Westward Movement

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Being Thankful

Yesterday my students, student teacher, teacher's assistant and I shared a few traditional Thanksgiving treats. The adults each brought a dish, and a few kids brought others. Before we ate, I asked the kids to write what they were thankful for. Over the years, I've had my student do similar activities in honor of a new year, Thanksgiving, the end of a grade, etc. I always have several students who write that they are most thankful for a PSP, a Wii, money ... you get the picture. Yesterday, not one of my students mentioned an object. One stated that he was thankful for enough money to put food on their table, especially for Christmas, his favorite holiday. A lump formed in my throat as several mentioned being thankful for their teacher ... because she cares so much and doesn't give up on them. The best paycheck ever.

I've shared in prior posts that most of my students live in conditions I can't even imagine. Many live with extended families totaling six or more in one-two bedroom apartments. A few have their only meals at school - the free breakfast and lunch provided on all school days. I worry about them over the holidays and summer break. They witness drug transactions and violence daily. I've had several students over the years watch someone die on the streets, and a few see someone die in their home. I'm constantly amazed at their perseverance, at their ability to find the joy when they face such adversity. What my students wrote yesterday brings home that very message.

Here are a few quotes from the kids:

  • I'm thankful for the food that I eat, the family I have, the school where we can learn new things. I'm thankful for the clothes we wear. I'm thankful that I play and for family that loves me.
  • I'm thankful for having a family and a place to live.
  • I'm thankful for honest classmates and a great family.
  • I'm thankful for the life I have.
  • I'm thankful that I'll be with my mom.
  • Finally, one that touched me so ... I'm thankful for freedom and for living in a good condition, for peace in the world, and for my lovely teacher.

We finished eating and sharing our thanks, and then I kept my students after school for 10 minutes - they were so incredibly talkative and were not paying attention to instructions. Ah the life of a teacher! I'm glad I had them write their thanks before keeping them after!

Happy Thanksgiving. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

The greatest gift

One of the most difficult aspects of my job is knowing that so many of my wonderfully bright, capable, enthusiastic students will not go nearly far enough in the educational world. They'll stop after high school, and many won't go even that far. 

A colleague of mine has been helping students at my school apply to a wonderful program called The Alliance.  Its primary goal is to help Hispanic and African American students obtain scholarships and meander through the process of applying to private schools in the greater Los Angeles area.  While I am a believer in providing the best public education possible, many of the students at SMBCC have little opportunity to obtain such an education via the public schools in the area. Thus, an opportunity such as that provided by The Alliance is a gift. 

I have two students on full scholarship through The Alliance. One is in 11th grade at an all-girls school in the LA area. The other, K, is in 12th grade at one of the more prestigious schools in the country. K is the youngest of four children. Her oldest sister was involved with gangs, and had her first child (of four) at 15. She did not finish high school. Her oldest brother was also involved with gangs, and was the victim of a drive-by shooting two years ago. He was shot in the hand. He did not finish high school. The shot was intended to kill. Her other brother was also my student. A wonderful kid then, he's a terrific young man now, with two young children. He did not finish high school, though went on to get his GED a few years ago, and holds a good job repairing electronics. K's mom and dad have raised their four kids, and their four grandchildren. The family was forced apart for two years when the four grandchildren were taken from the home they all shared and put in separate foster homes. They are together now, but it was a very difficult couple of years.  K's mom, M, has sacrificed her life to care for all the children. Her typical daily schedule involves driving K 30 minutes west on the freeway before 7:00 am, turning around and dropping the grandchildren enrolled in my school in time for breakfast and for the oldest to catch the school bus to a feeder middle school, heading to her job as a housekeeper a few miles from school from 8-2, then reversing it all to pick everyone up, take them home, make dinner for all, and start up again the next morning. She works weekends cleaning an office building. I have known this family over a dozen years, and I have never heard one complaint.

K and M came to see me late last spring. It was, hands-down, the most wonderful conference I've ever held with a student and her parent. K brought her list of over 30 colleges to share with me, asking me to help her edit her list. Her criteria was crystal clear - a school that was in or near a city, that had diversity, and that had a liberal arts focus. The community I teach often struggles to let its children move away. M gets it, though. She and K recognize that going away to school is K's ticket to a life different (her mother adamantly said better) from that of her brothers and her sister. She will be the first in a large family, on both sides, to go to college. She will graduate. She's on the honor roll of her high school. The school paid for her to go east with her mom and visit campuses. She's won a special award from The Alliance. It's one of very few awarded. She's amazing. Her mom is beyond amazing. I am humbled to be a part of their lives. 

This is a portion of the email K sent me this evening:

"I've finalized my list of schools so here it is:
1. American University
2. UC Berkeley/ Santa Barbara
3. Georgetown
4. Goucher College
5. Rice University
6. University of San Diego
7. University of San Francisco
8. Santa Clara University
9. Scripps College
10. Seattle University
11. Smith College
12. Stanford University
13. Tulane University
I've already submitted my apps for five of them and I'll be submitting two more before the end of the year. I'm soo excited!!!! As of now, I'm waiting for my latest SAT Scores, but I feel really good about my list of schools and I'm so happy! This year has been going really well for me and I just can't wait to embark on this next chapter in my life." 

I attended K's graduation from middle school, and will again be in the audience when she graduates, with honors, from high school. One of the schools from the list above will be a huge part of the beginning of her next chapter. I can't wait to visit her there!

K's two oldest nieces, two of the four grandchildren I mentioned above, have been my students. The oldest is in 7th grade, and doing well. The other, A, is in my class now. I see K in her everyday. She often says to me that she adores her aunt K, and that she plans to do what she has done. She writes about the school K attends in stories, and recently asked me to spend recess with her so that we could look up the student population and course of study at the school. 

One child, one mom ... and look what they've begun. To be continued ... 

Sweet dreams.

Monday, November 7, 2011


My favorite part of the school day is read aloud. There are so many great books written for kids. I often wish reading aloud to my kids was my only responsibility. I choose the titles we share carefully, attempting a balance of humor, drama, and intensity. I aim to build interest in history through amazing literary figures and brilliantly written historical fiction and nonfiction. 

I am not great with Eastern European accents, but I do a mean British, a decent Italian, and a bang-up little kid. My southern dialect rocks, though don't ask for a New England elder. Thus far, we've read Benjamin Dove, a story involving severe bullying, incredible friendship and sacrifice, Scottish royalty and death. (It takes place in Iceland, but I've no idea how Icelandic sounds, so did a very mild British), Second in line was a story of wonderful friendship, jealousy, acceptance and what it means to be blind titled Granny Torrelli Makes Soup. (Very fun Italian there). Nightjohn is our third read aloud of the year. We are about 1/3 of the way through this incredibly intense Gary Paulen novel. The story of two slaves ... Sarny, a 12 year old girl, and Nightjohn, a freed slave who deliberately reenters the horror of enslavement in order to teach others to read and write, has captured my students' hearts and minds. In order to ease them into the intensity of the subject and to give them an opportunity to share their prior knowledge of slavery, we engaged in a "tea party" a day prior to beginning the book. Students read from strips of paper on which were written phrases and short sections of text from the novel. They shared thoughts and predictions as they shared their strips of text, and anticipation was built. 

One of my students, T, had just finished reading another book on the subject of slavery. She was in the middle of explaining what slavery is to a couple of my third graders as we gathered on the rug for our first read of Nightjohn. Because there are some very difficult scenes in the story, I stopped several times while reading to check for understanding, to have students explain or retell portions, and to answer the many questions my students had. In the first 10-15 pages of the novel, there are brutally descriptive passages telling of the horrendous mistreatment of the men, women and children living on Master Waller's plantation in the 1850s. Our first read aloud was over 30 minutes. My kids had so many questions, and struggled to understand how anyone could survive such brutality. They didn't want to stop, but our day was ready to end. 

The next day, I continued reading. Nightjohn was introduced early on. He's brought to the plantation stripped of clothing, and immediately sent to work in the fields. That night, as most of the others sleep, he whispers into the dark that he'll trade for a lip of tobacco. Sarny berates him, telling him he was brought in naked, so what could he possibly have to trade. "Letters," he responds. "I got letters."

I stopped there and explained to my students that reading was punishable by dismemberment (explained that, too), and asked why there would have been a law against slaves reading or writing. T immediately responded that being able to read and write meant being able to tell your story and to pass along knowledge. Another student, J, said she thought that if you could read, you would be able to know how much you cost. She added that reading gave you information and that made you dangerous. "But good dangerous," J said. They are so smart ... so thoughtful!

A is one of my struggling students. He has a tough time with math, reads far below grade level, takes twice to three times the time necessary to complete a writing assignment, and would much prefer to be on the playground than do nearly anything else, although he often enjoys our read aloud time. He gets little to no support at home. He is a challenge for me. I am constantly looking for ways to motivate him.

A was sitting to my right as I was reading to them. He was mesmerized by the story. Little by little I noticed his chair creeping just a little closer to me, his head angled toward the book. I held the book out a bit so that he could read along. As the chapter continued, Nightjohn showed Sarny how to make the letter 'A.' He explained how it sounded, and promised her two more letters the next night. I stopped there, to groans and "Noooo - don't stop!" (The best, the best, the best)! As we stood to get ready to move on, A murmured, softly enough for my ears only, but loud enough to be heard clearly, "Wow, imagine not even knowing what letters are. That's terrible."

From any other kid this would draw from me simply accord. From A, it drew tremendous hope. My challenge took on a new dimension. 

I just ordered A his own copy of Nightjohn. I think he'll murmur his thanks. For my ears only. For both our hearts. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011


My math class is comprised of struggling 5th graders coming from all of my multiage colleagues (with an independent group of three students who went through the 5th grade content last year and are now doing special projects and 6th grade curriculum). A is an adorable boy who happens to be autistic. He is with me for math, and also for book talks. He and I have gotten to know each other fairly well. I forget, sometimes, just how literally he takes things.

Last week I suffered a tremendous sneezing attack during math. At the end, I laughingly commented that I must be allergic to the kids, and went on to continue teaching.

A returned to his own class a bit later, and pulled his teacher aside. With a very serious look on his face, he said to his teacher, "Ms. __, Ms. Stern is allergic to me!"

I have to decide how to play this on Monday.