The world is full of social problems. The non developed countries suffer the most. However, the developed nations do have social issues of their own. The biggest problem, that these issues go unseen, and forgotten. Not everyone in the United States of America is advantaged. Not all American children are well feed or dressed. Not all American children receive a good education. There are cities where street violence have left the classes empty, where local government’s corruption left the schools close down. The children are lost in all of that. They cannot learn when they have the worlds problems at home. They cannot go to class because the bullies, drugs, and violence. Moreover, it is not like the teacher can inspire them, especially when they are unpaid. It is true that the federal government has passed the No Child Left Behind Act, but what it has done, it closing down of schools that struggle to function. That is what is happening in America’s cities.
In previous posts, we focused on how people are creating social change around the world. But, there are individuals you are creating change in their home country. I got to know a young woman who comes from a privileged upbringing. She always wanted to teach, but little did she know about where she will end up. Now she teaches at high school level in a school in South Bronx. She said, “Poverty, violence, broken homes, and racism seem to control my students’ lives. The South Bronx is the poorest congregational district in the United States. Next to Manhattan, perhaps what could be considered the Mecca of the World, with its skyscrapers, nannies, celebrities, and pretty cars you have gangs, violence, graffiti, and poverty. While some assume these problems exist in poor nations, in third world places, or in war zones in fact they also exist in our own country. Our country itself has its own lost population.”
Through her interaction with the students she learned so much from them, and she was successful to have them learn from her. Her name is Heather Flay. She told me “teaching in the South Bronx-to me is a conscious effort to undo all of the racism and stereotyping that occurs in the world. So much of it exists and it is disgusting. We do not live in the land of the free. There is not equality between race or gender.”
In my interview with her she explained her experience with racial and gender issues that faced her.
“I admit I like coming home to little Pendleton, New York. Its quaintness, simplicity, and structured environment are what I am use to and grew up in. Life is a little bit more comfortable being in the majority again. Is that right or wrong? I don’t know. I still enjoy the Bronx and being in the minority has taught me many lessons. I can’t say which one I like more than the other. Sometimes I feel guilty for being white. Sometimes even though some minorities say they don’t feel welcome in white communities I feel very often I am not welcome in theirs. I know somewhere in my life something was somehow made easier because of the color of my skin but there is nothing I can do about it. I didn’t choose to be white. Do I act differently in the Bronx than I do at home. Yes. Is that because of skin color? I don’t know anymore.I don’t know what I know about skin color anymore. While I have never been more aware; I don’t think I have ever been more confused.”
I asked her why she chose to teach in the South Bronx, when she could have taught in where else and what did she hope to get out of it. She replied to me by saying,
“ It all started when I was a freshmen is college. A friend of mine suggested I teach in an urban setting. I shrugged off the suggestion. I can’t teach in a city school. No, I couldn’t. But the idea lingered in my head throughout the rest of my freshmen year and into my sophomore year of college. Okay, I thought now I need to figure out if this is sometime I can do.
So junior year for a requirement for one of my classes I began teaching at a Job Corps Center twice a week. Class finished and I met my requirements but I continued to go back and work at Job Corps twice a week. I loved it there. I felt like I was making a tangible difference there. It was intimidating and overwhelming at first but soon became my home away from home. Later in the school year, I was offered a position to work in the recreation building and I accepted. I spent about a year and a half at job corps learning how to handle these “inner city” kids. I learned how to handle confrontation, fights, their problems, their backgrounds, their education, their goals, their dreams, and their aspirations.
From there I dipped my hands into an intern program for the summer teaching school. I thought “I can do this.” So I student taught in the Big Apple right before graduation. it seemed like the next step to stay there and begin working.
I hope to feel like I am living a life of purpose. There are days I hate and days I absolutely love. As much as the kids learn from me I learn from them. They have the power to bring me to my knees or make me feel like a million dollars. There is no greater feeling that having a classroom of students yelling your name for help. There is no worse feeling than be cursed out. It is a day to day survival.
Currently I am in the beginning stage of developing an English Language Learner Math curriculum. At the end of my time teaching in the Bronx I hope to walk away with my own curriculum. One thing I did not learn during my years in undergraduate studies was that math and reading go hand in hand.
Many of my students are English language learners who have immigrated to the United States. They need language support in their content classes in order to learn the material and the English language. My hope is to accomplish this. Math literacy is my goal in my classroom. I want to foster both math education and English proficiency.”
She went on to describe to me how crazy her classes are and how does she introduce new information to her students.
“I realized, in the midst of the chaos and craziness, the students were learning and working. The first couple of days with the freshmen were very rough. No one listened, no one did work, and nobody tried. My days were spent yelling and disciplining, controlling and babysitting. Now only some of the students required babysitting, many had at least tried to do the work; and some had even been able to complete the whole worksheet. Before I had felt helpless and lost and today I finally let like maybe I’m doing something right. It was a sigh of relief that was quickly swept up by chaos. The chaos was that of students yelling from every corner of the classroom. They were yelling but asking for help. I like that type of chaos. Kids were using rulers, plotting points, and solving for y.
Nervous about trying an unconventional lesson plan for my observation, I went with my gut and still decided to do it. The kids were getting bored with the material. I was getting bored. I had just finished hitting my head against the wall for 4 weeks as I taught, re-taught, and reviewed again how to solve equations. After four weeks of instruction I said forget it. We are moving on. They still weren’t getting it. I decided to move onto a new unit.
I decided the first 15 minutes of every class in the new unit would be dedicated to the continuing practice of solving equations. The rest of class would be spent on new material. We would begin our new graphing unit-covering everything from line graphs to circle graphs. The first four days of the unit dragged. The kids weren’t into the material.
And then suddenly something hit me - global warming. Where it came from I have no idea. But when I got the idea I stayed up to midnight making Powerpoints and searching for graphs. I was excited about this lesson. I decided I would teach interpreting graphs using global warming. The lesson would start off with a quick introduction of global warming, why some people say it exists, why some people say it doesn’t exist, what causes global warming, and other thought provoking questions.
I would then show them the trailer for Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” I have heard mixed reviews about the documentary. But say what you will, the trailer is very dramatic. I knew it would grab the kid’s attention. Following the trailer the students would be divided into six groups. I then introduced them to six graphs they were going to have to analyze and answer questions about for class. Each graph would be printed out, one per page, and slipped into a plastic protective cover. Each group would get one graph. They would have 4 minutes to answer the questions for graph they had in their group. Once the timer went off the graphs would rotate clockwise. They would then have another 4 minutes to answer the questions corresponding to their new graph. The rotating would take place until all groups had seen all graphs. After a class discussion would take place.
The lesson went so smoothly and for the first time since the beginning of the school year it wasn’t a fight to keep the kids paying attention, to keep them in their seats, to keep in engaged in the lesson. The lesson went so well that they talked about it into their next period and convinced their Global Studies teacher to let them write a paper on it. It was great to see the kids leaning out of their seats trying to get a better view of the graphs and debating back and forth what answer was correct. Students who never speak at all were arguing about the CO2 levels produced in different countries and Americans seemed the least concerned about global warming. My most spaced out student, Edward, was excited about the idea of Manhattan going under (as sea levels rise). When I said the Bronx is going next he said, “Then I better tell my dad to stop driving those SUV’s.”
They were silent for the first time without me having to ask. It is phenomenal what one well planned, creative lesson can do to a classroom of off the wall, low level freshmen. The problem is lessons like these take time. A lot of time. Time I don’t have right now. I figure I have enough time for really creative lesson a week. After a few years of teaching I’ll have a substantial bank of creative lessons to work with for each unit. Right now, it’s a day to day game trying to figure out what works-what doesn’t. Global warming worked. How long can I utilize it for who knows. Not only does a good lesson motivate the kids, it motivates the teacher as well.”
What about salaries, how does that work in the inner city schools?
“I sat in room 106 during lunch listening to people debate whether or not accepting a $3,000 salary bonus at the end of the year was a good thing to do. The union cut a deal with the DOE and this was the result-for selected schools that increased their report card score by a particular percentage each union member will be given $3,000.
Who doesn’t want an extra $3,000. That’s what I thought…Initially.
With this deal, the school would be awarded $3,000 for each union member in our school if we raised our school report card grade score by approximately 3%. Now, re-read what I wrote carefully. The school would be awarded $3,000 for each union member. So, if a school has ten union members the school will receive a check for $30,000. It is up the school however, to determine who gets how much. A committee of two administrators and two union members would have to founded and that committee would decide who got the money and how much. Potentially, some teachers could get no money while others get too much. That is problem number one. A tug-of-war with money that will inevitably turn into a popularity contest.
It also was suggested by faculty members during this meeting that those teachers who have a good pass rates on NYS Regents exams get a bigger cut of the money than those who didn’t. Problem number two-what about the teachers who don’t have to prepare students for a NYS Regents? For example, freshmen do not have to take an English Regents at the end of the school year. So does that teacher, through no fault of her own, not deserve a piece of the pie? I don’t know.
Problem number 3, for me, is the idea of data driven salaries. This is a small baby-step toward data driven salaries and the DOE seems to be moving toward this method slowly but surely. Data is strictly data, numbers on a piece of paper that can be misleading and deceiving. Data can’t measure student-teacher relationships and at times it can’t measure learning. Why then would I want my salary to be based on data? I am not against data driven salaries because I question my teaching abilities. I am against data driven salaries because data can never measure some of the most important elements of a classroom. It also doesn’t take into account student backgrounds. For example, a group of 30 students take their NYS English Regents Exams in 11th grade. All of them pass but not one scores above a 70%. The scores sound terrible right? Not exactly. Are the scores terrible if the students came to high school at a 3rd grade reading level? Absolutely not. In fact the scores would then be a phenomenal success. But since the data does not take into account the fact that these students were reading at 3rd grade level their first year in high school the data is misleading. It makes the school and the teacher look like they didn’t do enough when in fact they did plenty. Would you want your salary based on such a flawed system? I would not.
I was one of the few who voted down the proposed $3,000 deal. With a more than 55% of the union members in my school supporting the deal, next year the faculty at school will be eligible for $3,000 if our report card score goes up. $3,000 isn’t worth it”
Finally I asked her what lessons did you learn so far, and why should other do the same as you did?
Working here is my life. It’s hard to walk away at the end of the day. The kids’ stories and lives and problems follow you. I have learned a lot. Usually the lessons come from day to day experiences-each event nothing too profound but when accumulated together have changed the course of my life.
You are literally pushed to the breaking point almost on a weekly basis with the students and the system. Every time it happens you say you’re not coming back. You’re done. But you show up the next day and go in again. Give it your best. Even though most days I complain about the students-in reality life without them around doesn’t seem the same. They grow on you. They become your purpose in life. They have taught me how to love life deeper, have no regrets. They, through their actions, have shown my true strength and patience. Working in the Bronx has taught me who I am as a human being.