story Archives - The Jose Vilson



This week, I’m writing blog posts based on people’s submissions to my Facebook page right here. My second one is based on online friend Theresa DeVore’s suggested title, “How can we keep our compassion in this era of high stakes accountability? When told to make sure test scores are raised but in the classroom students are not motivated. I have had to personally remind myself that I teach children and not to become frustrated or angry at them.” Let’s go …

On normal days, I teach my more difficult class starting at 8am sharp.

OK, that’s not exactly true. It’s more that I start telling them to sit down, take out a pencil or something to write with, open up a notebook, get them to start the “Do Now,” wait for the daily pledge of allegiance and morning announcements to finish, and THEN get started.

Yet, that’s what I’m doing. The first few students trickle in with shuffling feet, a few outbursts, and the unwrapping of a few sandwiches from the delis across the street. I’d rather not choose between them having breakfast in my class so they could function properly or not having breakfast so they could disrupt everyone else’s learning.

I didn’t sign up for this, either. At least not explicitly.

Today’s New York State ELA test broke from our traditional schedule, letting me proctor 18 English Language Learners, many of whom I teach or have known from different school activities. Unlike my usual mornings, the lack of sound is deafening to an 80s baby used to a little din in his ear. The ELA test hung over their nervous heads for the first twenty minutes of the period. A little after the morning announcements, some administrators came to reassure them.

They left. The students looked at me. I looked at them. One of them blurted, “Now I’m even MORE nervous.”

While I’m not at liberty to discuss the proceedings of the ELA test, I can tell you that, afterwards, kids wondered why the hell they even came to school. They got that it was an important part of their promotional criteria, and they remembered how to write so they didn’t blame their teachers in the slightest. They did, however, feel like they could have given a better shot at passing the test. A couple of people even brought the idea of a portfolio for a final evaluation.

A few nodded. Does this make kids smarter than the test makers?

Because, really, one might make the case that math depends on fluency, meaning getting it right and getting it quick, whatever “it” is. However, reading and writing don’t have the same limitations in real life. There might be “deadlines,” but nothing like the 135 or so minutes we give students to finish an essay in response to a speech or a piece of literature they’re given. How does anyone “get” anything they’ve read when only given a few minutes to read it?

Then again, on testing days, the attendance rate is almost perfect in a school where it’s already 94% and above on most days. The fact that some of our students even make it to school on time encourages me to put my best foot forward, even when it feels like they’d rather stay outside, away from the rules, the uniforms, the tests, and the grades that, to others, often become reflections of the student as a person instead of the student as an academic performer.

These thoughts run through my mind while pacing back and forth not as math teacher, but as proctor for an exam I otherwise can’t stand. Some finished. Some didn’t. All of them became kids again shortly after I took the last booklet from the students in front of me. The mix of angst and prayer remained during their stadium-loud discussion about how they felt they did on the test with each other. After this is all over, I’ll tell them this doesn’t mean a thing about how much they’re worth, but it might be too late for them.

I observed their discussions from the front of the room, thinking this Common Core stuff is a lot more complex than the A, B, C, D answer sheet they’re given.

Mr. Vilson, whose got more of these to go …


All ears

I‘ve had it up to here with them. They just … oooohhhh …”

She sobbed. I sat there in my classroom hoping to decompress from another long day with my sixth grade homeroom class when she walked in, needing a colleagues’ ear.

“You think you’re coming in to teach. You plan, grade papers, and plan some more, and you think it’s going to go so well, and … I just don’t know.”

She shook her head.

“I understand,” I said as I nodded my head, hoping to just soak in her energy a bit. She just finished teaching my homeroom class, so we were on the same wavelength in some way.

“I got this kid who comes in late, disrupting the whole class. Once he starts, then the other gets started too, and so does this one, and it just gets ridiculous. They have so much potential and they’re sooo smart, but they just don’t want to listen. I don’t know …”

I listen intently. Before I even got my first word out, she’s sniffling. Tears stream past her glasses and down her face. I get the box of tissues I saved for the kids. The last time I had an episode like this was my first year of teaching. Two years later, my turn came to console someone else. It felt odd for a minute because, at that point, I was one of the younger teachers on staff.

While we started to develop a real “professional learning community,” some of us also also didn’t want to lose sight of developing a personal learning [loving?] community.

Teachers, specifically in the middle grades, need someone to just listen. Many of us have seen good and bad approaches to consoling an upset teacher. The best approaches often involve lots of listening, less directing. It usually means, for instance, that you’re taking cues from the speaker for how to respond. You try to relate to them on a personal level, refocus the conversation towards next steps, and use as few words as possible. Having a list of things for the teacher to do right off the bat doesn’t help, and neither does letting the conversation simmer past a boil. Exhaling means inhalation, too.

Doing this (without repercussions) builds trust rather quickly.

Also, we need to remember that, because our children barely know themselves, they almost demand that we have a clear sense of self when we walk into the classroom. From the energies we give off to the way we dress in the classroom, the firm stances and high expectations we set give children a sense of security. Some of them barely know how to tie their shoelaces, much less develop their own routines for learning in a class. Over the years, teachers who remember this learn how to step off the ledge and not beat themselves up for having a bad day.

We can take the work seriously without taking ourselves so seriously.

About six months after the aforementioned incident, I needed someone to listen as well. One person who I thought I could rely on used it against me eventually. It probably led to my worst year as a teacher ever. But I had enough friends and family who did have their ear turned to me, who wanted me to succeed, and who pulled me off the ledge.

Or else I might have quit. I love my job. So does she. We’re better for having 15 minutes of someone else’s ear. Maybe both.

Mr. Vilson, who was reminded today of this …



by Jose Vilson on April 13, 2010

in Jose

Mos Def, "The Ecstatic"

“You can’t catch me! HA!”

At first, I assumed it was just another one of those random dudes pranking another guy, running away from him and eventually laughing, getting caught intentionally, and going back to normal. This wasn’t it. As the young man, no more than 20, ran away shirtless, another man in a hoodie and a bookbag held in front of him, presumably the shirtless guy’s. As another man in similar garb started chasing them, I noticed they darted past the crowd of kids sitting down next to a truck playing Christian tunes and presumably preaching the Good Word. (Define that as you will.)

Only a few feet away, I saw an 11-year-old boy who was also running, this time towards that truck in hopes of joining his friends. As I kept my eye on the two prevailing scenes running simultaneously, I also paused to think of all the running that happens in the Lower East Side. Kids run all over the basketball courts placed in patterns around the project complexes. In the evening, I see construction workers running out of their work to their families.

While none of this is new, I’ve seen this type of running melded with other types of running signaling a change that’s seemed permanent. Key grips run back and forth trying to make sure the sets for Raegan’s Law and the latest independent movie, blocking cars from running anywhere near them. Joggers who’ve become fearless of the hood jog through the red bricks and into FDR Park past knife-flippers and police alike. Girls with next to no clothing run up and down Avenue C, hopping on a nasty heel from block to block, puking on the next available sidewalk.

But anyone who’s been in the neighborhood long enough can tell you, the running eventually stops. Only the freshest, the most perilous, or the more naive still run here. Come to think of it, very few people in the Lower East Side actually care about destination of the running.

It’s the intricacy of complacency. No one cared where that first young man was running. People either settle or disappear.

Jose, who feels like he’s running, even at a tepid pace …


April Foolishness

April 1, 2010 Jose
Listen Like a Child

This past weekend, I went to Washington DC, home to clean public transportation, Greco-Roman-inspired monuments, and some guy named Barack. I love the place like The Count of Monte Cristo loved Haydee, should anything happen to my dear Mercedes (a.k.a. NYC). I did a fair amount of education-related stuff there, first visiting the Jefferson Memorial, […]

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Of Mice and Boys

September 20, 2009 Jose
NY Rat by Banksy

Tonight, Tara Betts had her first official Arc and Hue party at the Bowery Poetry Cafe. This free event showcased a few prominent and up-and-coming women poets, all of whom had their different styles and embraced their womanhood in their own ways. The queen of the hour also graced us with a little less than […]

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