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.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Remember the fight during the science fair? I had to go to court yesterday because of it. Not really all that bad. I brought enough personal business for three to four hours. Didn't even have to take a sick or personal day. Court--school business.

The girl in mind went for the plea bargain--a year supervision, anger management, conflict resolution classes, mandatory school attendance, community service.

OK. Mandatory school attendance. This on a girl who ditches school, fights, curses, SPITS IN A COPS FACE, hits another girl in the jaw when she's being restrained by another cop, etc. etc. etc.

But I was back at my desk in two hours.

So today we passed out report cards. Another interesting moment. Children all over glad to get a C.

In my household an A is absolutely excellent, B is beautiful, C means confused, D is a dummy and an F--a failing fool.

I'm confused myself. Court cases. Children happy to get C's. (One seventh grader was so jubilant, he hugged me.) Parents waiting at the door for conferences. (I go to school on Wednesdays, but they have my phone number.)

Another day tomorrow.

Oh, and by the way, the court girl was in school today--doing her work. Quietly. All day long.

She's really quite bright, you know, so we're not giving up on her. But how do you stop someone from giving up on them self?

Monday, January 29, 2007


The science fair is over. We have one winner, but my job is done. She just has to show up with her invited guests and have a nice time.

So what does this have to do with why men aren’t jumping into the teaching profession as quickly as women? Well, the science fair is just another example of how things get messed up because one sex does the thing that sex does and the other wants it to be done another way.

Let me explain: Men are not the best communicators (except when they’re using their secret cell phone to cheat in a relationship). Men don’t even like to talk on the phone that much. When a man sends an email, it’s to the point. Very short and very direct. The last email I sent was one word: OK. Men can listen though. They have learned to do that as we become more and more a service economy. And we can take criticism. Constructive criticism.

You know what we cannot take? People who talk behind our backs to supervisors and act “catty” (a word my wife loves to use when she’s describing jealous girlfriends) when they need to let you know something, but can never say it to your face. I can’t remember a man friend of mine being jealous (or “catty, for that matter)—though I’m sure this has happened sometime in my life.

Anyway at the science fair, one of my students made an error in her research report—the hypothesis and the conclusion did not correspond. And, yes, I’ll take the blame for this one. She is my students after all. No matter. I helped type her paper and I should have caught the error. She did have a week to read it over and she should have caught the error also. When she did realize she had made a mistake, it was too late to rectify—so she did the next best thing: she corrected it on her poster.

So why would one of the women assisting in the science fair make a point of telling the administrators at my school: “How could he be so stupid to let that happen? Doesn’t he read their papers?”

Of course, I do. But then again, I’m only who I am. I make mistakes. I apologize for them. I move on.

“What does she have against you?” another administrator asked.

I don’t really know. Once she was asked by the district to observe me and she fell asleep at my desk. Could that be it?

I will not make excuses for my mistake in proofreading, but I do feel if a teacher cannot talk to another teacher and let them know when they make a mistake, man to man, can this be one reason more men don’t go into the profession.

And another thing. Working around…well that another tale altogether.

Friday, January 26, 2007


After my eighth grade science fair students took home the excellent—and not the superior which gets you a spot in the city competition—she apologized to me and explained that she was “stretched too thin.”

Stretched too thin?

In eighth grade?

And isn’t it just too cool she understands exactly what being “stretched too thin” means?

And, yes, she is stretched too thin. She represented the school in the science fair, the spelling bee, the oratory contest and the week of the science fair she participated in the essay contest. This on top of all of her homework, after school All Star activities, etc. etc. etc.

Did I tell you she’s a published poet? Did I tell you she always scores in the ninety percentile on standardized tests?

I had her last year, but this year I teach seventh grade. Nonetheless, she’s a frequent visitor to my class and beginning next week, I will be starting my test preparation classes—she will, of course, be a member. In her case, though, we’ll be learning how to evaluate data with a serious scientific calculator.

My school has a few students who are super—she, of course, is one of them.

There are times teachers make a difference in a life and there are times students make a difference in a life. This is one of those times.

Corporate world workers—envy me. I have worked with the best and I’m seldom bored.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


So the science fair is finally over. We took a first place in the sixth grade competition (she goes to a special program during the city competition) and two excellents (they brought home trophies).

All in all a very nice day.

So how did the day really go?

I arrived at school before seven to make sure everything was ready. My students showed up between 7:30 and 8:00. We left for the fair at 8:20. Every year I train the judges (it gives me something to do during the fair), but this year mid sentence, I was told to go back to the fair. No explanation. That's life I guess.

The fair went on until almost 2:00. It seemed none of the men were given any responsibility so we made work for ourselves--except for the two men smart enough to bring things to do. One graded papers and the other read the paper. Nonetheless, I did the job of the safety judge, helped students get their poster presentations in order, and did a lot of this and a little of that. (One good thing--this is the first year I actually made it to the lunchroom for lunch.)

Back at school, we celebrated our wins and then I went to help with security. Really I was the security. Me and one other individual. No problems there. We had two basketball games, but I go to school now on Wednesdays for my endorsement. Spectators were limited to the girl's team and seventh/eighth grade boy's team.

We had six subs in the school today and they complained about the cursing. I'm not sure how to solve that problem. Too often all I hear outside is parents cursing, cursing, cursing.

My school went well. I arrived at Loyola thirty minutes early. I'm working with a scientific calculator and studying data analysis. The professor, Lauri Braga, makes it very simple. I'll be teaching a few of the concepts to my students later this week.

Arrived home after 8:00 and spent a few more hours with my own high school kids.

Time to go to sleep now.

I'll write when I get a chance. Thanks.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Police Impact

I received a subpoena. The man knocked on my door, no one was home, and he left it at the mailbox. The next day he called my school and I called him back.

Did I receive the subpoena? he wondered.

Of course, I did. One of the students in my school spit in a police officers face after causing a major fight in the hallway. Between her cursing and carrying on, between her throwing things at people when she has one of her frequent temper tantrums, between her walking out of everyone’s classroom—and lets not forget the day she cursed out the principal in front of the entire seventh grade class—between all of this, you know I’ll be there in court.

But I do have a few problems with all of this. The research I have done on failure with male students of color has shown negative police contact is one of the greatest indicators to future incarceration. Our juvenile facilities do not seem to send reformed individuals back into society. Instead we receive students who are even angrier.

I’ll never forget the time I went to visit an acquaintance of mine who was sentenced to a few months in Cook County jail for drunk driving. He asked if I could come visit him and so I went, one cold Saturday, and much to my surprise, too many people knew me. And I’m not talking about the guards.

On the walk to the entrance I met a few families going to visit former students. In the waiting room, I waved hello to a dozen more former students. On the way out, I ran into a family who remembered me as their son’s teacher.

Teaching in the inner city is not always the easiest. It’s hard to know where to draw the line. It’s hard to know when to become the parent because the real parent is not parenting. It’s hard period.

So when a student throws an encyclopedia and hits another student in the eye because, well, because the other students accidentally hit him with his notebook—and apologized…

So when a student stands off a group of angry girls with a scissor, and yes, I ask for the weapon and then I escort her home….

So when a thirteen year old starts having sex and then the man—it’s hardly ever anyone her own age—dumps her and she begins going into regular cursing depressions and she wants to fight everyone no matter what and hurt people and kick them when they are on the ground.

Where do we draw the line? At what point do we have to decide the parent won’t handle it, but the police will?

Today the principal is observing me. This is part of her job description. I’m ready, of course. Then again, I’m not.

There comes a time, I guess, where you have to decide if you are making a difference anymore or if you are just spinning your wheels in a snow storm and your car gets even more stuck.

Monday, January 22, 2007


8:15 and there is hardly anyone in line for breakfast. It snowed last night and it's cold outside, but the children are coming to breakfast in slow turns--sort of like marathon runners out of shape.

Down the hall the kindergarten kids color and over there, the older boys are playing basketball in the gym. Near the lunchroom, the girls are full of quiet gossip.

It's an easy day and my class comes in and settles quietly into their day's work. We research a question first, then start our unit on fables, and I do small group activities in the front with The House on Mango Street. Nothing complicated.

The day goes on. A few incidents in stupidity, but overall nothing of any real concern. In science we study the effects of vibration and echo, study charts and read about DNA. We're all over the place and that's fine.

And when it's time to go home, we go home. Today everything was that quiet.


A few decades ago when Michael Jordan was out there teaching the world how to play basketball, Chicago won a few championships. It was great for the Bulls, of course, (they earned extra money), it was great for the mayor (he won his bet with the opposing team’s mayor), it was great for the vendors hawking t shirts and hats and everything else (obviously) and it was great for the city—our tax on hotels and rented cars is 18 percent.

It wasn’t great for a number of schools. All over celebrants decided shooting guns into the air and whooping and hollering and hugging everyone nearby was just not enough. They had to break into local schools and vandalize everything in their sight, too.

This happened when I was working at Farren. Farren has been closed by the board because of a number of issues—perhaps the fact that its enrollment was so far down because the city ordered the destruction of the housing projects that supplied Farren with its students is one of the reasons. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the night the Bulls won the championship, the night the Bears won the Superbowl, the night the White Sox (oops—no one seemed to really care about the White Sox victory), Farren along with a number of other schools was broken into and many classrooms were thrown into total disarray.

Much to my happiness—and another teacher named Mr. Dynis—our two rooms were the only rooms untouched. To this day I can’t really tell you why. But back then as Dynis and I helped everyone else put the pieces back together, it sure did feel good not having anyone damage our rooms.

Yesterday the Bears won their division and I entered my school just a little bit worried. Guess what? Nothing was amiss. Nothing. And so I thought to myself, this might just be the beginning of another great week at a school full of learners and my classroom—a classroom of learners. But we still have the bullying problem. Couldn’t solve it on Friday because the main suspects had to go out of the school to get their eyes checked for free glasses. (I sent five though really ten of my students could benefit from a new pair of glasses.)

So today we stop the bullying. Today we get on with the important work. Today my class will get back on the road they exited a little while ago and become the best and the brightest in the school.


Friday, January 19, 2007


(Rap talk)

Rough neck,
Rough neck

(Students drum on their desk)

Rough neck.
Rough neck.

(begin singing)

To the neck, to the neck,
Proactive packed in a box
To the neck, to the neck,
Get out the cream
And don’t you scream.
To the neck, to the neck.

This is the song a few of the boys in my class made up about one of my students. My classroom is my family. I’ve taught for over thirty years and no one has stolen anything of value from me. (Books from the school library and pencils, pens and paper don’t count.) One year when a Chicago team won a championship, people from the neighborhood broke into the school and destroyed almost every room—except for mine and the computer lab. No one has ever insulted me to the point of quitting (thought they have come close). I never realized until I began teaching in the inner city how important it is to immediately stop negative talk about someone’s mother. (These are serious fighting words.) I’ve seen serious bullying, extreme violence, and quite a few other things during my time as a teacher. (Once I had to go into a bathroom where a student was holding four other students at knife point to talk him out of hurting anyone. When he came back from his suspension, he was placed in my class.)

I’m nearing the end of my career as a teacher. I always thought I might make a difference. I always thought my students were like family. This class this year is one of my best. They’re bright, witty, charming, and each one of them contributes something great to the whole. Yet now I have to change my rules and become more explicit. No talking also means no cursing. I have to put on the rule board we cannot bully. I have to add sentences to my expectations. I have to let them know field trips will be cancelled for cursing and bullying incidents.

And now the girl in my class who handed me the above song is bullied to the point of tears. And the boys find this funny.

Fortunately, a few girls are proactive—not the same as the Proactive cream in the above song which is, unfortunately a strong medicine—and they are working to put a stop to this confusion.

I promise you it will stop today.

I always keep my promises.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Science Fair Getting Ready for the District Week

But first a word from our sponsor:

dear michael, you are not an idiot, but a goddam fucking moron. that is my whole point. the world does not have time for this bullshit. don't lie to them. i read your candy-coated blog and was perplexed. a mother curses her child's teacher in public? don't apologize for the ignorant people, mourn for them' as for the rest, i don't know. do what you think is best. peace

---The Man from Viet Nam--unedited

And now--everything except for the posters are ready for the district science fair. We proved the temperature goes down after a major volcanic eruption, learned too much about light sticks, discovered Pop Secret is the best microwave popcorn and learned way more than I ever needed to know about the chemical acetone and its impact on organic material.

During our experimental trials, one of the light sticks sprung a hole and actually exploded through the Styrofoam cup of water containing it. Green chemicals and water went everywhere. When we did the photos of the acetone working with organic material, the entire room stunk of every dead thing you could imagine. Fifteen degrees outside and we had every window open. Much to my terror, after we popped the pop corn for the final trial, the scientist in charge threw everything away. I was looking so much forward for a pop corn party.

We also learned my class has its full of bullies. It’s very hard to teach a class when all of your attention is on the class, but it’s almost impossible to teach a class and assist with the district science fair preparation at the same time. Unfortunately, the bully syndrome came out big time while I was assisting the student scientists. Finally, the administration sent me an adult to supervise my class and when I went outside of the room to duplicate materials, one of my girls who has an illness you can see ran out of the room crying. It seems a few of the boys made up a very negative song about her illness. No one ever cries in my classroom. During the after school program, I asked her to tell me what happened. She wrote down the words of the song and a number of girls joined together to help her. We now have an official anti-bully club. First meeting tomorrow. Feedback anyone?

The other frustration I ran into was the sudden poor quality of work while I was trying to do too many things at once. One student answered the essay question on his opinion about the Obama run for presidency with the following answer: Cortney Cox. (Keep in mind, this was supposed to be an essay.)

More--lots more--tomorrow. I was the teacher, the counselor, the disciplinarian, the after school security guard, the after school coordinator, the science fair supervisor, etc., etc., etc.. Now I have to be the crossing guard.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Another Great Day in the Chicago Public Schools

First I have to tell you about John A. Fulton from the Dunne Chicago Public School. I had to go to a workshop for the after school program--I'm the coordinator--and much to my surprise, it was actually fairly beneficial. And one of the biggest surprises was a gym teacher named John A. Fulton who runs the after school program at Dunne.

He gives his teachers extra preps as a thank you for doing extra work--volunteering to take a group after school to the computer lab, for example, or conducting a small group seminar before school. He has his own posse, too, students who need time out, nurturing or enrichment and extra thanks for jobs well done. He shared his successes, how he modified things to create more success, and how he takes photos of everything.

"Walk in my class and I’ll take your picture. Walk out, I'll take another one."

After John's talk, I went to his place at the table and viewed some of the photos. They were great. Pictures of happy children, smiling children, and children actively engaged in any number of activities.

We had other sessions, too, and I learned something in each one.

At school, my class and I created a number of posters, fixed up the Least Restricted Environment room--I'm in charge of that, too—and worked a bit on the upcoming district science fair which—you guessed correctly—I’m in charge of too.

Then it was time for the after school program. We had our free socializing time in the gym waiting for our time to eat, ate with few disturbances, and then we had our homework period--and it went well. Quite well, in fact. Those who did not have homework received a packet from me--and for the most part, everyone did something.

Dismissal went quickly, the day ended easy, and I can't wait till tomorrow. Tomorrow I'm going to put on my roller skates again and see how many of my students can recall what we learned about potential and kinetic energy a few days earlier.

Can't wait.

PS: John Fulton, if you’re reading this, we surely can use some of your photos to liven up this page. Just click on comments.

PS 2: Anyone else reading this--we still don't have a clock in our room. Hint. Hint. Hint.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


So I put on my skates again to demonstrate physics concepts to my other science class and guess what? It went great. Really great. If I could figure out how to do fonts on this new blogger, I’d make the greats GREATER!

I skated more, taught the same concepts as yesterday, but this class was an hour longer, so when we went to math—because they did not finish their math during their math class next door—there was a bit of disgruntlement. Disgruntlement. Hmmmm. Thought I had made up a new word, but spell check didn’t underline it.

Anyway, the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s who have been at war in our school for a few months left. Yep, they’re gone. And guess what? Dismissal went so smoothly after school and after the after school programs, I was amazed.

Second evening and absolutely no problems at all.

How cool is that?

(But how do you make the fonts different sizes?)

Then I went home, logged onto my personal email, and I’m invited to an invitation only poetry festival. As a reader and writer.

OK—today will be even better.

The man from Viet Nam, Frank Christensen, must have sprinkled magic stuff when he came through last year.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


First day back and I had a blast. Roller skating and physics. They go together like peanut butter and bananas or hot dogs and grilled peppers.

I put the skates on after lunch. Huh, what’s going on? What’s Mr. Brownstein up to now? What’s he doin’? Mr. Brownstein, the mad scientist. The buzz alone was worthwhile by itself. Why the skates? my students asked.

Physics, I answered.

And we had a physics lesson and I had a workout.

How do you show the laws of motion? Skate quickly to the door, have someone open it before you run into it—and this wasn’t planned—and keep right on going into the hallway and across the hall and into the door opposite my room that was, thankfully, closed. (An object will continue on a straight line until it hits an obstacle.)

By the way, did I explain I don’t know how to stop in these things—brakes or not?

So I taught gravity (falling) and by showing the weight of gravity in a contest between me and a few of my students. (We lifted our legs up—I still had on these heavy, heavy, heavy skates—and we watched to see who would drop their legs first due to the weight of gravity. They won, but I let them, I think.)

Potential energy and kinetic energy? A snap when you’re skating around the room. I firmly believe everyone of my students can tell you what those two terms mean after my demonstration of an object at rest (me on skates) and an object in motion (me moving on skates).

Of course, we had a chance to study friction, too. No problem. My students worked cooperatively to teach me how to use the brakes. And I got it. I still can’t stop on a dime. I probably can’t stop on a silver dollar or ten one dollar bills lined up ten long, but I did learn to stop.

OK—I get to do this lesson again with my other science class this afternoon. Can’t wait.

And I should tell you every other lesson on the first day back in this new year went just as smooth.

Happy New Year.


Monday, January 08, 2007


January 8th, 2007. First day back after a two week very nice vacation. I drove to work and even the traffic wasn’t that bad. (Nonetheless I’ll be on the train tomorrow—easier to get more things done.)

OK—so I’m hoping we have a new beginning here. No violence. No fighting. All of the teachers present the first day back. All of the students ready to learn. Everyone in a Viet Nam frame of reference. (Read the previous blogs—The Man from Viet Nam.)

I’m ready. I brought roller skates to demonstrate concepts in physics (potential and kinetic energy, friction, and when I fall, gravity) and a number of musical instruments (to demonstrate sound waves, vibration, pitch, etc.) I may even use some tuning forks. Haven’t decided yet.

We’re going to continue reading Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street and do a quick write on what we remember about Charles Dickens Christmas Carol. We’re going to start our functional reading time and our research time and our contest to see which room has the best comprehension in science—though last year’s class (the seventh grade class next door) should have an advantage because most of them did the book last year. (Today my colleague begins teaching science, too, with the General Science books—the best science books I know.)

I believe her teaching out of the General Science books and me working on experiments and comprehension through contests that our students earned a 97.5% on the science portion of the Illinois standardized test, the ISAT.

Anyway I’m looking forward to a great year.

(On other note: Coming into the school today another teacher, the janitor, an office clerk and I had to put chairs on an area in the front of the school. Someone broke out the window yesterday evening—or so they think—and there was glass everywhere. Oh, well. Not a promising start but the fact that we worked together—at 7AM no less (and hour and a half before anyone else arrived)—to get the glass up and away before the students arrived is really a very big deal. If we begin the year caring, we’ll get through it with flying colors.

Happy New Year. May this one bring prosperity, good health, and a lifetime of learning.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Frank Christensen--The Man From Viet Nam, 2

He's sixty years old and looks way too healthy. He teaches English in Viet Nam. He used to teach in one of the housing projects in Chicago. When he left, he didn't look as healthy.

"Discipline problems?" he asked. "Oh, yes we have them. I had one myself last year. It happened two months ago. A kid wouldn't stop playing so I came to him and told him he was disturbing the class, and he said, 'Sorry, Teacher,' and never misbehaved again."

("Teacher" is a sign of high respect. Just thought you'd want to know.)

Recently his students were in a quiz show kind of program. His students took first place, of course (because that's the kind of teacher Frank Christensen is), and the comments from his students--comments they put in writing--tell it all: He's really smart for someone that old, the best teacher in the school, he is always fair, everyone wants to be in his class.

Enough said.

I could at this juncture quote verbatim from a paper one of his student's wrote about him, but I won't. Let me just say he loves teaching in Viet Nam, loves how his students are responsible for their own learning, and loves the fact that there is actually a holiday to honor teachers ("Every store I went to hired extra people just to gift wrap all of the gifts going to teachers. They don't give gifts on Christmas. They don't have to. The day they honor teachers everyone in Viet Nam--no matter how rich or how poor--digs deep into their pockets and buys a gift for a teacher.")

A holiday honoring teachers? Not money? Not doctors as in My-Daughter-Will-Marry-A-Doctor? Nope, just teachers.

How refreshing.

And what was the biggest insult he heard when he stood in front of a school located in the area where I teach--the quote of the day, according to him.

"I watched the boy's mother grab him by the upper arm and say, 'I don't give an f---- what your teacher says. You will do exactly what I say.' In front of a school no less. I could not believe it. She said it in front of me and a few others. Did she not realize where she was? Did she not think about the message she was sending to her son?"

In Viet Nam, Frank teaches. "The children come to school prepared to learn. They understand they are the ones responsible for their learning. I teach. I don't discipline."

And at the end of a series of lessons on a book? "I never give them away. The students line up to purchase the book. Books are very valuable because learning is very valuable."

I gave my students a book for Christmas.

"I don't have to," he says. "They never stop wanting to learn."

Now that's refreshing.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Just thought you'd like to see what we contend with when we go to Jeff City. (We own property there) Click the link below.

THE JEFF CITY CHA CHA CHA (but in slow motion without the obscenities, gross anger, confrontation, cursing at police and general ignorance).

Second note--this happened about eight months ago and then the police asked us "politely" to stop filming.