Teach Houston

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 15 2013

on tasers & TED talks: days like this

Right after school ended, I made some photocopies for tomorrow and headed over to the CVS down the block to buy some candy for my students’ Friday Surprise (we’ve been building up to this, earned through awesome student urgency and teamwork, all week). As I walked out an African-American man – maybe about 30ish? – sprinted past me. I remember thinking something was odd, though it didn’t really register, and then I turned the corner and there were police everywhere. They ended up Tasering him, wrestling him to the ground, pinning him down with their knees, handcuffing him, and shoving him into a police car. The entire encounter occurred maybe 3 feet from where I was standing. and to be honest, I was fairly horrified.

Watching someone get Tasered isn’t at all cool; it’s not like a “don’t Tase me bro” moment that will end up on Youtube someday and become a common piece of vocabulary, it’s actually just incredibly awful. It’s something I’ll probably remember for a long time. There were five white policemen and one white policewoman, in a neighborhood that’s almost entirely African-American, which says in actions more than I could ever say in words about the state of criminal justice in America today. Obviously I don’t know the details of this specific situation but statistically, young black men are targeted and punished severely, and are overrepresented in our prisons (relative to their proportion in the general population). Worse, several students from my school happened to be at the CVS as well, meaning they watched someone who looks like them get Tasered by someone who looks like the people who teach them. What must they think about this?

 

My kids have lots of baggage. Anger, fear, lots of emotional issues. I suppose any middle school students would, but mine in particular. Much of this has to do with race/socioeconomic status/family issues/bullying. I had them write “Where I’m From” poems on our second day of school. A lot came out in those. Their vulnerability and depth made me cry. Today, since I teach a double block (two uninterrupted hours of English), we finished up with our objectives and I had them do a free write. We’re studying plot development tomorrow. Here was the prompt I gave them:

Think about a formative experience in your life. What were you like before it happened? What were you like after it happened? How did some sort of conflict push you to change, and how did that get resolved? Looking back, which characters or people were most influential in this experience?

It was mainly meant to get them to feel their feelings – something they don’t get to do very often amidst the fast-paced rigidity of life at my school – and lo and behold, the feelings came pouring out. A student handed me her paper after class even though I made it very clear that I absolutely wouldn’t read anything they didn’t want me to. She wrote four pages on her parents, on her life choices, on her academic and personal struggles. I wrote her a letter back thanking her for her vulnerability and encouraging her to keep writing/thinking/feeling. and to keep reading great & beautiful & meaningful books. Because the best way to become a great writer is to read great writing.

 

School-wise, things are going well. I had my first formal observation today and got lots of good feedback. My behavior management is actually pretty strong (complete 180 from Institute – but I suppose that’s for a later blog post) and we have lots of positive culture/investment in my classroom. The students support one another and genuinely challenge themselves. I still need to up the academic rigor substantially, but I figure one path to that is through the joy factor. When students trust me, and trust themselves, and trust the process, the rigor will come too. At the end of my observation – after my observer left the room, of course – I sighed with relief and couldn’t help but smile at how well-behaved my students were throughout the whole thing. My students picked up on my relief and asked me excitedly, “Did we do good, Miss? Did we make you proud? We think we did really well.” Yes. Yes, you did make me proud.

I want to be an English teacher who helps my students achieve what they need to in order to succeed in high school/college/the world. But I also want to be an English teacher who cares, who wants them to bring their whole selves to class, who reads and writes right along with them. I showed some of my students The Danger of a Single Story this morning. I would say probably 75% of my students are Mexican. Goodness knows they and their families have been single-storied far too often. I want to be an English teacher who shows them there is a world out there and they, just as much as every other person, deserve the chance to go out into it and see all the beauty it has to offer.

 

Sorry for how all over the place this is. I’m overwhelmed by almost being done with my first full week of teaching. I work 12-hour days and have essentially no personal life right now, but I know it’ll come. I’ve lost five pounds in two weeks from not really eating at school (due to nerves) but I know it’ll get better. One of my students who wants to be a writer someday told me he likes Phoenix and Two Door Cinema Club. When I played it doing the Do First, the smile he gave me was really all I needed.

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