When the system fails you…

November 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Earlier this week, a case manager for the middle school was filing away the students’ test scores at the computer next to me. Every Tuesday, the students take a test based on the Massachusetts state curriculum so the instructors can track the placement and progress of each participant. Again, I’ve changed her name.

I haven’t mentioned her before, but Heather recently started in the program. At age 11, she was supposedly impossible to control. Her mother could not handle her so she pulled Heather out of school and sent her to live with her grandma in Algeria. Heather is now 15 and came back about a month ago. Apparently, she was not in school the entire time she was in Africa (what was she possibly doing on a daily basis?). When I first talked to her, she told me how boring Alergia was and how much she hated it and now I understand why.

She has become an incredibly sweet, reserved girl. She respects authority and knows how to sit quietly in class. She wants to learn, and seen in the context of the rest of her class, she appears to be quite the perfect student. Every time she sees me, she runs across the room to give me a big hug or waves at me emphatically.

Well, her tests scores from last week place her in second grade. Did I mention that she is 15?

Someone with a second grade education does not fit in a class full of students who generally test at a 5th grade level or so. Her instructor says they need to pull her out of the program, that she is better suited to be in Adult Basic Education (ABE). CBD offers ABE as part of the Adult Education programs, but generally they are for adults so their students are over 18. I presume that if they cannot place her in the CBD ABE class, they will find an alternative ABE program for her. I worry because she is likely to become incredibly discouraged with her education. Even if she can continue with ABE and ultimately get a GED, how many years will that be? If, on the other hand, she becomes too discouraged to continue, what can she possible do with a second grade education? How well can you even read at a second grade level?

It is astonishingly unfair how badly the system failed her and that her mother/grandmother did not seem to consider the consequences of their actions. I am unbelievably frustrated to learn this about Heather, who really deserves so much better. But as infuriated as I am, I’m even more saddened by what this means for the rest of her life.

I’m sorry Heather, but you have an even longer road ahead of you than anyone thought.

The Joys of Teaching

November 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

I am teaching two classes; they could not be more different. Mondays I teach photography to two 11 years olds as an elective after school program. Hannah and Zachary have known each other for a long time and are both interested in photography. With the small number and their attentiveness, we have fun assignments and excursions every week. Hopefully, I will be able to post some of their work once we get really into the thick of it.

My other class is a bit more difficult. Thursday afternoons I teach video to the Alternative Middle School (AMS) students. As you may have guessed from this blog, I love these students and am extremely intrigued by them. I have developed a relationship with them, where they trust me and think of me as a friend, but they definitely test boundaries with me. They alter between treating me like an adult and treating me like one of them. Since I am now their teacher, I ham nervous about maintaining their respect and friendship while taking on an authoritative role–a role that is extremely necessary in this classroom. They 13-17 year olds, all with serious ADHD and issues with authority. Plus, I am not a hard ass–it’s quite the mix.

I know that the students enjoyed the last class, but a stranger would never guess. They were constantly talking over me and each other throughout the class, at least 4 students were sent out of the room, and their responses to my questions were almost non-existent. Luckily, I had a case manager with me to keep the students in line and discipline them. However, a change is coming: in order to decrease the number of students, I asked to make the class an elective. As such, the case manager will take the kids who elect for the other section to the gym during this time and I will be the only authority in the room.

I actually am really enjoying teaching and could potentially see myself teaching in the future, especially in the creative arts. However, I’ve learned that developing a relationship with students in order to document them while you are already teaching them is difficult. I am really excited about the video course though; I’m hoping we will submit the final product to a youth film festival in the Boston. So far, they have been most interested in films about sexual violence and youth homelessness so I expect the film to have a similar theme.

Does Violence Pay Itself Forward?

November 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

Students tell me stories about what violence happened the day before at school or at a party. Instructors fill me in on the new classroom scandal that is making their job more difficult. I’ve heard a lot about violence, but last week, I saw my first CBD fight. Names have been changed for safety.

Unlike many of the other students, Andrew is not intrigued by me and shows little interest in responding to my questions, so I don’t have any information about him. I was sitting in the Little House, where Andrew’s program, the Alternative Middle School (AMS), is held. After school, he was sitting in the hallway. His best friend, Tyler, was standing in the gym behind Andrew and knocked on the window to get Andrew’s attention. Andrew wrongfully assumed that Tyler was trying to aggravate him. He jumped out of his seat, ran into the gym, and punched Tyler in the face 4 times. Andrew’s mother was happened to be there for a meeting. Seeing her son punch Tyler in the face, Andrew’s mother tackled her son. She screamed and she pushed him against a wall. He began to yell at her and the next thing I know, her hands are around his neck shouting that she would beat him up if he didn’t stop talking.

My immediate reaction was that a mother can’t treat her child like this; no wonder he acts out. An instructor for a different program said this was the hardest part of her job, understanding why her students are so difficult to control and why they get into fights. I asked the case manager for the AMS students whether someone would call DSS, wondering about the protocol. He evaded my question.

The following day, the director of the AMS program, John, drove me to Little House with all my equipment. On the thirty minute drive, I had the opportunity to ask him about the situation. In his opinion, the mother was in the right to hit her son. John explained that these boys have a few more years before they hold no legal obligation to listen to their parents and before they are considered adults according to the law. John thinks that when your son wont listen to you, you need to make him. He quantified that this doesn’t work on the female students, but that most of the boys could use a beating from a strong father figure.

As the co-founder of the first charter school in Dorchester, John has called the Department of Children and Families (DCF) on numerous accounts. Overwhelmed with cases, DCF will practically only follow up where the violence and abuse is so treacherous that the child is incapable of surviving. In the past, John has worked with DCF on cases involving human trafficking, where a girl’s stepfathers prostituted her and she was getting raped 3 or 4 times a night, and a whole slew of impossibly horrifying situations that no child should ever have to experience.

What do you think? Where should the line be drawn between keeping your child in line and passing on the violence?

Let’s play “Whose Life is Worse?”

November 1, 2010 § 2 Comments

Have you ever noticed when there is a group of people, everyone tries to one-up each other? Be it better grades, difficult teachers, stricter parents, or the number of shootings and stabbings you have witnessed, it is a game to see who has the most extreme experience. Last week in the Alternative Middle School (AMS), the 14-15 year old girls started the “Who has witnessed more violence” contest. For their security, all the names in this post are changed.

Amiya remembered that I am from New York City. She wants to move there because she thinks Boston is boring so she asked all about the city. After a few inquiries (most of which I  couldn’t answer well), she paused for a moment and inquired, “Did you grow up in the white parts?” She wanted to know if the ‘hood’ was “crazy” and “live.” I tried to deflect the questions and hide my inadequate information, when her friend, Kala, jumped in. Kala had spent a weekend in New York and began telling stories about drugs and shootings, saying how tame Boston was in comparison. Thus began the game…

Amiya recounted the only time she witnessed a shooting. Last year, at 13, Amiya was walking around Ashmont in Dorchester when someone in a car pulled out a gun and started aimlessly shooting. She was terrified, as expected. The conversation began to shift, but I asked these girls which areas they avoid for safety. Amiya said felt safe everywhere because if anyone started ‘something’, she would just fight. I was surprised, since she described how scared she was at the Ashmont shooting. But, when asked specifically about Ashmont, Amiya described returning a week after the shooting. She was paranoid and uncomfortable; she has never been back since. A few days later, Amiya gauked at me for taking the 17 bus and going to Fields Corner, so clearly there are areas that she avoids.

Kala then detailing how the New York scene is nothing compared to the scene in the Dominican Republic. At age 14, Kala was walking with her brother when he was stabbed by a girl on the street. I don’t know the exact story, but at the hospital later, Kala was furious, not knowing if her brother was going to survive. She screamed at her friends and family to bring her a gun so she could kill the girl that stabbed her brother. Fearing for Kala, her parents sent her to live with family in the DR for 6 months. She is a student in the AMS because she missed these months of school. Now, she has calmed down, her brother is fine, she is back in school, and can’t wait to get to high school.

Later, in a skill-building workshop for the girls, 13 year old Ivory laughed about a party she attended a few weeks ago. While everyone was dancing and going wild,  some guy started a fight. The other guy pulled out a gun and began shooting. Ivory, a tall and aggressive girl, forced her way out and was one of the first people on the street. As everyone clamored to leave quickly, Ivory watched several people run up to the second floor and jump out of the windows. Amiya almost went to the party, but as she drove past and saw people jumping out of windows, she continued driving.

This story was told through laughter, poking fun at the silly people jumping out windows. These girls are 13 and 14 years old and this kind of experience is just part of their life, another piece of lunchroom gossip. They started partying at 12, they have no curfews, and they live in an area teeming with random violence. Kala said it best after recounting her story: “I’ve seen a lot of shit in my life.”

Preliminay Project Proposals

October 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Aside from displaying my love of alliteration, I want to throw around a few initial concepts and get some feedback. That’s where you come in…Comments? Questions? Random remarks? All are welcome!

1) Profiles of the staff/instructors

Perhaps a bit trite, but these staff members deserve to be honored. They conduct the classroom with an amazing balance of authority and relate-ability and I’ve rarely seen people so passionate (collectively and individually) about their jobs. All the instructors work here because they care about their students and are willing to sacrifice their own lives to build up the lives of the ones they teach. Given these economic times, the blood, sweat, and tears behind CBD could use a celebration of their lives and contributions.

Technique: perhaps film, but maybe a photographic slideshow narrated by the subject. See: House of Stones, Home of Bricks

Potential hitches: showing these amazing people outside the classroom?  

2) Portraits of CBD Families

CBD started a new effort to integrate the Adult Ed and Early Education programs. Since CBD revamped their image and narrowed their mission, Adult Ed is a bit confused–the students aren’t on an explicit path to college.  The program is now presented as investing in the next generation’s education–10% of the Adult Ed participants must have children in Early Ed. This is just only one faction of the CBD families: some young parents in College Prep have kids in Early Ed. The programs used to be more individualized, but the effort to integrate the programs has emphasized a universal image. This project would examine CBD across programs, showing how the work across ages enhances the community.

Technique: again, perhaps film, but most likely an audio-visual slideshow. I was also toying with concentrating on immigrant families.

Potential hitches: Language (although there would be ready-made translator) and access outside the classroom.

3) The Alternative Middle School

The middle school attracts me because the students are at a interesting junction of self definition:  commit to going to school or drop out. Their identities are caught between childhood and adulthood. They want to be tough and independent, but they are still kids. They want to love and attention, but they don’t want to show it. They also really struggle to understand the long term consequences of their actions.  Most middle schoolers can relate, but add an open court case and a lot of behavioral, emotional, and family issues and you have yourself quite a mix.

Technique: Hopefully film (think “American Teen” by Nanette Burstein–if you haven’t seen it, do). I want to profile the students through their sneakers.  Bizarre? Perhaps, but every student has really cool sneakers. Their shoes are a tool for self-expression and through detailing different colors and styles, you learn a lot about the student.

Potential hitches: they are not overly receptive to the camera. The second they hear the “click click click” of my shutter, they fall apart in a fit of nervous laughter and get self-conscious.  Some students will be easier than others. Another hitch is the students need to learn. In an accelerated program, do they have the time to be distracted by me? Also, I will soon begin leading a class-wide project where, with my direction, the students will write, direct, act, and edit their own short film by December. This would allow for collaboration.

Boston’s media community

October 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

I hope you forgive that the basis of this post has nothing to do with CBD. I believe it is still relevant, given that I participated in these two events because of the Hine fellowship. Here are some initial observations of a community in Boston.

Early Sunday morning, I made my way to Doyle’s in Jamaica Plane, apparently a true Bostonian institution. Once a month, Boston Media Maker’s holds an event at Doyle’s that was recommended to me, so I figured I should check it out. With a few technical updates regarding the cameras and mics that were used to record and stream the meeting on the web, the 40 or 50 participants introduced themselves, shared their projects and ideas, and listed their website(s) and twitter names. Soon enough, I had lists of items to research on the web and a slightly bruised confidence. One of the participants, a 10 year old boy, was not only streaming the event live onto his blog, but detailed his many media outlets (including the events at which he has spoken and the big shots he has met). Turns out, I am a serious late bloomer.  Aside from him, the overwhelming majority were social media makers rooted in blogging and other web based outlets. Many people discussed personal branding and almost everyone seemed to have advice on making money off of youtube. I think its safe to say I have a lot that I can learn from this group and I will most certainly be returning in the future with the hopes of finding someone who can teach me.

The following day, I went to an orientation for Cambridge Community Television, one of the cooler community media centers I’ve seen. When Cambridge was negotiating the laws for cable television with the cable companies (rather late in the game), the city really wanted to provide a positive service for their taxpayers. Thus,  the deal was born forcing the cable companies to donate 5% of their revenue to community based cable. This money is divided amongst 3 different stations (including CCTV). CCTV provides public access (not to be confused with public broadcasting–a distinction really at the foundation of the community center). As a Cambridge resident, my membership would allow me free access to all equipment (both production and post production), cheap instruction, and a range of community resources from networking to a local music library available to my projects for free. The caveat? I give CCTV permission to show my project on their 3 TV channels and display it on their website. That’s the caveat?! I get some form of distribution…for free?

I have never had much interaction with public access community TV, but the organization appears to be an amazing opportunity. Aside from the benefits of further instruction, access to equipment, and the opportunity to show my work locally, CCTV provides an outlet for community participation and collaboration.

Suddenly, I have access to two really awesome outlets for a media community. After spending the past four years at the Center for Documentary Studies at school, I am used to be surrounded by dedicated people willing to help me think through my issues and give me feedback on my work.  I was concerned about my fellowship and how I would fare without people to bounce my ideas off of or reflect on my experiences, but now, with the fellow from last year and my fellow fellow,  I am starting to build a community that I can use to enhance my projects and deepen my understanding of my experiences. I must admit, this is one of my favorite parts of the creative process.

The Safety Dance

October 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Working in some of the less safe areas of Boston is part of the package of working at a service organization for a disenfranchised population. I expected to be confronted with issues, so I was shocked the first few weeks when I felt completely comfortable walking around. Since I don’t have a car in this city and the train doesn’t run through giant gaps of Dorchester, I have to walk a whole lot. Many of places I visit are a good 15 minute walk from the T stop–most of which is through some of the less appealing parts the neighborhood. Of course, I have been stared at, but I am one of the only white women walking (especially solo) through most of these areas and that is to be expected. So why did countless Bostonian strangers gape at me with horror and confusion at the prospect of my work location.

All changed last Wednesday. When I went out to a delicious Vietnamese lunch with the ESL instructor that led the Unquity House field trip, the subject of safety unfolded. I explained how comfortable I felt despite the “disproportionate reactions” of the aforementioned strangers. Quickly, she dismantled every notion I had of the area: she explained to me that the Log School–the building that houses the College Prep Program, a day care center, and many ESL classes–is located at the intersection with the highest murder rate in the entire city. She claimed that if I was able to look at a map of Boston murders in the last few years, the dots would radiate from this very corner. (I found this:Boston Murder Map 2010)

As I understand it, the population at the Log School tends to be fairly local and are in serious need of the CBD services. The young participants now have a safe haven they didn’t have before and a means of finding a whole slew of opportunities that they have previously been denied. However, coming to school everyday is incredibly dangerous for everyone involved. Another ESL instructor was moved to a different building in the last month and her husband is throwing her a party because he is so ecstatic that she wont be walking around Bowdoin and Norton Street.

I have taken it upon myself to learn the bus system, which may or may not be any safer than walking. With the impending early darkness of winter, I fear that my visits to this location will become increasingly sparse. My brother suggested Mace, but my tendency toward clumsiness pretty much rules that out. The other Hine Fellow suggested introducing myself to every store owner on the block (including the excessively advertised liquor store directly across the street), providing me with a small community of people who recognize me and will hopefully look out for me. I should do this soon, but now I am paranoid and my naive sense of comfort is completely dismantled. It certainly doesn’t help that I have to lug around expensive photography or video equipment every day…

The my reflection ends with this: I am perhaps safer in this area because I am so obviously an outsider and the reality is that harming me might lead to more trouble than harming some locals. That being said, I can’t really imagine having to live everyday in an area where I wouldn’t feel safe to stay at home, let alone walk around the corner.

What to look for when sending your 1 year old to school

October 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

In the few weeks since I’ve been at CBD, I have noticed an shocking amount of diversity within its early education program. As the largest component of CBD in terms of funding and manpower, I figure it deserves at least one of its own posts. So far there are three different programs where I have spent some time . Perhaps I am incredibly naive (and perhaps I can’t be expected to be otherwise since I have no children of my own), but I had no idea there were so many options and styles. After some informal self-education (i.e. relentlessly asking questions and observing the variety of CBD daycare instructors),  I will discuss some of the main points that I find interesting (or necessary should I ever need to send a child to daycare).

The first daycare center I explored at CBD is Dorchester Place, located at the main CBD building. I spent my time in Miss Louis’s class, comprised mainly of the older kids (4,5, and 6 year olds). The dynamic was like that of no other class of 4-6 year olds I’ve ever seen. The kids had their assigned areas to play in and, for 15 young kids, they were remarkably quiet. Miss Louis read them one book before lunch, which was followed by a 2 hour nap, and then more free play for the next 3 hours or so while parents trickled in to pick up their children whenever they were able. During lunchtime, not a single kid spoke.

After my next daycare visit, this time to the Ruth Darling center, I realized what made Miss Louis’s class so interesting. These two CBD centers are entirely different. Miss Louis focuses on discipline, and her students display that focus. The Ruth Darling Center is much more focused around learning. Following a curriculum called “Blueprint,” the instructors  design the daily plan from a pre-prepared year-long map with a different theme per month and accompanying books and exercises. The children at Ruth Darling have a lot more structure to their schedule: free play is followed by snack, then begins the Blueprint day (full of books, counting, alphabets, and games all related to the theme of the week). The day that I spent at Ruth Darling, the little ones were learning to recognize and write the first letter of their names. They sang the alphabet, were asked to identify the first letter of their name, and then were given paper with this letter to trace and draw pictures of items beginning with that letter. For example, I was given a large letter V, which I traced with a bright purple marker and then drew images of volcanoes, videos, and venom–V is a difficult letter and drawing the videos and venom took some creativity on my part.

Another interesting distinction between these two day care centers is that Dorchester Place has a lot of Vietnamese students, so many of the classroom signs are in both English and Vietnamese. Sometimes, you can hear Miss Louis give instruction in Vietnamese when one of her students doesn’t understand her English command. The Ruth Darling population has almost no Vietnamese students, but sees many Cape Verdeans. At the moment, two students recently immigrated from Cape Verde and speak almost no English. The instructors do not speak any creole and disciplining these students can be a challenge.  However, the instructors explained that, in the few weeks since their arrival, these brothers have made remarkable strides.

The last daycare center I observed was located in a private home. CBD represents certified at-home providers and was able to get me access to one of these homes. Miss Sabina has run a daycare out of her home for the past 5 years. Her 10 or so students range in age from 4 months to 5 years. Most of the children start young and stay so they build a really strong relationship with Miss Sabina. Also, many families send multiple children to Miss Sabina, so siblings can play with each other and learn together. Because of the giant range in age and ability, Miss Sabina and her co-instructor split the group into the younger and older children. The older children sing the alphabet one-at-a-time, reading books together, and have specific projects to work on. The younger kids merely “play.” I asked Miss Sabina why she chose home-based day care. She spoke about how difficult life can be for these children whose parents work such long hours. She wants to provide the consistency and comfort of a home, where these children can feel  love and security, even if they often can’t in their real homes. The manifestation of this concept is impossible to miss. The small number of children and the length of time that they spend with Miss Sabina, along with her affection and dedication, clearly makes her day care feel like a home learning center. The oldest child first came to Miss Sabina at 6 months old. Now, accompanied by her little brother, the 5 year old acts as though her day care center is a home away from home: she rules the class. Although home-based day care has its perks, such a level of comfort can create issues with discipline and learning.

There are still 30-40 providers homes (most of whom I don’t expect to see) and two other day care centers in which I have yet to step foot. That is a lot of day care…

And on a slightly unrelated and technical note, it turns out little kids are extremely difficult to photograph. The lighting in many of these day care centers is minimal and not flattering. Plus, children have a tendency to move…a lot–and fast. I have many many blurry photographs of children and a whole series of the older ones sticking their face in my camera and grinning excessively.

“Ain’t no justice; it’s just us.”

September 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

Since minute one at the Alternative Middle School (AMS) through the staff retreat and every interaction at the College Prep Program, I am constantly confronted with one truth: these instructors are hardcore. I don’t know how they do it, but every single teacher, case educator, and director I have met in the Alternative Education program strikes this amazing balance of strict, intimidating authority and friend/neighbor. The majority of the teachers and case educators have grown up in similar conditions and faced similar hardships and obstacles. They use this as a tool not only to relate to the students, but also to hold them accountable for potentially the first time. Many of these students have barely been given a standard to live up to so CBD aims to set that standard high and practice “shooting for the moon to land amongst the stars.” For example, college is not treated as a dream; it is presented as a reality and CBD does not take no for an answer. The case educators work with the students and their families to start even simply by changing their vocabulary: “When you got to college, what do you want to study?” At the same time, you miss one class without alerted the necessary people or you walk into the classroom smelling like marijuana and you “terminate yourself” (primarily the College Prep program). “Terminating yourself” is Ismail’s phrase and the idea is that the student’s idea to practice bad behavior in full acknowledgment of the rules places the student at fault.

Ted, the Alternative Middle School instructor for History and English teaching the 5 paragraph essay

This accountability is a huge adjustment for many of the students; one with with they struggle (but hopefully appreciate). Ismail, the aforementioned instructor for College Prep, holds his students accountable for more than just the classroom antics. The title of this post, another of his concepts, is Ismail’s hope that his students think beyond themselves. He wants them to succeed in an environment that often perpetuates the opposite, so he pushes them to think and talk about the violence and inequalities they are faced with on a daily basis. He calls everyone in the classroom his family. When one student mentioned that they weren’t actually family, he retorted, “we’re gonna fake it ’til we make it.”

Stay tuned for more on Ismail (I am hoping to make him a test run for one of my portrait ideas).

Unquity House

September 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

CBD received a grant from a Vietnamese organization specifically for ESL classes for Vietnamese immigrants. The donating organization wanted to ensure that their community would not only have access to ESL classes, but that these classes would be catered to the needs of the community. Although there are some benefits to this system, these Vietnamese-only classes exacerbate assimilation issues. Many of these immigrants live amongst their community, eat Vietnamese food, and don’t interact with non-Vietnamese people on a normal day.  Most of the students have never been inside an American home and have never consumed American food. Over the summer, their instructor, Melanie, had a great idea with her neighbor, who runs a nursing home in a nearby area of Boston. Melanie and her neighbor, both of whom are dealing with populations looking for friendship and connection, organized a coffee hour where the Vietnamese could practice their English and make friends with the Senior Citizens.

On Monday, after many obstacles and a lot of preparation time, I joined Melanie’s CBD class to meet the residents of the Unquity House.  After introductions and enthusiastic small talk, I saw how ready this class was to meet some American friends and use their hard-earned English skills. In the parking lot, an elderly woman came up to introduce herself and immediately launched into a story about her experience in the peace corps. The students gathered, most too shy to interact–save for Lilly, who is very talkative and whom the woman immediately commented on her beauty.

Once inside the Unquity House, Melanie’s neighbor gave the students a tour of the facilities. As we walked from one room to the next, residents started joining the tour, adding their comments, and introducing themselves. Once in the cafe, the residents took their seats while the students dispersed themselves among the residents. Soon enough, everyone was talking and engaging with others. They told stories about their lives and experiences. Some of the students brought pictures of their families or examples of their hobbies to have ready-made conversation topics. Many of the students are licensed manicurists and exchanged phone numbers with the elderly women who wanted manicures and pedicures. One duo spent the entire session talking to each other. Tuyet, the Vietnamese student, ended up telling her new friend how she was abused by her children and why she came to American 3 months earlier. Throughout the cafe, the immigrants and the nursing home residents were holding hands and laughing. One woman sat at the piano and played a Billie Holiday song as her friend belted the lyrics and a few students danced on the sidelines.

The field trip appeared to be a massive success and Melanie is hoping to continue these gatherings once a month or so throughout the year. She hopes that these two groups fuse to create more lasting connections, helping the Vietnamese to assimilate more and providing both parties with a new support system. As suspected, the ESL students warmed my heart in a way that I think few of the other programs will. They’re dedication and persistence is just as inspiring as their excitement about educating themselves and trying to find a better life.