Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Power of Cheese

Every once and awhile you read something that catches your attention so much that you wish YOU had written it. Such is the case with The Power of Cheese. Written by the clever Mister Teacher, it is the view of someone in the frontline trenches of education. For those of you out of the loop, "cheese" is a lovely new concoction of black tar herion and liquid tylenol. It's highly addictive, cheap enough for ten year olds and it is tearing through certain lower middle class sectors of our area. Although I felt guilty, I did laugh. You will feel guilty and laugh too. I wish the reason for the article wasn't so damned sad.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What Price Fame?Or, R U Sick of Reality Shows?

I've been wondering about this for awhile. Of course, Andy Warhol predicted this when he said "in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes." Little did he know how true this would become. I think the first reality show I ever watched was on MTV in the mid to late 80's. Something about people living together in a house....I forget. But now every single channel has jumped on the programming bandwagon with their own tweaked versions of Suvivor or Idol or Apprentice. Can we have a chat? What happened to creativity? What happened to doing something because it was new and different. New sells, it really does. Why else was LOST such a hit in its first season? It was a hit because it was NEW and DIFFERENT. Now that there are clones out the wazzoo for that genre as well, I have to wonder why Hollywood is even bother to pay writers anymore. They could easily go with the fill in the blank version of every plot and save themselves a bundle. Or perhaps that is what is going on. You don't see the big names writing screenplays very much any more. Instead you hear about sublevel hacks who plagiarize and risk trial to make a blockbuster that sadly enough, everyone has seen ten times before.

As for the "celebrities" we are encountering, are these people really worthy of their 15 minutes? I hate to sound petty, but in most cases the answer is no. And sometimes, hell no. I truly believe that casting diretors seek out the lowest common denominator of every socio-economic and racial profile to fill slots and then step aside to watch the mayhem. Is this really quality programming? When you watch American Idol, are you truly seeing the very best performers the country can produce? Or are we seeing a marketing ploy that send marginal performers to stratopheric heights. I know people who are serious vocal students at highly competitive programs who were told to go home from the auditions. They were told they were "too good". So Idol and its ilk are looking for the quirkly fall guys and gals to publicly ridicule. I do not call that entertainment.

I suppose part of this has to do with what this type of programming is doing to our society and our kids. We have kids who think they are going to be the next NBA first round draft pick, even when they are only 5'6" and can't jump, because our society has this irrational fear of speaking the obvious. Not every kids who plays a sport will get a scholarship. And even fewer will turn pro. And that's true for EVERY SINGLE ASPECT of life. You have to roll with the punches and work with what you are given. Yet we see time and again parents pushing kids into molds that they simply cannot or will not fill. I blame this on celebrity and reality type programming and on adults that have the common sense of moles. We have elevated celebrities to an insane level of worship and we ought to be totally demoralized. These people are just, PEOPLE. They have no super powers, no special insight. Yet we see the media turn to them in times of crisis asking "And what, Sean Penn, would you do about New Orleans?" or "How would you change the global warming prospects, Madonna?" PUH-freakin-LEEZ. With a few exceptions, celebrities are among the least educated and the most narcissistic subset of the population and they gauge their every utterance on how it will play in the media. Can you really trust a person who is more concerned with what camera angle the photographer is getting than the down the line side-effects of their lame comments?

Monday, March 26, 2007

It's No Fun Anymore

Okay, I admit it, I was one of those starry eyed student teachers who loved school so much that I decided to stay in school for life. I loved the reading, the writing and even the arithmetic. I enjoyed the flow of days from Autumn through Spring. I enjoyed new pencils and tablets of paper and the smell of new crayons. And up until now, with a few small glitches, I still enjoyed the turn of the wheel. I am not sure I feel that way anymore. Not after today.

See, I am one of these teachers who likes to bring students into the program and tries to find some way, any way, that they can work. But I can't fight a gossip campaign, especially when it comes from inside the school. For some reason this year, our freshman class has been particularly and some would even say, deliberately, immature. There are some great kids, but there is a prevailing character of disrespect, destruction and chaos that makes it difficult for the good kids to get the education they deserve. This isn't the kind of inner city urban issue that one associates with a mass exodus of teachers, but it does give one pause. I seldom write referrals, and this year I have written more in one class than I have in the entire previous year. Students are often defiant, refusing to do work, and their parents support this behavior. They justify this by claims of teacher retaliation backed up by reports from the student in the class. What is worse, we have a good number of students whose parents work in the school. The athletic director's wife works in an office, the basketball coaches wife is an aide and so on. So if one of these parent-educators decides they don't like you or your class, then they begin a whispering campaign. And since they live in the neighborhood with most of the kids, what begins as a whisper can become a roar.

I had a conference today. It seems that in comparing a student to one of my favorite students from the past, I have inadvertently labeled the student. I am not sure how comparing a student to another good student is bad, but for some reason it is in the eyes of this parent. Because of this, her student has done little or no work, barely passed the exam (which was a scantron test, but somehow it's my fault the student nearly failed...) and according to the views of this parent, his lack of work is justified. I am not really sure how much of this is the student making excuses and how much of it is the parent taking things way out of context, but if it weren't making my life so depressing and stressful I would have to laugh. This kid plays a sport. A highly competitive sport. I wasn't an athlete, but my dad was a coach. I have been around coaches and they don't mince words when it comes to making corrections on the field or court. So I have to believe that our coaches must go up and whisper corrections to our athletes, because according to this parent, the child has never been told to sit down to be quiet or to not throw paper in class. I know in the vast scheme of things, this is small potatoes. But when you see and hear and have to deal with these sometimes irrational and demanding parents, it wears you down. It makes teachers who care and who work hard figure that it just isn't worth the time and effort. And as they teachers wear out or burn out, they either simply stop teaching or they quit.

I have this recurring nightmare where I have a heart attack while in class. And as I lie on the floor, the students throw things at me and taunt me. It's a scary dream. And I would like to think that such a thing wouldn't happen because I know there are some good students out there. But then again, how much longer can this nation last if we continue to feel that we must extend parenting to the point of suffocation. We aren't allowing our kids to suffer the consequences of bad choices. Too many kids are rescued at the lower levels of mischief which allows them to think they can do anything they want. That ends when they turn 18, but I still hear of parents bailing out kids who have gotten on drugs, or are in jail, or pregnant or any of a million other circumstances. Fifty years ago, at 18, many parents would tell a kid that they were on their own and have a nice life. Now we encourage kids to live at home until they are thirty. Such constant attention destroys a kid's self-confidence. And it erodes the sense of responsibility. How can we expect these people as adults to make good choices, when we never allow them to fail until their parents die or retire?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Other Voices Dispute Global Warming Religion

In the title is another link by the BBC. The BBC isn't known for its political conservatism, yet it does have a profound respect for the work ethic that goes into making scientific pronouncements. Global Warming has transcended the level of an issue and become for all intents and purposes a quasi-religion. And it has become a religion whose followers harken back to the bad old days of the Inquisition complete with the verbal and emotional tribulations that period experienced. Are we as citizens of the 21st century going to allow political rhetoric, most likely centered with the Green Party platform as filtered through the Democrat Party, to drive our industries, our jobs, our way of life out the door for science that doesn't even hold up under the most cursory of examinations? I am not one who thinks that we should stop recycling or waste resources, but that is because I am conservative by nature and true conservatives don't waste anything. Instead professionals who have written and studied the environment for years are being driven out of their jobs, away from chairmanships for even expressing the slightest doubt in the Gospel According to St. AlGore. Galelio was excommunicated by similar folks for daring to say that the Earth orbited the Sun rather than the other way around. And in the end he was right! Are we going to force ourselves into narrow, draconian methods of change, just for the sake of change rather than for ample cause? Are we going to continue to let half-baked, ill-informed media hype be the central diet of our learning? Is so, then perhaps we deserve what will happen, which will be an economically shattered nation and a political infrastructure run by self-serving hacks.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Modern Pantheon

I have been thinking about this quite a bit, especially since the seemingly endless brouhaha surrounding Anna Nicole Smith's untimely, and very publicly exposed, death. As I teach about ancient civilizations, especially those more well known such as Greece and Rome, I have to wonder if we are truly talking about deities that popped out of someone's imagination, or if instead, they are the much enlarged versions of real people. Follow me here. I read a few years back that our constant display of Elvis would lead archaeologists of the future to believe that we worshiped him. With the internet, text messaging, YouTube and a vast array of local, national and global news networks, it isn't a far step of logic to see that a valiant warrior could be Mars, a voluptuous woman-Venus, a scary old guy-Jupiter. If that is the case, are we currently building religions based on public opinion? The concept is scary. I could see a future St. Algore-patron saint of natural gas. Or how about St. Dontrump-patron saint of self promotion? Maybe even minor gods and goddesses that would help our tumbled down civilization cope with the tribulations that have befallen them. The Romans had a word for this raising of the human to the celestial realm. It was called apotheosis. Several monuments exist to the new "gods" such as Hadrian or Titus. Arches and temples were often build in honor of their assumption to the role of "god". When you watch Access Hollywood, or any of those other tabloid shows, it is just possible that you are increasing the strength of this person to evade the death of their image. Oh yes, they will still die, in a human way, but their legends will live on. Look at Elvis or Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King. There exploits and visions have been elevated while any question of impropriety is eliminated. Look at Paris and her ravaged pack of harpies-do they not look like people who would lure innocent sailors to their deaths simply as a matter of amusement. And then there are those celebrities who seem intent on causing problems, often verbally lashing out at those who cross them near and far. Could there be a better Medusa than Rosie O Donnell? I will admit, I am being a bit flippant with this topic, but there is a serious issue here, we as a culture have got to drop the ancient Greek philosophy that believes "that which is beautiful, is also good." I am not saying that beautiful people cannot be good people, but there seems to be this entire cult that exonerates the beautiful people who break the law, hurt others or in other ways go against the grain of the primary culture. A perfect example was on Jay Leno the other night. In his monologue, he was discussing yet another sordid story about a female teacher having sex with a male student. But this time the woman was immediately arrested. He followed up with a question, "What happened to that teacher in the south who got away with the same thing? Can we show her picture?" The image of a strange Barbie-like female, blonde, blue eyed and overdone showed up on the screen. Then Jay asked for the image of the arrested teacher to be shown and it ended up that teacher was middle aged and frumpy. They both committed the same crime, did the same things, but on the virtue of beauty and a well placed tear, the pretty one got away with it. Our society has got to begin placing more emphasis on the inner being rather than the packaging. And sadly enough, I think it is mainly the American culture that has this immature and shallow bias. I had an exchange student from Peru. In class we saw the tragic story of a girl from New York who was hit by a drunk driver and dreadfully disfigured by the ensuing fire. Another student murmured, "Oh what a shame, she was so pretty." And my exchange student replied, "Wouldn't it be just as sad if she wasn't pretty?" And that sums it up, in a nutshell. Think about it.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

In Defense of Public Education

I just finished reading a laundry list of complaints on a blog I regularly read from Right Wing on the Left Coast. In it I found a series of complaints, concerns and general dithering in regards to education. Some of the more salient points had to do with the status of teachers as union members, and it that regard I do believe that teachers by and large did themselves no favors by aligning with the likes of Teamsters and the AFL/CIO. I understand the why of their organization into union status, I just do not see how the union goals reflect those of their members or how the union has done ANYTHING to improve the lot of the average hardworking teacher. Instead I see huge benefits for union bosses as well as a great deal of support for teachers that have no business anywhere near a child, much less in the classroom. In those things, I agree with the writer.

In other respects, I have to disagree with the writer's disregard for public education. Public schools do a very difficult and very necessary job. The concept of offering a free public education is one of the cornerstones of our nation and what separated the American experience from that of its European roots due to the idea that ANYONE could excel and succeed. Public education is a key part of that concept. By law public schools MUST offer and fulfil the educational needs of any child who comes through the door. When we were ethically and morally a more homogenous society, this was an easier quest. We now have a range from absentee parents who either totally neglect their children in pursuing their own dreams or
through helicopter parents who hover and micromanage their children's education all the while undercutting teachers and destroying their children's ability to fend for themselves. (I have even heard rumors from college professors that some helicopter parents will call the college to dispute grades-and people wonder why kids don't move out until they are forty...)We have become a society that is far to ready too blame others rather than seeking the root of the problem. Perhaps it is that Johnny needs glasses or Sally is diabetic or Gregory has a learning disability. But it also just as likely that Johnny's parents took him out of school for a ski trip, Sally's parents don't check to make sure she has a snack and is on her meds and Gregory is far too overscheduled to pay attention to the work that is involved with schoolwork. And when children fail, too many parents would rather blame the school than look for solutions.

Too many parents, often the more affluent groups at that, are anxiously pointing their fingers at the public school down the road, siting it as the source for all that is wrong in their neighborhood. That may be true. Or just as likely, it may not. Parents like to think that when they enroll their kids in a private school, that their tuition check assures that their children are well and safely educated. In some cases that is true, but any school whether private or public, is only as good as its personnel, its students and its parent support. I see parents selling candy and t-shirts and the ever popular coupon book all the time to support the athletic teams, the band, the choir, the debate team and so on. When was the last time you saw a booster club for academics? Oh there may be the rare case of a Academic Decathalon team getting props, but by and large parents like to support the headliners. And in most schools that has little to do with core academics. Private schools are able to delete programs that impede progress. While some private schools do have extracurricular activities, most of them are student funded and after school-which is the true meaning of extracurricular-outside the normal curriculum. Public schools incorporate them into the school day, the conventional wisdom being that too many kids can't stay after school. As such these programs cut into the academic day, shortening exposure to academic classes. (In one sad sidenote, when a kid at a city public high school got drunk and paid his buddy to ride his motorcycle, without a helmet, and ran into a tree and died, the epithet "Rest In Peace----" with the kid's name were on cars at all the local schools including a very exclusive Dallas Christian school. The moral is, the kids that party all know each other and that boundaries don't exist when you are seeking more and better ways of getting high...)

Another way that school differ is that private schools have charters and rules that allow them to kick out any student that is not performing to the written code and standard. It is a nasty secret, but private schools also demand parental participation. Public schools want that participation, but have no power to demand it. As a high school teacher, I have seen less than ten parents at a "Meet the Teacher" night at our school. (And of course, those are never ever the parents of the problem child that doesn't do work or shows up to class high.) That kind of lackadaisical attitude is frowned upon at private schools where sales of spirit wear, candy and such are daily events. And failure to participate as a parent can cause a student to lose his or her place unless the absence is replaced with cold, hard cash. Public schools do not have the luxury of dismissing students that fail to progress or with parents that never show up, and in fact public schools need every kid in a seat to generate state funding and to account for every penny they get from the state. Since the public schools are mandated to educate every student that comes in the door, a draconian hierarchy of assessment and testing and support for learning disabilities and language acquisition has to be in place. Those types of folks cost money. And that cuts more into the ever dwindling pie of funding. Ironically when I worked at a highly rated private school, they would send their children with disabilities to Scottish Rite Hospital or the nearest public school for help-all the while still accepting tuition from the student. In a further moment of irony, the most notorious pot dealer in the area was in my eighth grade homeroom. So much for safety and innocence.

So the premise that public schools are failing is somewhat biased because not all schools are failing. Some public schools outdo their private counterparts. And some students that fail in private schools excel in public schools. I know that it's popular for conservatives, for the most part, and affluent parents to condemn the public school education as inferior. But I don't think they are looking past SAT and state testing scores when they make these claims. One of my most extremely liberal friends was adamant about staying in their Uptown condo and had their kids in private schools, not considering that many of the inner city and uptown private schools are dealing with the same issues as the public schools. When she realized her daughter had a reading disability which the school couldn't address with a trained professional on staff, they moved to a competitive suburb, where her child flourished. Not all private schools are better, in fact I would say that some of the lower echelon privates are worse due to uncertified teachers and lack of professional oversight. While public school scandals make the headlines due to the public nature of the situation, I have heard my share of equally haircurling episodes from the parents of private school students.

There are many things that a student can learn in a diverse environment. In fact the whole concept of a true university situation is that students from all backgrounds attend and share their perspectives. (That doesn't mean that it happens in today's university setting, but that was the original intent...)And since our world isn't a homogeneous population, its important that students learn to deal with those who come from different backgrounds. This isn't just a liberal rant, because I consider myself fairly conservative. But all my kids went to public schools and although I have had my differences with individual teachers, they recieved a better than average education. I attended a public school and I feel like I had a better grounding in a wider variety of subjects than many of the students I attended SMU with, many who came from very rarified and costly prep schools. But as a parent and a consumer, you have to investigate the schools and pick the right location, whether the school is public or private. My parents,especially my mom who was a teacher, were informed consumers. They looked for a good district and made the sacrifices necessary to allow me and my brother to have a good education. The difference was that when my parents chose to move, they looked at the schools FIRST then made decisions about housing. My husband and I did the same thing when time came for us to move. Many parents are far more entranced by the chichi location or their own personal comfort to address the issues of education until their children become old enough to go to school. And quite often, real estate trends being what they are, the parents end up selling low or not being able to move at all. You have to plan ahead.

As for the intangibles of public education, there is much to be said for having a wide range of friends. My children accept people more readily and learned to function in diverse and competitive environments. They have been able to experience a much wider and more varied range of experiences thanks to being in a public school. My kids all read and can argue and discuss topics from contemporary music to history and politics, as do most of their peers in school because different readings and cultures came together not just to agree, but to learn to defend one's personal beliefs. In our increasingly diverse culture, this is a necessary suvival tactic. Those kids that only hang out with the same group are the kids who never move past the limitations of stereotype. As a society, we must learn to deal with everyone in an evenhanded manner-public education encourages that because if the student wants to excel, they can take action to make it happen. This particular district is an inner ring suburb with a changing and diverse population, yet most of the students graduate, go on to training or college and manage to succeed. How this happens is that parents get involved. Teachers make sure communication lines stay open. Administrators facilitate teachers getting the support and materials and time to adequately teach their classes. And students take charge by being allowed to control their education and become owners of their education plans. I have seen it work. Similar plans work in public and private schools across the nation-but it has to be driven by the students and parents, the schools are only the medium for success.

To simply say that one type of school has failed or succeeded is to ignore the factors that cause this to happen. Any school, no matter the type, will fail if students are absent too often, if parents refuse to support the school and if administrators fail to care and let it show. Everyone has to show up every day ready to rock and roll. I don't see this as an indictment of the public school system, nor praise. There is no doubt that things could be done better. More time in academics core classes and less time on extracurricular programs would impact every school in a positive way. Although this will make many parents cringe, we could spend less money on our athletics teams. Face it, very few of them are worthy of full ride scholarships and in the long run the perceived camaraderie of athletics does become divisive within the student population. Decent and timely materials and smaller classes would allow better student and teacher contact and possibly prevent so many of the problems with drop outs and such. In short, public schools are doing what we can within the limits of our location and budget. Public schools have been the whipping boy for both political parties and that isn't fair when you consider that public schools have been pressed into carrying the load of social programs aimed toward children. That we don't hit homeruns every time has as much to do with the student, the parents and the curriculum as it does the school and staff. There's no question we could do better, but in many ways our hands are tied by regulations that have little to do with teaching a kid to read, write and think. Public schools are necessary. They are essential to our shared culture. And if we allow public education to go by the wayside, we will end up with a caste system that makes feudal Europe look like a cakewalk.

I think in this regard, Benjamin Franklin stated it best
"We should all hang together, or we shall surely hang separately."

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Education and Stunted Emotional Growth

<span >It isn't often that I find myself at a loss for words. But this is one of those times. I have been teaching for awhile now off and on. And while the burden of education sometimes gets to me, overall it's been a good experience. In short, I can handle the stress. So imagine my surprise when I return to school after a two day planned absence, and find frantic emails from a parent because I moved her son away from his best friend. I could understand if I was abusive or even mildly sarcastic, but I wasn't even in the room. I choose to periodically move students for two reasons, it breaks up cliques and it helps kids learn to accept others outside their comfort zone. I find that if I leave the same kids together for the entire term, their work suffers. In this kids case, he's a typical freshman. Goofy, inattentive, male-normal behavior includes talking, flirting, throwing stuff and generally playing around rather than working. To avoid the plummeting of his grade, I moved him from the back of the room to the front of the room. Immediately his mother emails me frantic to know WHY OH WHY did I move her son? WHY OH WHY didn't I contact her first? First of all, I have the absolute right to place kids where they need to be. This may mean at the front, in a desk rather than a table or even out in the hall if they are disruptive. But instead of accepting that her kid was throwing paper airplanes and generally doing everything but work, she wants a full blown meeting with counselors and principals and the like. I suppose I could understand if the kid was failing, or even if he had been sent to the office, but neither of these events have occurred. So instead of taking care of work during my planning period Monday, I will be spending time listening to some overwrought mother whine because little Boopsie isn't seated next to his friends. I wish I could simply say "tough sh*t" but my professionalism prevents it. I don't know where in the Constitution it says that this generation is supposed to be protected not only from harm, but from disappointment, but it seems as if there are two groups of parents working in the system today: Those that don't care, and those that care to the point of impairing their own childrens' growth. I swear that if they could the former would ship kids to camp for 18 years and the latter would put them in a box surrounded by cotton batting and bubble wrap. If you don't let your child learn to make decisions, and make the child live with the consequences of those decisions, then you end up with college students that do stupid, self-destructive things like binge drinking and running up thousands of dollars in debt on credit cards. Those parents who make every step a safe one and every negative situation a happy ending are setting their children up for a life filled with disappointment. In the real world, bad things happen. It's unfortunate and sad, but if you spend your time dwelling on the negative, you never grow up and make it to the positive aspect of this thing we call life. Parents, allow your kids to grow up. And teachers, don't let parents bully you into making school work, homework or tests any easier than they should be.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Sacred and Profane

What happened to civil conversation? What happened to not saying whatever explitive came into mind? What happened to having some personal restraint? Are we as individuals so out of control that we have to blurt out whatever pops into our heads no matter how foul, no matter how offensive? It used to be said that good manners were the oil that made society function smoothly. But instead it seems that in too many segments of our society, it's not only acceptable, it's expected that you will converse using the foulest language, the most suggestive behavior and the most provocative content in public. And that ties into a great deal of the problem we are having in society. What happened to boundaries between your public persona and your private life? I know there were gay people before 1980-so why then did it become so paramount for everyone to tell every single sordid detail of their personal lives at work, at school or in public. Some things are simply not meant for sharing. STD's are one, and gruesome graphic gross details about someone else's personal life just isn't my cup of tea. I am not a prude. I can discuss and view Greek nudes or paintings with aplomb, but I really really really don't want to know about the personal lives of friends and co-workers on a graphic and self-serving scale. Some things were simply better left unsaid.