Wednesday, January 14, 2015

We sort of live in an experiential fog with band-aids stuck on our foreheads

In the morning, LORD, You hear my voice; early in the morning I make my appeal and watch for You. Psalm 5:3

Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp. He covers the heavens with clouds and prepares rain for the earth; He makes grass to grow upon the mountains and green plants to serve mankind. He provides food for flocks and herds and for the young ravens when they cry. He is not impressed by the might of a horse; He has no pleasure in the strength of a man; But the LORD has pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who await his gracious favor. Psalm 147:7-12

Well, it’s 20 degrees in NYC with blustery winds. But somehow that doesn’t matter.

It’s all about watching.

Because I miss stuff every day. And a teacher friend was right on the edge of tears yesterday afternoon because life is really, really tough, and I just patted her shoulder. When it was such a great opportunity for a thorough embrace and a prayer to the Almighty God who is tender to the brokenhearted. But I hesitated and lost the moment.

And I await. And wonder what His gracious favor will look like.

And the two days in the classroom of walking a handful of kids through the wonders of contractions and Latin roots and grabbing lead sentences brought back a dump truck load of memories. I have done this before, again and again. And on my hard drive, in my devotions and prayers folder, I found A Friday Afternoon, so very representative of the chalkboard battlefront, day after day, aching life after aching life that I wrote down, man, maybe seven years ago, after the last cloud of doublemint gum and Axe deodorant had wafted out the door. Same old, same old. Wow.

Overall, today’s 7B Language Arts class went pretty well–nowhere near the overwhelming horrors of 7A–the previous class–during which I teared up as I hit a dead-end moment of not knowing what the next step should be as the class had snowballed into total anarchy.  I had spent my lunch/planning period with two sessions “Lunch Bunch” detention kids, all the kids who had flat out refused to do work in class for the last two days.  This was a great moment; only four or five kids scattered across the room- getting close to one-on-one attention.  Actually, my main problem with lunch detentions is that all kinds of students are trying to sneak into it and hang, even if they have to be silent.  So I am energized; it is possible to have civil relationships with these thug-façade kids.  Remember that each class is an hour and a half long, and it is Friday afternoon.  Twenty-eight students are packed into a burnt orange room, and the air conditioning is set at 68 degrees.

Today’s lesson plan is theoretically a four-day culmination of writing a character sketch, a written snapshot or short video clip of someone who is important to you.  The details should be so vivid and specific that I, the reader, can exactly picture this person. Previously this week we had interviewed partners about these people, we had played stand up, sit down games pretending to be the people we were writing about, and had already written a related short descriptive paragraph describing where we were most happy, most ourselves.  We also were going to try and read two short chapters out of a sort of dopey juvenile lit book that I read in middle school, The Pigman.  We ended up at that book in a desperate grab several weeks ago when The Giver was stuck in metaphorical mud and would not budge one sentence further. We have tried all sorts of approaches to getting the words past these young minds, but today I had settled on me reading out loud, with lots of expression (and roaming around the classroom) modelling all the possible good reading thinking, asking lots of questions, while the students worked through a worksheet together- including a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting the two friends, making lists of adjectives to describe two “amoebae-like” friends and the like.  Short answer stuff that were a tiny bit conceptual.  Our bell work had been copying down Literary Conflict types and I have a very short, perky talk leaning heavily on movie plots to explain all that.  So the literary conflict moment was fine, and the reading actually went ok, because I had told them that if three people blurted or were inappropriate, they would have to read by themselves, which I have already discovered is the worst threat possible, and absolutely impossible to enforce at this stage.  J. and C.’s names were on the board within split seconds, but after that, I had their attention. 

One thing I might add, is that throughout the class, students are arriving and leaving for appointments and parents and previous discipline issues, and although I have tried to come up with several methods of recording who is actually in class, I have yet to come up with an effective method.  We battle our way through the chapters (about twenty minutes of reading, even with all of the pauses) and the assignment ends with a short fill-in-the-blank essay about how my life is like one of the character’s, how is it different, and what literary conflict is the main one he is facing and why. 
Now the biggie.  I have the students pull out a piece of paper and give it the title of “Think.”  I warn them that this is a very difficult assignment, because (remember this is the fifth time I have taught this lesson, so I have every nuance honed), because thinking is hard work and many of us are not used to actually doing it… we sort of live in an experiential fog.  I turn off the light, and try to get them to shut their eyes, even put their heads on their desks and think.  I light into a blow-by-blow description of Ali typing madly on his computer late at night, yelling Arabic into his Skyping microphone as he battles terrorists on their blog pages.  Blow by blow I detail out our living room, his curly hair and wide, bare feet.  They have already heard a “place” description of Alan, driving up in his Safari at the end of a long day, with a big smile on his face and a 7/11 Big Gulp in his hand. 

Then I tried my mightiest to walk them through a little visualization moment, exactly picturing their important person… outdoors, indoors, hot, cold, clothes, expression on face, blah, blah, blah.  And then I turned on the lights and told them to write a full page of writing–trying to exactly capture this person.  To get them started, I practice with three students and their person, creating either an action, or a dialogue, or a foreboding lead.  And now, with no talking they are to write a full page.  Each student has a little square of paper, a weekly rubric of all the work that is expected to be turned into the weekly folder, and on that is a rubric for this page- good lead, appearance, actions, dialogue, thoughts and feelings, reactions of others, and five setting details.

So for the next forty-five minutes we do battle.  Suddenly no one has an important person in his or her life, no one can think of what to say…  (By the by… we have already had several lessons on NOT using such words as weird, nice, funny… what do they DO that is weird, what do they SAY that shows they are nice, what do they LOOK like that shows that they are funny).  Since so very few of the students are writing, let me work down the class list and tell you what each student was actually doing…The big news was that C. (a very nervous, skinny white boy) had broken up with E.… notes were flying… which I do fairly well at intercepting and tossing without reading, or sometimes wadding up in my pocket and reading at my leisure for entertainment value… I had fielded one in my Lunch Bunch group from an eighth grade girl who was asking two seventh graders, best friends, to go out with her, at the same time.)  So several people were trying to browbeat him into taking back the breaking up, which only made him more nervous.  As the class unwound, E managed to smash a plastic pencil sharpener and cut herself up and down both arms- but that happens a little later.  Actually L. also cuts herself, making cute little designs on the backs of her hands, and F very graciously gets band-aids for both of them, but the only kind I have in the medical kit are these great big huge ones designed to wrap around fingers, so it is not very effective, so H. just sticks a couple of them on his forehead instead.  M is a big, lunking kid who barely speaks English and has already gotten in trouble once this week for describing his private parts in detail to several girls, and he takes it upon himself to torment little tiny G, very subtly, very slightly, just at the edge of being able to ship him out of the room.  So I stick him behind my desk, threaten him, and he actually digs into he assignment, bulking up to me for every sentence for my approval, none of which particularly make any sense to me, since not a single word is even close to its intended, but it has something to do with cruising around “wet grills” (with girls) on Saturday night.  T, with the red contact lenses, is over in the corner, trying to impress the loud, big boys with his coolness.  B is sitting by herself, all teary, because her mom met with the staff yesterday afternoon, and read her the riot act on getting work done in class.  F is sort of heading up the cutting table.  He is trying to write about his father, who will beat him if he makes bad grades.  F is sort of metrosexual, glossed and perfumed, the sort that hangs with emo girls.  V is also writing about his father who is a drunk and whom he visits every Saturday, but he likes him more than his mother who is always screaming.  Luckily, C and D are out on either out-of-school suspension, or they have been expelled…  I don’t know which.  The principal, who I really like, has been gone the last three days, and I am not sure at all what is happening.  The school secretary who really runs the school from her busy, busy desk is also out today.  I now have three boys in chairs facing the wall, and things are quieting down a little.  H is doing her best to write absolutely nothing, and G is writing his paper on her because she is his girlfriend because she is very hot, but he knows nothing else about her because she doesn’t talk.  I is very very quiet.  He strikes me as a kid who has also been threatened from home, choosing to sit by himself and work.  L is in the corner, squeezing writing onto every square inch of his paper.  Rewriting the lead sentences three times because he got mixed up.  P comes up to me about every five minutes to tell me he has a headache and he can’t work.  He is sitting in the quiet corner with I, and G who has given me nothing but grief all week, but is doing ok at this table.  R has also chosen a desk by himself and is quietly working, but the odd thing is that nothing ever makes it into his folder every week, so he has failing grades for every week.  In fact, I had suspected that he had dropped out of school, but there he is, quietly working by the sink.  F has been making such a production of getting up every thirty seconds to blow his nose that I move the tissue box and the garbage can to his desk.  And then I volunteer to sharpen his pencil too, since it seems to be breaking on a regular basis.  W is crouched in his seat, singing.  He just appeared in my class Tuesday.  His mom is in the psych hospital, his dad is in prison, and he lives in some group home.  His older brother was in my advisory group Wednesday, and he is the most illiterate student I have yet to see in this class.  Z has finished her paper… in huge loopy handwriting… probably about thirty words, but a full page.  L stares angrily at his paper.  His father is coming in next week to meet with me during my planning period.  Oh, drats.  I just remembered that I have the Guardianship Court hearing next week just when his dad has his only day off of work.  I will have to call back on that.  Y heads up the Native American corner.  He is always courteous and works steadily.  Now A is copying his character sketch, and I fuss at them about cheating.  Does he think she is too stupid to do this (She is not).  He smiles sheepishly.  M, who sits with them, is filling the cover of her folder with lyrics from headbanger groups. You might have noticed that students are picking their own seats and what would an experienced teacher like myself be doing without seating charts.  Ah!  I have had five seating charts and five classroom set-ups in four weeks of school.  If they sit where they want, then at least I have one more hold on their behaviour because then I can move them far away by themselves.  This is my third day of this arrangement, and it sorta works.

B is sitting in one of the isolation desks.  He is a new kid that other teachers have problems with… but he seems to work fine for me, as long as he gets the positive reinforcement for each sentence.  He talks a lot about his sister who was here until Monday, when she ran away from home, and is now in a group home.  P… oh my dear, is driving me nuts… clearly and loudly covers his lack of writing and reading skills with non-stop attention grabbers.  One of the kids commented that he thought he was really poor because when he was passing a bag of hot Cheetos to another in lunch, P grabbed it, and ran with it.  P does great in lunchtime detention, and has been cleaning out the storage closet for the office ladies during his many daily detentions.  He writes tiny microscopic words. About three a line–that no one could possibly read; he can’t even remember what they were supposed to be when I ask him to read his work to me.  S is pretty much plugging along with N.  Both girls have their heads down and are steadily going about the task.  Then they even take on B, and get her to get something on her paper.  H announces that he is in charge of them, and he is doing a good job of running that table.  Except he has A at his table who has taken out all of the staples in his mini-stapler and has lined them up in a neat row across his table.  Then he takes his glue stick and glues his pencil to his finger.  “Look, Miss, look what I can do.”  C, who really only speaks Spanish, is writing in mostly Spanish, and at this point, what am I to do?  I let him write in Spanish.  At least he is sort of working.  He can get loud and flat out mean with the slightest provocation.  KP, yes, that is his name, works slowly… he gets three sentences on his paper over the forty-five minute period.  I am flitting around, of course, with my back pocket stuffed with little yellow papers that say: Good job!  Name:  Date: on them.  If I catch someone working, I hand him or her a paper.  They always give me a sort of quizzical look, but smile and fill it out.  C doesn’t though.  He is very concerned about what these papers are all about, and asks me at least six or seven times what they are for.  Z is angry.  Very angry.  But quiet in front of his empty paper.  I have pretty much hit up every student, and talked through at least a first sentence.  Only H has a blank paper.  The students around him have all moved their desks far away.  B is finished and her piece is delightful- creative twists and a smashing conclusion.  K has been encouraged by C, and actually got enough down on her paper to get a Good Job! paper.  V ditched Lunch Bunch and is trying to convince me that she doesn’t have to come in Monday if she does a great job doing her work over the weekend.  I agree out of expediency, and then realize that we don’t have school on Monday and that I have Student Council during lunch on Tuesday.  N is jovial as she sort of works, and sort of entertains the boys.  She is tall and beautiful and her bosoms pour out of her shirt.  As I read over A’s piece, I am reminded that there are just about twenty more minutes in class, and I want to talk about a solid conclusion.  I ring the bell.  And wait.  And wait a little more.  The kids say that I say, “OK” all the time.  That’s right, two of the kids are writing about me, one a little Mexican boy who can’t get over the fact how weird I am that I have an Iraqi living with me, and another who is fixated on how happy I am.  I come across as happy? 

I have different students read the last paragraph of each of the four chapters that we have sort of read, and we (i.e. mostly me) talks about what makes them great endings, which they are.  I have loosely labelled them as action, foreboding, and irony.  Yes, I tried to explain what irony is at four o’clock in the afternoon.  Um, it sort of worked with the other classes.  A parent has walked into the class to “observe” it, so off I go.  I have each student write one more great sentence on his sketch.  (May I add, computer access at home is almost nil in these homes, and our computer lab has no chairs, no way for the students to store their work, and right now all of the censoring mechanisms are off, so even though I keep wanting to take them into the computer lab to type up some of these drafts to help with revision and editing, it is not about to happen; our computer tech has not been seen hide nor hair of for the last three weeks.)  Then I go over the rubric, and try to get the students to check to see if they have all of their work in order neatly in their folder to be graded.  Pick up the trash around the tables.  Straighten up the books and white boards, while I collect the yellow slips, put them into a box, and draw three names who then get to pick a treat out of the treat bag–the grand winners were C , K and KP.  Theoretically, because we are a free or reduced lunch school, Federal guideline forbid serving candy among many other things, but last night I was despairing of life as I raced around Fry’s for groceries.  How to shape behavior?    The parent is still glaring, over fielding two phone calls.  It turns out that he is here to meet G’s science teacher who has thrown him out of class every single day for the last two weeks.  I wish them a merry weekend and off they go, and I wander over to my desk and lay my head down.  I have one hundred and fifty-eight folders tucked neatly into a blue plastic milk crate to “grade” this weekend.  And I check off yet another bunch of ideas that don’t quite work as lesson plans.

Wow. It has been a while since I have read this. But it helps me see.

And the orange and metal seats are full here, at gate A8. Quiet, tired people scrolling through their smart phones or simply staring somewhere behind me. Well, they are all silent except for the tech people behind me, a whole convention full of maroon-shirted MIT graduate engineering students sharing speeding ticket stories.

Watch for Him. The least of these are His image bearers.

And as I read over why I am to sing, I revel in His goodness. Somehow He is present in all of these backstories. This thing called favor from the LORD, our sun and shield, is both grace and glory. And maybe, just maybe, my awaiting for this favor, is the handmaiden sort of awaiting, eyes fixed on Her Master, palms opened wide, to receive this grace and glory in order to pass it on.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that I, one of Your people, illumined by your Word, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that He may be known.