Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Haves and Have-nots

There were two types of teachers seated at the large oak table this afternoon: The haves, and the have-nots.
The haves were the suburban teachers from various districts around the Greater Cleveland area. The have-nots hailed from the Cleveland Municipal School District.
The group was the Teacher Advisory Board of the Western Reserve Historical
Society, about 15 members, each representing a different school in the region that used to be known as the Western Reserve.
The question was: What is going on at your school that you would like to share with the group? The teachers represented every level of public and private education, kindergarten through high school.

The Cleveland teachers were the first to share.
Every teacher told similar tales of massive staff cuts, with layoffs still occurring, and more to follow next week after the ADM census data is in. More than 30 children in elementary classrooms, no money for basic supplies, no books, transportation cutbacks, and certainly no money for field trips.

When the suburban teachers reported on the programs at their schools, they began with confessed embarrassment. Exciting new programs, new equipment and software in the classrooms, (one teacher complained about a Smart Board being delivered to his classroom before he received any inservice on using it) and yes money was available for distance learning and field trips.
A stranger would think we were teaching in two different worlds.

I guess we are. Two different worlds, minutes away from each other.

How did this happen in a country founded on equal opportunity?

Each time I read the phrase "No Child Left Behind" and look upon the faces of my students, in my mind, I hear a mocking tone followed by the laugh of our political leaders. It has taken on the air of a mean-spirited taunt:

"No child left behind...psych!"
Followed by a sucker punch.

Bully Beat-down

A bully was suspended from school last week for threatening several students.
To their credit, they were not intimidated, and went through the established proceedure for handling these situations. Because they stood up for themselves, a number of other students came forward and told their stories of intimidation and sexual harrassment to the administration.
I have a feeling this big boy may not finish out the year at our school.

Over the past couple of days since he has been gone from my class, I can see a marked difference in the atmosphere amongst that particular group of students. Quiet kids are participating in discussion, smart-aleck comments (from the students) are nearly non-existant. The tenor of the clasroom is relaxed and the kids now seem eager to learn

What really intrigues me is the power of that boy's personality.
I wonder if he was always like that. What if he used his power for good instead of evil? What if he could become a leader instead of a future resident of one of our fine penal institutions?

Now there's a project.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Teacher as Parent

Last night I recieved a phone call from one of my son's teachers. This is the second call I've gotten from her, and I am going to confess my feelings are mixed.

On one hand, I am happy for the contact. Too often in the past I would not recieve any communication from a teacher until the report cards came out, and by then it was too late to address the problem.

On the other hand, this teacher was very attitudinal on the phone. She even had the nerve to say that perhaps my son's long hair was preventing him from hearing, and that he sould push it behind his ears.

I will be making an appointment for a conference this week. It will be much easier to decide a course of action after I meet her face to face.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Keeping Expectations High.

"Not failure, but low aim is the crime."

James Russell Lowell

"Good is not good where better is expected."

Thomas Fuller

I recieved some feedback on my last post about expectations.
(E-mails are very nice, but please feel free to post comments as well.)

Thanks for the encouragement.
I will not succumb to the whining. I will not lower my standards. But I will have to re-remind myself that many more of these kids are coming from a place far behind where the rest of their high school peer group is, developmentally and academically.
The September deadline definitely threw me for a loop.

Today I start my drawing fundamentals workshops with my classes. This is really the fun stuff. This is where they catch-up.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Realistic Expectations

After twenty-some years of teaching high school, I am surprised that I continue to struggle with the question of expectations.
Am I expecting too much from my students, that I feel disappointed so often? Do they feel challenged or frustrated? Or are they simply lazy?

I understand that many, many, of my students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and 30 to 50 percent of the pupils in each of my classes are classified as special needs. Yet some kids are very bright, and quite talented. The disparity in abilities, both cognitive and eye/hand coordination is immense.

We finished the posters for the art show to be held during the Vice-Presidential debates in two weeks. I know many of my students were frustrated. We critiqued twice, I pushed for revisions. Several students complained that I expected too much. Even still, I was disappointed in the quality of the work. Perhaps I am not being realistic about their capabilities. I only accepted ten pieces. They should have been better. When the district posts them on their web site I will provide a link and see if you agree with me.
I think I may have to work very hard to earn my salary this year.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Did you know that America ranks lowest in education, but highest in drug use? It's nice to be number one, but we can fix that. All we need to do is start the war on education. If it's anywhere near as successful as our war on drugs, pretty soon we'll all be hooked on phonics.

Leighann Lord

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Found: One knife

When I turned to head down the stairs from the third floor hallway, a glint of light flashed in the corner next to the heavy door. The gleam came from the open blade of a shiny steel pocket knife.
"Oh boy!" I sighed and I picked it up. It was a cheap knife with a long blade and painted handle. I headed down to the cafeteria, where the security guards were stationed during the lunch periods, to turn it in.

These are tough neighborhoods the Max Hayes students come from, and I know for a fact that more than a few kids carry a weapon back and forth to school. They see it as a type of street insurance against the assortment of creeps and weirdos they encounter enroute to getting their education. I've walked the streets and ridden the busses in some of those neighborhoods. I've been approached by the perverts and catcalled by the punks. As an adult it is disconcerting; as a kid, it would be downright terrifying.

The schools have a zero-tolerance policy toward carrying weapons, as they should.
I wonder, though, what "insurance" I would be tempted to carry if my trek to school took me, on foot, through the seedy-side of town.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Beating the Odds

How curious.

If asked to name three young women from Max Hayes who, based on strength of character, I believed would grew up to be wonderful, without hesitation, I would name Tracy, Damaris, and Liz.
Each girl struggled with with personal and family crisis that would defeat most people. All three beat the statistical odds for young people in Cleveland, and graduated from high school. Today, each one is in college.
And finally, although none of the three knew each other well, since they graduated in different years, all of them came to see me yesterday.

Tracy walked through my classroom door first, carrying the laminated visitors pass picked up from the clerk in the office. She was at school to check up on her younger brother, who is a ninth grader at the school. Her eyes still sparkled as if looking for mischief, and her ready laugh filled the room immediately. Tracy is finishing her bachelors degree at Cleveland State, and preparing to enter law school next year.

Liz pulled into the school parking lot just as I was leaving the building. I never saw her , so she called my cell phone. "Guess what! I'm back in college and I don't have any babies!"
Not all of my preaching falls on deaf ears.
"Ladies, it doesn't takes brains to have a baby. The smart girls don't."
Two-thirds of the girls in Liz's class dropped out of Max Hayes in their junior year because they were pregnant.
Liz got married the day after she graduated from high school, and a couple of weeks before her new husband left for bootcamp. She is living with her in-laws and going to school at Tri-C.
Her parents moved back to Puerto Rico with her little brothers during her senior year. Her early marriage was a means to stay in the US and further her education.

Damaris stood at my door and for a moment I was speechless. Always a beautiful girl, there was something different about the woman who smiled at me there. She was radiant, confident, stunning. I 'd been thinking of her often lately. She is on of the most amazing people I've ever met, and I would like to include her story in the book I am writing, but I wanted to get her permission first. Her story is terrifying and tragic, hopeful and inspiring. The stuff of Hollywood horror, her life is a tale of murder and rape, abuse and courage. When I asked if I could write about her, she said "Of course. If my story can be of help to anybody else, please use it."
I am so lucky that Damaris came up to visit. She will be leaving next week to attend college for two years in Puerto Rico, after having worked for 2 years with the Ohio Department of Transportation.

I will tell you more about Damaris later this week when I get some more time to write. I promise.

Now, back to my original thought...What a curious day.
There were other odd coincidences too. ESPish things and groups of three.
Very, very metaphysical. I may have to investigate.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Discipline Problems and Parents

An article in this month's American Teacher states the obvious to those of us who work in the public schools.

This excerpt from Class Notes: Discipline problems take a toll relays, rather succinctly, a nationwide concern in the classroom.

...while parents echo many of the solutions expressed by teachers, sometimes parents themselves are a big part of the problem.
Teachers and parents overwhelmingly agree that failure to teach children discipline at home is the top cause of behavior problems in schools. However almost 80 percent of teachers say students are quick to remind them that they have rights, or that their parents can sue.
Nearly half of the teachers say they have been accused of unfairly disciplining a student, and 52 percent say behavior problems often result from teachers who are soft on discipline "because they can't count on parents or schools to support them"
Not surprisingly student discipline problems take a toll on teachers. More than one third report having seriously considered leaving the profession because of intolerable student behavior, an many know colleagues who have done just that.

Behavior Problems
Percent of teachers who say item is a "very" or "somewhat" serious problem

  • Talking out loud and horseplay. 69%
  • Students treating teachers with lack of respect. 60%
  • Cheating. 55%
  • Students showing up late to class. 57%
  • Rowdiness in hallways, lunchrooms. 51%
  • Truancy and cutting class. 45%
  • Illegal drugs. 45%
  • Physical fighting. 36%

As the November election draws near, I anticipate the public admonitions of the teacher bashers this coming month when discussion of the school levy begins in the media. I would like to get a little jumpstart on the faultfinders and extend an invitation. Come and visit...see what we really do all day.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task.

Haim G. Gonot

Thursday, September 16, 2004

It was the Wrong Question.

The Cleveland School District is so broke this year that we cannot even afford to hold an Open House in the evening; the time when most working parents can come to the schools. There is no extra money to keep all of the buildings open at night.
Open House this year will be held during the school day.

At Max Hayes however, we are open until 9:00 every night anyway.
Because we house the district's night school program, we would be able to hold our Open House in the evening. This is, by far, the one school event with the most parent participation.

I am going to take a risk here, and share with my readers what I perceive to be a multi-leveled bungle on the part of our administration and the union leadership.

At some point it was determined the faculty should be given the choice of whether to hold our Open House during the school day on Monday, with the rest of the district, or on the traditional Thursday evening. A straw poll was taken by a union member, verbally asking; "Would you rather have Open House during the day on Monday, or come in Thursday night from 6:00 - 8:00?"

My first reaction was, "Cool, no extra hours."
But then I thought, "Oh..that would make it just like all the other daytime functions, where hardly anyone shows up."
I cast my vote in favor of Thursday night.

We learned the result of the poll at yesterday's department head meeting.
It was 2 to 1 in favor of Monday.
Both the administration and Union leadership were disappointed.
I was shocked.
I couldn't believe so many of my colleagues would be so selfish.
Never known for holding back an opinion, I commented that I found it hard to believe, with all the complaining we do as teachers about the lack of parental involvement in the schools, we would shut the door in the faces of our parents when we have the opportunity to invite them in.
After the meeting, three department heads told me that they originally voted for Monday, but my comment changed their minds.

This made me pause and think again.

Maybe my colleagues aren't all that selfish.
It was really just a bad question.
Had the question been phrased differently, referencing the fact that parents who worked would not be able to attend, I am certain the majority of the staff would have chosen the Thursday night open house.
Had I gone with my initial reaction of night vs day, without considering the consequences, I too would have picked the Monday option.
Combine this observation with the fact most people will not give as much thought to a question asked orally as they would a written question; Well, no wonder the response was self-centered.

I think I need to have a little chat with the boss tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

"I know you love me."

The relationships we build as teachers are far more important to learning than the subject matter that we teach.

Each day we are given the opportunity to influence a decision, and perhaps change a life by what we say or do. Mostly these occasions silently become available, and we may not notice or take advantage of the chance to make a difference.
Other times they will arrive with a fanfare that loudly proclaims, "This is a Teachable Moment."
Today's opportunity came, like a gift, in a lovely package.

Every once in a while a student will wrap themselves around your heart, simply because they choose to love you. Last year a very beautiful Puerto Rican girl in the ninth grade, picked me to be her favorite teacher. She was having some trouble at home, and in fact, even ran away several times that year.
She shared many of her misadventures with me, and I listened. She would say, " I like that I can tell you things, and you don't scream at me or hit me. Sometimes I wish you were my mother."

Who could resist? She had me by the heartstrings.

This year she is not in any of my classes, but will stop by and visit the art studio. Today, when I saw her in the hallway after school, she gave me a hug.

"Where are you going now?" I asked.

"To my fiance's."

"What?...Who?...When?" I stammered.

"This summer...I got engaged."

"Come, take a walk with me. We need to talk."

She smiled and slid her arm around my waist as we turned to walk toward my classroom.

"Who is this boy? Do I know him?"

"His name is Carlo, he doesn't go to school."

"How old is he?"

"Twenty seven."

"Are you...?"

"No. I just want to be with him."

"When do you plan on getting married?"

"In the spring."

"What about school?"

"I will still go to school."

"What does your family think?"

"My mother likes him."

"You know I think you are too young. I will try to talk you out of this."

"I know you love me"
She smiled and leaned her head on my shoulder.

It carries so many responsibilities...and challenges. How will I convince this child to wait? To savor her youth and not rush into the world of adults?
This time, I will not only trust my instincts, but also pray for guidance.
I dare not make a mistake.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


"Your butt called me about an hour ago." Susan informed me. The smirk on her face exuded through the phone.

"Really? Again? I wasn't sitting on my phone. It was on my leg. I was wearing cargos."

"Well, you were talking to somebody...blah,blah,blah...You weren't talking about me so I hung-up."

"Ohhh! I know...That wasn't my butt calling, it was Max.
I was taking him for a walk and he got scared.
A kid's wheelchair frightened him. He was leaning on my leg, hoping I would protect him.
I'm sorry I really should lock that keypad."

"That's okay. So now I'm getting phone calls from your dog. Who were you talking to?"

"A kid named Joe. He wanted to pet Max, but Max was terrified of the wheelchair. He was shaking.
Pretty ironic, my guard dog is cowering behind me."

"So, did you save him?"

"Actually Max made a new friend. Joe climbed out of the chair and Max warmed up pretty fast.
The three of us sat on the sidewalk and had a nice long chat."

"Where were you?"

"On Mayfeild Road."

"Now that must have been quite the rush-hour sight. A woman, a kid, and a huge Doberman, sitting on the sidewalk with an abandoned wheelchair.
Did anybody stop?"

"No, but we were getting quite a few stares."

"That's what I like about you. You are sooo not normal."

And I'm so lucky to have friends who understand me.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

A Different Perspective

So much of my time is spent in the gritty realities of Cleveland's classrooms, among the hardscrabble working class and the disillusioned poor, that it is easy to forget the other beautiful city whose aspect and spirit reside in the same location as the struggling rustbelt metropolis.

This weekend our region was blessed with clear blue skies and perfect temperatures.
I was blessed with two afternoons on the lake in a sailboat with good friends, good conversation, and the unsurpassed view of my most lovely hometown.

For those of us who deal with the disfunctional details of our work and lives, every now and then (for the sake of sanity) is is good to step far enough away to see the big picture.
Just like a Monet painting...what looks like a big mess up close, becomes truly beautiful from the perspective gained by a little distance.
It is not impossibilities which fill us with the deepest despair, but possibilities which we have failed to realize.

Robert Mallet


Looking at the faces of Cleveland's youth, I can't help but see the truth in these words.
So much potential is being sacrificed to the ravages of poverty and neglect. We have abandoned our city's future.

Saturday, September 11, 2004


me Posted by Hello

Thanks to Douglas, a reader and fellow blogger, I've begun to untangle the confusion enveloping the picture posting mysteries. Here are my first attempts.

In the Art studio at Max Hayes Posted by Hello

As I look at this picture I notice that it is backwards, or rather a mirror image. This is a huge studio space, 80' x 40', with 80 feet of windows facing Lake Erie ( and the Tillmam Avenue townhouses).
Lots and lots of light.
A painter's dream, an Art history teacher's nightmare. (No shades = no slides)

Okay, so I realize I'm lookin' kinda mean here...but hey, it comes with the job
The better you are with the mean-muggin the less you have to yell.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Confessions of a Technotard

Yes, that would be a pretty apt description of me.

At school we have several digital cameras.
I love to take pictures, but I can't seem to get my pictures to go to the desired destinations. They keep getting lost, or stuck, or they are just plain ornery and give me error messages.

Reminds me of a road trip through northern Kentucky many years ago.
My boyfriend and I somehow got lost in an Appalachan holler. When we stopped at a little general store/gas station, the three local checker players laughed at us and shook their heads.
"Ya can't get there from here."
That was it. That was all the help we got from the old-timers.

Likewise, my pictures are lost in the holler of a file. Each time I try to get them to go someplace, like my blog, they seem to laugh at me and say "We can't get there from here."

Once I get all this technology figured out, I'll try to show you where I work and what I do.
I won't be able to post pictures of my students, though, since they are minors.
I will try to get some shots of the building and the neighborhood.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Problem Solving

It happened again.

What started out as a big pain in the butt, has become the equivalent of an educator's "Ah ha!"

Before classes began this year, we received an urgent request from the Fine Arts administrators, downtown at the East 6th Street address, to submit artwork for the Vice Presidential debate extravaganza, at Case University on October 5th. The work needs to be submitted by September 24th.

This gives me exactly nineteen 40 minute class periods to get kids, who have never taken an art class, to produce quality work from inception to delivery.

How does this fit into my course syllabus for the first quarter?
It doesn't.

My class usually begins the semester with the question, What is Art?
Then we discus Why do artists create?
Followed by art vocabulary, art criticism, and aesthetic judgment.

Suddenly, this year, I had a dilemma.
I had next to no time to complete quality work, with inexperienced students, without a plan, during a critical period of time (the start of the school year) when the tone of the class is being established.
Damn..this was going to be a problem...a problem...a problem...

This year I would begin my classes with the concept of artist as problem solver.

Last week I presented my problem to the students, and now we are approaching the task as teams.

First we brainstomed slogans.
Next we picked the best ones out of the hundreds submitted.
Now we are brainstorming again, this time it's images.
Each person on the team is responsible for three thumbnail sketches.
The team will choose a composition and decide on the best way to produce the image and graphics.
ie: Traditionally, using technology, or a combination.
We have computers, printers, copiers, digital cameras, and stencils. We can use collage, markers, paint, pastels, ink, or any other 2-D medium.

I'm so impressed with the way these kids are working...just the way one would expect creative teams to work on a real job.
Yep...we jumped into the water and came up swimming.
I'll let you know in a couple of weeks how the products turn out.

* PS.
I decided to write on this topic today since a friend of mine, who reads my journal, did not understand I actually TAUGHT classes. He was under the impression that I was an administrator or counselor.

In case anyone else out there in cyberland is confused, let me clarify;
I am a classroom teacher with a full load of classes (150 students). I serve as department head. I've been elected as a union delegate for our building chapter. And finally, I facilitate an arts integration program (ICARE) for which I received major funding through Young Audiences of Greater Cleveland. This is where the public art projects and partnerships with various cultural institutions come in.

I hope this helps with the confusion. mb

More Layoffs

Our building is feeling the brunt of the district's financial crisis once again.

Today we are down to only one secretary, (from three) and one cleaner (from four).
These are all very hard working people.
Max Hayes Vocational School is a huge facility, filled with shops that generate a lot of dirt, and over 650 teenagers. As bad as I feel for my friends who've been laid off, I almost feel worse for those who are still here, left to do the work of three and four people.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Saturday Night with Nothing to Do

I found the phone after the fourth ring.

"What are you doing?"

"Nothing...reading a magazine...not really reading...actually, I'm looking at the cartoons in the 'New Yorker'."

"Get dressed. I 'll pick you up at 8:30."

"Where are we going?"

"I don't care. I have to get out of the house. We'll know when we get there."

I looked at my reflection in the mirror...Great. The humidity had wreaked frizzy havoc on hair I carefully smoothed with the blow-dryer early this morning. There was just enough time to spritz my head with a little water, hoping the frizz would revert back to its naturally curly/lumpiness, before I heard Susan's horn beckoning from outside my window.

"What direction? " Her eyes looked up and down the street as she backed out of the driveway.

I thought for a second.

In a couple of minutes we were sitting at a cafe table on the sidewalk in front of Gusto's in Cleveland's Little Italy, sipping martinis and enjoying the Saturday night sidewalk show that parades up and down Mayfield Hill on warm summer weekends.

"There's your boyfriend."

"No, that's your boyfriend...I got the last one, remember?
The comb-over with the red plaid slacks."

"Oh that's right...I'm kinda diggin' the no-neck look anyway."

"Now there's an odd looking couple."

"They're holding hands...must be a date."

"She's cute, (except for the flowered pants). He looks like a gorilla."

"I wonder if they met on the internet?"

A mini-van/taxicab rolled slowly by, looking for a fare. A pile of stuffed animals decorated the dashboard and hip-hop from the speakers filled the street, overpowering the various strains of Italian folk music, opera, and Frank Sinatra, provided by the restaurants. The driver smiled and waved.

A few tables down, in front of Nido's, an argument was erupting. The scene could have been taken out of the HBO series "The Sopranos".
A handsome middle aged man dressed in an expensive dark suit had been sitting alone at the table. A couple of burly men in golf shirts eventually joined him. The conversation was low and we paid no attention until...

"I'm not putting up with no fucking disrespect!"
The big man stood up.

"Fuck you. Sit down." His partner responded.

In a moment the "F-word" accompanied by a few "mother"s were flying fast and furious and several people from inside the restaurant came outside to join the discussion.
All the while the elegant man in the dark suit remained calmly in his seat.
The excitement died down, the group split up and our waitress asked if we would like another cosmo.

"Of course."

Pity, there are only a few more weeks we can enjoy this kind of street entertainment before the cold Cleveland weather confines us to the indoors.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Living in Poverty

I had this conversation 2nd period today.
It is not any more unusual than hundreds of others I 've had with Cleveland high school students over the years, but I thought I would share it with you, given the recent headlines affirming the fact that 47% of Cleveland's children live in poverty.

"Hey, Ms. Matt! Know what?
I talked to my dad…He’s getting out of prison this year. He said I could live with him."

"Really? How long has he been in prison?"

"My whole life."

"Have you ever been there to visit?"

"A few times.. He said he’s gonna buy me a car, and we are going to live in a big house.
The place I live now is too crowded. We have two beds and five couches in two rooms. It’s my mom and her boyfreind and five kids and me.
It’s never quiet. Sometimes I just like to be someplace quiet…ya know?"

"I know"

"He said we will live in the country. I can't wait."

"I'm sure your mom will miss you."

"She don't care. There's too many little kids."

Hmmm.. I thought.
I wonder what the job market looks like for a man who has been incarcerated for fifteen years?

Some thoughts are best kept to oneself.