Because "Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering---and it's all over much too soon." Woody Allen

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Beginning of Something Big

After spending months and months interviewing, wavering, preparing, moving, training and transitioning, I have finally begun teaching. This week I have officially dropped my first name for ninety percent of my day. So many people have been inquiring about how my first few days of teaching have gone. Tonight I am simply exhausted, as I will be most nights. However, I thought I would at least touch on the major points of my teaching experience thus far.

I am completely in love with my students. Most of my third graders are still quite tiny, although some are bigger (because they have been held back), and some are abnormally small (most likely because of maternal drug or alcohol use). All of them are completely lovable. And despite the extensive behavioral issues present in the classroom, all of them desperately want to be loved.

Teaching has required me to completely reexamine what motivates children and develop a great sense of ingenuity. Shameek is one of my students who frequently acts up, and it is often difficult to find the perfect words or incentive to calm him down. Today when I took away his electronic dictionary, he fled from the rest of the class and I had to chase him down the stairwell. He stood in the stairwell and repeatedly punched the brick wall. His lips were smashed together in a pout. What the hell was I supposed to do to calm him down and get him to rejoin the class? I whipped out a little trickery. After twenty minutes of uber-supportive talk, I convinced him that I would hold onto the dictionary and keep it safe until the end of the day. However, since I was really interested in seeing what it could do, I would give him words to look up for homework. If he has them done tomorrow, I will give him a special prize. He bought it, and was so excited to look up words at home. Seriously, kid. I just bribed you with homework.

Our actual class is up to 25 students, the legal cap. This is a HUGE class for the special education model we are following. It is rather ridiculous. We are running out of room for kids to sit. My co-teacher Vanessa and I began the first day by naming our tables after four boroughs in New York City: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. When more kids came, we had to include the fifth and final NYC borough of the Bronx. When we needed to separate one problem child from everyone else, we threw New Jersey into the picture. We now have five boroughs and a neighboring state. Classic. I’m sure there’s more to come. More students means more issues, but it also increases the potential for giving and receiving love. The exhaustion of my first day was worth it when I got hugs from my students before they left.

I have stories galore and will be introducing everyone to my students via this blog. You’ll come to love them just as much as I do… One of my most temperamental students broke my heart when I read his student survey. We asked our kids “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Others responded that they would like to be police officers or teachers or other typical kid answers. Noah simply wrote “a man.”

Monday, August 07, 2006

Random musings for the few interested.

Perhaps no one reads this anymore due to my lack of posts within the last couple of weeks. I can’t blame you. However, if nothing else, this is a way for me to reflect upon my experiences and provide some insight into my musings. It has been an incredibly challenging past couple of weeks, and I feel as though I have learned so much and been introduced to so many more questions than answers.

One of the largest issues I have been struggling with is that of race. I have had endless conversations with others and spent endless time thinking about how I view my students because of their race. I have come to one conclusion: I am a racist. As hard as I might fight to deny the fact, I cannot. I have biases that I don’t recognize sometimes, and to say that I’m not a racist would be a lie. However, I am going to do everything I can to deconstruct those behaviors and mindsets while constantly evaluating myself.

I have come to discover that I carry a bias by treating my students kindly. Let me explain. When I let inappropriate behavior slide because students “don’t know any better” and I want to be kind/compassionate, I am doing a disservice to my kids. By not addressing any and every act of misconduct, I am communicating to my students that I don’t have high expectations for them; that I don’t believe they are capable of behaving appropriately. I am a tough teacher because I love my kids. Being kind sets low expectations and fuels the fire of disparities that hinders my students in life. After one of my students saw me joking around with other teachers after class, she commented, “Ms. Bradford’s always so serious in class.” This was a great compliment to me, whether my student realized it or not.

I have never felt as ignorant about race as I have in my classroom. (I suppose this is the first step of transforming my mindset and overcoming my unrealized biases). When I walked into my classroom I saw a lot black faces, as expected. My ignorance comes in as I grouped all these black faces into the same cultural identity in my mind. This presumption was thrown back in my face one day as one black student insulted another group of black students by saying “I don’t want to work with the African kids.” My African students retaliated by shouting obscenities and insulting the student’s mother. I was taken aback. Here was ignorant Ms. Bradford who thought that all her black students were one big happy family. Yet there were obvious racial issues between the black Americans, black students from Africa, black students from the DR, and black students who were born here but from another country. It just showed me how multi-faceted this issue really is. It is NOT a black and white issue.

So, I finished teaching my group of summer school students last week. Well, I should say my second group of summer school students. With just one week left of summer school, the school administration decided to reorganize the classes and give me a new group of students. So after investing in my students, they left me. I had a week to “do the best I could” with the new students I was given. Frustration beyond words. I did my best. I finished Teach for America’s Summer Institute. I am a teacher.

My teaching group and I celebrated our new status as teachers with multiple rounds of drinks at a local bar in Queens. Fun night, tired beyond words, went home drunk from exhaustion. The next morning I packed up all my belongings and hauled them by myself to a curbside outside of St. Johns University. I called a cab. The cab picked me up and drove me to Harlem. Fifty bucks later, my belongings were again on a curbside and had to be hauled up three flights of stairs. By myself. For anyone who has moved, you can understand how difficult this process was. However, envision doing this by yourself in a strange neighborhood in a new city with no help. It was physically and emotionally draining. I am living with someone from Michigan who is a second-year teacher. My first night was spent sleeping on an air mattress on the floor. The next day I quickly alleviated the situation and went and bought a mattress. It arrived in all its queen-sized splendor. New sheets. New down comforter. I feel as though I’m living in luxury.

I’ve spent the last couple of days exploring my neighborhood. I live in Harlem, but am four blocks from Columbia University. However, there is a big park with a steep stone wall that separates the Columbia campus from my community (Morningside Park). It is a stark reminder of the racial and economic disparity that exists between just a few blocks. I feel safe in my neighborhood, but I have to be careful at night. I am 1 ½ blocks from two different major subway lines, so I am incredibly well connected to the Upper West Side. My roommate and I discussed tonight about how we feel like we live in a different country. My community is more diverse than any other neighborhood I have ever lived in. I am a minority. In fact, I rarely see white faces. Every few hours we hear chanting from the mosque one block down, and there are always boom boxes blaring outside our building. There is a huge population of African immigrants in this community, and most of them wear their traditional dress. When I step off the bus or subway, I feel as though I’m walking into an unknown area of Africa. Many people don’t speak English on the streets. Needless to say, I am falling in love with my neighborhood. I love feeling uncomfortable and having to examine the source of this discomfort; only to find the feeling unwarranted and allowing it to transform my own identity.

A long reflection to compensate for lost time. I will be better about updating more often with shorter entries. Whatevs. Honna and Cooper are the only ones who read this anyway.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Today was my breaking point.

I realized that I hadn't posted in a while and this certainly won't do if I intend on keeping people updated via my blog. I'll start with Monday because from what I remember, it was a good day. I taught my students for the first time and it went awesome. I am teaching 5th grade for the summer, but there are a wide range of kids in my class. They are between the ages of 11 and 14, and one boy can't even recognize letters. (He came from Guyana last year and was placed in 5th grade simply because of how old he was). I had my students do an activity to get them thinking about people they looked up to, people who worked hard towards their goals. Their responses amazed me. Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., moms, grannies, brothers, teachers. These kids' responses were incredibly thoughtful and reflective, and they seemed ready to use these people as models for hard work.

But kids are kids. And kids hate summer school. Not to mention, schools aren't always run as efficiently as possible. Yesterday I had 15 minutes to complete a 45-minute lesson because of a fire drill. I never understood why my teachers would get so upset about distractions until I became a teacher myself. Every minute in the classroom is so valuable, especially for students who need to pass standardized tests to advance to the next grade. We're trying to get these kids excited about advancing on to Junior High, but getting them motivated has proved to be more challenging that I originally thought.

Today was my breaking point. I cried. All week long I had been fighting tears during frustrating situations, trying to keep my composure despite the crappiest of circumstances. Today I taught a lesson about reading nonfiction texts and relying upon hints in the title, headings, pictures, etc. I was not an effective teacher, and therefore my students did not learn. When they were not paying attention and seemed to be all over the place, the fault was all mine. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of teaching so far. I am the one to blame for my students' acheivement or lack thereof. In addition, I was supervised today by the director of the program. She gave me really positive feedback (with suggestions for improvement) but told me she couldn't believe it was only my third day teaching. That made my day a little better, but my students still didn't learn the material. The final breaking point occurred when I lost my cell phone. This would be hard in any circumstance, but in my case it is even worse. When I feel myself losing it, I usually call someone to talk and regain perspective on my experience. (Some of you might be the victims of such phone calls). So when my only connection to the outside world is eliminated, all hell breaks loose and I end up in tears. Oh, I forget to mention that this was right after I walked a 1/2 mile back to my dorm room in a downpour. I was soaked. I was downtrodden. I was defeated. I cried. And I felt better.

I have determined that I am a crier (this is not new), and that I probably always will be. It's not always such an awful thing. I would rather be overly emotional (which I am) than be emotionless. I think I pick up on situations that a lot of people overlook because I'm always aware of how my surroundings affect me and my emotions. If this also causes me to break out in tears every so often, so be it.

I'm still wrestling with how I'm doing spiritually. Without entering the "vegi-taled-Steven-Curtis-Chapman-Christ-Like-pose-painting-bad-metaphor
world" that can emerge from discussing Christianity (thank you, Anders), I probably need God more than ever before. However, it is awfully difficult to figure out my Christian identity in a program in which most people are critical of Christianity. I am going to go to church in Manhattan on Sunday at Bethesda Covenant Church. I haven't been to church in a very long time, so perhaps exposure to such a community will remind me of my love for the church at large.

The apartment search may be over, as I think I have secure a place with a second-year TFA member. I was given her name after I met her mom (who happens to be my elementary school guidance counselor). Her name is Kristin and I think we will get along really well. The apartment is in Harlem, about a 1/2 mile directly north of Central Park and a block to two train lines. It should be a 25 minute commute to my school in the Bronx.

Sleep awaits me.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Exhaustion: The Story of My LIfe

I can't remember any point in my life in which I have been so incredibly exhausted. I'm not just tired; it's beyond that. At this point I don't know how I am still going (or even awake at this hour). Teach for America is without a doubt one of the most challenging experiences I have ever undertaken...and I haven't even met my students yet.

However on a brighter note, and perhaps the only thing keeping me sane right now, was my celebration of Independence Day. I had no intentions of making the 1.5 hour commute into Manhattan from Queens to celebrate yesterday. (Especially when we had class from 7am until 3pm). Yet after a friend invited me to go out with a couple of her friends, I couldn't refuse. My friend Jenna and I met up with a couple guys who live in lower Manhattan and went to a great little place in the West Village with open air windows. I'm still getting used to the expensive nightlife here. 9 dollars for a salad. 6.50 for a beer. Ridiculous. At that point I was incredibly tired (being 9 pm and all) but we decided to go to a rooftop bar in the Meatpacking District. It was way swanky and we were way underdressed, but there's no better way to view fireworks than at a rooftop bar in Manhattan: fireworks in every direction and the city skyline shining brightly.

And then the morning hit. 5 am wake-up time. We had classes all day long at our schools in the Bronx. I literally have not stopped since 5 am. Pity me, please. I am working with three other teachers to prepare our classroom, develop management techniques, establish discipline and plan lessons for our class. We meet them tomorrow and then we start teaching full time on Monday.

I need to be up in five hours. I miss sleep. But more importantly, I miss my friends and family.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

How did I wander into this?

After being in New York City for a week, I've discovered that it's just too difficult to ensure that everyone is updated about the nitty gritty details of my life. Therefore, I have succumbed to starting a blog so that those of you who are interested (very few in number, I'm sure) can be updated in regards to my experience. With general details aside, communication can focus upon more meaningful aspects of our lives.

Now that I have developed a personal philosophy of blogging, let me tell you about New York. I am back in the dorms as a 22-year-old at St. Johns University in Queens. This has been a very humbling experience to feel like a freshman in college again: eating in the cafeteria, attempting to get your ethernet to work, looking like a hispanic maid in your college ID, meeting friends, and engaging in many awkward social moments. I have met some amazing people from every background imaginable; I hope to find possible roomates in the future, but developing relationships can be a long, tedious process. It also makes finding an apartment difficult.

This past week has been filled with school visits, seminars, interviews and "induction" activities to help familiarize us with NYC. I have gotten into Manhattan almost everyday this week, whether for dinners in neighborhoods or simply going out for a drink with friends. Yesterday I spent the day walking around the Upper East Side, Upper West Side and Harlem. I have a better idea of where I would enjoy living, and apartment hunting is a major concern right now. I'm the envy of TFA (not really) because I won a raffle that partners me with a housing broker for free. This might help me find a place faster and more efficiently.

After interviewing for a position last week, I was offered a job at P.S. 42 Claremont Community School. I will teaching 3rd grade special education in an inclusion class. This means that not all students will require special education, but in reality the majority of them probably will. My students will be those who have emotional issues, behavioral issues and learning disabilities. I will be team teaching with another teacher and we will have about 25 students between the two of us. I'm incredibly excited, nervous, reluctant and hopeful...all at the same time.

Tonight was our opening ceremony for Institute. This is the beginning of our five-week training period in which we teach summer school and take classes. My day is planned from 5:30 am until 11:00 pm, everyday. I will have my own students in a week and teach them for four weeks with a group of teachers. So it begins...

For the record: my roomates are currently making a paper chain to help us track how long until Institute is over. We're sooo teachers.