Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Achievement Gap, Segregation, and One Heck of a Rant

This is a photo of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. THE Central H.S. Fifty years ago, nine brave souls walked into the school with the National Guard as back up. Nine kids who had 18 parents who wanted a better life and a better education for their children.

Fast forward fifty years. It is 2007 and Central High School's student population is about 60% African American, 40% White (with a few other thin-sliced ethnicity wedges thrown into the pie chart). Central High School even made it onto the Newsweek list of the Best American High Schools. But walk into an AP (Advanced Placement) class at Central H.S. and you will see something entirely different. White students will fill the desks, with one, maybe two African American students filling up a seat somewhere on the third row.

Why is this happening?

I watched a documentary, Little Rock Central High: 50 Years Later, on HBO today. I saw my school on the screen. Currently my school is about 50% White, 50% Hispanic (approximately--African Americans, African Refugees, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Polynesians all take up small slices of the graph). And this is what I've noticed in my short stint as a teacher. I teach two AP classes with about four non-caucasion students shared between the two classes. The rest come from primarily affluent neighborhoods and have second or third generation college graduates for parents.

I ask again, why is this happening?

We've heard all the reasons and excuses before: language barriers, cultural barriers, poverty, a lack of positive role models, and on and on and on. I get it, there are barriers. But why are the barriers so prominent for these kids? And why aren't we doing more about these barriers?

As much as we think we understand about why this is happening, the truth is that in spite of these barriers SOME kids fight against the odds and make it to college. They don't only make it to college, they finish college. They go on to graduate school. Hell, some kids even earn their PhD. Some of these kids find cures for diseases and are CEO's of major corporations. Some of these kids are artists and writers and athletes and geniuses. Some of these kids are activists in their community. And some are lawyers and politicians--which at times have been known to do good things.

But these kids are the exception. So what else is happening and how do we solve it because apparently NCLB (No Child Left Behind) isn't working. (Clueless Guy Says: What's that, what's that you say? Taking a CULTURALLY BIASED standardized test administered ONLY IN ENGLISH with the only possible answers being A, B, C, or D doesn't ensure that I am getting a quality education and am prepared for college and a future as a contributing member of society?!?--you're kidding me!)

That's right folks, we're failing our nation's kids. All of us. White People. Brown People. Black People. Short People. Tall People. Skinny People. Fat People. As the ADULTS we are failing the CHILDREN of our nation. And I don't want to hear the whole bit about how some of these kids technically aren't OUR's...because if we want to go there, I will. But this isn't where I am intending to go.

I want to focus more on how in the heck we are going to resolve this. Because right now I don't know how but I do know that I'm pissed off about it. I am angry. I am mad. I am hurt. I am disgusted. Because we might want to ignore this EPIDEMIC, but in 10 years when these kids are adults--then what?

You might be asking "what's it to you?" Well, it happens to be a topic that haunts me. Because these kids are currently my students. While I may teach the golden-child AP kids headed for great futures, I also teach Language Arts 10, Basic (like that title doesn't send the kids a strong enough message about their abilities). These are the kids who failed English last year, typically ALL year last year. My job is to teach them to read deeply and richly, to write well and to form a valid argument. My job is to teach them presentation skills. My job is to get them thinking abstractly and at higher levels. My job is also to help them pass the Utah Basic Skills and Competency Test (and so we return to the four possibilities--A,B,C, and D).

These kids are brilliant at a lot of things. But the school game eludes them. In fact, it is an accomplishment that some show up at all, because many others do not. And, you guessed it, this class is filled with anybody and everybody who is not Caucasian. I have only three white kids amongst the two sections I teach. Even more--the majority of these students are MALE.

What would surprise you about these kids, if you talked to them, is that many hope to go to college one day because they've heard that it means a better life. Some of them worry they've made too many mistakes for that to be an option. Others want to be cosmetologists and construction workers and mechanics and mothers and pro basketball players. Some of these kids love movies, others soccer. Others are fantastic artists and others still are talented graffiti artists. They like to listen to music and wear nice threads. Some love JROTC and others prefer child development. Most of them don't like English much, but they tell me to not take it too personally. They're great kids. And I worry that no matter how hard I work with them, some of them aren't going to make it to college, let alone high school graduation. And as much as I'd like to wish I could, I can't do it all by myself.

And, good grief, do I feel guilty about that. And here we come back to the part where I'm angry. And there is one area of American society I am most angry with. Because this section of society has no conscience, responds only to the dollar symbol, and is invited for hours a day into our homes, our cars, and our spare time.
I'm so angry I have something I'd really like to say:
To the Entire Entertainment Industry, The Advertisement Industry, And American Values: Stop worrying about what "sells" and the profit you can make and start worrying about the bigger picture. What in the HELL are you thinking? Women aren't objects. Drugs aren't good for you. Ask any war veteran and they'll tell you that violence distorts and traumatizes the human mind. Happiness cannot be purchased. Work and Sacrifice are not negatives. Oh, and SEX can often lead to unwanted, neglected babies, emotional grief, diseases, and other things if not placed in a healthy, positive context. But I know these things SELL, so I hope you all can sleep peacefully at night sans-Vicodin.

I know that kind of oversimplifies things. Because this is a complex, multi-faceted issue. But the truth is that there is a CRISIS in America and the youth are the victims. When color becomes the divisive line between success and poverty, there is something wrong. I am angry that more kids aren't encouraged by their families to succeed. I am angry that, in spite of the scholarships-prodding-selling-begging of college acceptance boards, on American college campuses co-eds of diverse ethnic backgrounds are few. I'm angry that Hispanic students in Utah have a less than 50% graduation rate--LESS THAN 50%! I am angry that at my very own school, we lose 200 students (most of whom mark anything but "caucasian" in the ethnicity box) by senior year out of a 600-strong 9th grade cohort.

50 years ago nine brave souls said we want better, we want every opportunity that you have even if it means bringing in the National Guard. 50 years ago someone said "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'" People have sacrificed and fought because they wanted more for their children and their children's children. And while we don't have signs that blantantly read "White" and "Colored," our nation is still segregated. And that, no matter how you try and slice it, is wrong.

Okay, so I know that was a little intense. But what about you? Thoughts on this topic? Concerns? Comments? I'd love to hear what you have to say, since, apparently, I didn't shy away from saying what I wanted.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Where the Line Is Drawn: On Privacy, Boundaries, Snooping and Censorship

I want to tell you a story about my friend. Last weekend she had friends over to visit, hang out. These were new friends. The scenario was fairly laid back and relaxed even if the friends were new--a sub-cultural phenomenon common among young, single LDS adults. One of my friend's guests asked if she could get on my friend's computer and check email, surf around, the usual. My friend obliged. Her computer is placed in the general living space that everyone was hanging out in. A few minutes into the guest's computer session and my friend happened to glance over at her screen. And noticed that the girl was reviewing a drop down list of her google searches.

Ever since my friend told me about it, this has been crawling deeper and deeper beneath my skin. The sheer snoopiness of it was shocking to me! And I can't figure out why.

I admit it. When I go over to someone's house and use their restroom, I sometimes glance in the medicine cabinet. In analysis of this behavior, I realized there are
only two scenarios in which I snoop: it's the medicine cabinet of somebody I don't like very much/feel intimidated by and I want more dirt on them OR it is a male I'm interested in and I want more information on them. Anybody else and I wash my hands, check my hair and get out of there without acknowledging they own a medicine cabinet at all.

Medicine cabinet searches (hereto referred to as MCS) are quite enlightening. They provide warning. They are capable of great things, like evening the playing field. Take, for example, Wart Remover. Wart remover in the frenemy's cabinet=A SMUG & TRIUMPHANT EMOTION. (I'm petty, I know, but this really is somehow comforting).
A good MCS can reveal the brand name of that scent I sometimes catch on him=SOME TRIVIAL YET VALUABLE INFORMATION. An MCS can save me from sticky scenarios, also. Five different prescriptions for anxiety and depression=STEER CLEAR! So, snooping has it's good points. We all do it a little. I get that and I support it. In fact, I am perfectly okay with the fact that sometimes some people are going to look in my medicine cabinet. Yes, I own tampons. I even have been known to purchase these tampons, a bottle of pamprin and a pint of Ben & Jerry's and that's my sweat pants. But I digress. Medicine cabinets typically aren't an open book of information, they are a spot for clues.

So why I was so bothered by the computer snoop, I don't know. Is there an imaginary line somewhere that says this snooping is acceptable and this is not? And, if so, where is that line?

And here is where I expand the snooping idea to privacy in general. Because while my medicine cabinet is free game, my personal journal isn't. And while I say a lot of what I think and feel on my blog, I know that at any moment any person can view it, so I try and be conscientious and cautious of what I share. I censor. My students like to know about me personally, as well. Sometimes I share stories with them, but I keep other things very private: my dating life, my religion, my political beliefs and opinions.

And so I continued thinking why is it that the girl snooping through the computer is so invasive? And is privacy is a completely cultural creation? I know that a lot of it boils down to family preference. In many societies children and parents sleep in the same room together. In fact, it is not unusual in many cultures for the sexual act to occur in the same room the children sleep in. This just freaks me out--I walked in once and RAN out, dry heaving all the way.

And there are things that my family is down with that I've since learned other families might be shocked by. Farting is free game in my family. We do it and we laugh about it. And then we pull out the air freshener. I known grown adults who HAVE NEVER HEARD THEIR MOTHER FART IN THEIR ENTIRE LIVES! I am amazed by this because I don't think I've gone a day around my mother and NOT heard her fart (sorry Mom).

And then there's nudity. In my family, the best time I could talk to my high strung mother was while she took her baths. My mom is a fan of long baths in which she reads People Magazine and relaxes. During these times she was the most focused and the most relaxed. Talking to her at these times was easiest and it didn't phase me that my mother was naked in front of me. I'm a girl, she's a girl. She didn't mind, I didn't mind. I was there to talk and it seemed normal. But in come the boundaries--my brother never had the bathtub talks.

Which now extends my stream-of-conscious writing to the disclosure of information. Has anybody told you way more than you wanted to know? My friend once had a boyfriend that would call her and divulge details about his bowel movements. The optimum word here is "HAD" a boyfriend, because eventually that gets old. And while I like to know a lot about why people are the way they are, I get uncomfortable when too many skeletons in the family closet are aired out.

I wish there were a way to neatly wrap this all up, but my thoughts are just sort of swimming around in here and I hope you've gotten through it with me. I guess my way of wrapping it up will come out with the WHAT ABOUT YOU.

So, what about you? Why is it that these boundaries exist and where do we learn them? Why is X an invasion but Y is perfectly acceptable? And does anybody else feel a little shocked that the near-stranger searched around in my friend's computer? C'mon, people. You know that is kind of pushing it! So, what about you and privacy and boundaries and snooping and censorship. How much information is too much information--whether it be shared or snooped out?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Mental Health Day/Balance

Work getting you down? To do list piling up? We've all done it once in a while. The "Hey, I'm Salaried and I Can Get Paid for Staying Home Today" Mental Health Day. Today I stayed home from work. I ordered in a subtitute, emailed in lesson plans and let the kids run wild. And I didn't let myself feel (too) guilty for doing it. Maybe tomorrow when my classroom is in shams and my freshmen are showing up in 10 minutes I'll regret it. But today it felt well worth it.

Now, granted, I do have a first-of-the-school-year-thanks-a-whole-lot-for-the-rhinovirus-you-snot-nosed-kids-COLD. I am really tired. I have been working myself a little too much because I still haven't figured out how to balance it all. I am starting to think that this whole "balance" idea is a sham, frankly. Maybe if there were more like 34 hours in a day balance would become a possibility. But who has time for taking care of one's self when the career is new, the dating life obsolete, and your best friend/roommate is also a workaholic with a new niece on the way? Work sort of consumes all waking hours, and a few of the hours that should be spent sleeping.

So, this morning when my alarm rang out its bone chilling song, every nine minutes, for about an hour (things to work on: my abuse of the snooze button...and setting my alarm extra early to enable this abuse). I finally turned the alarm to OFF (what a novelty), got out of bed, and decided that I am worth it. I am a little on the sick side. My body is tired. The grading is never-ending and even after a long session of the drudgery yesterday, I still need a day (or two) of grading catch up. Because they just keep doing all this work, five days a week, six classes full of 30-ish students. And today felt like it might just work to not go in to work.

I actually slept a large portion of the day away because, well, that is what my body was in need of, apparently. By large portion, I mean that I went back to sleep around 9. And slept until 1. After a fairly full night of sleep. And a two hour nap last night. So, as I roused myself from my sleepy stupor a little after 1, I started thinking. Being the doofus that I am, it took a while for me to come up with this conclusion: I must be pushing myself a little too much. The 60 hour work weeks plus commuting plus all the take-home grading plus church/family/home responsibilities, etc. really is taking its toll. There is a perfect indian summer outside and I only know it because I happen to glance through the windows in my classroom on occasion. And I hear rumors.

So, I guess all my ramblings come down to this question--how do you do it all? Am I just a whiner? I mean, I know people say things like, "Well, you just fit the important stuff in, you MAKE it work." I'm wondering how these people do this. I'm thinking it might involve a crow bar, the mafia, and other specialized tools. And have these people that MAKE it all fit ever taught before? Alice recently posted a similar idea on her blog all about balancing life and taking care of herself in the midst of the craziness. She sounded so positive. I'm wondering why I can't feel the same way. I feel like it is just a little short of impossible. I'm wondering when I get to slow down without needing to take the day off.

What about you? How do you keep balanced? What are your realistic tricks? Or do you also feel like this "balanced" idea is a conspiracy set up by people like Oprah and others with a personal assistant and an agenda?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Why I Love My Antonia

As autumn approaches, I've started my AP students on my favorite novel of all time, My Antonia by Willa Cather. I posted this to our class blog for the students to comment about their favorite book or what they're enjoying about Antonia. I thought you all might like to know what I wrote as well--seeing as I can't find time to post anything these days.

Antonia introduced herself to me via English 3500: American Literature 1800-1900. "Dr. B" wasn't a great professor, but he had impeccable taste in literature. Antonia is proof of that. Ever since that first read during a fall semester, I've been smitten.

When people hear I teach English and want a book recommendation--I count on Antonia. She never disappoints. She spends autumn days cradled in my hand on the back lawn. She spent two semesters in a carefully guarded backpack pocket--that school year she was necessary as ink. In the stark brilliance of winter, I slip her from the bookshelf and remember the sunflowers. If my writing feels uninspired or lackluster, I think of Willa writing My Antonia, missing her Nebraska so far away. I read Antonia and feel calm knowing that somewhere in the middle of nowhere, prairie grasses are growing to the edge of the cottonwood trees.

In the quiet moments I ache for childhood, its sepia tones and laughter, I feel closest to Jim. When politics frustrate or I watch too much of the evening news, I read about America through Jim's lens--a land resonating with its own potential. Idealistic? Perhaps. But Jim and I were always burdened by an unrealistic hope.

I once lent my one and only copy of Antonia to a niece. I missed it terribly. Soon I found myself buying random editions at book stores thrift shops, if only to see Antonia's eye watch over me from the bookshelf while I wandered through my days.

Cicero once said, "a room without books is like a body without a soul." I guess this comes closest to explaining my obsession with My Antonia. Antonia is one of those books that stayed until I could no longer separate myself from it. My reading life before her lay incomplete, an empty vessel.

Some books fade from our consciousness, some books are chased away. And others curl and diffuse within us, as a drop of ink in water. My Antonia is one of these books. I am forever changed having read it.

What about you? Which books do you love and why? I love to hear all you have to say...and books are a favorite topic of mine.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Procrastinatus: Latin for I Don't Want To!

A lovely afternoon. The clock strikes 3. Six small and dwindling hours remain until a certain teacher readies herself for bed and the impetus of a new work week. And a certain pile of student assignments stares her down. It mocks. It laughs. It growls. It is inevitable and it knows it and it won't let her forget.

The weekend is gone. I have "the dreads" and I just don't want to. I am a procrastinator extraordinaire. I am an avoider. I avoid everything: confrontation, grading, chores, you name it. I have trouble starting tasks, I have trouble staying with tasks, I am relieved when I actually finish a task. And the task before me happens to be an overstuffed stack of grading that seems, at this point, overwhelming. I have enjoyed the past two days. I went swimming. I visited with friends and family. I hit the gym. I enjoyed church. Now my long weekend is, well, not so long anymore. And I've yet to tackle the grading. Is this diagnosable?

What about you? Do you procrastinate or does it eat you alive until it's finished? What do you procrastinate? Tell me all about it...eventually.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

One Week Down

I know, I'm blogging work, work, work lately. But that's what I do lately: work, work, oh, and work. I made it through my first week! It is now, officially a very needed 3-day holiday weekend. Praise Labor Day and its inventors!

So here are the weeks' highlights and lowlights:

First off, on Monday the week began on a sour note. While everybody frantically prepared their first day back, two of the four copiers went on the fritz. Completely broke down. One of them that was working is a RISO machine, so you have to make at least 50 copies (per cost-effective rules) and it neither staples nor collates. The other copier's stapler and collate-er were broken. We were out at least one copier off and on throughout the week. Needless to say, I think the Kinkos a few blocks away must have made out like bandits this past week.

Next, the air conditioner in the school broke on Wednesday. They are "working on it" and we are to "please be patient." Speaking of Labor Day, I told my mother last night that if these were the working conditions that drove the creation of labor laws, than teachers must still be exempt from those laws or something. I work about 10-11 hours a day in that joint--without overtime (salaried). I technically work 7 days a week--you should see the 8" pile of grading waiting for me this weekend. And it is at least 90 degrees 98% of the time. But don't worry. The district has some sweet air conditioning...I actually got cold there the other day.

There are some good things, however. The kids are great. My AP classes are insanely different--I didn't think a class like these existed...and I now have TWO!! This is how good they are: I planned a TON to do the other day and we were done half an hour early. EARLY! Luckily I had more we could do, but it is nuts. I'm not used to NOT being interrupted every 2 minutes by something--the pencil sharpener, note-passing, cell phones, iPods, sleeping, someone putting Ben Gay on their arm because it "feels all tingley--it's cool!" (yes, this did happen). They all do their homework. They raise their hands and make comments that aren't "ummm, yeah, can I go to the bathroom?" It is just surreal. I'm waiting for it all to go awry.

Basically, life is very busy. When I finally get home at six each night, I'm moist, I stink, my hair is tipping toward dread-lockdom, I'm chafed in a few places, my feet hurt, and I'm miserable tired. I forgot all this job takes out of me.