Sunday, August 7, 2011

Beginning in Baltimore

I first became interested in teaching while working for the Ameri-corps affiliated program called "Teach Baltimore", which I have learned has now grown to become the National Summer Learning Association. In the program, I had to organize the daily learning activities of a class of Kindergarteners for about ten weeks. We did mostly early childhood literacy in the mornings, and a combination of math, science, and foreign language, music, and art in the afternoon. I did this for two summers, and volunteered others hours in the main office. During both summers, I taught in a school in West Baltimore called Steuart Hill Elementary.

As to be expected in most of West Baltimore, nearly 100% of the children live below the poverty line; and most children live with either an aunt or uncle or grandparent. Many of the children I knew had parents who were either dead, in jail, or living on the streets due to drugs or prostitution. Most of the children I taught witnessed constant violence in their neighborhoods and often times in their homes. Some had already been witnesses to murder by the age of six, and had school mates that had been mistakenly shot down. I got fairly accustomed to walking through drug deals to take children home after school–we weren't supposed to walk them home, but sending them to children services was not a good option. It is true that I always felt safer holding the hand of child, than I did walking back to the school alone. As a side note, the organization of gangs to control corners and evade police observation is really interesting to watch.

Kindergaten in West Baltimore was very different than other schools I had experienced. Where I grew up, most children knew how to read before coming to Kindergarten. In West Baltimore, most children I taught didn't not know all the letters of the alphabet after Kindergaten. Still, children were learning all the time. Every child knew every lyric to every popular rap song.

Brandon and Brandee were twins in my class the first summer I taught. Brandee would bring the teachers flowers almost every morning, which she would pick from alleys on her way to school. Brandon was strong, both physically and mentally. I remember how we always wore the same blue jersey shirt and shorts. They usually came to the school early, before it actually began. I was there at 6:00 am every morning to open the school for food deliveries. We weren't supposed to let them in until 7:30 am, but I would let them in so they could read and have breakfast. Over a few weeks, I learned that Brandon and Brandee lived with their Grandmother who had recently broke her hip and was at bed-rest. It made me think about the fact that they would wake themselves up each morning, dress themselves, and walk to school (6 blocks). It didn't take me long to figure out that the reason they did so was because they were hungry. We served breakfast and lunch, and these meals were the only meals Brandon and Brandee would get all week.

Another child in my class, Anthony, was the only child that I felt ill-prepared for. Anthony was violent. He would grab a handful of someone's hair and proceed to try to rip it out. One time, during lunch, he gently set a cardboard milk carton on someone's head and quickly smashed it so the milk ran all over the poor girl's hair and face. Anthony was certainly the victim of violence at home. At first, when Anthony was really bad, I would call to have him sent home. Anthony didn't like being in school. He didn't like being at home. He didn't like life. Anthony enjoyed creating a situation that would get him sent home, I think because it was how he controlled his life. It was the little bit of control he had. Once I stopped sending him home for behavior, he found new ways to get sent home. He would pee his pants on purpose. That got him home the first two times, but I went out and bought five changes of clothes for Anthony. Anthony was never good, but he got a lot better once I started listening to him. I would carve out time during the day just to sit with him and let him talk. Most of what he said was lies–more like fantasies. He would talk about how he was driving a sports car or how he went to Florida over the weekend. By just listening to him for about 5 minutes a day, his behavior went from violent to extremely difficult. My main concerns with Anthony was protecting others from his violence, carving out time for him to talk and be heard, and making sure he was acknowledged and praised for glimpses of pro-social behavior.

Tical was a boy who never talked in public–maybe once a week you would catch him whispering to his friend Lyric. Tical lived with his Aunt, who was very nice, and would help chaperone during Friday field trips. By all measures accessible to me, Tical was exceptionally smart. Years later, I was in West Baltimore serving thanksgiving meals at a soup kitchen, and I ran into Tical. He was probably 12 at the time. When I walked by, he was talking and laughing with friends, but as soon as he saw me, he completely stopped talking. I still wonder why Tical never talked in public around adults.

Keenan was a boy in my class with some degree of learning disability. Among other things, he had difficulty with fine motor skills, which made him appear less knowledgeable than he was. For example, Keenan could not identify the sound of the letter "p" when he was trying to draw it on a piece of paper, but if Keenan was to trace a large "p" in the air using his whole arm, he could make the sound, "puh".

Most of what I remember from my time with Teach Baltimore is the smiles of the children I taught. This sounds cliche, but it is true. I can imagine each of their faces with large smiles. At some point, that became the goal of everyday–to engage them in some kind of learning that would make them smile, to create a place where they felt safe and capable of being themselves. I also strongly remember the stories we read together, especially the ones that were their favorites that we read again and again. I can't tell you how many times I read the book "Yes! Yo!" to the entire school before an assembly or some other gathering (which was about 100 students in the summer program).

My wife and I have a friend who works and lives in Baltimore. She lives *in* baltimore, working for a church. She works with children and prostitutes in the area. She runs summer camps. When mission group come to help, her favorite thing is to take them on "Murder Walks." They walk around the neighborhood visiting places where members of the community were murdered. She tells about their lives and death. The sheer volume and density of violence is overwhelming. Just in June, a group of ladies from the midwest volunteering were witness to a murder–a new place to visit on her murder walk the following week.

Her backyard is an alleyway that looks into an entire block of abandon homes. A single block of abandon homes isn't that bad. In some areas, entire neighborhoods are boarded up. Although the homes in the alleyway are boarded up, it doesn't take long to figure out which ones are used for stashing drugs. Looking from her balcony into that alleyway is like looking into a third world country. I encourage anyone and everyone to go and visit such places. Depending on where you live, they are probably not far from you.

Anyway, I've written enough. I just wanted to convey some of my beginnings into education.