Archive for the ‘Literacy’ Category

Maybeth Zeman’s Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time demonstrates, through a series of heartwarming yet heartbreaking stories, what anyone who has worked with juvenile offenders knows: that the thousands of minors locked up in US prisons—at least 10,000 such kids held in adult correctional facilities on any given night—are just children.

The media makes it easy for Americans to ignore this obvious fact with its visual clips cycling through the Nightly News mill showing teenagers of color, usually in hoodies, being let away in cuffs to a police cruiser or a young African American boy in an orange jump suit and shackles shuffling into court. Too few people see the half-truths behind those images. But Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian won’t let you turn your back on what juvenile justice really means in this country or on the vulnerability of these young people’s lives.

Zeman doesn’t just tug at the heartstrings, though. She gives backbone and bite to these boys’ stories by effortlessly weaving into her narrative research about such crucial topics as the psychological and neurological development of children, the devastating effects of poverty and racism on personality development, the high rates of juvenile recidivism. These studies challenge the reader to examine the laws governing how youth are handled in the legal system and the impact of prison culture on young offenders once they disappear behind the walls and razor wires into a world where the retribution trumps rehabilitation.

Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian would be an important book if it just stopped there. But it doesn’t. There’s another tale to tell. Although Zeman is a transitional counselor for a prison high school program, she is also a trained librarian. When she realizes that there isn’t a lending library for her students she does what any librarian would do. She gets a book cart and loads it up with all sorts of fiction and nonfiction including comic books.

There are no pretentions to her library on wheels. She is delightfully unconcerned with Core Curriculum, mandated standards, “the canon” of literature. A firm believer in the power of story and books to open up people’s lives, especially the lives of locked up kids whose worlds are limited and narrow, Zeman sets out to peddle her wares—adventure and mystery; heroes, superheroes and villains; customs and people from other cultures. As she writes, “The great thing about reading books is that they change where we are, and how we are, for a few minutes or even a few hours every day.” And that momentary relief for a locked up kid can often be a life saver in the chaos of jail.

I’ve spent a lot of time in libraries and know the sound that a book cart makes with its squeaky wheels. As Zeman describes pushing her cart through the prison hallways from classroom to classroom I could easily imagine that squeak calling kids out of the harsh reality of prison into the safe world of words and graphics like the pull of a Good Humor truck’s bell.

And those orange clad boys are just as hungry for something to read as they might be for a “King Cone” or a “Candy Center Crunch.” The reader can’t help but laugh, and be moved by their eagerness, asking for a particular book or comic, barely able to cover up their disappointment if the “Green Lantern” comic they’ve been waiting for hasn’t come back yet. They keep track like the old fashion librarian of what’s out, what’s in, overdue, or lost. There’s a poignancy to these boys and their books as though they themselves know what they missed as children and are now trying to make up for lost time and innocence.

Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time opens up to the reader—like the books that Zeman peddles to her students—a stark and punishing world that so few people know about, yet a world that is created and maintained in each of our names as citizens of this country. But she is a gentle alchemist. She mixes the harsh realities of prison life with just enough facts and a good bit of heart as she walks us through the same dark places into which so many of our children are sent every day.

Anyone who spends time in a classroom knows that a school is much more than a school. Just drive around your own town past a local school and read the marquee with its announcements of meetings, activities, its words of wisdom and encouragement. Schools are more than academics and tests. Perhaps this diversity of purpose is most apparent in community colleges. Today’s contributor to “Teachers in Their Own Words” demonstrates what schools can, and do do, for their students, our communities, and ultimately, our country. Elisabeth has been teaching Sociology at the community college level in Western Massachusetts for over a decade, drawing on her academic credentials as well as her social work experience. Many of her students are older, many are struggling to define a new and better life, many are from different cultural backgrounds. Sounds perfect for a Sociology class!! Although Elisabeth, with a touch of academic alchemy, puts that diversity to good use it is the students, she writes, “with their compelling and diverse backstories, who create a unique and sustainable learning community and experience.” “Community College—When a School is More Than a School” will give you some much needed hope at a time like ours when hope and tolerance are in such short supply.

Community College–When a School is More Than a School

On the first day of a new semester when I enter my Sociology classroom in the community college where I teach, voices quiet and faces turn, reflecting emotions that range from excitement to boredom, caution to enthusiasm, by turns welcoming and wary. We momentarily assess each other, wondering silently, “What will I learn this semester?” I usually push through this initial silence by offering a joke about the registrar’s list.

With that list in hand, I am faced with my own Anglicization of names, revealing a cultural bias and a real failure in language pronunciation. Within our classroom are names reflecting our country’s richness—Russian, Puerto Rican, Vietnamese, Irish, African (Burundi), Ukrainian, Mexican, Indian, Jordanian, West Indian, Jewish and Greek ancestry. We discuss how a last name only provides a glimpse into a journey and may not accurately reflect one’s cultural heritage. As I slowly call out their names—Egor, Idaliz, Hafiz, Huyen, Jose, Jamari, Chris, Britney, Thandi—they acknowledge that they are “present”, even as I, for lack of a better word, “mangle” their names. Some students will gently redirect me to the correct pronunciation.

Slowly the “us/them” paradigm is replaced by “me/we”, and it serves as the foundation on which we build our collective experience as it unfurls over 16 weeks. While I take personal responsibility for cultivating a climate of open communication and inquiry within the classroom, it is these students, with their compelling and diverse backstories, who create a unique and sustainable learning community and experience.

Together we explore what Sociology is. “Look around,” I encourage them. “All of you are Sociology.” What do we have in common? How are we different? And how do these differences influence not only our educational experiences but the road we walk on?

Sociology is the story of a 53 year old construction worker, weathered from decades of outdoor work, returning to college to study nursing. It is the 20 year old hearing-impaired woman who aims for a sense of normalcy and inclusion. It is reflected in the eyes of an African refugee who speaks three languages and whose goal is to become a medical doctor. Sociology is in the shuffling feet of a sweet-faced teenager who opted to finish high school by taking community college classes rather than struggle through an uninspired rural high school milieu. It is the story of a 38 year old father of three who requires further training to avoid discharge from the job he’s held for nearly 20 years. Sociology is also reflected in the eyes of a 26 year old former felon, in recovery from substance abuse, sitting close to the door, unsmiling, unsure of his place. It is found in the story of a high school drop-out, struggling through the blight of urban decay and poverty, looking to escape the family “business” of drug-dealing and larceny by matriculating into community college. She will be the first in her family to not only graduate from high school but the first to attend college.

Through our discussions, students are able to hear different perspectives on human society. And as the weeks progress, many of their initial stereotypes and prejudices dissolve, and they are able to realize that xenophobia is a choice, a learned response.

And this leads to asking some profound questions of ourselves and others: What do we share? How are we the same? How do we differ? How do we, as individuals, cope with all of these cultural differences? How do we understand, respect and celebrate the differences between others? If “celebrate” is too lofty a goal, or an unwanted one, can we as a class aim to develop tolerance? We start to move closer to this goal by bridging the differences within our classroom, which is a microcosm of the larger society. This bridge is built through the development of shared classroom norms, through the curriculum, by cultivating a “first- name” basis within the classroom and by recognizing that learning is done in multiple ways.

Students do not typically start off embracing the value of tolerance, but it is rare that they, as a collective, do not end up working together to create a climate of cooperation versus divisiveness, of inclusion versus separation, of looking for the familiar in the perceived strange, which of course lies at the heart of Sociology. And, to a certain extent, this is the very mission of community college: that all individuals, regardless of their aptitudes, demographics and personal histories, have the capacity to learn, to grow and to contribute positively to their communities.

As Common Core curriculum moves closer to full implementation the discussion about its impact on students and teachers heats up. As you’ll read in today’s guest essay, “A Plain Little Thing” by Jeff Nguyen, the latest in the “Teachers in Their Own Words” series, there’s a “collision coming down the tracks.” The effects of these standards are far reaching and go beyond the obvious concerns of limiting teachers’ ability to tailor curriculum to the needs and interests of their current students. Some states are beginning to question the wisdom and feasibility of such a national course of studies. While Indiana has taken an even braver step and has “paused” its implementation of Common Core until those involved can fully study it. Jeff has long been involved in teaching. He has extensive experience working with a variety of K-12 students with special learning needs. Currently he is a kindergarten teacher in Florida and next year will be moving to first grade. Jeff is not only a practitioner but also a critical thinker when it comes to educational and social justice issues. Sounds pretty heavy, doesn’t it. But when you read Jeff’s piece you’ll see that he has a great blend of fact, insight, humor and Dr. Seuss wisdom—useful qualities for any teacher facing today’s crazy educational world. You can read more of Jeff’s writings at his blog http://deconstructingmyths.com .

“A Plain Little Thing”

I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,

But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”

Dr. Seuss

As another school year draws to a close in the land of milk and Honey Boo Boo, students across the land are looking forward to enjoying their summer break, whether it be learning to dance Gangnam Style, playing video games until their thumbs fall off or avoiding the outdoors like the cooties. For teachers, this stretch is looked forward to with equal anticipation. It is a time to catch one’s breath, eat a leisurely lunch with actual grown-ups and go to the bathroom whenever they gosh darned feel like it. However, when they return to school in the fall both students and teachers, alike, will have one thing to look forward to…the Common Core curriculum.

Just as the professional judgment and expertise of the teacher has been minimized through the widespread reliance on standardized testing scores as a measure of student achievement and teacher effectiveness, the Common Core takes matters to its logical conclusion by replacing state and locally developed educational standards with a national curriculum that all states who sought “Race to the Top” funding are expected to follow in lockstep fashion. By 2014, students in Kindergarten and up will take end-of-year assessments called PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers) because, well, all 5 and 6 year-olds should be ready for college and careers before they can go to first grade.

Let me take just a minute to break down what life is like in a typical Kindergarten classroom, or at least in mine. Our day starts with 18 boys and girls, of varying backgrounds and abilities, who are all inclined to decide that they need to blow their noses, show me their loose tooth or new sneakers at the exact same time upon their arrival to the classroom. Invariably, before the morning announcements are over, half the students will need to use the bathroom or need a new pencil/eraser. Guaranteed, that by the end of the morning read-aloud, at least five students will inform me that a) they have a microscopic boo-boo, b) they’re hungry and/or c) they have to go to the bathroom again. As the day progresses and the stamina of the students begins to diminish, I remind them that they just need to pull themselves up by their untied bootstraps and finish their math problems or so help me, Bill Gates, himself, will descend from the heavens to reform their pint-sized, wayward selves.

In the past year, I have learned many things from my students. I have discovered that applesauce and ketchup mixed together are not gross but milk and peas are really yucky. I have found that 5 and 6 year-olds do not like to sit still for more than 1 minute and 43 seconds at a time but they do love to clap, sing and dance. I have ascertained that my students do not always like to talk about why Hansel felt conflicted when he was fed by the witch while Gretel was left to starve but they will gladly talk about their lunch, their baby sister, their pet hamster and pretty much anything else under the sun except how Hansel and Gretel can be compared to similar protagonists in the folk tale genre. I have also realized that children do love to learn, play and talk but it has to be within a context of authentic experiences that are carefully constructed so as to shape their thoughts and ideas in a meaningful way.

In my finite wisdom, I do foresee a collision coming down the tracks between the locomotive of Common Core and the caboose of poverty. I think special education students will feel the impact most heavily, a historically overrepresented population in the juvenile justice system who will find themselves increasingly alienated from the mainstream of school life. Eventually, though, all students and teachers are going to feel the burn. My lingering fear is that this is another “set the pins up to knock them down” initiative to widen the net of privatization and standardization of the curriculum at the expense of creativity, experiential and aesthetic learning as well as the minimizing of children’s literature as an agent of change and diversity.

I admit that I’m not too sure which Common Core standard was covered when my students learned in Social Studies one day about a brave turtle named Mack who was tired of being stepped on. One day he had had enough and he challenged Yertle, king of the turtles, who had built his kingdom on the backs of the unwashed turtles. When King Yertle refused to hear his plea and show compassion, Mack let loose the burp heard around the world. Mack’s burp caused Yertle to fall from his throne built high upon the backs of the other turtles and into the mud. It was a plain, little turtle doing a plain, little thing that brought liberation to the turtle citizenry. If only there were more Macks among us willing to make whatever burps, farts and sneezes are needed to bring the Yertles of the world back down to the mud with the rest of us so that our fellow turtles can be free to forage in peace.

It’s hard reading about the lockstep curriculum set out by Common Core with its emphasis on “informational readings,” and seeing all the hoops students and teachers have to jump through to meet its standards. Quite frankly, it makes me sad.

“Why sad?” you might wonder. Frustrated, maybe, or for that matter, mad. But sad?  Usually when the topic is education reform frustrated and mad come easily to me. But this is different. I’m a romantic (as I think many English teachers are) and I see literature—poetry, drama, fiction—and its power to change people’s lives as the heart of an English teacher’s job.

But the designers of Common Core don’t see it that way. They assert that students have been raised on an easy-read curriculum and because of this they are unable to analyze complex reports, studies and government documents. The administration’s solution is to have informational texts make up 50 percent of elementary school readings and 70 percent of 12th grade readings by 2014. Unfortunately, the burden of this solution will fall mostly on English teachers, leaving them little time to teach real literature.  Instead they will somehow have to figure out ways to get kids interested in such texts as “Fed Views” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) or “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental Energy, and Transportation Management” published by the General Services Administration.

So yes, it makes me sad to see the education of the heart —the real core of any worthwhile English curriculum—gutted for the sake of global competition, and to see teachers once again take the hit for “dummied down” education.

But I feel saddest for the kids who must struggle their way through this type of literal—not literary—education, especially those kids for whom school is already a difficult and alienating place.

I’ve worked with those students in both alternative high schools and a county prison, young men and women who have already had the heart taken out of their lives by poverty, racism, abandonment and neglect. They have very little interest in school because the traditional school setting has had very little interest in them. And now this latest roadblock makes success even harder to attain: a reading curriculum that has less to do with real life, their real life, and more to do with corporate America.

As an English teacher it’s never easy to get disaffected kids to pick up a book and read. I was constantly justifying my choices, answering the question every literature teacher (and author) is confronted with in one way or another, “What’s this got to do with me?”  But once we got past those hurdles and students gave a particular reading a chance, I have seen books—novels, plays, poetry, biography, memoir—save at-risk kids’ lives, if only for the time that they are reading them.

I’m pretty certain that one of the Federalist Papers, a Common Core selection, wouldn’t have kept fifteen-year-old Warren out of trouble on the cell block and coming to my jailhouse classroom. But Manchild in the Promised Land did. As Warren put it, “I’ve never ever read a whole book before,” but once he got his hands on Claude Brown’s memoir that changed. Slowly, he got lost in a book that not only reflected Warren’s own troubled life but also did something else—showed him a young man much like himself deciding that life on the streets was no life at all. That book helped keep Warren out of trouble and coming to school long after he’d read the last page.

The way poetry did for ‘Nor. A seventeen-year-old single mom who worked the 3-11 shift at Sears, ‘Nor never missed a day of school because of the poets she read in class like Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Rilke, Luis Rodriguez, and her favorite, the enigmatic Emily Dickinson. She didn’t always understand what she read but those words helped her survive life in the projects where too often words had nothing to do with poetry.

And it’s hard to imagine that George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language would have had Tanya, a real cut-up with a long suspension record from her home school, jumping off the school bus and running towards me yelling, “Mr. C., Mr. C, I finished 1984! I can’t believe what they did to Winston!”

Given the way this country is going, haunted by one tragedy after another, maybe it’s time to re-examine what we want our true Common Core to be. Maybe it’s time to worry more about the heart of America, and about all America’s children and less about the bankrolls of corporate America. Let’s design a reading curriculum that keeps kids connected to their schools, to their communities and to their best selves.

Originally appeared on Huffington Post

 

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

As the academic year moves along, there is a lot of discussion about the demands and impact of Common Core (the Obama Administration’s effort to establish a nationwide curriculum for all grade levels) on schools, students and teachers. To many teachers and parents, Common Core misses the mark as to what real education is all about. As one Chicago teacher lamented in the journal, American Teacher, “I find it demoralizing. This is damaging to teaching and to learning.” Louisa, a kindergarten teacher in a magnet school in New England and a former contributor to this series, shares that same lament and concern about a national standardized curriculum and its over-testing of young children. In her piece, Common Core, Common Sense: What Should Kindergarten be About?, Louisa writes about the conflicting demands of the Common Core curriculum  with the more common sense needs of the very young children she teaches. As you read her essay, her moral dilemma as well as her understated anger and frustration at what this country is doing to its students becomes clear. She articulates the struggle that most teachers experience every day as they try to balance student needs with the demands of an unresponsive state-mandated educational system.

It’s assessment time in Kindergarten. What that means is that I sit down with one child at a time and check on their progress in (mostly) literacy skills. Of course this means that I have less time for actual teaching, and I have to admit that a tension builds up for me, like the feeling that I have something cooking on the stove but can’t quite get to the kitchen.

There is a sense of pressure too about keeping up with the pacing guides for Math, Literacy, Social Studies and Science. Are my children (“students”) meeting the Common Core standards? Will they meet the benchmarks: Will they read by the end of Kindergarten? Will they be able to add 7 to 10? Will they be able to read ‘“Where is my hat? It is not here,” Ben said. Ben looked in the closet. He looked behind the chair.’” by May?

Another question: Will I be able to demonstrate to my principal that my lessons are based on  Common Core standards and best practices? Will I be able to stay out of hot water?

What makes it all the more complicated (and more stressful) is that while my children are coming along alright in Reading, several still don’t have bladder control. This makes classroom life challenging as when a child has an accident during a Math lesson and needs help finding clothes and changing. Of course we have many such interruptions.  A child has a meltdown because her muffin has crumbled in her book bag and loudly and angrily mourns for half an hour, so that we are all under siege from her disappointment. Quarrels, secrets and longings fill the room all day, and each one needs to be addressed.

These complications are actually a blessing. They bring me back to my senses.  I remember that my children have only been on this earth for five years. They are just learning how to handle their bodies. Friendships are exciting and sometimes hazardous. Being part of a group is also a fairly new experience. I remember that learning is joyful when it doesn’t require too much sitting and listening. Anything involving music and the senses is mesmerizing. Play is paramount. To me this is the real curriculum. I encourage a small group to build a city in the blocks, complete with signs in invented spelling. We sing and dance together, and I feel a deep gladness at the smiles and laughter, along with the natural cooperation and self-control that emerges.

Of course, this doesn’t really resolve the tension. I am still asking children to write when many of them haven’t yet gained the fine motor control to hold the pencil well. I am still pushing them to read and meet standards that are clearly inappropriate in other academic areas as well. I obey the dictates of those so much more prosperous and powerful than I, making education policy in the far reaches of the educational bureaucracy and the government. What I see is that pressure is put on the very youngest children to accomplish tasks they are not ready for.  It is hard to accept and admit that I am complicit in an institution that seems so detrimental to many children.

Maybe it’s just time for more of us to speak up.

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

I’ve written in the past about what I call “teachers in tough places”—men and women who spend their days teaching in the inner city, psych units, prisons and detention centers; schools that are often ill equipped, understaffed, and in some cases, dangerous. For those folks, teaching is a daily challenge. Today’s contributor, Joan Edwards-Acuna knows about challenge. She teaches high school students serving time in a New York adult county jail. Others in this series have written about the difficulties (and rewards) they’ve encountered working in a similar environment. But Joan’s challenge is compounded by the fact that most of her students are English Language Learners (ELL). According to the Center for American Progress, in the decade between 1997-98 and 2008-09, the number of ELLs in public schools has increased by more than 50%. Unfortunately studies also indicate that ELLs have the highest dropout rate among ethnic groups. With the Common Core curriculum in place the stakes are even higher for these students as well as for their teachers. What is refreshing and inspiring about Joan’s piece is how she not only doesn’t lament the difficulty of her job (some of her locked up students aren’t even literate in their native language), she outright welcomes it as an opportunity to, as she writes, “step up her game.” And as you’ll see, she not only steps up, she strides to success, bringing her students along with her as they all “race to the top.”

“Stepping Up My Game”

The year 2000 marked a turning point in my career as a high school ESL/ English teacher. Not only had I been downsized to half time, but the only opportunity to maintain a full time position was a transfer to an alternative program for incarcerated youth at the local adult county jail. The twenty first century had brought an onerous dilemma—or so I thought at the time. I soon discovered it had delivered a new opportunity to hone my skills and to reevaluate my teaching style. This transition forced me to step up my game.

English Language Learners (ELLs) who become incarcerated, experience unique challenges that no other students I serve encounter. They are usually “students with interrupted formal education” (SIFE), a term established by some state education departments to define immigrant students who face certain academic limitations.

My students did not stop going to school by choice, but by design. They were forced by economic hardship to interrupt what is considered routine to support not just themselves, but an entire family. They have risked their lives at great expense, to set foot on US soil to earn money the hard way—washing dishes, waiting tables, cooking, mowing lawns, painting and building houses—not just to feed the extended family south of the border, but also to pay off a debt. As a result in almost thirteen years, I have met few who are matriculated students, en route to a high school diploma.

Teaching in incarcerated education demands a kind of resilience and flexibility that only those of us in the trenches can appreciate. The “revolving door” phenomenon derails the best lesson plans. To have any real impact in the classroom requires an awareness of the emotional backlash of incarceration on adolescents. However, working with ELL’s forces a particular discernment. Despite their predicament, these students hold the teacher in high esteem, are respectful and conscientious, usually demonstrating an eagerness to master English as a second language (ESL).

As class rosters change with daily additions and deletions, my most immediate challenge is to create a community of learners in a classroom where students feel safe to take risks. English is a confusing language after all, with many exceptions to the rules, but getting to know their unique interests and abilities is a bridge to acculturation. I never penalize students for using native language, especially for the purpose of clarification. As students with interrupted education, literacy or a lack thereof, is a huge deficit that can not be ignored.

I remember well Jose, a nineteen year old from South America who was not literate even in Spanish. He had dropped out of school at an early age out of sheer frustration. I discovered he was dyslexic, but he had never been diagnosed. He saw no point in attending classes. It wasn’t until he revealed his love of horses that we had a breakthrough. I tapped into this passion, even though I had to adapt a bilingual approach to most of the assignments he completed.

I teach in a program flush with resources – a smart board in every classroom, access to desktops, laptops, the most up to date software, even the traditional standards such as picture dictionaries, flashcards and manipulatives are abundant.

I feel fortunate to have these supports in place; however, these tools are not what I use to measure how effective I am or what forced me to raise the bar for myself. Rather it’s recognizing the discrepancy between the formal diagnostic assessment and an authentic evaluation of students’ literacy skills. It’s meeting the challenge of creating a language-rich environment, and planning lessons that adapt to different learning styles and reading levels.  Differentiated teaching/learning becomes second nature in incarcerated education if you want to survive. It’s about maintaining consistency in an environment in which change is the only constant. Ultimately, it’s being able to encourage students to want to tell their stories because in my opinion, they need to be told. They are amazing stories of courage, determination and perseverance that all students, regardless of their background, can appreciate.

Measuring gain at this level of literacy is very tangible, sometimes even remarkable because it’s not just about improved reading and math scores. It’s also about a new found confidence or self-worth demonstrated in a more relaxed affect, or the desire to borrow a book from my mobile library—the “unquantifiables” that peep through the gloom of the status of court cases, depression and/or a lack of familial support.

As exhausting and demanding as the experience continues to be, the rewards of teaching literacy to incarcerated adolescents have made me a better teacher. The possibility to impact change in my students far outweighs the challenges of meeting state mandates and token administrative support.

Recently I ran into a former student who had struggled to master English in class. He proudly introduced his family without hesitation and shared that he had remained gainfully employed. By some standards, this may not represent success, but for him, I knew this feat symbolized a hard fought battle. I encourage teachers to continue to see the glass half full. Your advocacy and passion won’t go unnoticed by the people who matter most – your students.

 

 

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

The teachers who have shared their experiences have taught in a variety of school settings: One at a reservation school, another in a community based program for ex-offenders and the last, in a magnet school’s kindergarten. Continuing the series Lauren Norton Carson contributes two pieces about her teaching in juvenile detention. In Boys and Books in Juvenile Lockup: It’s Magic she writes about the struggle of bringing together two seemingly contradictory forces—locked up teenagers and books. As she puts it, “Getting a teenage boy to read a book takes determination. Getting a teenage boy in lockup to read a book takes alchemy.” But that’s exactly what she does in this funny and warm narrative, and what she has done for the past 11 years teaching in juvenile corrections settings near Boston. When people ask her how she’s managed to teach so long in such  challenging settings she says, “Working with these boys is the most rewarding work I’ve done in all of my 25 years of teaching, and the most important.”  Paraphrasing Mark Twain, Lauren also says about her students, “They give me a great deal of trouble, and I enjoy it very much.” From that you get a feeling for the kind of spirit—a pioneer spirit, actually—that Lauren brings to her work and her classroom. In a second piece, a poem simply titled Reflection, Lauren poignantly describes a young man’s first shave—regrettably “celebrated” behind bars. What I love about this poem is that moment when “teacher” becomes “parent”. It’s a moment that many of us teachers have experienced, a moment, I suspect, that very few “education reformers” have ever had.

Boys and Books in Juvenile Lockup: It’s Magic!

I teach literacy skills to boys in juvenile corrections settings. They range in age from thirteen to eighteen and have usually skipped, dropped out of, or been expelled from school. For them, school “sucks” and so does reading. They’re not thrilled to be in my class, considering they’ve lost their freedom and are forced to go to school—where they have to read a book.

“Yo, Miss!” says Pete*, a thirteen-year-old who can’t seem to stop twitching in front of the bookcase. “I’m not reading no book!”

But sustained silent reading is a requirement of the school day, and even Perpetual Motion Pete has to comply. I pull Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key from the shelf.

“You might like this one, Pete. It’s about a kid who’s got wicked ADHD and gets in trouble all the time. His parents are whacked, too, and his grandmother’s worse than he is. It’s really funny. Joey’s a good kid and doesn’t mean to cause trouble. So he tries medication and all kinds of crazy things happen.”

I pause for a minute. I turn to put the book back on the shelf.

“Wait,” Pete mumbles. “Let me see.”

I hand the book to him and start walking away, then throw a few well-aimed words over my shoulder.

“Oh, yeah. And the guy who wrote that book, Jack Gantos, did time when he was 19. He went to jail for smuggling dope, but after he got out he became a children’s book writer. He even wrote a book about his jail time.” I turn around and resume walking.

Pete’s hooked. “He did? Where’s that one?”

I go back and pull out Gantos’s autobiographical Hole in My Life, knowing the text is too difficult for Pete to read independently. He reads at a fourth-grade level. But Pete knows a mug shot when he sees one and compares young Gantos on that book cover to the photo of dapper adult-author Gantos on Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.

“We’re going to read Hole in My Life later in class, so why don’t you try Joey Pigza now?” I say. I don’t tell him that there are two other books in the Joey Pigza series, each one as funny and poignant as the first. I’ll play that card later.

A pinch of mystery here, a dash of drama there, feigned indifference sprinkled in. Stir well and wait.  Pete nods and walks off, reading the book jacket as he goes.

I spend a lot of time buying and reading young adult and mid-grade books, trying to land such winning titles. When I found the fifteen-book Bluford High series, I knew I’d hit the juvenile detention jackpot. Written by Anne Schraff, Paul Langan, and various authors, the series is set in a contemporary California high school.

The characters are teenagers who flow in and out of one another’s stories: Ben and his no-good stepfather; Martin, who seeks revenge for his brother’s death; Darrell, who’s bullied; and Tyray, the bully.

My students relate readily to the teen characters’ conflicts of peer pressure, faltering parents, falling in love. Some also relate to the occasional violence and abuse. So they devour the Bluford High books. I even had to buy a second copy of each book because they started stealing them from one another.

But for some kids, even these high-interest novels are too difficult to read. So I hook them up to the CD player with headphones, an audiobook, and the text to go with it.  Some fight me at first, as Mario does when I try to entice him to listen to an abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo.

“Who cares about some dude named Crisco? I don’t want to listen to that!”

Mario spends the first day trying to switch from the audiobook to the radio while I’m not looking. But by the next afternoon, the count’s story of betrayal and revenge wins out. Mario forgets about the radio.

Then there are the boys who really surprise me, who go beyond the standard urban teen fiction to books I never think they’ll enjoy. There’s Shaquille, who at 6’3” almost mirrors his NBA namesake in size. He reads the unabridged Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales and declares them more “official” than the watered-down Disney versions.

Or tiny, eighteen-year-old Savhon, a gangbanger who’s never read any book before—in his native Khmer or in English. Savhon picks up a Danielle Steel novel that someone donated and is entranced. Six months and many yard sales later, I’ve brought him ten Steel novels, and he’s read every one.

“I didn’t know things could work out good for people,” he says. “They get happy. I like that.”

Harry Potter, the Twilight series, Lemony Snicket, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—these teenage boys wouldn’t touch such books “on the out.” Here, in the safety and security of a supportive, small-group environment, they do.

But unlike the enchanted Sorting Hat at Hogwarts, the books don’t just find the boys and declare themselves a match. They need a little assistance, which is where I come in.  Helping the boys improve their reading skills is my job. Yet that’s not why I peddle books, why I do the mixing and matching to find just the right one for each boy, no matter how unwilling he is. I do it because I love to read—to be transported from my world into the heart and fabric of another.

And it’s magic. Nothing gives me greater joy than to see a boy—especially one of these boys—lost in a book. Because I know that’s where he’ll find himself, maybe for the first time ever.

* All the boys’ names have been changed in this piece. 

Boys and Books in Juvenile Lockup: It’s Magic! originally appeared in Talking Writing, an online publication.

Reflection

“Yo, Miss!  Come here!”

His voice echoes down the cinder-block hallway,

bouncing off metal doors that clank shut

as others click open,

powered by an invisible electric hand.

“I’m shavin’!”

He’s shaving.

A fourteen-year-old whose coffee–dark skin

overshadows the few hairs clamoring to be cut.

A wiry boy in uniform greens standing at a hallway sink,

face lathered thick with prison-issue cream,

razor in hand.

A guard stands next to him, alert and uninterested.

“I’m shavin’,” he says again when I round the corner into view,

his voice high with excitement.

“It’s my first time!”

I wince,

a teacher-mother-mentor cringe.

He is a boy.

He is a gangbanger

who cut the skin of another with a blade so long

it pierced the kid’s heart—

another boy

who had no chance to shave off

the few seconds it would have taken to dodge death.

I see my own boy at fourteen

and the downy hairs that clung like amber milk

to his upper lip

and the ceremony we made of it all–

the water, the blade, the cream.

“Hurry up,” the officer says,

shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“Back to your cell in five.  Head count.”

My eyes fill up and I blink hard.

“Manny,” I say,

ignoring the guard ignoring me,

“I’m going to stand right here.

Because every boy should have a

witness

to his first shave.”

Manny turns back to the metal mirror,

slides the razor across his skin

and smiles.

Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at davidchura2@gmail.com.

Continuing this series Gayle Saks-Rodriguez writes about her experiences teaching incarcerated women and men of all ages. I first came across Gayle’s writings on OpenSalon.com, an interactive platform established by Salon.com, as well as on her own blog, “My Life in the Middle Ages.” Her pieces are honest, insightful, warm and gently humorous, and she’s not afraid to take on difficult topics as you’ll see from “Hide and Seek.” Too often teachers are portrayed as “money-grubbers,” interested only in maintaining their “cushy jobs” under the protection of tenure. Gayle belies that myth: In order to become a teacher—and a teacher in a very difficult and demanding environment—she gave up a comfortable, well paid career because, as she writes, “I know now that this is the work I was meant to do.” Gayle has embraced her work as a teacher of society’s throwaways with such enthusiasm and caring that I asked her to share some of her experiences helping students regain their footing in a world that seems to have little room for them.

Hide and Seek: When Locked up Students Misplace Their Inner Child

Two years ago I fell into what I call my “happy place”—a volunteer teacher position working with newly incarcerated women in a Northeast prison.  The experience has made me abandon an 18-year succession of nicely compensated jobs in non-profit fundraising.  I know now that this is the work I was meant to do.

When I first started working with the women in a weekly workshop, I devised a curriculum that I called “sensory memoir writing.”  As part of the course I asked my students about their dreams. After all, we all have a dream, the ultimate end-point, our “eyes on the prize” of something.  It should go without saying that at no point in a person’s life is prison the “pot at the end of the rainbow.”  Yet that wasn’t the case with these women. In trying to get them to uncover the dreams they once had, I led them through an exercise that I hoped would “uncrush” their spirit in the process.

One student remembered her love of figure skating and how becoming an instructor of kids was something she always wanted to do.  She was able to re-live the freedom of spinning around on the ice and how freeing that was for her.  A beautiful 20-year old Latina talked about becoming a professional guitar player, a skill she picked up as a teenager as a way to bring her closer to a checked-out father.  While another woman, white, in her 40s, hardened by years of heavy drug abuse, said she lost her dreams at 10 when her mother shot her up with heroin for the first time.

Then three months ago I scored a part-time job with a community based non-profit teaching life and transitional skills to males at various stages of reentry after serving prison stints from 2 years to 26 years. Their ages range from 15-65+.  I customize my curriculum to the skills my student’s need, everything from basic hygiene for a very low-functioning small group of youth offenders to parenting and anger management for a pretty hard core group of felons who feel they have learned everything they need to know. I teach interviewing skills and resume writing to a group of older students who find themselves in the worst Catch-22 of their lives, desperately WANTING to turn their lives around but finding that no one will hire them with the types of offenses that are easily uncovered.

The youngest group is made up of those in the juvenile justice system. They are too young to be committed as adults, but have a history of crimes under their belts that often doesn’t bode well for a better future.  I rarely know the details of what they’ve done, but they often volunteer little snippets of their learned behaviors.  These young men speak, sometimes sadly, sometimes with indifference, of their incarcerated parents and siblings, the very adults who were supposed to be their “teachers” but who left them behind, because they were driven by their own addictions and demons.

As I do with the women, I use a similar ice-breaking exercise with each of these groups, asking questions that encourage self-reflection.  My students have to think about and answer prompts such as “I am happiest when___________” or “When I am alone I_______________”. The last prompt on a list of 25 is “My child within is________”

I have compared the answers of all the groups I teach—female and male—to this last prompt.  They have said things like, “My child within is playing video games,” “is at Six Flags,” “is happy,” “curious.”  Every once in a while there will be women who have grown up together and one will help the other to remember their common upbringing, hanging out at the other’s home after school, backing up the other’s assertion  of how cool her mother was.

The older men have said things like, “still there,” “strong,” “determined.” While the youngest group, the under 21-year olds, often describe their “child within” as happy.  They seem to have some support on the outside, still grin ear-to-ear when they talk about “my moms,” their “baby mamas,” or their grandparents.   They have often discussed their happiest childhood memories, most involving family trips that include a stay in a hotel, room service and swimming pools.  Oftentimes, the implication is that those memories will remain firmly planted in the past, one-offs, not to be repeated any time soon.

After a recent class I read the answers to the questionnaire of a seemingly detached Latino young man whose head had been on the desk the entire time, not participating or sharing his answers with the small group.   When I read the answer to the last question my heart seized a bit: “My child within is gone.”

So many of these men and women—young and old—have had their dreams stomped on.  Last week I asked a 17-yr old what his dream is.  He answered without hesitation, “My dream is to have a dream.”  Time and time again I’ve heard from students that they firmly believe that dreams never come true, even when what they had visualized themselves becoming in the past is as simple as being a dog walker or hair stylist.  Their paths have been road-blocked by bad choices and absentee role models.   If we—teachers, families, neighbors—can’t show them the way, show them the steps that CAN be taken to help them get to a realistic end-point, then we all have failed.

Like most teachers I’ve gotten some praise from my high school students over my 26 years of teaching—a lesson “wasn’t bad,” or a particular class was “sorta interesting.” I’ve even been told that I was a “pretty good teacher.” High praise coming from teenagers.

But the truth is I wasn’t a “good teacher.” I was a “failure,” at least according to America’s “education reformers”—that “odd coalition of corporate-friendly Democrats, right-wing Republicans, Tea Party governors, Wall Street executives, and major foundations” as Diane Ravitch aptly defines them—because the kids I taught consistently lagged behind their peers in every measure, performing well below grade level, failing state standardized tests.

Given the present state of teacher evaluations, with a significant portion allotted to student performance on mandated tests, I’d be in big trouble if I hadn’t left teaching recently. I certainly wouldn’t get any bonus pay. If it were up to the Obama Administration I might not even have a job since I would be one of those teachers who, as the President noted in his 2012 State of the Union address, “just aren’t helping kids.” It’s all a part of the “name/shame/blame game.

But I know that I wasn’t a “failure,” and more importantly, that the hundreds of kids I’ve taught weren’t either. My students were mostly young people of color, living in neighborhoods and families destroyed by poverty and substance abuse, racism and violence, physical and sexual abuse. Overall, life—shaped by their mistakes and by conditions they couldn’t control—left them little time for, or interest in education. Frequently that lack of time and interest led to trouble which led to repeated suspensions, expulsions and in some cases, incarceration.  But sometimes trouble translated into being placed in a small community alternative high school or the jailhouse classroom in the county penitentiary, both places I taught in.

By the time they made it to me, my students were pretty damaged. They hated school. They could barely read or do basic math. And forget about writing. “You expect me to write?” more than one teen squawked in horror at me. But eventually they did. They read, piling up grade levels like some Americans pile up debt. They calculated. They even learned the magic of connecting sentences that made sense.

But by the state’s educational rubric, they didn’t cut it. As noteworthy as their successes were—both academically and behaviorally—they were still “failures” and I along with them: success was only validated by passing the standardized tests.

One of the hardest things I had to do was send kids into those tests who weren’t ready. I tried hard beforehand to get them out of it. I’d explain, downright argue at times, with the school administration that although my students had made solid progress it wasn’t enough to tackle the exam and so they should wait and take it next time. It never worked. “It’s the law,” I was told.

Every time I think about Tyler my palms sweat. Tyler was a jailhouse student, lanky, 16, with an Afro picked out to an angel’s halo. But he was no angel, and he had the missing front teeth and two years at the county pen to prove it. When he first came to class he was reading on a second grade level. For some reason he was determined to improve this time round in school. He came every day, took work to his cell every night and returned it completed every morning. Slowly his reading level increased. He was pleased with himself. You could see it in the almost toothless smile he didn’t bother to hide anymore.

But he wasn’t close to test-ready. When I petitioned to delay Tyler’s exam the administrator refused but offered me her idea of comfort, “Look, it’s okay if he fails. Then he’ll be eligible for remediation.” I couldn’t help shooting back, “Sure, send the kid in so he can get shot down one more time.” I prepared Tyler for that test as best as I could. He worked harder than ever. He was psyched. “I’m gonna ace it, Mr. C.”

You know the end of the story. It’s the same for many damaged kids living in poverty and neglect, factors that the pundits say can be overcome by good, dedicated teachers. Once again Tyler “failed.” He never came back to class for remediation.

If Tyler and kids like him are “failures” then I—and all the other teachers who teach in tough places—are too. But I don’t think we should take the rap alone. As long as our educational policies let students like Tyler down in the name of “reform” and “the law,” continuing the “name/shame/blame game” instead of addressing the social conditions that cripple these kids’ lives and learning, then we as a country are failures as well, in need of some serious remediation.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside

She was pretty upfront about it: she didn’t want me there.

“It’s not you personally,” Marge explained. “It’s the book.”

Marge was the moderator, researcher, engine, really, of a local reading group. She was good at what she did, I was told, and I believed it. She was pretty thorough at listing all the reasons why she didn’t want to read or recommend to the group my book I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, about my ten years teaching teenagers in adult detention.

“The title, for one. It’s all wrong. Even the third graders I used to teach would know that it wasn’t correct,” she started off. “It’s just poor grammar. And what about that cover? It put me off.”

I happened to think Beacon Press did a terrific job with the cover—the title, in hip-hop script on a blue background and, in profile, the photograph of a young African American male, sixteen at most, looking out at the reader with a somewhat challenging look yet with the inevitable vulnerability of any teenager.

But I knew where Marge was headed.

“Besides, I don’t like the topic, sounds too depressing,” she said. And then she got blunt. “What’s it got to do with me?”

I’d heard the objections before, although not quite so frankly stated. I did some mild reassuring, but I didn’t work at it. I knew that Marge had called to invite me to speak to the group despite her opposition. Two friends who were a part of the book club had read the book, liked it, and lobbied for it.

When I arrived at the community center the night of my talk, I thought things might have changed.

“We don’t usually do refreshments, but I thought this time it might be nice,” Marge said, greeting me warmly at the door, then leading me to a table covered with plates of home-baked cookies and pastries, a coffee urn, and two pitchers of fresh-squeezed lemonade.

And indeed things had changed. At first when Marge introduced me, she was true to form. I winced as she laid out all her objections and doubts about the book in excruciating detail. “Oh boy, what kind of night is this going to be?” I thought.

But then, with equal clarity, Marge told the group of about thirty how the book had changed her thinking and answered all her doubts. How she understood now that the title reflected the fractured yet still human lives of many of the kids I wrote about, especially Ray, the young man who was damaged by years of abandonment and drugs, and from whom I took the quote for the title. She said how the cover itself mirrored these kids’ lives—on the one hand it showed the fragile world of childhood with the book jacket’s blue background and playful lettering, and on the other, the gritty world of the streets with that scowling, discontented-looking young man. How, yes, the stories that she expected to depress and alienate her did make her sad at times, as she learned about these children’s lives in and out of jail. Yet at the same time they made her smile and laugh and admire those same children for their resilience and generosity and willingness to forgive society for what it had done to them, although society didn’t forgive the children for their mistakes.

“It was pretty obvious to me by the end of the book that I had a lot more in common with those kids than I could ever have imagined,” Marge concluded.

Listening to Marge, I smiled to myself and began to wonder why I’d made the trip there (well, there were those delicious-looking brownies), since she was telling the group all the things I would have said.

And I wondered if Marge realized that what had happened to her is what I always hoped would happen whenever I handed one of my locked-up students a book: their perceptions of the world would shift; that places they’d never been to, were excluded from, would open up to them; that people they’d never gotten the chance to meet, or who they refused to meet because of all the protective barriers they put up, would suddenly became more like them than they could have ever realized.

I didn’t think Marge, now, after reading the book, would mind being in the company of Warren, who, finally, at the age of fifteen and reading on a fourth-grade level, had completed his “first-ever book,” as he put it, or Frankie, who made it through a long stint in solitary confinement devouring the novels (all good ones, I might add) I brought him; or Larry, who began to see that even a life like his wasn’t foreign to the pages of literature after he finished reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy.

Readers like Marge and Warren and Frankie and Larry and all the others out there are the reasons why writers like me write their books and why teachers like me stay in the classroom despite the struggles. We want to do nothing less than change the world (and a few hearts while we’re at it) book by book.

Originally posted on Beacon Broadside