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.

Saturday, December 30, 2006



Teaching is not for the selfish
nor those who have a jealous streak.
Teachers are not bullies
nor are they anger and flame.

We teach because it is our calling.
We teach because it fills us with song.
We teach because it is our passion

like collecting stamps,
listening to music,
a long walk in the park with someone we love.

We teach because it makes us dance,
fills us with joy, makes us whole.
(Have you ever seen a smile on the face of a child?)

Why do we teach?
We teach because we are selfish--
we teach because we must.

To offer the gift of knowledge,
assist someone in finding an opportunity for every possibility,
to show a tree and discover a forest,

to find a butterfly, a rainbow,
a prism of color, a prism to self,
the human experience over and over and over again

and bring it to life
and help it develop
and watch it grow--

this is why I teach.

Michael H. Brownstein

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Frank Christensen--Spiritual Poverty

So what's the biggest difference between Viet Nam and America? I ask.

Frank Christensen tells me there are a lot of differences.

But the biggest one?

Spiritual poverty.

I tell him I met a woman from Ecuador once. Yes, she told me, spiritual poverty. America has big stores and great shopping. That's not enough. There is no spiritual richness in America.

Frank has been in and out of the country a lot during the last few years. Spiritual poverty, he repeats. That's a problem.

I never told him what the woman had to say. I actually wrote a poem about it. It will be interesting to hear what he thinks.


It's not that America is a great country,
I'd just rather be home.
In my country, poverty is very real,
but here there is a greater suffering.
Home, I fill myself with poets,
storytellers, those with idealism.
Home, we give honor to the teacher.
Your country breeds a spiritual anger,
a poverty more devastating
than a lack of food, a lack of clean water.
Why can't Americans wait patiently in line?
Where is it written a house needs a five
car garage? A phone in every room?
A diamond to die for? A PlayStation 3
to fight over? I would rather own
a gem of verse, a storyteller's laugh line,
knowledge from a teacher.
Those are things to die for. I have to go
home. The water is too shallow here.

---Michael H. Brownstein

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Frank Christensen--The Man from Viet Nam

Frank Christensen taught with me when I first began teaching in the Chicago Public Schools. He ran the drama club; I, the science fair and school newspaper. Another teacher I cannot remember ran the chess team. We wanted to change the culture of the school. When the award ceremony came, our trophies were huge. A year later the basketball team had a hard time recruiting players. Their trophies were always much smaller than ours.

Frank did Shakespeare and presented plays at the community center. This was no small thing. The school, Carver Middle, was at the east end of Altgeld Gardens, a housing project that remains to this day. (I revisited it recently--twenty-five years after I was tranferred from it--and it remains the same. The scent of violence is perverse enough to feel and I saw more police in that one neighborhood than I see in the area where I work in two days. And where I work needs police.)

A few years later I transferred to another school in the projects and shortly thereafter he went to another inner city school. But what a legacy he left behind. Thirty years later Frank is still in touch with students and parents from Carver.

Now he lives in Viet Nam. He came back home for a week before Christmas vacation and Friday he visited my school.

"Tell Mr. Brownstein the police are here," he told one of my students who hurriedly rushed to my classroom concerned.

"Mr. Brownstein, Mr. Brownstein, the police are here. They want to see you."

"Send him up," I said with just the right air of not caring at all.

"But it's the police. What do they want? Why are they coming for you?"

I thought they came because I had witnessed too much over the last two weeeks or that they wanted me to file assault and battery charges. I thought a number of things.

"Send them up," I repeated and a minute later in walked Frank.

"He's not the police," I told my student--and a few others who gathered with him. "This is Frank Christensen. He teaches school in Viet Nam. He's one of my best friends."

But they did not believe me.

"OK," I said, "he's my father."

I put on my coat and said, "I have outside duty. You want to come."

Of course he did.

All around students whispered police, police, police, Nr. Brownstein's father, Mr. Brownstein's father, police, police.

Nike had given away three hundred pairs of gym shoes. We had no problems. It was the day before vacation, every student had a bag full of Nike stuff, and so many parents came to pick their children up, it was a quick and painless dismissal.

It helped a lot that they thought Frank--the Man from Viet Nam--was really a cop.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


Friday, the day before our two week vacation, and it's raining outside and though I'm not planning a party, I do have enough games to keep us occupied after we do some school work. I mean this is a school.

And my class complains. Everyone is having a party. (Only three classes are.) Everyone is having a movie day. (We only have two TVs in the entire school, but, yes, two classes have doubled up to watch movies all day and another class is watching HOME ALONE over and over again.) We should have freetime. (This is much harder. On and off most classrooms are having bits and pieces of freetime. I have planned for freetime too.)

They don't know we will be having a game day after we finish our reading, listening, writing, science and homework for the vacation lessons. (I gave each child from both seventh grade classes a brand new book they can keep forever, but they must do a book report on it due the day we come back. So I gues it's not really a gift cause it has strings attached to it. But it's still sort of nice. Most of my students are thrilled. They really want a book. Parents take note.)

Nike is bringing gym shoes and socks and a Nike hat to the gym and when they call my class, we will get all of these things too. (And so my class complains about this also.)

So what do I do? It's ten-twenty and it's raining outside and the moans and groans are getting louder. I line them up. Now they're excited. Are we getting our shoes? Are we going to gym? Nope. I'm taking them to the front of the school so we can read the sign.

Someone please read the sign outside to me.

______ School, one of them says.

Not __________ Party Place? Not _________ Gym? Not ________ Free Time All Day Academy?

No, they answer, and I think most of them get it, so we go back upstairs.

This is School School. Even on the day before our vacation. Time for the essay lesson. And we do it. And most of my students do it very well.

Thanks for reading.

Have a healthy and prosperous holiday.

Friday, December 22, 2006


How many people signed up sheet for the committee to assist in the hallways before school?

No one.

How many people signed up sheet for the committee to assist on the playground before school?

No one.

How many people signed up for the committee to assist with dismissal?

No one.

OK—now that we know none of the teachers at my school have the guts to back their talk, there were a few good suggestions.

Place signs on the doors to the street notifying the children not to open them to anyone.

Keep the front door locked to outsiders at all times.

Place a saw horse in front of doors near the kindergarten and art room to block children from using those doors as exits.

Create a list of adults who cannot freely roam the halls of the school.

Can anyone help me and Dave? I ask.

Once again, the teachers at my school—or at least the ones who came to the meeting—could not answer with a yes. So, yes, the sign up sheets for teachers to help the two of us—he has to do outside duty and security (that’s his job), but I don’t (not in my job description)—is still empty and we are still the only two outside against over three hundred students and others before and after school.

Yesterday Nike distributed over three-hundred posters in hard corrugated containers. I confiscated over a half dozen. Doesn’t anyone know how hard these feel when you hit someone on the head? Remember: only Dave and I are outside to prevent a major fight because someone who gets whacked also gets mad.

Thankfully, confiscation and the presence of the two of us were enough. But it probably really was the rain that saved the day.

Still I wish people would have the courage to act on their words. Especially when we’re trying to take back the school.

Like I asked yesterday: Is there anyone out there? Is anyone reading this?


Thursday, December 21, 2006


OK—I went to the doctor yesterday. Remember the blow to the head on Thursday last week during the best science fair I ever ran?. The day I collapsed. The day I thought—

He listened, examined and then ordered x rays of my neck and a cat scan of my head and told me not to go to school for the next two days.

Did I listen?

I didn’t listen the first time when my doctor told me on Thursday to go to the emergency room. Why should I listen to him on Wednesday?

So, yes, I’m here at school.

And what happened yesterday? Confusion down the hall and a room out of control.

CAN WE COME TO YOUR ROOM? Please. Please. Please.

And I would have taken them, too, but I had a doctor’s appointment.

Today: We are meeting before school on the security and safety issues since the big fights began. I, of course, am the chair person for the Professional Problems Committee and I had to call for a meeting. I mean how is it to come to school and there is a police car in front and then go home and there is a police car in front and when you walk down the halls during the school day, women teachers are so scared they lock their classroom doors.

Did I tell you about the man who made an obscene gesture at one of the youngest teachers on our staff? No. Well, now you know? How did hew get in? How did he get past the office?

For those of you reading this out there—


PS. I’ll let you know how the meeting goes.

PS 2, Good news. We finished reading Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol and in our discussions, both of my classes really took off. Today we are reading how Christmas was saved. Did you know Dickens may have done that too?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Monday morning. Reading. We’re doing Charles Dickens, THE CHRISTMAS CASROL, and I’m way up for this. I have divided by classes into small five to six people focus groups. We're discussing the segment with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come.

And it’s great.

“Do they have the right to steal?” I ask.

My students search the text. They spout their own opinions. Yes, they feel, in this case it can be justified.

But does the text justify it? Is there any rationale offered that allows for stealing?

Scrooge is laid out on his bed. He’s dead. The three individuals he employs are rifling through his stuff. He’s dead. What will he care? But then one of the students explains that he is in the room. Didn’t the charwoman just remove his sleeping cap from his dead head?

When is stealing OK?

And we go all over the place. One group justifies the stealing because of poverty and greed. Who will get Scrooge’s stuff? Why can’t it be them?

A second group hears a strong argument for when stealing is OK. If it’s on the ground, why can’t you just take it? But what if you know who it belongs to? Doesn’t matter. They left it on the ground. It’s up for grabs. But isn’t your book bag in the closet on the ground? According to you, it’s OK for me to take and keep.

And each group goes around and around.

I have to prompt some groups and others I just sit back and listen.

In the end every group concurs: Stealing is wrong. There is no justification for it. It does not matter how evil Scrooge was. It doesn’t matter how moral and/or Christian his workers are. All that matters is stealing is wrong.

And then I ask: Is Scrooge responsible for Tiny Tim’s death?

And everything begins again.

A great day!

Now I should tell you how we solve physics equations by hand and then utilize the calculator.

Nah. There's nothing to talk about.

We solve a number of equations in the afternoon and my seventh grade students are into it and I guess all I can say is the day becomes even more great.

How cool is that.


8:25 in the morning and already there are warnings of trouble. This may be hard to believe, but when you work in the inner city long enough, you can smell the potential of the day as you walk from the train to the school. (I’m not sure this works when you drive to work. I don’t think the walk is long enough.) When I leave the train—the Green Line at the 43rd Street Station—there is an unmistakable odor of violence already and violence to come.

Today’s trouble comes from an unexpected source—a parent walking her first grade son to the lunchroom for breakfast. Two members of one of the fighting factions of girls are in the hallway and I’m escorting them to the gym or the lunchroom, but not upstairs where they want to go—no supervision—when the parent stops us and asks them why they did not acknowledge her. I stop too.

“Hey, girl,” she points to one of the students, “don’t you remember? I was right in there fighting too. I was on your side.”

I’m wondering why she is bringing this up. Is she looking for glory? Respect? She’s grown. She’s not a nineteen year old with a six year old son. No, she must be in her twenties. I almost ask her why she needs to do this, but one of the girls tells me they’ll go to the gym and then the other thanks the adult for her comment and the adult smiles.


A few minutes later the grandmother of one of the fighters and her grown daughter enter the building. (This even after security is told they are not allowed in.) The grandmother comes in cursing and screaming and rushes towards the office where the principal is standing. Next thing you know she is pushing the principal hard out of the way.

The police are called. They arrive in ninety seconds. Three policemen in full body armor.

How does everything end? It hasn’t yet. The grown daughter removes all of her children from the school and I make sure the others are safe and supervised in the school’s lunchroom. All of the fighters but two—they were actually victims of Friday’s assault—are suspended for five to ten days, the Chicago police will have an officer stationed in front of the school before and after, and security and safety have been unofficially notified. We’re filling out assault incident reports and the Professional Problems Committee—which I am the chair of—are going to meet on Thursday.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


Friday afternoon the office buzzed my room. We’re sending an aide to you so you can take an important phone call,

Only emergency phone calls are this urgent. I rush to the phone. It's the teacher’s union. They can’t read my writing. It’s a problem of a change of address. I’m immediately relieved.

But as soon as I hang up the phone, it rings. So I answer it. It’s the security guard. Why’s he calling the school? He’s in the school.

And he tells me. The fight from yesterday happened again at 8:30 in the morning. He got hit in the head this time. He had enough. He’s not in the school. He went home. He wants to quit. A bunch of girls who don’t even go to the school invaded the front office and the fight that began after the science fair began again.

Nine police cars. One security guard, the assistant principal—a woman, by the way—and a former woman teacher tried to break it up. Thankfully the police are there within seconds. It was as if they were waiting. A lot of people are handcuffed and sent to jail.

The security guard wants to transfer to another school. I end the phone call by convincing him to give the school one more chance. One more chance.

One more chance.

Do you know how it feels to want to cry? This is what I’m thinking as I say it over and over.

One more chance. One more chance.

He said OK and then I went back upstairs to work—my class full of my students, three students from next door and two boys who wanted to fight on the first floor. I don’t even get a chance to sit down. A sub is in the hall yelling my name. Yelling it. OK—this is how it continues.

Friday, December 15, 2006


So here it is, 9:00 and the children are lined up to come inside and I have thirty minutes to go before the science fair begins. We split up my class—they stay outside and have gym with 211—and I go through the final touches.

9:30: Over a hundred projects are on display in the gym and I’m feeling really good about this. One judge does not show, but no problem. The social worker volunteers to take his place and so does a parent volunteer.

One third of the school is in the gym, I’m in charge, the judges are judging—everything is arranged. All I need to do now is walk around and monitor behavior and view all of the projects.

But I made a mistake. There is a seventh grade student who I failed last year and believed beyond reason her pride would not allow her to come back to this school (and I was right until she got kicked out of the school she transferred to in Wisconsin), She is back in the school now—about two weeks—not my room, but I have her for science and reading each day. Last assessment she did the very best in the seventh grade so I did to her what I do to all successful assessors—I placed her name on the classroom website, printed out the page for the outside bulletin board and her mother, and brag about her.

This is the good part. She started doing well with everything. Including assisting younger children on their science projects. She did, in fact, help one student develop a very nice science poster for the science fair just two days ago.

So what do I do? I reward her. I add her to the list of three students from my class to help me monitor and judge the science fair. (I had created a simple rubric for them to use when they judged the primary grades.) And she is great. An objective, but nurturing judge. An excellent monitor. She helps set the projects up. She helps build confidence in the little ones.

And then—

Well, then she accuses an eighth grader of spitting on her. This is not true. I am watching when she walks by the eighth grader. But truth doesn’t matter when you suddenly have an urge to go off. So I lift her off the ground—and she must weigh as much as me (she’s actually bigger than me)—and remove her from the gym through a side door.

I know this girl. So I go to the front door of the gym and stop her from entering through one of the main gym doors. This time I walk her to the office.

She tries to come in a second time and a third and a fourth and a fifth. Each time I have to put her back in the office. How is she getting up and coming to the gym each time is beyond me, but she is. After the fifth time, after I assist her to a seat in the office again, after I shut the door behind me, I go to the cafeteria to reconfirm the lunch schedule. And when I come back into the gym—to the largest science fair I ever compiled—to one of the best I have ever run—there was Big Stanley, one of the judges, pushing two girls out the door.

She has escaped from the office a sixth time and has grabbed the eighth grader who has no choice really but to defend herself. So here I am, next to Big Stanley, pushing the girls out of the gym.

And that’s where it should have ended. There is already a police officer in the office. He comes running out to see what the commotion is. And then all of us are knocked together by the rush of students joining the fray.

Suddenly the allies of the seventh grader are in the hall jumping on the eighth grader. This, in turn, brings every family member of the eight grader into the hall.

I have to admit. The police are on it. Suddenly everywhere I look there is an officer. But I am still in the middle of everything. Freeing this girl from this boy. Getting hit on the head eight or ten times forcing another girl from—who knows. Once I even have to move an officer out of the way because he cannot stop two girls tugging each other’s hair.

In the end I am hit in the head too many times to count. My back hurts. My hand feels wrong. I actually order the police to move the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s to two different rooms in two diametrically opposed directions. I go back to the gym. Order everyone to their places. Everyone runs. Everyone is quiet. I ask for the police to round up the students who were in the fight who are still in the gym. They are removed.

In the office two girls are in handcuffs.

“Who started it?” one officer asks me and I point to the seventh grader who promptly begins to curse up a thunderstorm and a tornado and a few hurricanes for extra effect and then she spits in the policeman’s face.

Nothing else to talk about. She is on her way to jail. The eight grader comes back shortly thereafter and takes up her spot in the science fair. And my adrenalin rush fails and I feel every blow to my head and I go to the bathroom and I shut the door and collapse on the floor.


And stay there, my hands on the ground, my head bowed, and I cannot breathe, I cannot think, I cannot do anything at all.

And I stay that way for a long time.

And that’s how the science fair ended.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Everyday this week I worked on the all school science fair. Monday I judged all of the classroom science fairs (with the help of two hand picked seventh graders). Tuesday and Wednesday students from the fourth to eighth grades came to my room to be judged and/or show me the improvements they made so they could be in the science fair. On those days, my seventh graders assisted every student who wanted to enter, but were in need of help.

My room was an explosion of activity. Poster boards laid out everywhere. Staplers coming and going at the speed of sound. Scissors making music you could dance to. It was great. It was exhilarating. It was fantastic. It was—oh, my, oh, my, oh, my—fun! It’s what a classroom of learning should look like.

At the end the room was a mess—but my students helped create more than fifty graphs and charts, beautify over forty posters, and practice the presentation with thirty or more unsure students.

This is why I like my class.

(Even if a ton of poster board border littered the floor and the tables.)

Today—Thursday—is the school science fair. Over a hundred students qualified. Over a hundred. How cool is that?

Every evening, every morning, walking through the halls of the school all I hear: Do you have any more poster boards? Can I come to your room for help? How can I make a graph? Etc. Etc. Etc. Please, pick me. Pick me. I have a great project. Pleeeeease!

And the projects are great. The enthusiasm is that grand. The gym is set up and everything is almost ready. I can’t wait. In an hour and a half over a hundred students in my school will be set up to be judged and viewed in the largest science fair I have ever run. Hope I get some kind of help.


Won’t it be great when tomorrow I write how great the science fair went, how well it was judged, and then I end the entire blog with: I did it by myself?

Wish me luck. (But I really won’t need it.)

Friday, December 08, 2006


Ever since Michael Richard’s temper tantrum on the stage, I have been enforcing my curse word rule: the N word is a curse word and you will get punished for using it. Don’t curse in my room. Don’t call someone the N word.

OK, one of my students asked yesterday—and I’ve been telling them I considered the N word a curse word forever (way before Michael Richards)—why can’t we use it?

My answer: Jew don’t call each other kikes; Hispanics do not refer to themselves as spics; and even during the era of Polish jokes, I never heard a Polish person refer to themselves or others as Pollocks. Each of these groups received these insulting nicknames from an outside group who hated them and thought to keep them down and—you get the point.

But I wasn’t sure my class did get the point.

Everyone uses it, one of my girls said.

No, I answered. I don’t use it. It’s an insult to my ears when I hear it and I’d appreciate it if we would stop. You can make a difference. You can change the world. We have started by collecting money for UNICEF. (We donate money because the cure for one of the world’s greatest killers of children, diarrhea, is only sixteen cents, according to UNICEF) We are learning the best gift is the gift of life and by making these small donations, we are saving lives. So we can also begin to save other things, too. We can stop using the N word.

I don’t know if they caught on yet. It is widely used in the neighborhood where I teach, and, no, I do not feel its appropriate when it is used by African-Americans towards other African-Americans. Once I heard a Jew call another Jew a kike, and the word resounded throughout the parking lot and the man was made to feel worthless by our looks and our gestures and he did, in fact, apologize.

Don’t put yourself down. Don’t let those who wish to make you inferior continue to be successful. Pick yourself up. Words have power. Use them wisely. And not using the N word might be one of the strongest messages you—as intelligent African-American children—can make.


The following is the report I distributed to the staff of my school.

Teachers Union Meeting—December 6, 2006
Michael Brownstein, Union Rep

“One of the teachers at my school broke up a fight and the next day the parent of the child—who is always a discipline problem—filed a police report for battery against the teacher. What can she do to protect herself?” asked a teacher at the Chicago Teachers Union meeting, December 6, 2006, during the question and answer period.

“The teacher should file the following reports,” explained the union officer fielding questions, “an assault report with the principal and, if needed, a police report. Any member can file a police report. You can go to any police station and do this. This is your right. Of course, you will always be provided with union representation.”

Marilyn Stewart, the president of the CTU’s president report:

Gift cards. The Board gave out gift cards at a cost of over a million dollars. “This is another divide and conquer strategy. Only teachers received the cards. Not counselors, union officials, social workers, paraprofessionals and others. The board wants to divide us by giving gifts to one group and not to others.”

Merit pay. “The union has never endorsed merit pay.” Merit pay is highly subjective. “No child succeeds because of your classroom teaching for one year.” It takes a school to teach a child—M. Brownstein.

The Board’s 27 million dollar grant. “They want to use the money for merit pay. We say no. Merit pay does not work. Professional development does.”

Conditions of the schools. “Many schools are crumbling. People are getting sick from our schools. Let us know if there is a problem in your school. We have trained personnel who can assist you in getting the help to fix the problems.”

Social security numbers. “Our private information has always been vulnerable. The Board mailed out over 1700 letters with complete contact information including social security numbers and addresses. The Board only wants to be liable for a year. We will not let the Board off the hook with this one. Do not sign anything without our consent.”

Clerks. Clerks are being asked to do after school paperwork during their working day. “This is an overtime activity. My advice: Do your job. Do it well. Keep records of all of your unpaid time. We are filing a grievance against the Board to stop this practice.”

Teachers can buy up to two years of credit for teaching in private schools: 16.5% of their first year’s salary and 8% of their pension contribution for every year of service.

Three resolutions were passed unanimously: a resolution to honor paraprofessionals, a call to the Board to use only the last four numbers of our social security number, and a resolution to define and support school health programs and healthcare personnel.

Mildred Porter at her meeting at Mollison before school 12/6/06: “Don’t let a parent use corporal punishment in front of you. A teacher received a fifteen day suspension without pay for allowing a parent to spank her child in front of the class.”

For assault cases: Student should be removed from class immediately. File assault report and misconduct report immediately to the principal. Make a copy. If needed, file all documentation with the area office. Porter said she would be available to assist in this process. You have the right to file a police report.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


About six weeks ago, the clock in my classroom broke. The second hand bent and the hour hand flopped to the six and refused to go anywhere else. I thanked the Gods of computers because every computer has the time on its main screen. Unfortunately, screen savers come on at regular intervals and I was playing with the keyboard to find out the correct time. I also discovered that many of my students did not know what the monitor was and they would turn off the computer at the tower.

The first week or two, I actually cared about the time. By the third week, I was hardly wondering what time it was at all. No Child Left Behind and other restrictions made a clock a necessity. How could I do timed practices without a clock? I mean a clock everyone could see. The computer clock was definitely inadequate.

Cell phones are many times the bane of a teacher’s existence. They ring at the wrong moments and students text message each other and too many cell phones have the capability to take photographs. But they also have the time. My school has a firm rule about students and cell phones. They are not allowed. We have to confiscate cell phones until a parent or guardian comes to pick them up. But they also tell the time.

Six weeks later, I still go next door to see the exact time so we can change classes on time. Maybe one or two times each hundred minute period. Every now and then we use the computer. (My class knows how to turn the monitor on and off now.) But my real life saver? Cell phones. They’re everywhere. I don’t really understand why a seventh grader needs a cell phone during school. I can’t even think why it is so important that almost every girl in my class has one hidden somewhere on their person. (Remember the rule?) But it no longer matters to me.

Cell phones tell the time. They’re accurate. Everyone is on the same page. Nonetheless, you know what I’d really like my class to get for Christmas? A large clock. Not the clock one of the rappers wears around his neck. Just a clock—one big enough for everyone to see from every seat in the class. Even my few students who need to wear their glasses, but can’t because they are broke or lost or they can’t afford to replace them or—

Hey, that would be even a better gift. Glasses for my students who need them, but cannot afford to replace them.

I have learned one very important lesson from all of this. Clocks are important, and knowing the time might be important too, but not knowing has really helped me in the development of lessons and time on concepts and time on activity, mostly because I don’t know the time at all.

At least until I ask one of my students for the time on their cell phone.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Successes and failures are oftentimes how the day goes. You create a small focus group of readers to discuss the making of Scrooge—and the children get into the material finding evidence for their answers, use vocabulary words—and synonyms—that make you smile, and encourage each other. When they leave the class to go to their next room, you hear a few of them tell one another how fun reading was today. Successes.

We did this with THE CHRISTMAS CAROL and it went over in a big way. The small groups delved into the story to find clues and proof. “Isn’t there workhouses?” Scrooge says and the group of children wonder why somebody that rich can’t make a donation to a charity. “We need to get rid of the surplus population,” he says and my students wonder if this is why today we have problems with poverty around the world.

We are into our second week of our UNICEF project and everyday we gather more and more money to help the truly sick and poverty stricken—people so poor they allow their children to die for the lack of sixteen cents. The character of Scrooge is a great inducement. We’re trying new things, too now—different kinds of food, for example. Sandra Cisneros taught us this in her book, THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET. We are beginning to realize racism is a learned activity that can be changed if we—and the racists—open their eyes to new experiences. More success.

But then, at the end of the day, two boys who I was asked to remove from my after school program because of grave discipline problems went over the top. They took ice balls and rocks and tried to break the windshield of a teacher’s car. I had told them I had confidence in them and I knew they would make the right choice. I let them stay in the program. They did not make the choice I would have made. They chose instead to try to damage someone else’s property. I know they’ll come to me today and tomorrow and ask if they can still participate, but I cannot allow them to anymore. What choice do I have? Failure.

At what point do extra activities get removed because a student cannot make the right choice? And should we remove them? Not everyone is going to be a scholar. Someone has to be there to repair our cars. The after school program offers a number of activities from games to building engines. On the other hand, how many chances does a child need before they need to be removed?

So it wasn’t that bad of a day. One failure and a bunch of successes. Not a bad day at all.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Nine degrees when I woke up. The trains were for the most part right on time. Had to wait a bit here and there for my next connection, but I arrived, finally, to the 43rd Street stop and then the wind knocked the breath out of me.

Teaching school was too easy. The small focus groups went well. We had a nice Socratic type discussion. The students need more help with Charles Dickens’s CHRISTMAS CAROL. We seemed to have a bit of confusion when we reached scene five in the theater adaptation of his book. No problem. We’ll just spend more time on it.

Science went as well as I ever could have expected. We built helicopters out of paper and timed their freefall. Then we went into physics and formulas and tried to make sense of what was happening. Once again, success for the most part. My homeroom gets to try tomorrow. I know already it will go even better.

Only one problem: The children came in during the morning. Way too cold to play outside. One girl told me she had to go to the bathroom, but she needed her friend to go with her. We don’t do that. She’s in sixth grade—old enough to go on her own. Then she told me she had ballet. So I sent her there instead. Both girls. A few minutes later they returned after running the halls. I was asked why I had sent them. I told them they told me they had ballet. They didn’t have ballet either.

We are presently debating taking away incentives from students who cannot behave. Should we remove a basketball player for poor grades and/or poor behavior, for example? Should the girl described above be allowed in the After School All Stars Program? Should someone not be permitted to participate in the school-wide science fair if their behavior is poor?

Comments welcomed.

Sunday, December 03, 2006


Some days should be a snow day. Six to twelve inches of snow fell over Chicago, heavy snow with thunder and lightning, sleet and slush. In my neighborhood, the emergency alarms went off and even at 5:30AM, when I left to catch my train, sirens of ambulances and fire trucks were flashing down the streets.

When I arrived at school, the snowblower was broken. A few minutes later, there we were, lifting the heaviest snow I shovelled in years to make two paths around the school. Two of us hand shovelling while the third worker tried to figure out what was wrong with the snowblower.

Inside, a bit later, still no one was in the main office--I was in that room for a bit taking phone calls (but none came) until one of our tutors came in and took over.

8:15, the lunchroom opened for breakfast and two people were trying to manage the cafeteria and hallways by themselves. I joined them, going from section to section, line to line. (Did I tell you I already cleaned up the entire LRE room this same morning?)

No fights. No real confusion. No teachers yet, but more adults helping to organize the students. One security officer--my school has two full-time--passed out pages to color. The tutor had decided to consolidate the lines and placed the intermediate students with the older primary children. A lot of students were in the gym watching basketball practice. It was just too bad outside for anyone to be in the playground.

School began at 9:00. Five teachers were not present--three on the first floor and two on the second. Two classes were split up--the special needs class and a small class size third grade. 10:40, suddenly there was tremendous confusion. My class was in the hallway getting ready to change classes when fifteen students came piling out of the classroom down the hall. They wanted to fight. They had the stance of fighters. They were cursing and yelling and everywhere. One teachedr held my class. I went to fix the problem. And it was a problem.

Soon two girls--why are so many girls fighting nowadays?--were on their way to the office and one on the way to my room. Then a boy got into the fray and another girl. Security arrived. One security guard and me--together we survived.

But my class was not my room alone. I had one fighter and one special needs student. Thirty minutes later the same room exploded again. This time I just called for security. That class was divided in two, but the teacher who took the second half refused one student and she ended up with me.

And so it goes.

Outside at dismissal, the snow some of the best snowball snow I have seen in a long time, but very few snowballs flew. Five minutes after dismissal--the sun bright, the air frigid--just about everyone was gone.

So I went home.