer, no matter what source it came from, it has only passed through the teacher’s brain. And no kid in the classroom got even a glimmering ghost of a learning sparkle going off in their own personal brain where the learning must take place.
As an example;
Fabian Castellano comes waddling in the classroom door at the beginning of 2nd Period 7th Grade English.
“Hey, Mr. B, are aliens real?” he shouts before even sitting down, let alone raising his hand.”
“What’s Rule #2, Fab?” A puzzled look briefly crosses his pudgy face. Then he grins and throws up one fat little arm.
“My cousin Rodrigo from Laredo said a flying saucer landed in his back yard, and a little green guy hopped out and said, “Hi, Roddy! I am called the Great Gazoo. And I have orders to make you king of the world for three days so you can learn important lessons about how your world really works.” And then he said… something I forget…” and then Fabian takes a deep breath. “So, are aliens real?”
“Are you talking about your cousin, Roddy Lopez? The one they call Liar Lopez?”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“And has he ever told you a lie before?”
“Like when he told me that if I stuck jelly beans in my ears, the 6th Grade girls would all tell me I’m sweet and they want to kiss me? Yeah.”
“And does he ever watch a cartoon called The Flintstones? Where there’s a little green alien named Gazoo who makes wishes come true?”
“So, is anything Roddy tells you proof that aliens are real?”
“No, probably not.”
So, here you see the lesson in logical reasoning going on in the student’s head, not the teacher’s head. This is what is known as the Socratic Method.
So, Rule #2 is not really about keeping classrooms quiet and discussions orderly. It is entirely about enforcing the teacher’s will upon the classroom, suggesting strongly to the students that the teacher is totally in charge of behavior in the classroom, a thing that is not even remotely true, unless the teacher gets them to believe it by endlessly repeating the rule.
But you do have to talk to kids as a teacher. How else would I know anything about the infamous Liar Lopez and his love of cartoons? How else am I going to teach anything at all to a chubby vato loco like Fabian?
You gotta make the evil little hyperactive monkey heads raise those hands!
I was not able to post yesterday for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is the turmoil caused by this nation trying to come to terms with those sins of the past that come back to haunt us and hunt us in the present.
I am an old white man. I suffer from “white privilege” in ways I can’t explain to some of my white friends back in Iowa, a State that was almost entirely white when I was growing up there. (And I pray that I grew UP, not just old.)
I learned yesterday that it matters how you put in order the things that you can say on matters of race. You can’t just say, “Black lives matter” to some white people. They will angrily insist that “All lives matter.” They will then proceed to tell you that you are being a racist when you suggest that black people are somehow more important than white people. I learned that you should say instead, “All lives matter, which means black lives certainly matter too. And the debate now is about a few recent black lives that were treated like they didn’t matter, and so, their lives ended in being murdered.” You can’t give white people a reasonable-sounding way to get out of admitting that, or they will. (See, I can be a bit racist too. I sometimes have a hard time believing all white people have positive human feelings in them somewhere.)
It has often, in my teaching career, been a disadvantage to be a white male. Black kids don’t believe you can see them as a good person. If you have to call them down for misbehavior, the worst ones will automatically assume it is about their race and not their behavior. A good teacher needs to listen more than they talk. You have to get them to open up about what happens in their lives that makes them behave the way that they do. You have to make them understand that you actually care about them and want to help. You have to earn their trust to get their best learning behavior. And being white makes that all so much harder. Not just with Afro Americans. Hispanic kids too. Vietnamese kids too. And I promise you, if you take the time to really get to know a kid… from any race or culture… you will discover that underneath it all, there are no bad kids. You stand a very good chance of learning to love them… no matter their racial or cultural differences from you.
And as an old white man, I suffer the disadvantage of never being able to truly understand what it feels like to have to worry that, at any moment, the police might kill you with a gun, or press the life out of you with a knee on your neck… just because of the color of your skin. That is in no way a fair thing that black men, black women, and black kids have to worry about that.
I am saddened and frustrated too that I can’t do any more to correct this terrible injustice than I am doing. I can’t attend protests because of my poor health and the pandemic that will probably kill me anyway. I am too old and crippled and broke to do any more than write this essay and post things on social media that make some of my old white friends angry and ready to argue.
I feel bad. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, and too many more diminish me, make me hurt in my heart. And all I can do about it is tell you that there needs to be more love in this world, and less hate. And I hope maybe you have a little more of it to add to the world. After all, that’s all that really matters.
Yesterday the Princess graduated from Turner High School. Her time as a Turner Lion has come to an end… in the middle of a Coronavirus pandemic.
The last two-and-a-half years of her senior year were lost in a miasma of a mismanaged world health crisis. We have been in quarantine. Both of her parents are diabetics with blood-pressure issues. And we live in Red-State Texas where shutting down the State to keep poor people alive was a step taken grudgingly only at the last minute.
Senior celebrations and time with senior friends during graduation season simply could not happen.
But graduation happened in spite of the virus. It was an unusual sort of ceremony. It happened at Texas Motor Speedway, a NASCAR-and-redneck sort of place. The families were on the race-track infield in their cars, with a separate area for guests and extended families to park their cars. We all watched the graduation on the big video monitor where they normally show violent car-crashes in slow motion. Students were seated on the race track itself, their chairs all distanced six feet from each other. The graduates wore masks except for those brief times when pictures were taken. And some even wore masks during the pictures. (High School Staff was there to hand out masks to anyone who forgot to bring one, and to yell at anyone stupid enough to take them off at the wrong moment. Something that only happens with 25% of seniors… the ones eligible to graduate.)
I have only the greatest respect and appreciation for the staff and principals of R.L. Turner High School. As a former teacher, I know how extra-hard it must be to pull off something like this in the middle of something like we all faced this particular year. In 1975, during my graduation, a thunderstorm struck just as we were starting the processional to “Pomp and Circumstance” for our outdoor ceremony. We literally ran for the gym, and ended up crossing the stage in the auditorium while friends and family who couldn’t squeeze in watched on a tiny closed-circuit TV in the library. Everybody was water-spotted and smelling like wet farm animals. This year was a much bigger adjustment with a lot less weather problems. We sat in our cars as if we were in a drive-in movie and watched our daughter graduate on a huge outdoor screen. And her brother in Oklahoma and her grandmother in Iowa got to watch what we watched through a link on their mobile devices.
So, for all the regrets this year has brought already, at least this graduation ceremony was carried out with style, and will one day make a great story to tell future children.
When I was a rookie teacher in the Spring of 1982, I had to take two busloads of eighth graders nearly a hundred miles to see the State Capitol in Austin for their annual 8th Grade Field Trip.
If you don’t see the potential for disaster in that, well, you are in for a tougher life going forward than the one I am about to complain about.
Anyway, it was an extra-warm sunny Texas day and we had an endless-hours journey in an un-air-conditioned bus with sixty kids and four teachers per bus. And I was the new teacher filled with sizzling rage from enduring eight months and fourteen days worth of get-the-new-teacher tricks by fourteen-and-fifteen-and-sixteen-year-old kids (I didn’t have to rage at the eighteen-year-olds on the field trip because the same things that kept them in the eighth grade until they were eligible for Medicare were the things that disqualified them from going on the field trip). And because the principal was convinced that you could prevent death by throwing things on a bus by having a teacher sitting near the perpetrator, or the potential target, the teachers had to spread out and sit with the kids. Of course, our bus had 59 perpetrators and one potential target (Tomasso, the kid nobody could stand). And the coaches got to sit by the vatos locos most likely to fling metal and hard food. I, of course, got Tomasso.
So, I sat for five hours on the way up to Austin practicing trying to kill apple-core tossers with my best teacher’s stink-eye while ducking gum wads, wrapper balls, and half-eaten Rice-Krispies Treats. And I was also listening to Tomasso’s endless weird questions and comments about penguins that made him the popular target. I got extra practice recognizing bad words in Spanish and resisting the urge to call them “pendejos” in return.
And we got to Austin tired, sweaty, and hungry because it took extra time in both San Antonio and San Marcos traffic, and we missed our lunch connection in a parking lot in central Austin. The kids were mostly not hungry. They were full of chips and hot Cheetos and other salty, unhealthy snack food. Instead of hunger, they were dying of thirst. And while the History teacher in charge of the trip and the coaches were consulting maps and trying to reach the lunch connection with a walkie talkie, I spotted a herd of students going over a wall into a nearby parking garage. I followed to see them walking over the hoods of parked cars to get to a fire hose that they were using as a watering hole.
We were, of course, unable to single out any individuals for punishment. They were dying of thirst, and it was a three-hundred-degree-in-the-sunshine parking lot where we were waiting.
We got to the Capitol and walked around, bored by the tour guide, and found the one entertaining fact about the Texas Capitol Building. Governor Hogg once had two daughters named Ima and Ura. Their pictures hang in an upstairs display case. Kids laughed and called them “pendejos”. Even the white kids.
Then, the way home took an additional seven hours. All of the coaches fell asleep on the way home, and I was the only teacher awake and standing between unpopular nerds and death by de-pantsing. I was told that somewhere in the middle of the writhing masses of eighth grade arms and legs and ultra-loud voices, a shy kid the teachers all liked lost his virginity to one of the more sexually aggressive girls while the other kids close enough to see in the general darkness watched. Was it true? When he got asked in the classroom, he just grinned.
I remember a lot of “Oops!” School Stories happening on field trips. I went on more than twenty of the big trips like that one, and I only remember a handful that went smoothly. But this one stands out in my memory because it was the first. And first experiences set the standard the rest are judged by. And I tell you this because, this time of year, if things were still like they used to be, and there was no pandemic, field trips to hell like that one would be going on for first-year teachers.
It has been my intention for a while now to tell funny stories on Friday. Specifically, funny stories about being a teacher and dealing with kids, the thing I know best in life. But, with the things that have happened, the pandemic, the screwball gangster President and his Friday follies, ill health, and other things pressing on my mind, I have failed rather badly.
So, bear with me (pun intended) as I give it another try with a story about Hope and Beauty.
Going back to the last millennium, in the year 1996, I had one solitary class of sixth grade English while teaching mostly seventh graders in a school building that was being renovated while we were learning within it. Often to the sound of electric drills and hammering. (A new wing was being added as our junior high school of grades 7 and 8 was being magically transformed by a school grant, and the addition of 6th graders, to become a middle school.
Esperanza and Bonita were the leaders of that sixth grade class. Fourteen kids, 7 girls and 7 boys. Esperanza and Bonita were the leaders because they were the two biggest 6th graders in the whole school. Not biggest by weight, the fattest boy in 6th grade was also in that class. The most mature. Bonita was hoping to go out for boys’ football in seventh grade, because she had been told that girls had won the right in court to play football if they wished. And she loved to tackle boys. The midgets in that 6th grade class were all terrified of her. One of the midgets spent his 6th-grade days pining in the back row to sit next to her but was too afraid to ever tell her that.
Esperanza and Bonita were best friends, and they were also the two best students in my class. They sat side by side in the front row. They would answer every single question in class if I let them. Of course, I didn’t let them. I got as much of a laugh out of other students’ wrong answers as they did. They were merciless about every goof Sammy Sanchez made, but Sammy had a good sense of humor about it, and I swear, he made some mistakes on purpose just because he loved to hear Esperanza laughing. She was probably the prettiest girl in 6th grade and had an equally pretty laugh. (That is not, of course, Sammy’s real name. I protect students’ real names in my writing. But the double S’s in his name were paired with the word “Stupid” in real life.) I was fond of both girls. And most of the time they were fond of me too.
“You’re my favorite teacher,” Esperanza once told me. “It’s because we can really talk about stuff in your class. Not just book stuff. But real-life stuff.”
Most of the “stuff” she meant was in journal writing that they did at the beginning of class. That is where I learned that she was a virgin. And it was where I advised her that it was entirely up to her when she gave it up and to whom. I told her no boy had the right to pressure her into doing anything she didn’t want to do. I gave similar advice to the boy in question privately after school, and he was actually a bit relieved to get the advice. I know that I was overstepping boundaries to give such advice. But they both believed that nobody else would ever be told about it. I was the only one who read that journal entry, and they knew that. And I have never told it until now, a fact about which you still don’t know the real names to go with it.
That class wanted badly to have a “class party” after Spring Break when the year was winding down. I only agreed if they would turn it into a learning experience. So, Esperanza and Bonita took charge. They planned and executed the lesson; “How to make and appreciate different kinds of Mexican Food”. The two of them taught it. Bonita was in charge of discipline. Esperanza taught us about all the ingredients in her aunt’s prize-winning sopapillas. Sammy gave us a memorable and even remotely possible run-down on how Doritos were probably made. And Max, the white kid, shared his Grandma’s recipe for German chocolate cake. You can’t get better Mexican food than that. And a certain mournful midget got to sit next to Bonita while they ate cake.
Both girls were in my class for two more years after that. I had the honor of being their teacher in both the seventh and the eighth grade.
As an eighth grader, Bonita broke my heart with a story she wrote about forgiving her stepfather for beating her in the third grade. It was a beautiful story. But I was torn. Teachers, by law, have to report child abuse. But Bonita pointed out that the man no longer lived with her, and besides, the assignment was to write a fiction story. (I never told anybody but my wife about my being sexually assaulted at the age of ten at that point in my life, but it was the reason I could clearly see what was true and what was fiction.) That story made more than just me cry.
And in the end, Bonita never got a chance to play boys’ football in middle school… or high school either. The boys eventually got bigger, and she didn’t. But that was a good thing too. Bonita at linebacker… the boys would never have survived it.
I will end by letting you in on a secret. In Spanish, Esperanza means “Hope,” and Bonita means “Little Pretty One,” or even “Beauty.”
Farmer, truck driver, registered nurse, school teacher, and many more are professionals who deserve more respect and compensation than they ever get. The pandemic has in many ways underlined and reintroduced us to the truth of their value. Jobs like these are not often recognized as being life-or-death in nature the way fireman, policeman, doctor, and paramedic obviously are, but we are in a situation now that proves that they are.
Teachers are much more than mere babysitters. You can tell by figuring out how much you would actually owe them if you paid them the same amount per child and per hour as you do a babysitter. Some teachers have to supervise thirty children per hour for six hours per day. That works out to 180 kids per day. If you paid them only two dollars an hour for each kid, a price no competent babysitter would ever work for, they would still bring home $66,000 per year, a wage that would top any yearly wage I ever brought home by more than $10,000. And a teacher does a lot more than manage classrooms for six hours a day. I would list all those other things in this essay, but it would come out far too long for the purpose of this one paragraph.
As a teacher working with kids under the age of 18, and as a writer of YA novels for kids under 18, I have come to see the hard truth of one stark and horrifying fact. All kids face hard things in their life. Some have divorced parents. Some are abused, sexually, emotionally, psychologically, physically, or any combination, including all of those. Many kids have substance- abuse problems. Many kids battle crippling depression. Depression even kills far too many of them. Most kids live in fear of school shooters, gang shootings, bullying, beatings, and other kinds of violence that specifically targets them. I remember one boy who attended my classes while living out of a paper bag under a bridge. And despite all these terrible things, most kids turn out good and kind and capable of loving others. In fact, the hard truth is, they turn out good BECAUSE of what they have lived through. You will find this same correlation throughout human history. In truth, most of the heinous and evil villains in history come from families where they were mostly protected from hardships. They often turn to evil because the first time they face these things after having been coddled, spoiled, and protected, they are not prepared to deal with them and see themselves only as a victim, no matter how badly they react.
This 2019-2020 school year was my first as a retired school teacher earning extra money by substitute teaching. It ended before I was ready. I not only didn’t get a chance to earn all the money I needed, I did not get the chance to see some of the kids in five different middle schools I subbed for that I had learned to like and hoped to see again before the year ended. I did put in enough time to get rehired for next year. I even got to keep my sub badge so that I can go back if the schools ever reopen again. But I despair a bit over what I have lost. My health may not be good enough to go back to the job I love so much. In fact, I don’t really expect miracles to happen that would let me survive this pandemic. If I do go back to school next fall, it is more likely to be in order to haunt the hallways than to teach again.
The last few nights I have been sleeping longer than I have at any time since I retired in 2014. And I have had vivid dreams of being a teacher in a classroom yet again. But always in schools that are only vaguely familiar and are obviously new jobs with new kids that I haven’t seen or trained before. And yet, as it always is with teaching, they are all the same classroom, all the same schools, all the same kids, just in new packages that I haven’t seen before.
One of the things that is hardest about being a substitute rather than a regular teacher is the fact that one day, one class period, is not long enough to build a relationship with every kid. You cannot get to really know them in such a short amount of time. That’s why going back to certain schools is so exhilarating because you get a chance to cover the same classes again, see the same kids, and work on being a good teacher for them in the way I used to do it for kids that were mine for an entire school year.
And I was one of those rare teachers who actually likes kids.
Many teachers never get over the difficulty of managing a classroom and doing discipline. It is for them a never-ending battle for order and quiet. They only manage it by becoming fearsome ogres or anal-retentive control freaks. Most of those only ever consider discipline to be punishing kids enough to make them mind.
Those sorts of teachers don’t believe me when I tell them that the way to do discipline is not by quashing behaviors and limiting behaviors through punishment, but by encouraging the behaviors that you want. And by leading them into the excitement of reading a good story or learning an interesting new thing.
As a sub I went into the classrooms of punishing teachers and weak-willed teachers who let students do whatever they will. Invariably you meet boys who are convinced they are stupid and doomed to fail. They suspect their parents don’t like them. And all they want to do is stop lessons from happening by being disruptive. And invariably you meet girls who think the only hope for them is to capture the right boy (without any earthly idea what the right boy will be like). And they suspect their parents don’t like them very much. And all they want to do is fix their make-up, talk about boys with other girls, and talk boys into disrupting lessons to show their manliness.
As a substitute, I also went into the classes of teachers who knew the secret and actually loved kids. They had positive posters on the wall that could be paraphrased as, “There are wonderful things to do in this life, and I believe you can do them. You should believe it too.”
And they will say to their kids things like, “Look at this wonderful thing you have done. You are really good at this. And when you do things like this, nobody can tell me you aren’t a good and wonderful person that makes the world a better place.”
Kids need to see the evidence and hear those things from their teacher. And if the teacher is giving them that, they will even behave well for the substitute with very little work on the part of the substitute.
So, I have been dreaming about being a teacher again. It is a thing that I love to do, and I fear that, because of this pandemic, I will never be able to do it again. Even as a substitute. And if that is the case, then I hope that at least one person reads this and discovers the answer to the question, “How do you become a good teacher?” Because I believe I have it right. I know it worked for me. And I think it is true even if no one ever believes me.
As a retired school teacher who retired for health reasons, I have a limit to how much I can teach. As I substitute, mostly for teachers who planned on being out for in-service training or special educational meetings, I can usually only do two jobs a week. That limits the number of kids you have contact with, especially the more gifted and talented sorts of kids. But that doesn’t really matter much. As a regular classroom teacher I always focused more on making connections with kids, especially the challenging ones. My two jobs this week consisted of sixth grade Science all day on Tuesday, and seventh grade AVID classes on Thursday.
Sixth graders are the rabid squirrel monkeys of the middle-school monkey-house. They are the ones who jump around the most, scream at each other the most, and swing from the light fixtures the most. And if you think of it as being only metaphorically true, you don’t really know much about sixth graders and modern education.
But the coach I was subbing for is very good at discipline. He gave them an article on the organ systems of the human body and told them to to use the annotation marks on his close-reading poster. Now, you and I both know that coaches don’t really walk sixth graders through note-taking and reading-comprehension drills regularly. There’s a reason coaches are more likely to teach Science, History, or even Math before taking on English or Language Arts teaching assignments.
So, I did a quick-teach using the two-page article on how to circle key words, underline main idea sentences, and how to do a SWBS (Somebody-Wanted-But-So Charts) analysis to summarize the article. They, of course, did not do that before in science class, or even in English that they could remember. I basically simplified his fifty-minute busy-work assignment into a simple twenty-minute reading assignment that would take the slow readers longer. So, I had to occupy the smart, quick, and evil kids with something else while I helped the stragglers finish. I drew a cartoon rabbit, a cartoon duck, and a Disney-esque Goofy on the white board, challenging them to copy it.
I got to work one-on-one with several slow readers. Xavier, a hyper, mouthy kid who had dyslexia was tickled pink to learn he could pick out and put together key words and main ideas. He was unable to write the summary, but he annotated correctly, possibly for the first time ever. And that was a break-through for him. I subbed with him in other classes where he was one of the awfullest chandelier swingers, so that connection made a huge difference for him for at least fifty minutes of his school life. Malik the Mouth who never does anything but insult the others, and gives somebody else’s name to the sub when he gets in trouble, actually kept his bargain with me from the last time he was baby-sat by me. He stayed in his seat and kept working all period. The only time I had to make him give me his name was at the end of class so I could leave a good-job note for the coach after class ended. I actually like those sorts of kids who other subs routinely blow up at and send out of class. Xavier and Malik (possibly not their actual names) are both a hoot to teach. And they help add to my list of funny classroom anecdotes when they lose control and get in trouble with me. I always try to turn those into teachable moments.
But when the coach came in at the end of his smartest class, saw everybody was done, and saw cartoons on his board, he got mad at them. I had to take the blame for them and explain why they were not simply blowing the assignment off and playing around. Coaches don’t usually understand that classroom learning can be fun.
Thursday I was subbing for AVID classes again. These are special classes where at-risk kids are put in college-prep courses and treated like gifted kids. The program is misused as a warehouse for failing discipline-problem kids by this school district. But the Field Middle School has their act together for this program. The kids were working with college-level education students as tutors, and had to fill out self-examination forms that evaluated how they were doing in working with their tutors.
These are well-trained, smart, and seriously funny kids. Xochitl (an Aztec name pronounced ZOACHIE for a Hispanic girl that I have suprisingly encountered more than once in Texas) was a giftred complainer and procrastinator who was too lazy to lift a pencil, yet did the actual work in a few short minutes when she finally got around to it. She had time to tell the kids at her table, one of the tutors, and me about a time when she knocked the head off of a cucaracha (a cockroach who speaks Spanish) and tried to wait for an entire day for it to finally die so she could pick it up and flush it. The thing is, a cockroach only needs its head to eat with and see with. It is perfectly fine otherwise until it starves to death or gets eaten by a rat. So, when she went to pick it up with salad tongs, it was still alive and wiggly. She pantomimed how she threw the thing across the kitchen in surprise, and when it landed in the sink, she nailed it with the garbage disposal. This girl is a gifted story-teller. She had us all laughing. And her school grades were all A’s and B’s.
I admit it. I love kids like that. They are the best things about teaching. And whether they are Aaargh! Sixth Graders! or Uggh! Seventh graders! (the chimpanzees of the middle-school monkey-house) I actually love them. (But PLEASE don’t tell them that!)