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

Sunday, September 26, 2004


what a difference a day can hold (dedicated to michael genovese)

i began this afternoon in a spiraling depression, my head on my desk and my motivation plummeting as i thought about the many, many things i have to do for school just to catch up. i decided to call emily, my best friend who was traveling to minneapolis to find a new place to live. her cell phone was dead (not surprising) and i began an email message to her immediately:
sunday 4:13pm
i tried calling your phone. it is out of service. i wanted to leave you a message, let you hear my voice and how it shakes. maybe you could hear my heart beating.

i am scared of teaching. it is growing to be very difficult and i am scared that i am failing. i know that if i concentrate and focus and put more time into it, i can do it, but i can't concentrate. i can't focus. i can't seem to get myself to put in any time because i dread the work it takes to prepare, thinking that the lesson won't do any good. the students won't want to listen. they won't want to work.

these past two weeks have been hard. the school isn't getting much better because it's overcrowded and the teachers are overworked. i get home and i sleep and now i am behind in my work. on the weekends, i avoid catching up because i don't like to think about it.

the students are becoming bored and they see that i am not prepared for class. my lessons have been short and aren't strong enough to really help them digest the information. they have a hard time paying attention, too, so i often have to fight for their attention. this is tiring.

i am not going to give up, i'm just worried that i am dragging along and becoming a poor teacher like what most of these kids have always known: the teacher who hasn't planned enough. the teacher who is uninspired because of so much paperwork. etc, etc.

this is my message to you. i hope you can take some time to think about everything and maybe we will get together this week and talk. i miss you. see you soon,

at six o'clock, i biked to earwax cafe and ordered a mug of coffee. i pretended to read a magazine. i was anxious to meet the person i had come here to see. michael genovese is a chicago artist who i had stumbled across in a local newspaper not long ago. among many things, he does public art work and was/is a graffiti artist, something easily seen in his painting style. i wrote him a couple weeks ago to see if he was interested in working with my visual art class in school. once i saw some of his work on his web site, i knew that my students would appreciate his talent. i could see him bringing some of his paintings to class and talking about his process, influences, inspirations, life... everything. i didn't know if he would dig this idea, but he wrote back in a day and responded with enthusiasm. we decided to meet.

over a week later, we finally coordinated our busy lives to find each other in wicker park on a sunday evening. he was more down to earth than i could have imagined. he had lived the life some of my students live today. michael grew up in chicago sketching graffiti in his art book as a teenager and later let his talent take him across the nation as a sign painter in a carnival. a few years pass and life takes him to Ecuador where he worked as an educator in ESL (english as a second language). the experiences opened up doors for michael as an instructor, and without any formal degrees, he worked on teaching and curriculum in South America. he eventually came back to chicago and has been working as an artist here, slowly establishing himself and working towards fulfilling his passions in art, both indoor and outdoor. after so many years doing graffiti, public art is still in his blood. michael works with the chicago public art group and other individuals to create public art pieces around chicago, as well as doing studio painting. we talked and talked over coffee in that cafe, and my spirits rose. i told him i was stuck in my art class, running short on ideas, and he threw some thoughts my way. the students can create found-object sculptures, develop sketches, create structures to eventually be displayed in a gallery and... hey, who knows... maybe even be sold and have the money go straight back into the hands of the students. public art work would be something within reach, perhaps nearby on abandoned buildings with boarded-up windows. paintings, murals, mixed-media. i can see it now: right on pulaski avenue where students and passersby-ers would see everyday. as a class, i can assign roles to the students--planning teams, painters, photographers. teacher about composition, line, unity, balance. teach the importance of documenting each step and use our two cameras strategically. thank you, michael, for your quick ideas, putting together my disarray and providing some inspiration and experience. you don't know how much this means.

Thursday, September 23, 2004


teach how you would want to be taught

my 7th period class (photography & visual art) and i had a great big heart-to-heart session today. i spoke on the topic of unity and how this class needs to work together. most of the kids are loud and rambunctious, while some are quiet and seem to lack focus because of the rowdy ones. also, they seem overly bored. so, after a few minutes of trying to get them to be quiet and listen, we went around the room and i had each person state why they signed up for the class and what they think of it so far. i was strict on the rule of only one person speaking at a time, and i didn't criticize any of the student's comments. most said our recent class work has been boring and they don't understand how looking at art connects to photography. the comments were honest and i really felt good when the class remained quiet throughout the go-around, letting each students speak her/his mind. unfortunately, we don't have cameras that the students can use yet, so i have been trying to teach them the basics elements and principals of art using research on the internet. bad idea. they just get bored looking at photos and when i lecture to them about composition and style, they stare back blankly. today they communicated to me that they do not want to study art, they want to do art.

sometimes i need to step back and analyze myself, and remind myself not to become the teacher who loses touch with the student's perspective. teach how i would want to be taught.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004


i am grading math homework

who would have guessed? but anyone who knows my 8 month history at APHS won't find this as a shock. since beginning here, i have taught english, environmental science, journalism, photography, and art. i even substituted in Spanish class once. last friday, when the principal told me that she needed to open up a new section of math and that she wanted me to teach the class, i told her i would look forward to the challenge. and truthfully, i do. of course, i became nervous at the thought of solving mathematics equations on the board, and immediatly thoughts of sixth grade math class began to fill my mind. my sixth grade math teacher was old and strict, and to make it worse, she had braces and was despised by every student. my memories of elementary school are sparse on details, but i remember this math teacher forced me to stand at the board and solve a problem. she knew i didn't know the answer or how to solve it. i'm sure she was trying to use me as an example for the other students: pay attention and work obediently and you won't have to embarrass yourself in front of the class. and yes, i felt embarrassed, like an idiot who lacked the intelligence to be any good at math. this math problem seemed impossible to me. so i stood at the chalk board, frozen with my back to the class so no one would notice the tears rolling down my face.

the truth, now that i look back on this experience, is that she emarrassed me because she failed to find a way to teach me how to solve this problem, failed to engage me, and then used me to make herself feel guiltless and powerful. fortunatly, the only thing proven, even to the eleven year-olds in the room, was that she was wicked and spiteful. completing her assignments felt pointless because success would only feel empty with her. what was our inspiration? our reason to succeed? i had a hard time enjoying mathematics after that experience. math remained cryptic until one summer when i was stuck in summer school before my tenth-grade year. the class was composed of two students and one teacher. i was enrolled in private school, but this teacher was regularly a public school teacher during the acidemic year, crossing over during the summer to our school perhaps to make some extra money. somehow, and i wish i remembered his technique, he broke down algebra into something decipherable and, eventually, something i became fluent in. i entered tenth-grade mathematics class that september with confidence, sitting in the front row and answering questions with confidence. i earned an A and truely felt good about myself.

i wish i could remember that teacher's name. i wish i felt like i could track him down.

Thursday, September 16, 2004


i tell my students and i tell my friends:

every one of you has the ability, the CAPACITY to accomplish whatever you dream to do. only the lazy ones with excuses will convince themselves that something is impossible.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004


the argument

i am tired. i am back to my routine of taking long naps after school, not to mention sleeping seven hours a night.

today i broke up a fight in third period. well, an argument. pre-fight. almost there. two females who each had to have the last word. it ended with me standing between them, not even trying to raise my voice. i didn't want to add to the commotion. so i stood calmly hoping one might look to me for a way out, but they had long lost the ability to hear anything but themselves. i motioned for one of the other students to get the principal whose office was only a few doors down.

the rest of the day went well. the period after lunch tends to be a siesta for the students--blank stares, little motivation. i can sympathize. my head usually hurts after fourth period. i had a bicycle accident yesterday and landed on my back. the pain is constant.

i am also still substituting the morning english classes, a fact which the students love, but i am beginning to tire of. the administration tells me they'll have someone permenent any day now, but so far there is no teacher and i wish i could plan a project--something to get the students more involved. we're reading Animal Farm by George Orwell. luckily, i have been able to keep the students interested. today, i told them the book is based on a true story. "What? You bogus!" and then i explain a bit about the 1917 russian revolution. we have fun.

journalism classes are still working on basic interviewing skills and feature articles. we all can't wait to get started on the magazine, myself included, but teaching them the technique now will save time later. "you've got to learn to walk before you can learn to run," i told a student today.

photography has no photography yet. the students are anxious, but we are working on art history and understanding technique and compostion. 7th period, 15 students, some of the most rowdy kids with full blown ADHD, but we still keep it together some how. i think it's mostly based on the fact that i've known most of theses students for as long as they've been enrolled in our school and a mutual respect has grown between us. they still get rowdy, but they actually listen when i talk to them. when i began teaching, i could only wish for such things.

tomorrow is another day. 8 months teaching and many years till i perfect this job. but someday...

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.

Monday, September 06, 2004


the eve

anxiety. tonight i am uncomfortable with the unknown. i am out of my routine--i have been since july--and now i sit here with an unsettling feeling the night before my first day of teaching since summer began two months ago.

i revisited my journal from january of this year, my first month of official teaching at APHS. i wanted to taste what i was experiencing back then, partly to reminisce and partly to see if i could figure out a way to calm this feeling i have inside of me right now. i am not nervous, just anxious. and without a clue as to what will happen tomorrow. and the next day. and the day after that. i have my lessons and my planners, but no amount of paper work and preparation will get me ready for this new year. i just have to jump in and see what happens. ...after writing that, i seem to recall something that i had forgotten: the students are my source of energy, they are my inspiration. without them i am lost, without them i am anxious and wandering.

tomorrow, we are back.

Friday, September 03, 2004


three weeks of preparation...

i have been sitting in front of this computer and in front of administrators for the past three weeks. we, the teachers of Antonia Pantoja high school, are preparing our lessons and ourselves for the school year. this is an arduous task, a long and grueling process of filling in the blanks of quarterly planners, unit maps, syllabi, and lesson plans.

and the school is changing, too. the general climate here is much more orderly and formal. paper work, student processing, tightening up dress code for teachers. it is now required that the students refer to teachers as "mister" and "miss." our image seems to be of great importance lately, and i can understand why. this school has been under probation for years and our reputation was less than admirable. i love this school, but i recognized that to the outsider, we looked disorganized and without foundation. At present, however, we are becoming something of pride for our parent organization, Aspira. our principal is stressing a clean, disciplined, and highly organized appearance. more than that, i feel these new intensive processes go deeper than our image--we are all freshman teachers with less than five years experience, most with under one year. furthermore, the faculty in alternative schools has historically had a discreditable reputation and is known for being unenthusiastic and inexperienced. this is our challenge, as i see it, and these new processes and preparations are difficult, but for the best. i will be more prepared for teaching and the school will have the documentation to prove, at least on paper, that i am working responsibly.

there are so many ways to teach, and i can understand my fellow teachers who complain that this paperwork is bogus and wasteful when we could be preparing more intensely on our lesson planning. if i had my way, i would be teaching without walls and without a syllabus. our lessons would be direct experiences and our curriculum would be conversations and interactions with people and world around us. but we work within the system we have, we do what we can to do what we love. and after all is said and done from these three weeks, the teachers of Antonia Pantoja will each, one by one, shut their classroom doors on the morning of september seventh and bring forth something invaluable to a body of students eager to learn.

!internet exclusive! some of my course preperation can be viewed here:
      * journalism 1
      * journalism 2
      * photography & visual arts


January 2004   February 2004   March 2004   April 2004   May 2004   June 2004   July 2004   September 2004   October 2004   November 2004   December 2004   August 2005  

This page is powered by Blogger.