Saturday, September 20, 2008

Coming up for air

It's been over a year since I've posted on this blog. The last time I posted, I was living in an oppressive suburb of Sacramento in the home of my wife's grandmother working on my teaching credential. Currently, I am sitting on the back porch of our one bedroom apartment in Baltimore, enjoying a beautiful evening surrounded by the sounds of the city mixed with beautiful green trees and chirping birds. There's also a very curious squirrel who keeps getting very close to me. He hangs around our place a lot, walked right into our kitchen one morning when we had the back door propped open while eating breakfast. My life has changed somewhat in the past year.

After all of our thoughts and journeying, Jordana and I are finally living out our dream and conviction to be in the city. And what a city it is. When we first flew out here last May for my interviews with the school district, we had an immediate burden to be here. There is so much pain, beauty, love, hate, injustice, and potential all wrapped up in the bundle of insanity that is Baltimore city. And we cannot imagine being anywhere else. As we drove across the United States in July in our loaded down Penske truck, recently relieved of the burden of owning a car, we could not shake the feeling that we were coming home. Now we're living in the city, across the street from our good friends, absolutely loving our new home. I'm teaching at a new school--they're calling it a "transformation school". It's part of an effort by the new CEO of city schools to improve education in the city, our school is focused on preparing students for college and career in the areas of health care and construction. I ride a 1970's blue panasonic road bike to school every day, a 6.5 mile commute through bumpy city streets, and I teach 9th grade English.

Most of my students are reading at a 4th or 5th grade reading level, so we spend a lot of time in my class working on that. I purchased several sets of high-interest books at the beginning of the year and by the third week of school other teachers were having to tell students to put the books away during class. During the first week of school I had my students write a "Where I'm From" poem and some of the results broke my heart. Students wrote about their neighborhoods where they heard gunshots every night, police visits are a regular occurrence, and they've already lost friends to gunfire at 14 years of age. With all that in mind, I try to have patience with the little behaviors in the classroom that drive me insane.

The honeymoon period is over in my classroom. I had my first fight last week, which was discouraging more than anything else. I find my patience wearing thin as I try to remind myself that they are only 14 years old and have a lot of work to do on their impulse control. My frustration level is increased when I think about the fact that I'm in one of the better schools in the city. Could I have made it in a more difficult school? I try to focus on the little things, like reading over the shoulder of a student writing in his journal at the end of class that he finally understood a concept we had been talking about for a week. Or the young girl who slept through my class the first two weeks and magically started writing in her journal every day this last week. Or the student who expressed his absolute hatred for reading at the beginning of the year who now excitedly comes into class asking me if he will get to read from his personal book today. Or the girl who constantly complains how boring my class is but still lights up with a smile when I greet her in the morning. Or the mother who said she was so thankful that her son had a teacher who cared when I called home last week to trouble shoot some behavior issues.

But so often I get frustrated, overwhelmed, and discouraged. With the complexity of social inequality and systematic oppression in which so many of my students and families around the city are stuck. With my lack of patience and strength to be the teacher and person I wish to be. With the fact that last weekend I felt like quitting, and I haven't even had a terrible experience.

The diversity in this city is incredible. The home values on our street are in the 300,000's, while the home values one street over are 150,000 less. Incredible transformation of demographics literally happens from block to block. Our block is very safe, drug deals happen in the streets 5 blocks down, then two blocks south of that is safe again. Boarded up row homes can be seen everywhere, remnants of the great white flight that augmented the suburbs and left holes in the city. I love this city, I love the people, I love the potential. I don't know how long I will be teacher or what the next years of our lives will look like but I know that we are here for a reason and I cling to that promise. I believe in my students and frustrated as I may get, I cannot wait to see them grow throughout this year. The problems that face us are overwhelming, but we cannot become paralyzed by that fact. I will continue to focus on the small successes and when necessary, I will come up for air.


George Ella Lyon said...

Dear Cotter,

Dear Jen,

I'm the poet who wrote "Where I'm From" and just found your blog. I'm so glad the exercise worked for your students. I would love to see some of their poems.

You sound like such a dedicated teacher. You and your kids are lucky to have each other.

On my website ( the kids can also hear me read the original "Where I'm From" (which has gone around the world thanks to teachers!) and find suggestions for more writing based on their WIF poems.

Tell your students I said, Happy writing! And best wishes in your hard work.

For all our voices,

George Ella Lyon

Candace said...


I just have to say, Amazing. I'm so proud of you and Jordana for living out an adventure. You are probably doing way more for those kids than you even realize. We really hope to come visit you both soon.

Jeff said...

Colter, it is great to read your thoughts again. I wondered if this blog would ever ressurrect itself and I am glad that it is alive again.
I am teaching now too, though in a bit of a different type of setting. It is challenging and discouraging many days to try and figure out how to help students learn when they have so much else going on in life. Sometimes it just makes you feel helpless and pathetic (well me at least).
Anyway, I am glad to hear that you are living your passion and that you are doing all you can to help your students. We miss you guys but are happy that you are doing well. Jordanan ssid you guys have relatives in this area (Spokane) so if you ever drop by to visit, we would love to see you!

Becky said...

Wow Colter. On this Thanksgiving Day in Canada, I am thankful that you and your wife have your convictions and that your hearts have settled in Baltimore. And I'm thankful that George Ella Lyon wrote to you.

Nice to hear from you again... even though I'm not sure I actually heard you many years ago.

Erin said...

I am so proud to have you as a friend. And so glad those kids have you for a teacher...I understand those self-critical thoughts - I must have asked myself "Why am I having this hard of a time? What would I do with even more severe kids?" a hundred times. But when it comes down to it, as cliche as it sounds, kids just need someone who cares. They're lucky to have you, whether they realize it or not (and it sounds like plenty of them do realize it!)