Sunday, August 24, 2014

What I Did On My Summer Vacation or (why I haven't posted in forever).

In June, I was going to blog about the end of the school year.  I was going to blog about boxes and furniture as well as all my personal boxes of stuff left in a 3rd floor hallway, to be moved to a second floor room, but probably not being moved before August, and probably being pilfered of all my favorite things and expensive materials.  I was going to blog about going to Toronto with my mom.  In July, I was going to blog about my trip to Santa Fe, Maria Martinez, The International Folk Art Market, and Georgia O'Keeffe.  I was going to blog about finally unpacking and moving into the apartment we moved into the day before school started a year ago.  I planned to blog about my planning for this coming year of school.  I planned to start it all with a big blog about why I decided to stay at this urban school where it is incredibly unorganized, where transparency is opaque, where students are mean to me and one another, where faculty is often unhappy and negative, where resources are limited and where thoughts of returning tomorrow are making my stomach turn in knots tonight.

All those things happened and then some.  I participated in the discourse on the FB art teacher page a bit, but tried to keep away as much as possible from anything teaching related.  I went to my mom's chemo appointments and I did a lot of doctor visits and physical therapy appointments for myself and my foot and ankle.  I spent too much money and probably had a few too many adult beverages.  I had my nails done and went for massages.  I spent time with my partner and I tried to laugh more than cry this summer.  My days and nights were filled with doing things.

Every day felt like a slow race.  A race to fit in everything I wanted to do before going back to school.  A race to enjoy life before the chaos begins again.  A race to forget how difficult my job was and will continue to be.  A race to stop thinking about the failures and try to focus on the things I did well last year.  

The only blogging I did about these things was in my mind.  I even created titles to blogs I wrote in my mind, but not here.  All the mind blog ideas were overshadowed by the one I titled "What Does An Art Teacher Wear To An 11 Year Old Student's Funeral?"

Shamiya was shot and killed on July 19, 2014.  She was with friends, inside playing like they were having a campfire and making smore's in the microwave.  Earlier in the day two 14 year old boys were in a fist fight outside on the street.  The cousin of one of these boys returned that night to "get" the kid who beat up his cousin.  He was told that the one who did beating was not standing in this crowd of boys hanging out on the corner near the house where Shamiya was, but he started poppin' at them anyway.  A bullet went through the window of the house, struck my girl in the head and killed her.

My heart still aches and probably will for a long time.  The media and politicians turned her funeral into a fiasco.  Our principal brought it back to the girl we knew.  She was kind and loving. She wanted so badly to be good.  Like all girls that age, she struggled with confidence.  On our last project she threw the work she had done into the trash.  I made her get it out.  I made her color in the next 3 letters of the positive word design she had drawn just to give it the full chance of greatness.  If she still didn't like it, then I would let her start over.  She returned to me with it completed and the biggest grin on her face.  She liked it and I got to say...See, I told you it was awesome, you just had to give it a bit more love and attention.  Shamiya was in my math tutor group I saw every day.  She is the one who came running back to me at the door, the day before the NWEA testing began, to give me a hug and thank me for helping her learn her math.

Shamiya is the girl who gave me this note at the beginning of class one day and asked me not to read it until after the class had left.  It took me 2 days and a reminder from her about the note to remember it was in my apron pocket.  I had read it at just the right time, when I really needed it after a difficult day.  When I taught in more affluent suburban areas, I received notes and cards from students all the time, but those things come rarely in the impoverished urban community school.  Because of the rarity of getting a letter from a student at this school, I decided it was something special I should keep for a future difficult day.  I had actually forgotten about the note.  Then, a couple weeks ago when I was cleaning piles of school stuff at home, I found it and cried all over again.  

This note was special, but not as special as the girl who wrote it, the girl who will not get to grow up bringing her kindness to a world that surely needs some love and kindness.

Everything I do is important for these kids.  How I speak to them, how I react to them, how I treat them, what I teach them about art and about life.  Most of all, it is important for me to return to them, because so many never return to them, so many leave them via jail, drugs, death, and easier schools.

I had a good summer vacation that was over too quickly.  I am excited to start school, but I also dread walking in the doors of that building tomorrow.  But when I do walk in, I know that while I am there, there will be an angel with me.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Tuesday, Blood, Tears, and Why I Stay

My Tuesday's usually suck.  Last Monday I was determined to make Tuesday NOT suck.  I had everything planned and organized.  I went to bed early so I would have a good night rest.  I read several items from Michael Linsin's  to prepare myself for my most difficult classes.

Everything started off great.  First grade went really well.  I ate my lunch(yes, my lunch is really at 9:45 in the morning) and prepared mentally for the 5th graders.  This particular 5th grade class is so challenging for many reasons, which are for another post, but I was completely ready for them.  I didn't give them a chance to think of anything except what we were doing.  It was the best they have ever behaved and I was the best I have been all year.  By the time 2nd grade came into the art room I was floating on a cloud.  The 2nd grade teacher only brought 19 of her 29 students, which made for a great time.  I was able to give more attention to each student and everyone felt great by the end.  Things were great, admittedly, I was getting really tired from all the hard work.

My 7th grade class arrived.  This class has become so unruly and difficult that nothing I have tried has worked.  They are doing book work now, as they proved too many times that they cannot treat materials, me and/or one another respectfully.  I gave the assignment, then went to work trying to get students to stay in their seats.  Most of the students were actually working on the assignment.  One of the boys had walked out of the room, so I completed a referral form, then told the others not to open the door for him to return.  This boy transferred into the school in April and has given me a challenge since he arrived.  At the first chance when I wasn't looking, someone let the boy back into the art room.    He started arguing with another boy who was not having a good day.  This boy had an upset stomach and really didn't want to be at school, but was stuck without anyone to come get him.  The 2 students started posturing like they were about to fight.  First I asked a different student to go intervene, it didn't look too serious and I was helping a student with her paperwork.  That student actually started clearing the students out of the way and pushing desks away, so the 2 could fight...this is the kind of stuff I am up against at times.  So, I walked over to the 2 boys and put my hand on the difficult student's chest.  He was closest to the door, so I was going to try to get him back out into the hallway.  I tried speaking to him in a calm voice to calm him, but the other student said something that pushed the fight to the next level.  The first punch hit me.

Now, at this point in time is when the brightest teacher knows to just get the heck out of the way...right?!?  I guess I am not the brightest teacher, because I grabbed hold of the really troubled kid's shirt and held tight.  I was certain that I was way bigger than this kid and could get him to stop, get him to the door, get him out of the room.  That didn't happen.  What did happen was that he flung me forward and backward a few times(no, I still hadn't let go of the shirt even though I could hear it ripping).  I guess I finally let go of the shirt about the same time he flipped me into the air.  I came down on the edge of a table, then to the floor on my right knee and ending on my butt, sitting up.  My shoe, from my bad foot/ankle(another story for another day) was a few feet away from me.  I was in a daze and could not figure what was going on for a minute.  Then I saw blood.  Where did it come from?  I looked around, wondering if the other boy was hurt, or was it me.  I checked my face, no blood, then I saw my finger.  It was my ring finger, bleeding pretty bad.  The boys were still trying to fight, but security and several teachers had made their way to my room.  I was being asked if I wanted an ambulance.  The class was being herded out of the room by our STEM specialist.  The boys were being separated.  A security guard was trying to get an administrator to come up to my room and the school counselor was talking to me, but I wasn't really hearing it all.

I somehow managed to get up, get some toilet paper from my desk(because that is where we keep tissue, since students cannot be trusted with a whole roll in the washrooms), get to my desk and find my bandaids.  I couldn't get a bandage on my finger through my shaking.  The counselor helped with this.  A few of the boys were still in the room trying to get things back together for me.  I am so grateful for one of them who picked up my new glasses that had flown off my face and delivered them to me safely.  I finally had it together enough to say I needed police called so I could file a report.  Having been in a situation before where a student assaulted me and I didn't file a report, I knew this needed to be done to protect myself.  I am so grateful for the help of our school counselor.  She helped me do everything(btw, she was assaulted a couple weeks before by a different student, much worse situation than mine).  She went to the teacher of my next class and asked him to not bring his class to art.  He was very supportive.  I packed up my stuff and went to the office to wait for the police officer to arrive.  The police officer interviewed me and the student.  Told me I had the right to have him arrested, but I chose not to do that.  She spoke to the principal, but I have no idea what was said in that conference.  Police report was filled out and I went home.  Administration never said a word to me about the incident and still has not spoken to me about it.

That night at home I cried and cried, then iced my aching knee and finger.  What a blessing it is to have someone at home to support me, hold me and help me get through things like this.  Wednesday morning I headed back to school, but I was so sore all over.  My knee hurt with every step.  My ankle was more stiff and painful than usual.  My finger was too swollen to wear my ring and just about all the rest of my body was aching.  But the worst part was my broken spirit and my mood...full on crabbiness.  I should not have gone to school.  So, Thursday I stayed home, slept a ton and rested my aching body.  Friday I returned to school, still achy, but much better in spirit.  The day was pretty good, but I have to admit that when students are out of their seats for any reason I am very very uncomfortable.

Now, Sunday night, my finger and knee are still sore, but I am fine and ready for another week of school.  An 8th grader who was in the office when all this happened asked me why I don't quit, leave, find a better place.  I told her there are many reasons why I am not going to go away, but after this incident my reasoning is because she and so many other students need to know that a little adversity is not a reason to quit.  My kids push me away in so many ways, because they are so afraid they will come to love me, then I will leave them, hurt them emotionally.  They need me to not leave!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Spectacular Things Do Happen

Every once in a while something spectacular happens that keeps me going.  One of those things happened last Friday.  It is hard to cling to the positive things sometimes when working in an urban school like mine.  This incident answers all the questions about why I continue to teach in this type of school and community.

I see one of my 5th grade classes twice a week.  Even though they are as challenging as the other classes, they have become my favorite class.  I still have as many difficulties with behavior, but I have developed a stronger rapport with this group.  I have allowed myself to laugh with them, yell at them, hug them and even cry in front of them when I was so incredibly disappointed in their behavior.  When I do start posting some images of successful art lesson results, it will be work from this class.

Trust is the hardest thing to gain when working with at-risk kids in low SES situations.  They have seen so many teachers and principals come and go in their short lives. The school board changes things every couple years, fires entire faculties, and dismisses teachers while they can, before tenure takes effect.  My students come from broken families due to drugs and crime, often with one or both parents in jail during some part of their lives.  I have several students who have lost a family member or close friend to gun violence.  My students do not trust anyone to stay in their lives for long.  When I missed school to attend my state art ed conference I returned to every other student telling me they thought I quit. They started to ask me if I was coming back next year in February and I started telling them YES...I do not plan to go anywhere.  Many students and especially my 5th grade class have started to trust me a little bit.

On Wednesday I returned from the NAEA Convention in San Diego and again heard from many students that they thought I had quit (even though I had told them where I was going and when I would be back).  My 5th graders came to art excited that I was back.  We are working on a wonderful lesson that I developed and will blog about soon.  Each student is making a large poster of one positive character word in the style of 60's concert posters.  One student mentioned a couple times that she thought hers was ugly.  I told her it wasn't and that she needed to believe in herself.  I really couldn't give her much attention because I was busy dealing with 2 students who had verbally and physically bullied one another.  The girl became mouthy and mean as we came closer to the end of the class period.  I told her I would speak with her the next day during their art class.  Thursday during their class she started up right a way, following me around the room, whining and begging to start over.  Every time I told her that the work was good, she would argue back that it was horrible.  After everyone was working I finally was able to get to her one-on-one.  I told her with complete honesty that I would not lie to her, that her work was good so far and that if I thought it wasn't good I would say so and have her start over.  I persuaded her to finish coloring in the next letter, take a look at the progress and if she was still not happy with it then I would let her start over.  At the end of class she brought it up to me and it was awesome.  I told her so.  She was grinning ear to ear.

Friday morning that girl came to see me.  She stood strong in front of me and said, "Ms. Burton, I just wanted to come and thank you."  I had no idea for what she was thanking me.  The daily struggles take over so much, I had forgotten all about her success from the day before.  So I asked, "Thanking me for what?"  She looked me right in the eye and said, "Thank you for believing in me yesterday.  You really believed my work was good and you helped me see that it was good so I could finish it."  I had to catch my breath and keep a tear from falling.  I responded, "You can do anything you set your mind to and anything you work hard for.  You just need to believe in yourself too, and you're welcome."  She bounced away down the hall and I let the tear fall as I closed my classroom door.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What It Is Like To Teach In HELL!

ISAT testing, so my first class is not meeting.  Yay, I get my very very dirty tables cleaned for the first time in weeks and I finally get some grading done.  There is even time to eat lunch today.

10:45, 5th grade arrives.

11:00 am,  The 5th grader who pulled the fire alarm 2 weeks ago and was only suspended for 5 days, sexually assaulted a girl during art.  Girl doesn't even understand that when boy grabs her breasts like that she is being violated.  Security called to escort them out.

11:25, the 5th grade class has broken all the new crayons and thrown them at one another, I call security to get some control back.

11:50, 3rd grader fight over calling out one anothers mamas, kids sent to office with referral.

12:00, fighting kids returned to art room after being told to be nice(great, that should help, rolling eyes).

12:15, 3rd grader throws up gang signs at me for telling him to sit in his assigned seat.

12:20, school goes on lockdown due to uninvited visitors(several neighborhood gangbangers somehow got into the building and were walking around on the 3rd floor unnoticed until a teacher sees them out his classroom door).

12:40, visitors escorted out and interviewed, arrested by police, (possibly for illegal possession of fire arms and what looked like drugs from the 3rd floor window according to 7th graders).

12:45, 7th grade arrives to swarm the windows to watch the police and discuss who these guys are.  25 minutes to get class into their seats.  They actually worked on their art for about 30 minutes(woohoo, success).

1:45, half of 8th grade arrives.  I teach my lesson on tessellations.  I feel success twice in a day(that never happens).  The other half the class shows up and starts swarming me for what to do.  I try to re-teach the lesson, but they are having none of it and have now distracted those I had working to start.

2:10, girl and boy start screaming at one another, almost fight, but I kick them out to the hall and am grateful that security is in the hall.  A student starts playing music on his phone and refuses to turn it off.  I try to get the phone, but no luck.  The others in class start breaking pencils and throwing them at one another.

2:30, I put on my coat, get my bag and sit in a chair by the door, ignoring everything happening in my classroom at this point because frankly, I cannot take anymore for the day.

2:45, I get the students out the door and I leave for home.  Can't wait to return tomorrow!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Apologies Required

My third grade class is not allowed back into my art room until every one of them has given me a handwritten apology note.  I spent much of Friday, April 5th, calling student homes to request that parents discuss proper classroom behavior with their child/children.  I really shouldn't have to explain that art class is not recess time.  In my calls, I explained that proper art room behavior involves all the same rules as in their regular class and includes staying in their seats unless directed otherwise, listening actively(not talking while the teacher talks), Respecting selves, others, teacher and the art materials, being kind and doing their best work.

I am part time, so I only see this class once every 2 weeks.  It is a class of 32 + 4 when the special education students arrive.  Anyone who says that it does not matter how many are in a class, that a good teacher will be able to succeed with them no matter the size is just WRONG.  The third graders arrived Friday morning at 11am and sat where ever they wanted even after I greeted them in the hallway and told them to go to their assigned seats.  I pulled out my seating chart, started calling names and putting children in their assigned seats.  This took 15 minutes because the class was so loud that most had to be called 3 or 4 times before they heard me.  At least at this point in the year I know how to pronounce their names.  When I didn't know the difference between LatAsha and Latasha it was even more rough.  Yes, I tried to quiet them while I was getting them to go to their assigned seats. I tried everything I know how, to no avail. 

So, they were finally all sitting and I began my lesson.  I was able to get their attention and it was silent for a half second.  I jumped on that time and began speaking in an average volume level.  Within my first 4 words, several students had turned away and started talking to others.  There was no single specific child to address about the behavior.  I tried raising my voice.  They became quiet for another second.  I started again.  Stopped.  Silence.  Started.  Stopped.  Silence.  I tried to be animated to get help.  I tried to talk help.  I tried blowing my help.  It went on like this for a bit until I finally lowered my voice and quietly said, I am not being allowed to teach.  I referenced the time wasted already, 30 minutes of our 60 minute class was already gone.  I explained that I was going to give the directions and demonstrate for those paying attention.  Anyone not paying attention?  Well, too bad for them, because I would not go over the directions again.  Directions were written on the board, the step by step artwork process was in visual form on the bulletin board and they would have to reference those things or ask someone who was listening.  I gave my demo and directions, passed out the paper and materials and let what happened happen.  It was basically awful.  Only 5 or 6 out of 36 actually knew what to do.  I could not help those students much because I was trying hard to keep 2 students from fighting.  One girl with very low self esteem really needed my attention, but I couldn't take time for her.  At one point I turned to see a student chasing another around the tables.  I somehow managed to get them into their seats without any injuries or major spills.

They had a total of 15 minutes to work before I called for clean up.  CLEAN UP TIME...another nightmare.  They will not stop once they have materials in their hands.  Ok, I exaggerate.  One table did clean up quickly.  They heard me say, "First table cleaned up to my expectation gets a reward".  The yellow table was on top of things.  It seems they had miraculously paid attention each time I had covered the cleanup expectations in the past.  They had their table completely cleared with all things correctly organized in the center table bin within 3 minutes and they each received a pencil from The Art Institute of Chicago.  Bribery...yes!  One of the few ways to get cooperation with my kids.  The rest of the class?????  I had to literally pull brushes and pencils out of hands, grab paintings out from under them and try to not freak out as they yelled at me for doing these things.  As I lined up each table group to exit my classroom, I seriously heard kids ask me, "Where is my special pencil?".  To which I replied, "Ask the yellow table what they did to get the pencils.".

When their teacher arrived I announced to him that I would be calling the guardian of every single child and would not allow them back into my room without a written apology note from each student.  He agreed, and understood.  I was nearly brought to tears and still feel like a failure.  The parent support has been wonderful.  I've had students come apologize in person and a few have brought me their written apology notes.  There are still a handful of parents with whom I need to connect before this Friday and there is a very flat folder waiting to be filled with apology notes.  If the folder remains thin, Friday's 3rd grade class may be the best group of 6 students I have ever had in my classroom.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Yellow + Red = Orange

I wrote this lesson when I was student teaching 13 years ago.  It is still a great one that the Kindergarten students love and almost always feel successful after completing.

Teaching little ones who have no understanding of boundaries is a challenge.  Someone in my art teacher circle recently compared teaching Kindergarteners to herding true.  My kids in the city seem to have even less understanding of boundaries and have a really hard time stopping once they have a material in their hand.  I will tell them 10 times to make only one brown circle in the center of their paper and fill it in with oil pastel, then hold their up in the air and wait for the next step.  If I do not get that oil pastel out of their hand or off their table as soon as they finish I find they have drawn all over their paper(usually beautiful brown preschematic families, floating little circles with sticks coming out of them).  And I fully admit to scolding kids for grabbing the oil pastel from their peers and drawing on their neighbors paper, the table, the stool, the wall, themselves.  I have one little boy who cannot stop gluing everything.  If there is an unattended glue bottle anywhere visable in my classroom he will find it.  He will pick paper out of the trash and put glue on it.  He has glued book pages together on my bookshelf.  I opened a cabinet this morning I and grumbled his name under my breath as I realized the handle was coated in dried glue. (Yes, I have spoken with his parent). 

Back to the point...I demonstrate making a big dot at the center of the 12 x 12 paper for the flower center, then I show the students how to dip their brush into the yellow paint first, then dip just a little of the red on the tip and then pull the brush on the paper from the center dot out to the paper edge, repeating with each flower petal.  They seriously get so excited that the yellow and red make orange.  I never tire of the awe students have when they see the artistic magic happen.

I give each child a 12 x 12 white paper and a brown or black oil pastel and instruct to make the circle.  Then I collect the oil pastels as quickly as I can possibly move.  Because I have no sink in my classroom this year, I use small paper plates for each child instead of my washable and reusable styrofoam trays.   Brushes and plates with red and yellow paint splotches are distributed, then I pretty much just watch the magic and try to keep kids from painting anything but their paper.

I think I will do an entire post on the management and the clean up process when there is no sink, so for now I will just say that the kids (who are trained well enough) place their paintings on my long window sill because I have no drying rack, then we clean up.  Day 2 of this lesson involves cutting stems and leaves without the use of a pencil and gluing it all down without glue oozing everywhere.  I was really happy with the process and product of this lesson and my administration and faculty/staff loved the bright spring color in the hallway during this dreary winter/spring in Chicago.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Turned Around

Thursday, March 28th, just after the first bell, my principal called all faculty to the computer lab for an unscheduled meeting.  We had all been waiting for this day but thought it would be after Spring break.  The decision of what would happen to our school and to us was about to be announced.

The principal started out by saying that no matter what he was about to tell us or what we hear from anyone; the community, cps, the union, the media, he knew that we were all valuable to the education of these children and that we are a strong family.  Then he took a deep breath and said with tears in his eyes (this is a proud marine), "I don't know how to say this, so I will just read the letter from Barbara Byrd-Bennett.  Then he read the letter that states that our school is going to be turned around through the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) and that we are all being displaced/replaced at the end of the school year.

As what he had just read started to penetrate my head, my heart sank.  We had all seriously thought we would be safe.  He had led us to believe we were all safe because Barbara Byrd-Bennett had led him to believe we were safe.  Since he took over the school 2 years ago the school statistics have made the highest improvement of all elementary schools in the city.  The population of the school has doubled in 2 years and the Chicago Housing Authority is building housing 2 blocks away that will feed to our school in the next 2 years.

The others in the room started to ask questions.  Two of our teachers are new this year from the displaced teacher pool after their schools were turned around previously and I have been through the application and interview process with AUSL.  We 3 know what no one else in the room knows.  We know that we will forever have a stigma attached to our names because our school is being turned around.  We know that we will have to swallow whatever pride we might have and re-apply for our own jobs, hope we are asked to an awkward (group of 30-40 applicants) interview, hope that the 2 interviewers take notice of us as individuals and ask us to continue in the process, make it through 2 more interviews and then if hired, go through training on how to educate urban children successfully...haha.  We know that 3 of our teachers who are only a few years from retirement will probably not see a happy end to their almost 40 year teaching careers.

My principal, the community, parents, students and our faculty/staff are fighting this decision.  It is not a done deal until the final school board hearing at the end of May.  If this does happen, as a part time teacher, I will be on my own with no union support or extended assistance from the school district.  I will lose my tenure if I am not rehired in the district within one year of my hire date.

All I keep thinking is that it took me 12 years of teaching, 8 schools and 8 principals, some mediocre and a couple truly evil, to finally find one who is amazing to work with.  He is a true leader and a cheerleader for us all and I have the utmost respect for him.  The sadness that comes over me when I think of losing this principal and my school family is overwhelming.  For today, our first day back after Spring Break, I am going to teach as best I know how and give my students the best of myself, because no matter what Mayor Emmanuel and the Chicago Board of Education thinks of the kids/people of North Lawndale, they deserve the best of me and the best of every other adult who loves them.