Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Different Life?

      When every male member of your family belongs to a gang, when you can't even remember the last time you saw your dad sober, then school becomes a refuge, a ticket to the possibility of a different life.  "Mari" came to high school every day for two years, until the one day she finally decided to ditch, to "comfort" a friend in need, and the dream went off the rails.


     The first year I decided to give up ESL and teach 9th grade English instead, I did so because the administration decided to provide at-risk, behind on their skills 9th graders an extra period of Language Arts, to be taught by their English 9 teacher.  There was no mandated curriculum.  No extra directives appeared in my mailbox.  I was essentially free to analyze my students' academic needs and then invent a curriculum to solve those issues.  That was a challenge I couldn't refuse.


     Some teachers, and we all know people like this, kept to their same half-baked level of effort, and ended up spending an extra hour boring the crap out of their students.  I decided to form a "family" with my class, and since I come from a culture where a lot of problems are solved with food, I devised a way to get to know them individually, starting the second day of the semester. 


     The double class lasted two hours, followed by a twenty minute breakfast break, so every day I brought in a cooler with several juice boxes and huge individually wrapped Otis Spunkmeyer muffins.  Starting with the students I deemed to be most at risk, and because the principal had told me I could keep kids for the entire 20 minutes if I fed them, I "invited" one student a day to have breakfast with me, turning two desks to face each other in the open doorway, and engaging in the eternal social dance of "getting to know you" with each student.


     The first student selected tried to wiggle out of staying, but no dice.  He had to sit and chat over juice and muffins.  By the third day, students were begging to be the one selected to stay.  I got through three rounds that semester, and by the end knew all of them, and their outside issues, pretty well.


     The first time I invited "Mari" to stay, she told me about a group of girls she'd known in middle school, who were threatening to jump her after school and beat her up.  She had to cross their turf to get home, so she asked me if I could give her and a friend a ride each day across the hostile 'hood until she could work things out with her adversaries.  Each day, for a couple of weeks, I drove "Mari" and her friend half-way home so that she could get there safely.  That was how we bonded, as she told me more about her family and home life.


     "Mari" did so well in 9th grade that she opted to join the special inter-disciplinary program I taught in for her 10th grade year.  Again, she worked hard and did well, but toward the end of the year one of her 9th grade classmates, who had not stayed with me for 10th, got in trouble with another teacher and was suspended for a day.  He asked "Mari" to join him, because he was "feeling low and needed her."  


     I knew about the suspension, and when "Mari" did not show up for class, I knew, from some deeper wisdom, exactly what would happen as a result... and sadly, I was right.  For the first time, she had surrendered control of her life to another, and he had taken full advantage.  I knew, that day after, that she was pregnant ... and once again, sadly, I was right.  She completed the semester, but the fire just wasn't there any more. In June, she told me her parents were sending her to live with an older sister in another town.  Did she have the baby?  Did she complete high school?  I don't know.  


     What I do know is that some kids, whether due to family or economic circumstances, have very little margin for error in their lives.  One step off the path can result in disaster, the shattering of dreams.  I've known students who've had babies in high school, even gone to jail for a while, and they've made it through, but with so much more drama and struggle.  


     Someday, I may learn if "Mari" made it.  Until then, all I can do is hold her in my heart and hope for the best. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Kid in the Back

      Smaller than the other boys, J kept a low profile in class, but often stayed after the lunch bell to hang out with the students who preferred to stay indoors and out of trouble in my room during the lunch period.  Sometimes he'd chat with me, telling me all about his passion for the Highlander TV show, which I had never watched, and describe some of the show-related gear he'd managed to acquire.
     Just before the two-month break for our "track" at this large, inner-city, year-round school, he came to tell me that a close family member had passed away, and that the family was going to be leaving early for El Salvador, to attend the funeral and to visit relatives they had not seen for many years.  I wished him a good trip, and he promised to be back when the track returned from break in March.
     March arrived, as did J, but he seemed even quieter and more subdued than before the break.  His passion for Highlander had morphed into an obsession.  At the end of April, we began to read Elie Wiesel's account of the Holocaust, Night, reading it in class, sometimes in small groups, sometimes together, discussing it as we read.  One day we read a part where the Nazis are throwing babies up in the air and using them for target practice.
     When the lunch bell rang, the students filed out somberly, finding it difficult and painful to read of such evil.  J remained.  "Something like that happened to me."
     All I could think of to say was, "Do you want to talk about it?"  He did, so I sat and listened.
     When he was eight, he lived with his parents and his three year old sister in their village in El Salvador.  Civil war raged in the country, but until that day, his life and his innocence had not been poisoned by that war.  Then, on that day, soldiers came looking for his uncle.  Because his uncle was not there, and to send a "message" to all in the village, the soldiers took J's three year old sister, held her up in front of the house, and squashed her with their jeep.  J smashed his fist into his other hand to illustrate. The family fled to the US soon after.
     Yes, he'd had lots of counseling when they first arrived.  No, he did not want to be referred for additional help.  After all, how does one "recover" from exposure to pure evil, especially when one is a child when that happens?
     That afternoon, I went through the TV guide, hunting for reruns of Highlander, and over the next few weeks watched a number of episodes. What was it about the show that held such fascination for this young man?  My best guess would be that in a world where evil can destroy innocence, J needed to believe that in the end good would triumph, as the good character always seemed to do on the show.  It gave him hope.
     Why do I tell these stories?  I'm a witness.  How can I be silent?
       
     
    

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Revised-No Child Left Behind

     A couple of days ago, President Obama issued revisions to the infamous No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation from the Bush Administration. This was sold to Congress and the public as a way to force schools to teach to rigorous standards, and to pay attention to all subgroups, especially minorities and the learning disabled - both noble goals.


     I have always asserted that the actual goal of NCLB was to force states to opt out of receiving all federal money, especially Title I, so that they would not be labeled as "failing" and risk takeover when scores did not reach the impossible goal of 100% proficiency in math and English for all subgroups by 2014.  This mass opt-out would enable the Republicans to get rid of the department of education and shrink the federal government.  I stand by that assertion today.


     NCLB has forced schools to pay attention to their subgroups, and that is its one positive effect, but it has also fostered a culture of test prep mania that has pushed creativity and critical thinking (neither of which can be measured on a multiple choice test) out of public education.  


     Private, parochial and home-schooled students can be as creative and think as critically as their instructors want them to.  They can explore larger ideas, without worrying that they will not be able to bubble the correct answers on some generic skills test, while public school students are relegated to the role of drones.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Tale of Two Colors

     The two young men enrolled within days of each other.  The first wore a little blue.  In any other school, that blue might not have been noticed. In mine, it was enough to make him a target.  The second young man wore a profusion of red, far more than the rules permitted, but sufficient to proclaim his status in the local 'hood.


     On the day "First" arrived, a few weeks into the semester, I welcomed him to class as he handed over his program card for signature.  After writing his name into my rollbook, I looked up and my eyes met his.  I had read at least one account of the Holocaust in which the writer described some of the camp inmates as walking dead, men whose souls had died and who were just waiting for their bodies to catch up.  This is what I saw in "First's" eyes.


     Many students in urban, inner-city schools carry an enormous amount of pain from the poverty, drug abuse, violence, and death they have witnessed. You can see it in their eyes.  Not in "First's."  In the few short weeks he attended my school, he came to class most days.  Each day, I made a special effort to speak to him, to transmit a small amount of care and kindness.


     One day, he was gone, and I learned that he had been transferred back to his previous school, where it was safe for him to wear blue.  About two weeks later, riots broke out, and on that first night, as the names of those killed scrolled down the TV screen, one name popped out: "First's."  He had been standing outside, near his house, when a stray bullet killed him.  His body had finally caught up.


     "Second's" eyes were even scarier.  I had read a news article about a teen who killed and then went out for a hamburger.  At his trial he referred to his victim as "the dude who got shot."  That was "Second's" affect.  Every day he came to class, I went out of my way to greet him politely.  If I called on him and he did not wish to answer, I moved on to the next student.


     Finally, the day before my birthday, "Second" stopped coming to class.  I would see him on campus almost every day, and each time would greet him by name, tell him how glad I was to see him, and express the hope that he would come to class later.  He never did, and I did not report him to security, who finally caught him wandering around, up to no good.  He was "transferred."


     I still think about both of them, how they ended up in my class at the same time, or how either would have hurt or killed the other based on the colors they each wore.  It makes no sense to me, but I do not inhabit their universe.  The question for the larger society remains how to pull these alienated young people back into a larger, more coherent community.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Real skills or fake praise?

     John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach said, "Never mistake activity for achievement."  When my students say, "But I'm doing my work," in a half or full whine, while patently not doing much if any work at all, I wonder what they must be thinking.  Do they really believe that they are accomplishing the task at hand, or are they so accustomed to being praised for just showing up that they believe it to be sufficient?


      When I conferenced with one student recently to explain how her response to an essay prompt measured up against a rubric used statewide, she became agitated at even the gentlest explanation of how her work only scored 2 out of a possible 6.  "Why are you hating on me," she complained loudly, even though the conference took place at my desk, out of earshot of the rest of the class.  


     Earlier in my career, I taught at a high school where most entering ninth graders had a reading level that measured between third and fifth grade.  A counselor explained that the students all thought they read well, because all their peers read equally badly.  When the state mandated an exit exam for high school graduation, a test normed at an eighth to ninth grade skill and reading level, students complained bitterly about its difficulty, because for the first time they were faced with a reality check that they could not tune out or ignore.


     I watch the students every time the exit exam is given, and I see the frustration and the despair on their faces as they realize they are going to fail, some for the first time, some yet again.  I know the solution, and tell them over and over how the kids who've completed my curriculum have all passed the big bad test.  We had that reality check today.  It will be interesting to see if it has any effect.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wisconsin

Teachers in Wisconsin are in open revolt, trying to prevent the governor and his minions from stripping away in one bill all the rights that public employees have won over the past 50 years. Why are they under attack by the Republicans? Now that the Supremes have ruled that corporations are people and can donate unlimited sums of secret money to political causes, those who stand to benefit most from those corporate donations are trying to shut off any funds that might be donated in opposition to corporate PACs.


It seems unlikely that the voters of Wisconsin knew what they were voting for when they handed over the entire state government to the Republicans. Or perhaps this election turned on the apathy of those who could not be bothered to get out and vote, and who are now shocked, shocked that their government has shown itself to be so radical and vindictive towards teachers and other public employees.

One of the provisions of the bill strips teachers of any participation in the decision making process in local schools. As practitioners, they will have no say in curriculum or anything else. They will be relegated to the role of factory workers.

As a comparison, consider an example cited in the film "Food, Inc." which looks at the meat packing industry over the history of this country. Meat packing was at first an extremely dangerous occupation, but through organizing and unionization became much safer and well paid - a true step into the middle class. Now, due to union busting by the meat cartels, it is once again horrifically dangerous, with low-wage workers risking life and limb while cutting meat on a fast moving line.

Before unions, teachers had no rights, could be dismissed for no reason, and did not earn much in salary or benefits. Today, teachers have protection from arbitrary dismissal, due process rights, better compensation, and health and retirement benefits.

Why are teachers targets now? One reason may be that we are dangerous because we try to teach children to think. How does one eliminate that type of teaching? Put in place a testing system that labels schools as failures if their students do not do well on exams that have nothing to do with creative or analytical thinking. Brilliant. Then target teachers, keeping them in such fear for their jobs that they will fall in line.

How is this good for education? It's not, but perhaps those who are engineering these changes in public education do not have open or honest agendas. Which children in this country attend public schools? Which ones are home schooled or attend private schools? Is there some correlation between the latter two and those who wrote the punitive testing laws and who now want to attack teachers? I think the answers might be surprising, and not in a good way.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Thoughts on Testing

The state test scores arrive, and most correlate to the level of work I've seen from the students who took the test. Three very low scores seem out of whack. I check the state exit exam results and find that all three students have easily passed, so I decide to investigate. After discussing the discrepancies with my administrator, we decide to call the students in one by one to find out why they scored at the lowest level on a test that politicians want to use to evaluate teacher effectiveness.

The first student arrives in a foul mood, admits to "being bored" and deliberately tanking the test, bubbling whatever, then taking a nap. Since her score will have no impact whatsoever on her ability to pass her classes and graduate, she feels no need to make any effort during the annoying state testing season.

The second student had been out sick before the test, but dragged herself in to take it, with negative results. Schools can be punished if not enough students show up for testing, but can also be punished if students that come to school ill score poorly, a lose/lose situation.

The third student breaks down in tears, saying her mom had thrown her out of the house right before the test and refused to speak to her. She had been an emotional wreck, and unable to focus on the test. Nor had her life improved, as she was still staying with relatives.

Now if I were being judged on test scores, theirs would have lowered my ranking considerably, no matter how hard I worked or what curriculum I used. Did I have even an ounce of control here? Obviously not, but neither the press nor the educrats are looking at students as individuals with problems to match, so the cold hard data rules.

I'm all about the story. If a teacher can raise scores, despite the hidden hells that overwhelm some students' lives, then good for that teacher. If not, we need to take the time and make the effort to truly understand why that student or those students did not or could not succeed on that test before we plaster labels on their teachers.

Hold me responsible for that which is within my control, but do not vilify or demonize me for what is not. Yes, teachers need to be evaluated, but there has to be a better way, one that does not treat students like widgets, but which honors their individuality.