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The American Public School system is the the only institution where there is compulsory attendance for a huge percentage of Americans, everyday.  And, those young Americans who pass through our doors bring with them a diverse and immediate picture of the state of America, because in their eyes and with their stories, we see and hear about their families, hopes, dreams and fears.

If you want to know how a community is really doing, you don't have to wait for unemployment statistics.  Just ask a community teacher.  We have been hearing how children are moving around and moving in with Grandparents.  We began scrambling in October to to meet the needs of initially just a few kids who suddenly started to show up dirty and rumpled. We've arranged for them to use the locker rooms in the morning to get cleaned up.

We've been seeing signs like these that Main Street's kids and families are REALLY hurting for a few months, even in the pretty well-off, suburban community we live in.

BUT, today took the cake for me.  It was a BIG wake-up call, and I'm still crying.  I have a story and Call for Action after the fold.

UPDATE:  Your rec's, kindness and commitments for action have restored my hopefulness.

Today, I inadvertently made 4 of my precious students cry.  There is NOTHING worse for a teacher than to see one of your ducklings tear up.  I didn't mean too.  I was actually trying to be a good teacher.  I teach in a Middle School.   We have a terrific school with a fine core curriculum, and we even have additional, special classes for the Arts and Music including chorus, band, and strings.  

We also offer special, additional classes in specific core subject areas, and that's where I fit in:

For 8th graders who struggle in core social studies classes, I offer an additional class in government where I get to do LOTS of hands on things like role plays, debates, projects, spirited discussions, videos ... I wear crowns and patriot hats, use puppets, and throw kids in jail under their desks for sedition! I also have the opportunity to do one-on-one tutoring with extra chances on tests to ensure mastery in key principles for future voters.  

For 7th graders, physics is a bear of a content area, and I offer a focused course on the physics of energy!  (We actually met this year and decided that this would be the key science area for this generation's future, so while I am also helping students with other science skills ... the focus is energy.  And, I like to think we are on the cutting edge with the program)  My 7th graders also have classroom pets and plants they care for to demonstrate how energy transfers through the web of life.  I teach with LOTS of toys to demonstrate energy transfer.  And since they always pass the final, they get rewarded with the video "An Inconvenient Truth."

For my 6th graders, reading non-fiction and critical thinking are their top challenges, so I teach the engaging social studies subjects of anthropology, archeology, and economics (they LOVE it) to motivate them to read. We do hands on digs, study diverse cultures, and learn how business works with Junior Achievement.  They voted to use their profits to give a gift of chicks and bees to Heifer International, this year.

I try to make each of my classes an adventure in learning. And even though my classes are filled with students who often struggle in their core subjects, I regularly see them come alive as they not only master the content, but also develop self-directed learning skills that will help them succeed in other classes, as well.

I'm sharing all this, not to toot my horn, but so you will know 4 things upfront:

  1. We are just a mid-performing (test-wise) suburban school in Anywhere, KY.
  1. I'm really not unusual.  Our school is filled with teachers doing the same kinds of thing, day after day.
  1. THIS is the "terrible school system" you hear about in the papers. Um hmm.
  1. I am NOT the kind of teacher who regularly makes kids cry!

Soooo, I was just doing my regular job, today.  That's where things fell apart thanks to the real pain of our Main Street meltdown hitting real children.

For my 8th graders, some of my kids didn't get an 80% (mastery) on the Forms of Government test.  As per my usual routine, I gave up my lunch and offered a LUNCH BUNCH study time and test re-take opportunity.  One student arrived early sans lunch.  I was busy gathering up lab equipment off tables from my 7th grade science class, so I wasn't looking at my early student as I said, "Hey, go on and get your lunch.  You can eat while we do our Rapid Study Technique before the re-take."

I could feel the silence and non-movement of my student.  So, I turned and looked.  There were tears on the table beneath his bowed head.  I pulled up a chair and asked, "Family or friends."  Silence. That meant it was a  family issue. Probing gently, I got, "Mrs K., both my Mom and Dad got laid off and our house ... our house.  I was too worried to ask for a check for lunch money, and I'm too embarrassed to ask for the P&J lunch."  When he said "our house," it came out like a moan.

I was immediately heart-broken.  Other students were beginning to arrive in my classroom, so I covertly passed him a $10 bill from my pocket and loudly said - "Hurry up, now.  Thanks so much for thinking about me! Are you sure can you carry 2 lunches back for the both of us?" He got fed and got an A on the test.  

I called his Mom, and they will be filling out the Free Lunch form.  Since the form won't get through processing for a week or so,  I put $15 in his lunch account to cover, next week.

His parents were laid off from a big financial company and a big overnight delivery company.  They live in our neighborhood of 200K homes.  They are losing their home.  Neither has health insurance anymore, and few prospects.  They were an upper middle class family who just fell into poverty.  Their son is grieving his home, is scared, hungry and crying.

In my 6th grade class, we are learning about different types of economies.  One fun, active learning experiences I like to do is Barter Day!  We have trading rules that call for students to bring $5-10 dollars worth of USED toys, Gameboy games, videos or books etc. to school to trade in a barter market.  In previous years, this has NEVER been an issue.  No child in OUR school didn't have a book, a Matchbox car and video or used Gameboy to bring in!  Plus, we do a regular size candy bar trade that I hold for the last day before the holiday for them to enjoy while we watch and analyze our "treat video" Indiana Jones vs. "real" archeologists.  The kids have great fun comparing and contrasting Hollywood vs reality and analyzing the Thugee's culture.

For the first time, I had 3 children come to me before our Barter Day class -- in tears!  Two of them shared that their parents had told them that their old toys were being wrapped up and given to younger siblings or cousins for Christmas and one told me that ALL his toys were on Ebay!  I wiped away tears, gave big hugs, and told them not to worry.

Fortunately, I have a 12 year-old son, and we only live a mile from the school.  So, I pulled my son out of class for a 2 minute conference to ask him if I could buy some of his old things in the basement.  He has literally hundreds of little cars, piles of books he's already read, and I had my own stash of stocking stuffers.  (Special note about my little, big guy, he refused to take money and asked to just make it a gift of his things.)

Back I rushed with 10 Barter Bags!  Because, I suspected that if 3 came to me, there might be more who were suffering in silence.  I was sadly right.   I handed out 2 additional bags for children who had nothing to barter.  It turned out to be a happy ending; Barter Day was a resounding success, this year.

BUT, I learned my lesson, and I hope you will hear my message.  THINGS ARE WORSE than the traditional media is reporting.  As a teacher in what was a previously average, Middle Class school, I am seeing children who are hurting and in need.  

And, I inadvertently made them cry, today.   LIFE is DRASTICALLY NOT the SAME!  

Here is my Call to Action: -- Even if you think "This is NOT needed in our middle class/ or rural school!  Sadly, it might be very, very needed.  

  1.  Food Drives at your schools -- DO IT!  If you can afford to do it, please remember to send food in with your kids.  We are not just "making bags of food for some food bank, somewhere."  We know the families of kids on Free and Reduced Lunch and we know that they may not get anything during the holidays.  Many schools and teachers are quietly delivering those bags of food to those families.  We need your help.
  1.  Just for You (Dignity) Bags -- Make them.  Kids are showing up smelly.  That is HORRIBLE for Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers.  Just drop off a bag of soap, toothbrush toothpaste, small shampoo and deoderant.   Just drop off a bag at your school's front desk for "someone who might need it."  
  1. A TOY!  or Clothes!  -- Go to a used clothing store and deliver a few Ambercrombie shirts or look in your closets for extra outer wear.  We are giving out jackets and hats and mittens like you wouldn't believe.

It is NOT just giving as usual, folks. It IS a time like we have never known in our lifetimes. YES, good used, washed things are welcome and give them to your local schools.  We will find kids to help with them.  

And, thanks for reading this rant. Just writing the day out helped a little.

Originally posted to bkamr on Fri Dec 12, 2008 at 04:48 PM PST.

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