This month, millions of teachers and students across the country are heading into the classroom to begin a brand new school year. Meanwhile, Congress is discussing the reauthorization of the controversial No Child Left Behind legislation. The following excerpt from my new rookie teacher memoir, The Great Expectations School, chronicles my turbulent first day leading a fourth grade class at the Bronx's P.S. 85 -- the very kind of class that NCLB ideally aims to help.
On the first day of school, I woke up at 5:05, methodically showered and dressed, purchased a bagel at the corner bodega, and boarded the F-train. I strode through the P.S. 85: Great Expectations School entrance with a quickened step, distributing "good mornings" to everyone I saw.
I had already prepared my chalkboard the previous Friday with the heading:
I knew that establishing the "team" classroom culture had to happen right off the bat. I needed to be firmest when I was the least experienced, the paradoxical curse of new teachers. I hoped my "make our own class rules" activity was the right kind of opener.
At 7:58, I descended the stairs to the basement level where the students waited in the cafeteria. Each step down brought me closer to the nether din of high-pitched children sounds. I cracked an excited smile, stunned that my weeks of training and years of youthful experience had steered me to this unequivocally grown-up post. For 22 years, I had been on one path and 25 Bronx children had been on another. Now we would meet.
"Don't smile!" Ms. Slocumb, a second-year Teaching Fellow, whispered forcefully. "Seriously, no smiling!"
Holding a pen and clipboard purely as props, I entered the lunchroom to meet the students. I took in the Spongebob Squarepants bookbags, the girls' elaborate hair settings, jeans with winding embroidered flowers by the cuff, and the boys' Allen Iverson jerseys. Kids. They looked adorable, eager-eyed for the uncertainty-fueled First Day of School. I circled the table, shaking each child's hand and introducing myself.
For the first of 183 times, we performed the morning lineup ritual of Mr. Randazzo raising his arm, the signal for silence. All responded by raising their arms in acknowledgment. Randazzo gave a perfunctory welcome speech and the kids fell swiftly into two lines, separated by gender and ordered by height. He came around to give each class a rubric score of one to four depending on the degree of silence and neatness of the line. I marveled at the grand organization.
Line leaders Hamisi and Sonandia (two with encouraging blue cards -- notes from their previous teachers), led the crew, halting every two doors in the corridor or every landing on the stairwell to look for the "go ahead" or "wait up" hand signal from me at the back. Meanwhile, I cased my problem-reputation kids. Imposing Lakiya Ray was the tallest in the class, a sour, tough-faced girl with tight braids. Eric Ruiz, whose previous teacher told me he was "just a weird kid," was unreadable at first. Deloris Barlow, a skinny, pig-tailed girl, was laughing a lot at the table before lineup but calmed down appropriately. Fausto Mason immediately tipped me off for trouble. Short and puffy-cheeked, Fausto grinned and swaggered with a loose strut.
During summer training, I studied cases that made a convincing argument that students' achievement levels vary directly with their teacher's expectations of them, regardless of neighborhood or family background. I was determined from the first day to maintain high expectations for all my students, giving everybody the blank slate I felt we all needed, even infamous Fausto Mason. After all, he had never had a male teacher and he had never had me.
I assigned the students to desks according to my carefully devised seating chart. Guided by the blue cards, I tried to arrange only one or two loose cannons per group.
After deflecting questions about my age, family size, and marital status, I launched into an even-tempered sermon about how 4-217 will succeed or fail as a group.
"On the Yankees, either everyone wins or no one wins. If Derek Jeter has a great hitting game but doesn't back up his pitcher at shortstop, the team suffers. The Yankees are a strong team because they back each other up. They win because they work together. We need to help each other out for us all to do well. All I want to do is help you get smarter and have fun while it's happening. I'm very interested in trips, rewards, and games, but only if we work together. Does this sound fair?"
"Yes, Mr. Brown," the choral response resounded. The speech felt firm and the kids sat silently with their eyes on me for every word.
"Excellent! Since we're a team, I thought it would be fair if we all made our class rules together. Who has an idea for a good rule for our team?"
Myriad hands shot up. I called on Cwasey, a shrimpy bespectacled black boy with squinty eyes and a freshly shaved head.
"You should respect everyone. Like teachers and students and the principal."
"Outstanding Cwasey! Brilliant! Respect for teachers and students and the principal. An outstanding first rule." I jotted it on the board. "What exactly is 'respect?' Cwasey?"
"Respect means you should treat everybody good, like you want to be treated."
I had a star. Cwasey Bartrum!
I called next on Sonandia, my line leader. "You should do all your work the best you can all the time."
Deloris said, "Nobody should steal nobody's stuff and treat everything like it's important."
Bernard piped up, "You should not fight in school cause there's better ways to... like... solve your problems."
"You should respect everyone," Dennis reiterated.
Lakiya prompted several giggles when she shouted in her bassy tone, "Do your homework!"
I ignored the chuckles because she had hit one of the key points. This wasn't going to be so lawless after all. These children were moral authorities! I consolidated their input into two broad rules regarding respect, effort, and honesty (rules I had, of course, planned from the beginning) and moved them to the Reading Rug, an 8' by 10' panther design I had bought on the Grand Concourse.
For the two weeks before SFA began (involving students changing rooms for their skill-level groups), teachers followed an introductory curriculum called Getting Along Together. For the first lesson, I had to read Crow Boy, an Eastern fairy tale about an outcast child who finds self-reliance. Introducing the story, I wrote the word "unique" on my chart paper which Sonandia, my wordsmith, defined as "one of a kind." I told them we all have secret talents that we ourselves might not even know about yet. "Some of you on the carpet right now might be brilliant comic strip artists, creative writers, question-askers, room-organizers, or things we haven't even thought of. This year we will work together to discover those hidden gifts."
Two pages into my Crow Boy read-aloud, Fausto stood up and ambled leisurely towards the door, drawing the attention of the whole class. "Fausto. Fausto. Fausto!" I shouted. Fausto turned back toward the class.
"THAT STORY'S WACK YO!"
I kept a straight face, but a majority of class erupted in crazed laughter at Fausto's apparently genius comedic line. Fausto beamed while 15 kids cracked up, Lakiya the loudest of all. She bellowed a forced, open-mouthed cackle, swaying violently in her seated position, knocking into classmates.
Ten seconds ago, we were all on the same page. Now it looked like a different class.
As the overwrought giggles receded, Fausto, now a superstar, still had not returned to his seat. I had to take this kid down. In deadpan, I said, "The story's not wack. Are you ready to stop acting like a kinder..."
"DAAAAAA!!!! Mr. Brown talkin' gangsta yo!"
"Mr. Brown said 'wack!'"
Destiny, Athena, Sonandia, and three others whose names I had not yet memorized sat patiently waiting for the story to continue. Everyone else was going bonkers.
"He say, 'the story not wack'!!!"
Beads of sweat formed all over me. I looked at the clock. 8:43. Three hours and 47 minutes until lunch.
"Silence. Silence. Fausto! Sit!" I yelled at him as I would a wayward mutt.
Deloris piped up with a grin, "Mr. Brown, you turning red."
Bernard jumped in on my behalf, "Be quiet yo! Let Mr. Brown read Crow Boy!"
Lakiya, still grinning, echoed Bernard's plea. "Shut up! Shut up y'all!" Suddenly, Fausto's face changed and he sat.
I had set myself against allowing "shut up" into the 4-217 vernacular, but my temperature was skyrocketing and at that moment I could handle the kids shutting each other up if it worked. And did Lakiya, a famous attitude problem child, hold sway over other kids' behavior?
I battled through reading and discussing Crow Boy, often stopping mid-page because of rude laughing. One time Fausto slapped Destiny on the shoulder, a minuscule harbinger of the inter-gender aggression to come.
When I sent them back to their groups to write a story retell, or regurgitation of the plot, I felt like I had scaled a mountain in simply getting through the short book. Sonandia and several of her pals seemed to enjoy the story. In 15 minutes though, I was back to the beginning of another new lesson and new fight. I calculated that I would teach at least seven hundred lessons this year; they could not all be like this stop-and-start scrape job.
Our opening math lesson regarding bar graphs yielded slightly better results. I made a model graph, charting their favorite TV shows in a data table and spelling out my procedure on the board. They copied everything in their math notebooks or blank loose-leaf sheets I provided.
P.S. 85 draws its students from one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Bronx, but almost all of the kids had cable television to watch their favorite shows: That's So Raven, Spongebob Squarepants, Kim Possible. I soon learned that most of my students also owned a Playstation 2 or X-Box videogame system. One teacher explained, "It's an investment in a 24-hour babysitter."
Fausto got out of his seat 11 times during the 20-minute math lesson. I tried to keep him at bay by calling on him when his hand was not raised. To my surprise, he had the correct answer every time.
After the kids answered the worksheet questions from the Trailblazers textbook and we discussed them (although only 10 of the 21 present completed the work), it was time for the Baseline Writing Sample. This would be a "before" example to compare with June work. The prompt was "What would make a good teacher for me?"
Despite my coaxing, Lakiya, Deloris, and Eric again wrote nothing. Maimouna wrote four pages.
One more lesson to go before the now direly needed lunch respite! Using my summer training template, I had created a biography/autobiography unit as an introductory meet-each-other literacy endeavor. I had a great kid-friendly biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. to use for a model. I decided on the spot that rather than read the whole book (an invitation for disruption), we would crawl one page at a time, charting the important elements of a biography.
PAGE 1: Birth date and place. Family background.
PAGE 2: Life before age 5.
PAGE 3: Life in elementary school. Friends, interests...
I stopped in the middle because after four and a half hours in the room together, we had made it to lunch time. The kids jumped and pushed en route to the cafeteria. The mood was frantic and hungry and bore no resemblance to the beginning of the morning.
A phenomenon that lives only in our military, prisons, and elementary schools is the crucially serious transit line. I hated walking in line as a kid. I thought that if I could show I trusted them to walk calmly and decently together, they would respect my trust and respect each other. Trust begets good teamwork.
When I reflected on the first hour of my first day, I realized everything I did in that brief honeymoon period would come back to haunt me. My "Team" spiel and my desire to offer everyone an even-handed shake and social contract of respect was a disaster of nuclear proportions. With my good faith gesture, I put myself in a position to be defied by one charismatic rebel, which of course happened immediately, opening the floodgates. Before I had won the respect and command of the class, I allowed myself to be drawn into a graceless power struggle with the attention-seeking subverter.
Counter to my hopes, my lack of stern watchfulness during the first lineup enabled them to loudly goof off during future hall-walking time, since I had sent an initial impression that I was not fatally serious about our line. This resulted in a constant public fracas of shouting and shepherding the non-compliers during those formative first weeks. The disorder in the hall spilled wildly into the classroom, turning each morning, each return from lunch, gym, and computers, and each dismissal into an unwieldy and dangerous mess.
I had been too nice.