Saturday, April 21, 2012

Duende dust in a classroom

by Rudy Ch. Garcia

The end of my first year in a new school district and new school as a first-grade dual-language teacher approaches; it's been tumultuous. My evaluation even reads, "Began the year with ineffective teaching." Ineffective, hell--it was total chaos. Several academic and logistical factors made it even more so, but one that carried throughout the year was the insufficient time to set the kids up with norms and routines. When primary teachers attempt to do in ten days what actually takes thirty, everyone pays for the deficit, all . . . year . . . long.

The beginning and end result was that I had four boys who tended to bully, three with possible physical abuse issues--a combination that produces havoc in a classroom.

But teachers work with what they have. They try different strategies, behavior reward systems, consult with others. In the end no one else has to face the daily task of imparting knowledge to the kids except you, no matter how difficult the conditions.

Over the years I'd often heard from other teachers about "that one class from hell" or other descriptions to the same effect. I guessed that this past year was finally my turn, although I know it was not this particular group of kids who created a most memorable gauntlet; conditions set up from the beginning cast their unfortunate lot together.

What I'd implemented to improve behavior, particularly for my four bully-candidates, had worked just partially or temporarily. Conferencing with their parents had its downsides as well. Somehow, such parents can see in my eyes that I know there is or was possible physical abuse going on at home. It originates in my own history in an abusive home. Such parents don't take kindly to me.

So, this week--and only six more till the end of the year--started out similar to the rest of the year: I tried to teach and keep my boys from getting into too much trouble, and they tried to learn while still getting themselves in trouble, especially outside of my classroom.

Yesterday, Friday afternoon. The end of two weeks of testing that taxes and even depresses some kids. They're already anticipating the weekend, and outside it's springtime. Despite all this, I'm getting read to run my bilingual students through their English chant and mime of "Peas Porridge Hot." It's in the curriculum, not my choice.

I divide the kids into teams of girls and boys, with the challenge of which team can run the poem and win all the points. If one student fails to chant or mime a part of the poem, that means a point for the other team. The girls go first and inevitably, two who are BFFs get into a staring match that leads to accusations crossing between them like darts laced with hemlock. In the end the girls' team loses twelve points. They're muttering, cursing, blaming each other or just feeling beat. Some don't want to continue playing and would rather be outside pulling dandelions and blowing the seeds.

The boys go next. That's probably when the air in my room parted and a shower of duende dust drenched them all, because otherwise I can't explain what next transpired.

My main bullyboy, call him Alfredo, pulled away from the line of boys and placed himself in front to address them. He explained how all of them had to speak each part of the poem. Then he demonstrated each of the hands motions I'd taught them, nothing very elaborate. Throughout this, he had their attention, probably because he also happens to be one of the brightest kids and will either become captain of his high school football team and chess club, or leader of a local tagging and window-breaking gang one day.

Even more surprising to me was that when he was done, he returned to the line like he was just another member of his team. When they recounted the poem, they made zero mistakes. It was like watching a drill team or some Chinese acrobatic performance or a bunch of magos under the influence of duende dust.

I don't know whether what happened next was due to that magic dust or came from the girls having watched how Alfredo had performed. But I asked them if they wanted to have another go at it, which they agreed to.

That's when Nancy, we'll call her, stepped to the front of her team and addressed them like she'd been born to lead. Nancy, one of the poorest children who often misses breakfast, enters the room tardy with her hair disheveled and her eyes only half open. Another of my brightest students and best artist; never one to bully, but hardly a proven leader.
Nancy had her hands full. The two BFFs who also happen to be among the most vocal, intelligent, adept English speakers and minor bullies themselves had previously outshone Nancy in class activities and assessments. The BFFs were still at each other's throats. The girl's team would never beat the boys with the dissension in their ranks.

Nancy was undeterred. She explained to the BFFs that one should stand in line where she wouldn't see the other's staring, and that the other one should avert her eyes and only look forward. Amazingly, the BFFs complied. Nancy then took her place in the ranks. When they ran the poem, the time they lost just one point. Using my teacher's discretion, on a technicality the boys lost one point and the competition ended in a tie.

I swear, throughout this magic realism scenario, I did no more than keep score and tell the teams when to begin. Yes, we'd previously worked on leaders, leadership and member responsibility to one's group. But their thinking and actions during this poem chant was undirected, at least by me.

I was slightly overcome by what I'd witnessed. Chingaus, I was giddy. I knew it didn't mean the overnight end to Alfredo's bullying, nor that Nancy now had a straight smooth path to career success, but it affected me enough to write this.

I presented Alfredo and Nancy with a book where I wrote a dedication: "To you, for being a good example of a leader." I sent them to the office to read and explain to the principal and vice-principal why they'd won the books. Alfred had been there before, but only to answer for major transgressions. I didn't hear those discussions because I left, confident that the administrators and kids could find their way without me. It seemed appropriate given that I hadn't been needed in all that had already transpired.

I heard Alfredo explain the same thing to his mother at the end of the day, and I shook her hand to congratulate her, especially since she'd so often heard about Alfredo's sometimes daily struggles with his behavior.

In June I'll leave this temporary job and move on to another school or district or an unemployment line. But I'll leave knowing that Alfredo and Nancy, if memory serves them, might carry a lesson for life, one that they taught to and for themselves. And the rest of the kids, including the BFFs, who watched, followed and participated in this small moment, might also carry a bit of what they saw to improve their skills at cooperative participation to broaden their minds.

If I can find the opening that that duende dust emerged from, I'm going to block it from closing and find a way to pry it open even wider. Then I'm going to take a shower in it and maybe finally let out my suppressed joy over watching, not a teachable moment engineered by me, but a learnable moment created by a roomful of bilingual first graders. And leaders.

Es todo, y suficiente, hoy,


Melinda Palacio said...

Cheers! Here's to duende dust.

Olga said...

It's those magical moments in the classroom that rejuvenate the teaching spirit! Thanks for sharing. Adelante y que vivan los estudiantes y todos nuestros maestros. :)

Rene Colato Lainez said...

Maravilloso ;)

Anonymous said...

What a great story of real teaching. You don't need an evaluation to tell you how much of a difference you make.

Anonymous said...

I was enthralled and lost in your words. That was one of those perfect moments in time that will forever replay in your mind, but it will never be as good as the way you just expressed it. Your power of words is pure magic Maestro!
My eyes still sting with how your words moved me.

Anonymous said...

I love this story, Rudy. Thanks so much for writing it. And good for you, sending the kids to the office for something they did so well.