Tales from an inner city high school

Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Today the mothers went on a field trip with their babies.

The school strongly encourages all teachers to allow students with children to attend field trips with their babies. I always let kids go on field trips, whether they have babies or not, but some of my kids like LaParis seem to always be on one trip or another.

Today the babies and mothers went to the zoo. As I was leaving the building after school was out I saw them returning from their trip. All sorts of bored looking teenaged girls with babies in tow. Some of the moms had little baby backpacks that they were carting their babies in. Some had strollers. LaParis had a baby carrier that she was pushing along the floor with her foot. A security guard was yelling at her. "Pick that baby up!" she said "he's liable to fall right out like that!" LaParis laughed and kept kicking the carrier along.

"I'm tired!" she screamed in response.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


I just assigned my students their final project in my class for the year. It's a group project.

All year I have struggled with group projects. I have experimented with different ways on how to form groups. I have tried choosing the groups for the students. I have tried letting them pick their own groups. I have even tried giving them flexible groups where they can change groups if they want. All of those methods worked fine. But today I tried something new.

For this last project I asked for volunteers to be captains. "The captain of the group" I explained to the class "should be someone responsible, someone who is here everyday, someone who can lead the rest of the group." Before I could finish with the description there were hands waiving in the air and shouts of "me, me!" coming up from the back of the room.

I couldn't believe the enthusiasm. This was coming from a group of students that asked for extra credit if I wanted them to something as simple as read aloud in class. They were desperate to be leaders!

I was elated.

I had the class narrow the volunteers down to three and brought them to the front of the room to choose groups. They picked the members of their team like the gym class does for kickball games. One captain chooses a member, then the next one, then the next one and repeat. It was great. There wasn't any complaining or fighting. They broke up in to groups and worked on their project with the most ease I had seen all year.

In all of my classes I was surprised to see who volunteered to be a captain. In my last period, Darius Newcom showed an interest. "You want to be a captain, Darius?" I asked him. He came up to the front of the room.

Darius has been half-involved all year. He often sleeps instead of doing his work and always snores loud enough to make the whole class erupt in laughter. I have never seen him show much interest in anything, but that changed today. He picked his group-mates and they went off to a corner of the classroom. I heard Darius delegating responsibilities and really encouraging his team members to work. I had never seen him so serious and so engaged before. Before he left the room he stopped by my desk.

"Are you proud of me?" he asked, smiling. "Yes" I told him.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


I am having my sophomores write essays for the first time this year on a movie we recently watched in class. For the past couple days in class I have given them time in the computer lab to type up their paper.

Watching them write is depressing.

No student is up to grade level as far as writing and very few are writing clear, thoughtful essays. There is a plethora of run on sentences and off topic paragraphs. The essay prompt was not a personal one and I have an overwhelming amount of students writing things like "Hello. My name is Chatara Smith and I am 16 years old. I am going to write this essay about...".

Not being a writing teacher, I am having a very hard time explaining why they shouldn't be doing things like that in an essay. In fact, I am becoming extraordinarily frustrated with the entire writing process. I was talking to another teacher about my class' assignment. "They don't know how to copy and paste," I told her "they don't know how to double-space. They don't know how to change their font size or save their paper to the desktop. Most of all, they don't know how to write!" She nodded sympathetically. "I know," she said "that's why I don't give writing assignments anymore."

The hardest part about dealing with these kids is their utter impatience. There are no raised hands in the computer lab. Only shouts of "fuck this paper!" and "How do you fix this!!".

Today Jasmine printed out her paper and turned it in before its' Thursday due date. "That's great that you are finished!" I told her. "Do you want me to proofread it?" I asked. "No." She said "I just want to turn it in. "Well you might get a better grade on it if look it over for you. For instance, I can tell you right now that you need to indent your paragraphs." She looked at me quizzically. "You didn't say we had to do that. What do that mean?" "Well you always have to indent paragraphs when you write a paper." She looked at me again.

"Does anyone know what it means to indent a paragraph?" I asked the class. No one raised their hand. No one shouted out anything, except for Arnold in the back that asked if it was a requirement. "You guys know what indenting is." I told them "It's, you know, when you tab over at the beginning of a paragraph." George took his headphones out of his ears. "Why do you have to do that?" He said.

I didn't know.

"To separate the paragraph structure." I said "To break your paper up." Some of the kids were looking at me now and I started to write on the board. I showed them how to indent on the board, but I wasn't sure how many spaces they had to make. "Just press the tab key at the beginning of each paragraph" I told them. "You shouldn't grade us on that" said Bernice "cause you didn't tell us before" "Yeah" said Jeremy "are you going to grade us on that?"

I thought about it.


Friday, May 18, 2007


Jeffrey walked into my classroom after school today, holding his jaw.

"Do you have any orajel?" he asked me. I asked him what that was. "You know, the stuff you put in your mouth if you got sores or something." he explained. "No, I don't have any of that stuff. What's the matter? You got a cancor sore or something?" He opened his mouth and pointed to a tooth in the back. It was black.

"Oh my god, Jeffrey. What is that?" He told me it was his black tooth. "I chewed through it." he said. "You can't just chew through a tooth!" I told him "That tooth is rotten!"

"I know." he said

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


It isn't often that one has to accept apologies. Real apologies.

In the beginning of the year Jerrel Hogan and I had it out. Almost everyday there was an incident. Jerrel would throw a book across the room. I'd send him out. Jerrel would hit another student. I'd send him out. Jerrel would spill juice all over the computer keyboard and refuse to clean it up.

I'd send him out.

It was around that time that I discovered the Mandatory Parent Conference. An MPC is an amazing weapon in this school. If you give a student an MPC it means that they cannot come back into your room without a parent. It's almost always a win-win situation. If the kid never comes with a parent, they never come back in your room. If a kid does come with a parent then you get to (hopefully) find a way to change the behavior. I gave Jerrel an MPC.

Jerrel's mother never came in, but his Aunt did the very next day. She was a well spoken, well dressed woman with a genuine face. She came to my classroom door during my lunch with Jerrel in tow. She introduced herself. She told me that Jerrel's mother couldn't make it and that she hoped that I would accept her in his mother's place. "We have problems with the men in our family" she explained "but we are working on it with this one" she nodded in Jerrel's direction. He stood next to her leaning against the wall and looking at the ground. She told him to stand up straight. "Look at your teacher." He did for a moment and looked away. "I know this is hard for you, son, but you need to apologize for what you did." Jerrel started to tremble.

"Sorry" mumbled Jerrel and looked down. He was shaking. I had never seen him so weak. It suddenly occurred to me how young he was. Only fifteen and I had been fighting him like a grown man.

I was embarrassed.

"Look your teacher in the eyes" said Jerrel's aunt. "You are a strong person, Jerrel. It takes strength to really apologize to someone. That's why it hurts so bad. But you are strong and I want you to act like a man and look into this woman's eyes and apologize for what you did"

Jerrel looked at me, still shaking, his voice trembling. "I apologize for acting foolish in your class" he said "I am going to change the way I have been acting". He relaxed a bit and his Aunt looked at me. I hadn't thought of a response to his apology. I felt drained. I was so proud of Jerrel for apologizing to me. It was such a gesture that I didn't feel deserving. I felt like a child and I felt my body trembling just like his. I finally mustered up something.

"Thank you for apologizing, Jerrel" I said, as adult as possible. Then I paused. I admitted something to him. "I think I have been prejudice toward you." I told him "Because of your bad behavior in the past, I have started every class anticipating your bad behavior to repeat. I haven't given you any slack or ever given you the benefit of the doubt. I'm sorry for that. I'm going to start over with you. Okay?" Jerrel nodded, not looking at me. His aunt nodded too. She shook my hand and thanked me.

I thanked her too.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


While I was taking attendance today during sixth period I looked up from my desk to see LaParis walking purposefully across the room with a chair raised over her head. She was following Aaron.

Before I knew it she started to hit him with the chair. "Ow! Damn bitch! Ow!" yelped Aaron. I screamed. "LaParis, put the chair down!", but she ignored me. She kept hitting him on the head with the legs of the chair. As I got up and ran over to them, Aaron managed to get away. "LaParis, out!" I yelled and she put the chair down. There was a lot of noise. Aaron was yelling about injustice and the other students were laughing and screaming. LaParis was yelling too. "You always got to say something to me when I do something, but he do something and you never say nothing to him!" "What are you talking about?" I said "What did he do?"

"He threw a paper ball at me!"

Thursday, May 03, 2007


There is a sophomore in my last period class that I can hardly stand.

His name is Eric. He is a terror. The difference in the classroom between when he is there and when he is away is incredible. Eric is the kind of kid that can walk in to a relatively calm classroom and in ten minutes have all the kids screaming and jumping on top of desks. He has constant energy and it always seems to be charged in to something negative. Sometimes I will think "wow, why is this class being so good today?" and then realize that it is because Eric isn't there.

Today Eric and I got in to it. I asked him to come to the computer lab. He said no. I asked him again and he jumped in my face and screamed "NO!". I put my hand on his back to guide him out the door and he knocked my hand away. "Don't touch me!" he said "I'm not your child." I felt weak. I sent him out of the room. "Get out, Eric." I said "What'd I do? I didn't do nothing!" He yelled. I didn't know what to say. What did he do? I guess I didn't really know. He was disrespecting me. Was it enough to kick him out? I didn't know, but I didn't feel strong enough to do anything else.

"Man I don't care if you do kick me out. I'm about to go to my baseball game anyway" Eric said. "Well you aren't going to be on the team for long if you keep behaving like this and failing classes" I told him. "On my momma I will" He said "They won't never kick me off of that team"

I couldn't argue with him. When baseball season started the coach told me they had to get a bunch of forms signed from the board of education stating that students with failing grades could still play on the team. "We have so many kids failing at this school" the coach said "I don't know what we'd do if they couldn't play"

After school today I spoke with the coach. I told him what Eric said and I told him about his behavior in my class. "Would you kick him out if you had to?" I asked him. "Oh yeah," he said "I already took Deonte off the team for grades and for discipline problems. I can take Eric off too" "Is he any good?" I asked. "He's my best player" he said.

The coach told me to tell him if anything else happened. He said he would talk to Eric and tell him that if this keeps up he'll be off the team. I was scared all of a sudden. Maybe taking Eric off the team isn't a good solution. Where else would he go after school? On the streets? He wouldn't feel good about himself, that's for sure. He probably wouldn't be inspired to do better. He would just be angry. He might get worse. But is it better to let him stay on? With failing grades and a bad attitude?

I don't know.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Yesterday I let Shonique fill out a job application online in my room. She needed a lot of help with the application because of her low reading skills.

"What do I need to put here?" She asked me. "Well, what do you think?" I said, trying to encourage her to use context clues. Shonique answered me without re-reading the words "my middle name." she said, "but can I just write my middle initial?" "Well it's a big blank space" I answered "and it does say 'middle name' so I think you ought to write the whole thing out." I started to walk away.

"Well, do you know how to spell it?" She asked. "Spell what?" I answered. "My middle name?".

I didn't, but I did my best. Shonique confided in me that she had only been putting her middle initial for as long as she can remember. "I gotta learn how to spell that." she said.

"You sure do" I responded.