24 February 2005

Adventures in Middle School


Today the guidance counselor informend me that the kids think I'm one of the two "most stylin'" teachers in the school. Yes!

Dale: I wrote about a red car with a big yellow S on it. I wrote about how I'll drive around and everyone will say, "Look at that S-car go!"

TT: Ms. Backes, have you ever been to New Orleans?
Me: Yes.
Buddy: Have you been EVERYWHERE?
Me: No.
Dale: Have you been to.... Chicago?
Me: Yes.
Brad: Have you been to New York?
Me: Yes.
Dale: Have you been to Canada?
Me: Yes.
Dale: Did people sit in cottages and eat cheese and say "eh!"?
Me: What??

Girls: Ms. Backes, what socks are you wearing today?
Me: Oh, this is very exciting. You've never seen these before!
Girls: Oh, they're so cute!
Lizzil: Look at my socks!
Karen: Look at my socks!
Aylea: My socks are just white today.
Me: BO-ring!
Mr. K: Do you think you'll ever match up?
Me: No -- we should all get matching socks. That would be so great!
Lizzil: Ooh, we should!
Me: You guys have warped my brain. Now I think about you every morning when I'm getting dressed. What socks should I wear today?
Karen: Me too.
Lizzil: Me too!
Me: Next year will be so sad. No one will care about what socks I'm wearing.
Lizzil: We will! We'll come visit. We'll ditch class to come ask what socks you're wearing! We'll flunk 8th grade so we can stay with you and see your socks!


2nd period.

Me: Okay, we're about to run out of time, so are there any other questions about the sentences?
Andrew: Yes. Are they edible?
Me: No..... but they are editable!


In preparation for tomorrow's "Introduction to Meter & Scansion" lesson, I pulled out the (in)famous Almost But Not Quite Complete... poetry book, and was struck by how much time and energy went into writing a book about poetry for no real reason at all, just that I was 18, just that I loved poetry, just that I was meeting weekly with a bunch of sixth graders who thought I was pretty cool. Mostly: for the love of poetry, for the love of kids. A different person wrote this book, more innocent, less guarded. Someone who didn't know exactly how a sestina worked, someone who thought illustrating the word "paradox" with two kissing ducks (a pair...) was the funniest thing in the world.

On the back of one of the pages I found are pictures of New Horizons High School, the old place downtown. Pictures of the room we painted with poetry, my funny angsty students and I. The pictures struck me in the chest, thrummed me like a harp, and I sat, studying them, for a long time. Searching for clues of what we were, of who we were, as a class, at that time. We painted poetry on the walls! How beautiful and how bold! Looking back, I am half in love with the person I was, how brave and how determined, how sure.

What I remember is the excitement we all had in the project, how it came from the students complaining of how ugly the little room was, how everyone else at school was envious of my class then. Everyone wanted to paint poetry on those walls, but only my students got to, and somehow our project became bigger than just us; it was a community quilt, a whole far greater than the sum of any parts. I look at these pictures and I marvel at how carefully one student printed "The Raven" in such beautiful, gothic script, remember how excited Eric was to find the dirtiest poem he could for the wall (ee cummings' "may i feel") and how I laughed.

Did the class teach those kids anything that would show up on a standardized test? I doubt it. But that's not what was important to me at the time, and it's not what's important to me now. There is no question in my mind that those kids will always remember how they got to paint poetry on the walls, because it was so strange, and wonderful, and wild. I believe they gained a stronger belief in themselves, gained even just a tiny increase in the value they gave to their own ideas, their own beliefs, their own voices. I believe it helped them; I believe it changed them. I believe I made a difference, and I believe it was important.

That brave and determined and beautiful teacher is still a part of me. Even as I bow to increased pressure from the administration to teach to the test, even as I cave and give the fifth standardized test of the year, I believe I make a difference, tiny but sure, and I believe that's important.

23 February 2005




Jay: Ms. Backes, have you ever seen The Day After Tomorrow?
Me: Yes.
Jay: We're watching it in Mr. K's class!
Me: Oh, believe me, I know.
Jay: Do you think that could happen?
Me: An ice age in under a week? Um.... I really don't know.
Jay: Well, aren't you worried about it?
Me: No.
Jay: Why not?
Me: None of us ever really knows how much time we have on earth, so I think what's important is that we try to spend what time we do have well.
Jay: Well, do you believe in God?
Me: (vaguely) Well.... yes....
Jay: I do!
Me: That's good.
Jay: I believe that God is going to bring all his true believers to be with him in Heaven!
Me: Like, the rapture, you mean?
Jay: Yeah. And I'm pretty sure it's going to happen in the next three to five years, max.
Me: ...........hmm.


Dale: Can you swim underneath the continents?
Me: Add that one to your book.
TT: What book?
Me: Dale's going to write a book: "What if: Dale Treadwill's Many Questions."
TT: How long will it be?
Me: It will be like the Oxford English Dictionary, with tissue-thin paper.
Dale: And then Ms. Backes is going to write a book of answers. It will say, "No. No. No. No."
Quin: No, it will say, "Shut up, Dale!"
Me: Why don't we just combine our books, so in the bottom corner of every page of your book will be a picture of me, with a word bubble coming out of my mouth that says, "Shut up, Dale!"
Dale: Yeah! And when you flip through the pages, you'll be shaking your fist at me!

Dale: Where could I buy a camel?
Me: Um... the middle east? Or from a zoo.
Dale: How about Africa?
Me: I don't know, are there camels in Africa?
Jax: Yes. There are.
Me: Are you a camel expert?
Jax: No, but last year I did a report on Africa.
Dale: I was supposed to do a report on Romania. I thought it was Rome, so I did the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but as it turns out that's not in Romania.


7th period.

Carter: Oh, he's just mad because I accidentally called this girl he likes an android.

6th period.

Me: Sorry, I'm a little confused today. I didn't sleep much last night.
Kids: Why not?
Me: My friend Matt called from Antarctica and woke me up.
JC: Are you sure these aren't IMAGINARY friends? Because all your supposed "friends" live in weird places!
Phil: Yeah man, she has cool friends! She has an ex-boyfriend who's a rock star, some of her friends live in Africa...she even knows someone who was in a Pepsi commercial!
Kids: Oooooh!
Me: Yeah --
Phil: With a monkey!!

1st period.

Mr K: Brad, SIT DOWN!! I have to tell you to stop running around at least once a day!
Me: Maybe we should tie him to his chair.
Brad: (shrugging) I can get out of ropes.


6th period.

Aaron: Instead of reading us a poem today, can you sing to us?
Me: SING? You want me to SING to you?
Aaron: Yes.
Me: No you don't. Really.
Aaron: We do. We really want you to sing to us. We hear you have a great voice.
Me: What are you talking about? You've never even heard me sing before.
Aaron: You're a world-renowned singer!
Me: No I'm not!
Aaron: Well.... kind of. We know you!


2nd period.

Me: Does anyone else have questions about citations?
Dale: I do!
Me: Okay...
Dale: Do you have a boyfriend?
Me: ... ANYway...!
Andrew: He's a DUCK!

11 February 2005

The story of my week is a rather long saga. I shall attempt to put it in chronological order for you, but make no promises. Right now, I am feeling very grateful for all the good friends who have talked to me and/or emailed me this week. Funny how teaching stories pull us all together.

Here it goes:


We have four hours of TRAINING before we can even give the next round of standardized tests in March. Already the kids have spent 12 total hours taking the NWEAs (in August and January) and now in March we have six days of testing, two hours each. Which means we're running 20 minute classes for two weeks.... sigh. Stupid fucking NCLB. And then in May we'll give them another 6 or so hours of more NWEAs, bringing the total testing hours per child up to THIRTY HOURS of testing. If you do the math, it takes me more than seven weeks of school (almost a full quarter) to get thirty hours with a child. So what does that say about our priority of instruction versus testing?

This week we have THREE HOURS of training for how to give an upcoming standardized test. You know, the one that determines whether or not the government gets to sell us to Starbucks.



Sigh. I suppose it was only a matter of time....

This morning the principal informed me that my students aren't "making enough growth" in reading, so it's time to stop teaching all that violence prevention/anger management/media literacy stuff and start teaching just plain reading and writing so the students can "be grown adequately" by May.




1. I don't **WANT** to teach people how to read. How to read critically, sure, but phonemic awareness and decoding? Not interesting.

2. I don't like teaching special ed.

3. I do like teaching the gifted kids.

4. Sometimes I like my gifted class better than my other classes.

5. I don't **WANT** to teach people grammar.

6. Maybe I shouldn't be teaching at such an illiterate school.

Stupid one conversation that can ruin your entire day. Stupid mid-year crisis, stupid self-doubt and life questioning. Aaaaarrrrrrghhh.


At lunch, the nice catholic deacon science teacher caught me and asked if I was having a bad day (apparently it showed), so I told him that sometimes I feel like I'm in the wrong place, that I'm the wrong teacher for a school full of kids who can't read. I don't know how to teach reading, and I don't want to. I feel like these kids deserve to have a teacher who not only knows how to teach reading, but also who feels passionately about it. But then there's a part of me that is yelling at myself, because this is exactly the kind of school that deserves to have passionate, driven, excited young teachers -- and exactly the kind of school that almost never gets them. My own catholic martyr DNA tells me to stay, to improve myself, to teach myself how to teach reading, so I can help these kids. The other part of me says run away, go teach high school, go somewhere you can teach writing and critical thinking and media literacy. The nice catholic deacon science teacher said "You have to find a school where you're happy, one that fits who you are and what you want to be doing. This isn't it. If I wasn't retiring in 57 days, I'd be leaving, too."


Here's the thing. Here's a few things.

Grinnell taught me a lot, but mostly what it taught me was that school is a place to teach kids to be thoughtful, critical, inquisitive, kind people. That's what I learned at Grinnell. It's my job to be this radical teacher who helps kids look at literature and look at society and understand all the ways in which we construct ourselves according to what our society says we should be. I learned that it's important to help kids find their own voices, to empower them in the system, to enlighten and enrich their lives this way.

I feel I've actually been successful, to a degree, in doing all this. I think my kids are better critical thinkers, better at questioning things and looking at more than one side of every story. I think they're a little bit kinder and a little bit more tolerant and a little better at expressing themselves in a productive way. Much of this is even in accord with the NM State standards, believe it or not.

However, none of this is easily quantifiable, and it doesn't show up on the NWEAs, and it doesn't show up on the CRTs, and it doesn't show up on the STAR reading tests. And so it's as if everything I've taught my students exists on another plane, in another dimension, because as far as the administration and the district and the state are concerned, I literally have taught my students nothing. Sure, they may be better thinkers and better at expressing themselves and even better writers, but if they still don't know what an antecedent is (and believe me, I've tried to teach that too) and they still can't code switch or whatever, for all intents and purposes they've learned nothing. I've taught them nothing. Which means I'm not a teacher -- at least in the eyes of the administration, the district, and the state.

Another thing Grinnell taught me was that tracking is pure evil, and we make gifted kids because we treat them like gifted kids and if we treated everyone like gifted kids they'd all act like gifted kids.

I have learned that this is actually not true at all. Even if I treat Braydon like a gifted kid, he still has a mother who's in prison for drug/prostitution and an alcoholic father who beats him. In a perfect world, if he had all of the lower levels of Maslow's darling little hierarchy taken care of, maybe he would be gifted when I treat him like he's gifted. But he doesn't, and he won't.

But I do have a class of gifted kids, gifted and enriched. Not surprisingly, these kids have great supportive families and good parents, for the most part. And they're doing really well, because I am an awesome teacher of the gifted kids, I honestly am. I am doing such a great job with this class, it makes me happy just thinking about it. I'm challenging them and pushing them and they're growing a lot and learning a lot and they're doing things they didn't think they could do and they are becoming really good writers and good thinkers.

However, because our school's and our society's perception of the gifted kids and the smart kids is that "they'll be fine no matter what," the work I'm doing with these kids is unseen, unrecognized, unvalued, because there's this perception that the smart kids will learn no matter who's teaching them, and they don't really need teachers who push them and challenge them at their own level. So again, in the eyes of my administration/district/state, I'm not a teacher.

And then, because my school/society/government puts the most emphasis on helping the lowest kids, I feel like I should be doing that as well. But I don't want to. I've always been told and I've always believed that they need the most help, but I don't want to help them. I don't want to teach reading. I don't want to teach kids whose parents smoked crack while they were in the womb and now they can't fucking sit still and cannot focus on anything for more than a few seconds at a time. I don't want to teach special ed, or BD kids, much less an entire class of them who can't read.

I have a surprisingly large guilt-complex about this.


Yesterday afternoon, as I was getting ready to leave school, I walked through the school from my room to the teacher's lounge. On my way, I kept seeing kids sweeping and mopping the floors. Finally, I stopped one of the 8th grade girls from my humanities block and asked her what was going on. "National Junior Honor Society is cleaning the school today, so the custodians could have a day off," she said.

I almost cried. That's the kind of thing that makes teaching worth it. These kids are just so great.


Mom: Well, maybe you should ask the administration for help.
Me: I asked for help a bunch of times and today the principal told me he'd train me to do the STAR reading test. What will that do? That will give me "more data" about their "grade level reading score" -- in other words, will tell me what I already know. My kids can't read.
Mom: Didn't you have a friend who was a reading specialist?
Me: No.
Mom: Yes you did.
Me: I had two friends. One is the librarian, the other was special ed.
Mom: Talk to her!
Me: She moved. She couldn't deal at this school anymore.
Mom: Well..... I guess you're just going to have to teach yourself how to teach reading, then. You owe it to the kids.
Me: I can't believe how hard this year has been for me.
Mom: Just think, though, how much you're learning, how much you've learned that you wouldn't have learned if you'd gone to an easy, comfortable school in Iowa.
Me: Why do I feel like every decision I make is another way to punish myself? When do I get to make the easy choice? When do I get to be in a place where I get to do what I'm good at doing and be successful? When do I get to stop punishing myself??
Mom: Those kids don't need you. These kids need you.
Me: Please stop telling me that. I tell myself that enough to keep me stuck in a miserable job for the rest of my life.


First period today, instead of sitting in the back of the classroom listening to my crazy team teacher's weekly take on current events, I went to the library and hung out with some of my students in NJHS, who were doing an assembly line production of Valentine's Day bouquets (they're making flowers out of hershey's kisses and cellophane; very cute). They worked and I sat with them, declaring myself the "Queen of the Discards," as I was sitting near the pile of roses that got messed up. The kids even gave me a sceptre. I figure, if nothing else, my students will leave 7th grade knowing that there's at least one grownup in their lives that thinks they're funny and cool.


Today after grading stupid vocab quizzes in class, I led my students through an excercise in how it feels when you're feeling dangerously impulsive, and whether or not it's good to follow those feelings. Then I had them all lie down on the floor of the classroom, turned off the lights, and led them through a guided visualization/meditation that I learned when I was 12, a relaxation exercise in which you are given a key word that will help trigger the feelings of relaxation, peace, and okayness you feel at the height of the meditation. It's almost like hypnosis. The word I got when I was 12 still works for me, though it has lost some of its power in the last 13 years.

At the end of each class, about half my students thanked me. Many of them asked if we could do this again.

During the meditation, I was so clear about how most of my kids almost never get time like this, time just to be relaxed and safe and okay. As I led them through the meditation, I kept saying, "You are perfectly safe and perfectly peaceful right now. You are perfectly okay right now." I thought about how many of them may never have gotten a message like this, ever, and about how this was a gift and possibly a tool for the future, about how maybe one day when they're facing yet another friend who wants to fight them or a parent who wants to yell, they might be able to tap into this moment and feel slightly safer, slightly more okay. I thought about how maybe this one quiet, dark moment on a Friday afternoon in seventh grade will stay long past the memories of their daily worries and dramas. Maybe this moment, the moment of a grownup telling them that they're okay, that they're doing okay and that they have permission to relax and be alone and be quiet for a while, maybe it will stay.

So much for my newfound (administration driven) resolution to teach to the test. Whoops!

Adventures in Middle School....


Rafa: If it's not perfect, why bother?
Andrew: He's going to be dictator.
Curtis: He's going to be dictator of Iraq!
Patty: They don't even have a dictator!
Me: It's never too late to start!
Curtis: Yeah, they can always go back.
Me: You should be the dictator of somewhere more obscure... like Idaho.
Bill: The dictator of Idaho! Ha ha!
Andrew: Yeah, and you would be called "The Potatanator."

Me: I'm the Queen of the Discards. Here's my sceptre.
Andrew: You don't need a sceptre, you have a seating chart!

Lizzil: You need a crown. A garbage can! We'll get you a garbage can and cut holes in it for your eyes.
Me: Okay. And tapshoes.
Patty: What?
Me: You can't be the queen if you don't have tapshoes.
Patty: That doesn't really make sense.
Me: Sure it does. What if I had to tapdance for my loyal subjects?
Lizzil: You're so weird!

Lizzil: Ms. Backes, will you buy these 10 raffle tickets from me for $10?
Me: No. Aylea already made me buy raffle tickets.
Lizzil: Fine! You're not my favorite teacher anymore!
Me: Oh no.
Andrew: A fate worse than death.
Me: Well... I mean, to be honest? The competition's not that stiff.
Lizzil: That's true. You're still my favorite teacher!


4th period.

Me: Are there any other questions about the quiz?
Kara: Yes.
Me: What?
Kara: You look just like the nanny from Supernanny 911!
Me: That's not a question.
Kara: Oh yeah.....
Me: Do you have a question?
Kara: Yeah!
Me: Okay.....?
Kara: Will you please say, "you've been very naughty!" in a British accent?

2nd period.

Marsha: We're getting a divorce!
Me: Who, you and Andrew?
Marsha: No! Our whole group of friends is divorcing Andrew! He's out!
Andrew: (pretending to look sad) They get custody of my notebook!



Team teacher: Here are the main landforms you need to know: mountain, canyon, peninsula, island.
Me: What about isthmuses? You NEED to know what an isthmus is!
Class: ?
Me: Well, I'm biased, because the town I come from is on an isthmus.
Dale: What is it?
Me: (drawing on the board) It's like a land bridge. In Madison, where I'm from, the state capitol is in the very center. See, here's Lake Monona and here's Lake Mendota. You can walk across the isthmus in maybe 10 minutes. It's only like 6 blocks.
Dale: Do you ever fall off?
Me: What?
Dale: The bridge. Do you ever fall off it?
Me: It's a LAND bridge.
Dale: Um.... so do you ever fall off?
Me: No. Unless you trip and fall into the lake.
Jerrod: Of if someone pushes you!
Me: Exactly.

Jax: Question. What's a FA-JO-ERD?
Team Teacher: I don't know.
Me: (gasping audibly) What?
TT: Okay, Ms. Backes knows. What is it?
Me: It's pronounced "Fyord."
TT: Well, I've never heard of a Fa-Jord.
Jax: So what is a Fa-Jord?
Me: Fyord.
Jax: Whatever.
TT: Honestly, I've never heard of them. I have no idea!

It occurs to me that if people thought fjords were built by aliens, Mr. King would know all about them!


2nd period.

Lizzil: Ms. Backes, I did you the honor of including you in my picture!
Me: That's nice....
Lizzil: You're the devil!
Cole: You can't say that!
Lizzil: (patiently) No, see? She's the devil in my picture. Right there.
Me: Hmm... that does look like me.
Kiley: It's not an insult.
Me: No, I'm not insulted. Believe me, this is nothing new for me.
Lizzil: What?
Me: People have been telling me I'm the devil for years, really.
Kiley: You just have to decide whether you'll use your powers for good or evil.
Me: Evil.
Cole: Ms. Backes!
Me: What? I'm the devil. I can't use my powers for good!

Karma: What's another word for area?
Me: You mean aria? Like a song?
Karma: No, area. Like place. Location.
Me: There you go.
Karma: What? No! A different word!
Me: Thesaurus.
Karma: (writing) T-h-e-s.... hey! That doesn't mean area!
Me: No, look it up in the thesaurus!
Karma: No, just tell me!
Me: No.
Karma: Pleeeeeeeease?
Me: No, just look it up.
Dale: Ms. Backes, you're our thesaurus. Like there's Webster's... and you're Backes-sters!