updates for 12.31.2011
Once upon a time, in a land called New Jersey, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed college graduate sat down at a computer in her parents' house to start a blog about the Grand Adventure upon which she was about to embark. [Spoiler: I was the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed college graduate] Six months later, she is sitting in the same chair, at the same keyboard. She looks about the same, no taller, no shorter. She is wearing clothing that she owned at the time, and might even be wearing the same tank top she wore on that fateful day (just, you know, under a cardigan). She has the same nose and eyes, although she's wearing glasses, because she hasn't been to an eye doctor for a new contact prescription in too long. When she talks, her voice has more gravel and rasp, but the same cadences and accent. But she's actually a completely different person. We can exchange theories about possible alien encounters, or even something akin to a twisted-Lohan-freaky-Friday scenario, but the story of how bright-eyed/bushy-tailed came to be the current incarnation of Ms. B has already been told in blog entries past. She sits, enveloped in the comforts of her childhood home. The computer that still holds ninth grade homework assignments in its memory, the books she's read once, twice, umpteen times since seventh grade,the family and friends who still see her through the changes and still love her in spite of the unattractive ones. All of these things are present. And yet she still feels like a stranger to herself. The scary thing is, as she looks down the line at the Midwestern winter to come, she doesn't know who will be sitting at this computer come next summer. Because when she reads the "About me" that she wrote back in June, she knows it's all still factual just as deeply as she knows that it wouldn't be what she wrote today.
I spent a good portion of today catching up on grading and FINALLY putting everything into an online gradebook, Engrade, which so far I'm very happy with. When grades are due in 2 weeks I should easily be able to avoid a repeat of frantically grading all day and then still missing the deadline. Since I always put off grading essays (so time consuming!), I now have a ton of excerpts to share: Expository Essays: Write a thesis statement and then explain your opinion on the topic of year-round school or school uniforms. "For example, International school has blue navy baggy pants and ugly t-shirts or mini-dresses...My friend Yasmin has to wear uniforms she hates it! It does not have swagg!" "I think there shouldn't be a school uniform because if the uniform got dirty, what are you going to do? You have no uniform to wear. I think that the possible answer is you have to wash it every day. It is awful. I mean you don't want to wash the uniforms instead of doing your homework." "I also think that teachers need breaks too. I wonder how they feel when school's over, I think relieved. Teachers work very hard to teach us everything on the MCA's they will be so down if we fail. Oh ya teachers don't have breaks they have to teach summer school, HaHa!" (I really liked where she was going with that point, until the last sentence...) "When students don't get rest their heads will hurt because of too much thinking." "Somalians don't like wearing school uniforms because they say it looks ugly and has no swagg. Americans sometimes wear it. Because they like it and they love to wear it...But my dad said it is not about clothes, it's about my education." "People don't want to wear the same clothes again and the teachers will complain and spray too much air freshener and there's going to be a problem." (Hmm, good point.) Our class discussions must be sinking in, at least a little bit, because it seems like we're making progress on the cultural tolerance front. My main evidence is that although my students whined and complained about reading their pen pal letters that mentioned Christmas, they did a great job of writing back respectfully and thoughtfully: "No I don't celebrate Christmas. But I do celebrate Eid. For Eid I get money from people." "I hope your good in class. Are you nice boys? If your bad Santa won't bring you boys anything. Have a great year bye!! P.S. I have an XBox 360 at my house, nice, right." "You are happy that Christmas is coming, but I don't celebrate because we have a different religion. Eid is something that all Muslims in the world celebrate. It is something that you didn't hear before." "My last thing I wanna tell you is I love the pictures with the letters it's so cute. In my religion when you adore someone's picture or anyone that you meet you have to say this word "Mashallah." Anyways I have two questions for you guys oops I mean girls: would you prefer tennis shoes or boots?" "I am happy to hear that you are going to a party. I love to go to a party, but I don't like to go to a party in the summer not in the winter. It is awkward." "I celebrate another type of holiday. Maybe you never heard of it."
It took an email subscription from GOOD for me to really process that despite having half of a work-year left, this is the end of a real year. Soon comes January, soon comes the end of 2011, soon comes resolutions and new things. Or something? It's interesting: time, and how we track it. The three dominating annuals beginning with a) the start of school, b) January 1, c) birthdays. I've been sitting in this Michigan Panera since it was light out and raining. I walked my dog this morning, and talked to myself in the car on the way here. Sometimes I'm awake for five or six hours before I realize I haven't spoken a word all day, and begin talking to myself to make up for it. My brain is going to be in a big gooey mess for the next month minimum, guaranteed. Yesterday I had a call scheduled with Oak Park Prep principal and, voila, after a month or two in this process, I have an offer to be a founding 7th grade social studies/ELA teacher at a tiny charter in Sacramento. New grade, new content, and 50% pay raise. If I accept it working at Institute and going to Isreal (if accepted to either) are out. Sacramento training starts in mid-July. Being in Michigan for a week has done a lot of strange things to my overall perspective of the world. I love my students but have a hard time placing them in my head, aside from abstract names or tests sitting in my work bag. I miss my Dumas TFA friends, but finally feel "normal" enough to level with and feel close to my home friends again. A year not talking hasn't changed much when our friendship has existed for a decade. I am slightly coherent when thinking about various geographic regions: Connecticut, Brooklyn, Sacramento, New Orleans. Where do I want to be? What do I want to be doing? Do I want to be calm and pleasant in the wet, flat Delta? Alone, or herding a tribe of first-years in the district I've called home for two years? Do I want to be foraging an entirely new content area with a principal that believes in me, but that I already had to put in extra hours of work to even get an offer from? Do I want to be working in corporate New York America? Talking about fonts, hex codes, and clients? What will keep me happy? What will keep me fulfilled? What will drown me? The more I think about it, the more I pull to get away from winter. To live in a perpetual base temperature (coughcaliforniacough). Something sounds soothing about the west coast, much more soothing than the delta or east coast craze. Part of me thinks that if I go there pieces of me will start to heal that I didn't know were broken. But I also have a weight in my gut poking a finger, calling me an escapist. Part of me says, "More people will actually come to visit in California, odd as that seems considering milage!" Part of me says, "Social life has a chance to exist!" Part of me says, "What is-- what are you building here? What are you working for? What's the point?" Today I finished my application for Achievement First, finished as much as I can until they decide they do or don't like me at MATCH, and graded one class of reading tests, which I volunteered to do so Ms. Reading Teacher can have baby time over break. Now I'm going to Ferndale to play video games and stop shaking from this coffee.
Over the holidays, I've been thinking about our role as educators in our students' lives. I think if you are called into this profession, one of the goals you have is to leave the world a better place than how you found it, and in teaching that means putting your students on a path that will lead to having "better lives."(1) The challenges of this quest are inexhaustible, but one I would like to focus on today is the possible effects wealthier families can have on poorer ones. Namely, is the "education system" as it is currently conceived inherently a system of winners and losers and not a positive-sum game in which you get what you put in? For the sake of clarity, I am going to define the "education system" beyond the PK-12 brick-and-mortar world that we teach. Instead, I would like to conceive of education as the apparatus that links us from the time we are born until we are ready to enter the world as adults. Wealthier families are able to invest more resources in their children prior to enrolling in Pre-K that can have a variety of cognitive and emotional effects down the road.(2) But suppose we control for that. Suppose the US invests in early childhood care and education so that each child enters Pre-K on somewhat equal footing. Would we continue to expect to see a system of educational haves and have-nots? This is where I can see validity in the zero-sum explanation of our system. Insofar as "success" is tied to completion of higher education and receiving the credentials that create new opportunities, there is a finite number of slots available in post-secondary institutions. So long as this is the new reality of our economy, our labor force will have its "winners" and "losers". By and large, the winners will be from families who can afford the exorbitant sums necessary to fund a college education, or have the savvy to navigate the complexities of scholarships, grants, and financial aid. For the kids we teach, a "Talented Tenth" might emerge, a chosen few who overcome the odds and achieve this vision of success. These students are truly outstanding and I have the distinct privilege of working with many of the students who might have been characterized by W.E.B. DuBois as part of that Talented Tenth. But I fear that we lose sight of our purpose as teachers if we are satisfied with this outcome. Yes, the members of the Talented Tenth prevail. But, the majority of our students continue to academically perform beneath their age-peers from wealthier families. How do we respond? Our goal is ostensibly to get as many of these kids to college, but how do we reconcile this goal with the fact that there are not enough slots for every student to attend college? Worse still, what are the ramifications for the value of a degree when an ever-climbing number of college grads will dilute its economic power in the labor market? I worry that we are not fully preparing our students for their lives as adults by asking them first to trust us and then to follow our path to success, if only because it is not feasible for everyone. Say you are fortunate enough to earn the trust of a high schooler, a student with marginally acceptable skills and a solid work ethic and a respectful demeanor. And they buy your story, that getting into college will open up new avenues for them. How am I supposed to let them know things will be okay if they can't afford the debt they would have to incur to attend? Or if they get in and take on the debt anyway, but enter a field with limited employment prospects? After graduation, they might be working the same kinds of service jobs they could have right out of high school, but now they are thousands of dollars in debt and don't often have the family and friends network of their wealthier peers to gain them access to those channels of prosperity. I don't mean to be excessively pessimistic, but the economic realities that young adults face today are chastening. I am feeling more that we as educators then need to look the "better lives" part of the equation more holistically. By all means, let's get our kids college ready so they have more options open to them. And let's teach them to work hard and value education. Concurrently, we need them to become fully participating citizens who can vouch for themselves and organize in a way to combat the political forces that exacerbate poverty in our country. This needn't be interpreted as a call to arms. Simply, our students should be able to exercise their political strength to their full potential just as they are entitled to exercise their academic potential.(3) NOTES: (1) A rather nebulous goal, of course. (2) I recommend Jonathan Cohn's series on the subject for The New Republic. (3) And just as income is a heavy predictor for educational success, so too is it an indicator of political clout.
Well, here I stand, 4 days before the beginning of spring semester and recently returned from 9 glorious days in California. The time with my family was glorious, as always, and I didn't really do much. I had a head cold the entire time, so it was a nice excuse to lay around as much as I wanted to. Highlights include seeing South Coast Repertory's production of "A Christmas Carol" (a MUST if you're ever in Orange County around the holidays) and bawling my eyes out, surfing with my family at Newport Beach on Christmas day, and eating Chipotle and In-n-Out like it was my job. Now that I'm back in southern Arkansas, my attitude towards being here and towards teaching in general has gone up and down like a yo-yo. One minute I'm feeling good about teaching, and the next I'm wondering what I'm earth I'm doing here and why I ever wanted to be a teacher. My attitude is mostly good, but I have my moments. I'm trying to get over the jet lag as fast as possible, but I'm still tired and feel kind of "off". This is one of the many reasons I returned to Arkansas a week early instead of staying in California until the last minute. I'm spending these last few days cleaning out my classroom, putting up twinkly lights, and re-organizing everything. I'm re-reading the First Days of School and hopefully I'll be implementing more procedures in my class this semester. One thing I really want to do this semester is have a consistent format for class; I want my kids to know exactly what's going to happen and exactly what's expected of them during each part of class. Big surprise, I'm having problems with money again. I spent a lot of money travelling to and from California, and my debt just keeps growing and growing. Meanwhile I'm here in southern Arkansas, and there are lots of things I need/want for my classroom and my house that would make my life a lot easier. I'm so frustrated that to be an effective teacher in my situation, I basically have to spend money out of my own pocket. I'm optimistic about this semester. I think it's going to be a lot better.
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