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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Teacher Tales

This summer, I am teaching in a special program for at-risk high school students at a local community college. These students are failing high school. They have GPAs ranging from .50 to 2.0 (most of ‘em hovering at or below 1.0) and are missing units. They hate high school. They have spent the majority of their schooling years disaffected and turned off. Some of them have never even learned how to learn. Yet they are all smart.

Fifty students applied for this program which requires them to attend school Monday-Friday, 9-2, and take courses in English, Math, Career, Study Skills, and Video Production (that’s the carrot). We have room for only 30 students, so they must convince us they are serious – that they want to turn their academic lives around. Even then, it’s not easy. We and they cannot undo in 6 weeks time a lifetime of poor learning habits. And most of them believe they cannot succeed – their history tells them so.

These students don’t know how to behave in the classroom – any classroom, and they are puzzled by the “college approach.” I run my class similar to a graduate-level seminar – we sit in not rows, but circles or horseshoes, so we can all see each other. I ask students to call me by my first name, and I don’t require them to raise their hands to speak. They are allowed to leave the classroom without asking permission. They are baffled by this approach in many ways, but also revel in it (some leave too often, some interrupt each other when speaking). We discuss classroom etiquette and protocol. They dig that too.

These students get under my skin. They are smart, scared, defensive, immature. They come up from behind and give me hugs, or cover my eyes, waiting for me to guess who they are. They make snide remarks one moment, then gestures of appreciation the next. They are astounded when I don’t answer their questions, but instead ask them, “Well, what do you think?” They offer their opinions with great conviction, then back down and ask me if their opinions are right. They howl with frustration when I tell them it’s not a matter of whether I think they are right or wrong, it’s a question of whether they can support their opinion with reason. “But we want to know if we’re right!”

I want to hug them (which I do) and whack them upside their heads (which I don’t) all at the same time. I tell them so too, in so many words:

“Hey, Mario, does your mother ever whup you upside your head?” I ask.

“How did you know?” he exclaims. I only smile. He blushes, then laughs.

One student in particular has been troubling me lately. He is short and stocky. Wears his hair slicked back with gel and a net over the top to make it lay flat. At 17 he works close to 30 hours a week - nights in a warehouse - and he contributes most of his pay check to his family. He bears this responsibility with pride. And with worry. He knows his work interferes with his studies. He knows he is far behind. But there are younger brothers and sisters coming up behind him. His family needs his pay check, needs him to work. He needs it too – it elevates him, makes him somebody. He helps support his family and this is no small thing.

He is but a youngster himself in many ways. Afraid to ask for help. Afraid to appear weak. He is not doing well in my class, yet he as never, not once, said he didn’t understand something or asked for help.

I ask him why; he shrugs. “Just can’t – it’s weak.” I ask him if not having help is working for him and he stares at me, as though that is irrelevant. Of course it’s not working for him, but in his world, there is nothing else he can do.

He is trying to get some of his homework done in the Learning Center and is working at a computer near my desk. I notice how slowly he is typing out his essay. He pecks and pecks. He has written only a few sentences in just about 10 minutes. I don’t think it’s because he doesn’t know what to write, or has nothing to say. He’s talked through this essay with me in class. He has plenty to say. Watching him, I realize why I haven’t received any of the typed assignments from him – he can’t type. And his peck and hunt style so slows him down, he can’t write.

He may not be college-bound; the odds right now are against it. He merely wants to get out of high school with his diploma. He knows he can make more money with a high school diploma than without. I wonder why he hasn’t taken keyboarding at high school. His high school teachers require essays to be typed and in my regular college classes, I won’t accept untyped assignments. But this is not regular college. A lot of people, including this young man, are working hard to just get this kid through high school. Is it possible that he will fail simply because he can’t type?

“Wow,” I comment. “You type pretty slow.”

“Yeah,” he says. “It’s a pain in the ass.”

“I can see that.”

He nods.

“So I’m figuring, this is why I haven’t received any work from you. It’s pretty tough to type.”


“I’ve got all the handwritten homework from you.”

“Yeah, that was quicker to do. See, this takes forever.” He throws up his hands in the air. It’s not a gesture of despair, or a plea for help – it’s more a gesture of “see how this is.” He sets his hands back down again and begins to hunt and peck.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I ask. “Why didn’t you ask for help?

He gives me a look. I know it well. My son gives me that look sometimes. It’s the look that says: we’ve covered this ground before. How can I ask you for help, when I’m suppose to be a man – and able to do this on my own?

Ah, the struggle of adolescence. That desire to be independent – to prove you can handle whatever comes along – even though you can’t, even though no one expects you to. Takes a long time to figure out it’s ok to ask for help.

“Think you could write that essay by hand?” I ask.

“Yeah. That’d be a lot easier.”

“So why don’t you?”

“Cause it’s suppose to be typed.” I'm astounded by this answer. His willingness to follow instructions and his inability to ask for help have led him astray – trapped him into a place from which there is no successful way out - all because he is trying to do what he's been told to do, what's been asked of him.

I pause. “Screw that.” I say. His eyes open wide. His teacher just said, “screw that.”

“Write it out by hand. Put it in my mailbox by tomorrow morning. Can you do that?”

“Hell yeah, I can do that.”

“Then do it.”

I turn back to my own work. He pulls out paper and pencil and starts writing. He writes for about 15 minutes, then lean backs in his chair, reads his work, then starts to write again. I pack up to leave and he’s still writing. I walk out of the Learning Center and look back over my shoulder. He’s still writing. I know in the morning, that essay will be waiting for me in my mailbox.

This felt like a good teaching day. I hope it was a good learning day too.


Blogger Jack K. said...

God bless you, bird.

There are tears ready to flow if I take the time to do that rather than complete this comment.

There is no doubt in my mind that we have similar approaches to teaching. It is nothing more than helping the student discover what she/he already knows.

As for the young man who thinks it unmanly to ask for help, let's see if there is another, more acceptable way to do that.

I wonder if he is willing to discuss a situation that is causing him some difficulty. With that discussion he should bring at least one way to resolve it. He could then ask if there is something he hasn't thought of that might apply.

He is not asking for help, he is asking for a different perspective. You can always answer with your typical questions.

Just a thought. Let me know if it applies.

I do envy you the opportunity you have. They need someone with your perspicacity to be of value to them. By valuing them, they become even stronger.

God bless you.

You do, indeed.....

Serve well! Care about those you serve, and share the love in your heart!

July 07, 2006 11:17 AM  
Blogger Aunty Belle said...

Fine thang youse doin' honey. I admire ya.

July 07, 2006 7:22 PM  
Blogger Mrs. B said...

I am a new teacher and I love to read about other's experiences. Thanks for posting. I would appreciate any feedback you might have for me based on my blog. Keep up the good work.

July 07, 2006 10:13 PM  
Blogger velvet acid tongue said...

my grade 3 teacher did the simple thing of valuing me as a person. it seems like such a small gesture. but 30 years later i remember mrs casaba - her voice and her face. i will never forget her. i suspect that many a student will hold you in the same esteem.

July 08, 2006 1:01 AM  
Blogger Bird said...

thanks for the compliments all. blush. blush. and i feel a bit funny - i didn't post this fishing for compliments - posted because this student has so struck me.

his tenacity - his willingness to follow the program so-to-speak (type because it's an assignment requirement) - this really gives me pause. i know my basic skills college students have similar difficulties with keyboarding.

would we require say, a fledgling carpenter to build anything before he or she is first instructed in the proper use of the tools?

so now i'm thinking - i need to recommend a keyboarding class to my students - over which they will groan - more units, more money, more time. yadda yadda yadda.

but beyond that - i am still noodling over how to shift student attitudes - so they are more willing to ask for help, or ask to do to something different (some teachers hate negotiating with students are altering their assignments and protocol - it is such a hassle - hard to keep track of), but sometimes i think it's required. learning is, after all, a collaboration.

i could go on and on and on....

July 08, 2006 9:17 AM  
Blogger velvet acid tongue said...

collaboration. you r so right. how wonderful to hear a teacher say that. i heard once somewhere it said "failure of the student to learn really is failure of the teacher to teach ..." i think this thought summarizes it well. best wishes with it all. your students are lucky, bird. =D

July 08, 2006 9:50 AM  
Blogger Jack K. said...

I knew you were fishing for compliments. Not. LMAO.

If you didn't care about them as individuals you wouldn't be as successful as you are.

I am pondering your puzzle of getting them to ask for help.

Let's rock our paradigms a bit. Come at it from their perspective. Help them to recognize ways in which they can broaden their horizons. It ain't help they're asking for, it's a different direction.

You may know when a spark plug needs changing, but you can't change it without the appropriate tools.

Teachers jobs are to not only provide the tools, but readiness and willingness to ask for the tools. A positive reward to all of those who do ask for assistance, even the smallest amount, might be contagious.

Teachers and students both are responsible for the learning outcomes. Teachers just have to be more alert to discover the place from which the student is beginning.

Good luck.

July 08, 2006 12:13 PM  
Blogger disguised said...


I am going to print this out, treasure it, and refer to it often.

July 08, 2006 6:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is a great post, very touching.

you are a blessing to many and thanks for sharing!

July 08, 2006 11:15 PM  
Blogger The Flabbergasted Heathen said...

Bird, I was lucky to have a few treachers like you during my educational career. Keep itup, Mario WILL remember this years from now.

He sees asking for help as being weak. Ask him if his mother/father were weak for asking for his help to support the family. It might give im a new perspective on it.

July 09, 2006 8:36 AM  
Blogger Jack K. said...

I really liked the question from flabbergasted.

What a great idea.

It is one to make note of and keep around.

July 09, 2006 10:35 AM  
Blogger Bird said...

forehead slap!

FGheathen - of course! that's the question to ask - and Jack - that's in line with your looking at it from a different perspective - only it's me looking at from a different perspective - his folks' perspective and reflecting it back again to the student.

oh duh - now why didn't i think of that?

sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees - or in this case, the tree for the forests.

thanks to you both!

July 09, 2006 11:48 AM  
Blogger K9 said...

/bark bark bark

nice goin' boyed.

also he might have made a video essay...putting to use that carrot in the cirriculum.

i admire this kid for he sees he is sacrificing his future but feels honor bound to continue to do the best he can for family. some kids would simply run away or be so irresposible as to not be wanted and use that as an avoidance excuse.

but you made a way for him and i am so pleased for the both of you. because educators will not reap the finacial reward they deserve. ever. its good there is wealth in doing the generous, right thing. yea bird!


July 09, 2006 12:46 PM  
Blogger CROAK said...

Oh god if only the world of education were peppered with patient professors like you. You are a wonder and a marvel. You are doing so much.
You are fabulous.
You are in the right job.
You are a treasure to all.

Cheers to you

July 09, 2006 10:08 PM  
Blogger Bird said...

ah - would that i did so well all the time.

i confess that on most days, i feel inadequate to the task.on most days, i feel my students are cheated because they don't get my better self. i find it difficult to give them my better self with the consistency they need. hell, they realy don't know who they'll see in my class on any given day - bird the good, bird the adequate, bird the mediorce, or bird who has screwed the whole damn lesson (and unit or course) up. i fear they get the latter two far too often. though i trust that mostly they get the adequate bird. but those moments of good seem far too few to me.

i tell myself that this is a cruel profession that requires perfection - and who can deliver that or even get close?

who knows if i even had an impact on this particular student? it's all through my perspective -after all.

and i feel that for every student i do manage to touch, there are dozens whom move through class unaffected. sometimes i feel hopelessly inadequate to the task.

i suspect that most teachers do.

i try to remember though that i never said a word to most of the teachers who profoundly affected me. they have no idea that to this day, i carry them with me.

sigh. that's the biggest downside to teaching - you just never really know if you did your job well or not.


July 09, 2006 10:18 PM  
Blogger The Flabbergasted Heathen said...

Happy to help Bird! Actually, I just popped back to give another question to Mario...

What's better?

A) Working a McJob, sacrificing your education, to put food on the tablenow.

B) Working hard at your education, gettinga good career, and being able to buy your mother a house.

Mario's gotta start thinking long term. Justa thought.

July 10, 2006 7:32 AM  
Blogger Jack K. said...

bird, you will never know just how much you affect your students. So, you do the best you can. I learned a long time ago that you can only make suggestions. People, (teenagers) will do what they damned well please.

The fact that you bring all of those birds to the learning experience shows you as a genuine person who can be trusted.

Don't ever be afraid of that. When worst comes to worst, you still are not worthless, you have served as a bad example. Just don't do it too often. lol.

FGh has a great idea. All of your students need to begin to think in more global terms where it applies to them.

K9's idea of a video essay is also a great one. It fits with the idea of taking from where they are to new destinations. If they have video/computer/web design skills, use them. Anything to get them engaged in the learning process. It is only after their success that you help them process the experience.

Keep up your good works.

And, NEVER, NEVER sell yourself short. You are too good a person to do that. There are some of us out here who will not let you get away with that for very long.

July 10, 2006 8:54 AM  
Blogger bronxbt said...


dear god you make a grown man wanna cry. teachers like you move the world, and make people beter themselves every day.

Had you not begun to listen, watch and learn from your students and this one in particular, you would have not learned a valuable lesson in teaching:

when it's for the right, some rules are meant to be broken....

now, not that i was a poor student back in my day, i was prolly considered average - but after my car accident, it left me with so many issues, problems and frankly life-changing realizations and issues to overcome.

One teacher stuck by my side and changed my world. I had to learn to walk again, talk again, and so many more things... He was the "creative writing" english teacher, and (get this) the football, track, and weight training coach as well... Huge brute of a man with a heart of gold and a big teddybear composure.

he listened, he helped, he never took NO for an answer as I struggled for ways to communicate my own issues/needs during my recovery. He taught me more about being a REAL man and learning to ask for help than anyone has in my entire life.

"hardest lessons learned are those you walk SMACK right into.." he used to say.

Sounds like you've never stopped learning to.

cheers to you! the world needs more like you.

B & mr puddins

July 10, 2006 10:53 AM  
Blogger K9 said...

/bark bark bark

to clarify: i wasnt suggesting it was better to sacrifice the future for a mcjob to provide in the here and now. i was speaking to the natural sense of honor Mario has to do right which is admirable, and a fine character trait that will serve him well.

of course the FH is correct - one can do much more good from a position of financial strength.


July 10, 2006 11:51 AM  
Blogger lettuce said...

Great post - your students are lucky to have you.

I hope just now and then one of them realises and tells you so!

July 10, 2006 1:30 PM  
Blogger talkytalk said...

I guess you, Bird, could trust your gut instinct in whether you touched someone in your job as teacher. I figure if you feel something toward a student ( hope, excitement, encouragment,belief) that they will get that too.

Fabulous bird that you are!

July 10, 2006 7:27 PM  

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