LeftUntested's Blog

What education reform is like in the real world

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Happy Friday! Here’s the Charlie Brown flower…


…a student found crumpled on the sidewalk, picked up, and gave to me. It’s the thought that counts.


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The meaning of Passover?

After three days with a substitute (while I celebrated Passover on the East Coast), my students were glad to see me back at school. Fifth graders are way too cool to come running up and give me a hug, the way younger students might, but their faces brightened when they saw me coming to pick up the morning line. It’s always a boost to realize my kids really do like having me as their teacher!

I made sure to get a good sub for them: one of our school’s most preferred stand-ins, who is both competent and flexible. (These traits are too rarely found in combination in the sub pool…) She had left a good note about what they had accomplished and how they had behaved. The little voice that had berated me for returning to work two days before spring break (Why wouldn’t you just take off the whole week, loca?) finally let up. Despite my anxieties about leaving my kids, and about coming back, it seemed like everything had gone swimmingly.

The biggest “problem” caused by my absence was recounted to me by my friend and colleague Ms. Sienna. She had filled in for me in my after school coaching duties. When the athletes asked her why I couldn’t come to practice that day, she told them that “Ms. Silver is away celebrating Passover.” She saw the girls’ faces go uncharacteristically grave.

“Ms. Silver is dead?” whispered one 4th grader.

Ms. Sienna laughed, probably causing the athletes to feel as disconcerted as she had a moment before. “No, no, she’s fine! She didn’t ‘pass away,’ she’s just celebrating Passover–it’s a Jewish holiday.”

This explanation proved acceptable, and they continued with practice a little wiser in the mysterious ways of the English language.

Never a dull moment with our English learners! It’s moments like these that make me appreciate just how much our students have absorbed in their short school careers.

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Nah, it’s just candy

Sorry for the hiatus… When report cards are due, the rest of life has to make way!

(In my first year of teaching, I didn’t get my report cards done by the deadline. The parents were very kind about it–mostly immigrants from Latin America, they tend to be flexible and understanding–but I felt so ashamed !)

Anyway, there aren’t supposed to be any surprises in the report card. If a child is struggling, academically or behaviorally, I try to contact the parents ahead of time with my concerns. However, this trimester I missed one…

Giselle (name and identifying details changed, of course, to protect student privacy!) started the year strong. Good athlete, middle-high academics, kind and considerate, plenty of friends.

Second trimester was a different story. Giselle and her best friend got bitten by the 5th grade “adolescent mean girls” bug. Suddenly social relationships, including a mutual attraction with classmate Manny, trumped all.

Never the most outspoken, Giselle participated less and always spoke with her hand in front of her face. Her writing, especially about her math reasoning (a key CCSS skill) grew rushed and sometimes nonsensical. She struggled with the trimester’s big math topics–volume, double-digit divisors, and long division into decimal places–yet didn’t ask for help. She would work with me individually, but not in a small group. She enjoyed and understood her literature circle book but kept largely quiet each time her group met to discuss.

I noticed all of these things, each of them not individually worthy of a call home. Spring 5th graders always go a little funny once the hormones kick in. But the full academic impact of Giselle’s new self-consciousness didn’t hit me until I sat down to write her report card comment. There was literally not a single area of improvement I could praise! Most of her grades had flatlined, and a few math standards she’d done well on the first time around even went down.

On report card day, as I was handing out the sealed envelopes, Giselle bounded up to me timidly. “Did I get a lot of ones?” she murmured.

[A one, our district’s lowest grade, automatically prevent a student from becoming RFEP.  Giselle and a couple others were close to reclassification and the privilege of middle school electives that comes with it. I had met individually with each almost-RFEP kid to discuss the areas they needed to improve in order to qualify.]

“More ones than you’d hoped, Giselle. I was pretty surprised, and I think your parents will be, too.” Giselle sighed but didn’t look surprised. “If your parents are concerned, they can come talk to me or send me a note. Anytime.” I prayed to the patron saint of parental forbearance that the note would truly be one of concern and not ire.

I looked Giselle in the eye. “You still have time to bring those grades back up before the end of the year. You’ll have one more chance to get RFEPed this year, so you can have electives instead of ELD. But its gonna take a lot more effort than you gave me this trimester.”

Giselle’s face fell. “It’s ’cause I didn’t get math that much…”

“I agree, math’s been hard for you lately. So what can you do to make it better? Try your best and come back with a…”

“Question,” she completed. “But I’m so worried that people will laugh at me and say I’m not smart.”

“Now there, I disagree. I think your friends will thank you if you ask that question. Because if you’re confused, do you think you’re the only one?”

“Maybe not…”

“Definitely not! You find the courage to raise that hand, and ten other people are gonna feel relieved. Okay? And you have to keep paying attention to the answer, too, and think while you do your work. Am I going to see more of that soon?”

“Yes!” Even with the Scarlet Number in her hand, Giselle went home with a smile.

And she came back the next week with renewed courage. She’s still too shy to ask big questions in math, but she’s sharing her thoughts again in language arts. She’s flagging me down to ask for help as I monitor the class (still with hand over mouth–we’ll keep working on that!) She admitted that she was having trouble seeing the board and that the nurse told her she needs glasses. Her parents have already made the optometry appointment.

So I felt good about Giselle. That report card seemed to be just the wake-up call she needed. And then I saw livid red marks on her wrist and my blood ran cold.

Red, raw-looking lines ran around and around her wrist, as though she had been bound. A few of them zigzagged across the back of her hand out to the fingers, and the tip of her index finger was stained red up to the knuckle.

Had I so horribly misjudged the situation? Was she being abused? Hurting herself? She did tend to keep her sweatshirt sleeves pulled up over her hands… Was she hiding this all along and I never saw it? (I, who am usually the CPS queen?) Who was causing this? Had something beyond childish flirtation happened with Manny? Of course I wasn’t going to say anything in front of the other students. I resolved to keep Giselle back at recess for a serious, caring chat.

But before I could do so, I caught her best friend Gabi fidgeting with something under her desk instead of reading. I strode over to look pointedly at her hands. Gabi’s hands also had red lines and a red finger, and she seemed to be picking at or drawing on herself.

I couldn’t decide if this was a good or bad development. Probably decreased the likelihood that Giselle was being tied up by someone, but increased the likelihood of self-mutilation, which girls sometimes “share” with their closest friends. I decided to talk to Gabi first.

When we spoke privately, I asked Gabi what those marks were. She could tell I was worried, and chuckled. “Nah, it’s just candy,” she said. “You know? Like the Mexican chili candy?”

The mental archivist pulled up an image of sugar and chili powder in a green plastic dispenser.

“You, like, mix it with water and you can draw on yourself.” Gabi shifted impatiently. She didn’t understand why it was such a big deal.

The pieces snapped back into place, only in a different shape. They were messing around with chili paste, using it almost like henna. Hence the stained fingers. The rawness–those spicy oils can’t be great for the cuticles! The fact that I’d never noticed the marks (indeed, they weren’t there yesterday). The way neither of them tried to hide it.

Now it was my turn to sigh. Too much True Detective plus anticipation of a mandated reporter training that week had led me to a wildly false conclusion. But I was still going to watch them both very carefully, just to be sure.

And the next day, Giselle came to school and raised a clean hand. Not a trace or a scratch left! Sometimes I love being wrong.