24 February 2013

The Stand In: Round 2 (Part 1 of 2)


So the education system in Mississippi has gone crazy. Education has been derailed here. In a big way. At least in the quarters I've visited since arriving 6 months ago. I don't know how it happened. (There's broken debris everywhere. Explosion? Attack? Collision?) I don't know when it happened. (There's evidence of serious "rust", like the wheels haven't moved in a very long time.)

There are a lot of people plodding through the wreckage:  teachers and students, superintendents and school boards, bus drivers and vendors and other people "holding down a job."

I worked Friday substituting for a second grade teacher out in the county. I drove 30 minutes through fog that looked like a vanilla shake rolling across the land. It wasn't treacherous driving under 40 mph.

Google Map was wrong again; I stopped at a Cousin's fuel center to ask directions. There were several police cars parked there and I figured they'd know the way to the school. Inside, the smell of fried chicken met me at the door. Within seconds my mouth was watering and I knew I had to have chicken for breakfast. For the first time in my life.

A bright, warm space full of good ole' boys: two behind the counter, 4 in police uniforms throughout the store, 2 in guys in "work clothes" waiting to pay for their stuff, and another guy just hanging out talking with one of the cashiers. Something in the way they looked at me made me very aware of being a woman. They were all white men but it wasn't race consciousness that stirred. They were polite and accommodating, attentive.

15 minutes later I reached the school. (I ate the chicken on the way.) The outside of the building was..."drab" is the only way I can think to describe it. It wants brightening.

Inside was drab, too, but the walls of the long, dimly hallway were adorned with poster board and construction paper signage: tributes to famous people like Oprah and Obama and Martin Luther King Jr, many of them in various stages of coming unstuck.

The Main Office was not yet open. "She's late," someone murmured as they passed me at the door. I couldn't tell if she was a teacher or a member of the office staff ...or what. Elementary-aged children moved in loose lines in both directions; some lines were seated on the floor along the wall, apparently waiting for their teachers to arrive. There were adults present but I couldn't tell who, if any of them, were responsible for the kids and in what capacities.

I don't remember now how I finally ended up in the classroom. I remember I sat for awhile with another sub in a short row of chairs in the hall. She said she'd subbed a lot at this school. She was finishing a teacher education program and was hoping to both pick up in-class hours and be noticed by someone and offered a permanent job. She said Marshall County schools are "the worst" in the area on all counts. "Go over to DeSoto," she said. "It's like another world. Just better teachers and facilities and, you know, they run their schools better over there."

My kids were sitting on the floor in a line against the wall outside the classroom. Most of them were. Classes begin at 7:30 a.m. and breakfast commences at 7;45. Late arrivals trickled into class after we returned from breakfast at 8. Twenty-four ultimately showed up.

There was no lesson plan. Hot pink post-it notes were attached to short stacks of paper on the largest desk in the room bearing cryptic messages like "If kids finish worksheets from Reading Block, they can write sent" and "Soc/Sci for only A Group while B does computer". Sixteen people under 4' tall were swarming around me offering advice: "Mrs. R_______ always.... Now it's time for......" Cute kids. Constantly in motion. Constantly sounding. I had no idea what I was supposed to do; the assignment had been described as "teaching assistant; 8 hours." Where was the lead teacher? It was crazy.

We attempted a reading activity after breakfast. [A note on breakfast:  two strips of bacon, a piece of dry toast, a carton of milk and a flat disk, about 2" in diameter, made of what looked like egg-colored putty. I did not eat. The cafeteria floor was littered with food. This room was more drab than the hallways; no decorations on the walls.] Not everyone had a book. Not everyone could read. Most of the kids could not sit still. Most of them could not stay on task without direct prompting.

In the Reading Block, and throughout the day, I was struck by how much the kids needed/wanted attention. About once every half hour I felt the overwhelm of having to listen and respond to 14 people at the same time....while monitoring the activity of 10 other people...who are rolling on the floor, throwing things at each other, rummaging through the wastebasket and hugging each other. It was crazy.

I made it up as I went along, using the story given in the book and passing out a worksheet that one of three obvious Teacher's Pets helped me locate. It was during this activity I learned that one of the children does not read or write. Although the kids informed me the worksheet was a test (prompting mini-crises at three of the seven tables because "He's copying off me!!"), I made it a class project and we found the answers together and allowed errors to be erased and corrected. One of the Pets became quite agitated by this change in routine.

I learned about other routines when conflicts arose about whose turn it was to be Bathroom Monitor or Line Leader, or to pass out worksheets or pick up worksheets or erase the board or change the date on teh calendar or turn off the lights at lunch time or...whatever.

By the time we finished the worksheet the kids were climbing the walls. I'd discovered the daily itinerary among the much ado adorning the walls. I had to fill 25 minutes before we lined up for lunch. I got them on their feet and we jumped and lunged and twirled our arms and hooted like owls for awhile. For the first time all day, we were all doing the same thing at the same time without conflict or some other attention-grabbing maneuver! It was great!

I followed that with a totally improvised group collaborative story, grabbing characters and plot developments, place names and food names, etc. from the kids' suggestions. It was a ridiculous story and, as always happens with improvisation--in the classroom no less than the theater -- the kids were on the edge of their seats, totally engaged.

At least for awhile. The activity seemed to wind them up after awhile:  everyone was yelling suggestions at the same time and some of the kids started saying things like "But he couldn't have a red bike! Nobody has a red bike! Daddy said nobody has a red bike. He couldn't have a red bike...!!" It was approaching crazy again when the Lunch Reprieve arrived. Whew!