By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
I'm taking groups of 10 in reading groups from each class, as I bounce up and down the long hallway between rooms 24 and 32 every hour or so at scheduled times. I don't like this transient setup, but it's the best we could come up with. The kids read stories as I struggle to explain vocabulary; we do phonics-workbook pages. My approach is haphazard, because I don't know how to approach literacy skills systematically. The kids seem to have a good time, and I let them get too loud and talk over each other; I hope my embarrassment doesn't show when the other teachers sternly shush the group. I want my students to love me; I know it's wrong, but I can't help it. Already I'm getting drawings and little love notes at the end of the day. I save them to read at night when I'm feeling my most deflated and alone.
Early November 1997
Mrs. Roberts terrifies me as well as her students. When their voices mingle and coalesce to a murmur, she picks up a book and slams it down on her desk. A lapse of attention earns a "minute" on the board, time that is repaid at the end of the day while all 30 students fold their hands and sit perfectly still before they are dismissed. I'm impressed as well as horrified by the unflagging control she has over class conduct, and I whisper to her during minutes one day that I can't believe they actually sit so quietly. "Oh, they know I mean business," she says. A break in the silence causes minutes to begin again, with an increase in time. "One day we got up to 11," she tells me.
She doesn't smile. If a student ventures to answer a question and comes up short, she is apt to berate, "How long have you been in this classroom?" She makes asides to me during the day about students' deficiencies. When I ask her about Miguel, a big bruiser of an 8-year-old with what look like cigarette burns on his arms, she tells me he's a good kid, but "dumb as a rock." When Jorge, a feisty new student whose baggy clothes and cholo haircut led her to assume on the very first day that his parents are gangbangers, cries after a fierce scolding, she turns to me: "I think we've got him now. A lot of times, you just have to break them."
Like the students, I nod and smile a lot to Mrs. Roberts -- even as I rage inside. I put on my best obsequious mask, knowing she resents my presence. I'm just trying to do my job, but I feel like a traitor, in collusion with the educational fascism that seems to prevail everywhere I look.
Second week of November 1997
I don't belong here. At recess, 30 to 60 kids "walk the square"; that is, they walk in line around the yellow borders of four-square courts, around and around, hands behind their backs until the bell rings, the theory being that students can be punished yet still benefit from some physical exercise. I can't shake the prison image, enhanced by the sullenly looming gray buildings in the background and the vast expanse of blacktop that is our yard.
The whole lunch-time ritual is an exercise in regimentation. Classes line up straight. Then, called one at a time, they filter into the cafeteria, picking up trays and milk along the way (in our school, all students qualify for and receive free lunch). They are to stay in line as they file to the lunch tables and benches, and then, without talking, consume the packaged burritos or bologna sandwiches they're issued. A man walks up and down the aisles with a microphone reiterating the no-talking rule countless times. Patrolling aides make sure the only reason mouths are moving is to chew. The kids then march out to line up yet again for recess. I'm incredulous when I first witness this scene of hundreds of kids herded around, yelled at and forced into silence during their one good break from the long school day.
Mrs. Moore is a more benevolent despot than Mrs. Roberts. She gives the kids raspberry cookies on Fridays and lets them talk quietly among themselves occasionally. But her teaching is so dull. Visual stimulation in the classroom is limited to half a dozen travel posters relating to Asia, and a few unimaginative bulletin boards; there are no learning centers, no teacher-made materials, nothing you'd want to look at on the walls. Four computers idle in the background, but never seem integrated into the instructional day. She tells me that she thinks too much stuff in the classroom proves more distracting than stimulating, that the students' lives are so cluttered with television images and disorder at home that she prefers to keep things simple at school. "There is nothing innovative about the way I teach," she tells me. "But my test scores go up every year." She shows me how she meets the teaching objectives in the LAUSD's "Course of Study" handbook: "I look for the concepts they need to know, and then I type up a list that they can study." Sure enough, her "unit" on the solar system consists mainly of a list of facts kids are expected to memorize and then regurgitate for a test.
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