Sunday, November 6, 2011


Sunday again. Those blues set in, and my oh my is it hard to fend them off. Sunday, that day which used to be filled with rest, community, and gratitude. Now, it's all beautiful until church is over, and then the afternoon runs our house through the hamster wheel as we try desperately to catch up on grading, laundry, grocery shopping, and planning for the week ahead.

I always find myself stir crazy, holed up in the corner of my bedroom as I print, cut, organize, and fashion homeworks, quizzes, and so many powerpoints. I end up making a pot of tea and sitting Indian-style on the back porch, dry leaves beneath my stretch pants. I've been watching the cypress trees turn golden and now red. Little by little our backyard jungle is falling away, exposing Sunflower Road. We are blessed by a fleet of cardinals, who dart to and fro, flashing their beautiful scarlet coats. A few blue jays often turn up, as well. And the squirrels provide ample entertainment as they leap through the branches and scurry about like monkeys, reminding me of their territory by dropping the occasional nut onto the deck near my spot. The magnolia leaves cover every inch of the yard, if that is what one would call the green chaos behind our house. Every time I climb out from my bedroom corner by the printer and take a moment to center in the outdoors, I am reminded of the ample beauty that surrounds me.

I am blessed to have such incredible young women living out this vision of educational equity alongside me. I am blessed to have unconditional love pouring forth from the midwest, however far away it may feel at times. And, I am blessed to work with these young people whom I am beginning to love.

I felt peace in my classroom for the first time this week. On Friday, after the children bolted to their buses, I closed my door, turned on some music, and carefully performed my routine end-of-day tasks. Instead of blazing through the work and bolting myself, I gently cleaned my whiteboards, swept my floor, aligned the desks, filed papers, and organized my desk before heading to the Gin Mill for "pig pudding" with my roommates and coworkers.

The cotton was harvested about two weeks ago. The chill in the air and the loose cotton dotting the roads reminds me that time is passing. I'm doing it. I'm teaching for america, and that now signifies something so unfathomably different from when I got here that I would need another post, another Sunday, to get into it. For now, I'll close by extending hearty thanks to all for your love and support. See you at Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Enemy of Apathy

I was sarcastic today. My new 8th period, the highest group of 11th graders, could not refrain from talking or laughing throughout the duration of their ACT diagnostic exam today. One student, scribbling frantically sat in the front corner, and I was so angry at the others for ruining her testing experience, for ruining their own, for wasting time that they could never get back. 8th period is supposed to be "ACT Prep," and every one of those students responded to their surveys affirming that they would like to go to college. And yet, everyday they walk in, slump in their seats, put their hoods up or launch into heated conversations, and when the bell rings, continue to do so. I stand at the front, asking individual students to quiet down, who proceed to quiet down just long enough for me to ask someone else to quiet down, and the vicious cycle continues.

Today, one student slept in his chair for most of the test, and for the rest, refused to stop talking. Frustration overwhelmed me. Here they are, annihilating any chance they have of doing something with their lives, and they think it is funny. The childish "make your teacher mad" game. I'd had it. I collected his blank test, looked at him and dished, "wow, you did a really great job on this." He retorted, "wow, what a really great sarcastic comment you just made."

I stooped. I gave in. I broke and entered their world. I played the game that their other teachers play. I made them feel worthless like the adults around them make them feel. I mocked them. As self-important as they may try to be, so many of these children have no sense of true pride, the quiet kind that is cultivated by the steady accretion of affirmation and encouragement of trusted adults.

Their apathy is just killing me. I don't know what to do to wake them up. On the back of their welcome survey, I simply asked, "Write me an essay about your passions." I gave them starter questions, like "what do you live for? what makes you burn with outrage? what makes you squeal with delight? what is your purpose in life?" A few of the essays were what I had hoped for, wide-eyed accounts of their vision for life--from the standard, "I love dawn in the morning" and "I love to travel and meet new people" to "I love the thrill of getting in trouble, of not knowing when I'll get caught." Most were short to empty. One or two sentences of "I don't know"s or "I want good grades." One girl wrote "I am passionless."

This isn't just about 8th period. All day the bell rings and nothing changes. The students don't move from their posts in the courtyard. Their conversations don't end. Their pencils are still nestled in their pockets. I ask them to copy the title for today's notes and they groan. The most animated they get is over the temperature in the classroom: every day, "Maaaaan, it be cold," two minutes later, "real talk: where's yo heat, ms. bump?", and "why you gotta do me like that? its too cold." The problem is insidious. Hallways, classroom, office, bathroom, band hall, courtyard. Children loafing around like you are the most despicable creature on the planet for opening your mouth to form words that will ask more, something, anything of them.

Whence the apathy? Theories abound, but I think it's mostly got to do with something like: if you don't try you can't fail. Real talk: if you skip class, you can fail and use absence as an excuse. You weren't there, so no one can call you dumb, slow, lazy, or disruptive. You just weren't there.

I refuse to give in, because even though our school culture tips towards apathy, truth is that many of the kids DO care. They just aren't the vocal ones, the ones that everyone looks up to. But how to change a culture? A 600 member student-body with only half of the senior class not on track to graduate?

I don't know. But I do have my classroom, and as much as the homes and the hallways come in with each and every student that walks in the door each period, I have a small platform. I must set an example. I must never stop caring. I must show them that I love them, and that God loves them, even when they make the kind of choices that incite vexation and dismay among those around them.

I am going to apologize to that student tomorrow. All I have is my example, and I will go on inhabiting my genuine self, my sincere, non-sarcastic Ms. Brittany Bump, even if it doesn't mean anything to them until years down the road.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Holding in Homeroom

It's been an interesting week. I proctored my first state exam, in which 200 RE-testers took the English II Exam. Some of the students sat there for the full 7 hours and still didn't finish.

Proctoring is a taxing task. Here, there is no proctor-slouched-over-reading-a-magazine kind of set-up; rather, myself and five other teachers paced the aisles for the full 7 hours. I wore tennis shoes, white, with my black crop pants and a lightweight black sweater (a very becoming get-up, I assure you), per the advice of a second year corps member. Our lunch break consisted of a ten-minute break, in which we had to accompany the students to the lunchroom and eat with them to assure no test-talk would ensue. Unfortunately, no one sat by me.

After the much too long day of silence and numbness, I thought that spending the day in the classroom popping movies and teaching mini-lessons would be better. After two full days of "holding in homeroom," I must say that the jury is still out on which is the better gig.

The students call these days "free days" and refuse (more than normal) to do ANYthing that could be conceived of as work. With nothing to hold over them and no consequence system in place (we can't send them out because the school is a "secure testing site," meaning no one can even go to the bathroom without taking the whole class with them), I am forced to acquiesce to their protestations.

So, we started out by watching "Eyes on the Prize," a PBS documentary on Civil Rights, then moved to "Waiting for Superman," the hot, COLOR, documentary on the achievement gap, and finished out with "To Kill a Mockingbird" --back to black and white but a FEATURE FILM. In between the showings, spread over two days, we did a bit of USA map copying/coloring, US History jeopardy, and the ever sought-after "free time."

It was a fascinating experience, sitting beside my students as we witnessed violent demonstrations of racism and classism, past and present. Every time the "n word" came up, I turned red and slouched in my seat, nervous that I was asking too much of my relationship with my students, many of whom probably still do not trust me. I think it was time well spent, though, since from the first five minutes of "Eyes on the Prize," when a student said "Indianola's like that" when the narrator described segregation, some students were engaging with and responding to the material. Yet, sadly, most students continually complained about how boring the class was and how they wanted to watch movies like "Big Mama," "like all the other classes." My homeroom students are DEFINITELY far from enamored with me. I make them "work" everyday, and they seem to resent me for it. Maybe they'll come around someday.

I couldn't believe that even topics that related so closely to their lives--failing schools, blatant racism/segregation--were of no interest to them. Where is the sense of injustice? The desire to DO something about it. At one point, we listed all of the places in Indianola that are "white" and "black" and then tried to come up with a few places that are integrated (the list: Wal-Mart and McDonald's). But then nothing happened. I asked if anyone was bothered by the segregation. They shrugged. I asked if anyone tried to do anything about it. They stared. Am I wrong to expect critical consciousness of the oppressed? Am I wrong to conceive of it in that way?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Week 7 Has Arrived

It has been awhile since I last posted. SO much has happened in the last six weeks. I haven't really known where to begin or how to process my thoughts, hence my blogging absence.

While I can't begin to sum up what my first six weeks as a teacher have been like, I suppose I've got to start somewhere, now, or I never will.

I've been exhausted, exhilarated, depressed, inspired, hopeful, and despairing just about every day since I began running a classroom. I've got 110 students spread across 7 sections of Algebra II, Geometry, and Literacy Remediation. I wake up at 5:45 am, get home from school at 5 if I'm lucky, eat, plan until 8 or 9, and go to bed. On the weekends, I plan all day Saturday and Sunday, while fitting in a few runs, church, and a movie or football game with my roommates. I've never worked so hard in my life. But I do feel that this is where I am supposed to be. As difficult as each day is, I savor the moments when I'm in front of my students, showing them how to do this-or-that, and they get it. Simple? Obvious? Yes, of course. But no less real or meaningful.

Overall, I am doing just fine. Thanks SO much to all of those who have sent me letters, email, or left voicemails of love/concern. It has meant so much to me to feel your support as I trod through the hours upon hours of planning and dealing with the ever-volatile teenage psyche.

A few scenes from the past few weeks:

-I was teaching about the distance formula when one of my students raised his hand, holding up one of my hairs, and asked me politely if I have to wash my hair everyday.

-I went to make copies one afternoon during my planning period only to be startled to see one of my sweetest (however capricious) students handcuffed, escorted out of the school by two policemen.

-One of my most academically gifted and socially mature students left last week to have a child. She has been tutoring for two hours with me every Thursday evening at McDonald's for the past few weeks, even though she already knows how to most everything. What a courageous young woman. She has what it takes to go to any college she chooses, but with the baby on the way, she will need to stay close to home.

-In my literacy remediation section, an administrator happened to walk in (for the only time all year) to my students huddled around the powerpoint singing and grooving to the (unedited) words to "Boys in the Hood," as I scrambled for control of my lesson (on the impact of violent song lyrics). I turned red.

-One day that same block of remediation was so out of control that I it took me a half hour to notice one of the students writing gang symbols in black sharpie all over the desk.

-One of my students ran in to Algebra II shouting "I'm not late" (he obviously was) as his pants tumbled to his ankles. To sag or not to sag. Maybe he knows now.

-I ripped up a student's test in front of her face when she broke my no-talking rule on the first quiz. I turned around trembling and smiling: I shocked myself by actually doing it.

-This student's mother barged into my next class, as I was teaching, and began accosting me in front of my students. She returned several times that day, and eventually we worked through the debacle. But boy, was it a debacle.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Eve of Day 1

It has been a long time since I blogged. In the meantime, I have been moving into my new place, visiting home, and spending short but lovely moments with my new (and old!) dear friends. We have bugs. You name it: swarming ants in the cupboards, leaping cockroaches in the bedroom, mating moths on the curtains, and many, many spiders, large and small, in every nook and cranny. My crew of pesticide-protesting roommates have given in to the Southern reality. The mayor (who is our landlord) has been by on several occasions dousing the outside of the house so heavy with pesticide spray that we honestly thought he was power washing the windows at first.

In spite of the bugs, parts of the house are starting to come together. We got rid of some bulky furniture pieces and have been decorating a bit. However, we still don't have a kitchen/dining room table or un-torn couches, so we have been spending a lot of time on the floor. We have been making the most of this rough transition, strumming on the guitar and singing along in the evenings, celebrating our small supply of organic food by stir-frying it in the midst of the 90 degree indoor temperatures (our air is ineffective in the afternoons), and conversing at length about both school-related and life-related topics on a regular basis. I am so thankful to have such amazing roommates. They really care about the world and our place in it.

School starts on Monday. Four days from now.
My classroom is almost all the way set up, and it is looking so much better! After making use of $100 worth of cleaning supplies from Wal-Mart, it is finally beginning to feel right, to feel like a place where my students and I can feel safe, creative, and empowered to become better humans. On one of the televisions on the wall, I put a sign saying "turn it off!!" and on the other, I put a sign saying "Carpe Diem." Above the board reads the phrase "find the meaning behind the math." Some days I feel so excited and optimistic about my incoming students, but other days, I tremble.

My roommate, Laura, had her first day of school today (!). I knew it wasn't good when I saw her quavering in her car, speaking on the phone long after she had parked. She came in and I rubbed her back and gave her freshly cut watermelon while she told me that in one of her periods, no one listened to a word she said. From the very beginning. She told them at the door to take a sheet and begin silently working on it. They all started talking and didn't complete the sheet. The problems are so structural. Sometimes, as outsiders, we feel powerless. She can't send her students out because the principal won't do anything to them and will just send them back. She can't invest the students because she doesn't know what makes them tick. And, as several of her coworkers pointed out afterwards, she can't discipline them because, as a white woman with a mild manner, "they won't listen to her."

It is amazing how for the past few weeks, all my roommates and I have been planning for is behavior management. Nowhere is talk about the actual instruction of English grammar or fractions. Student's can't learn if they aren't behaving; therefore, this has become our greatest, most important battle to win.

Poor behavior, though, isn't always the students' fault. True, some know very well that they are misbehaving and will shape up given an assertive or sassy teacher, but many have never been taught how to behave. THerefore, we can't expect that consequence systems will effectively dispel their delinquency. Rather than continually saying "stop," we need to say, "here's how..." Easier said than done.

I have learned so much this summer. This is the hardest thing I have ever done. Many tears have been shed and many emotions drained to the point of emptiness, apathy. But we need to continually recommit ourselves, remember our vision, remember that these young human beings deserve an education that can take them wherever they wish to go. We need to focus outward and find our strength. We need to find those points of vulnerability behind the annals of defense built to cover years' and years' worth of failure, incompetency, and low expectations. It's not about us.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The First Denouement

I am in the last few days of my summer training program, and I must say that I am exhausted, but for different reasons than I anticipated.

I have been surprised by just how much time must go into things like guided notes, posters, worksheets, and assessments (...and the necessity to go back and check the answer choices before copying said assessments...). I have also faced the disparity between feeling overwhelmed by the number of ways I can teach one given objective, while feeling hard-pressed to come up with one effective strategy for another. I have learned the importance of maintaining a "teacher face" that hides any excessive emotion, whether positive or negative. I have come to appreciate the amount of mental, physical, and emotional energy it takes to essentially "perform" for a tough crowd of students, and respond to their needs. I have been distressed by the wildly different levels of my students--one can't multiply or divide, another can't read the math questions, and yet another gets what I am saying within five minutes and can practice it perfectly in ten.

On the positive side, I have come to feel confident about my teacher presence in the classroom. When interviewed about his favorite teachers, one young man called me "a sweet kind'a lady" and warned my next year's students to "make sure to raise your hand if you wanna speak." I have also been wooed by the amazingness of my students. They are intelligent, hard working, entertaining, and upstanding young people. It is a tragedy that some of them are as behind as they are, because they are clearly capable of meeting high expectations if given the proper support.

That said, I will be leaving institute feeling only slightly pleased with my performance. I know that my students have learned new concepts and grown in confidence and comportment, but I also know that they could have grown even more if I would've known how to teach them better. I am here to incite transformational change for my students, and while I do not think that I have achieved that qualitative goal with these summer school students, I do hope that our work together has made a difference and that over the next two years, I can continue to work towards that goal for the sake of these kids.