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.


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.


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.

Facebook is NOT the Enemy!

In my district school doesn’t start until Labor Day. During the summer months I find that I do nothing for most of July and start to get excited again around August. One of the only things that I do maintain during my “sloth time” is my teacher Facebook account. Now, I know there will be a lot of people who disagree with putting yourself out there on Facebook, but I’m here to tell you that it has transformed my teaching in ways I couldn’t even imagine.

Let’s look at some of my biggest hurdles as an urban high school teacher:

* Behavior– Any urban teacher knows that she has to be a rockstar in the classroom. If you don’t own that place you get eaten alive.

* Parent Involvement- Not only are parents busy working, but add low income and non-English speaking and I can promise that you will never speak to any parent on the phone. Ever. Same goes for traditional parent teacher conferences.

*Homework- I find it on the floor, it gets stuffed in a bag, handed in at the end of the marking period. I waste trees on a regular basis.

Enter Facebook. Most of us that are of a certain age have a Facebook page and we’ve all heard and/or experienced to misuse and abuse of social media and the mass sharing of personal information. However, Facebook is a tool, and used correctly is one of the most powerful ones an urban teacher has.

Let me explain:

Behavior- Never underestimate the smallest kindess or personal connection. If you don’t connect with your students, you are bound to have behavior problems. Facebook allows a restricted outlet for you to learn and connect with your students personal lives. My page has basic personal information and some photos of my with my cats. You can not imagine how many students “like” and talk about my cats like they know them. It’s silly, but the students are on their way to seeing you as a person, not just a talking head.

* Parental Involvement: Did you know that Facebook interfaces in a zillion languages? When I type a message in English, all a student or parent has to do it hit “translate” and Facebook automatically translates that message. It’s not always perfect, but parents can monitor classroom projects, send messages and convey concerns in their own language, building a bridge to their child’s educational experience.

* Homework: If I didn’t sell you yet, this will. I have a 95% completion rate for homework assignments. I also should tell you that I assign homework 4x per week. How? Facebook. I upload all assignments blast status updates as reminders. It takes me about 5 minutes on my iphone and does four things.

1. Takes away all excuses for not getting the homework.- A child may not have a computer at home, but by high school they have an ipod or a phone.

2. Differentiation and Accessibility- I always hand out paper copies, but if they forget they can click on Facebook and see the assignment. They then have the option of handing it in via private message or writing it out. The private messages go right to my school email that I check at the beginning of the day and mark off who has turned what in.

3. Proof- Many urban schools are asking how we can show that we have gone above and beyond to make sure that the student has options for learning. High school students spend their lives on social media and their phones. Not only are you giving options, but you can bring up your page and prove it!

4. Shared Accountability– Hopefully parents are monitoring their student’s Facebook page and help remind students to do the work. I find that the students also remind each other of the assignments. I see “Can someone help me with question X?” posts on a regular basis and when doing group work partners often create their own threads to “talk” back and forth outside of school.

There are so many more things to talk about… I think I will have to do Facebook-Round 2!

Until then I challenge you to think about how you can use Facebook as a tool to reach and teach your students.

Happy Summer!


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.