A Teacher's Day

The day in the life of an inner city large urban school district teacher after the high stakes testing ends and there is still three more months left before summer vacation.

Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

I have taught school for over thirty years always in the inner city and for the most part always upper grade students. I have two children and I have been married for twenty years.

Monday, November 27, 2006


It’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and all through the school not a person—but we won’t be there. We have a field trip to the North Park Village Nature Center.

A few months ago my classroom received a donation of five hundred dollars for a character education project. Part of the money was going to be used to pay for the bus. Why were we going to use the money? My classroom was taking fifteen primary students from Mrs. Jeff's third grade classroom on the trip with us as an incentive. This school year there has been a rash of discipline problems in the primary grades.

It was a great trip. From the bus driver Michael White of A & M to the guides of the nature center to my class and the primary students they partnered with, this trip could not have been better.

I should mention first that the staff was waiting for us when we arrived. Not inside. Nope. On the front steps. Two guides and a volunteer. Sean Shaffer and Sarah Pearce, two of the center’s naturalists, gave us the grand tour. We divided up into two groups and took off down the path in search of animals, nature, and discovery.

(I need to let you know I toured the entire park a few weeks earlier with my brother Steven Brownstein (a police officer who specializes in animal endangerment—dog fights, for example), entered the nature center and arranged for the trip, and saw—during two hikes—over ten deer, chipmunks and other animals. For you country folks, this is not a biggee, but here in the city—it’s quite a site.)

There were no animals on the trails in the park itself—but they were doing controlled burnings. They explained everything in detail to the group—why they burn, how it helps everything, etc., etc.—and we were allowed to get up close and personal with the flames—some of them shooting into the sky thirty feet or more.

Buckthorn is a real problem in the preserve, so they chop it down and burn it. An invasive species, it poisons the ground around it and causes other damage to the native plants. We saw other things—different types of seeds, a kind of bark that is used in aspirin, animal homes, animal tracks, and quite a number of other things.

Inside the nature center, the children had a hands on experience with a number of items found in the forest. They visited with the naturalists, saw a bee hive and a swarm, and even utilized microscopes and other tools a biologist would use.

Then it was lunchtime, but we had left our lunches at school. The students were hungry. What to do? Simple. We went to the community garden where my brother has a plot and harvested a few green onions, some mustard and peppermint. Some of the children ate the plants—but I must admit I had my son, Korey, with me. (He wants to be a botanist when he gets older and I knew he would identify the plants we could eat.) And they liked the taste. And they wanted more. I love it when my students want to try new things and new experiences.

Then we did the coolest thing of all. We went into the private preserve dedicated to biologists and naturalists. No trespassing signs are everywhere. But we had Gina Glowen from the center with us. And what a guide she was!

She showed us a large slug, too many deer to even think about, and many more things—including a swale.

On the way home all the children could talk about was how close they had come to the deer and how beautiful the forest was and how nice the air smelled—once we were away from the controlled burn. Even the student of mine who adamantly did not want to come (“I hate animals. Any animals. Doesn’t matter. I don’t want to even think about seeing an animal.”) told me it was really great to see a group of deer only a few yards away.

A great trip. A great character builder. A great bonding experience. Now my students cannot wait to begin their charity work for UNICEF (but this is for another blog) and their community tutoring program with the third grade class they have adopted.

One field trip and so many positive results. And all for a little over a hundred dollars. (That’s what the bus cost.)

This is why I’m a teacher.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Edgar Allan Poe and My Classroom

We just finished reading Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. They’re rich in vocabulary and detail. “Morella” really got my class excited. They didn’t understand how the coffin could be empty, but then they went through the story again and discovered the baby began to breathe after the mother died, why we need to explore the lives of others, and how insanity moves within us.

The protagonist—if you could call him that—began as a loving husband to a beautiful and accomplished wife, but somewhere in his mind things began to change. She became hideous, her voice nauseating, even her touch cold to his hand. When she died, no longer loved by him, during childbirth, their baby took its fist breath after the mother took her last. Suddenly my class made a number of connections. Was the baby Morella come back to life? She looked just like the first Morella, sang like her, had the same need for life. But why did he keep her isolated?

We delved into the neighborhood of my students.

“We didn’t know beating us with a belt was not normal,” one of the girls said. “We thought everyone did that to their kids.”

I asked how many agreed with her. Every child raised their hands. They all knew someone beaten until they were bleeding or had been beaten themselves.

The turn of events took us back to the child. She lived in isolation—total seclusion. “Why was he doing this?” one of the boys asked.

“Did he want to marry her?” a girl answered with another question. “She wouldn’t know its wrong. How could she. She never had a chance to learn. She might think all girls married their father.”

And then we were off—into the lives of my students until one of my students said, “Look at Poe. He married his second cousin when she was just thirteen. Was that normal in that time period?”

And we were off again. I just watched, the coach on the sideline, my class coming alive as they explained the demons and fiends that ate at the main character’s brain in the story, Morella”.

When she died, they knew he did not kill her. But why did she die? Revenge, came their answer. The first Morella wanted him to suffer the loss of her love again. And then we were in Greek mythology. Is revenge always correct? Should punishment fit the crime?

Prometheus deserved better from the Gods. He helped the humans, didn’t he? To have your liver eaten from your body everyday is just too much. But Midas? Yes, he was too greedy for gold and the punishments of Hades—they were designed to fit the crime.

There’s nothing better for a teacher than to watch a classroom come alive with the study of a story. And there’s nothing better than afterwards to hear a student who is often apathetic and uninvolved say, “That story was too cool.”

I thought cool was my word.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


We held the first part of the seventh and eighth grade classroom science fair last week and for the first time I can remember, we only had a one demonstration, three who did experiments that were not allowed (I guess we still have to work on listening skills) and a few that were too basic (how fast does water boil if you add salt, for example). But, for the most part, the experiments were well done and I selected seventy-seven students out of ninety to go to the next level. Can’t wait. We’re growing crystals in cola, removing rust with Mountain Dew, discovering which toothpaste is the most effective in stopping mold grown in a Petri dish on a tomato paste medium. It’s just too cool.

We voted off the Local School Council member who I wrote about before—the parent from Hell—in a unanimous decision. Remember: She was the one who instigated the series of fights that culminated with the mace incident. And I still have taste receptors trying to forget how ugly mace tastes. She does have a right to appeal. Can’t imagine why she should. But then, if you can tell your child they must fight no matter what no matter where they are and no matter what the consequences may be, anything is possible.

Friday we had a few teachers out and it was chaos on the second floor. Another teacher and I had to race between two rooms over and over. The substitutes had no control. I think substitute school needs a section on when to let a battle go in order to win the war.

We’re reading “Morella” by Edgar Allan Poe and the class is really getting into it. They understand how Poe’s characters are moody and crazy and oftentimes in love for the wrong reasons. You have to see their author studies and their critiques. Brilliant!

Tomorrow I take my class and a group of third graders to the North Park Nature Preserve. Can’t wait.

Hope everyone out there reading this has a nice holiday and a little empathy for the turkey.

I have to go on outdoor duty now. Three hundred plus students and me and one security guy. Incredible odds, but we have held down the fort for so long now, when a fight is starting to brew, just walking to it cools everyone off. And yesterday a fight was stopped by one of my students—

“Stop with this he says/she says stuff. You’re both beautiful and smart. I want to go on the field trip. You know if we have a fight, the trip’s cancelled.”

Both girls did not hear the last part. They only heard the smart and beautiful part.

“And another thing,” my student said, “you know no matter what, you’ll be friends in an hour.”

Some time’s life is good. No fight. Still good friends.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Nike Day—and my school opened its doors to over a hundred volunteers, photographers and TV cameras. Every teacher received a Nike sweat shirt and every student a Nike T-shirt. There was some apprehension that someone would embarrass us to the visitors, but I knew this would not happen.

Long ago I learned when people come to your school with good news and positive expectations, a verbal dispute becomes overzealous behavior and students perceived as leaders are the best enforcers of classroom rules.

In the afternoon, four Nike volunteers (Erwin Erspamer, Jim Heldu, Jimmy Khounlavong, and Aaron Maines) from Detroit (how cool is that?) and Chicago were in my class waiting for us to return from lunch so we could do the owl pellet ecology healthy habitat experiment.

As usual, I selected one of my students to take the volunteers into the hall, introduce themselves to the Nike volunteers and then bring them back into the classroom to introduce them to my students. Then everyone took their place at a table. Each volunteer had five to six students, two worksheets and one owl pellet.

They took charge of their tables immediately with small talk and encouragement. Soon we had owl pellet pieces all over the table, fur and feather, and bones attached to the vole skeleton worksheet. We identified the number of voles each owl had eaten—one group found the skull of a mole—and then we collected our data as a group and discussed our findings.

Was the owl’s habitat healthy? Yes, for the owls. They definitely had enough to eat. How about for the voles? They were not allowed to overpopulate, my students inferred. No owl ate more than two voles—this per owl pellet—and a few only had one. Were the owls leaving some voles alive for the future? We could not decide.

We graphed our results and wrote a conclusion on what we learned.

Then the four volunteers played the healthy habitat game where I am nature. Using seven pencils, the four volunteers had to have one in their hand to stay alive. Each pencil represented one vole. The rules are simple: you must have one vole to go into the next round, I cheat (because nature cheats—hurricanes and lightning and tornadoes don’t have patterns we can one hundred percent predict), and you have to figure out the other major rule by yourself.

One volunteer was too greedy. He ate more voles (possessed more pencils) so I killed him off. “You’re getting too fat and that makes you too slow,” I said. My class was there with me supporting, enjoying the Nike volunteers, and laughing. Another volunteer grabbed too many voles and I got rid of him, too. Remember: Rule 2—I cheat.

In the end, the remaining two did not die. They grabbed one vole and left the rest on the floor so they could multiply. They figured it out. If they ate all of the food, there would be no more left for them later. Some voles have to survive to multiply and keep the food chain alive and healthy. Would owls do that? We still could not determine if they would.

Thank you, Nike, for sending to my classroom these wonderful volunteers. And thank you, Erin, Jim, Jimmy and Aaron for helping my class have a wonderful hands-on ecological opportunity.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Dorothy Tillman and How We Change History

I’m not a big fan of Dorothy Tillman, the alderman of the third ward, the ward where my school is located. It’s hard for me to want to meet someone who reconstructs her history depending on her audience. We celebrated Nike Day at my school last Friday, a grand celebration. We had over a hundred volunteers from all over the Midwest come to our school to assist us in so many projects, I can’t name them all. They helped plant the garden, repainted our playground and removed some really nasty graffiti. They tutored, reorganized the library, and cleaned out our infamous bookroom.

It was great day.

So why am I writing about Dorothy Tillman? Simple. At the end of the day we had an assembly where Nike presented us with a check and a pledge of five hundred volunteer man-hours. She showed up for that. And she made a speech.

Over the years I have heard her say she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when she was as young as sixteen. In her bio, she states he asked her to come to Chicago to assist in changing things. Her speech on Friday did not state any of this. I wish it had. More than once I’ve heard her speak changing crucial timelines—sixteen became twenty-one, for example. I’m not even sure she ever met Dr. King.

During her brief speech on Friday she said, “If it hadn’t been for M_____, I might never have been known. Almost everything I have is due to my work at M_____.”

I always thought Dr. King was her ticket to everything good that happened in her life.

Yes, she became famous because of my school. She went against the white principal when the school offered enrichment classes and one of her children was not allowed to enroll. She began a one-woman protest—which is her right—and soon others began to join her. Was it really about her child not getting into enrichment classes or was it instead her wish to show how she could control the school. (One of the main instigators of the major fight last week is on our school’s Local School Council—a position that can fire a principal. Enough said.)

In the end, the principal, Dorothy Stevens, lost her job, even though she won in court. My school—though I wasn’t teaching there yet—fell into turmoil and great confusion becoming one of the lowest performing and most dangerous schools on the Southside of Chicago. A number of principals tried to change the school. Andrea Kerr, the woman who hired me, was the first to succeed, but because of her success, the Board bumped her upstairs.

We are still trying to change everything. Our scores are higher. Things are better. My seventh grade classes scored over 97% on the science portion of the Illinois standardized test—but I probably mentioned this a few times too many.

I’ve had more than a few run-ins with Dorothy Tillman, almost every one of them negative. (During the big fight last week, for example, as the police interviewed me, she came into the gym and interrupted. "Let the parents speak," she demanded, but the police officer told her to be quiet so she could finish taking my testimony.) I’ve worked with one of her sons and I taught another. It always interested me that she would take a major grant and spend it on revamping King Dr. when the neighborhood needed—and still needs—serious help, but perhaps it’s because now her alleged real estate holdings can appreciate—condos are everywhere on King Dr.—and her office at the corner of 47th and King (even though police are needed to keep a 24 hour watch on it because someone keeps breaking out her window) has retail shops paying rent to—can it be?—Dorothy Tillman herself.

I don’t know.

Anyways, I have made a link to the actual ruling on the case that made Dorothy Tillman famous.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


After the mace incident the police hauled off one child and one adult—the girl’s aunt. When they reached the police station, they were processed and held for about an hour when they were told they were free to go. It seems the witness who saw who sprayed the mace wasn’t a good enough witness.

Everything fell back onto the backs of the school. Members from the Board showed us and I was asked to testify. They were meeting to see if they should expel the child who had sprayed the mace.

In the afternoon everything hung on the principal’s decision. No one was charged with any crime. No one was expelled. I was called down again for the suspension hearing. The grown ups started bickering. Their children began to talk louder and louder. The principal suddenly looked around and yelled, “Quiet everyone. We have to get along. Everyone gets five days. I’m done. You can go, Mr. Brownstein.”

We were asked if we wanted to press charges against any of the adults. We were told to hang together and the police would arrest the adults and prosecute them. I wanted to prosecute. No one else did.

In the end, one adult was treated in the ambulance and later that evening ended up in the emergency room for damage to his eyes. One teacher hurt her arm bad enough to need a doctor. I tasted the mace for a few hours and my eyes are still burning.

In the end, two children were given five day suspensions, two were given three days, and the rest earned a one day rest from school.

It’s parent conference time and I’m in my room waiting. So far about half of my parents have come. It’s getting dark outside. I’m at the computer typing. Lunch break has now ended. Back to work.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


The first thing you notice about mace is how pungent it is. Then you notice the taste. Finally, the eyes begin to burn. This was the order it came to for me. For Stanley, the order came differently. The mace hit him full in the eyes. He bent over and vomited. Then the pain came and he could not see. The third person only felt its anger in his nose, and he sneezed, coughed a bit, drank a few glasses of water and it was gone.

The taste remained strong in my mouth. Someone asked me what happened to my forehead, and when I touched it, it felt tender, but I do not remember anyone hitting me in my head. I don’t even remember when the mace was sprayed. One second I was breathing and the next second my entire mouth felt like it had filled itself with a great ugliness.

I need to thank Pamela Lefebvre for her quick assistance with Stanley. She helped make him comfortable until the paramedics arrived to irrigate his eyes. And I’d like to thank Mrs. Wright, the Local School Council Chair, who hung in there even after the police arrived. In force. I’d like to thank one teacher in particular who came out and took the brunt of a lot of the fight, but I need to ask permission before I use her name. I need to thank others, too, and I will once I can sort everything out in my own head.

This is what happened: I walked the special needs child down the street as I do whenever his parents do not come for him. I don’t walk with him. He runs ahead of me, looks back, and keeps walking and then runs and turns around again and then runs. When he makes it to the crossing guard at the corner, I know he’s safe. The gang that was attacking him no longer seems to be interested in him anymore. Perhaps it’s because I walk him down the street. Perhaps they have just lost interest. I don’t know.

When I arrived back to the school, the parents were massing. Not parents to pick up their children. Not even parents who come by to help out. No, these were the parents from Hell—the parents who tell their children to fight, you have to fight, I don’t care what anyone says, fight, fight, fight, kick some---, beat some---

They have been out before and I stopped one fight. The next day I just stood with them until everyone left and since they no longer had an audience, they left too. But this after school massing was not going to let go.

One of my students came out and they moved towards her—parents and students. The assistant principal immediately got another member of my school to walk her across the street. She went with him. But the parents did not leave. They cursed. They made noises. They kept a crowd of other children around them. So I stood with them.

The other children did not want to leave. This could be how a slasher film starts. Everyone smells blood and they can’t wash the smell away, so they stay and wait and wait.

I was able to get most of my students to go home, and I might have succeeded with all of them, but the other family came out from their building and crossed the street like an arrow straight into the mass of parents and adults and students who wanted to fight.

Have you ever knocked on a door to get someone inside to safety and the people inside won’t open the door? That’s what happened at first. Then the surge of bodies reached to the door, the fighting began, and one by one I pushed individuals into the school—even the grandmother who had brought her children across the street—for what?

I heard her scream to follow me. I heard her scream that they should do as I asked. Another teacher was suddenly in the fray. Grandmother broke loose. I grabbed her and pushed her into the school. Then there was a flash of a child and feet and fists and I saw this girl go down and the adults and the students were on her and the teacher and I—Stanley and others—perhaps another adult or two—Mrs. Wright from the LSC—were in the middle of everything.

Someone shot mace. It filled the fight space like a plague. Stanley went down and the fight pressed into him. It took everything we had to push the fighters back and get Stanley into the school for help. He was blinded, my mouth suddenly tasted ugly and everywhere the smell tainted the air.

But it wasn’t over. We got one group into safety, but now the other group was going to the front door. They wanted in. They wanted the fight to spill into the school. So there I was at the front door now, giving orders, keeping everybody out.

The police were already on the scene. Stanley was getting first aide from Ms. Lefabvre and Mrs. Bradley. The other teacher was in a classroom calming individuals down. I was everywhere.

The police let me go home an hour later. They had my statement. I don’t know what happened after that. One of the officers told me someone was going to jail. Does it matter? Are you reading this? Is there anyone out there?

I need to tell you this: The parent who would not let it end is also on the Local School Council.

I’ve had enough.

On the way home the mace dripped into my eye blinding me temporarily.

It’s raining outside now. People are voting in the school’s gymnasium. Everything about the school this morning is quiet.

I don’t know.

Monday, November 06, 2006


Years ago we boycotted table grapes until a union contract was signed. Then we boycotted lettuce. This too brought upon change. Jessie Jackson asked us to boycott a number of things, and we did.

When someone makes a negative comment about something we care about—racism, for example—we boycott it. Plain and simple.

I remember when a rib joint made an anti-Semitic remark and the boycott was so effective, they were forced to make numerous concessions and apologies.

I am always glad when a boycott works and the order of the world is righted again. Dow Chemical is an example, but now I buy their products. The Viet Nam War was a long time ago and they have made many changes to right the correct order of things.

Should our students learn only the history we want them to learn? Should everything be revised and politically corrected? Should they not know which presidents were racists and which presidents tried to go against the grain to make the planet a better place? Should we revere Columbus? Should my students not know Columbus ordered the amputation of limbs from natives over thirteen who could not supply him gold? Should they not have the choice to learn that Jefferson had a slave mistress? That people were tortured for not converting to the religion of Christianity? That Jo Ann Robinson was instrumental to introducing the world to Martin Luther King, Jr.?

What about Trump? He uses the bankruptcy system for his own benefit again and again and we lionize him. Isn’t it time for us to teach our children how to research primary sources and discover truths about what is really going on?

I think so.

If this offends someone, and I do have a target in mind—but that’s for a later blog—then perhaps the purpose of educating a student is not to create a lifelong learner, but to create more puppets.

Do you remember when being on time and a high school diploma was all you needed? Higher order thinking skills were not necessary? Isn’t building the capacity to think for yourself and be able to make knowledgeable decisions based on cognitive abilities important?

Our students deserve better.

Friday, November 03, 2006


Every year the Chicago Public Schools have a Principal for the Day Program. I believe it’s to get outside corporations and people interested in helping the schools—adopting them, sponsoring programs. You get the idea.

My school has had quite a few from Alderman Dorothy Tillman (who came, left, had lunch, and never returned) to a representative from ComEd (Chicago’s electric giant) who likewise was never seen again—even though the representative promised a free field trip.

This year Nike came. Six people strong. They spoke to us before school, did a walk through in the morning, and went to lunch in the afternoon—because that’s part of the program. (I’ve always wondered how much money would be saved if money wasn’t spent on honoring everyone—a banquet for donating money to a cause, for example. Wouldn’t it be nice if the money spent on the banquet went instead to the cause? But then I guess we’re all ego driven and we need these recognition pats on the back.) Anyway the Nike representatives came into the classrooms and talked to the children.

How cool was that!

Six individuals of color coming into my classroom and telling my students how they really got to where they are. Oboi Reed came into my room. He had a brilliant presentation. He motivated my students through his words and even more, through his voice.

“Did you finish college?” he was asked.

There was a pause. He placed his hands to his face. He looked at the questioner. “No,” he said, a “no” so simple it added to the silence of the room. “No, I didn’t. No,…I didn’t…No, I didn’t.”

There was so much emotion in his voice, the entire class was forced to look up at him.

He’s in college now, he told my students, and when he has children, he will make sure each and everyone of them goes to college and gets a double major. He’s already a successful executive doing a job he loves (he told us this more than once) and he is back in school.

One of my students began a debate with him on his use of the word “believe”. To her, just having the will to believe was not enough. She needed more. She needed to understand everyone has bumps in the road on the way to their goal. And what did Oboi Reed do? He gave her his cell phone number and email address and told her to let him know how she was doing. He told her that he was committed to her success, that she can find a vision, that all you need is to believe.

His cell phone number? His email address? (Oboi Reed doesn’t know this, but she has my home number if she ever needs assistance with her school work or has a need to discuss some other kind of problem. And she does call me. Along with her two sisters and one brother.)

Oboi Reed is the kind of person I want to assist in my classroom. This is the kind of man I want to mentor my students.

At the morning meeting, I asked about mentoring. A few years ago I wrote a grant to BP. It was funded over a two year period—twenty thousand the first year and ten the second. A major part of the grant was a mentoring program with BP. We received the money, but never the mentors. (A little aside to this tale: I have continued the science program they funded and each year my seventh graders do better and better on their standardized tests. This year we scored a 97.4% on the science portion of the ISAT—the Illinois standardized test.) So I asked Nike if they were a one shot wonder, too, or would they be coming back and assisting us. Perhaps as mentors.

They’re coming back on Friday, November 10th. Coming to my classroom. They’re going to assist me with my healthy habitat project—also funded by a grant (DonorsChoose). And then they will be returning regularly. This is not a one shot project, they told us. We are making a commitment.

So I want to thank NIKE in advance.

Thank you.

PS. Let me thank the other members of the team who also made a commitment to my school:

Toni Bailey
Sean Forde
Michelle Geddes
Daryl Jones
Oboi Reed
Vince Watkins

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Halloween and Other Stuff

Halloween yesterday and I did security duty before and after school. No problems at all. Oh, there were some eggs thrown against the windows on the second floor—these are near the stairs we take to go just about everywhere—and my boys clustered around them asking questions so I made it into a teachable moment. The eggs were turning green—must’ve been thrown early in the morning before the sun cooked them—and we as a class made a connection between the growth of mold and the conditions of the environment. Not a bad way to spend a few minutes during a bathroom break. Unfortunately, the egg residue is still on the windows and walls a day later. (Maybe this will become a class observation project.)

One of our former students jumped another girl and hurt her fairly badly. This was not on our school grounds, but nearby. The police did not make any arrests because they claimed the assaulter was too young. Everyday I pass Alderman Dorothy Tillman’s office and everyday a police car is located directly in front of it. Twenty-four hours a day. Everyday. I asked. Perhaps if the police who are watching her office—last year locals broke windows over and over again (guess she’s not really as popular as she thinks she is), there would have been a faster reaction time to the scene of the violent assault.

Took a field trip on Monday so my classes could see the possibilities. It went really well. We saw up front and personal some of the art of Chicago, many of its great buildings, toured the Cultural Center (one of the most beautiful buildings in Chicago) and ended the day watching the Midnight Circus at Daley Plaza.

Report cards are due. Gotta go.