Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

When teaching literature to high school students, I often emphasized and tried to prove how literature is a reflection of life at a particular time in history. This is why I always began a course discussing how literature must be analyzed historically, socially, politically, in addition to absorbing it thematically and structurally.

Thus, it makes sense that sensitive issues will arise in the study of writings, especially classics of American literature, as well as periods in British literature. For example, many teachers are uncomfortable with reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Maya Angelou because of its raw glimpse into a society immersed in the evils of slavery, and all the derogatory wording used.

Ironically, it seems only rappers are comfortable with some derogatory language which people used historically to debase and denigrate slaves.

Nevertheless, some issues are critical and must be confronted in an intelligent and compassionate way. Today’s young people live in a society where anything goes. As much as we like to pretend our children are blissfully innocent, they know a WHOLE lot more than we think they know.

Sadly, Black History Month has become a dulled, dutiful event in the schools, which students gloss over and promptly forget  in the time it takes to pull a poster of notable Black folk off a bulletin board.

Kids are naturally curious and have questions. But despite the glaring nudity, profanity, and violence prevalent on every television station cable has to offer, we feel safer sticking our heads in the sand and pretending our children don’t have some inkling that life isn’t a “Little House on the Prairie” episode any longer.

The news link below features a situation in a nearby county, which is geographically where Raleigh sits, where a study of the civil war prompted a lesson for 8th grade students where they had to role play as though they were various figures who lived during that time period.

http://mediacdn.wral.com:1935/vods3/_definst_/mp4:amazons3/cbcnewmedia_wowza/57415-julia530-576×324-15-768.mp4/playlist.m3u8?wowzacaptionfile=amazons3/cbcnewmedia_wowza/57415-julia530.srt

According to the news segment, one student’s assignment was apparently to take on the role of a slave during that time. “I am a Slave” was the title of her graphic organizer, and eventual essay. Her mother was uncomfortable with the assignment and called the principal, who called central office, and it made the local news, resulting in it being removed as an assignment from the curriculum.

If I were the mother of an 8th grader, I would closely watch how the assignment unfolded and offer some enrichment at home for research purposes to help my child grasp the magnitude of slavery as an institution.

For instance, my local PBS station has recently featured documentaries about different perspectives on slavery and its eventual end in this country. We’ve been showing segments of it to our eight year old, who has been curious about slavery for the last two years. Her father took her and her older sister to see “Twelve Years a Slave,” which was so powerful my daughter was at a loss for words for a while (a rarity!). We discussed it at dinner for days afterward, and she had tons of questions.

It is interesting how many questions kids have, even 11th and 12th graders. I have been asked so many questions about life, real life, that the students didn’t feel comfortable asking their own parents.

Let’s stop pretending our children are naive and open the channels of communication with our children. Let’s have some dialogue and feed them some truths before they hear half-truths and ignorant garbage from others.

Maybe I’m wrong, but when kids are singing number one hits that have to do with anal sex, three-way scenarios, and a plethora of drug usage, do we really think they can’t handle some careful instruction about something we all need to learn from?

I can recall a wonderful student I taught recently in a British Literature class, and when we studied The Canterbury Tales, he came up to me privately and asked to not read or do his project on The Wife of Bath, who was known for her “worldly ways” with multiple men. He was a Jehovah’s Witness. Naturally, I modified his requirements for reading and writing.

Educators in general have been handcuffed from honest teaching and if parents were to work with them and ask questions, our children might be far more conscious and knowledgeable of the world around them.

Martin Luther wasn't afraid to tell some hard truths; people simply weren't ready to hear them.

Martin Luther wasn’t afraid to tell some hard truths; people simply weren’t ready to hear them.

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The perils of living in a state like North Carolina are infinite.

In the last year, among other equally moronic actions, our fine governor, Pat McCrory, along with his legislature, decided to reject the Federal government’s assistance with extended unemployment benefits for the long term unemployed. Apparently, these leeches have been suckling the system, and are unwilling to take the abundance of jobs available in the state.

According to thinkprogress.com, the brilliant governor said:

 We had the ninth most generous unemployment compensation in the country and we were having a lot of people move here, frankly, especially in urban areas to get unemployment and then work other sectors and survive. So, people were moving here because of our very generous benefits, and then of course, we had more debt. So I think, personally, more people got off unemployment and either got jobs or moved back to where they were going or came from and quit the migration as much because of unemployment. We’ve seen this in other states where the benefits are very high, it could draw people from outside the state.

Seem a bit exclusive?

I recently watched the news report about the decline in the unemployment numbers, even though they do not tell an accurate story, and McCrory proudly reported the figures to the press, while explaining that it is partly due to people accepting jobs that they would have rejected otherwise while living a cushy life with unemployment benefits.  As one of those people who enjoyed the luxurious accommodations of the unemployment benefits of North Carolina, I stepped my feet out of the pedicure tub, and took a seasonal job at a retail store to help support my family in any way I could, after the savings ran out.

 The lessons I have learned have been eye-opening and depressing on many levels as it relates to society and humanity.  

Lesson #1  

The American Consumer Madness is a monster. The lines of people I have witnessed as I ran a register who buy so much garbage made in China, only to make sure they “look” happy and their children are happy (for a few minutes at least) with toys they don’t need, gadgets that make them dumber, and more clutter to fill a garage within six months, is staggering.  I have since begun to truly question every single purchase I make and asking myself, “Do I truly NEED that?” Will this must-have clearance item improve my life exponentially?

 Lesson #2  

Parents have confirmed what I have known for years but could never verbalize openly: they DO do their kids homework. I have helped hundreds of parents, educated, intelligent, and everything in between, find items THEY needed for a school project, while their child stood idly by, on their cellphones, or running around the store like heathens.  When I taught English, and a student wrote something in class that was at the level expected for a high school student, and then submitted papers that many New York Times columnists could not equal, it was very clear to me that someone else did the work.  

 As many have said before me, the damage that parents have done to this generation in enabling their children has crippled them for the future (and we wonder why there are so many school shootings lately) and created disconnected and morally corrupt adults, which will hurt our society on a scale that we are only beginning to grasp.

SO STOP DOING YOUR KIDS HOMEWORK AND PROJECTS. They won’t die if they actually have to do some work.  As I paid my way through college, I worked nighttime security with a wise man, who had nine kids (yes, he was Irish Catholic). He told me a story which has remained with me through the twenty plus years raising my own six children (yes, Puerto Rican Catholic). Whenever his children got into trouble of some sort, he immediately set them to work raking the broad expanse of their yard. There are few things in life which hard work does not cure, he would say. I employed the same strategies as a divorced mother of six. My kids know how to work a rake!

Lesson #3  

People are rude. And selfish. And self-absorbed. They walk through my store, picking things up, too lazy return them to their original location, and I actually heard one customer tell their companion, as he callously tossed aside items he no longer wanted, “I’m just giving THESE people something to do.” Ahh, yes. Should I have pumped his hand in gratitude, thankful that because he and his fellow shoppers trash the store every single day, it enables my manager to keep me on the payroll for my average earnings of $100 per week?

 Granted, there are the gracious, well-mannered shoppers who appreciate customer service, look me in the eye, and value my very knowledgeable assistance. These are the humanists who don’t just throw the money on the counter, who don’t say “keep the change” as if it were mine to keep, and don’t talk on their cellphones while I am scanning their purchases. I tuck these kind souls in my pocket and try to ask myself, “What would Mother Teresa do?”  

There are so many lessons that humanity teaches us as we interact with the world on a daily basis. Mostly, I have absorbed the good, the bad, and the ugly, and use it as a guide, as a reminder for myself, on how I am raising my last two children, and how I treat others in my daily travels.  

So, thanks Governor McCrory. Thanks for nothing, and thanks for everything. This too shall pass. And when the day comes that I can wave goodbye to this pseudo-progressive, exclusive, good-ol’-boy state, I will debate on whether to wave with dignity or resort to another less dignified yet digit-al form of nonverbal communication.

I was planning on writing about my infuriating experiences as a teacher with credit recovery, after reading the Wall Street Journal article below, but it’s Monday and I don’t want to set a negative tone for the week.

http://dianeravitch.net/2012/12/02/cheating-students-in-d-c-with-phony-credentials/

(Since I’m not subscribed to WSJ.com, I’ll link it through Diane Ravitch’s blog, where I initially came across the opinion piece)

Instead, I’ll release from my psyche an incident that was minor in the great cosmos of the universe, but significant to how we approach education.  I liken it to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk, which I linked on my blog this summer, its subject focusing on how our education system in America stifles creativity in children.

Since I am an unemployed educator at the moment, I have had to take my daughter out of her wonderful Emilio Reggio Spanish Immersion School (wow, that’s a mouthful!).  She is two years old and attended for one year.  I find it to be similar in style to the Montessori method, which most people are more familiar with.  At its core, it is structured to encourage education through play.  It strongly encourages natural exploration of the world, and there is no rigid curriculum.

Consequently, my daughter, who appears to be developmentally sharp, soaked up the Spanish immediately, without suffering any lingual confusion with us at home. There are millions of wonderful things I could say about her experience and how beneficial it was for her, but sadly, without a job, I could no longer afford to keep there and justify it.

So, being the obsessive person that I am, I wiped my sorrowful tears, and set to researching activities to engage my two year old in daily.  My stay at home mom days were over a long time ago, and my teaching job for the past decade consumed my life so much, I couldn’t believe how much I relied on other people to raise my child.

One of the activities I thought would keep the social aspect alive was story time at the library.  So, one day we ventured out to do a Fall themed story time activity of books and songs for her age group.

In the activity room, the  moms and nannies shuffled in with their tots, looking cute as cupcakes.  The librarian began with a song, which was wonderful, and then proceeded to read a story that was far too advanced for toddlers and their attention spans.

Nevertheless, my daughter did what she would normally do at her old school.  She was dancing like the leaves in the book, remembering the song (about leaves) and dancing around and then stopping to touch the picture on the pages, etc.

Everyone in the room looked at her like she was an aberration.  The librarian had to tell her twice, which was enough for me, that she would have to sit down and behave so others could enjoy the books too.

Of course, I understand.  The other kids couldn’t see from their sedentary positions on the floor.

But for my daughter, as for all of us in my home, and at her old school, reading was alive and vibrant, filled with color and song, and isn’t it just like American educational standards to expect children to be all lined up in a row, in silent obedience?

So we left and I felt a weight bearing down on my chest.

Since that day, we have not returned to story time, but we may try other libraries and see if it’s less rigid.  I don’t know.  Perhaps.

Ultimately, this reminds me of the coursework I have taken years ago, and the pedagogy of how children learn, and the variety of learning styles.  Sadly, our country has adopted a once size fits all, and the ones who don’t fit are labeled.

Story time stared me in the face again the other night as I watched a new show called “Scandal”, an interesting show, and last week’s episode featured a billionaire who was suddenly acting out of character, and doing crazy things like driving around in his mansion, and having fun.  His proper family wanted to have him committed, but he fought back and at the end he told his son that he’s not crazy, he simply spent his whole life doing what was expected of him, and raising his family, and managing the millions, but not living. And for once he was going to do what he wanted to do.

Wouldn’t it be great to get out of the pegs everyone expects us to fit into and dance around during story time, as freely as leaves?

Dancing in the leaves, courtesy of mirror.co.uk

Dancing in the leaves, courtesy of mirror.co.uk

Check out this lovely blog I came across this morning, and this short but poignant piece, “What Should a 4 Year Old Know”.

http://magicalchildhood.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/what-should-a-4-year-old-know/

All parents need a copy of this.  I needed it for sure.  Good week to you world!

 

 

 

 

I hate labels.  I hate pigeon-holing.  Naturally, just as teenagers hang their entire lives on, all humans would like to consider themselves unique, different, a brighter star than the others, the ripest, juiciest strawberry on a plant of duds.  I know what people say or think about Puerto Ricans, and I’m writing about the negative thoughts, not the beautiful, stunning, and sexy ones. As an observer of people, I noted as a child, the looks on the faces of all the pristine, White families, all lined up like those stupid family stickers on cars — mom, dad, daughter, son, and maybe even grandma.  And let’s not forget them singing in unison, their perfectly make up lips opened oh so daintily, as they “Ave Maria’d” on.  What did we look like?  Brace yourself.  No mom, no dad.  They divorced so mom couldn’t attend mass because the Roman Catholic Church does not believe in divorce.  But she made sure we trudged all the way to church every Sunday.  But our clothes were mismatched, not ironed, and we were probably arguing during mass, no doubt.  I vowed I would never live that way when I grew up.  I would not be a public spectacle.  I would blend in with the white folk who seemed to rule the world.

Thus, it always infuriated me to listen to the frequent commentary by a colleague in my department who I’ll call Ed.  Now this was at Chapel Hill High School in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.  Ed was an elitist then, and I’m fairly certain he remains one today.  Every year the teachers had to nominate seniors for some awards and scholarships for academic excellence, character, etc.  Well, Ed, whose mouth was rather large and voice extremely booming, would nominate the beautiful, polite, blond, affluent students.  He felt they deserved everything because they put everything in to school.  Even the scholarships that were not necessarily for academic superiority, but more about integrity, involvement in school activities, and character were given to them.  Consequently, on senior awards night, the same five students received everything: the money, the fame, everything.  I remember how enraged I would become as the English department discussed the nominations and because most of the teachers were overwhelmed and too busy for this anyway, they deferred to Ed’s loudness and acquiesced.

It didn’t matter how much I fussed, the majority (Whites) always won and the fabulous five seniors went down in CHHS history.  Now, I’m not knocking their great qualities.  I’m sure they were great kids, but in a school of 1,800 students I found it hard to handle that they were the only ones who deserved EVERYTHING.

Even when it came to advanced placement and honors classes, as we discussed the incoming students, some of whom did not have the previous year’s English grade to qualify for advanced classes, Ed always disparaged the minorities.  He said once that it was a waste of time even teaching them, because they couldn’t or wouldn’t do the work and they didn’t belong in those classes.

I felt like ripping his eyeballs out and shoving them up his behind.

A perfect world according to Mr. Ed.

A perfect world according to Mr. Ed.

After reading Diane Ravitch’s pos, “Does Segregation Improve Test Scores” and then EduShyster’s blog post about White people making the best teachers because they’re just BETTER, I had quite a bit to think about over my heavenly coffee.  Here are the links:

http://dianeravitch.net/2012/11/17/does-segregation-improve-test-scores/

http://edushyster.com/?p=1326#more-1326

 

While, there is no question that White folks have the advantage because the vast majority of them lived in affluent towns, with high property taxes, which drives a major chunk of the school funding.  Furthermore, being at the top of the food chain socioeconomically and educationally provides the children with numerous resources to enhance their education.  When I coached volleyball and we went to these types of neighborhoods to play schools in affluent districts, and the beautiful blond girls mopped the floor with us, I was told that these parents had these girls in volleyball pads by the time they were in preschool.  They were beasts.  Good for them.

We can’t forget that huge disparity in the distribution of funding to schools.  Everybody knows the bottom line: in high poverty areas, there’s very little property tax money going to the schools.  Combine that with the effects of poverty on children and it makes for a failing equation.

Diane Ravitch drew attention to EduShyster’s post today.  They claim that excellence just comes better to White people than to others. Wow! (And people called me a racist!)

I have to assume it’s a satirical piece, but the piece of truth that rings in there is simply located in opportunity.

There were a couple of brilliant comments in Ravitch’s post mentioned above, especially by Pat Cristiani, who commented that integrating students does not fix the problems and attitudes between different races.  She also said people need to discuss race issues, which is exactly what I have been suggesting, based upon my observations as a teacher.

At Chapel Hill in Georgia, I noticed over the five years I taught there, that the students segregate themselves during any group activity.  At a pep rally or any assembly, the White kids always sat  closest to the courts and all the Black and Hispanic students (not many Hispanics) sat far up and away.  In the cafeteria, it ran mainly the same way, with the odd sprinkling of races for those who didn’t care about race.

At Chapel Hill in North Carolina, students did the same thing.  A much more liberal school, with off campus privileges for students, you would see the same segregation.  Eating in the cafeteria was reserved for the minorities, as the affluent White students could go off campus for lunch, and so on and so on.

It is very difficult, as a society, to deconstruct a lifetime of environmental programming between races.  Each person has their own story, and triggers, and reasons to hate or to love.  Just because a school buses poor minority children to a higher achieving school, in an effort to create a racial balance doesn’t erase the underlying problems among different groups.

In the American Journal of Sociology, James Moody explores the following on racial integration in schools:

Finding friendship segregation in heterogeneous settings should not be
surprising for at least three reasons. First, a large body of literature on
homophily suggests that people prefer friends who are like themselves
along multiple dimensions (Hallinan and Williams 1989; Kandel 1978;
McPherson and Smith-Lovin 1987; Tuma and Hallinan 1979). An individual-level preference for similar friends suggests that, all else equal, when people have the opportunity to choose relations within their own
race they will. Second, while schools may be integrated at the population
level, internally they may still be racially divided. Organizational factors
such as tracks and extracurricular activities may decrease opportunities
for cross-race contact by resegregating an otherwise-integrated school (Epstein 1985).Finally, work on ethnic threat and competition has consistently found a nonlinear relation between heterogeneity and racial relations (Blalock 1967; Smith 1981).

Source: Race, School Integration, and Friendship Segregation in America, James Moody, Ohio State University

Thus, when I add up all these opinions and comments, I agree primarily with Pat Cristiani that integration is simply not the sole answer. How do we erase the mindset that Blacks are inferior, Hispanics are illegal?  For hundreds of years, people of African descent were used, abused, and treated as sub-human.

Just the other night on “Sons of Anarchy”, (yeah, I love that show) the IRA guy called the Mexican cartel guy a “bean nigger” and my spouse and I couldn’t believe it!  The deep racial resentment between the two racial groups was deep and intense.

Yes, there is much work to be done, not just on cleaning up public education, but progressing as a society.

Brown vs. Board of Education: Second Round, by Adam Liptak

Source: New York Times

My second child is an excellent server in a restaurant called Outback Steakhouse, while she is attending college.  She has a great value for customer service and takes great care of all her patrons.  She shared a story with me on Sunday night after her shift which has been stuck in my mind ever since, and it resonates with the problems as I see them, among minority students in this country.

My daughter had a party of ten coming in and one person in the party was what I tend to call, “the angry Black woman.”  She was angry at the world, angry at my child for some imaginary slight she perceived that was perpetrated against her in another life perhaps.  Using my finely honed Criminal Minds skills, based on my daughter’s description of her, she clearly felt the world owed her something too, because she wanted to make sure she got “extra” of everything Outback offered its patrons, i.e. extra bread, honey butter, not regular butter, extra extra dressing, and croutons, and cheese, and more extra dressing on her house salad, which was her dinner.  This in itself was surprising because she weighed at least 300 pounds.

She ordered a frozen margarita and when my daughter placed it on the table, demanded to know where the bread was.  Then she went outside to take a call.  When she returned, the margarita was no longer frozen and naturally, that was my daughter’s fault.  She yelled at her, “What’s this?  I ordered a FROZEN margarita.  This ain’t no frozen margarita!”

To which my daughter explained, “It was frozen when I brought it to you.”  Probably not a good idea, but she wanted to let the lady know that she did order the correct drink, and it was a warm restaurant and science can explain the rest.

Well, that was the end of an otherwise lovely evening.  Not only did that woman proceed to make my daughter’s life a living hell, she ruined the dinners of all the patrons north, south, east, and west of her loud mouth.  The rest of the party said absolutely nothing, some of them her own children.  One has to wonder, who would impregnate such a horror show?

So, after misery and embarrassment, my daughter finally brings the woman her portion of the check (yes, separate checks are Satan’s creations) and on the check it offers the suggested tip, as it is protocol for a party of eight or more.  The woman threatened my daughter with, “Do you like your job?” and “How long have you been working here?” and “I need to see a manager right away.”

Then she proceeded to ream the manager out, a young guy no older than 30, for at least twenty minutes.  She yelled and cursed obscenities at him in stereotypical “angry Black woman” fashion.

Other patrons in the vicinity of this verbal onslaught had complained to the same manager throughout my daughter’s hellish experience with this woman and told him how horribly the abusive woman was treating her.  My daughter is a tiny little thing and avoids confrontations at all costs.  She was determined not to let that woman defeat her and see her cry.  The woman wanted all the owner’s contact information and assured them, and the entire restaurant that she would be in communication with the owner immediately Monday morning and that my daughter would no longer have her job once she was done with her.

Beyond all the disgust I felt, and the ugliness of the entire debacle, the thought running through my head was, “What were those kids thinking and feeling and absorbing from watching their mother’s antics?”

Would they grow up to be just like mom? Would the daughters become angry Black women, feeling the same sense of entitlement in a world that owes them nothing?

I don’t know what the woman’s problem was, and as it was definitely not an episode of “What Would You Do?” as John Quinones did not come out with a camera crew at any point, it ended with a gut-wrenching, nerve-rattling, slightly bad taste left in the mouths of all those involved, along with the witnesses.

So what is it about minority cultures such as the Black one, that keeps them from performing equally or better than their White and Asian counterparts in the arena of education?  Marilyn Rhames, an educator and journalist, wrote an article in an EdWeek Teacher blog discussing the “myths” of education in America, based upon an article by Michael Lind.

I don’t know who Michael Lind is, but he contends that America’s claim that the public schools are failing is all a lie perpetrated by those who want vouchers and more money.  Further, he wrote that there is only 35% of America’s students who are failing  in public schools, namely Black and Latino students, and they are the guilty ones who are pulling down America’s schools.

Lind also argues in his article, that those Blacks and Latinos are “poor or culturally damaged.”

Here’s the entire article, so you can read Rhaymes’ counter to Lind’s assertions:

http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/charting_my_own_course/2012/08/reforming_the_myths_about_american_public_schools.html

Do you think Johnny can’t read because he’s black or poor, or both?

Well, I can’t buy the poor factor.  Yes, poverty is a huge challenge, but other countries, third world countries, dusty, dry countries, where resources are even scarcer than the worst project in the Bronx, these countries don’t let poverty stop them from giving their children a desire, a spark, something that ignites them into knowing that they will get out of their poverty through their education.

It’s a cultural thing.  My very black spouse tells me every time I try to debate educational theories to him, “It starts at home, with the parents.”  Thus, if we operate from this premise, than whether rich or poor, resources or no resources, parents have the ability to instill a love of learning and work ethic for education to their children.

In the Black communities where I have taught, the kids were the same.  Their conversations were focused on celebrities and athletic superstars, not on the essay they wrote the night before, or the book their mothers read to them.  And I don’t want to hear the stale mantra about single mothers having to work two jobs and being unavailable to read to their kids.  First of all, I was a single mother, and I raised four of my six children on my own.  I taught all day and most nights (not every one) I would snuggle up with them and read whatever they wanted to read.  Secondly, it’s more than just a kid reading.

Kids need to witness their parents reading, wanting to read, finding it interesting.

So, it all returns to the home as I have been told so often.

The culture that surrounds Blacks and Hispanics is about booty-shaking, half-naked women, money throwing, saggy pants wearing and women-chasing men.  As I have said before, I don’t care how many foundations Ludacris supports and funds now with his millions.  If he keeps perpetuating a superficial, demeaning product (his music) than little girls will want to grow up to be big sluts, little boys will want to grow up to be wanna be thugs, who don’t value the magic and nurturing abilities of women, and the “minority problem” will remain the same.  Girls will grow up wanting to use the assets between their legs and dangling from their torso, figuring it might make them rich and famous one day if they shake it to the left just right.  Boys will be convinced making it rain is their goal and they’re all going to get into the NBA and NFL and have the fancy cars and latest booze in their hands.

And White people will continue to look at and treat minorities in a condescending fashion, will try to escape to the neighborhoods where there are no minorities, and they will move as soon as the minorities move in and the chase will go on and on.  The blame will continue to fall on the minorities, regardless of the thousands and thousands who do work hard and succeed academically and professionally.

At Outback, even the Black servers were trying to console my daughter after angry black woman left.  They said people like her make all Black people look bad.  My partner just shook his head and muttered, “My people, my people…we have so much farther to go…”

 

 

 

Many years ago, after having my fourth child, while living in an often overlooked state known as Rhode Island, I hustled  waited tables in a restaurant and eventually had the enviable task of training new take out employees.  They were usually teenage girls, incessant gum poppers, with too much gel in their hair (a Rhode Island thing).

I’ve forgotten many things about my time there, but what really struck me was that these employees didn’t have the slightest idea how to count change.

It’s fairly simple really.  It involves beginning with the lowest monetary value, which is the penny.  So, if a patron bought a slice of cheesecake for $2.84 with tax, and he gave her a $5.00 bill, then the cashier/take out girl would start with the pennies and slide out one penny, then a nickel, then a dime, and work her way upward to the five dollar bill.  Seems simple, yes?  It is.  I tried to train them NOT to depend upon the cash register to tell them the amount of money to return to the customer, primarily because it made for much better accuracy for everyone involved.

You would think I was asking them to perform delicate spinal surgery on their grandmothers.

The bottom line is technology has turned all of us into self-gratifying, spoiled little darlings, but the ones it has really done the most damage to is the young generations.

I used to spend hours in the dungeons of the Brooklyn Public Library where they stored the microfiche machines to do research.  I will never forget the power of the book, Night, by Elie Wiesel.  In my little slice of life, I had never heard of such atrocities as the ones he describes.  Consequently, I did my senior thesis on the book, as well as one other.  I felt consumed by the flames, certain that in another life I must have been a victim of the Holocaust, because the horror resonated so deeply within my soul.

Anyway, I spent hours on Saturdays down there, lost in a world I had never known existed at one time in another place.  I love libraries.  They are home for me, the smell, the dust, the knowledge of all the pages contained in such a place, comforting and warm.

Teachers, ask your students today to do a research paper and where do they immediately go as soon as you enter the “media center?”

1. Wikipedia

2. Google

3. The teacher, to tell him/her, “I couldn’t find nothing.”

Ahh, yes.  Nothing.

It would take thousands of words to try to express the gut-twisting frustrations I have felt HUNDREDS of times, as I have heard the very same words from teenage mouths who hail from all walks of life.  Unless it slapped them on the forehead, leaving a dull red impression, the research I wanted them to uncover simply didn’t exist.

My point?

Students today scare me.  The ramifications of the children raised in this dysfunctional education system over the last thirty or so years is stark and frightening.  The small numbers of children whose parents demanded more, expected more, and pushed them for more is just not enough to counter the millions of kids who grew up expecting life to be handed to them.

The teachers they like the most are the ones whose study guides are the actual test and they’re all getting A’s.  The only advanced classes they take are the ones that will get them into the best college, which will get them the best job, which will provide them with the expected lifestyle, where they will live the inevitable meaningless, superficial consumer-crazed lives that everyone wants in America.

When I asked them to think and eliminated the option to cheat, do you want to know what happened?

They froze.  They became afraid but covered it up well.  Then they began to scheme and tell mom a different tale, shed a tear or two about how “hard” the teacher is, how much “work” they’re getting, how “stressed out” they are.

Then they slide into their seats the next day or week, certain things will be taken care of, get their restroom passes per class so they can take another swig of vodka, with a Xanax chaser and make it through another day.

As our nation is embroiled in battles over standardized testing, teacher merit pay, charter schools, funding, or the lack of, I wonder why nobody is asking what the students think.  At my former school in Chapel Hill, the superintendent meets regularly with a student council to try to improve education, and the local paper reported some of their comments in the meeting.  Their comments ranged from student apathy to “our parents have no idea how good we are at lying.”  They claim to only take advanced placement classes to look good for colleges, and that they really don’t care about the learning.

Encouraging.

This week has been a sludgy kind of week, as I battled with a croupy kind of cough and heavy duty sinus pressure that caused painful headaches.  Whew!  I think this cold got me because I ran out of apple cider vinegar.  If you have never taken apple cider vinegar, YOU NEED TO START IMMEDIATELY!  It will transform your life.

So I was up late last night and caught the last half hour of a documentary called “American Teacher.”  It focused on four or five different teachers and their perspectives on living as a teacher.  The one that struck me the hardest featured a woman who became a mother and could only afford six weeks of maternity leave, and then had to pump breast milk every two hours and went frantically searching for an office or room she could use to pump.  As a mother who nursed six children, I related to that chaos.

Furthermore, she explains how tired she is all the time because her newborn gets up often; plus, she has all the demanding lesson planning time which is an ongoing process.  I did that too.

When I consider all the behind the scenes work that goes into being prepared for each day as a teacher, then the endless grading, and data entry of grades, and bulletin boards, and lesson planning, that so many teachers do each day of a school year, it really makes me want to slap the stupid people who have the audacity to tell teachers to quit complaining because we have so much vacation time off and puffed up pensions.  Little do they know…

In any case, watching that short piece of the documentary brought back memories of the decade I spent in the classroom and the classroom spent in my home, which dominated every moment of my life, or so it seems.

In the five months since I stopped teaching, here’s some things I reconnected with:

Instead of telling the kids the obligatory, “That’s nice honey,” when they pointed out the rainbow, I put down the grading and we enjoyed the beauty of the rainbow together.  Like the rainbow, their childhood is fleeting and I won’t get it back again.

I reconnected with nature and took a deep breath.  As I pondered the majesty of the world, I remembered my insignificance and for a moment I convinced myself that the world would function just fine even though I wouldn’t be doing my contribution to society any longer through the vehicle of teaching.

As the summer gave way to fall, I went on a hayride with my family in an attempt to lift my spirits, and despite the darkness of my mood, I found that there is indeed sunlight and grace through even the darkest periods.

I spent some time watching five and six play on a playground.  I marveled at the ability that children have to make “friends” so easily.  The natural bookish introvert that I am would never dream of hopping on a see saw with a perfect stranger.  Over and over, I watched my seven year old naturally blend with a group of her peers and within minutes they were screaming and laughing, and running around the playground with wild abandon and an easy camaraderie.  Ahh, if only it were so easy for adults.  When do we lose that gift?

Things aren’t perfect right now.  I feel at loose ends, my independent spirit has been thwarted, justice has not been served and soon I will be completely broke.  But I am going to continue to take deep breaths and hang on to my faith that this is the road I am meant to travel, and I will figure out my next step in due time.

Thanks for reading.

 

I am a product of the Star Wars generation.  Han Solo was my ideal mate and Luke Skywalker my alter ego.  We waited on a line that wrapped around the block in downtown Manhattan when I was still a single digit, to watch the release of this epic saga.  Most of the students I have taught over the last several years had virtually no knowledge of the allusions I offered in class, with respect to Star Wars.  

My respect for George Lucas, the mastermind of Star Wars, grew exponentially when I watched his interview on the Oprah channel.  He is a very intelligent man, had the common sense to fall in love with a beautiful Black woman, and raised his children in a very practical, non-spoiled style.

But I was devastated to read this on HuffingtonPost.com the other night:

“I am dedicating the majority of my wealth to improving education. It is the key to the survival of the human race. We have to plan for our collective future –- and the first step begins with the social, emotional, and intellectual tools we provide to our children. As humans, our greatest tool for survival is our ability to think and to adapt – as educators, storytellers, and communicators our responsibility is to continue to do so.”

George Lucas is dedicating approximately $4 BILLION dollars from the sale of the Star Wars rights to Disney, to EDUCATION.  Apparently, he will set it up with a foundation, which has yet to be disclosed.  In the article, the assumption is that he will funnel the money through Edutopia.

Okay.  I absolutely, wholeheartedly, and passionately agree with Mr. Lucas’ above quote about education.  It is the fundamental core of how I raised my children and how I was raised.  Every biography of someone who has made tremendous personal and societal strides to benefit humanity has had its inception in education.  We know this.

What makes me want to find his offices, or write him a long, passionate letter, or just shake some sense into this wonderful man is that I am terrified, petrified even, that such a large sum of money that can provide so much to the field of education will be squandered away by power-hungry administrators, smooth-dressing, fast-talking, earnest representatives who will craftily leech onto the folks managing Mr. Lucas’ money, with superficial talk of the latest, greatest education reform which only compounds the problem.

Look at the debacle in Atlanta Public Schools.  Bill Gates pumped millions into APS, which resulted in beautiful buildings but no beautiful minds.  Beverly Hall’s bank account grew significantly, her engineered data rose, but the education of the children remained stagnant.

Perhaps they’ll use some of the money to collaborate with behemoths like Pearson, and develop a NEW and IMPROVED test for students in America, who are like a wrung out rag because they are so exhausted from perpetual testing cycles.  Perhaps they’ll create new charter schools, which are just another form of segregation in American society.

The bottom line is:  who knows where his money will go and into whose hands, which will continue to exacerbate the problems in a system that has been mismanaged for so long…

DON’T DO IT MR. LUCAS!  

Sit down with some teachers first.  Ride across the country in a cushy tour bus and visit randomly selected schools all across the fifty states, and ask to sit with the teachers.  Ask them what they see as the biggest detriment to effective education.  Have your assistants record everything into a database.  Then decide where to put your money.  I will work for you for free, around the clock, if it means that these useless administrators and testing leeches won’t sink their greedy claws into your hard-earned money.

 

I have held back on writing about the mammoth topic of SPECIAL EDUCATION because every time I recall the experiences I endured and engaged in within this realm, my anger bubbles to the surface once again and I…don’t think pleasant thoughts anymore.

But, you know how life is…it has an interesting way of forcing a person to confront unpleasant situations and sort them out somehow.

This is exactly what happened this past Saturday.

I was excited to be exercising my right to vote and at the same time kicking myself for waiting until the last day of early voting here in the good old state of North Carolina.  It was a beautiful fall Saturday morning, colorful and crispy, just the way I like it.

I armed myself with a pen (because I don’t like sharing other peoples’ pens), water bottle, and earphones, excited at the prospect of listening to some of my more radical music — Elton John and Barbra Streisand —  as I waited on the potentially long lines.

Things began well.  I felt relieved that I was not bombarded with any of the Republicans I had seen lately, as they have been particularly rude and condescending to the door to door volunteers who have been sharing information with the public on the voting process and early voting dates.  But what else can you expect from Republicans?

Here’s where the punch to my gut occurred: As the poll official called me to the identification table, I immediately saw and smelled  the head of the special education department at the posh, upper crust school where I taught in Stepford Chapel Hill.  I am certain that we both recognized each other instantly and we did what millions of Americans do every day when they see people whose names they cannot recall from a recent meeting, or someone they would just as soon avoid for any number of reasons.  We hid.  We ducked away from each other, leaving trails of thermal energy from the burst of adrenaline that coursed through our systems for a moment.  I texted my husband and told him I was getting away from her very fast because I was afraid I wouldn’t be allowed to vote if I backhanded her at the senior center.

The bottom line is this:  I hate her.

Now I recognize several things about this statement, from a variety of worldly viewpoints.  I am aware that hate is a strong word (the mommy talk) and that it is as physiologically damaging to my body as a cancerous cell is (the doctor talk), and that it is as pervasive as a virus, spreading throughout my psyche insidiously, corrupting all attempts at a peaceful zen-like state (the enlightened one talk), and that ultimately all that hatred means is that I am that much closer to going to Hell (the Catholic dogma talk).  Nevertheless, this woman became for me, in my last year of teaching, the very symbol of all that I despise within the special education system, and the antithesis of all that I believed in as a passionate proponent for education as the answer to so many situations.

I’ll call her Penny.

Penny is the head of the special education department, as I mentioned earlier.  She is the person who organizes a staff of incompetent fools, a group of unqualified individuals who are at times less knowledgeable than the students they have been assigned to serve, according to the federal mandates.  Human Resources must select these fine folks from a Cracker Jacks box.

This is probably an important time to acknowledge that there are some amazingly talented men and women in this country who selflessly dedicate themselves towards some students with special needs, kids who require intensive and complete care.  I have seen them personally do so much for the severely disabled, the severely autistic children, and other disorders that it has brought a tear to my eye.  I’m not talking about those true paragons of virtue at all.

But every educator has met the ones who signed up to become special education paraprofessionals and teachers because there is such a shortage of them, and this nation’s population of students with special needs has skyrocketed at a very alarming rate.  According to the following article (see link below) from EDWEEK,

about 5.8 million of the nation’s schoolchildren, ages 6 to 21, were receiving special education services through IDEA. About 61 percent percent of those students have specific learning disabilities or speech or language impairments. Only about 8 percent are diagnosed with significant cognitive disabilities, such as mental retardation or traumatic brain injury. More than half of all students with disabilities spend at least 80 percent of their time in the regular classroom. The size of that group of students—along with their inclusion in the general education classroom—has raised concerns about academic expectations, teacher preparedness, and cost.

The entire link for this article can be found here:

http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/special-education/

I am leagues away from being considered an expert on the state of special education services, or exceptional children programs as they have been referred to in the South.  The only perspective I can explore is my own, from close to a decade in the secondary classroom.  I did take the courses on teaching students with special needs.  I even followed up with another refresher, after having been out of school for a few years, just to make sure I was prepared to understand the situations I would be expected to deal with in my classroom.  Over those years, I have taught children with high-functioning autism, children who were blind, who had cerebral palsy, Asperger’s Syndrome, EBD’s, LD’s, Dyslexia, and more.   I have sat in on hundreds of IEP meetings.

The disorder which I have seen most often however, is the large umbrella known as LEARNING DISORDER.  It’s truly fascinating how much is thrown under this category.  Learning Disorder. Over the years, these are the ones who are scattered throughout most of my classes.  Sometimes, I would receive a manila envelope in my mailbox with the IEP information on as many as 25 – 30 students, and sometimes I would not receive any notification, until the end of the year when people like Penny would come up to me in the hall and say, “Oh, well, I see here Abel has a 53 in your class. Didn’t you call mom and let her know?”  When I would whip out my parent contact log and show documentation of several failed attempts to communicate with mom, Penny would pull the rug out from under me and respond with, “Well, Able has an IEP and according to the federal guidelines you can’t fail him, so put together a make up packet and I’ll make sure he does it.  You should have gotten the IEP information back in August.  You didn’t see it?  Oh well.  There’s so much paperwork.  When mom sees this failing grade, she will say that his accommodations haven’t been met and she will sue if he fails the class.” The accommodation I have seen most often for those with “learning disabilities” is the separate setting for testing, which only gives the super duper special education teachers the opportunity give the students answers to the teacher’s tests.

This system works quite well for the wonderful employees in the Exceptional Children Department, and the numbers look delicious at the end of the year.  The “teachers” in the EC department wipe the requisite tears from their eyes as their “babies” reach out their hand to collect their diplomas.

There are so many scenarios of the abuse, misappropriation of funds, incompetence, and general babysitting that exists in the special education department.  The lies are compounded upon the lies, and teachers like me sit at their desks fuming.  Unfortunately, as Kris Nielsen eloquently explained in his letter of resignation to the Union County School System, the educators who are autopilot go with the flow, and the rest of us are unemployed because we will not, cannot continue to watch the debacle and partake in it.  The gross ethical violations, the falsification of documents, the lack of anything resembling an education, the manipulation — these are all a part of a system that is rotten to its very core.

Here’s the link to Mr. Nielsen’s painful but proud letter:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2012/10/29/letter-from-disgusted-teacher-i-quit/

As I watched 60 Minutes last night, and listened to the two government leaders (I don’t know who they were) explain how the American budget deficit is so defunct and self-destructive, I came to the following conclusion: everything is a numbers game.  Our bright, well-educated government officials can’t work together well enough to help reduce so much wasteful spending.  The numbers are out of control.  Similarly, the public education system operates according to numeric expectations, endless numeric data, numbers, numbers, and more numbers.  Is there really any shred of hope for an education system run amuck when our constitutional leaders can’t even collaborate effectively to keep our country sustainable?

Here’s an overview and identification of these senate leaders:  http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504803_162-57544857-10391709/an-exasperating-interview-with-senate-leaders/?tag=contentBody;listingLeadStories

There are people on waiting lists all over the United States for government services for their truly disabled and special needs children to get much-needed educational and therapeutic services, and according to the government agencies, there’s just not enough money for the thousands of them needing assistance.  But in the school systems, there are thousands of children labeled with learning disabilities who are simply lazy, and trifling, and have parents who let their children be in charge, and then want the easy ticket through school when their children are addicted to television, video games, junk food, cell phones, and computers that they haven’t got the slightest idea what a work ethic is, how to do any actual work, or even what sitting down and actually reading a book feels like.

Pardon me for my slightly Republican sentiment here, but I just don’t think the government should be required to pay for parental neglect and irresponsibility.  Teachers shouldn’t be swamped with kids who have never had anyone tell them ‘no’ in their lives and mean it.  And students who actually want to learn should not have to take honors and AP classes they are not qualified to take just to get away from the constant behavioral disruptions in classrooms.

In fact, I don’t know how people like Penny from the polls sleeps at night, knowing she’s a contributing factor to the decline of this country that I love so much, that she pushes kids out into the world who haven’t got more than a 3rd grade reading and writing ability.  I’ll save some of Penny’s tricks of the trade for another posting.  This has gotten long enough.

For those who make remarks about all the vacation time teachers have off, and how it justifies the lousy salaries they receive, think about this:

The average American 9-to-5er leaves the office, and the other part of their lives become front and center.

For the average teacher, however, when the bell rings, his/her day doesn’t end.  On any given day, there may be a faculty meeting scheduled, unpaid working hours.  However, if the teacher is fortunate enough to not have a faculty meeting, she will have to finish grading the work she couldn’t get done during her lunch break, or planning period.  Once that is completed, the teacher must prepare the board for the next day of school, review her lessons, and prepare to go to the long line at the copy machine, of other equally exhausted teachers who will be too busy dropping their kids off in the morning to take the risk that the copy machine might be available.

So they wait.  Some days, the teachers stand there, like recent suspects at the county jail, awaiting their mug shots to be taken.  On a Monday, it is entirely possible that friendly conversations may still ensue, chit chat about the weekend and, “Hey, did you watch the Falcons game yesterday?”

But by Wednesday afternoon, the head is aching, the limbs are weary, and all the teachers want to do is go home.  “Is it Friday yet?” someone will venture to say, only to be met with commiserating grunts.

While they are at the copy machine, another teacher down the hall has been waiting for 35 minutes for the parent to show up for their conference.  He has called twice, only to be told that mom is “on the way.”  He watches the clock ticking, wondering if he can squeeze in a power nap, and if he would have enough time to wake up and wash his face before the parent’s arrival.

Still not being paid.

Mom marches down the hallway towards the classroom with the door open and the teacher at the copy machine summons up a half-smile and a polite “Hello” before thanking God she didn’t have that conference today.

Back in the classroom, mom sat down in the designated chair, and with no apology for her tardiness, she proceeded to list on her fingers the problems, as she saw them.

1. “My son says you don’t like him.”

2. “My son says you give too much homework.”

3. “My son has a 504 plan and you are not meeting his modifications.”

4. “My son hasn’t passed any of his unit tests because he says you can’t teach.”

5. “My son plans on becoming a neurosurgeon and an entrepreneur and you’re not preparing him for his bright future.”

The teacher takes a deep breath, forces himself to don a neutral, and empathetic countenance, and proceeds to explain himself, placate the mother, and escape with both of his testicles still intact.

“I’m sorry to hear that your son feels this way…”  [This was one of the tips in Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; I believe it falls under habit #5.]

“But let me assure you, I have never done anything that would suggest I don’t like your son. In fact, I really like all my students,” the teacher continues.  But mom interrupts with,

“Oh, so are you calling my son a liar?  We’re Christians and we don’t lie!  I raised my son right!” begins the irate mother, who proceeds to take her long, miserable day out on the teacher.

The Parent Conference

What follows is what this teacher wishes he could say to a parent like this:

Ma’am, I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy day to meet with me about your concerns.  It’s always a step in the right direction when we can work together to resolve concerns.  I try my hardest to meet each of my student’s  needs, with the goal always being their success.   Let me try to discuss each of your primary concerns.

I’m sorry your son feels that I don’t like him.  I really enjoy teaching high school seniors.  I love their sense of humor, their frankness, and the discussions we have in this Honors English class.  However, your son doesn’t give me, or himself for that matter, a chance.  He prefers to sit in the back of the room and use his cell phone until I tell him (at least three times each day) to put it away.  He does not take part in any class discussions and the one time I tried to engage him, he gave me the finger and told me to “fuck off.” 

That’s the reason he was written up the first time.

Nevertheless, I sense that your son has a great deal to offer the class if he were to try.  How do I know?  Well, we write in personal journals twice a week, and the one entry he made this year was a very heartfelt and intriguing comment on an article we read about how technology is killing societal interaction. 

Furthermore, this is an Honors class and homework is expected on a regular basis, whether it is at home reading, studying, or writing.   I only assign homework that is vital to the curriculum and/or as part of a major essay.  I also assign homework which will enable revisions of written work.  I try not to assign any homework over the weekend because I know how busy seniors are these days.  

According to my grade book, here’s your printed copy, your son has only completed one assignment out of eighteen tasks.  I even let students to turn it in one day late for partial credit.  Your son has never attempted to use this option either.  

Regarding your son’s 504 plan, it calls for preferential seating towards the front of the class, but he refuses to sit in his assigned seat.  I cannot stop class for ten minutes to deal with this battle, so I have given in and I make the offer at least once or twice each week for him to sit near the front of the room.  It also states he should have the option of a separate setting environment for tests.  I have made arrangements with the person who would give him the test, but he refuses to go.  On test days, he moves his seat closest to the student with the highest average in class, and spends the entire time trying to cheat from her.  I have sent him out of the room to the office twice now for the same offense.  

Perhaps on test days, I can notify you in advance, and YOU can come to school and sit with him as he takes his unit tests.  Maybe then he will not attempt to cheat.  Or maybe, just maybe, he will actually use the study guide I have provided for him a week before the test, instead of leaving it under his desk as he normally does.

Your son may say I can’t teach and he’s right.  There are some days when I can’t teach, because there are so many student disruptions during class.  On an average day, in this honors class, I have to send at least three girls to the office for skirts so short the class can see their thongs, or cell phone use in class, or students who need to use the restroom, or administrative interruptions, intercom interruptions, and other issues.  It is very hard to keep engaging students into a discussion of the role of medieval women in Chaucerian literature when these things occur.  

Finally, I would like to say the same thing to you that I tell my entire classroom full of students.  Life is about more than a text message, more than Twitter updates, more than the cell phone.  They may need to read literature that was written hundreds of years ago, but it will broaden their perspectives, force them to think about the sublime, learn how to debate, see the relationships between people, and communicate effectively.  The literature amounts to the tools that make a person ready to face whatever life has to throw at them, and it is incumbent upon each of them to embrace all of it, just as I did, just as you did as their parent.  

Your son is now 19 years old and it’s time he stood up on his own two feet, and if he has concerns, I would be glad to sit down with him and find the best solution for everyone.  My job is his success, and I can’t do it without him.  

Thank you for your time.