Some call me "Flem"

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B.S.Ed | M.Ed | Ed.D student | Passionate | Compassionate | Purpose-driven | PUBLIC school teacher | There's a lot more...

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Spinning my wheels?

Transparency moment:
There are many times when I feel like I'm spinning my wheels, unsure of my effectiveness as a teacher. As I'm writing this post, I'm wondering if those times come when I measure myself against the checklists. You know, the ones used to measure educator effectiveness. Or something like that.🤔

But then a student or colleague, unaware of this internal conflict, will say something out of the blue that lets me know that this isn't in vain. Whether it's my approach to the classroom, the kids, or all the other "stuff", it isn't in vain.

I posted a journal prompt yesterday in class. "The best lesson somebody ever taught me was ______. (Explain)" The lesson could be an academic or life lesson, in or out of school. One kid started speaking about how he was taught to have high expectations as a Black man and not to walk in others' perceptions of him. I cosigned. I asked him, just as I asked the others, who taught him that. His response, "You!"

Saturday, October 7, 2017

A little note on reading instruction

"Oh my goodness, we gotta read a paragraph??"



"You do the most!"

"I ain't readin' this *&@^#!!!"

These were some of the responses I received this past week for what really was one paragraph my students had to read along with the 5 questions they had to answer. The paragraph was taken from a chapter in a book, that we're reading and that most of us are enjoying.  We had already read this particular chapter, by the time of the quiz, so it wasn't new. But even if it was...

This book has already generated a great deal of in-depth conversations about self-esteem, acceptance, and colorism. The book is The Skin I'm In by Sharon Flake. After completing a multiple choice section about some of the vocabulary, the students had to read a single paragraph and respond to 5 multiple choice questions. But what the students saw was that they had to *read* and they were having none of it!

BUT, before you judge them too harshly, I firmly believe that the test-prep, data-laden (or did I mean 'driven'?), mundane approach we take to reading instruction from kindergarten on up has created an aversion to any type of reading outside of Instagram posts and 140 (or is it 280?) characters. I believe that creating an overall culture where reading is subject 'donein school and a task that we have to do and for which they receive a grade instead of it being a relaxing, engaging, or informational activity 'done' at home, on the bus, on in the park, churns the disdain for it. Many kids hate the very idea of it.

That's. Not. Good.

We've test-prepped them straight into a hatred for the idea of picking up a book or magazine and reading . We've assessed them right into running in the opposite direction when faced with a single paragraph. That we read already. In a single chapter. In a book we're reading together. And enjoying.

Normally, I wouldn't be giving them something like that before creating a culture in our classroom where WE enjoy reading. I believe in starting off my reading/English classes with 15 minutes or so of students reading whatever they want. I believe in a well-stocked, robust, diverse, and welcoming classroom library and that a classroom library isn't for decoration or checklist purposes. I believe in school libraries and school librarians/teacher-librarians. I believe in carpeted areas, pillows, book shelves, plants, pet fish (or Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches...don't ask). I believe in us discussing what they read; in them drawing about what they read in an illustrative summary; in them writing about what they read; in them speaking to each other about what they read; in building up that "reading trust", so that when I must go into the stuff that I'm supposed to do, we can do so with a little less contempt. This approach works, even by the inappropriate measure of standardized testing scores. This approach has worked. That's not to say I haven't had to tweak the process depending on the class, but overall, it has worked.


I was told one year that these first 15-25 minutes were "a waste of instructional time." Another year I was told that I needed to "assess" them on what they're reading during this time. Another time I was told that I needed to use only the books that the school district purchased. For a long time I pushed back because of the results that I've seen. I've seen students go from hating the idea of picking up books and reading to them LOVING it! I've seen those beloved test scores (*cough*) go up year over year as a group. I've heard the comments they'd make when they thought I wasn't paying attention; the smirk at something they just read; the intensity with which they are turning the pages; the "Mr. Flemming, 5 more minutes!". I've seen them RUN into the classroom to grab a book before someone else did. 6th graders!! I've seen them HIDE books so that they knew where it was for the next time. A colleague noticed that students were sneaking to read in her math class. We speak of it to this day. Years after I had one student, he approached me on the street and said, "You still the best English teacher I ever had."

But after being observed incessantly, both formally and informally; after three visits from a higher power above my administrator at the time; after all of the comments on the observations; after all of the heated conversations behind closed doors about my teaching philosophy being antithetical to the compliance cultures that are created in our schools, I threw up the white flag. Not because I wanted to, but because I'm working on other goals and need my mind free (Carter G. Woodson would say 'enslaved'). I need my mind enslaved. My sister says that I'm just "taking a nap"; chillin' in the cut; recalibrating to fight differently. 

So, I resolved to enter this school year being a compliant teacher. This time, however, it's a "do over" at a different school. Sometimes there aren't enough hours in the day, but I try to do everything that I'm asked to do. I apologize. (How did you read that apology?) One year I asked an administrator if they wanted me to teach or do what I'm told because they aren't necessarily synonymous activities. And speaking of that Carter G. Woodson, he would call me a "miseducated negro" (his words) this school year and the majority of this previous school year. Might he have a point? Judge ye. As quoted in Brown (2009) Woodson writes, "Taught from books of the same bias, trained by Caucasians of the same prejudices or by Negroes of enslaved minds, one generation of Negro teachers after another have served for no higher purpose than to do what they are told to do" (p. 420).

So, how is my resolution working out for the kids?

"Oh my goodness, we gotta read a paragraph??"



"You do the most!"

"I ain't readin' this *&@^#!!!"

Brown, A. L. (2009). “Brothers gonna work it out:” Understanding the pedagogic performance of African American male teachers working with African American male students. Urban Review, 41(5), 416-435. doi:10.1007/s11256-008-0116-8

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The student who took over the class

As a teacher, I believe in rituals and routines. I also believe rituals and routines ought to give way to teachable moments or some better "other" if the moment is perfect for such.

After lunch today, a student took over the first 15 minutes of the class. And I let him. He had their attention and he was ready. It started out as a joke, naturally. "Ayo, I'm the teacher today yo! Open y'all books to chapter 2. That's where we at, sir, right?"

But when I just stood out of the way and let him, he ran with it.

Me, "Yes, sir."
Student 1, "You seriously gone let him teach?"
Me, "Yes. And Mr. , I hope you consider a career in teaching. We need more Black men in the field."
Him, "Iont know yet. Ard. Who wanna read first?"

The classroom takeover continued for about 15 minutes as students raised their hand to volunteer to read paragraphs at a time from Sharon Flake's "The Skin I'm In". He even called on ME and my hand wasn't even up. Do you know what I did? I read, just like he asked me to.

I want to divulge more about why this kid taking over the class was so significant, but doing so would reveal more than needs to be known. Just know and believe me when I say, this was big!!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A little note on "research-based"

So, "research-based" huh?
Stick with a particular curriculum because it's that.
Stick with particular processes because they are that.
Stick with a particular teaching model because it's that.
We do it this way with this curriculum using this method because it's that.

While I can and do appreciate the work of researchers, the truth is we can find research for anything we want in order to support our position. I read and respect the work of those who take the time to study the myriad phenomena interwoven in this work and in turn seek to develop materials to aid teachers in our engagement in this work. But even researchers would agree that we must view research critically.

Who funded the research?
What populations of students were selected? Where? Why? How? When?
Who benefits/profits?
Are students exploited, especially students of color?
Were Hassan B. Robinson* or Maria P. Nunez*, students in my classroom, a part of that study?

Here's my on-the-ground, in-the-classroom perspective; my view from 105:
Whatever helps the students sitting in front of me and on a more personal level, the student with whom I'm working at the moment, that in-the-moment research, that action research, those methods are what this student needs at this moment. It may be the curriculum. Great! But, we cannot be so rigid in our approach that we are afraid to make adjustments so that our students experience success and growth. I say growth because experiencing success isn't enough. Some will lower the standard to make success possible. Pseudo-success and faux-progress aren't what our students deserve. No, no, no! Negative.

Remember, "research" once said the world was flat, that Africans were less intelligent than whites, and that Blacks have a "violence gene". We must be critical thinkers and educators.

*Fictitious names

Thursday, September 14, 2017

When Mother Stood Up

I couldn't have scripted a better ending to one of my classes if I tried.

Today, after a review of "rhetoric" and making attempts at identifying examples of rhetorical devices in 2 presidential speeches (Obama's '09 Back to School speech & Abe Lincoln's Gettysburg Address) we discussed an article we read and summarized for a "Do Now" (I hate that term, btw) the previous class session. During the previous class session we read an article by Franklin McCain on his and his comrades' experiences during their lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro.

The discussion was lively. The students were really taking a critical look at the circumstances that surrounded these and other acts of civil disobedience.

But then a colleague in the room stood up. I'll call her, "Mother". Mother stood, gave some insight into some of her personal experiences as a woman from the continent of Africa and a citizen of the United States. She detailed some of the prejudice she and her family encountered and what she did to fight it. Mother also took the time to remind our dear young people how they come from the lineage of African royalty! That they should speak and behave as such; that they should carry themselves as such; that getting an education was beyond important, especially for Black and Brown children in the United States!

Listen here! Mother's sassines didn't upset me one bit! Didn't seem to bother the kids none either, for they gave her a raucous round of applause when she got through! If Mother had a mic, it'd be broke.

With that, class was dismissed.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Why was I surprised?

If you follow my career, tweets, and/or blog posts, you may know that I am continuing my teaching career as an English teacher at Martin Luther King High School here in Philly. I spent the first 10 years of my public school teaching career as an elementary school teacher, spending most of that time as a 6th grade teacher. I have a personal conviction about my teaching at the elementary level in public schools. I set aside my convictions to experience high school.

As the teens and I were making our acquaintances this week, I was curious to know whether or not I was their first Black male teacher. More hands went up in each class than I thought. I don't know why I was surprised. 2% of public school teachers nationwide are Black men. In Philly, it's around 4%. Well, now they have two of us in 9th grade. While we're not a panacea, we bring a different perspective and experience set.

Here's to an adventurous school year! Every teaching and learning experience should be an adventure!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

From Kelly to King

After spending ten years as a teacher at John B. Kelly Elementary School, I made the very difficult decision to leave. The decision to site-select out was just as hard for me to do as it was for me to articulate and for many of the Kelly community (and family and friends who know me best) to accept. I am looking forward to reuniting with some of my former students and to the new experiences that teaching at Martin Luther King High School will bring.

Words cannot express my gratitude to my first principal, Dr. Hackman, for taking a chance on a brother. I remember sitting before a panel of educators, who would later become my colleagues, and in front of Dr. Hackman while fielding questions about curriculum and discipline. I remember saying, "Listen, I don't know the curriculum, but I do know discipline. You teach me the curriculum because I have the discipline!" (I think I lived up to that, lol) I remember driving back to work in West Philly from that interview in Germantown and receiving a call that John B. Kelly wanted me, the next day. Ha! Nice! I remember being excited while also informing the administrator on the other end that I was honored, but felt it necessary to give my current job two weeks. She understood. That didn't stop me from going back to Kelly the next day to retrieve curriculum materials and previewing them during those next two weeks. While there, I took a little tour, and peeked my head into the classroom of the teacher who would be my partner teacher for nearly the next decade (with whom I worked until the end) and into room 105. 105, where there sat about 30 or so 6th graders; a group that would be my new homeroom. I remember a young lady asking, "Is he our new teacher?" "Yes," was the response from the Administrative Liaison. "Yes, and we're going to have a great year, aren't we," was the response from the new teacher. We did.

One of the students with whom I worked that school year, would keep in contact with me over the years. He'd come to visit us at Kelly. We'd see each other in the neighborhood every now and then. That same young man who was a student my first year at Kelly would be a colleague during my last year at Kelly. Mr. Maurice! What are the odds? Times sure changed from year 1 to year 10. {insert heavy sigh *here*}. Maybe I'll share those changing times in another post.

To the district principal who recommended me to Dr. Hackman back then, thank you! You also took a chance on me, knowing that your reputation was on the line, but fully confident that this match would work. You know who you are :-)

I've formed many bonds and relationships that I will not soon forget! The rapport that I have with the kids, my old kids, their families, my colleagues, and the community are priceless! These bonds were the constant in times of uncertainty. These and the 'feel-good' moments that I haven't tweeted, the tears shed for the kids that I've not shared with the world, the prayers I've prayed, the heart-felt words over the years from parents, former students, my colleagues, and from people I didn't even know were watching, they all are a part of the fabric of the me that King is getting. At King, I'm looking forward to learning and to growing as an educator! I'm looking forward to making a positive impact wherever I can! I'm looking forward to...wait...that's it! I'm looking forward.

Here's to the next decade in education; rooted in Kelly, continuing at King, and forward.