Sunday, September 30, 2012

Day One, Harry Wong, and Pie

The first day of school isn't, really.

I mean, it's not a normal day of school. Colleagues who ordinarily wear polo shirts are wearing ties. Every student's binder is perfectly neat and orderly. Usually, not the least because teacher demigod Harry Wong says to, the hour is spent establishing the rules and norms of the classroom.

I try something different.

As I wrap up a truncated version of The Rules & Consequences information, I pass out slices of pumpkin pie to random students. The slices are not evenly cut--some are wide wedges; others, narrow slivers. Not everyone gets a piece. In fact, only about ten kids get any at all.

I ask them what they think is going on. The unusual event--random, unequal pie distribution on the first day of school--is enough to get the conversation going, something that can be reallllly hard at the beginning of the year.

"You gave us pie," says one genius.

 "No, I didn't. I gave SOME of you pie."

"You gave pie to the people who weren't talking."

"Nobody was talking when I gave out the pie."

"Some pieces were bigger." "We didn't all get any." "The pie is pumpkin." "I'm hungry."

"This year, we will be looking at three big ideas that drive everything that happens in US history: ideals, economy, and POWER. I gave you pie to symbolize power. In a society, power is not usually distributed equally, and sometimes not everyone gets any power at all. Is that fair?"

A strong chorus of Nos, mostly from boys who received no pie.

"Should I take away pie from kids who had it and divide it that way?" I query.

In fluent Middleschool-ese, a student points out "there wouldn't barely be nothing for no one, just a crumb." Another student, full of pie, points out that taking away his pie would make him mad, even if it was more fair that way. "So would you agree that making a society more fair could be a struggle? Maybe people don't want to share their pie--er, their power. That is what this year is about, folks--trying to build a country where more and more people get a piece of pie--preventing some people from hogging it--all sorts of power struggles."

"Couldn't you just buy more pie so we all could have some?"  It's too early for me to tell if he is wisecracking or serious. I choose to believe he is joking. "Uh oh, no pie for you, ever!" I laugh, and the class laughs with me.

Do you know it can be hard to find pumpkin pie in September? I needed a pie that was easy to slice and would maintain its shape and not schmoosh all over the tables or kids' new clothes.

We end by taking notes (some groan--work already? ha! I am establishing the norm of the class--academic and hardworking from day one, but hopefully unpredictable) on the nature of power, and the bell rings, but they wait to be dismissed by me, because, after all, I have more pie than they do: I am the Pie Master.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Mercury Rising

Boiling hot outside today. From my colleague's phone:

Boiling hot inside. Here's a snap of the thermometer in my classroom from another colleague's phone:
This wasn't just the hottest day on campus since ever. It was the day of a lockdown at the local high school.

As I drove to school, I saw at least three police cars parked along the canyon adjacent to the high school. Oh Lord, I prayed, please don't let any of our kids be involved in anything awful...

(...and they weren't. A couple of thieves tried to steal some copper wiring and fled to the canyon.)

When I pulled into my school, about seven yellow school buses had pulled over in front. Uh oh.

Kids could roast on the buses given the forecast, but the situation was so unpredictable. As the first teacher on campus I called the principal who came dashing in, grabbing the walkies and fielding emergency calls. We and another teacher boarded each bus, letting the students know they'd be our guests for a while, walking them to the auditorium.

We had to make sure the kids had food; many get their breakfast from their school. We had to take attendance for some 300 students and get release forms and deal with panicky parents. The kids had to be cooperative and patient in the emotional uncertainty, and here's the thing: they were amazing. One reed-thin Latino man-child slid onto the piano bench and began playing softly and slowly; one group of students sat cross-legged and experimented with makeup; another group played elementary playground hand slapping games. (!) I had to leave them to teach my regular students and by the time I left, an hour after their arrival, I knew they'd continue to be wonderful.

And then on to my actual students, full of fear and rumor. After good discussions about safety and why we do things the way we do, after answering their questions with what little I knew, we went on to the day's tasks. The heat came in like the hordes of Mordor, hot and merciless and overwhelming, and just like that, we had a different challenge: to carry on despite the physical burden of airless heat. The mercury jumped but the kids were champs. I even taught them our colonial region songs, and we gamely sang them.

Whatever may be wrong with public schools, it certainly is not the kids. I have always respected them, and today my respect deepened. I am proud of our staff--the way we circled the wagons, stepping up, solving problems, filling gaps, unasked and undirected--I am proud of the way our schools worked together in an emergency. And I am proud of the students who were bused in from far away, showing maturity and grace under pressure, and of the neighborhood kids who soldiered on, rising above heat exhaustion.

(If I hear anyone criticizing public school teachers this week as being lazy or incompetent or selfish...)