Current/Recent Reading List

28 March 2007

Schools, Communities, or Both?

I don't live in Fayetteville, but last week I noticed that the Fayetteville Observer ran several stories, including this one, about a local high school that is among 18 around the state which might be closed down due to poor achievement. Ten years ago a lawsuit was filed to address the differences in funding between low-wealth area schools wealthy-area schools. In the process, a judge decided that aside from funding, the sorriest schools, in terms of test scores, needed to address the job the teachers and principals were doing. His threat to close these schools has apparently brought dividends at some of them, including E.E. Smith in Fayetteville, which has improved its scores in a fairly rapid manner. The part of the story that strikes me the most, and presents the most nettlesome issue facing any school that struggles, is this:

On the other hand, it’s hard to overlook the fact that the 18 schools on Manning’s list are trying to educate students who are largely poor and black.

E.E. Smith High School is a prime example. At E.E. Smith, 86 percent of students are black, and 55 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Little has changed in that regard over the years.

E.E. Smith has been a school for black students since the day it was founded in 1927. Alumni are immensely proud of that fact. When E.E. Miller ruled the school with an iron fist in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, they say, students excelled and discipline problems were minimal.

Parents in the middle-class neighborhoods surrounding the school watched out for each others’ children. If someone was seen skipping school, that student’s parents were almost sure to get a call.

But somewhere along the line, things changed. As Broadell and the other black neighborhoods began to age, transient residents moved in.

Over time, the older alumni say, E.E. Smith lost its sense of community.

Now, teachers and schools are (in)famous for laying blame at the feet of parents (or lack thereof), but even when a teacher first accepts full responsibility for test scores and achievement, there is no way around it: home life and community life matter.

So what to do in a case where the community surrounding a school has just, for lack of a more artful term, turned to crap? Sadly, closing some schools in order to get the kids into better ones may be necessary in certain situations.

25 March 2007

Quick Update

I'm still here, people. Give me a day or two to get up some real content - it's been a wall-to-wall-busy last few days, and any free time this weekend was caught up in watching basketball (remember, that is the unofficial "official" sport in my state).

21 March 2007

Well, Crap.

So a couple of months ago I received some correspondence from district court asking me for updated information in order to confirm I was still an eligible member of the district's jury pool. The correspondence promised - PROMISED - that this in no way constituted any impending summons to jury duty.

Want to guess what I got in the mail yesterday? Yeah - ye old summons to jury duty.

My time begins the week before spring break, which actually might be fortuitous considering how the students behave at that time, and what they verbalize regarding their lurid prom plans, beach plans, etc.

Or, maybe I'll get there, tell them that my favorite stories to teach involve the death penalty or severe criminal punsishments, and hope someone from the defense wants me dismissed.

18 March 2007

Am I My Students' Keeper?

The teaching life should be pretty good for me right now. We are finished with the state writing test, we are edging towards the half-way point in the semester and are less than three weeks until spring break, and I don't have a lot of huge school responsibilities looming right now. And yet...

There is a constant dilemma for me, one that rears up from time to time and gives me a measure of emotional and spiritual trauma. Perhaps it is a function of inexperience, or perhaps it is a function of my personality, but I tend to have a hard time finding a necessary equilibrium when it comes to students and their problems, issues, and behavioral inadequacies. On the one hand I could, and do, spend considerable time being consumed with fretting. The other approach is to be an automoton, leave these problems at the office (so to speak), and even further, see the kids as nothing more than a parade of ever-changing faces who will come and go during a career in teaching.

I know teachers who take the latter approach, and I see the temptations to doing so myself. Who needs to worry so much about that which you can't control, and don't want to think about? Drugged-out parents? Raising their own siblings? Working 40 hours a week to help pay mom's medical bills? Filthy rich and spoiled from hands-off parenting? Hey, I've got my own problems, bud, and don't have time to worry about yours. Get to class, do the work (or not), get the grade, and get out.

As you can guess, however, I lean more the other way, and I think most teachers do. After all, teaching is a job that entails forming relationships, and should involve forming character. If you don't like people and hearing about their lives, you probably aren't going to be effective or happy as a teacher. What I have a hard time remembering is that being involved doesn't mean being in control, or completely responsible.

So last week I had to deal with a tearful Honduran girl begging to switch from first to second period because the rednecks and a Mexican kid do nothing but pick on her and her accent (and she always reacts badly, btw). I had to deal with the aforementioned redneck/roughneck boys and their various angry, surly, and disruptive attitudes. And then there was Friday. All the tenth graders in the county got to attend an a cappella musical performance at the county's civic center. I, of course, was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the chaperones. During the show, a group of our black boys were engaging in marginally disrespectful behavior. But after the show was over, they took it upon themselves to, in unison, yell out something inappropriate (I still don't get it, but it involved the word "nuts") for the 500 or so kids and teachers from the other schools to hear. I had to write down their names and sadly report the event to the principal when we returned.

The thing is, I shouldn't take this personally, but I do. I keep thinking there is something I could say, some sermon I could give, that would help all my kids see the light and magically attain maturity. Some of these troubled ones will straighten up, but many won't, and I'm not in control of any of them. I know - surprise, surprise, I'm not God.

I guess it's no wonder that the first week of summer always feels like the first week at detox.

14 March 2007

March Madness, Old Man Style

Monday evening was our annual faculty vs. seniors basketball game, and, as usual the old men ruled the day (or night) after, as usual, hearing a bunch of trash talk from the seniors for weeks. We whipped them 65-48, and the score could have been much, much worse if we had not turned the ball over about 20 times (the seniors must have turned it over 35 times). The only player on our team under the age of 30, by the way, was the one in the worst shape. So how do a bunch of over-30 has beens keep winning this game?

Well, here is the formula: first, no basketball players are allowed to play (though that might not have made a big difference this year), and no kids with poor disciplinary records are allowed to play either. So, we start by narrowing the field. Then, from the eligible pool of seniors, we encourage as many as possible to sign up so that they have a good 12 players, at least. Then we just let "The Lord of the Flies Rules" take effect, which are as follows: inevitably, whatever veneer of civilization these boys have gets stripped away by their greed for playing time and their adolescent egos, and team dissension will always set in. By halftime, they are usually sniping at each other over who has been playing too many minutes, who needs to shoot less, who needs to be the point guard, etc. Left to us, then, is only to make sure we play good team ball - passing, setting screens, taking smart shots, not griping over playing time - and the game is always in the bag.

Of course, we don't gripe about playing time because, frankly, we are thankful for whatever rest on the bench we can get.

My line, by the way, was 9 pts. scored, four rebounds, four assists, and two fouls. Not bad, but could have been a little better.

After I got home from the game and strutted around for a while, the good wyfe rhetorically asked, "You just think you're a bad-ass, don't you?"

Why yes, dear, I do. In fact, I am a bad-ass, thank you very much.

10 March 2007

Put It In Writing

Tuesday marks the day of the 10th grade writing test, a day of much rejoicing in the English department, because we can finally turn our attention away from writing cause/effect and extended definition essays. Of course, a day of mourning will follow in May, when the results come in.

Still, the arrival of test day will come as a relief to me, because I can get a break from reading these awful drafts for a while. Since the test falls in March, you can imagine that all I've hammered away at since the second semester started is writing, writing, writing. Granted, the kids need to practice and learn, but more than anything else I do, teaching writing has that beat-your-head-against-a-wall aspect to it. How can you help kids who refuse to write? Or who can't speak English? Or who try really hard but can't put together functional sentences to save their lives? Or who don't understand that, when they are prompted to analyze the causes or the effects of something, they are not being asked to just give some of their general opinions on an issue? Well, it is not that we won't continue to write this semester, but at least we can really start getting into literature.

The official bureaucratic rhetoric is that this is not an English test, but a writing test which the entire school should have been preparing kids for. So, theoretically, the whole school should feel responsible for the poor scores that we are bound to receive. But we all know which department has most of the weight on its shoulders. So be it. If our scores suck a little less than they did last year, I will feel a measure of triumph.

06 March 2007

To The Core

Principal Goldberg attended a public forum last night put on by the state Dept. of Instruction. They are putting these forums on around the state to explain their decisions to require, beginning in '08-'09, every high school student to complete the same "core curriculum" of 17 classes, plus four electives before graduating. These forums were apparently advertised as part informational, part Hillary-style listening tour. But it sounds like they are, in actuality, "here is our information, like it or lump it" sessions.

Frankly, I have not been following this move by the state, but I can quickly explain the opposition to the core curriculum idea. There are kids who simply will never, ever pass certain math or science classes, or certain foreign language classes, or won't have the will to pass English or history classes that have heavy writing requirements. Also, there are those students who are not intrigued by academic classes, but may squeak by in them so they can take the vocational classes they do like. The upshot is that there will almost certainly be more high school drop-outs, unless all academic teachers simultaneously decide to water down their classes.

It also would probably mean that more math, science, and foreign language teachers will need to be hired, and there are two problems here: it is hard as hell to find such teachers as it is, and to find places for them means vocational positions will likely be cut.

So, what is motivating the state DPI, and what do the teachers' union kapos think about this? I'm not completely sure on either score, but will endeavor to find out.

02 March 2007

Woe Is Me

I'm actually in a great mood now that the week is over, but consider that the following has taken place in the last three days, and you'll know why I haven't had much bloggage this week:

Wednesday: Started the day finding out that my presentation partner for Thursday was on a leave of absence due to back surgery, and that I would have to handle the entire presentation on my own; put presentation notes in my bag, and drove after school to an unrelated follow-up workshop that was an hour's drive away; spent two and a half hours there, then drove back home, ate a late dinner, helped put the kid to bed, and went out to the car to get my notes for review; the thing is, my bag isn't there, because (I then realized) I left it at the workshop; checked e-mail and see that the workshop hostess has my bag, and will try to get it to my wife the following day; wife less than sympathetic.

Thursday: Gave afternoon workshop, and all wentwell; called home to find out that wife is majorly sick, and come to think of it I'm coughing and don't feel too well myself; son wanted to play outside, and unfortunately next door neighbor little girl and Grandma were out in their yards too, so spent the next hour having to play with kids and pay attention to hovering, overprotective Grandma, while fighting off a cold.

Friday: Woke up early due to heavy wind and rain from that awful tornado-spawning storm system; phone rings at 5:55 to inform us that school will be delayed two-hours; had to write up three kids from abbreviated second period, and discovered that someone in the class was throwing wood screws across the room every time I turned my back or helped another student; played basketball after school with a couple of teachers and some hand-picked students, but had an accidental collision with one 250-lb. muscle dude (I'm 170), which sends my feet flying and has me landing fully on my elbow and hip; miraculously, I'm alive and well, and played for thirty more minutes; sat here typing this blog while applying ice pack to bruised elbow.

Oh, and I should throw in the dog vomit and dog pee discovered on consecutive mornings. And that the lady never showed with by bag.

There you have it. Now I'm going to bed.