Friday, March 28, 2014

Everyone in That Room Wrote Something

Proctoring school-wide exams is by far the most unproductive activity for teachers.

For alternative school students who previously haven't been successful in school, we tend to make testing worse by being overly strict during these sessions. No talking. No music. No walking in the hallway. No food. No drinks. No gum. No smiling. No personalities. And no thinking. Oh, but do your best. Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanks!

When I'm proctoring an exam, I do play some music on low to fill the silence in the testing room. My students do not like silence. They're not used to it, and so it unsettles them. If we as educators want them to succeed, we should test our students on their terms since it's content we think is important. They don't have a choice in what they get to learn in this country, so let's meet halfway. A little bit of Ray Charles isn't going to hurt anybody. It might actually keep the student who finishes early from distracting others. Or it might keep the student struggling to remain motivated and finish the exam in the room. You never know.

Earlier this week, I was proctoring an exam that required quite a bit of writing. The test was modeled after a standard NY Regents: multiple choice, short answers, then an essay. For those of us who have made it out of the system successfully, this is standard operating procedure. For my students however, the essay is the final boss in a video game that you can't beat without cheats. It's just not going to happen. During tests like these, many students complete the multiple choice, write a few sentences for their short answer questions, and then try to escape without an essay. They have every right to leave, we can't really stop them. I can't just lock my door until every student writes an essay, but that doesn't mean I can't compel them in my own way.

"Yo Mista, I'm done, where do I turn this in?" Ali asked. Ali is a bright student at my school, particularly in mathematics. I've had Ali for about a year and a half as a math student. On the NY Algebra Regents this past January, he scored the highest of all students, so I know his strengths as well as his weaknesses. Writing doesn't come second-nature to Ali, so he has a tendency to give up quickly.

I shot him a smirk. "Not so fast wise guy, let me make sure you finished everything." I flipped through his test and sure enough, he was trying to get by without doing the essay. It's my fifth year of teaching, and I still can't understand the logic of not finishing a test. You sat through the whole exam and you know it counts towards your grade. You know you won't pass this test without this essay, so why did you even come? It never ceases to amaze me. But alright. I'll play your game kid.

"Bro, really?" I gave him the so-called "teacher look."

"Honestly Mista, I ain't doin' that essay. He got me mad tight this morning." Ali revealed.

"Really? So it's not because you hate writing, it's because your teacher got you upset earlier? And your way of getting him back is by failing. Forcing him to teach you this class again next semester. Yeah... that'll show him."

"Nah.... it's not that...." Ali was slipping. He could see I was about to win. It helps that he respects me too, so he has a tendency to listen to me for more than five seconds. This sweet kid bought me a fucking cake when he found out about his Regents score, so I knew I had leverage in this situation. I knew I could talk it out and at the end of the conversation, he'd be writing that damn essay. Unfortunately, I also knew I'd have to have this same conversation at least five more times over the course of the next half hour as there were other students in the room who'd probably try to do the same thing. I had to make my point a bit more theatrical.

I held Ali's test in my hand as I walked over to my computer. I quickly Googled a picture of Frederick Douglass. I found many. I turned on my SMARTBoard.

"Everyone look up. This guy, right up here. Frederick Douglass. He fought tooth and nail to get his freedom when he was a slave. He learned how to read and write in secret, then wrote a motherfucking book about how people at the time didn't want Blacks to learn what he learned. Many people in our country at the time believed reading and writing was for Whites only."

I paused and shot a stare at a few students who I knew were going to try to get away without writing. "Ali, look at these pictures. You see? Good. Now take this test back, write a kick ass essay, and never forget how hard people had to work in this country to have the opportunity to write an essay."

"Wow... you dead be right though. Aight, Imma try Mista. You dead be hurtin' my feelings sometimes, but I know you know it works." He giggled.

I can't promise Ali's essay was good. I can't even promise if it made sense, he wrote something. Everyone in that room wrote something.

This blog is a space I use to jot down some of the craziest shit I do and say in my profession. Please don't take this post to mean the following:
(a) Teachers "save" the minority children of this country. They don't need "saving."
(b) Posting pictures of heroes from America's darkest times will motivate all children. It won't.
(c) I am this frank and blunt with every student. I'm not. I build relationships, then leverage those using my personality and humor to get what I want.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Reading Faces and Words

It's about thirty minutes into the period and I'm circulating around the classroom while my students work on practice problems. To the untrained ear, it sounds like chaos. It's not: it's just at-risk teenagers working. They may be cussing, throwing things, and loud, but they're working. They're struggling, but they're working.

"Yo Mista!"

"Mista! I need you for a sec."

"Mista, can you come here?"

"Yo Mista, I called you like ten minutes ago!"

I spin move around a desk and get to Brandy, who I think called out "Yo Mista!" first. I get to Brandy and sit down next to her. She shows me her paper and points at the problem she's working on. She doesn't ask anything. She doesn't ask to clarify something. She just points. You're not going to get me kid. I know this trick. "So?" I ask her.

Brandy, like most of my students, is trying to gauge my reaction to her work. She's trying to let my facial expressions tell her whether she's right or wrong. She knows if she asks, "Is this right?" I'm going to ask, "Have you checked your work?" or I'll say, "It's a quiz Brandy, I can't tell you, duh." Brandy doesn't read at grade level, but she reads faces and body language better than most. In fact, this is something almost all of my students do really well.

As I scan her paper, I maintain my poker face. After, I look right in the eyes and say, "Brandy, you know this won't work on me. You can't go through school just reading your teachers. It's not going to help you on the state exams."

"Mista, Imma be on my bullshit when it comes to the Regents, just tell meeeeeeee."

I'm already walking away as I smile. "No."

"Yo, fuck this shit!" Thirty seconds later, I raise my head over to peek at Brandy's paper and she's finally using the check method I taught earlier to see if she's right.

Over the past five years in casual conversations, my students have revealed so much about how they've managed to get through classes using these tricks. Ronald told me his 5th grade teacher would grimace every time he had the wrong answer circled on his paper. She used this coded language throughout the school year and when it was time for Ronald to sit for his 5th grade state exam, he knew he was in the clear because he fixed every question she grimaced at when she walked by.

Annabelle confessed that she knew every time her history teacher didn't like what she had picked for a multiple choice answer because anytime she marked an incorrect answer, he would say, "Make sure you're confident in that answer." He typically didn't say anything when Annabelle picked the correct answer, and so she used this to her advantage and passed. Annabelle reads at a lower than a 6th grade reading level.

Carlton, whom I've written about here, is quite the expert on asking leading questions to get teachers to give away the answer without really giving away the answer. Carlton, like most of my students, knows that teachers want students to do well on assessments. He figures out just how well by constantly asking clarifying questions. They start vague, and then get more and more specific. Every time he raises his hand, he he has a big smile on his face. When he asks his question, his expression changes to super serious. Carlton sets the nice-guy-who-just-wants-to-be-right trap very well.

Some of the students I've mentioned actually believe teachers care more about how well students do on assessments rather than how much they learn. That may not be true across the board, but it does say something. In reality, gullible teachers like the ones my students trap exist and like a cunning used-car salesmen, our students are quick to take advantage of the suckers. These idiots are definitely one of the causes of under-skilled elementary schoolers making it to middle school and so on.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) for my students, my face nor my emotions get in the way of my teaching. I would rather annoy the shit out of my students with sarcastic responses than tell them the right answer. The right answer doesn't matter. Great educators shouldn't (don't) care whether their students can correctly factor a difference of perfect squares [or insert any other irrelevant topic from your content area here]. Great educators care about the education process: watching that light bulb go on when an idea is understood.

I could care less if my students delete 90% of the content they learn in algebra once they earn those algebra credits. I really just want them to gain confidence and learn how to think comfortably when life gets uncomfortable.