Some observations from a classroom

Nov 22, 2012 by

Kenneth J. Bernstein

Kenneth J. Bernstein – If you were to start on Independence Avenue from where it splits off from Pennsylvania Avenue NE at Third Street and head east, as you get to RFK Stadium you loop around the circle and then cross the Anacostia River on East Capitol Street.  A few miles later on your left is an aging junior high school building that houses a non-profit charter Middle School and  companion High School.  I teach in the former.

Knowing several of the staff, and having visited the school previously, I thought I was prepared.  I knew the population was very much at-risk.   I had no idea.

I teach 7th grade Social Studies – Ancient World History.   The students are all African-American, from Wards 7 & 8, the poorest parts of the District of Columbia.  We are just several hundred yards inside the District from its boundary with Prince George’s County Maryland.  The students are supposed to wear uniform shirts, different by grade, which most of them do.  I knew that many came from families that at best struggle, some from single parent households, some living with relatives other than their parents.  Still I was not prepared.  I did not expect a small 7th grade girl who walked into my room –  she is due to give birth on January 23, when she will still be 12 years old.

I am told that she will be the 2nd 7th grader to give birth this year.

I was taken back to my first year of teaching at Eleanor Roosevelt HS in 1998.  I had a young lady who was pregnant at 15, having gotten pregnant deliberately as a means of getting emancipated – she had an abusive father who would demand she get an abortion, so she showed up before a Catholic judge who emancipated her.  I had another student who missed a lot of school taking care of her “little brother” –  she was new to that school at age 17 so it took us a while to figure out that it was actually her son, apparently by her step-father.  But we could not intervene without evidence, she turned 18, and then she dropped out.

But there is a world of difference between 12 and 17, and still a wide gulf between 12 and 15.

I have not seen all 65 students on my rolls in the two days so far.  Some I have seen on only one day.  Attendance for some is a real problems.   From day to day some students can be focused one day then the next totally off the rails.

It is not that they are bad kids.  Far from it.  I have a couple who are very smart, some (mainly but not exclusively girls) who really want an education and who resent the class clowns who want to disrupt.   Others sometimes are focused and others get pulled into the silliness.   Some of the smart ones don’t want their academics to disqualify them from being accepted back in their neighborhoods.

But they are still kids.

We had a team meeting yesterday to talk about those children in academic jeopardy.  There will be some home visits, although so far I have not been asked to go on those (and if I am, it will always be with one of the other team members, all of whom are African American women).  For others ,talking with parents could be counter-productive:  imagine the worst kind of discipline and perhaps you can figure out why.  For them we will have them sit with a group of their teachers to try to reach them.

Some children are needy – of attention, of affirmation.

Many do not know how to draw limits, so they push the boundaries, regularly.

This requires great patience. I will go pretty far before I come down and say no more.  This can be exhausting, because it is important that I always stay calm.

For now I have a man who is regularly in the school who knows the kids as an assistant.  This enables me to focus on the academics and not have to constantly address inappropriate or even deliberately disruptive behavior, of which there is at this point far too much.

I know I am starting to reach a few kids.  I have pulled some aside to talk with them and begun to get a response.  Some are starting to show some interest by the questions they ask.

The other teachers on the team are telling me what the kids are saying, which they view as positive.

I am the only white teacher in the Middle School.  The head counselor is a white woman who is as sharp as a tack.  The principal is a vibrant African-American man with long dreadlocks.  People work at the school by choice because they are committed to making a difference in the lives of these children.

Yesterday i dropped my spouse off at her place of employment on Capitol Hill.  I drove for about 10 minutes, including being stopped at lights.  I was still in the District of Columbia, less than 5 miles as the crow flies from the Nation’s Capitol Building.  But I was in a world of which most of those who represent us there cannot conceive.

At the end of the school day I am close to exhausted, but still have more work to do.  I am still learning the culture of the school.  I have to adapt because having a consistent structure is critical for many of these children.  Yet what I bring is high expectations for all of them, a determination to challenge them yet assist them in learning and moving forward.

On the first day the students filled out an information sheet, some very reluctantly.  Many claimed not to know home phone numbers – it could be they don’t have a home phone, or that they have been taught not to divulge information to anyone.  I asked them to share some of their aspirations – what they would like to be when they grow up, where they might want to attend college, what they like to do outside of school.  I gave them a chance to ask me questions.  Yesterday in each class I took about 10 minutes to go over what they had written, answering questions, or perhaps talking about their aspirations.  For some of the boys it helps connect when I can talk about former students who are in the NBA or the NFL.  For the young man who wants to be an FBI agent I can share about our brother-in-law who is a Supervisory Special Agent.  They are curious about why I came to the school.  When I told one class that after I had agreed to finish the year at the school I received some inquiries about political or governmental work that would pay substantially more a couple of kids have trouble grasping that I would turn down more money, but when I explained that there were things more important than money, that I was there because they deserved an education, I saw some signs of recognition on at last a few faces.

I have 17 years of teaching, four previously in middle school.   I am considered at least a very good teacher – on my bad days.  On my good days I am often described as a master teacher.  But I am in a setting unlike any I have ever experienced.  It does not make me a complete novice, but I have to be willing to be changed, to learn quickly, to take guidance from others.   The administration knows this, is supportive, and lets me know that.  My assistant principal has told me she is pleased with what she is seeing.   The 7th grade counselor, who is there because she wants to make difference, asked me why I came out of retirement for this job.  I explained the respect I have for the people I knew at the school, and like them I thought it important to try to make a difference in the lives of young people.

Young people – kids, most of whom are 12 years old.

Whose lives are very different than anything I have ever experienced.

Whose lives and education should be just as important as those in our wealthy suburbs.

I teach less than five miles from our nation’s Capitol, in a setting that remains invisible to far too many who make policy based on flawed and incomplete data without ever seeing the reality of the children.

I have never been so stretched, as a person nor as an educator.

And I may have never done anything quite so important.


Daily Kos: some observations from a classroom.

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