Teaching, Imagination, Discipline

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I'm a mother, a teacher, a playwright, a former academic. I've spent most of my life in and around schools and universities all over the world. Nowadays, among other things, I teach in a high poverty elementary school in Los Angeles.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Return of the Darth Teacher

The first month of school is a crucial time in the life of a classroom. Don't meld them into a working group, and you pay for it for the rest of the year. Classroom life is chaos. Teaching and learning are repeatedly interrupted by stretches of wildness. Days are exhausting. Your Friday martini becomes a daily temptation.

BUT, if you find and effectively deploy your inner Darth Vader those first few weeks, you may, by late September even, be able to let your little ewoks in on the secret that it's all an act. You may allow a twinkle to dance in your eye as you pick up your yardstick in lightsaberly glee. The creatures will know that Darth Teacher is an act that pops out in reaction to their actions, and both parties will modify behaviors accordingly to GET BACK TO WORK! They will smile indulgently and knowingly at the appearance of Darth Teacher even while getting back to work. This is known as a happy classroom.

But we are so not there yet.

There are three main weapons in the Darth Teacher Arsenal: Darth Proximity, The Death Stare, and The Death Voice.

On Monday I used Darth Proximity many, many times. I stood ominously behind two (or more) misbehavers without saying a word until the entire rest of the class saw what I was doing and fell silent, causing the misbehavers eventually to notice that they were the only ones still wadding paper/throwing erasers/yanking books.

I used The Death Stare at least that often. The Death Stare instantly transports you to an ice planet without the help of airconditioning. There is no exit.

And I used The Death Voice SIX times.

The Death Voice. The Death Voice is a terrible, terrible thing. If you didn't know better, you'd think I was angry and yelling. Except that I'm not angry (okay, maybe a little bit frustrated).

The Death Voice is one that brings children to order instantly (though they may well forget it within 2-10 minutes).

The Death Voice has traction locking. A child's mouth automatically closes, and his head swivels in the direction of The Voice. If your car had The Death Voice you could part the Seas of Traffic and glide home with ease. Mothers and fathers know it well. But, of course, if you overuse it, it loses all power.

Monday, I got three new students, all boys--14 boys now!--and that little disruption created all kinds of new chaos. Hence the reversion to full Darth Teacher mode.

Though I have to admit, I did take out my yardstick lightsaber during spelling time, complete with a twinkle in one eye.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Darth Teacher

The force is always with us in the classroom. We, the teachers, direct, control, command. The question is always how much force to use.

I'm not talking about physical force--though did you know that in the eighth year of the 21st century corporal punishment in schools is still legal in 22 U.S. states?!

I'm talking about force of will.

Parents, of course, face the same dilemmas about forcing their will on smaller beings as teachers do


unless YOU, Dear Parent, have 20 offspring running around a one-room house for six hours a day five days a week and the federal government breathing down your back shouting 'test scores', you really do have to admit that teachers have a bit more to deal with.

Really, parents should remember this. Before you go shout/whine/hurl small missiles at your creature's teacher, take a deep breath, count to 10, and recite this mantra:
S/he has 20!
Or 30!
Or 40!
Or more!
All day long!
Then stop the missiles, and just say ommmmmmm.
Peace. . .

I learned how to be Darth Teacher from first learning how to be Darth Momma. When my dear (then) 5 year-old came home one day from his lovely constructivist Reggio preschool and announced, "You're not the boss of me!" I had to learn how to find my inner Vader. (All because he was into Star Wars). Breathing heavily, raspily, scarily, I snarled, " I....AM..... THEBOSS....of.... you. I.... am.. your...Mother!" And I flashed my pretend light saber in a challenging sort of way.
It sort of worked.
But, over time, my act sort of got better and better.

Theater--voices, especially-- go a loooooong way with little ones. If you can out-drama them, they pay attention.

Eventually, I learned how to take control of most situations that mattered, with the exception of morning toothbrushing, where my control over my child is a complete and miserable failure.

But taking control doesn't mean making all decisions. Really, it's about setting boundaries and parameters within which he learns to take responsibility as well as embrace freedom and play. You've got to have boundaries for creation to take place. Just ask any writer who stares at a blank page for hours on end.

When I call parents to find out why Javier or Samantha or LaChelle aren't doing their homework, I often get: "I tell her to, but s/he doesn't want to."

I'm sorry, but DOESN'T WANT TO?

It isn't even the doesn't want to that's so bad. Who wants to do homework? Who wants to pay bills? Who wants to clean the freaking house?

It's the 'I tell her but' that's the real issue. You, a grown adult who gave birth to or at least gave sperm to, this creature, are willing to settle for such little respect from them that at the ripe age of 5, 6, 7, or 8, they can choose when they want to listen to you?

Who's the boss of whom now?

(To be continued...)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


How do you feel about lines? Most adults, I think, HATE them, unless we're already in one, and someone cuts into it. Then we want the orderly justice a line promises, be it on the freeway or at Costco. Our inner wild thing wants to become a ruthless enforcer of line order.

Wild kid beings, I've noticed, are just like us in this regard. They don't like being in line, but, omigod!, if anyone 'cuts' them, I'm instantly buzzed by a swarm of tattle-tales: Ms. B, Ms. B, Ms. B!! Kyle V. cut me! Esteban cut me! Kelly CUT ME!

The first time I heard this, I looked for the knife.
I'm sure there's a whole theory of discipline based on children walking like ducklings in perfectly ordered, evenly spaced, single or double files. Neat lines, neat minds. Or something like that. Certainly there's a lot of children's literature that walks that path.

I love the Madeline books, and I read them to my students, but I can't say I subscribe to the two straight lines theory of life. I was a 4th grader at a school run by Carmelite nuns who believed in uniformed field drills only Leni Riefenstahl would have enjoyed.

And, as you can see, I'm also not very good at it. My kids' lines always waver and wobble, especially after the first weeks of school.

Except in one area.

When it comes to getting kids to line up their numbers in math problems or line up their spelling words in neat columns, I'm a perfect little Nazi. Neatness when there's meaning involved is very important to me. What do you think?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

No Way José

It's the weekend. The Wild Things are roaring their terrible roars at home and not in my ears. In the silence I find myself thinking about José.

José who's always playing with his erasers. Who sits as far away from me as possible. Who likes to be last in line and alone at recess and with his back to the class.

I consulted with his kindergarten teacher, who, in a school bursting at the seams with Josés, instantly knew which one I was talking about: "The little stubborn guy. He does what he wants when he wants."

Yup. That one. A 3'8'' ft. furball of complete and total obstinacy.

I let students choose their seats until their choices prove to be unworkable. Then I move them. José chose to sit next to Griselda, another 3'8'' ft. furball of complete and total obstinacy. (We measured them. They're exactly the same size.) Well-matched in all ways. So far though, they tend towards cooperation rather than combat. Now if only the cooperation were a little more academic. Griselda, who, of course, knows everything, took it upon herself to inform me about José on the very first day of school: "Teacher. José just does what he wants to." I thanked her for the information and decided to keep a close eye on them. I also suggested to Griselda that José might want to speak for himself. "No, teacher," she said. "He doesn't speak English."

On Friday, International Talk Like a Pirate Day was a roaring success. Isabel and Kelly even came to school dressed for the part. We read a delightful book by Kathy Tucker, Do Pirates Take Baths? We stormed decks and flashed cutlasses, all the while shivering our timbers and cursing the cowardly scum. José was into it. He berated the scurvy dogs with the best of them. Defiance comes easily to him.

Every now and then I get a flash of a different José. When, for homework, I requested five sentences, preferably silly, he wrote me eight starring a baby who ate dinosaurs, castles, and entire mountains. His sentences came complete with capitals and periods. And, they were in English, contrary to Miss Griselda. Lurking under the shell of the class recluse is a bright, thoughtful boy who wants to engage with learning and cooperate with his classmates. Someone who might make a good leader. Someone who's perhaps trapped in a role he took on in kindergarten or even earlier. We all do it. Get stuck in selves we've outgrown and have to crack ourselves out of.

I just have to help him out of his isolation, which, by now, is his image in everyone's eyes. I need to create an academic path for his defiance. In short, find a way for a different José. And I think Griselda will be my perfect partner in crime.

(Her father did have a talk with her, by the way. "Teacher, I won't look at José's test again." So far, so good.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008


We all deal with it. Some more than others. All day I tried to find ways to teach physically. We were pirates (tomorrow being International Talk Like a Pirate Day). We were long vowels standing tall and short ones crouching down. We used unifix cubes all through math.

8 kids mostly worked and learned. 9 kids worked a little and mostly were on showtime. They threw cubes at each other or played cube swords or cube legos. Roberto continued to obsess with his fingers. Evan spent much of the day with his back to me. At least Griselda didn't turn her eyelids inside out once. She did copy off of José's test several times, though, necessitating a call to her father on his cell.

Me: "Señor M?"
Señor M: "Sí. Buscamos un apartamente. Yo y mi hija--" (We're looking for an apartment. My daughter and I--"
Me: "Um. Soy la maestra de su hija..." (Um. I'm your daughter's teacher....)

Instead of offering an apartment, I had to let him know his daughter was copying repeatedly on a state test. She's only 7. I explained that there was no maliciousness in it. No clear sense of wrongdoing--at first.

Why does she cheat? Is she worried about failing? Already, at the ripe age of 7?

I don't think so.

Griselda and several others seem to think that tests are a social activity. If you don't know something, check with someone else. In fact, if you do know something, check with someone else anyway. Good advice sometimes. Many people I know, including myself, ought to take it. Listen to others. Connect. But Griselda does not do it to connect. To create social networks like apes grooming each other or friends twittering. Griselda does it to be right. Griselda likes to be right. Always. Even if she's wrong.

Me: "What's 7+4? Build it with your cubes."
Griselda: "Ms. B, I knoooooow that already."
Me: "Excellent. Can you build it with your cubes to show me?"
Griselda: "But Ms. B. I knoooooooooooow it! It's 10!"

I have no problem with social testing. Group projects are terrific and wonderful and I use them all the time. But Griselda needs to take that up with the State of California. The test she was taking is not considered by the governator and his minions to be a social activity.

And after I've told her not once, but twice (in English and in Spanish), to keep her eyes on her own paper and stop with the neighborly consultations and to stop peering around the divider that blocks her view of José's test and to leave José alone (since for godssakes he's not playing Airplane Eraser Battlefront for once in twelve days and he's actually concentrating on what he's SUPPOSED to be doing!!) because this test isn't one of those group projects but just a test between her and herself and the governator and she needs to show what she can do all by her lonesome ownsome and and and after all that--

she still consults with him--

I think her dad needs to talk with her about right and wrong a little.

I hope he did.

I'll ask her tomorrow.

(You don't know me, but I do hope you know I didn't say all those things. Really. I'm a playwright too. Artistic license and all that.)

Creatures of Habit

We're such creatures of habit. What worked before is what we gravitate towards, instinctually, it seems. Why does it take so much effort to approach things anew? And when are we willing to try?

My kids from the last two years were abstract thinkers. They loved symbolic manipulation. For most of them, math was their favorite subject. This year's crew, individually and in the aggregate, have a completely different personality.

They're tactile. All day long they touch:
their body parts
their partners' body parts...

They hug each other. They braid each other's hair. They tangle legs. They make human piles. They just want to be in contact.

I have a silken brown teddy bear named Chocolate. Alejandro gave him to me last year. They vie for Chocolate.

I realized today I have to rethink the methods I use to teach this crew. I can't be so abstract. Most of them don't love words for words' sake or numbers for numbers' sake. Being able to say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious does not intrinsically give them joy. They like to count with stackable multicolored cubes. They like to write words with fat, multicolored markers. When I give them something to touch during a lesson, they come back to Planet Classroom. Airplane Eraser Battlefront ends. They're less lost.

But it takes effort to rethink how you teach. I've have to reorient everything that's second nature to me. And there's a block. It's the classic teacher's secret, every parent's nightmare: Will I bond? Will I love the next (class, child) as much as the previous one?

I know I'm still in love with last year's crew. We know each other so well. We worked so well together. We have our inside jokes and games and habits and rituals. A bunch of them still visit me every day, twice a day.

I've got to clear some emotional space for this next bunch. Or I will be forever grouchy this year.

Do you remember being in love with your teachers? Or vice versa?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A New Year

There's something about a new beginning in September that's embedded in our life's rhythm no matter how far we are from school. New season. New wardrobe. A new fall line-up.
A scrubbed and purposeful self ready to begin crisp new things.

Parents and teachers. We feel it more acutely. We live by bells and alarms.

"Get up!"
"Get to work!"
"Go, go, GO!!!"

Are we talking to the kids or to our own inner wild things?

I'm a parent and a teacher and a playwright. My son is ten, just beginning middle school. I teach in Los Angeles in a high poverty elementary. Lots of recent immigrants, mostly from Oaxaca, Mexico. Families without a lot of experience with formal education. I usually loop (stay with the same group) for a couple of years. 1st, 2nd, 3rd. 2nd & 3rd. After potty-training and before hormones: that's how I map my territory.

This is one of my go-back-and-pick-up-a-new-crew years. 2nd.

What a crew. Wilder than wild things. They roar their terrible roars. They twitch their terrible twitches. They turn their eyelids inside-out with alarming frequency.

11 boys, 6 girls. Only 3 English speakers. Several who are in an English class for the first time in their lives. A few who can't read the word 'thing'.

"Be still!" I say. Three or four of them listen.
For a moment.

Manuel dances around the room. Juan twirls in his chair. José plays Total Battle Airplane with his and Kyle B.'s erasers. Osvaldo sings. Evan spins on the rug. Roberto builds houses with his fingers. Brianna excavates in her backpack. Griselda teaches Yadira how to turn her eyelids inside-out. (This eyelids thing is positively viral!)

It is the 10th day of school. Summer is a distant memory.
For me, at least.

And for them?

They seem not to have heard the sound of an adult voice in recent memory. They seem to be able to block out grown-ups with amazing ease. They're deeply talented in selective deafness.

Be optimistic, I tell myself. How would you want your son's teacher to view him?

They have excellent imaginations! Rich! Vivid!! Compelling!!!

But directed inward.
Lost on their own islands.
Creating their own private shows.

How do I bring them out to play together? And learn English and one or two other things in the process. That's the question for the year.
Let the working rumpus begin!