"Education is not a product: mark, diploma, job, money; It is a process, a never-ending one." -bel kaufman

Thursday, September 09, 2004


a look back into three days of teaching heaven

the first day: tuesday.
i am not required to be at school until 11:30am. this school year, i have moved into part-time status at my own request in order to have more time for college and other community projects. tuesday i decide to show up early and help out the staff with the first day of school. it is 7:25am, i am buttoning my shirt in my bedroom and the phone rings. it is Jose, a colleague at school.
"Hey, Nic. Can you come into school? Ms. Lopez needs you."
"Sure, i was planning on coming in anyway. Why?"
"Mr. Godfrey, Bob, he had a heart attack. They need you to substitute his class."

shock. i arrive at school and the kids are everywhere. they make fun of my bike, as usual, and i try to park it in the kitchen/teacher's lounge. the lunch ladies bite my head off when i get halfway through the door. i store the bicycle in the storage closet. what will i teach today? i was planning on using this morning time to prepare for my afternoon classes. substituting, or should i say filling in without any preparation, has become almost second nature to me. i've been doing it ever since i started. for my first week of official teaching, they threw me into an Environmental Studies class and gave me a a milk crate full of national geographic magazines for textbooks. "Here. You've got five weeks till the end of the semester. Good luck." today, they hand me the syllabus that Mr. Godfrey had prepared. i take attendance and we read the syllabus together. most of the students are kids i've known from quarters past. we take it easy and do an activity to get acquainted. we talk about our summertimes. when forty minutes pass and the class enters full "chill" mode, i begin to mentally prepare a lesson in my head for the upcoming days. i have no idea how long i will be substituting this class. i tell the kids Mr. Godfrey will be back eventually, we just don't know when. the truth is, and i found this out later, his doctor told him he is not to work for a year. i'm sure coming to teach at our school is a health risk in itself, especially for a newcomer.

when fourth period finally arrives i stride out of the classroom, ready for lunch, and the principal calls me into her office. "Nic. We have a problem. Sixth period--we booked one room with three classes. Your class and English 3 are going to have to meet in the lunchroom." i cannot complain because, really, i don't see any reason to. STUDENTS + TEACHER = CLASS. a classroom is convenient, but not necessary. "Fine," i say. sixth period arrives. the class is a mixture of old and new students. i am at full joy when we read through our syllabus, a simple-looking piece of paper that i put so much energy into preparing. after discussing the ideas behind the course, we enter into the icebreaker, or "boundary breaker" as it was titled by it's originators. it is a activity where we sit in a circle and i read a question out loud to one student at time. they are required to answer; they can pass, but i must come back to them later with the same question. the main requirement is for all participants to listen. i also point out that watching facial expressions and body language is important, too. the activity is so successful, so engaging, that the students in the English 3 class on the other side of the lunchroom are all watching and listening to our activity. even the teacher has been fully distracted. i holler to them and motion to join us and they do. it becomes a large circle of at least twenty people, all eager to hear the next question and watch for the response. the questions range from "What is the last great movie you've seen?" to "If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?", or even as abstract yet personal as "What is the color of love?" the bell rings and everyone leaves smiling, joking about the answer given by this person or that. seventh period has arrived and the bell rings. photography class. we are in the computer classroom. there are two students here who were also in my sixth period, and they push me to play the game again, so we form a circle. not one person asks to check their email, usually a common problem. the computers' existence fades as we are engulfed in learning more about each other through simple yet revealing questions.

the second day: wednesday.
so my teaching schedule is as such:: Periods 1-3: English. Period 4: homeroom/lunch. Period 5: Journalism 2. Period 6: Journalism 1. Period 7: Photography & Visual Arts.
wednesday morning before class, i open up my drawer in the teachers' file cabinet and find a set of photocopies from last year. "Nancy" is a true story written by Greg Mitchie in his book, Holler if You Hear Me. He tells the story of meeting a former student of his who is now enrolled in DuPaul University to become a teacher. She is Mexican and speaks on many of the struggles of Mexican women growing up and leaving high school. before i pass out the story in my first period class, i provide instructions on the board: "Describe yourself in three words. Then write a paragraph predicting where you will be in five years." i wasn't really thinking of connecting the two activities, the written work and the reading of "Nancy." it happened by accident, but it worked perfectly. so much of the story is about the future, about realizing one's hopes and dreams, not to mention those things that stand in the way of a person's dreams. after reading the story, we talked and talked until the bell rang and i didn't want them to leave. everything worked so well. every student participated. every student was engaged. second and third period went just as well. the classes were larger, and there were some rambunctious students, but nothing out of hand. i began to miss teaching english. i began to question working part-time.

fifth period english is a small group. Journalism 2. the students write their names on pieces of paper and we put them in a small plastic bag. one student pulls a single piece out. "Andres" it reads. i tell Andres to sit at the front of the class. we are going to interview him, which works out perfectly because Andres is one of those students who is comfortable enough to tell jokes at intervals of about every thirty seconds. he never jokes inappropriately, so he is actually a pleasure to have in class. ready for his interview, he takes his seat in front of the other students. we pretend he is a famous rock star currently on a world-wide tour. this works out even better now because Andres really does play in a band and really does play shows. so he simply tells the truth, except for playing in Europe and earning millions of dollars. the students are surprised at his responses as they fire off the questions. they keep asking him if he is for real. after a fifteen minutes of this, i finally end the interview, but Andres doesn't want to step down. he is enjoying the attention too much.

sixth period, we gather in the lunchroom, our indefinite classroom. the students keep asking me if this is where we will be meeting for the rest of the year. i hesitate to give them an answer. also in this lunchroom, besides English 3, is a group of unfamiliar faces and a few advisors. they tell me that there is a presentation for some new students in the lunch room and that we can sit in the far corner. instead, English 3 and our Journalism class decide to move to the CCP computer lab. three classes in one room... we attempt to get something done. i am at an advantage because the students are expecting something fun after the first day and are giving me their attention. unfortunately, i can't do the student interview like we did in the period before. there are two other classes working in this room and the noise would be too much. i skip that exercise and i have them raffle off each other's names so as to to pair them up. their assignment is to interview each other and record the answers on paper. their ultimate objective is to write an article on the person they have been paired with. this activity proceeds smoothly and i am surprised to see every student working, even interested in their interviewee. the bell rings before we know it.

seventh period, finally a stable classroom, but not the most stable student group. some of the more outspoken and hyperactive students are in this class, but this may prove to be an advantage as this is an art course and hyperactivity can perhaps be translated into creativity. i hope. today, we research art movements on a single web site. their assignment is to find one artist and one piece of art by that artist that they like. i was initially worried about students straying off onto email web sites or chat rooms, a common problem that the computer teacher has, but every student seems interested enough to avoid distraction. a surprise, indeed. i discuss materials with some students--oil & canvas, tempura paint, ceramics. Rodney, a young man that i admire for his creativity and originality, finds a painting entitled, View of Cotopaxi. minutes pass and he just gazes into the monitor, absorbing the details of this landscape. he tells me this painting amazes him and i wonder why he appreciates this painting so much. most students choose art works with bold colors or images of Christianity. he notices something different. i find out later that he works with oil paints himself, skilled enough to recognize the complexity and intricacy in View of Cotopaxi.

the third day: thursday.
today was my test. and last night i prepared well enough to succeed and even surpassed my expectations. the morning can be summed up with one story: one of my students, a student i have taught before and even fought (verbally) with before because he didn't want to deal with school work, told me something in a context i will never forget. second period, the bell rings at the end of class. he hands me the story we had just read and tells me, "This is straight, Nic. Hey... you should be our teacher." i simply nod. i had told the students earlier that i am leaving the class after friday. alas, i am only a substitute, but i have earned their approval as a teacher. many don't want me to leave. i question again working only part-time.

Journalism 1 was great as another student i admire is randomly chosen to be the subject of a full-class interview. Noel is a graffiti artist and slacker extraordinaire, always happy to do anything but typical class work. he gets excited when he doesn't have to pull out a paper and a pencil. "We are going to interview Noel, a world-famous artist currently touring the world with his artwork." We burn him with questions, but he keeps up with the pace and fires back answers faster than we can think up questions. We are back in the lunchroom now, and i feel bad for English 3 as they sit in silence on the other side of the room. their teacher (a substitute) is having them copy the rules of English grammar from a dry-erase board. they look over often towards us with faces full of dread and boredom. i wish i could call them over. maybe i should have.


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