Posts Tagged ‘Education reform’

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

 

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We all want schools to be welcoming places. What better way for students to learn than when they feel comfortable and safe. But schools have become less welcoming as education gets more mired in the mandates of Common Core curriculum and high stakes testing. The pressure is on for everyone–students, teachers, administrators, even parents–to meet these requirements or risk severe consequences (such as being labeled a “failing school.”) Although schools, especially in the higher grades, in one way or another have always had a culture of competition and conformity, things seem worse these days. Catherine Gobron, today’s contributor, knows all about young people’s reactions to that culture. She is the program director for North Star,  a center of “self-directed learning for teens.” I love their slogan, “Learning is natural. School is optional.” It says it all. Just because a kid stops going to school doesn’t mean that she or he isn’t interested in learning, isn’t curious about the world. As Catherine explains in her piece, teens say “no” to school for a variety of reasons. Many are just looking for a few adults who have the courage to listen to them and to guide them wherever their interests take them. Catherine is one of those adults and North Star is one of those places. You can read more of Catherine’s writings on Huffington Post.

“Learning is Natural. School is Optional”

I left high school when I was 17. My GPA was 3.9, but I was failing due to excessive absences. I had friends who were content and thriving, but I hated to be there. I felt constrained, disrespected, and uninvolved. My discontent was a negative experience for everyone who had to deal with me.

I eventually found my way to a diploma and college degrees and decided on a career in teaching. I wanted to be the teacher I didn’t have, the one who would see me through my anger and believe in me despite my negative relationship to school. But one semester into my standard track Masters in Education program and I was exhausted by frustrations similar to those that drove me from school as a student so many years earlier. Rubrics, standards, testing…these suffocated me as a youth, and as it turned out, I still felt that way as an adult.

I changed programs to Creative Arts in Learning and set about finding ways to serve students outside of  traditional school.

I now direct a program where teens who are unhappy in school are supported to leave school to pursue self-directed learning. We tell teens that not thriving in school is not indicative of anything. It’s just a bad match. There are other routes to happy and successful futures, and we support each of our students to pursue his or her unique path.

Every day is an adventure in our strange, new universe, and every day something beautiful happens. Kindnesses occur between students who would not have spoken to each other in school. Students re-imagine themselves as artists, or readers, or public speakers in ways that seemed unthinkable before.

Two years ago Jacqueline arrived fresh from school, shut down and incredibly small for such a tall young woman. She had various mental health diagnoses and was taking several prescription medications. Our environment is safe, welcoming, and accepting, and Jacqueline spent the first six months alone in our comfortable library, reading, sitting, thinking. At some point she became interested in dancing and confident enough to join a community dance class. Some time after she began comfortably spending social time in the noisy common room downstairs. She also stopped taking and stopped needing her medications. By the end of the year, Jacqueline identified herself as a dancer and at 17 she moved on to a dance program at a local community college, where she is now thriving.

A few years ago we gained a student who was a passionate activist, concerned about human rights. School was dominating his time and schedule, and keeping him from what he already knew was his life’s work. The stability of our program helped convince his parents that he could and would continue his education outside of school. He did. He also began writing for various publications and working on several committees with adults on human rights issues. He has been accepted to prestigious universities, but is currently choosing to live in a city away from home, interning for an established human rights organization. Our program helped set him free and allowed him to focus on his life’s work.

My job is not easy, of course.  But nine years in, it still feels like a gift.

A parent of one of the teens in our program once said to me, “It’s like he is a little sapling that was crushed by a boulder. Now that boulder has been removed, and slowly he is looking up again at the sun.”

I seem to have become the teacher I didn’t have after all. What a joy it is to remove boulders from little saplings.

The follow article originally appeared in the Washington Post. In this piece  Amy Rothschild,  a prekindergarten teacher in a public school in New England, tells why she decided to join with other teachers, parents, researchers and activists  in the “Occupy Ed Department” in Washington DC this past weekend (April 4th through the 7th), an event sponsored by United Opt Out, “an organization dedicated to the elimination of high-stakes standardized testing in public schools.” Although Amy describes herself as a “new teacher” she has the passion, conviction and wisdom of someone who has spent years in the classroom and who knows what education is really all about. Reading her article gives me hope that with people like her, teachers can reclaim a voice and presence in this essential debate.

Why renowned educators — and new teachers — are ‘occupying’ Ed Dept

From Thursday through Sunday, education activists, including Diane Ravitch, will “occupy” the Department of Education.

Ravitch, of course, has occupied the Department of Education before, but in a different sense: From 1991 to 1993, she served as Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush. She is standing outside the building gates as part of “Occupy 2.0, a Battle for the Public Schools.”

In 1991, her years of scholarship on school reform made her an attractive choice for the role of Assistant Secretary for Education Research and Improvement. Fast-forward two decades. She is leading the fight against corporate-based reform after the evidence persuaded her that it didn’t work. And now, the person serving in an analogous role at the department has experience not in the classroom or in public school leadership or in scholarship on school transformation, but, rather, from McKinsey & Company, and as founder of a for-profit school management company.

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on who is attending the Occupy DOE 2.0 event. Where Occupy Wall Street was considered leaderless, Occupy 2.0 features leading scholars and teachers, who have decades of classroom, school, and university leadership guiding them. They are demonstrating in front of the Education Department because the people working inside have ignored their message.

In education today, voicelessness is widely and generously shared.  It is shared among students marched through scripted curriculum, among parents whose neighborhood schools are closing, among educators told we do not know how to assess our students, among education professors once tasked with crafting policy.

I am traveling from New England, where I teach prekindergarten in a public school.  It is not lost on me that the event’s tagline—“Battle for the Public Schools”— is a war cry, that the posters are hand-drawn, that the website features poor formatting. I will feel uncomfortable and maybe even embarrassed to participate in group chants—they’re not really my thing. But I will chant anyway because the drive for data has made it so that faculty meetings and the teachers’ lounge no longer exist as a space for having the conversation about big issues in regular tones. I will go, as much as anything, to hear my role models speak, individuals who have created networks of public schools, who have thoughtfully analyzed a century of school reform, who have corresponded with thousands of teachers and students and compiled their voices into terrific books.

“Reform” has become a kind of code word, referring to a specific agenda of high-stakes testing, weakened collective bargaining, and school closings that have generated massive instability for American children, particularly low-income people of color.

Now, Duncan, who was never an educator, is education secretary. His deputy, Anthony Wilder Miller, worked at Silver Lake Equity and LRN Corporation, a compliance software and eLearning company.  We are supposed to believe that these leaders have the skill and insight to guide a generation of children and families—yet they have never guided a classroom. These individuals have never shared their lives with young people in our schools.

It is hard to picture another field where individuals as qualified as Ravitch and Meier feel that they must “occupy.” Meier is a MacArthur Fellow, writer, educator and school reformer with 45 years of experience making classrooms and schools more democratic.

Educators today are being punished for decades of growing income inequality, an eroding social welfare system, and an economy brought to its knees by lack of regulation—factors which make work in building supportive, democratic schools and classrooms that much more important.

As an early childhood educator deeply committed to leading an equitable classroom, I see the road ahead as a long one. Witnessing my role models standing out in the cold this spring will serve as a stark reminder of that distance.

 

 

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.

I met Amber at a tutoring program for inner city children. It was 1966, my senior year in high school, and the war on poverty was on, a war we’ve failed to win.

At nine years old Amber looked like a scarecrow, an old scarecrow at that, bird-picked, weather beaten. She was stick thin. None of her clothes fit, hand-me-downs from her sister Bunny who quickly outgrew her clothes while her younger sister didn’t seem to grow at all. Her eyes were dark circled; her hair, straw and falling out.

Saturday mornings she was one of the first kids through the church basement doors. My friends and I weren’t naïve. We knew that that gaggle of children who showed up each week wasn’t there for the mandatory hour of instruction. They put up with our drilling them on the timestables or helping them parse a paragraph. They were really there for the cookies and milk, and the tables spread with art supplies and games. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that they may have been just as eager for our attention, our reliability, and perhaps even our youthful faith in the future as for those treats.

I worked with Amber all that year. She didn’t progress much. But that didn’t seem to matter. She was always there. Besides, there was something else going on: I was being tutored in what poverty was really all about.

Walking Amber home several times I got to see where she lived—a cramped, drafty tenement—and to meet the rest of her family. Her mother, Mrs. Laurel, was as frail and battered looking as Amber. She had a nervous tic that twitched her head, a purple bruise on her cheekbone, a baby on her hip and a toddler pulling at her housecoat. Peter, a year older than Amber, dervished through the apartment while Bunny, a twelve year old with a fifteen year old’s body, refused to say hello.

There were no secrets in the Laurel family. Sitting at their kitchen table I heard how Bunny was boy-crazy, how Peter ate paste in school, and how they all loved margarine and sugar sandwiches. Amber, I was told, shared the bed of whatever brother or sister let her: she was a bed wetter. Pointing to the toddler pulling a waste basket over and the baby on her lap, Mrs. Laurel told me how “Mr. Laurel” was in and out of the house. “That’s what these two are all about,” she laughed ruefully then touched her cheekbone.

I lost track of the Laurels when I went off to college and got involved in another war—the war against the war, the Vietnam War. I didn’t think about them until Ronald Reagan in the 1980s started talking about the “deserving poor”. By then I was teaching kids in an alternative high school that very well could’ve been the children of an Amber or a Peter or a Bunny. I remember at the time wondering if the Laurels would’ve fit Reagan’s criteria for “deserving.” What would he have made of that bubble bath that tumbled out of the grocery bag Mrs. Laurel plopped down on the table one day when I was there? Or the endless packages of Lick-a-maid her kids lapped up from their grimy palms instead of lunch.

And now, years later, census figures show that the US poverty rate has hit its highest levels since President Johnson declared war on it, and that child poverty has increased from its 2010 twenty-two percent level.

This is especially bad news in these high stakes, high pressure days of “educational reform.” How will the Ambers of this world fare with so much depending on a student’s test performance especially when “education reformers” continue to refuse to acknowledge the crippling role that economic disparity plays in academic performance? Yet the stakes have gotten higher. According to a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, “US Education Reform and National Security,” (a report Diane Ravitch called the latest education “jeremiad”) educational failures are indeed a threat to national security. Another burden put on young shoulders.

In 1962 Michael Harrington showed America the face of “the invisible poor.” Now that the ranks of the Ambers among us are growing will we finally be able to look squarely into those faces and help the children of poverty achieve true academic parity? Or do we—and they—have to wait another 50 years?

Originally appeared at Reclaiming Futures