I’m one of a cluster of first-year teachers at my school who can be found late at night peering out from behind our desks, shouting into the hallway, “You’re still HERE?” So it was tonight, though we have the succor of later and later sunsets, the alpenglow from the sides of old brownstones…no nagging fear of the long walk to the A train in the dark, as in December and February. One of my students, a plucky, quiet freshman with kind eyes, was jumped last week, and bears a long scar across his forehead, pink against his ruddy brown.
The new unit I’m teaching, the last one of the semester (17 instructional days and counting), urges students to become the media, to report on their hood from the inside. Today they shared the slogans they came up with as a refutation to the neighborhood’s most enduring slogan, “Bed Stuy, Do or Die.” L and S, two mouthy, self-possessed freshman girls, were excited about a t-shirt concept they came up with: on the front, it reads, “Bed Stuy Do or Die,” in a red circle with a diagonal line through it; on the back, it says, “Bump What You Heard, in Bed Stuy We Stay Alive.”
Sweet, nerdy G, who beelines to class head first before the bell rings and has a mild speech impediment, came up with, “Bedford Stuyvesant, a clean, nonviolent place to live.” Not so much a slogan as a plea for understanding. G is more terse than nuanced, literal than ironic. He’s like a drill bit: he bores through subtlety and goes straight to the point, dispensing utterly with pretense. I wonder if he has Asperger’s.
I am planning this unit completely on the fly. I’ve been day to to day for weeks now, but not with anything this ambitious. The goal is ethnography, guerilla media, concrete artifacts with which to infiltrate the streets. The only thing keeping this from being completely beyond my reach is the insight and inspiration from this brilliant pair of women who are starting a youth media internship program with our school. They’re the first people I’ve had conversations with in the building with any interest in progressive pedagogies or interrogating traditional power structures. It figures that they don’t actually work there. “You could talk about whether graffiti is dirty or if it’s art,” said A yesterday as we scrawled eagerly across our notepads.
Then, a cold shower of sorts: the next day, I found myself in an empty classroom, planning lessons on my laptop. A half-dozen other teachers drifted in to eat Chinese food and gossip (None of us has our own room; there are twice as many teachers as classrooms).
“I was too drunk this morning to make lunch,” Ms. C said as she begged some General Tso’s chicken off the music teacher.
“You went out last night and didn’t tell me?” accused N, a staff member who stays at school late every night, busy with things like watching Cypress Hill videos on the A/V equipment.
“You’re assuming she needs to go out to get that drunk,” countered another.
Call me critical. Call me sensitive and fussy. Call me MORAL. Call me what you will, but–
Is it too much to ask to want colleagues who don’t think that’s funny? MAYBE IN THIS LINE OF WORK, DON’T GET SHIT-FACED ON A SCHOOL NIGHT. Hello? Do we not teach children?
Another cold shower: my principal pulled me aside in the main office the other day (his impromptu conferences always seem whispered and conspiratorial).
“What are you teaching now?” he asked. If our department had a curriculum map, or any kind of consensus on what to teach, he might not have to ask that question. But we don’t, so I make it up as I go along, much to my chagrin.
“Reporting on the neighborhood, youth media, that kind of thing,” I said. I may as well have described it in Pig Latin. Not that he was listening.
“From here on out, cover any aspect of the U.S. History or Living Environment Regents that requires ELA skills. DBQ’s, long passages, graph reading. You got me?”
“Sure,” I said. You got it, I thought with disappointment, wish I’d known that before throwing myself into this other thing.
It’s not that I’m so against helping them with the Regents. It’s that the principal, once again, is trying to put sprinkles on the frosting without baking the cake in the first place. It’s that the English curriculum is so nebulous that it’s perfectly reasonable to highjack it and harness the time for standardized test prep. Of course, the Regents require literacy skills. I will make that abundantly clear in the next two weeks. But HE ASSUMED THERE WAS NOTHING TOO IMPORTANT GOING ON IN MY ROOM TO DISPLACE. And he’s sort of right.
Literacy at my school is not treated as the bedrock of a child’s education. Which, call me biased, I think it is. And it can share that place with quantitative reasoning or whatever, but any way you slice it, reading and writing are Really Bloody Important. So important the DOE gives children two periods of it in middle school and ninth grade; some schools keep that arrangement until they graduate.
How many times has our entire department met to discuss curriculum? I can count them on one hand. How many literacy coaches do we have? Zero. How many administrators do we have with an ELA background? One, and she is in the building until eight o’clock most nights dealing with the parents of suspended students because she is a dean of discipline and behavior. My AP said he’d arrange for me to meet with someone from the region to help with planning–a freelance literacy coach, sort of. But…why do I have to leave the school to find someone to talk about literacy?
And that, friends, is why I’m going to transfer.