Up to Standard

There were two boys--Jamey and Kyle. There was a gun. Was there a particular time when the teachers and administrators might have intervened? Did some teachers care too little about the students, while others cared too much? When there is a top-down drive to meet new state standards, how can administrators create and sustain safe, efficient, and effective learning environments under the kind of extreme conditions present in Carver Middle School?

Excerpts from the journal of Maggie Donohue

Maggie remembers the beginning of it all.

June 10

An odd thing happened today.

I didn’t see the kid in park when I took my run this afternoon—the one who has been sitting on the bench by the pond every afternoon for the past week.

Maggie remembers seeing Jamey at the park during her afternoon runs.

Tall, thin, all arms and legs. Longish, sandy hair and freckles. Light eyes. Sort of dreamy expression. Yesterday I stopped to say hello. He looked straight at me and his mouth smiled. Not the eyes. I think his dreams must be more haunted than serene. He is younger than I first thought—but his eyes are old. There was an old pink shoe box next to him on the bench.

He wasn’t there today. But the pink box was lying next to the pond–one end was almost in the water. When I stooped to examine it, I heard some kind of scratching sound coming from it. I lifted the lid and there was a tiny, emaciated kitten inside. It was still alive.

I looked around for the boy. No one. I am sure he was there somewhere, watching. At first I was furious. The kitten was clearly in distress.

I have brought it home. Got a doll’s bottle from Missy downstairs to feed the kitten. Missy’s mom says she can’t have a pet. I asked. So I guess it’s mine, if it lives. I’ll take it to the vet tomorrow. And I’ll look for the boy.

June 13

I can’t believe it! Gil has resigned.

We had our usual team meeting during fourth period. As the meeting drew to a close, Gil gave me the high sign indicating that he wanted to talk. I sat back down in my chair, and Gil handed me a copy of the letter sent to him by Irv Spinelli, our principal, accepting his resignation.

“Hey, Mags, I wanted to tell you before,” he said, sounding as sheepish as he looked. “But when the job came up for Lisa in California with the Attorney General’s office, we both thought she had to take it.”

I feel like I have lost my best friend, although that probably really happened this winter when Gil married his ambitious golden girl.

Gil and I both started our teaching careers here two years ago, Gil in social studies and me in English.

Carver Middle School

I remember walking up the front steps to the old building and dragging open the huge front door on that first hot August day.

I found Dr. Irving Spinelli, the principal, talking to a young man whom he introduced as Gil Soloman. Gil was tall, but Irv towered over him. I remember how he walked us down the corridors to our rooms, Gil on his right and me on his left, his long arms around our shoulders. “I want you to call me Irv. I have always been close to my teachers. You’ll find the faculty here a tight group, but you’ll fit in just fine. I am really going to count on you two. I need your enthusiasm and fresh outlook.”

The change from Carver Junior High to Carver Middle School wasnÂ’t fully accepted by the more senior faculty members. Despite the fact that the building needed renovation and new equipment, the faculty was stable. Carver’s focus remained as it had been for quite some time: firmly on reading scores and writing skills.

From the first, Gil and I were considered radicals for trying some of the things we learned in our teacher training: cooperative learning, hands-on tasks, interactive projects. Irv had me in his office more than once. “Maggie, you are a breath of fresh air around here. Nobody appreciates your efforts more than I do. You are really making a difference. But perhaps, you might want to close your door when you do those noisy projects. You know how Peterson is.”

Did I ever. Herb Peterson taught English in the room next to mine using desks in straight rows, ordered silence, and photocopies of ten-year-old worksheets.

So I learned to close my door and bite my tongue. Only at lunch when Gil and I got a chance to talk and exchange ideas did I feel like I wasn’t already solidifying into one of the fixtures around here.

And now Gil is leaving. Leaving when things are just starting to turn around. We have started working in real teaching teams and even contemplating an interdisciplinary project.

The students on our Red Gators team are a mixture of ability levels and ethnic backgrounds. Unfortunately, the socio-economic levels are becoming more homogeneous – toward the lower end of the scale. Irv still hasn’t managed to get the scheduling quite right, due partly to the tracking that results from pre-algebra scheduling in 7th grade. But, mostly, we six teachers are charged with the academic and emotional welfare of 84 twelve and thirteen year-old pre-adolescent, pre-pubescent (and not so pre-), incessantly talking, unceasingly wriggling, street smart, vulnerable kids.

Amazingly, it sort of seems to be working.

But now Gil is leaving.

A big change for Carver Middle School

July 14

Big news. It made the front page of the paper and headlined the evening news. We have a new superintendent. A woman! Her name is Dr. Edna Warren-Jones. Things are really changing. Should prove to be a really interesting new year.

See the newspaper article below:

The summer is going quickly. I moved to my new apartment. Bigger, nicer. Summer school classes take up most of my time.

I have looked in the park everyday for the boy. He has never come back. Gilroy is doing fine—growing rapidly into a fine handsome cat. Orange. Very talkative.

A difference in philosophy

August 19

Inservice Days. I can never understand why they schedule so many meetings during this week. If only I could spend more time in my own classroom. There’s so much to do to get ready.

The big news at this meeting was that Karen Ruyksman is replacing Gil on the Gators team. She was with another seventh grade team last year—a veteran at Carver for the last 12 years. It’s hard to believe that anyone can last that long! I envy her sleek platinum look, her hair and clothes (her husband is a lawyer). She has STYLE.

August 20

Karen was a teacher at Carver when it was still a junior high school.

Karen is not a middle school fan. She says she can’t understand why we should coddle these kids. It doesn’t get them ready for the high school. That is what we should be doing. I tried to explain what the research says about how these kids are not developmentally the same as high school students and shouldn’t be treated as such. She clearly believes that research doesn’t hold a candle to her experience. She says that giving kids’ chance after chance is for the birds. We have to set quality expectations. And they must learn to meet these standards. Or else.

I am so depressed. Everyone is constantly worrying about the tests and trying to cover all the standards. But these students won’t be successful unless they can comprehend the test questions. I search through my memory bank for what I learned about adolescent literacy in college. I assumed that my students would be reading to learn, not learning to read. But, that’s just not the reality.

I’m having a crisis of confidence. I can’t even seem to get the Gator teachers at all interested in planning our interdisciplinary projects.

A new year brings new challenges.

September 7

It’s hard to believe we’ve only been back a week. There are 13 more Gators than we’d been expecting. We had to bring in folding chairs. Four students are using the display table in the back of the room for a desk. I had to put my learning centers back in the closet.

That I face some challenges with my students this year is very clear. They are a lively and diverse bunch. To find out more about who these kids really are, I gave an interest inventory, plus I’d found a few of my own questions targeting reading and writing. It turns out that 82 percent really like Instant Messaging (IM), 78 percent are huge fans of the Internet, and most of the girls (but only two boys) enjoy downloading the lyrics of their favorite songs. Just under half of my students report that math is their best subject. One hundred percent are into music. None of this surprised me. What did give me pause, though, were my students’ answers to questions about their reading and writing preferences. Very few consider reading or writing a pleasurable activity; nearly everyone would rather be doing something – anything! – else. Only a handful even have a favorite author, and few could name a book they’d read over the summer.

As always, I’m also struck by my students’ limited vocabularies in their narratives. Am I being too critical? Is it just part of teen-speak to overuse words like stuff, psycho, and boring? But even so, isn’t it up to me to set the bar higher? To get them excited about words and how to use them to express their ideas?

One of my students has already captured my heart. Short for his age, wiry, and slender, Kyle is very articulate, but when I asked him to read a brief passage, he told me his glasses were broken and he needed them to read. My antennae went up with that response, especially when Shanna, who sits behind Kyle, interjected, “Oh, Miss Donohue, don’t be listening to him. He’s got his glasses in his back pack but he just don’t wear them. Old Doc’s problem is he just can’t read. All he like o do is play on his Game Boy.” Shanna sat behind Kyle and provided a running verbal commentary on all class events.

“You watch your mouth, girl.” Turning on her, Kyle was incensed.

I touched Kyle’s shoulder and smiled at him. “Truth is, Kyle, I don’t like wearing my glasses either but I can see much better with them on.” He shrugged and relaxed. I am wondering if he is learning disabled. I’ll have to ask Sylvia.

And, there is Jamey. The kid from the pond in the park. There’s something about this boy. He’s so still. The other students left the seats immediately around him empty until they were the only places left to take. However, he has been cooperative and relatively quiet so far.

September 9

Had a letter from Gil. They love California. All that good weather. Golden girl is pregnant.

September 10

I talked with Neet today—Anita Ruiz to strangers. But no one is a stranger with Neet for very long. She is our guidance counselor, and she really cares about kids and takes the time to get to know them well.

Jamey’s records shed little light on his past.

“I know what you mean about Jamey. I noticed him in the lunch room the other day,” a fleeting frown passed over Neet’s brow. “There’s something I can’t put my finger on. I mean he seems polite enough. And he is certainly bright and articulate when you can cajole him into conversation.” Neet was a first-rate cajoler. “His records arrived yesterday. There’s almost nothing in them. Apparently he’s changed schools a lot. High test scores. Low grades in his last school. I’ve got a call in to his last counselor.”

The challenges get more complex.

October 3

It’s beautiful here. The leaves have changed and everything is awash with color. Laburnum Park is breathtaking. Fall is the best time of year in the city. Who needs California?

Autumn fills Maggie’s neighborhood park with color.

Things at school are rolling along. Karen has agreed to let me work with her in her civics class third period to help students write essays on what it means to be an American. It’s my planning period, but I am determined to get interdisciplinary projects going. I’m also planning to show the kids how to use the Internet as a research tool. It’ll be tough finding information that’s written anywhere close to their reading levels, and I don’t want them to simply copy down words they don’t understand. It’ll be even tougher to get Karen to go along with this one.

“We don’t have time for extras like that, Maggie. If you set kids loose on the Internet, they’ll just get in trouble. And then some crazy parent will sue us. It’s just not worth it.” Karen tossed her head for emphasis without displacing one perfect hair. “Take a look at these standards. This is what we’ve got to focus on.”

I asked her what she thought of Jamey. “Ah, yes. Danger man,” Karen responded.

“What do you mean?”

Karen was suddenly serious. “Keep your guard up, Maggie. He gives me the creeps. All that controlled politeness. He has all the characteristics of a serial killer.”

I think Karen exaggerates. But still there is something about Jamey that haunts me…

October 22

I am worried about Kyle. He is clearly smart and very funny. And I know he has a reading problem. Sylvia, the special education teacher, says he was tested for a learning disability in the second grade and found ineligible for services. I find that hard to believe. Kyle’s writing is almost illegible, and what he does write doesn’t make sense.

“Well, does that mean he can’t be tested again? It’s been five years and he still doesn’t read at the appropriate grade level. Not to mention that he is super bright. He remembers everything he hears. He gets information from every possible source. I’ve been watching him. He has terrific coping skills.”

Sylvia smiled. “Yes, he is what we call resilient. He is a survivor. He will succeed on his own.”

“But think what he could do if he had the proper help!” I was livid. “Surely it’s not enough just to let them flounder at the survival level. Aren’t we here to try to help them go further? To be the best they can be? How will he ever be the best he can be if he can barely read?”

Sylvia sighed. “You know how it is. We are understaffed. Even if we could get him retested, the process will take months. Besides…”

“I know,” I said. “You can’t possibly take any more kids on your caseload.” It was true. Sylvia was stretched too thin. She had far more students than she could possibly manage. Individualized help was a dream. Or a joke.

October 23

I called Kyle up to my desk after class. Shanna said, “Ooh, trouble K-man. Bad deal.”

I excused her and turned my attention to Kyle. “I’ve heard the kids call you Doc. Is that right?”

“Yeah, Miss Donohue.” Kyle smiled his big, wonderful smile. “Yeah, it’s because I want to be a vet and they think its a joke. I’m good with animals.”

Small, gentle Kyle.

“You are very smart, Kyle. You really got into our conversation about Langston Hughes’ poem today. I thought what you had to say about his use of language was wonderfully insightful. But I also noticed that you were having difficulty with the reading. Is that so? I mean you clearly understand the poem. What’s going on?”

Kyle dreams of being a vet.

Kyle’s eyes were suddenly glued to his Nikes.

Finally, he said softly, “Somebody helps me.”

“Who? Somebody in your family?”

Kyle shook his head.

“Not Shanna?”

Silence.

Suddenly, I knew. I had seen them sitting opposite each other at a table in the library one afternoon. At the time I had thought they were ignoring each other. But I remember that one of the two boys was reading softly aloud.

Gingerly, I suggested a name. “It’s Jamey, isn’t it?”

Kyle looked up at me. His face confirmed my guess. “He’s all right, I guess.”

“Even though he dresses like a skin head?”

“He ain’t really like that, Miss Donohue.” Kyle was in earnest. “That’s just for show. So people will leave him alone.”

I have to make a note to call and have a Reading Specialist evaluate Kyle. I can’t be the first one to notice this.

October 24

I told the team about Kyle and Jamey. They were incredulous. Frank Malankowski was particularly vehement. “Jamey? That little b—–d! He’s nothing but a bully. The other kids are afraid of him. I think he tries to intimidate them, but I’ve never actually caught him at it.”

Even Caroline, who was usually supportive of students, was negative. “Maggie, didn’t you know? I finally had to have him removed from my preAlgebra class for good last Monday. He’s smart enough for the advanced stuff, but he flatly refused to do anything. For weeks. Just sat there muttering under his breath whenever I walked by. Finally, he turned up the volume enough so I could understand what he was saying—just one long string of obscenities. So I sent him to the office.” Caroline’s face showed her displeasure as she continued, “Irv suspended him for a day and now has him working in his office during that period. To be quite honest, I think Irv’s been too soft on him.”

“Listen, honey,” Karen added, “frankly, I think you are allowing yourself to get too involved with this kid. It happens sometimes one of the little stinkers will really grab your heart. But you’ve got to learn to maintain some distance. Especially with Jamey. He’s bad news.”

I didn’t pursue it further.

Jamey does produce work for me. The minimum, yes. But work he does. True, he is often restless; but he has never actually defied me. He seems to like me…better than Caroline?

I know I can help him. Yesterday, he even lingered after class to ask a question about the Issac Asimov short story we had been reading. He had a question about Asimov’s use of language—pretty sophisticated in places. After we discussed particular passages, I asked him if he’d ever read any science fiction. He seemed puzzled by my question. What is science fiction? Turns out he’s seen a few “Star Trek” reruns, but that’s about it!

Tonight, as I am writing this at my kitchen table, Gilroy is in his usual position beside me, his amber eyes fixed on me. I say to him, “We can’t just put Jamey in a box and throw him away.” Gilroy is impassive. “I am going to call his grandmother and arrange a home visit.”

October 28

Maggie’s notes

I have just returned from meeting with Mrs. Atkinson, Jamey’s grandmother, at her apartment. I want to weep. Jamey came home as I was leaving. He was clearly furious though he didn’t speak to me. He went into his room and slammed the door.

I will make some notes about my visit and go to see Neet tomorrow.

See Maggie’s notes below:

October 29

Jamey was not in school today. I called his house but no one answered.

I met with Neet this afternoon. Irv also sat in. It is worse than I thought.

Irv remembers Jamey’s mother when she was a student at Carver.

“I talked with the counselor at Jamey’s former school,” Neet told us. “She says that there is evidence from the social workers who handled the case that Jamey was not just abused physically by his father, but there may have been some sexual molestation as well in one of the foster care homes in which he was placed. Jamey’s uncle sent him to his grandmother after he broke into his school and vandalized several of the classrooms.”

Irv added, “I’ve known Tess Atkinson for years. She’s truly fond of her grandson, but I don’t think she can handle this alone.” He went on, “You know, I remember Lauren Atkinson, Jamey’s mother, when she was a student here. It was my first year as principal. Lovely girl, but very shy.” He looked at us, sadness reflected in his face. “Sometimes you don’t want to know how it all turns out.”

What to do?

October 30

Jamey was back today. I asked him to stay a minute when the bell rang. He seemed reluctant and refused to sit. Standing by my desk, he kept shifting back and forth from one foot to the other.

“Jamey, were you upset by my visit to your grandmother?” I asked.

“You were checking up on me, weren’t you? Messing in my business. You’re just like all the others.” His voice was tight and small.

“You are a bright student. You have so much potential.” The words sounded hollow and stilted in my mouth. How could I reach him? “I care about you. I want it to be all right for you.”

He didn’t look at me. He was playing with the paper clip cup on my desk. “Yeah. Right.”

I touched his sleeve. Mistake. He bolted out the door without his backpack. It was unzipped, and I couldn’t resist looking inside. It seems Jamey keeps a journal. He also tries his hand at short stories, in his own fragmented way. They’re mostly about fishing trips he took with his dad. Now I’m suffering pangs of guilt for having invaded his privacy.

Maggie faces a crisis.

November 3

My team met this afternoon. We had each chosen at least one or two of our required content standards. Last month we had brainstormed ideas for possible projects around these objectives.

As a last resort we had even consulted the students. It turns out their ideas were better than ours. There is a tiny vacant lot next to the school. Left over due to an anomaly in the blueprints when the nursing home was built 10 years ago, the lot currently is an eyesore of rubble, trash, and graffiti. The students suggested we investigate the possibility of turning the lot into a garden for the residents of the home. Caroline looked into this. She reported back today that the owners were willing to permit our students access to the land and that insurance would not be a problem.

We have decided to do the Urban Garden Design project beginning in February.

See the plans for the Urban Garden project below:

It’s hard to believe, but even Karen was beginning to sound enthusiastic. “You know I think we can make the instruction of the standards much more interesting this way.”

Duh! And we could get kids reading and writing about something that’s real to them. That should give their comprehension a boost.

Irv stopped by for a few minutes during our meeting. He wants us to present our project to the whole faculty at the November 19th staff development meeting. He likes the approach we’ve taken in trying to incorporate the standards with the concept of interdisciplinary teaching.

Haven’t had time yet to explore better ways to help Kyle with his reading difficulties. I will encourage his working with Jamey. I wonder if there are any “digital tutors” for him. Any ways for him to access the same text as everyone else while saving face. Could he wear a headset and listen while others read to themselves? Meanwhile, Karen and I still had those civics essays to grade.

See the reference documents students used in their civics essays below:

See the writing assessment tool below:

See students’ civics essays below:

November 5

Irv says he has invited Dr. Warren-Jones to hear our presentation to the faculty on the 19th. Apparently, she’s interested in what we are attempting to do with the standards. We had sure better be on our marks that day!

Jamey continues to work in my class. He even expressed some enthusiasm about the debate I had assigned. The goal is to be able to argue both sides of the issue about whether Internet filters should be required in school libraries. I arranged for him to work with Kyle. They had done so before and I thought they could really help each other. The only problem was that Jamey had a hard time arguing both sides; he thinks libraries should not be required to install filters. Period.

I had been hoping for a slightly more analytical approach, including some doing some online research. I provided some guidance on this and assigned a summary activity called Sum It Up that I liked to use hoping it would provide some structure.

Click here to see one Web site that the students used.

See Kyle’s summary activity sheet below:

Kyle seems withdrawn after returning to school.

November 15

Something is wrong with Kyle. He was absent for three days last week. He said he had the flu. He is definitely not his usual sunny self. Shanna kept poking at him, teasing him. He always has some clever reply. Not today. He snapped at her and refused to look at me. He did not participate in our class discussion (where he usually shines), and his homework was nonexistent. When I asked him about it, he just shrugged and said maybe it was “too hard.” This is not like the Kyle I know and love.

November 18

Kyle has been expelled for bringing a gun to school. I think it is somehow my fault.

Maria came up to me after class today and whispered that Kyle had a gun in his backpack. I thought she must be kidding but I knew I needed to tell the administration about it no matter how unlikely it seemed.

I went to Irv’s office. In the outer reception area, Jamey was stapling papers together for the secretary. Silently, he watched me go in.

Irv sent for Kyle. Eventually there was a tentative knock at the door. Kyle came in. Irv sternly asked him to empty his bookbag: nothing. I felt huge relief. But the boy’s humiliation made knots in my stomach. He didn’t say a word or look at either of us.

Then, the assistant principal, Suzanne Luna, entered. She had searched Kyle’s locker. The gun was there. It wasn’t loaded, but that doesn’t matter. The rumor is that Kyle bought it on the Internet using his father’s credit card and that he had bullets at home.

Somehow I got through the rest of the school day. I don’t know how long I had been sitting at my desk staring at my lessons plans for tomorrow when there was a knock on the door. It was Irv. He came in and folded himself down into a student desk in front of me. His voice was surprisingly gentle. “Maggie, you should know. Shanna came to my office this afternoon. Apparently last week, when they met to work on the debate project at the park, Jamey got angry with Kyle. Just exploded—and beat Kyle up pretty badly. He even told Kyle he was going to kill him. Shanna says Jamey has been trailing Kyle around for the past several days, even walking past his house late at night. Obviously, Kyle thought he needed the gun to protect himself. But, whatever the reason, there’s nothing I can do. Automatic expulsion is district policy. The superintendent is unmoved. I’ve also suspended Jamey for the time being. There will be a school board hearing in two weeks.”

It’s late. I want to cry, but I can’t. All I can think about is Kyle and Jamey and what I could have done to prevent this. Why didn’t I see what was going on? What can I possibly do now?

Maggie wonders if she is to blame for Kyle’s woes.

Jamey needs help, but I can’t think how to help him.

And Kyle. More than likely he’ll lose a year and have to repeat the seventh grade. That may kill his chances of eventually graduating.

My teaching teammates have been very supportive. Even Frank called a little while ago to ask if there was anything he could do to help.

It’s ironic. Tomorrow is our team’s big staff development presentation to the faculty. Because I am the one who has been pushing the ideas about how to work more creatively with the standards, my teammates elected me to be the principal speaker.

I only wish I could feel more involvement at this point. The rest of the team’s counting on me. So is Irv. I’ve got to get focused.