Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 09 2010

Lessons for Ms. S.

I’ve been waiting for the right words to pull together my thoughts, but it’s been six weeks and I just can’t wait any longer. So with or without them, here I go. In the past month and a half I’ve amassed several new students and a world of new experiences. There have been many failures (read: lessons from which to improve), but so many successes too (so read til the end)…

The addition of one new student in particular, let’s call him Jared, unbalanced the culture of my classroom almost immediately upon his arrival. Jared thinks he’s grown and tough. The behavior frustrations started more innocently with calling out and wandering the room sans permission, but accelerated to include physical fights, insulting classmates and myself, and  throwing tantrums during instruction. So, Jared and I conferenced, drew up individualized guidelines that involve constant contact with Coach (side note: my boys admire Coach like a god, read: super important person to aide in leverage), and set into motion the parameters for appropriate behavior. Truth is, I know he craves to be in my classroom, but he distracts the learning. So whenever a spell of wildness occurs, I send him outside to reflect before he may re-enter. A turning point arrived when he walked into my class afterschool on one particularly frustrating day, to find me in tears. He put his arm around me and said, “Ms. Samati, I’m sorry for the way I act, can I get you a tissue?” I erupted in laughter immediately. Remorse, he showed remorse, and maybe, just maybe, saw me as human too.

Where I am teaching my kids California standards, my kids are teaching me life lessons beyond the academic. One day after school, I decided to walk two students, let’s call them Malcolm and Zee, home in the hopes of chatting with their parents. My school sits aside Sobrante Park, a pretty ruthless neighborhood in Oakland. Pit bulls lined up as we walked along the narrow sidewalk. At one point, one lurched out from behind the fence, and I screamed and grabbed Zee’s jacket. He warned me, “Ms. Samati, you can’t show fear. They sense it when you’re afraid. That’s when they attack.”  Again, I started laughing. I told my mom this story later that night and she reminded me that when my grandma was teaching, “They had to walk miles in the snow and cold, braving frostbite.” I explained that where my grandma worried about losing toes, my kids’ thoughts are preoccupied with bullets, getting jumped, and riots on the weekends. Their parents call me nervously when they’re not home within 5 minutes of school’s end. Their young eyes have witnessed some unsettling events. And this just isn’t fair to the child inside.

I feel the pressure of this work—pressure from the kids, from the district, from parents, and most heavily from myself—to achieve enormous feats, to master the material, to make school a safe and fun place, to make learning an extremely important game driven by intrinsic motivation, and to teach my students how to interact with each other and the world like the truest citizens they can be. Listening to a program a while ago I heard someone say, “You don’t get the tag of teaching until your students are learning. There are only 3 groups of people who may not want to be where they are: prisoners, people confined to mental health facilities, and students.” Its futile to continue a lesson when you can’t regain student attention, PERIOD. So how can I make the learning come alive? I think about this everyday as I plan my lessons.

So I shared this true story with my students the day after it happened. The lights were off and the overhead was blank, streaming nothing more than light. In a calm, quiet voice I began, “Boys and girls, I want to tell you a story about something that happened to Ms. Samati last night.” I placed a handwritten account of the following events (paraphrased here for brevity’s sake). At 2 am I was startled awake to the sound of “BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! POLICE! POLICE! POLICE!” at the front door (made of glass, mind you). I peered out my window to see an officer running down my steps accompanied by a massive canine. Our block was lined up with squad car after squad car, four directly in front. A dozen officers hurried through either side of the gates around my house. I explained to my students, “My heart was racing as fast as a cheetah, and I heard it pounding like a drum in my ears.” They were searching for a man on the run and continued until 4:30 am. I watched the whole time petrified, amassing a grand total of 2.5 hours of sleep. I don’t think they ever found the person, but that’s beside the point.  I wrote a narrative of this story in two ways for my students, the first was filled with dialogue, descriptive verbs and adjectives, metaphors, similes, and details; the second was 5 sentences, purely a dry recount of who, what, when, where. I then probed my students to examine which was more interesting to read and hear, and why? What did that version of the story include? We turned my wild encounter in the middle of the night into a mini lesson on figurative language and what makes exciting writing. It clicked.

Little signs of students’ investment in learning are emerging daily now. One eager scholar, let’s call him JJ, stayed afterschool to practice subtraction across zeros when he didn’t fully understand it in our math lesson. When it finally made sense, he shouted out, “Ms. Samati, I get this, it’s easy!” I laughed, and on the back of our next math quiz, he wrote me a note that included several additional subtraction across zeros problems to show me just how well he got it. We’ve since moved onto our multiplication and division unit, learning the pre-algebra fundamentals of solving problems with variables, using tables to create equations, and more. We start out math with a chant…Al-ge-bra, al-ge-bra, al-ge-bra…hands beating tables and clapping. I believe that if I can pump them up, I can keep them engaged. And across the board, that is one thing that has worked wonders in my class—anything that involves hands, beats, call and response, and active movement, keeps their attention and creates a positive vibe in the room.

One day JJ was working on the white board after school when he advised me, “Ms. Samati, the reason Jared doesn’t listen is because you have to be more fierce.” I responded, “You don’t think I’m fierce?” (I think he thinks this because I hate yelling, and my dear teacher friend Ms. Lima reflected for me, “If you don’t like yelling, don’t yell.” So I don’t, instead I get silent and wait, and they know better.) Anyways, JJ said, “No.” I spent the next couple days talking to the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th grade teachers extracting tips from their wisdom. JJ saw this and exclaimed in delight, “Ms. Samati, they’re teaching you how to be fierce!” I laughed, “Yes, yes they are.”

It is no easy feat to balance everything that goes into teaching with credential class, parent conferences, my own exams, and some semblance of a social life. Indeed, it can be a logistical nightmare organizing so many schedules, but I feel very much alive, and this keeps me excited and invested. In the soulful tone of Nina Simone, “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good…”

6 Responses

  1. simona

    i love your writing, your stories, and you. so incredibly proud

  2. Jessica

    love this Katja. Wish I had you here to be inspiring me all the time! (:

  3. Megan

    Samesies. Beautiful!

  4. Jeffrey A. Jaroszewski

    That was truly a beautifully written anecdote. An amazing use of personal experience to create and expound a learning opportunity. I have one day before the most recent deadline to fill out my application for teach for America, and this post has sealed the deal. Thanks Ms. S. for helping me realize something I already knew.

    • misskatja

      Wishing you the best…!

  5. Cindy Trueblood

    Thanks for sharing some of your new life with us. I found your blog through the Woolman Semester blog-it feels good to have the Woolman community extend through time and space. I would love to see your two versions of the story in full and share them with Matthew.

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Bottom Line: My kids must have options.

Bay Area
Elementary School

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