Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Giver, Special Ed.(ition) II

Despite the bizarre-o nature of "The Giver", one thing I enjoy about teaching it is the surprising application points. I love seeing the students freak out trying to grapple with a world of incomprehensible rules and limitations. They just refuse to accept such a society could ever exist, and the struggle keeps them constantly engaged in the story.

The injustices of the main character--Jonas's--hyper-controlled and ruthless society make the kids a little bit more grateful for the freedoms they experience, as well as how easily they get off the hook for mistakes or misbehavior. It's also an underhanded way for me to dig at them about the implications of their anti-social/defiant behaviors. In Jonas's world, so much as missing a homework assignment would be a serious offense, and those who intentionally commit crimes are released--or excommunicated--from the community. On more than one occasion, I've all but directly stated that were these students part of that alternative reality, they would have been booted years ago.

Harsh, Ms. T!, I'm sure you're thinking. But, it's only fact--a fact that even they have owned up to.

In The Giver citizens of the community do not choose their jobs. Rather, they are assigned by the Committee of Elders who decide the career path of each person by observing him or her from a young age to determine demeanor and aptitude. Children are assigned their jobs and begin vocational training at the age of 12, and they are destined for a lifetime under that assignment until old age. I used this concept in the novel as a platform to nudge my own 12-year-old students to evaluate the ramifications for their own (mostly poor) choices and behavior if they were in Jonas's world and facing their job assignment. Because, in Jonas's world, those who display intelligence, or promise, or passion have the potential for jobs like scientist, or caretaker for the elderly. Those who are not so bright or lazy or deviant are assigned much less prestigious jobs, like birth-mother (Huh, what? Yeah, that could be a whole blog post on its own).

My not-so-covert suggestions that my students would fall low on the totem pole were aimed at one of them in particular.

As far as a picture of the typical student goes, Brent would be the anomaly. From the past year and a half teaching him, and from the rumblings I've heard regarding his performance in previous grades, Brent has made it abundantly clear his aspirations for an educational career. Let me tell you, they are pretty small, if not non-existent. Bright, quick-witted, and perceptive, Brent is completely cognizant of the damage he is doing by making his own daily schedule at school, which doesn't often align with what the teachers have planned, and more often than not involves sabotaging their plans. If his approach to school is any indicator of his approach to life (which grows more likely the older he grows), Brent's future will be a troubled one.

Feeling particularly frustrated with Brent the day we stumbled upon this disturbing stipulation of the "utopian" society, I very much meant to infer that were he not released for his disobedience, he would end up a menial laborer of some sort. Of all the outspoken, unfiltered mouths in the classroom with the potential to state exactly what I was thinking, but couldn't say, I didn't quite expect Brent to be the one to do the job for me.

"Poop cleaner. I'm pretty sure I'd be the guy who ended up poop cleaner."

There was a round of consenting nods from the rest of the class as they settled on the very appropriate outcome for Brent. I opened my mouth to add my two cents, but realized that he had truly said it all.

If Know-er of the Cold Hard truth were a job assignment in The Giver, Brent might have found his calling in life.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Don't know what you got 'til...

When I found myself unexpectedly thrown into the ED/BD (Emotional Disorder/Behavioral Disorder) domain four years go, I tried to face the daunting task by convincing myself students of this nature afforded an opportunity I wouldn't find with other special education populations. That sunny view was that, unlike many "special needs" people, these kids had the intellect and social awareness to acknowledge what a positive influence I was in their lives, and that, once we had developed a solid bond and mutual trust, we would develop a lovely little classroom family based on their admiration and respect for me.

Clearly, I was having delusions of grandeur. By the end of the first quarter of my first year teaching, I had come to a grim understanding about my impact. The naivety to believe I could undo twelve years of dysfunction and transform these children into my little walking legacies in 9 months was, what I imagine, a classic rookie mistake that chases teachers who are weaker (or perhaps less crazy) than I from the field very early in the game.

At my second--and current--job, I found myself repeating the offense with a little less hardened, albeit still very challenging, community of kids. For all the blood, sweat, and tears I had put into lovingly disciplining them to be better people, many days it felt as if they might as well have never even met me. It takes a little air out of your balloon when you spend a week engaged in heart-felt discussions about bullying and then a day later you find out someone got caught doing just that.

But I don't go completely unrewarded in terms of expressed appreciation from the students. There is a specific formula which almost always guarantees the desired results, and here it is:


I've never found my students to be so captured and concerned for me than when I announce an anticipated absence. Where am I going? Why? How long will I be there? Who will be in my place? It doesn't matter how capable, self-sufficient, or in control the sub is. I inevitably return from being away to hear that something has gone awry in my absence, and even hear first-hand from the kids about the gaping hole in their day where I should have been.

This past week I had an unexpected meeting with a parent right before my 8th period class was to begin. Most of those students are with Annie during 7th period in our room when I have plan time, so they are very used to seeing me working at my desk, then watching me walk out of the room a few minutes early to where I teach them English. At the bell they head to 8th period class and find me there preparing and awaitingtheir arrival.

Knowing this impromptu parent-teacher conference could go longer than just a few minutes, I warned the aide in my 8th period class that I may be pretty late and he'd have to hold down the fort. Fortune would have it I escaped the meeting rather quickly and ended up back at English class only five minutes later than normal.

But the reception I received when I walked through the door may as well have been a "Welcome Back" celebration from a year overseas. "Miss T!!!" a few of the boys screamed in unison, as the aide--John--approached me with wide eyes.

"Wow, Miss T," he exclaimed. "They sure were worried about you." I beamed and gloated inwardly a bit as I imagined their mild agitation at my unexpected disappearance and the confusion that ensued. All this seeming unnecessary commotion about being MIA for five mere minutes. Most middle school students think they're scoring the jackpot when their teachers go *poof*. But these are no ordinary middle school students (if you haven't figured that out yet).

Consistency--that's what it all boils down to. I bring to the table six years of undergrad and grad school teacher training, my clever behavior management strategies, my engaging lessons, my penchant for wit, and that's all good and fine. But, if there is one single most important thing I do to touch these kids' lives, it's showing up on a daily basis. For a group of boys and girls who are tossed from parent-to-parent, or see family members come and go through the proverbial revolving door, or often don't know what unpleasantries they will find when they go home each night, the simple promise that I'll be standing at the Smartboard first period hassling them about their homework, is a crucial comfort that sometimes they don't even recognize.

The result of this realization: a little less pressure, a little more humility. The former, because even on the days I feel like chopped liver to those kids or worse--the target of their anger and loathing--I know that just being there, and staying the course with them has done wonders. The latter, because I am suddenly reminded of my place. I have believed for a long time now, and still sincerely believe, that I was called to this profession for a purpose. But any faint expectations that it might elevate me to the sort of glory worth making into a motion picture (a la Freedom Writers), I've had to squelch. My purpose does not necessarily involve some major breakthrough in the teaching profession, or even major breakthroughs in the lives of children. Perhaps my purpose is simply a presence--a constant vigil over a classroom that brings some stability to my students and my school at-large.

So, it seems to me that my best chances at making an impact don't lie in going all Michelle Pfeiffer on my kids. It's all about my integrity and commitment--even on the days I'm not particularly feeling like Teacher of the Year.

And taking an impromptu day of absence every once and awhile can't hurt either.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Giver, Special Ed.(ition) Part 1

Oh, no. It's back. The collar-tugging-ly uncomfortable novel by Lois Lowry that reads like a kids movie with an R rating.

Why we chose to re-adopt into our curriculum a book which is often banned in middle schools, I'm not so sure. I mean, I'm all for a controversial text if it challenges students' perceptions of the status quo. But, it makes it really difficult to develop skills of literary analysis when the students are laughing nervously over the portrayal of a world where the "Stirrings"--in other words of pubescent children are suppressed with a daily pill. (Gosh, that was tough to even write.) My students have enough deviant thoughts already planted in their head without the notion of volunteer twelve-year-olds required to sponge bathe and towel dry naked elderly people. (Heck, I don't think I need the notion planted in my head.)

Still, there are some redeeming qualities of this unit. Such a twisted tale is guaranteed to engage the students. I love witnessing their shock and awe at the horrors of a supposed utopian society--one so uniform and regulated that any diversity, creativity, or passion has been virtually sucked dry from its inhabitants. At the time of its inception-1993-the aversion to such political structures was the hot topic.

My hope was to masterfully lead the students to the understanding that this story is a commentary on real-life societies with similar attributes and then bask in their collective gasp of amazement of what goes on beyond the borders of their comfy, cosy lives. Unfortunately, I didn't know who all I was dealing with.

Harry is new to the school, and has revealed himself to be quite the old soul. During a fiery meltdown with one of the aides, he expressed his distaste for the netbooks assigned to every student, by screaming: "What kind of a**-backwards school is this?! Why don't they let us use paper and pencils like everybody else?!"

When he joined my English class a few weeks I should have figured, then, that he would have plenty of old-soul wisdom to impart. After remaining silent and generally unparticipative through the first few chapters, I believe it may have been the mention of everyone in the community wearing the same, neutral colored tunic, that set Harry off in a good-natured, yet very similar fashion to his previous outburst.

"What kind of place is this?!" he began. "Soviet Russia, or something?!"

Though I pretended to remain unfazed, inwardly, my jaw hit the floor. I just had my first real education on communism from Eastern Europe tour this past summer, and I had a twelve-year-old intuiting mention of a political regime that ended more than a decade before he was born.

"Yeah, Harry. It pretty much is."

And here I thought I wasn't getting a student teacher until next spring...