On World Hijab Day

Taboo topics are integrated in to an ESL teacher’s job. You’d be surprised how many different aspects of culture need explicit teaching.

Things like-

  • No, it’s not ok to bring a knife to school to sharpen a pencil.
  • Yes, you wear deodorant every day.
  • No, you don’t stand on the toilet.
  • No, you can’t eat the chicks that we hatched in class.
  • Please don’t try to kill the show-and-tell chameleon with a book, it’s someone’s pet.
  • The phrase “sexy time” isn’t another way to say good morning, someone was being mean to you.

A few months ago one of my students ran into my classroom. I teach middle and high school, so I’m not used to kids moving very quickly in general, let alone to get to class.

She was all out of breath when she started talking. “Please just say yes, Miss.” were the first things out of her mouth. It turns out that she had heard about an event called World Hijab Day, in which women of all faiths are invited to wear and experience the hijab, and wanted to see if our school could participate.

Oh, I forgot to tell you, the girl who ran into my classroom is a Yemeni Muslim and dresses in the hijab every day.

There is a very clear protocol to follow when it comes to organizing an event at school. There is an application process in which the students have to map out an explicit purpose to their event or club, which goes directly to the Principal. The students must run and organize the activity themselves, with the oversight of a teacher in an advisory role. This is especially true when it comes to events that may include reference to religion.

The student, as well as a few of her friends, crafted a beautifully written letter outlining their proposal.

“ We just want people to understand who we are, where we’re from, and why we wear the hijab. We want students to be able to ask us questions in an open way and not be embarrassed.”

After the administration approved the event, we got busy planning. I was prepared for some controversy; after all, Islamophobia is rampant in our country at the moment. When I brought this up to my students they echoed what they had outlined in their proposal and assured me that they are used to people “judging us before they get to know us, simply because of our hijabs.” and that they wanted to do something to change that.

We had about a month to get organized and things went smoothly until the day before. About halfway through the day my phone started to ring incessantly. I had a message from a co-teacher of mine — “Check your email immediately.” Apparently someone in the suburban community had found out about the event and taken issue with it.

I sat at my computer, horrified, as I tuned in to a local radio entertainer who compared my students to ISIS and railed on about the “separation of church and state”.

The lies just kept coming. “ You can’t talk about God in school. We can’t say the pledge because of God, so why can a school preach Islam? The school is FORCING girls to wear the hijab. Muslims are violent people who oppress women.”

All of a sudden an event that consisted of a table in the cafeteria before school became a battleground for Christian religious zealots. News stations started calling, the internet exploded, and I had to shut off my personal cell phone because of the lunatic calls I was getting. Even those things were nothing compared to the ignorant comments that popped up online.

“These people are spreading jihadism into Christian communities.”  “How about WEAR A SLAVE CHAIN DAY.” “How disgusting and irresponsible for any educator to encourage a child to wear a symbol of oppression.” “When is female circumcision day?” (And these are the ones that I can find that are the least offensive and free from expletives.)

Culture is woven with religion. The two go side by side. To divorce one from the other, especially when it comes to immigrants, is almost impossible.

Fortunately, in the United States we have something called the 1st Amendment which grants all people freedom of religion. Freedom of religion. Not freedom of religion for just Christians.

The same rights granted to Christian groups that promote and hold events such as “See You at the Pole” in which they pray around the flagpole in the school yard, are also granted to groups from other religions. In fact, in almost all cases, the establishment clause and the free exercise clause are enforced to protect Christian groups that use school spaces to organize such events.

The only reason the critics of the event brought up the separation of church and state is obvious — the event was led by Muslim students.

As a case in point, for the past three years I was the teacher advisor to a Three Kings’ Day event for a bilingual program that actually contained a play about Jesus. No one ever said a word about it.

The hate seething beneath the surface of our country is palpable. Our fear of “the other“ is so strong that people can take something as simple as three girls wanting to share their cultures and bastardize it into a persecution of “Christians”.

News flash- Christians aren’t persecuted in this country or in our public schools. School holidays are organized around the Christian holidays. The pledge is still read in public school, and yes, it still mentions “god”. Students don’t feel the need to hold an event explaining why they wear a cross to school because it is such a common thing. Furthermore, if they did feel the need to hold such an event, they could — because the law applies to everyone — that’s the beauty of the United States.

World Hijab Day was more of a success than I could have ever imagined. Partially because students became aware of the ignorant, bigoted comments online and took a stand by donning the hijab in solidarity for their fellow classmates.

As I walked through the halls, awash with colored headscarves,  I heard some of the most open and profound conversations about culture, religion, racism, and acceptance that I have ever heard —in school or otherwise.

I was given hope. These young people chose peace, understanding, and compassion rather than blind fear. Instead of shunning their classmates who wear the hijab, they not only embraced them, but defended them.

The students sent a message to our critics loud and clear that day- We aren’t afraid of each other and we won’t be afraid of you and your hateful message.

I speak to those same critics when I say if ever there is a time that your child wants to express their own beliefs, be glad that teachers like me and my colleagues exist. Teachers who stand for the rights of all of our children, and not just some of them. Because if we judged your children based on your hateful ideologies, would understand what it really means to be persecuted.

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On Tenure…

teacher-tenureTeacher tenure has made it in to the mass media news again. This time because of some flippant remarks by The View’s Whoopi Goldberg.

Apparently Ms. Goldberg is seriously misinformed about the details of teacher tenure.

By definition, tenure is “status granted to an employee, usually after a probationary period.”

Teachers obtain tenure by a long and difficult observation process. Before they are granted tenure a teacher can be dismissed WITHOUT any due process rights.

What does that mean? As my union leader so bluntly put it when I was a first year teaching making too much noise, “You can be fired because someone doesn’t like the glasses that you are wearing.”

What does that look like? It looks like terror. A new teacher lives in fear for her job. She lives, breathes and sleeps school. It means that many are so riddled by fear that they often leave because of extreme mental stress before they are granted tenure. The burn out rate for a teacher in my district is 3 years.

Burn out is defined as a condition caused by depersonalization, exhaustion and a diminished sense of accomplishment (Schwab et al. 1986). A psychological model of how stress leads to burnout describes it as a syndrome resulting from teachers’ inability to protect themselves against threats to their self esteem and well being (Kyriacou and Sutcliffe 1978).

We lose approximately 50% of new urban teachers in the first 5 years of their careers. 25% will leave the profession in the first years, no matter which area they work in.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the new teachers who are experiencing this overwhelming fear. After a new teacher is tenured they are still subject to scrutiny at least once a year to make sure that they are performing. (Much like non-teaching jobs and yearly reviews.) Previously, these observations and meetings were designed as a collaborative effort. Teachers are all learners and most welcome feedback and new ideas on how to make their class work better.

That’s all changed.

Recent un-researched and frankly discriminatory evaluation practices for teachers are being implemented across the country. This is causing a significant amount of urban and rural teachers to be (by way of bad math and unfounded practices) labeled “ineffective”, therefore compromising their jobs. It has created a culture of fear in education.

What do these fears look like in classrooms? Teachers teaching from scripts, students staring glassy-eyed at the front of the room. Students not understanding and not learning.

In the elmenetary schools, it looks more damaging. Students crying because they can’t read in kindergarten, 6-year-olds without constructive play, inappropriate tasks far above students’ developmental abilities. Hours upon hours of testing students individually while pretty much ignoring the rest of the class.

Does that sound like a class your want you child to attend? No, it doesn’t. You want to see joy in your child when they talk about school. You want to see a teacher that loves her job and inspires your children to learn.

Do you know what creates JOY and LEARNING in classrooms? Teacher tenure.

Teacher tenure affords us the ability to say “I will not teach something that will damage my students intellectually, emotionally, or physically.”

Teacher tenure is what creates magic in classrooms.

It creates a safe zone that protects us from unfounded allegations as well. Talk to a teacher; tenure doesn’t protect bad teachers, it protects all teachers. We can be removed from our positions for even a hint of misconduct. We aren’t even required to be told what we are being investigated for. We are entitled to due process through tenure, because guess what? All kids lie.

They lie to get approval, for their parents, for gang related politics, or because they think they will get in trouble if they tell the truth. They lie because they are children and don’t fully understand cause and effect.

I challenge you to spend 8 hrs a day not only watching, but disciplining 30 kids in a room- or for high school teachers – 100+ kids a day. Keep iPhone addicted teenagers engaged, gang members from recruiting. Keep kids clean, fed, and clothed because their parents can’t afford to.

Compartmentalize rape, child abuse, substance abuse, murder, suicide, drug trafficking, and parents that scream at you because they don’t know what to do with their kid either.

Spend time with special needs children, ADHD children, violent children, and starving children. Get hit, have desks thrown at you, listen to the words “Suck my fucking dick!” and “Lick my pussy!” and “Fuck you, you cunt, you don’t own me.” so many times that you don’t register them anymore.

Then create the magic that is teaching.

When you’re finished, go home, smile, and tell your spouse that you day went well.

We couldn’t do that without tenure. We couldn’t be sure that the time we put our hands up to make sure that we weren’t hit, we wouldn’t lose our job. That calling CPS on a parent could get us fired. That teaching a book that someone decided to not like would jeopardize our career. That hugging a crying child would get us fired for sexual harassment.

Teacher tenure is not the enemy.

The enemy is multi-billion dollar companies making money off of your children. Multi billion dollar companies with BUSINESSMEN figuring out how to squeeze you for the most money with fear mongering and making you believe that if you don’t buy or do x, y, and z then your child will be a “failure” or “unsafe”. I bet The View’s ratings just shot up. Better ratings = more money. It’s not that hard to see through.

The enemy is forgetting that it takes a village, and blaming the teachers when the village has left them all alone.

So tonight look at your own children and, knowing what horrible things lurk in the world, thank whatever gods you believe in that when they go to school you can know that they are safe.

They are safe because their teachers love them, nurture them, and care for them when you can’t.

And if you don’t like the system there is an alternative – quit your job and do mine – homeschool your kids.

Just don’t remove the joy and magic of learning from millions of students’ lives because you think you know what you’re taking about when you bash teacher tenure.

-Kelly

Copyright: ©Kelly LaLonde, and urbanesl, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

On the 2013-2014 NYS APPR Evaluations and Why They Violated Women’s Rights

women

I sat down today to refute my APPR score that will come out at the end of the summer. I am challenging all parts of the score based on the fact that I was out on maternity leave and, at the time I left, no one could tell me what my score would look like.

You read that right.

No one accounted for a teacher in her 30’s, in one of the most pink collar jobs in our country, to have a baby.

At the beginning of the school year, I was concerned that my leave would impact my APPR score on the local and state level. I was concerned because being labeled an “ineffective” teacher sets off a chain reaction that causes my administration and myself to prove that I can handle my classroom. If I wasn’t there, I wanted to make sure that my score was adjusted for the time I was out. I am confident I am good at my job, that I am a highly effective teacher. I also have the evidence to back me up. BUT… these evaluation systems were rolled out without any concrete parameters.

You would think that being pregnant would be a reasonable scenario to consider.

First I went to my building supervisors and they didn’t know (because in all fairness they hadn’t been told). So, in order to be informed and to advocate for myself, I took every available opportunity to ask my question to people directly connected to the APPR evaluation system.

Here’s what I did:

In late October, my Union offered a seminar on their APPR scores. I went 6 months pregnant, swollen, uncomfortable and throwing up in the parking lot, because I figured this would be the best way to get an answer about how I was to be evaluated.

After sitting through the presentation and seeing that no medical conditions were accounted for in the new scoring, I got up and was second in line to ask a question to the APPR panel.

These were my exact words:

“How am I to be evaluated by New York State based on the fact that I am obviously going to be on leave? (Motioning to my stomach) I ask not just for me, but any teacher out on leave, because maybe, they are having nervous breakdowns because of this stuff (laughter) and we can not be promised that there will be a highly qualified, certified teacher or even the same substitute in our classrooms.”

The head of the APPR team and a former State Ed employee who helped write the APPR process answered. She said “Your score will be adjusted for the time that you were out of your classroom.” I asked her ” How many days to a person have to be out of their classroom for their time to be adjusted?” She said she didn’t know but to email her and she promised to get back to me.

In early November I emailed her and her whole team three times. I got no answer. You would think that someone who helped write the APPR process at the state level, who I called out in front of three hundred people, would get back to me.

But she didn’t. And then she left the job.

Women aren’t new to schools. Teaching is currently a woman dominated profession. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2007–08 (the most current data they had) , some 76 percent of public school teachers were female, 44% were under age 40.

44% were under the age of 40. That’s a lot of childbearing aged women to ignore.

If someone told me in writing that they didn’t know what to do with a pregnant woman is a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which protects your right to work during pregnancy at the federal level and the Prohibition against Pregnancy Discrimination New York State laws. No wonder the APPR team wouldn’t send me an email.

Or she just didn’t know, and it was easier to leave.

This type of scenario is what makes me question the entire APPR Evaluation system.

In December I went on maternity leave and New York State still hadn’t gotten its’ act together.

In fact, they didn’t even approve the APPR Evaluation process until a week after I was gone.

My questions are these: Why did our teachers, principals and unions agree to this APPR process if they state hadn’t figured out basic medical scenarios that would impact teachers? Who benefits from labeling teachers with medical conditions ineffective?

Do I benefit?

Do my students?

To women who are thinking about getting pregnant. I encourage you to think about this as your state rolls out the APPR formats. Know your rights and protect yourself.

Copyright: ©Kelly LaLonde, and urbanesl, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

On Hills and Mountains

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l found myself repeating a phrase today. So much that I felt like I wore it out.

 

“ Is this the hill you want to die on?”

 

I don’t actually know where the phrase came from. However, I’m nostalgic and a nerd, so I imagine some wizened and weathered military higher-up types (either real or fantastical- I’m an English teacher after all) peering over maps and schematics in the dim candlelight saying to each other. “Yes, right there! This is where we rally. That is the place we take to end this war.”

 

I saw a lot of people dying on hills today.

 

A student was telling me how he was moving out of his house to Arizona, because he got in a fight with his mom over leaving his shoes in the hallway.

A teacher was complaining that the students put their heads down, because it was hot and the air conditioning wasn’t on.

A student was arguing with his teacher after she asked him politely, to move to another seat because he wouldn’t be able to see the board when she started teaching.

 

When you start thinking about it, this phrase is supremely applicable to education “reform”. We are all so busy dying on hills that we don’t see the mountains we need to take to win the war.

Did you know that there are approximately 6,000 employees in the Rochester City School District? That number includes teachers,support staff, administrators and substitutes. A very large amount of them are union employees. Six thousand people seems like an army to me. Not to mention the thousands of parents, grandparents and city residents invested in urban education.

What if we fought next to each other and not against each other?

What are the big mountains then? They’re no secret. They’re concentrated poverty and de facto segregation. They are lack of organization and trust at the base level of our communal existence. The biggest mountain- the idea that “I need to hold on and fight for what’s mine because no one else is fighting for me.”

What if we remembered that children are innocents that we all need to protect and fight for?

That they are born into circumstances that they can’t control?

That it is every adults obligation to make sure that they are safe, healthy, and educated?

What if we stopped dying hills and started rushing the mountains?

 

 

Copyright: ©Kelly LaLonde, and urbanesl, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

On East High

photo (11)I walked outside to sit in the sun during my lunch yesterday. I needed a break from giving the NYS test that measures the progress of non-English speaking students. There are no benches in front of the school, but that’s where the sun was, so I sat down on the concrete sidewalk. I noticed two things as I was sitting there; a dandelion growing in the crack in the path, and a dead rat.

I sat there thinking about that flower and that rat and how appropriately those two things seemed to reflect what was going on at East.

There are a lot of dead rats, literally and figuratively, in the RCSD.

I have worked for the district for the past five years. In those five years I have worked out of three different schools. The first was closed, the second was re-organized and finally I was placed at East. Who knows where I’ll be next year.

In those five years I was never paid the correct salary. Every year, come September, I spent a month fighting my way through multiple offices downtown to get my pay scale readjusted.

This year I had a baby, which you would think would be a fairly normal occurrence in the teaching profession. Somehow my paperwork didn’t get processed correctly at Central Office and I was not allowed to be out on “medical leave”, so my health insurance was terminated. I received thousands of dollars in bills from the hospital for simply having my daughter while I was employed with health insurance. In a weird twist of fate that I couldn’t make up, the RCSD also continued to pay me while I was out on whatever leave I was on. I had to tell them to stop paying me.

Those are just my personal issues. Multiply that by the 200+ teachers and staff at East.

Did you know that there are students who attend other schools in the district full time that are included in our New York State “report card”? Students who attend RIA (Jefferson), WEP (Edison), Young Mothers, and incarceration programs all are linked to East through NYS data. These students never step foot on East’s campus, are not taught by East’s teachers, yet are part of our state numbers to determine if we are failing or not? How can you measure the effectiveness of the administration or staff if we literally do not see these students?

Did you know that many of us in federally mandated positions – namely special education and English language teachers – are routinely laid off, then rehired, but placed at different schools? Look at the fact that East alone has almost 25% special needs students and another 25% ELL students. That means that almost 50% of the school is in need of specialty teachers – teachers who are routinely transient through no fault of East’s administration. How can you expect the district’s neediest populations to thrive when their teachers have no idea what or where they’ll be teaching from year to year? Or even if they will be teaching? How can we “fail” or “save” East if we can’t even figure out who works there?

Lots and lots of dead rats… although next to that rat was the dandelion.

Have you ever heard the story of the rose that grew from the crack in the concrete? The rose that struggled through the pavement to reach the sun?

There are dandelions and roses growing all through the cracks at East.

One sprouted up this morning when I got called “Mom” by two different kids in the same class, and another when East held its 5th annual Iron Chef competition in partnership with Wegmans last week.

A dandelion bloomed when I graded my classes’ practice ELA exams and 80% of them passed.

A rose grew when my student ran in to show me the MVP trophy he won pitching last night’s baseball game and when the boys’ basketball team competed in the NYSPHSAA Class A Finals in March.

More grew this afternoon when one of my students emailed me to ask when he could come in to take his NYS test; because even though he was home sick, he knew it was important.

You see, East isn’t failing, it’s doing the best it can in a system that is so broken, no one knows how to fix it. In all of this chaos, 80% of students are showing up to school on a regular basis. 43% of them are graduating. 100% of East’s Teaching and Learning Institute and Culinary graduates are going to college. We put on plays, staff clubs, and put in hour after hour making our classrooms safe places. We show up day after day believing that we can make a difference; even when they take away our insurance, don’t pay us correctly, or lay us off every year. We show up. We make a difference.

You see, you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete had damaged petals – on the contrary, we would all celebrate its tenacity. We would all love its will to reach the sun.

Long live the dandelions and roses that grow in the cracks at East. #grownintheconcrete

Copyright: ©Kelly LaLonde, and urbanesl, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Agghhhhh It’s Coming…!

All of you teachers and parents out there know what I mean… the 1st day of school! (Cue dramatic music.)

I never get over first day jitters.

I buy office supplies like mad. I try to organize, thinking that this year may be the year I keep it up. I plan. I worry…

I go from fun loving, sun bathing, super housewife… to what my husband affectionately calls “Alpa City Teacher” in a matter of days. All of the sudden I’m making appointments, drawing up schedules, planning lessons, and steeling myself for the days ahead.

Yes, I said it— steeling myself. Because as much as I love my job, I know that when I walk into that high school classroom, I better be the biggest deal in the room. I have to own those first few days. I know that if I don’t, my students will eat me alive. I have to be a superhero: fair, honest, a moral and social example, and a little bit fun too.

I have to walk into my classroom and make children learn to love school. Some of my students are 18 years old and have never been to school. I have to teach them to read; many times starting with the alphabet. I have to teach them the social norms that come with living in the United States — and yes this includes instructions like “Don’t stand on the toilet, sit.” I have to talk about racism, discrimination and sexism and how it applies to our classroom. I have to see poverty, plight, and abuse every day and deal with a reality that most people never want to see. And I have to teach these students to pass a NYS Regents exam — because no one cares what your life was or is like — this is America and we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and make things of ourselves.

I can do these things.

What I can’t do at this nerve-clanging time is read any more articles or comments about how teachers need to do better… how kids deserve more…how we just took the job to get summers off and good benefits. I get angry and I’m known to lash out. I turn off Facebook and news feeds to my phone because I generally like people and want to keep it that way.

I cannot patiently point out that I had to get a masters degree to even be considered for my job and will actually never make enough money to pay back the interest on my loans (thank you husband for financially supporting me while I do what I love). Oh, and I only get paid for the 10 months a year I actually work and need a second job for those other two that I don’t. I cannot sweetly say that teachers are only one part of a community obligation to help create productive citizens, that maybe there are others responsible for this job too. I cannot get in debates over why I don’t feel bad that your kid didn’t get the teacher they wanted when my students don’t get books and my classroom has 7 leaks in the ceiling.

So while you are reading, blogging, and facebooking about the start to the school year try to remember that you can read because a teacher taught you. You can write a derogatory comment about our profession because a teacher showed you how to write. While you rant about our kids deserving better, try to remember that the sentiment applies to all children, not just your own.

And while you are doing that I will be putting on my cape and tiara… because I am a superhero and I have a job to do. 🙂

Peace,

Kelly

“A  place to build the Great Society is in the classrooms of America. There your children’s lives will be shaped. Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination. We are still far from that goal. In many places, classrooms are overcrowded and curricula are outdated. Most of our qualified teachers are underpaid…Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.” 1964 LBJ