October 4, 2013

 

To my students in Arena 6:

There is no way I can express the sadness I feel in leaving you.  There is also no way I can express how much joy you have brought into my life.  There isn’t a teacher anywhere who had such a wonderful class of students. You are smart, kind, humorous, creative, gifted, and so full of life that you have been a blessing in my life.

I hope I have made some impression on you. Most important, how much I love each of you.  But also an impression that tells you that hard work, sticking to the task at hand, believing in yourself, doing your best, loving yourself and loving others are not difficult things. They are beautiful things that will reward you in life.

Never, ever, give up your dreams for a better life.  And never, ever, forget that each effort you make is rewarded.  Never, ever forget that every kindness you show to others comes back in kindness to you.  Never, ever forget your own value as a person.

The world is often mean; too often it is mean.  But you have to be the people who make the world a better place.  If each of you doesn’t do that, who will?  You may not immediately see a return on your efforts to do what is right, but I promise you that eventually every seed of goodness you sow will grow into a better world for you and others.  Be smart.  Be adaptable.  Be forgiving.  Be kind.  Be your true self, and you will be all of these things.

I will miss so much about each of you.  I will even miss your antics, your moments of frustration and anger, even those few moments when we disagreed.  Each of those moments passed quickly and because of them you and I grew as human beings.  I hope they taught you, as they taught me, that the affection we have for each other was worth preserving through any moment of discontent.

So now I say goodbye to my wonderful, beautiful students in Arena 6.  Please call on me any time you feel the need.  Let me know of your progress towards your high school diplomas. Know that I will never forget you, and I will always love you.

Bronx Arena High School

Bronx Arena High School

 

This post is the letter I gave to each of my students on my last day of teaching at Bronx Arena High School.  The title of this post is borrowed from the last episode of the television series M*A*S*H broadcast on February 28, 1983.

 

Every mile

Each of the students I teach has a gripe from time to time, and they are not shy about voicing it.  One which I have heard often is about a video that maybe part of one of the courses they are working through.  A student will raise their hand or call out to me.  When I come over to them they will point to the screen of their laptop and say something like, “This video is 40 minutes long, do I have to watch the whole thing?”

I have a stock answer: “No you don’t have to watch it. You can go back to your old high school and sit in a class for 45 minutes every school day from September until June and earn your credit that way.”

They usually watch the video.

In traditional New York high schools, students spend four years earning the forty-four credits required for graduation.  In Bronx Arena, the same number of credits are required, but how long it takes to earn them is up to the student. Some of my students have labored for months with a one-credit course and not yet completed it.  Yet another student completed a global studies course in just over five weeks.  And he watched the video.

I have students who love to do math, but hate social studies.  Some fly through an English Language Arts course but can never show up for gym. They have to complete eight credits of ELA and four credits of gym.  There will be no diploma until they have them all, a fact I constantly stress.

With just two months left in the school year I have been pressing my kids to finish courses they have started.  They often tell me that they don’t like the course or find it boring.  “Doesn’t matter,” I tell them.  “If you want to finish high school you have to do the things you like and the things you don’t like.”

I often use my weekly trip between the Bronx and my home in upstate as an example.  I tell them that by the end of the week all I can think about is being home.  When the school day is finished on Friday, I get in my car and drive the miles from Bronx Arena to my home.  There are parts of the trip I enjoy, but also parts I loathe. Getting out of the Bronx and north of the immediate suburbs is stressful on a Friday afternoon.  Then the drive becomes more civil and scenic.  The attitude of drivers and the enveloping landscape both change.

Farther north, when I have crossed the Hudson River, I enter a stretch of state highway that is punctuated with traffic lights, and my progress slows.  By then, my yearning to be home is an ache, and fatigue has settled in.  But after a while I reach the turn-off for the state route that will take me the last miles to home.

Then there will be one last traffic light, after which I drive onto my home road.  The last few miles take me past neighboring farms, a twist and a turn, and then the first view of home I have had in a week.

The lesson I am trying to teach my students is that every journey we take is made up of miles we love and miles which challenge. Okay, miles we hate.  But if we want to get home, if we want a diploma, we have to travel every one of them.

Home. Each Friday I have to drive every mile to get there.

Home. Each Friday I have to drive every mile to get there.

Mid-winter

I made my usual drive from upstate to downstate on Sunday.  My car was packed with provisions for the week: My washed and folded clothes, two computers, and energy snacks to sustain me through my teaching days. The students have just come through Regents exams week and it will be good to move back to real learning.

Driving through the valley and the Catskill Mountains on a day of brilliant sunshine and graced with linen-white snow, I passed tired hamlets and run down homes, abandoned general stores, and old farms weary with age. So much of the human landscape in upstate looks this way, and winter makes it even sadder.

I passed cold, rushing streams half choked with snow laden boulders and ice. On a string of ponds I saw brave people ice fishing.  I always wonder about those who fish on frozen ponds.  I might like to try it sometime; for an hour.

Ice fishing

I stopped to take this picture of those hardy souls out on the ice.  In the parking lot above the pond, some of the winter anglers were packing their gear into the back of pickup trucks and wearing camouflage outerwear.  I wondered: If you are going to wear “camo” while ice-fishing, shouldn’t it be white?

Until the past week, this had been a mild winter in the northeast.  Then our friends to the north sent us a week-long blast of cold, and there were days when it was almost unbearable to be outside. This might be fine weather in northern Canada, but here in downstate it is a peril.  One day last week, the closest parking spot I could find was some eight blocks away, and by the time I made it to my school my eyes were tearing and the water droplets were dripping from my nose. “’It’s-not-freezing-cold,” my daughter would say. (Say it quickly.)

I’ve lived in cold weather states most of my life, including two winters in Fairbanks, Alaska.  With a few years in northern Vermont, twenty winters in Maine, and quite a number in upstate, I know what winter means.  Still, there is not much that can prepare you for day after day of bitter cold weather and wind chill factors that approach, and then sink, below zero Fahrenheit.  That’s been our weather lately.

The days are getting longer in our latitude.  It is noticeable.  But, there is still a lot of winter left in these climes. Weekends, when I am back home on the farm, I toss log after log into the woodstove.  In the Bronx, I wipe the tears from my cheeks, the snot from my nose, and pray my classroom is warm. The goal at this time of year is, as Van Morrison sings, to get through January and February.

 

Celebrate me home

On Monday, when the week before the holiday break was just beginning, a student said to me, “I wish it was Friday.”  I knew then that the week was going to be a long one.  I didn’t let on that I also wished it was Friday. There is no reason to tell a student that and besides, wishing wouldn’t make it true.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not anxious to get away from my students. I will miss them when we are away for eleven days.  It is amazing how much their energy becomes my energy, their laughter makes me laugh, and their lives have become my life.

I arrive each school day before seven in the morning excited about the day to come. Reluctantly, I leave school each day long after my students have gone home. On Fridays, I am sorry the school week is over. Teaching is exhausting.

So I am looking forward to the upcoming holiday break. (It’s the Christmas break, but I’m not allowed to say so.) I know I need some time back home: Time to be with my son, time to sleep in, time to look at the Christmas tree Andrew and I decorated last weekend, time to make a second cup of coffee in the morning, and time to watch the sunrise on my farm.

These last few months I have often felt disconnected from my prior life while teaching in the Bronx.  I have been living in two worlds, trying to serve each as best as I can.  The best part of me has gone into my teaching, and I feel that family and home have been neglected these past four months.  It is time to catch up.

On Boxing Day, a dear friend from Alberta will be flying into Albany.  We haven’t seen each other in four months and our reunion will be special.  The last time we were together was in late summer, and I wrote about it in an earlier post called Liberty.  It will be good to have time with her.

More than anything, I simply want to be home.  I want to spend the coming holidays in the place I call upstate and re-energize myself for the next six months of the school year.  I think all of my students and colleagues feel the same.  We all need a break and being home is a cause for celebration.

Last week I had my second formal observation in the classroom.  These observations are a requirement in the era of teacher accountability and are intended to make good teachers better, and I suppose, partially intended to weed out teachers who really shouldn’t be teaching.   My principal, T. Rex, and I met on Tuesday for a pre-observation conference and we went over my plan for the lesson I would be teaching.  He had several useful suggestions.

On Wednesday he observed me teaching a mini-lesson to five students.  The aim of the lesson was “making connections and inferences with artifacts.”  While I was being observed, Ms. Persuasive, a science teacher, had pushed into my room to teach two groups of students.  Both groups were working on genetics, but were at different stages in the Living Environments course.  A half-dozen other students were independently working on various other subjects.

That’s the Arena model, and if you walked in on it you might ask, “What’s going on?”

I felt my observation went well.  When I met with T. Rex on Friday morning for post-observation conference he said as much.  He also offered suggestions for how to improve my skills as a teacher in the Arena model.  T. Rex has a goal for his teachers: he wants them to be the best anywhere.

And then he asked me a question I could not easily answer.  He asked, “What are you and the Advocacy Councilor doing in Arena 6 that makes it…”  He didn’t finish the question.  I think he wanted to know what was going on.

Maybe it was because of the missing last word in his question that I fumbled the answer.  I spoke generally about my teaching, and the most emphatic I could be was when I told him I just try to be myself.  I added that my students know who I am and that I don’t pretend to be anything else.

Driving home to upstate on Friday evening I thought more about why Arena 6 has been successful, and what my part in that might be.  In my mind, I began crafting a wonderful response with details of everything I and A.C. do that has made our classroom great.  By the time I exited the Taconic Parkway and headed west for a crossing of the Hudson River, I had my answer down to six words.

Affection   Expectation   Intellect   Energy   Collaboration   Reflection

On Saturday, I sent an email to T. Rex with my belated response to his question.  Here’s the part where I explain the six words:

Affection:  I am very fond of my students.  It shows and they see it.

Expectation:  I have high expectations of my students in their academic work, their attendance, and their behavior. They know it.

Intellect:  I am fairly smart, intellectually curious, and I love learning and learners. My students see how I work with them to find answers when we don’t have them.

Energy: This could also be called drive or passion.  I put everything I have into each teaching day.  The students see this and they have commented to A.C..

Collaboration:  I love to share what I am learning about my students and my Bronx Arena teaching experience with anyone who will listen.  And I am always seeking out what others have learned.

 Reflection:  My teaching day doesn’t end when I leave school.  I am always thinking about my students and my teaching.  I make lousy company.

As the school year progresses I will try to remember these words.  They may change as I change.  For now, it is my formal response to a question that might have been asking, “What’s going on?” If you watch the video you will see T. Rex leading the band.  Ms. Persuasive is on drums and of course, I’m Marvin Gaye.

 

“wussup”

With my life divided between two places, the boundary between upstate and the Bronx is still not determined.  Son, house, friends, banking, mail and offers for a free car wash with an oil change exert an enormous pull on me to my home in rural New York.  My students, Bronx Arena, a job, and a paycheck pull me back to downstate.  Today I skipped school to attend to an appointment I had scheduled months ago in my hometown.

I have to admit that it was fun to play hooky, to have another night of sleep in my own bed, and another morning on the farm, with coffee in the summer room while I looked out on the fields and mountains.  But as the morning progressed my mind kept wandering to my classroom in the Bronx.  What would my students be doing now?  How many were in attendance?  Are they listening to my substitute? Are they working? Do they notice I’m not there?

This afternoon, I received an email from one of my students, and my heart nearly burst.  He wrote:

“wussup bob why you not here today? well im not feeling good anyway so im not really going to do work but hope all is well see you tomorrow”

The student who wrote the email is one of my newer charges.  He is also the oldest in my room and he spent more than a year out of school before deciding to come back.  He has a tough exterior in dress and demeanor, but when you get beyond the tats and street attitude you find an incredible young man.  He is smart, quick, and able.  I liked him the first time we talked, and I think he could go onto college and eventually be a lawyer.

Last week, he was also involved in the tensest moment I have had in Arena 6. He made a comment.  A student next to him took exception to his comment, and then an argument erupted.  The language was foul and angry.  Half of what they said I did not understand.  I was sure a fight was about to happen.

I stood between the two angry students for what seemed an hour, hoping my slim presence would prevent a fight.  Okay, it wasn’t an hour, but maybe twenty minutes.  By then, I had silently signaled one of my students to go and get the Advocacy Councilor, and when she arrived she was able to take one of the students out of the room and the tension ebbed.  By the end of that day I was exhausted.

Arena 6 at work

Arena 6 at work

I know that I don’t teach in a place most people would consider safe.  When I am home in upstate and former colleagues see me, I sense they are glad I am still in one piece.  I often wonder if they think that by this point of the school year in the Bronx, surely I would have been set on fire and thrown down a staircase. I never miss a chance to tell them how wonderful my teaching experience at Bronx Arena has been.  I boast about my students and my school, and how much I love every day of teaching.

So, Monday was the first day of school I have missed. For the most part I have stayed healthy even when a variety of cold and stomach viruses have swept through the classroom and school thinning the ranks of students. The longer you teach, the better you are at warding off such afflictions.  Veteran teachers, I am sure, have highly advanced immune systems.

The  lucky teachers have students like mine.  For them, like me, it is hard to stay away from a day of teaching.  When they are absent from school, they also wonder what their students are doing as each hour of the school day passes.  They will be anxious to get back in the classroom and take charge.  (Good teachers are very possessive of their students.)  If they are really lucky, they will get an email from a student who misses them and it starts with, “wussup.”

The noise in life

Thanksgiving in my upstate home was a crowded and noisy affair.  The old farmhouse I call home is like so many others in the rural countryside: it is big. With one part added to another over the span of nearly 180 years, it can easily accommodate a holiday crowd. This year, that meant 17 people, two dogs, and two cats. While I was driving north from the Bronx on Wednesday evening they were all there, already in a holiday mood.  And while an old farmhouse can accommodate my family, it took some effort, and numerous deep breathes for me to prepare myself for such a crowd when I pulled into the driveway in the darkness of late November.

Our Thanksgiving feast was wonderful.  The weather was perfect, the food was delicious, and throughout the weekend we enjoyed the love we share for one another. After the last of my family departed on Saturday, my youngest son and I were left with the house to ourselves.  The silence was amazing.  Later that day, I sent an email to all who had been together in upstate and wrote:

Andrew and I now share a much quieter home.  Though there are times at family gatherings when you might give anything for ten minutes of quiet, when the silence does come, you miss the noise!

I can say the same for the school I work in and the students I teach. They are a studious group to be sure, but there are times when it seems like there is nothing but conversation going on between them. We joked about it a couple of weeks ago and even came up with a new word.  One student suggested we add to our classroom rules: No conversating!

People like to talk.  I get that, and I can be a bit of a “conversator” myself.  Teenagers can be especially talkative, especially when they haven’t seen each other for several days.  There is a lot of catching up to do.  So I loosened the reins today, the first day back from the Thanksgiving holiday, and tolerated more chatter than I might on any other day. Tomorrow, I can always pull back and say “Whoa!”

I enjoy listening to them talk. To me, it is evidence of the community we have formed.  If they had nothing to say to each other, I would really have to wonder about my skills as a teacher.

One of the projects my students have worked on is a formal interview.  They have to send an email to someone who works in the school requesting time to meet with them and ask them some questions. This is a job search skill they will need.  Additionally, they have to prepare five questions they wish to ask.  Most send their emails to, and prepare their questions for, either me or their Advocacy Counselor.

Back in late September, one of my students requested my time, and we met at my desk.  One of her questions was, “Do you like your students?”  We recently had four-day weekend for Rosh Hashanah.  “Do you remember the four days we had off last week?” I asked her.  She said she did. “Well for me,” I told her, “That was one day too many.”

I really had missed my students, even their chatter, and the music in their headphones that is sometimes too loud. I missed their easily distracted personalities, and their boisterousness in the hallways.  In a few short months it has all become a comforting sound to this teacher in the Bronx.  Like the quiet of my home this past Saturday afternoon, I might enjoy the silence for a bit, but eventually it is the noise in life I crave.

The source of noise this past Thanksgiving

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