Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lemme 'Splain

Like Lucy to Ricky, lemme 'splain what that soda haiku of December 21st is about.

Leftover sodas from a staff birthday drew whiney requests: "Pleeeease can I have one?" Annoyed Teacher tossed curt denials: "No."

Annoyed Teacher SHOULD HAVE moved the soda, but you must know that "Annoyed Teacher" is really the code name for "Unorganized Teacher." The sodas, like many things in my classroom, remained where they landed.

And then I got sick. Waaay sick. Four days at home, sick. When I returned we teachers were celebrating another staff bday, and when I went to get the sodas, all that remained was the empty box.

In over twenty years of edumacation I never have sustained a personal theft (well, Molly the Dolly was stolen, but that's another story) until these stupid sodas. Witnesses named names, the accused denied and shifted blame and did some hard time at Saturday School, but never did they apologize or replace the stolen goods and believe me, it has cost Annoyed/Unorganized Teacher some effort to treat the thieves with forgiveness, not because I care about soda, but because honesty and integrity are the principles I hold most dear. The thieves showed no remorse so I am left to believe that their entitled rationalizations ("The teacher can afford it/I deserve it/I love Diet Dr Pepper/She wasn't drinking them") outweighed their consciences and respect for me. It has shaken my trust in all kids. Is my purse safe? What about the loose change we save for the leukemia drive? What about the reward candy I stash in the lectern?

Truth be told, it's hard to smile at the thieves. I guess I haven't really forgiven them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Stolen soda/Stolen trust

They were just sodas.
But when I discovered their
theft, my heart nearly broke...

Friday, December 17, 2010

It's over! At least, it's ending...

The recession, that is. Six gift cards say so.

My completely unscientific method began some years ago when Mr. Recession came to San Diego. It's a little embarrassing, but I and the cool English teacher down the row were taking off for Christmas break and, comparing notes, we found that neither had received as many gifts--most notably, fewer Starbucks cards--as usual. Parents are very generous and supportive of us and our school, and I have even had to call one with the intent to return a gift (per our ethics department and my conscience): a Coach purse. (The parent laughed and said if I knew the deep discount she got at the outlet, I'd never have called.) So both of us noticed the precipitous decline from eighty dollars' worth (I know! Blessings!) to one five dollar card. It's embarrassing to notice, but unmistakeable. And donations of toys for our local firefighters to help needy children declined. And donations for items for our school's silent auction dried up, too. Kids didn't mob the Krispy Kreme fundraisers, either.

Now the love remained unchanging: handwritten cards, heartfelt notes--the very best gifts of all; tons of homemade goods, exotic candy canes. Mr. Recession, like the Grinch, could not stop Christmas from coming.

But this year is different, and now you know: six gift cards (about sixty dollars' worth) tell me more than economic analysts. Mr. Recession is packing his bags.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Awkward Moments in Teaching, II

In an earlier post, I wrote of embarrassing things that kids say as a function of learning. Two more for the record:

So today after school B. is working on her U.S. Constitution project when she randomly asks, "Miss M., does gonorrhea come from Ghana?" (Obviously, B. listens more than she reads, apparently thinking she has found a common root word between the two names. No one is around, so it doesn't stop the show. I am grateful she has waited until school is out to inquire.)

And last week: as my seminar class is learning about impeachment, T. raises his hand. "I feel a tad immature for mentioning this, but I cannot let it pass."

He has a near photographic memory, articulates his thoughts beautifully with no "ums" or uhs," and has won the title "Most Likely to Go to Harvard" from his peers. We wait to hear what golden fact or erudite opinion will drop from his lips. "Go ahead, T., we're waiting..."

"I find it highly interesting that all past presidents in danger of impeachment had names which were euphemisms for penis."

REALLY???? Are you kidding me???? I can't believe he feels free to bring this up. (But of course, as usual, T. is right.)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

First Dinner, Then Dessert

Plans are completed
(God and middle schoolers smile)
Now I'm free to play!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

It's waaay too much work...

to not go to work....

Today is day two of Lola vs Laryngitis. My brother, a nephew and a cousin all felt funky around Thanksgiving, and being the sharing family that we are, they gave me their funk. First day back from break, though, I began to sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger (not a good sound for me, by the way). It was clear by lunch that I would soon be voiceless.

Now coming off of break, I was ready to launch a multiday project on the Constitution with my history classes and Animal Farm with my English kiddos. Too sick to really be creative, I grabbed Haley's Roots from the
media center. God bless Alex Haley.

OK, that took care of Tuesday.

But by noon on Tuesday it was clear that my AWOL voice wasn't even close to coming home. I am emphatically NOT a movie-showing teacher. Moreover, teaching history in California is like the Bionic Man racing to disarm the bomb attached to the Liberty Bell*: the CST is in May and I can't be stuck in Washington's administration when they are tested on post-Reconstruction. SOOOO today's guest teacher forged ahead and launched the project.

That is, after I spent two hours typing up instructions and going to my classroom to get the model projects ready and the handouts I had already copied ready for Guest Teacher #2.

And now my voice has come back, but it is all pipes and wheezes and kitten-weak. My friend is subbing for me tomorrow and she has my number so that's good. I am under no delusions that B-5 will fall apart when I'm gone. But being gone for three days with three different guest teachers at the end of a grading period is not gonna do wonders for the kids' education, either.

Do I feel guilty? Yes. Is it beyond my control? Yes. There are teachers who are out on a moment's notice--they have a child suddenly sick, or the surf's up. How do they do it?

*couldn't find it online, so here is the epic fight with Bigfoot instead.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


I spent the evening with others who love, enjoy, and respect the works and life of C. S. Lewis. The president of the C.S. Lewis Foundation, Dr. Stanley Mattson, was our guest, and as he spoke, and when he played a video of this coming summer's Oxbridge Summer Institute, I teared up.

I am an educator for many reasons, and one of them is my love of and belief in the power and beauty of words and ideas. Now, the culture we inhabit is one that is dominated by the body--its primal needs and desires, and advertisers capitalize on these themes to possess the minds, tastes, time and money of my students (of us all, really). Part of my classroom mission is to open kids' eyes to ideas beyond their 13 year old persons, and to open their hearts and minds to the great things inside themselves and in the world.

Confession: I've recently admitted to myself that I'm an intellectual. Sounds snooty (mainstream American culture regards intellectuals with suspicion at best and derision at worst), but I looked it up, and yep, I care about ideas and stuff. You can only imagine what that video dangled in front of me: a chance to hang out with other nerds who care about ideas and words and learning and love and truth.

This is from the website--just a teensy bit shortened:

"...[W]e will address the question whether, and to what extent, cultural transformation is desirable or possible. Then, more specifically, in mathematics and the natural sciences, we will explore the implications of contemporary physics and quantum theory for the Christian message of hope and meaning.

In literature, philosophy, history, and theology, we will examine the origins and significance of the crisis of vision in order to engage the mainstream culture from an understanding characterized by genuine sympathy and integrity.

Our leaders from the social and behavioral sciences and cultural studies will consider the roots of chaos and dysfunction in our families, cities, and culture, and will explore paradigms based on Christian themes that hold hope for the transformation of lives and culture.

Our colleagues in theatre, dance, music, visual art, and film will lead us in understanding the dimensions of the crisis of the loss of vision, and they will also help us palpably sense the power of transforming vision.

Finally, in worship throughout the Summer Institute, as well as through active prayer, we will own the crisis in our own lives that leads us to Christ, and celebrate the hope that springs from both acknowledging and appealing to the transcendent source of all goodness and beauty."

Oh, yes, I'm going. I am going to be around literate, thoughtful, dynamic, joyful, creative people from all over the world, from all Christian traditions, and I want to come back transformed and equipped and ready. I can't wait to meet more kindred spirits--I already met one this evening, dear Stanley Mattson.

I didn't know I was so thirsty until tonight.

Monday, November 29, 2010

the best people I know work in schools

So I'm on MugBook Sunday evening and find that one of my dear colleagues had posted a list titled "10 Reasons Why I Can't Wait To Get Back To Work Tomorrow."

Really: how many people do you know who love their jobs that much? Then another colleague posted his list, so I followed suit. Here are the lists with just a few changes to protect privacy 'n' stuff--get ready to ride the Positivity Train to Optimism City:

10 Reasons Why I Can't Wait To Get Back To Work Tomorrow by K.
1. It is healthy to have a routine.
2. My routine is my passion--even though it is a daunting one.
3. My students keep me grounded.
4. My students make me laugh.
5. I am contributing to the greater good of society.
6. I love my colleagues--except when M. calls me names.
7. I love giving M. a difficult time.
8. I love to warm myself by the copy machine.
9. Can't wait to eat lunch with the girls.
10. Going back means I am that much closer to Winter Vacation.

10 Reasons Why I Can't Wait To Get Back To Work Tomorrow by J.

1. The students of B-11

2. The students of B-11

3. The students of B-11

4. The students of B-11

5. The students of B-11

6. I can't wait to see their African Masks!

7. I can't wait to give back the "Islamic Bound Books" project

8. I can't wait to start work on the African Griot Storytellers project ( 1 week away!!!)

9. I can't wait to see my homies K., C., ( hopefully she's better ) A., M., A., S., E., M., S., P., C., etc. etc.

10. I can't wait to holler out " Hey M.!" at 6:30 A.M. at you know who.......

10 Reasons Why I Can't Wait To Get Back To Work Tomorrow by Lola

1. I love 8th graders

2. My colleagues are as inspiring as they are good looking and humorous

3. My 6th grade advisory class: cuteness defined

4. What crazy thing will C.T. (period 1) say next?

5. Gonna launch Animal Farm--can't wait to hear their perspectives about power

6. When you're a teacher, you're famous--kids yell "HI TEACHER!!!" from miles away

7. I wanna see how much the kids remembered about the Constitution over break

8. The lunch ladies sell these really yummy cookies

9. Some kids turned in a bunch of makeup work and I get to tell them how improved their grades are now

10. S.'s hugs

(BTW, "M." is our awesome custodian--how awesome is he? He turned the heat on in my bungalow this morning so when I got there it was habitable!! LOVE HIM! Love the people I work with! Another colleague, S., read on Mugbook that I was feeling yucky, and she brought me matzah ball soup! Is it like this in the corporate world?)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

a heart full of gratitude and warmth

I've been a bit low regarding my career lately, so how lovely and timely was the call that came yesterday period 7: a delivery of flowers for me! "Read the card! Who sent them?"

But there was no name, and so we have a mystery--a kind and generous and beautiful mystery. That someone would take the time, money, and energy to lift me that way is beyond wonderful. I will definitely be paying this forward.

Here is the card:

Here are the flowers:

Here is my heart:

God is so very ridiculously good to me. He is my Shepherd, assuredly. It's true that goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. It's true that He makes me lie down in green pastures, and I need nothing because of His provision. He goes out of His way to show me love in ways both humble and divine. I wish I were more faithful and trusting than I am. But one thing He knows: I have a grateful heart and I know Who to thank.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sobs and Shock

Poetic justice and a few heavy hearts this morning. I tell ya, middle school is many things, but "boring" isn't one of them.

Before school on campus this morning, a well-loved colleague noticed a boy launching an aerosol can into the air, an impressive use of physics' principles of pressure and force. She strolled over to stop the ersatz rocket antics. "Boys will be boys," she thought.

When she picked up the spent can, though, her heart sank. The can's label had been whited out and on it was scrawled "Jew Repellant."

Imagine the walk to the office. Imagine the kid looking for a loophole, saying he didn't know what "repellant" was. Imagine the kid blaming "South Park" for the idea. Imagine the kid's horror upon learning that my colleague is Jewish. Imagine his tears--real sobs--his apologies, his "I didn't mean to hurt you." Imagine her letting him know she forgives him. Imagine the kid's dread of the call to his parents. Imagine the kid's shock when the police come to the school because yes, this is a reportable hate crime.

You know what I have trouble imagining? What to say to him when he returns to school.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Angry Colonist

After reading a batch of student work, I mentioned to my students that many of them were forgetting to pluralize "colonists", inadvertently dropping the "s" from the word. We joked about how funny it was to read about this one angry colonist:

"The colonist threw snowballs at the British soldiers in front of the Customs House, taunting them to fire."

"The colonist boarded the ships and threw 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor."

"Paine wrote 'Common Sense' to persuade the colonist to support independence."

"The colonist fired at the retreating British, from Concord to Boston."

Seminar student N. now spends all of his spare time drawing pictures of the Angry Colonist. My favorite is the Angry Colonist clinging to the underside of Washington's boat as he crosses the Delaware, hitching a ride so he can pour out his anger on the sleeping Hessians.

You should know that all pictures of the Angry Colonist depict him foaming at the mouth.

Miracle or Money?

Hmm. Upon reading this NYT article about visionary Geoffrey Canada's charter school, I arrive at a slightly different conclusion about the efficacy of charter schools:

"In the tiny high school of the zone’s Promise Academy I, which teaches 66 sophomores and 65 juniors (it grows by one grade per year), the average class size is under 15, generally with two licensed teachers in every room. There are three student advocates to provide guidance and advice, as well as a social worker, a guidance counselor and a college counselor, and one-on-one tutoring after school."

In my school, we teach about 1000 kids, about 300 of each grade level. Average class size in history is over 34 with one licensed teacher. We have two guidance counselors. But seriously, two teachers for 15 kids?

And then there's this:
"The school, which opened in 2004 in a gleaming new building on 125th Street, should have had a senior class by now, but the batch of students that started then, as sixth graders, was dismissed by the board en masse before reaching the ninth grade after it judged the students’ performance too weak to found a high school on. Mr. Canada called the dismissal 'a tragedy.' "

And where do these dismissed 8th graders go? Oh yes, to public school where WE TAKE THEM. And what happens to the average score of the school that kicks them out? And what happens to the average score of the schools that take them?

We take them all.

Friday, November 5, 2010

1994 and 2010

In December of 1994, I realized I wasn't happy. Teaching wasn't fun anymore. Too much work, too little pay off. Weekends filled with paperwork, class sizes of 38, a block schedule that left me feeling disconnected to the students, three subjects to prepare for (in teacher parlance, three preps)--two I'd never taught before--and all in a new school. The history department was warm, but the English department was Siberia.

I took three years' leave of absence.

The first year I went to several career counselors, did every exercise in Richard Bolles's What Color Is Your Parachute, read books like crazy, went to Europe for three weeks, and did a lot of thinking. Thinking, reading--a good time.

The second year I went to Harvard University's Graduate School of Education to earn a master's degree. I had to choose a concentration, and though administration never had held (nor does it now) any charm, I chose Administration, Planning, and Social Policy. A believer in the transformational power of education, the social policy aspects seemed attractive. I learned much about charter schools, and even had one class co-taught by Tony Alvarado, my future superintendent Alan Bersin's future right hand man.

The third year I hunted for positions as a staff developer, naively thinking my fancy master's degree would be powerful enough to counter my lack of experience in staff development. I taught a few classes at National University (more on that in a future post), worked at Sylvan Learning Center for a few bucks above minimum wage, and....ran out of money.

Back to SDUSD and into the greatest job ever. I was in love again, passionate about becoming the Best Teacher Ever. Impossible, of course, but I wanted every class to be better than the one before, tried every lesson to improve; I wanted to be a part of the transformation of kids' lives. I worked very hard, was inspired by the amazing staff I worked with, and felt like I was making a difference.

A decade later, and I am feeling like it's 1994 all over again. I don't know what to do.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

today's parent conference

THREE parents, one kid:
how can it be that the kid
does not do homework?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

a 6th grader's request

"Can I have a pass?"
His eyes are large and tragic.
"To the counselor?"

Snap judgment: "Sure. Why?"
"I kinda wanna kill myself...."
My eyes embrace his.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Children of Lake Wobegon vs the Bell Curve

Normal Distribution
Lots of phenomena in nature and human experience, when charted, creates a classic bell curve*, human height, for one. There are a few giants running around, some little people, but most of us are clumped together toward the center of a chart which plots the numbers of people on the x axis and their heights on the y axis.

Intelligence is supposedly distributed normally, but there is a ton of controversy about that. And there is also the body of research that suggests that intelligence is plastic, that we can get smarter--or more stupid. (Of course, grade school, jump-roping girls have always known that "Boys go to Jupiter/To get more stupider.")

NCLB, State Standards, and Critical Thinking
Every U.S. state tests its students on standards that each state invented. Some states have EASY standards, a few, like California, have TOUGH ones. Take a glance at this comparative study done by the Fordham Foundation of all the states--it's revealing:

Here are how California's content standards were rated:

Because each state is measuring different items, we can't accurately compare states' student performance. California may appear to be scoring lower than, say, Massachusetts, but since California's standards are so much tougher, are the students really less educated? If the students swapped tests, would the MA kids ace the CA test? Would the CA students suddenly become more proficient?

Educators are always crying about how bad it is to "teach to the test." I argue that if you have a test worth teaching to, quit crying; for math and science, "teaching to the test" is probably a good thing. But I do have grave doubts about English and history--unless you believe that history is just names and dates (and not decision making about abstract, fuzzy, controversial concepts such as power) or that reading is mere decoding (ignoring tone, irony, inferences, word choice, and creativity). How can a multiple choice test measure such nuanced and HUMAN subjects?

To further complicate matters, here are three of the goals of No Child Left Behind (the Federal Register, 3/6/02):
1) All students will reach high standards, at a minimum attaining proficiency or better in reading and mathematics by 2013-2014
2) By 2013-2014, all students will be proficient in reading by the end of the third grade.
3) All limited English proficient students will become proficient in English. [Wow, even the newly arrived speakers?]

See why this gets tricky? If the bell curve reflects truths about human performance, then goals that "all will be proficient" are nearly impossible: "Any test that meets ordinary standards produces an approximation of...a bell curve--because achievement in any open-ended skill such as reading comprehension or mathematics really is more or less normally distributed," according to Charles Murray (WSJ, 7/25/06). "All the children cannot be above average. They cannot all even be proficient, if 'proficient' is defined legitimately." In other words, it is a self contradiction to say, as goal #1 above does, that all will reach "high standards."

Now reading is a skill, and skills are arguably teachable, but everyone knows that people master skills at different rates. If a teacher waits for 100% mastery of any skill before moving on to the next....hmmm. In order to not bore those who are ready to move on, each student will need a personally tailored educational path to help her move on only when she is ready; I can't imagine there is any way a teacher of 36 algebra students could do this on his own without computerized instruction. Very well, there are such reading and math computer programs that might be able to do this. We are trying a math program at our school this year. It'll be interesting to see what happens on the math portion of the CST. Good luck, though, trying computerized instruction with the critical thinking components of problem solving, and more good luck plus TInkerbell dust if you try to subtract the human element from teaching the elements of English and history that demand critical thinking.

K. Is Moving
All of this because I am feeling guilty about my reaction upon hearing that K.'s last day is on Monday. She is transferring to another school--and she is perhaps our lowest performing student who is not in a special day class. That's right, kids, she is on the far left end of that bell curve. No matter how I teach my guts out, K. seems to lose information and knowledge gains almost instantly. It is awful. We spend extra time with her, provide services, develop relationships--but K. persists in her gnat-like attention span, and her interest in boys and fashion do not make for academic motivators except as they are a reason to stay in school.

She is being left behind, despite all our efforts. Our good little school gets punished because the K.s of the world prevent us from meeting goal number 1 of NCLB as stated above. I wish K. the best, but the reality for public schools is we have to take ALL the kids on our softball team, not just the all stars. And dang it, K. is an "easy out."

We don't have a problem acknowledging that we are differently endowed athletically, that some of us are faster than other, for instance. But NCLB doesn't acknowledge that perhaps the same might be true intellectually; I love the social reasons for demanding the same standard for all, but practically, there are some issues.

* bell curve
A symmetrical bell-shaped curve that represents the distribution of values, frequencies, or probabilities of a set of data. It slopes downward from a point in the middle corresponding to the mean value, or the maximum probability. Data that reflect the aggregate outcome of large numbers of unrelated events tend to result in bell curve distributions. (from thefreedictionary .com)

Thursday, October 28, 2010


I have that "threw a party, people came and had a great time, now comes the clean up, where's my bed" happy/tired feeling.

Yesterday after school, two kids helped me transform an ordinary bungalow into a classy, artsy space. Well as classy and artsy as simulated wood desks and plastic chairs and ugly metal blinds and acoustic tile ceiling would permit. Oh, and my budget--I went to IKEA and bought rolls of sheer panels in a tasteful array of IKEA's customary weird colors (what is up with their color palette, anyway?); a ladder, a dozen prints from American artists, four blue tablecloths and handfuls of push pins later.... they trooped, all wearing black like we agreed to. It was gratifying to hear their cries of delight, I've gotta admit.

Up the ramp came our computer delivery for those with power point projects. Our cool tech chick helped set them up.

All but one had their books ready, and all but one had their art projects ready. Pretty good, no?

Two sainted parents arrived, one with fudge, one with a chocolate fountain, both with willing hands to set up and serve as the kids brought a ton of high fat, low nutrient refreshments.

A little Segovia and bossa nova for background music helped us set up, and in ten minutes, we had our salon going!

My biggest fear was that kids would be so food-frenzied that, piranha-like, nothing would be visible but a haze of chocolate and Fritos, that the carpet would be a sticky ant trap and their books and art would be ignored. And I am thrilled to record that my biggest fear did SO NOT come true! Just the opposite! (Well, there was a chocolate haze around some--the boys, especially, were prone to strange asymmetrical moustaches, and one had what looked like brown fangs after multiple trips to the chocolate fountain.)

They sat and read. They looked at the collages and paintings. Little cries of, "You've gotta see T's project!" and "Have you seen J's pictures?" sounded for nearly two hours. A handful of parents came--one cried actual tears as she read a student's story about getting beat up at a previous school--the principal took a tour as well as the library tech and her monitors...

Now one reason I hate cooking is my doubt. I figure people are just being polite when they say they like something, because I lose my appetite when cooking and it tastes weird to me. But today was different. When adults said they enjoyed the event, I believed them. When I got an email from the cool tech chick about how it was a pleasure and she was impressed and she wants to help next time, I believed her.

When we debriefed at the end, I asked what they'd add, subtract, or change, or keep. "Keep the music and decorations!" "Keep the food!" "We need a bigger space!" "Invite more people!" There was nothing they'd subtract!

The cool thing is I hope to host another salon, and I know they will be up for it and even more into it. So I am thinking of having them come as Americans we are studying, having them produce a magazine of that era as the written piece, and as the art piece, maybe the person's photo album. They would dress in character and their conversations would be in character. What would John Brown say to Honest Abe? How would Andy Jackson get along with Abigail Adams? We already know how Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr got on...

For now, I will sleep the sleep of the bone-tired, heart-happy, anxiety-relieved hostess. The taxpayers got waaaay more than their money's worth today. We all did.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tomorrow's Salon/Definitions #2 and #3

Tablecloths, music,
art and curtains everywhere--
will it be worthwhile?

Will their artwork hold
our eyes and minds? Will their autobiographies?

Will parents see hours
of thinking, or just hungry
teens, scarfing down snacks?

Are the outcomes worth
the time? Can art compete with
a chocolate fountain?
[sa·lon (s-ln, sln, s-lô)
1. A large room, such as a drawing room, used for receiving and entertaining guests.
2. A periodic gathering of people of social or intellectual distinction.
3. A hall or gallery for the exhibition of works of art.
4. A commercial establishment offering a product or service related to fashion: a beauty salon.]

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Join the Jedi

He came midyear, and after his first day, all the girls were in love with him and all the guys wanted to be him. Teachers, parents, friends--Bruce Davis, Jr made us glad to know him. He wasn't the best writer, but his astute comments during class discussions made involvement in education important, cool, even. Nobody goofed off when Bruce was around; he just thought it was silly to be disrespectful.

He was voted president of the middle school's African American Club and his leadership was palpable: positivity, peace, levelheadedness, sensibility, faithfulness all characterized this gifted young man. I believe he won "Most Leadership" in our school yearbook.

He moved to Mississippi after his sophomore year, graduated from high school, was attending community college--and was fatally shot in the chest this October 15.

In looking for more information about his murder, my heart broke to read that the violence was allegedly due to a drug deal gone bad. I didn't want to believe it. It had to be his cousin's deal, not his own. But a tribute video included some pictures that told of choices that Bruce had made--choices that included a gang, if I were to believe the bandana covering his mouth, or the sign he threw as one picture was taken, or his gang moniker tattooed across his chest.

When did he join? When he still lived in San Diego? When did he get involved with drugs? And the bigger question: Why did he go in that direction?

WHY DOES THAT GANG LIFESTYLE APPEAR SO ATTRACTIVE TO OUR YOUTH?? I am heartbroken. But I am also so angry I can't see straight. My stomach is a knot. Some kids don't have a caring family, don't have a strong sense of self, don't know better, have family members with a long history of thugging. But Bruce doesn't seem to fit that pattern.

I fight it, that lifestyle, every day. It only looks like I teach history and English. I am really teaching a belief system. I teach kids to believe in hard work, in excellence, in patience, in goals, in choosing the better way. I am just one soldier; other teachers, a scout leader, a youth pastor, a coach, an uncle--we are all Jedi fighting against the dark side of the Force, against the lure of fame and fortune hawked by music videos and lifestyles of those celebrities and athletes who serve the gods of Self and Pleasure above all. We Jedi do not save them all. And we do not know our influence; when we hear such discouraging news, it's easy to feel that our fight is of no avail, especially in the face of the money machines of Madison Avenue, of the music industry, of Hollywood. But by God Almighty let us continue to fight the good fight in the hopes of saving others, of helping our children reject destruction, drugs and death.

I love you, Bruce. The real Bruce, not the fake one in the picture above, but the young man I am posting here in his graduation robes. The fact that Bruce was in community college shows that he was still a believer in education, and that the fake Bruce in the evil picture hadn't completely won the battle. I'd like to believe that had Bruce lived, he would have one day joined us and been a most powerful Jedi, or like Anakin Skywalker, come back at the end. R.I.P., Bruce Davis, Jr. You will be missed.

RIP Bruce Davis, Jr.

shot dead, and for what?
so furious I'm crying
heartbroken-- such loss--

you bought a lie, Bruce.
thugging only ends two ways
one of them found you

you shone with promise
charisma trailing your steps
everyone loved you

the biggest crime: your
choice robbed all of us of you,
of our pride and joy

walmart's parking lot?
I was going to vote for you
I believed in you

it's hard enough to forgive, but when the criminal is also the victim...?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Michelle Rhee isn't Superman

She gave it her best.

My daddy always thought unions for white collar work were anomalies. Even the pitbull Ms Rhee is no match for unions. I am so sad. She is quitting, leaving the superintendency of Washington D.C. schools for her fiancé and maybe California. (This proves she is sane.)

Saw "Waiting for Superman" this week. I was defensive walking into the theater, but I really liked it, even though many didn't--click HERE for a link to an article outlining why by Washington Post guest blogger Rick Ayers. Its premise: that public schools are broken. (My colleague says it's a bit dramatic to make such a sweeping statement in light of the ambitious goal of American education--to teach EVERYONE--and the fact that our colleges are full and we still have doctors and lawyers and mayors and so forth. Among his many objections, one is that almost every other developed nation sends kids to tracked schools such as voc. ed. schools as early as middle school, instead of trying to prepare EVERYONE for university.)

The film offers charter schools as the answer. Yet the film itself notes that only one in five charter schools is better than public schools; some 40% are worse. The film fails to mention the high turnover rate in these high performing charters (it keeps costs down since teachers leave before retirement pay, benefits, or raises get too high).

I teach public school and I totally support charter schools. I just think it's shortsighted--nah, just plain stupid--to think they are a panacea. Especially the ones featured in the film. If you feel special because you won a coveted spot in a charter, hmmm, if your parent(s) are involved enough in your education to pursue a spot in a charter along with the time and requisite paperwork it takes to apply....hmmmm: consider the effects on the student body, student motivation, parent involvement, etc etc. Kind of a positive snowball effect, really.They aren't really comparable to public schools, neither the good nor the evil.

It kills me that public schools are uneven, that there are bad teachers who are so tough to fire, that in the same district there can be de facto segregation and inequities. I find tenure deplorable. Even so, God bless public schools. We take them ALL, from the blind to the mentally ill to the supergeniuses to the average pimply self-conscious child of a single mom who works the night shift to children of the Cosbys to those with Down syndrome. We take the ones who hail from traditions without a written language (the Hmong), the homeless, the pregnant, those in foster homes, those in gangs. We take the ones kicked out of other public schools, ones who have been to jail for hitting teachers. Heck, this year I even have a student with albinism, African American at that--my first white black person. (No Michael Jackson references, please; I never taught him.) We make it our goal to teach them all the same rigorous curriculum. If results are uneven, who is surprised? Who?? When was the last time that person set foot in a local middle school classroom for an hour?

My personal experience as a student has been bell curvish--most of my teachers were ok, kinda blah, mediocre...a few beastly ones and a few diamonds. Even Geoffrey Canada admits in the film that he was sucky his first few years (would Rhee have fired him before he had a chance to develop into the father of an amazing charter school?)--who isn't?

Maybe it's a coincidence that my experiences echo the law of averages, maybe not. Maybe as budgets tighten and teaching spots become scarce and there is greater competition for spots, the quality of teachers will rise.

Or maybe people in college will pursue options that have better press and better pay--especially math and science folk. And schools will have to remain the takers of the two kinds of people who go into teaching: those who come for the fabled and probably doomed two month's vacation, and those who come for love. Because no one comes for the cash.