Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

More Staff Development Comics

There's something cathartic in drawing stick figures. I don't know what I'd do in these staff development meetings without them. It's actually a good way to think certain concepts through, like staff development meetings. I also felt like recreating a few interesting things I got to experience at my job.

Tracking in School (Part One)

As much as people hate to admit it, humanity comes in three forms: the high class, the middle class, and the lower class. The higher class enjoys the most freedom, the most influence, and the most the world has to offer, but shoulders the most responsibility. The middle class enjoys all these things as well, but to a lesser degree. The lower class does not enjoy these things but are dependent on others. The gospel rightfully acknowledges the three levels of almost all societies when Christ tells his story about the three men and the talents that their master dispenses. The first two do great things with their responsibility over the talents, but the poor man buries his share in the ground and produces nothing while the master is away.

People often argue with this outlook on humanity citing it as a lingering form of backward barbarism from the uninformed past. They optimistically posit their progressive idea of an equal plane being possible for all people. To them, the only thing that separates the lower class from the higher class is mere circumstance. These progressive minds continue to favor some kind of compensation to the lower class by taking away from the privileged upper class. Despite history providing numerous pieces of evidence to the contrary, they believe that this will fix the class disparities of humanity and push it towards a better future. In reality, this approach simply lowers the universal standard and makes almost everyone low class. At this point, all the proverbial servants will bury their talents and lose the ability to even conceive an idea of achievement or success. Fortunately, the society that makes this collective of inferiors will be lucky to even sustain itself. Like the Soviet Union it will either utterly implode and start from scratch again, or gradually compromise its ideals of equality for profit like China.

However, there is another poor, though not quite as extreme, policy that establishes and maintains an artificial hierarchy based on entitlement rather than merit. For example, Rome rose on the basis of a meritocracy. Wise leaders offered the possibility of advancement in the form of the empire's military and bureaucracy. People born of humble farmers in an obscure province could rise to become a general or imperial advisor in the great city of Rome. Unfortunately, Rome's downfall came when wise leaders foolishly mistook a privileged upbringing for a virtuous one and forfeited the system of rewarding merit to a system that rewarded breeding. In the hierarchy that flourished from roughly the time of Gaius Marius's military reforms (107 BC) to the death of Marcus Aurelius (161 AD) social mobility truly existed and virtue facilitated a rise in the ranks. Individuals made their mark on this part of history providing many admirable and impressive characters for posterity to enjoy forever after. These same individuals would have suffered terrible oppression brought on by inferior minds continuously in power during Rome's decline after the age of the Antonines. The government froze the classes that started saturating anyway, and the imperial government started to reduce the population to serfdom by heavy taxation. From this, one might as well make yet another speculation about Rome's reason for decline and say that the culture tried to oppose the natural hierarchy of man that transcends royal mandates. Rather they should have accepted it and explored the possibilities presented.

Great nations like early Rome come into prominence by embracing this natural order of humanity to a certain extent. They create opportunities for the three classes of people to find their designated place in society. The virtuous high class must lead, the middle must follow and maintain, and the lower class must correct themselves or suffer indefinitely. Plato wrote about this hierarchy in his Republic recognizing the necessity of virtue, but oddly enough, not of the freedom of choosing to be virtuous. True progression (as opposed to collectivists) results from "laissez faire" of natural virtue manifesting itself in individuals. Ayn Rand correctly asserts that those who are blessed with a wise upbringing and superior talents will bring up all the people around them by being left alone to live in greatness. This freedom allows the same souls suffering serfdom half of millennia ago to now enjoy being kings of their own households lazily imagining what their next luxury will be. Abject poverty of homeless starving people that consumed over half the population now affects a tiny portion of the population. As long as all people are free to prove themselves worthy of any of the three levels accorded by nature and morality, then human progress and a rising quality of life will follow.

However, this suitable hierarchy only comes when people are allowed to succeed AND fail. A false hierarchy doomed towards universal poverty exists when people aren't allowed to fail or succeed. The high class is artificially placed with the low class, and vice versa. Thus the world goes to the greedy and foolish men while the good guys perish. In history, this process starts as a decline and ends as a dark age. In modern terms, this mismatch constitutes the way of the third world. The cultures that preserve man's natural and moral hierarchy allow the good guys to govern the world responsibly (by allowing the people to govern themselves) while the foolish and greedy suffer punishment and receive correction. In history, this process starts as rise and ends as complete cultural hegemony. Only a few great nations have gotten near to a perfectly free state respecting a hierarchy of virtue and natural ability, but none have ever maintained it long enough to keep from declining once more into corruption. Fools will always be around to let the failures succeed and the successes fail, and they will always do so to their own demise.

They do it because they think they can break the hierarchy, but it will never happen. Humans will always have three classes of people: the leaders, a small group of people who have creativity, aptitude, and responsibility; the followers, a large group of people who have competence and responsibility towards the leaders; and the misfits, the smallest group of people who have neither competence nor responsibility. The leaders need promotion, the misfits need correction, and the middle need to set the highest standard possible.

Every group will always come in roughly the same numbers when they are born, but a suitable approach can maximize each group's potential. While the misfits will always be around each generation, they can be turned from destructiveness with extra help. Once people recognize the existence of these three groups, then these that have caused every failure in history might be corrected for good, and cut the hierarchy to two groups.

What better place to start this constructive liberating solution for society's corruption than school?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Some sketches during a staff development session

I had to attend a staff development meeting two days ago. As you can see, I had quite a bit of time to waste, so I drew some stick figures. It was just like being in high school.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Learning the Fun Way

Judging from the voices of Hollywood and those around the campus, successful teachers are fun teachers. They engage the kids with fun activities that somehow relate with the kids' interests and issues, and they transform them into students for life. They might have some controversial discussions among the kids about the unending banes of poverty, crime, and racial stereotyping. These same teachers will allow maximum creativity on assignments often substituting a given concept for satisfying students’ whims. For an English class, the unconventional yet motivational approach puts rap, poetry, oratory, interpretive dance, essay composition, model making, film, and grammatical exercises in the same academic discipline. These teachers think they have the wisdom of knowing that language equals emotional expression, so they can do away with the archaic practices of reading and writing. Rather, they can put activities more in tune with the students’ interests. This approach consistently appeals to the students who in turn give very little trouble to the teacher managing the vent/creativity sessions. They think it's fun, interesting, and, well, easy.

More than any other subject, English class serves as a pulpit for "fun" teachers. They reach out to the kids by demolishing the rigor and complexity of language and rhetoric. Shakespeare's rich prose and plot structures become reduced to simplistic themes discussed in simple language. Rules of grammar disintegrate into obscurity. They have even reduced the complex and vital skill of actively reading a classic novel to the same realm as passively sitting and watching a movie of that novel. In fact, very few students read books for class but have books read to them by an audiotape or the teacher. The students write very little as well, since their innovative teacher cleverly minimizes the arduous task by offering creative equivalents like artwork with crayons, free-style poetry, or scrapbooks containing specific pictures that somehow convey a meaning. Rest assured, these teachers abandon most objective grading standards and instead follow what their hearts tell them, usually to pass the poor babies (as many will lovingly regard them). Naturally, the kids love this stress-free environment and come to love (or more accurately, not hate) English class as it is now defined for them by the unconventional teacher reaching out.

The result that follows from this new summer camp curriculum replacing actual curriculum is a growing population of illiterates. Kids pass through twelve years of school without reading a single book on their own, writing anything more than a page, or even conceiving a sentence over six words. Many of them reason with the same sophistication as a student in elementary school. Those that pursue a college education learn that the spell and grammar check functions on Microsoft Word can do very little for a person with no real conception of spelling or grammar. Anyone who cares to chat with an average professor from any college faculty will certainly hear a heavy groan at the pathetic quality of students' writing that grows ever worse by the year. As a result, quite a few college professors utilize the same "unconventional" methods of high school English teachers. By doing this, they can escape that tedious task of teaching composition and close reading. Thus, a student may possibly graduate from high school and college without reading or writing proficiently.

This nonobjective treatment towards the English language pervades all levels of schooling. Students of all ages, their parents, and administrators now expect it from English and Reading teachers. If they refuse to teach that way, everyone around them will charge them with being boring, unrealistic, and incompetent. All those lovely authors of the English canon like Hawthorn, Elliot, Shakespeare, Twain, Orwell, and the Bronte sisters that English teachers cherish so deeply because of their ultimate literary beauty now disappear with utter neglect. These teachers stifle their intellectual stirrings and reluctantly push the play button for their emotionally and intellectually stunted students. They know that only fools try to challenge the status quo at a public high school.

Modern culture reflects this choice to remove objectivity and academic discipline from the English language. Eerily similar to the Newspeak of 1984, the only language in history where the number of words decreases each year, English in the United States experiences the same phenomena. Newspapers, which are facing extinction soon, have been edited for people with a sixth grade reading level. Most modern literature pales in comparison with the virtuosic verbiage of the nineteenth century. Magazines have more pictures and fewer words, even ones discussing literature.

Extending the Orwellian analogy, the reduction of vocabulary in English results in a constant diminishment of ideas. Newspeak nullified the ideas of independence and happiness by removing them from the language altogether. The United States suffers this same kind of loss. Many minds don't understand nuance or complexity like they might have before. Politicians demonstrate this decline of thought perfectly. They can treat incredibly complex issues like the environment, immigration, or trade deficits with incredibly simple, but somehow acceptable, answers like "Cut taxes", "More government subsidies", or "build a wall". Naturally, the other venues of culture that cater to the intellectual capacity of the masses follow suit. They simplify their art to petty agendas, gimmicks, or insipid platitudes. Like newspapers, television might also face extinction very soon because of this shameless pandering to ignorance.

People need to understand that the real fun of any academic discipline should come from increased proficiency. Teachers that push their students through the harrying grammar of the English language also enable many more possibilities for their students' thoughts and expression more than any assignment employing arts and crafts. Teachers that assign frustrating essays also open a vital area of critical thought that will eventually liberate young people from shallow propaganda. Teachers that take their kids through the heavy language of classic writers also endow their students with maturity, new ideas, and a larger mental capacity. The struggle demanded by these exercises lack facile amusement, but they do educate youths to rise to challenges of the world awaiting them, which should be the purpose of educational institutions.

Unfortunately, the conflict erupts from those who think educational institutions have different purposes like amusing the populace until they reach the age of employment or official incarceration. Those people often run the schools themselves to the satisfaction of ignorant parents. Like the students who relish inferior education, teachers, administrators, and parents also love the fun unconventional teaching methods because it relieves them of responsibility and makes their lives easy in the meantime.

Naturally, these easy solutions later create society's cultural undoing. Tragically, they create incomplete human beings as well.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Mental Block

"You, 6655321, are to be reformed," said the prison chief governor from the horrible tale of a Clockwork Orange. In this part of the story, the main character, a young man named Alex goes by a number that the prison assigns him, 6655321. His crime of brutally murdering and robbing an elderly woman placed him behind bars. The faceless quality of the prison setting that reduces every inhabitant to a number and crams them into overcrowded cells muffling their cries. Alex seeks freedom from the colorless block even if that means sacrificing his free will in an operation that make him feel extreme queasiness at any wayward thought arising in his criminal mind. Ignoring admonitions from a sympathetic preacher, Alex foolishly accepts the operation that soon pushes him to eventual self-destruction. It never occurred to Alex to liberate himself from the authorities or his own wanton passions by taking a step towards personal responsibility. Rather, he sought to forfeit any personal responsibility and sedulously acted to preserve and careless life without a conscience as long as possible before it got boring.

Coincidentally, one will find quite a few similarities to the nightmare the between the aforesaid novel and an average public school. Like the prison, many American public schools also assign numbers to their students and cram them into overcrowded rooms. Like Alex, students will seek liberty at any price often sacrificing any viable future they could have had. They throw away personal responsibility and indulge every throbbing impulse of adolescence to the detriment of themselves and all those around them. The anonymity and oppressiveness of their surroundings completely obscures academic achievement, and it absolutely abhors independent and accountable thought.

The hierarchy starts from an unseen big brother, otherwise known as the superintendent. Below him begins a tall stack of district administrators, then school administrators, then department heads, then finally, the teachers. Each level also designates consultants assigned to facilitate the effectiveness of each level. Like the students, each cog in this marvelous machine has an employee number in which to identify oneself. This hierarchy strives to sterilize any community with its sheer vastness and its oppressive mandates to maintain the status quo.

Students and teachers in this system either fall into line with this environment or they are chastised and removed. Both parties make the best of a glum situation to which society has sentenced them. Students escape by doing the least work possible, forcing teachers to entertain them with summer camp activities. Teachers escape by satisfying the students and shedding any desire they formerly had to educate. Administrators will do their jobs by actually keeping the kids in school and taming their spirits for something useful like operating cash registers or picking up garbage. The few students with responsible parents might find a place to learn in the Honors classes where they will learn at grade level if they're lucky. If not, students will sink into a tolerable depression and embrace being dehumanized.

The beauty of this system is that it accommodates everyone. Districts have artfully managed to pack schools to the brim with students with minimal concessions. With so much funding, they have created a world that admits no freedom, no development, no logic, no beauty, and is so downright dystopian that even Orwell would cringe. Real humans are transformed into dogs that perform mindless tricks (i.e. standardized tests), waiting for their next treat and their new chew toy.

Unfortunately, the world does not care to have more mindless sheep to do stupid jobs and lead pointless lives. They can get those sheep in other countries for much less money. The world does need conscientious leaders who can lead the populace out of the doldrums of ignorance and into material and cultural prosperity. As it stands, most Americans are left to themselves to get an education on their own by teaching themselves or by paying absurd amounts of money for remedial classes in college. In present times, a decent education that a person should receive in their teens instead happens in their late twenties. By that time, they will be fixed cogs like their teachers in a vast machine that obfuscates their very humanity. Their youthful energy usually expires, leaving them powerless break the gloomy cycle.

To top off this lurid reality, public schools will continue as they are. Administrators will weed out the insiders who cry out for reform. Outsiders will be brushed off as uninformed about education and disgustingly elitist. Being a monopoly, public school districts will carry on since the competition can only address a small portion of the market. They will throw a bone to concerned parents, and they will give a nice little speech for the community. This is all a fa├žade to please everyone accept the faculty and kids.

Perhaps a century ago, American kids could be likened to Huckleberry Finn or a Tom Sawyer eager to satisfy their abundant curiosities. Now, American kids carry a much greater affinity to a Winston Smith in 1984 or an Alex from A Clockwork Orange. They can choose between complete submission and utter depravity. Unfortunately, the United States has enough of these types and needs to change the institution that propagates it. A good start for this change might be giving students their names again.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A bug of mischief going around

In one of the earlier episodes of the Simpsons (ironically, a show with one of the most realistic depictions of public school), Bart, a ten-year old fourth grader, and his parents attend a parent conference with Bart's teacher, Ms. Krabappel. She shows the parents how Bart's behavior and approach to the class affects the students around him by providing a 3-d model of the class's academic performance in relation with the spatial proximity to Bart's desk. The model shows a vortex around the hole that indicates Bart's seat in the classroom, demonstrating his corruptive influence in school work. As Ms. Krabappel goes further in examining Bart's performance and behavior, both the father and son tune her out and scratch their heads at any type of reform. Those who watch the show know that Bart's behavior never really changes throughout the series, and his teachers just accept it.

Unfortunately, this fictional situation on the animated sitcom plays out in reality constantly. The bad student that terrorizes classrooms does indeed exist and teachers will quit their jobs because of them. Even after so many student behavior studies and innovative disciplinary protocols, the best solution that schools have come up with is simply isolating these students in in-house suspension or at alternative schools, otherwise known as "junior" penitentiaries. Even with these options available, schools continue to have issues with the problem students who compromise instruction immeasurably because too many of them exist, and the junior penitentiaries can only hold so many. Thus, public school districts and the governments that fund them have to reconsider this growing problem that has received mere duct tape style solutions for the short term, or public school and its actual purpose to educate will fail completely and actually harms a child's intellectual development (assuming most people haven't made this conclusion already).

The best analogy, which probably allows the best approach, compares student misbehavior with a plague. Plagues usually arise in unsanitary conditions with unhealthy inhabitants, they infect the masses, they receive treatment too late, and they come in different strains of the illness that each require a different type of treatment, and those stricken with the plague hardly ever get cured but eventually die from their illness. Students’ misbehavior occurs along the same lines. Bad students usually arise in overcrowded and poorly run schools with undereducated students. Teachers and administrators shrug off the problem which has not developed into anything serious (otherwise, illegal) yet. A student stricken with the childish misbehavior will undermine the classroom and spread it to other weak-minded children lacking role-models and maturity. Finally, the misbehavior takes on a myriad of different forms and necessitates complex disciplinary system to treat each form. However, the bad students usually stay bad anyway and will see themselves out of school with minds sentenced to death. The lurid picture haunts the minds of teachers who see infected young minds everyday while the district provides an academic cesspool and various forms of mental bloodletting for treatment.

Fortunately, society has progressed and reason has provided a solution to plagues. If a community simply removes the conditions for plagues to fester, then those plagues will be minimized. Perhaps, if the school community removes conditions for misbehavior, that misbehavior will be minimized. Relieving the classroom size, school size, and even district size could resolve many behavior issues and classroom control. Schools should also reconsider the use of time and the heavy restrictions of freedom, mental and physical, placed on students. The prison-like restrictions lead many of them into depressions that make them susceptible to misbehavior. Once these conditions have been set, schools can complete the preventative measure of misbehavior by instilling healthy habits into their students like independent reading and daily exercise that build immunity against vitiating strains of misbehavior.

Now that the community has taken measure to prevent plagues, they can address much fewer illnesses that still take place and succeed. Schools would enter the same situation that allows them to beneficially affect the misbehaving student and improve him for once, instead of quarantining him like a leper and letting him die while dragging down students around him like they used to. Imagine the possibilities for young minds in such a world made clean and free. The dark ages of ignorance wiped out with plague could accordingly reemerge in a scholastic renaissance breaking the shackles of nature and revealing the dazzling potential of humanity.

To make these kinds of changes probably require more spending power for districts, but not really that much. The remedies to bad behavior have taken their toll in the short term solutions that could be better used on long term ones. Districts spend millions of dollars on hiring an army of security guards, a vast array of resource teachers for struggling kids, security cameras, thousands of outdated computers accompanied with useless educational software, and vast amounts of bureaucracy maintaining such an inefficient deleterious institution. Rather, districts could build more schools, reorganize themselves into more independent units, and reform grueling daily schedules that keep kids from ever breathing freely. Otherwise, schools will continue to reverse their intention of instructing children and making them responsible citizens and instead make illiterate degenerates destroying society after they finish destroying the classroom. Bart Simpson will not be the exception but the norm.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Wonderful World of Reading

The week before the school year begins, the district calls upon their teachers to enter the school campus and prepare for the new year. Emotions and optimism fill the hallways as new teachers and even veterans draw up strategies to make the curriculum engaging and really “get those kids up to grade level this year” (the administrators will make sure of this). New teachers rekindle memories of their own English classes that influenced them to teach in that subject area. Ideally, they imagine discussing those rich tomes of the cannon like Shakespeare's tragedies, the vast industrial worlds of Dickens’, the harrowing nightmares of Orwell, or the touching adolescent studies of Salinger. "This time," they think, "I will really make the text come alive for them, and even include some more material from some other authors like Marquez and Dostoevsky." They outline some possible lesson plans around these ideas and some provocative journal prompts to expand their students' means of expression. Indeed, during that golden summer week before the kids come, even the hideous, cracked, gray blocks of the school campus will not temper the dreams of ambitious new teachers.

Then the school year begins, and mandatory diagnostic exams reveal a shattering fact: Many of the kids are illiterate, and almost all of them read a good bit below grade level. The new teachers will plow on, though a bit more cautiously, and assign their wonderful classics to the kids and hope for the best. A vast majority of students do not even bother reading a sentence and taunt the new teachers to pass the time since they have given up on work in English class. The few students that do try will drift into daydreams because the text challenges them beyond measure. Even the sober teachers wise enough to adjust their material to the students’ actual reading level encounter the same challenge. Weeks of the students' mediocrity eventually wear the teachers down to jejune worksheets and books on tape. Exercises meant to improve grammar, composition, and analysis dissipate into nothingness the same way they did the last eight grades of the students' lives. The status quo's illiteracy remains unchanged, and students will continue to view their futures in terms of what plans they have for the next weekend.

However, schools will fiercely shelter their exceptional students filling the Honors classes. Those students escaped the rampant ignorance and misbehavior of the "regular" classes through their test scores, parents, or last names. Realistically, they do not truly excel in academics, but simply function at their proper grade level and manage to maintain it for their twelve years (though many will do this by cheating). Many teachers actually come from this bubble of Honors students, but they never realized that they were only part of ten percent of the student body until they start seeing the school as a teacher.

Naturally, the situation of mass illiteracy plagues many minds paid to worry. Administrators can only suggest more benchmarks, assessments, and meaningless staff developments laden with useless educational buzzwords. Most teachers simply quit after a year of failed attempts. Other teachers settle for the busywork assignments that succeed in maintaining an orderly classroom and the students' brainwaves. An incredibly precious few, however, will defy these positively scary odds.

These models of successful teachers never receive their due credit. Students, accustomed to indolence and coddling, hate these teachers because they actually demand effort from the students. Other teachers envy them for their success and their unorthodoxy in teaching (for one must know that teaching effectively is highly unorthodox). For the same reasons, administrators, if they ever acknowledge their existence, keep watchful eye on any signs of dangerous independence of thought and virtue. The model teacher walks a lonely road, but he saves the world from a chaotic ignorance with his resilience.

Surprisingly, the methods of these teachers do not contain any gimmicks or novelties. They simply possess an incredible amount of patience, endurance, and wisdom, which they model everyday to students eager to break that image. Their lessons require that the students exert themselves independently. They explain the relevance of every technique and skill, and model these techniques and skills constantly for the class. They require accountability for academic performance and use any means to procure it to the malaise of those students hoping for anonymity and scraping by like always. With such methods, everyday for these teachers will be a draining battle. However, those last weeks of the year bear the fruit of responsible kids armed to teach themselves independently, for the wise teacher will realize that this is the end education should try to pursue.

The dreams of teaching classic novels will come someday. Unfortunately, most English teachers spend most of their school year preparing a student for the task before embarking upon it. New teachers should prepare themselves to repeat simple directions and explanation ad infinitum. They should prepare themselves for the tedious procedures of discipline and the many phone calls home for recalcitrant students. Sadly, they might find themselves the first teacher to actually ask something of the kids. This image might lack glamour, and it might conflict with the dramatizations of Hollywood, but as Aristotle rightly said over two millennia ago, "The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet." If teachers heed this quote, they can move forward and carry their poor students with them on their back. The load might weigh them down at first, but the students will walk on their own soon enough. At that point, the true dream of the teacher will materialize.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A trip down memory lane

I took a ride to my old school the other day. On the way through the neighborhoods, my eyes caught the familiar sight of beautiful clean houses with trimmed lawns and gracefully aging trees softening the sun's rays. A few happy people escaped the entrapment of their televisions and took their pets or children out for a walk. The charms of the middle class neighborhood shone in the glory of the approaching autumn. I inhaled the clean air away from the busy highways, absorbed the quiet scene around me, and forgot about the problems of the week. Then I arrived at destination that always violently clashed with the tranquil pleasant surroundings, my old school.

It's a typical center of learning for adolescents. It's made up of a set of modernist blocks unimaginatively put together with a few windows. They stand tall and ominous at three stories overlooking the lawn littered with myriad junk food wrappers. Cracks run through the few sidewalks provided for students outside. In back of the school, carelessly placed dumpsters block the way from the campus to the baseball fields and tennis courts and fill the air with the pungent fumes of garbage. Lying behind the school is a vast labyrinth of portables expanding every year (from five of them to seventeen within only five years). To their credit, they do manage to keep the football field pristine, which might suggest something about public education's priorities. Unfortunately, the rest of the campus is dirty, colorless, and more psychologically oppressive than Munch's The Scream.

I choose the school as a destination because I like to ride through the empty walkways in the evenings or weekends, and I sometimes look over the fields and the setting sun. For a moment, my mind conjures the old memories of my high school days waiting for the bus with my friends. Those long nauseous days spent in that hideous complex dissolved as I looked outside to nice neighborhood and the possibilities of being free in a few years. My friends all felt that way. God pitied us and afforded that moment of relief to our suppressed spirits. Even rain or extreme cold didn't take the relief away. We pressed against the windows and continued to ponder what else there might be in life. Then the bus came and we rested for the next day.

Along with remembering those nice moments, I also remember the duller painful moments too. Every time I go to work and walk into Horizon High School (the bigger brother of my old school), I remember the feeling of dread pulsing through my being everyday when I was a student. It would be the familiar world of big crowds, tense hours filled with pointless work and evaluations, and an ugly prison-like setting. Powerful impressions developed over 12 years don't just float away just because one's being paid to go. It's something to be handled deliberately.

I consider this blog my catharsis. It helps me identify with my kids though their thinking never attains the same lucidity. Their expression will be shortchanged by their idiotic parents and an indifferent school system that can hardly sustain itself, let alone educate. Maybe they'll attempt to be semi-autoditacts like myself and find the right words. As a reading teacher, I might be the only one to give them the necessary tool, literacy, to enable independent edification.

I actually carry that thought with me as I teach. Despite the hard realism every public teacher has to face, some of them really do say, "I'm a teacher and I can make a difference. It might be a small difference, but it'll be significant. I can smile, put up the blinds letting in the sunlight, and actually help the children escape their ugly worlds with the power of language and the wisdom it conveys. The kids don't need to feel the pain I and many millions of kids felt. Or, more realistically, they don't need to feel as much pain. I can only do so much in packed school of 5200 kids."

From what I see, those that do this are the best teachers. There're only a pitiful few of them though.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Supersize me...

This past week over 5300 kids were enrolled at Horizon Center. The Horizon campus includes over five multi-storied buildings and encompasses the whole horizon from nearly a mile away thus earning its name. However, the classes are still horribly overfilled and space is very cramped. Teachers often instruct (or at least, try to instruct) classes of over thirty kids, some left standing because of the lack of desks. Every room has a class in it all eight periods including the cafeteria, auditorium, and library. The students in halls stop at foot-traffic jams, and some of the more aggressive personalities flare up in hallway rage. The building becomes unnaturally warm from the presence of so many people. This center of learning and development for adolescents quite literally overflows with them.

Horizon takes the lead for sheer numbers of students, but nearly forty other high schools in the district share the burden of overpopulation. To address the shortage of space, the schools tack on more and more portables, never minding the fact that their solution is temporary, inadequate, and ugly. To address the problem of effectively managing such large crowds and the large accompanying staff, the schools usually just let the teachers fend for themselves and hire more security. Accordingly, no one bothers to properly furnish classrooms lacking a phone and working computer except generous teachers who will buy these things themselves. Even teachers without rooms (also known as “floaters”) are obliged to snatch any stray carts they can find since the school cannot provide new ones.

At the helm of this sprawling school district (eight times bigger than any other district in the metroplex) sits a massive bureaucracy with more layers than an onion. They answer their under-equipped educators drowning in a sea of kids by enforcing more teacher orientations. These tedious orientations coin more useless teaching buzzwords like "teacher-student synergy" and "cross-department interdisciplinary pedagogical development" along with demonstrating the new expensive teaching software that will never be available in the classrooms. All the teachers in the district can attest to the incompetence of the HR department that forces new applicants to waylay the administrator in charge of their application papers in the parking lot before they can get in their office. In keeping with their organizational ineptitude, HR, which oddly works on a 4-day schedule during summer, always fails to fill every teaching position resulting in a number of substitutes teaching the overcrowded classrooms for the year. To their credit, the district's administrators can very skillfully evade every form of accountability and sustain their useless existence somehow. Furthermore, the development of the Internet has facilitated their lack of accountability even more by taking human beings completely out of the picture. The huge hive of offices and their bureaucratic bees only need to refer a person to the website plagued with bugs before they take their two hour lunch break.

In light of these problems that betray themselves so quickly, few people clamor for the reduction of the monstrous size of the district, the schools, or the administration. Parents, editorialists, and politicians alike push for additional funding for this dysfunctional educational quagmire that desperately needs to be completely dissolved and reorganized. Horizon does not need more portables or another floor in their main building; it needs to be split into six schools. The district of Horizon does not need to assume other failing districts nor does it need redundant departments and their ongoing "investigations"; it needs to be broken down into seven smaller districts. The overwhelming magnitude of responsibilities drowns everyone from superintendents to teachers who all suffer terrible turnover rates. Kids don't exaggerate when they equate school with a prison or factory. They really do become numbers with ID Cards in a huge system of crowd control faced with complete anonymity in an ugly world filled with graffiti and many unhappy people.

People misinterpret the success of private schools, charter schools, and schools in suburban school districts. They attribute their success to well-reared kids with educated caring parents that have the financial resources to help them. While these factors do play a part in their success, the real virtue of those schools lies in their small size. With less money to work with, they wisely handle as many students as they know they can handle. The teachers receive their basic needs like a computer and phone along with a deducted paycheck, and they gladly accept it for manageable classrooms and a supportive faculty. Many of them don't even have actual certification, but they frequently achieve more success than the seasoned teacher with a graduate degree in education working in a public school. Obviously, more funding and training do not make better teachers, but the environment does.

Unfortunately, the mammoth school district continues to roam through an ice age of academic progress oblivious to common sense. It has a monopoly over the city’s youth and thus has no real incentive to improve. Until all kids can have room to think and breathe easily, a few concerned parents with ample means will scurry off to the suburbs or the nearest parochial school. Unfortunately, the rest of the kids will fend for themselves in a Malthusian nightmare promoting the strong (and often dishonest) and condemning the weak and disadvantaged.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Math, Science, and the World of Tomorrow

In 1957, a small satellite called Sputnik was launched from the icy tundra of the ex-superpower, Russia, into Earth's orbit. As a result, American educators posited new fundamentals of learning in their characteristic ambiguity: Children of these modern times need to learn Science and Math. If the communists could send a hunk of metal into space, then it somehow seemed imperative that Americans overhaul their education system so they could send hunks of metal into space as well.

A huge need arose for math and science teachers to train students not only to master arithmetic, but complex algebra, Geometry and its endearing proofs, trigonometry, and even calculus. In Science, kids embarked upon the etymological terminology of Biology, the titrations of Chemistry, the rocks of Geology, and the infinite variables in Physics. The crown jewel of these classes would be the shoddy projects submitted to the school science fair. In modern society, these seemingly abstract disciplines and their charming empirical ventures would help Americans cope with the evolving job markets and world challenges facing us. No one actually verified this hypothesis posited nearly half a century ago but rather pushed it even further. The pundits and politicians prescribed more math and science for everyone.

Naturally, because enthusiasm in space exploration has waned recently, "experts" have employed a different line of reasoning for the perpetuity of abstract mathematical and scientific concepts. Edifying themselves with a few science fiction novels, they claim these disciplines in math and science will lay foundations of understanding new technologies and their functions which will thus help mankind's pursuit of a better life. Furthermore, Americans must compete with the throngs of Chinese and Indians graduates with Math and Science degrees. If they don't, the Asians might steal American jerbs. (Never mind the fact that Indians and Chinese will steal these jobs anyway since they will work for a fifth of the price.)

Unfortunately, this reasoning really doesn't work. While Technology and Engineering might utilize a few concepts of math and physics, most of the jobs in these fields are learned in training or tinkering with the machines. Universities and many community colleges can usually lay the groundwork for any necessary knowledge required to set up networks, repair and construct manufacturing machines, constructing bridges and buildings, etc. However, pumping kids with more formal (remember, most of this material is far from applicative) math and science from elementary to high school seems unnecessary and tedious.

The actual need for formal mathematicians and scientists really remains the same as it ever has in history. The people of today face problems that existed half a century ago that technology was supposed to solve, and most people’s daily concerns remain the same. The changes in society concomitant with computers, nuclear power, internet, and cell phones, in reality, raise more philosophical questions than scientific ones. However, the philosophical disciplines like history, language, and the social sciences take the backseat to math and science. Even practical applications like mechanics, carpentry, computer programming, and robotics take a backseat to math and science. The foundations of humanity and culture in the arts take the backseat to math and science. Students will have to meet today's actual challenges on their own time because schools would rather prepare them for the next superfluous standardized math test.

The problems waylaying the world today can be derived from an ultimate lack of wisdom, practical and moral. The lack of a historical conscience leads Americans to make the same mistakes again and again, on civic and personal levels. The lack of language mastery and the active acquisition of knowledge from literacy lead to the intellectual and professional stagnation and exploitation of the lower classes. The lack of the arts results in a materialist gaudiness that taints and clutters the surrounding environment. The lack of philosophy and social sciences result in so much waste, bureaucratic irrelevance, and spiritual oppression. The lack of vocational training leads to crime, unemployment, and more waste.

Young people really do want to face the world of today and work for progress, but they don’t have the tools to do so. That pivotal enthusiasm to make a positive difference and benefit society wanes as the years of useless classes render them apathetic and despondent. The problems of society remain or actually become compounded by unmotivated graduates. These problems will need attention sometime, but all the algebraic theorems and dissected hamsters in the world won't solve them. The neglected subjects of History and common sense might show this.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Studies have shown...

In a recent study, educational researchers have shown that kids who start kindergarten a year later have an advantage throughout their academic careers and are 7 percent more likely to succeed in school. Many newspaper and magazine articles concerned with the academic welfare of upcoming generations have latched on to this study, promoting the practice of starting school later. Hardly any of them bother to analyze the reasons behind the ever slight advantage older kids have in school, but the reasons are usually negligible in these studies. The conscientious writers will simplistically conclude that older kids equal better students, and all the good parents do it; just look at all the pie charts and graphs that prove it.

To any sufficiently grounded reader who can dodge the over generalizing tones of the writers and their "evidence", these educational studies have very little relevance or accuracy. However, educators and educational certification programs positively live by these studies which are conducted arbitrarily and often poorly. Many of the superfluous inanities that bewildered students encounter at school often derive from the idiotic conclusions made from these studies.

Consider this: An educational guru researcher, Dr. Gaardner has determined that the mind has multiple intelligences, which oddly correspond with subjects at school. For instance, some kids have math intelligence (math), some have verbal intelligence (English), some have artistic intelligence (art), and some even have kinetic intelligence (P.E.). He proves this by compiling some numbers based on children's responses to some inquiries he drew up that probably ask the kids' favorite subject at school. He veils his lack of objectivity with many charts and numbers, and his readers succumb to his apparent hard logic that defies those terrible IQ tests that put some minds ahead of others in ability. Dr. Gaardner triumphantly makes all minds equal in ability by classifying whatever a child likes, be it videogames or soccer, as a simply a different intelligence that schools fail to recognize. Therefore, it's up to educators to recognize and channel these diverse proclivities of students in the classroom.

In response to this logic, fledging teachers learn that they must create lesson plans that utilize music, movement, art, math, science, and foreign languages to effectively educate kids in any subject. Thus, teachers will assign projects with no learning value whatsoever. The concepts and information that are taught become distorted. Inevitably, time and money for the variety of resources necessary (especially computers and a plethora of software) are wasted. Teachers who witness the failure of method advocated by their superiors either leave or become jaded about the students they teach and the administrators they work for.

Gaardner's compassionate originality earned points with people looking for the ultimate quick fix towards academically impaired kids who lack motivation, but it’s counterproductive and just plain wrong. In terms of true mental ability, the closest measurement has been the IQ test. Consequently, studies show that kids with high IQ turn out to have high intelligences in all of Gaardner’s areas while kids with low IQs have low intelligences in the same spectrum. However, actual studies have shown that even the IQ test has many flaws and that the mind can gain in IQ points throughout a person's life, which renders its evaluation of intellectual potential useless and even detrimental in the classroom. Not surprisingly, Gaardner's Multiple Intelligence criteria are even more useless and detrimental.

While he continues to produce more fanciful theories on education, Gaardner is only one among many “experts” who shape the way American public schools look today. Their studies evaluate a human being's response like a rat's response and dictate the direction of school administration and instruction. Maybe that explains why so many campuses operate like rat mazes or sheep farms, or why so many children painfully suppress their human gift of thought and inquiry in the public school setting. The purposes and intents behind schools have become clouded and ridiculous by trying to use Pavlovian experiments laden with flawed judgments and reasoning.

Unfortunately, psychologists will continue to churn out these studies, and readers will follow them. Don't be surprised if the official age of kindergarten moves up to six years old because of this latest study.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Educational Wish List

"Getting our kids ready for a complex world is the nation's second-most important challenge, behind controlling terrorism. The education challenge grows even more important when you factor in the large – and irreversible – wave of Latino immigrants enrolling in schools across America."
-An editorialist for the Dallas Morning news writing yet another article about education's importance.

The chant for better education in the American public system continues. The message drones on and on, everyday, ad nausea. A concerned American may only read the paper for three days, and find at least five editorial columns on education. The writers will demand that school ends poverty, racial inequality, crime, unassimilated illegal aliens, sexual immorality, obesity, and naturally, widespread ignorance. The newspapers actually have more items on this wish list; these are simply the latest to be read. The editorials accomplish very little since they offer absolutely no ways to actually address these demands in social progress, but they do effectively cloud the definition of school.

Writers and pretty much everyone outside of education don't know that their clamoring often makes the problem more difficult and, even worse, puts the creation of a solution into the government’s hands. Of course, they don’t intend to do this. They just seek greater accountability from a bloated, poorly run government institution. This is a valid judgment for most public school districts, especially ones in big cities, which are in fact bloated and poorly run. However, simply asking schools to do more does not solve the problem. Rather than offer solutions, so many columnists cynically make their demands and conclude with a "Shape up teachers!" with the tacit consent of frustrated parents who need someone to blame. Unfortunately, piling on so many more duties and burdens to school create a philosophic conundrum for schools: Just what are we trying to do?

This question used to be easy. People knew that schools were meant to guide (notice, I didn't use the verb, force-feed) kids in learning how to read, write, and reason logically. Like a mother bird regurgitating food to the baby bird, the teacher regurgitates these huge skills into digestible servings that the student can handle at their respective level. If the student follows the teacher's instructions, he will climb the tower of knowledge, and eventually arrive at a point where he can teach himself and keep informed. At that point, he could find a trade or attend a college or university and try to pursue the reaches of his intellectual potential according to his own academic proclivities. The student's success depends on his willingness to achieve, which in turn depends on his parent's willingness to encourage achievement. If these qualities do not present themselves, the student wouldn't have to burden the teacher nor wouldn't burden the student.

Now, school has become a complicated place. All children must attend it, even illegal aliens and the severely mentally disabled. Actually, this rule has necessitated vast truancy departments set on catching miscreants playing hooky. All students must learn material at a certain level at the same or similar pace despite having very different capabilities and very different backgrounds. All students must take seven or eight different classes everyday and spend at least 7 hours a day in a school building even if it's unnecessary and even detrimental to independent study. All students must proceed to some kind of higher education after completing 13 years of school as if a four-year college was the only way to adequately prepare kids for the real world. All students must find some intrinsic motivation in learning, despite the frequent pointless assessments and ensuing punitive consequences for not performing that effectively blow that concept of learning for fun into the realm of fantasy. All student behavior and discipline must be held accountable to the national standard even if they are criminals, addicted to substances, or come from families that encourage irresponsibility. All kids must be physically fit (this is a relatively new one) despite their poor meal choices (including school lunch) and chronically lethargic living habits. All kids must know the details of reproduction and effective contraceptives even if they still continue to have children regularly like their parents did before them. All kids must learn a foreign language despite their struggles with English. All kids must be capable on the newest technology, so they watch it become obsolete the next year if it's not obsolete already. All kids must read the designated canon of books, which are often years beyond their level.

In essence, schools must now become the omnipotent ubiquitous influence in every developing individual. Every aspect must be covered from sexual activity to a nominal understanding of the prescribed canons of school literature including riveting works like The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations. Furthermore, every demand must be implemented and assessed collectively. Every moral failing of parents and the students themselves (don't be fooled, young people aren't completely blameless for their stupidity) must be undertaken and accounted for by the school. Luckily, the endless vices of materialistic modern society amply provide a continuous flow or moral failings and thus more demands. Finally, for all those who don't have these failings in discipline, morality, or character, they will be put with those that do and gradually be pulled down with them. Schools will determine success and failure in all matters of life since they will eventually encompass all levels of judgment. The good teacher will be the one that effectively keeps his kids in a prosaic delirium. The good student will be the kid that follows orders (no matter how irrelevant they might be) and complains the least. Surely, someone might find their valedictorians having this obsequious quality instead of actual cerebral aptitude.

If this sounds Orwellian, it's because it is. One only needs to visit the nearest school and remark the eerie resemblance it has to jail or factory. Schools are the intimidating monoliths of the collective. Like every collective, they will never endow brilliance or virtue. No collective ever has. The decisions made by the individual will always triumph over the decisions of the collective. Like they were in the past, schools should only be the tools to enlightenment providing the means to individual progress, nothing more. Otherwise, intellectual responsibility, personal discipline, and academic quality in general become severely compromised. Just take a look at American public schools.

Still, how can people hold schools accountable if not by making demands of them? After all, kids need to be ready for the new challenges of the modern world. Schools need to teach the kids before China takes over and every menial job not done by machines will be exported to Asia or South America.

The only way to improve is to stop making demands. Clean the slate of school's responsibilities and determine, realistically, how it can serve the intellectual progress of students. Allow the kids and parents a choice in what they want. Pave the way for independent study instead of clinging naively to the extended sessions of jejune worksheets and standardized tests. That huge, nasty school bureaucracy that infects every large community can be purged and greatly simplified. Real results or progression could be achieved instead a great mass of nothing that costs so many tax dollars. Kids shouldn't have to wait until college to actually learn something on their own.

Unfortunately, government never gets smaller. If any improvement arrives, it will come from a resilient individual conquering the barriers of the collective. Good parents and good teachers are also necessary, but they’re very few of them. It's unfortunate that most students would have to follow the advice of Mark Twain for now, "Don't let school get in the way of your education."

Friday, July 13, 2007

The "Urban" school

As part of the certification requirements for my school, I had to observe one of the schools in DISD. I like to think I made an appropriately lurid picture of the "urban" school. It's pretty typical though.

Field Observation #1

As I drove through the pristine lofts emitting their rays of stylish cosmopolitan pleasantness uptown, I searched for my designated school of observation, North City High School. The expectation of a school matching the area around it soothed my worried mind about some well-off kids likely taking that step out of the ignorant swamp the school years I knew into that tall mountain of academic reform touted by so many schools these days. Following the maxim of conventional wisdom (or more truthfully, conventional prejudice), I assumed affluence equaled ability. However, I forgot another important maxim (again, arising from conventional prejudice), the affluent despise poverty and always opt for the nearest private institution. Behind the new cafes, boutiques, and Vespa dealerships lies an old crumbling building accompanied by some monotone portables complete with an unkempt lawn and a parking lot paved with weeds and gravel. This was North City High School. Beyond the school are some crowded tenements. This was where the school’s students came from.

I observed Remedial English teacher, who happened to be the department chair. He took on the students that basically suffered from illiteracy, requiring them to take his class, titled Reading 2. Failing students of Reading 1 needed to continue on into Reading 2. While talking to me in private, the teacher clarified his class’s title more accurately as, “Reading -1”.

Judging from the procedures of class, curriculum originated wholly from the TAKS standardized test. In the first two sessions that I observed, the teacher devoted class time to copying three sample essays from the TAKS test. They briefly discussed the differences between good essays and bad essays, but most of the kids concentrated on finishing their copying. Once the students completed the TAKS later that month, I eagerly awaited what the class would work on afterwards. Observing people copying sample essays for TAKS bored me probably more than it bored the students.

Unforuntately, the week after the TAKS served as free time for the kids as a reward for their good work that whole year. Again, this was a fruitless observation for me. However, the teacher assure me that the following week was devoted to preparation for Lord of the Flies, the first real book that they would read that year in Reading 2.

When I came in the next week, preparation included watching an extremely old documentary (almost contemporary with the period it covered) of Hitler and the Nazi regime. The students were to make connections of Fascism with the government that the kids set up in Lord of the Flies. This connection proved difficult with the kids since most of them slept during the documentary and somehow had no prior knowledge of World War II. Dismayed at their ignorance, the teacher muttered that they would be perfect goons for following a dictator like Hitler.

In my last session, I observed them trying to outline an essay concerning the first third of the book. The students did not know how to write an outline for an essay, or much less, write an essay. The prompt for the essay asked them about the necessity of rules in society and how the boys in the book recreated a system of rules on their island. The students spent much of the period either staring at an empty page, fiddling with a broken pencil sharpener, or sleeping (I marveled at this, since I personally found the seats incredibly uncomfortable). Noticing the blank pages on the desks, the teacher became flustered and hastily showed them how to make an outline for an essay on the chalk board, which the students then voraciously copied. When the period ended, the teacher sarcastically commented to me, “Walking into this classroom is like catching a glimpse of the Dark Ages. No such thing as reading or writing, or organized thought. Just a bunch of brutes filled with random meaningless thoughts.”

Indeed, I thought of the Dark Ages when reviewing the type of environment that these students enter. They are cramped in a dark mean building with small rooms at school as well as their home, which they often share with nine other people. The teacher rigorously beats them into submission like serfs by intimidation, insults, and threats of law enforcement (it is not uncommon for students to mysteriously disappear after an outbreak in class). As a result, the kids carry poor spirits about school and develop only a rudimentary thinking in academics that will never expand or help in any way. I can see that the students have accepted their fate as mediocre dullards along with their teachers. The teachers mistake their cynicism for realism to justify their lack of assistance to these already impoverished kids. Very much like the Dark Ages (history has so many lessons), the school maintained order but at a very high cost.

After my sessions at the school, I often mulled about a resolution to this problem that plagues most urban schools, but I found that a real conclusion would only come when I became a teacher. So, I would usually grab a drink at the nearby Starbucks, admire uptown, and forget about the whole thing altogether like most people.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Notes on Subsitute Teaching Part II

"Today wasn't as bad as it I expected. I'm only going to have four periods to do and two of them are floral design (small classes with girls), one of them is BioMed (the class with Indian kids who seem to like me), and only one Agriculture (ugh, the knuckleheads). And, on top of the small load, I get to go home. I just hope that I don't get picked for another class on one of my off periods. I think that I've gained a bit of seniority at this school though and now the other subs are getting picked. I say this beause the secretary was talking about her regular subs (ie. me) and that they're great, plus I was only saddled with one extra class, the BioMed (to make it a full day) instead of 3 which she is entitled to put on me. I guess all that leaving early business and other happily unmentioned jabbering on my part has been all forgotten. I've been blessed the chaos of public high schools. "

"It was something of an uplifting thing to overhear a conversation in my first class. Apparently, some guy was discussing religion and Christianity and how this football coach (some of the biggest oafs you'll run into by the way), is a mean old man, but professes to being a Christian. I guess the coach got the great idea of preaching instead of conducting practice for the football players. The girls being Mexican Catholics thought that it was wrong to do that kind of thing, but that religion was important and the guy should respect that. The guy relented from his brutish way of talking and conceded to the girls. It gives me the idea that more mild mannered girls might be the key to pacifying the more at-risk guys and getting them and their children into church. That eases my mind a bit about their future.

The library seems full of life today. Two classes are doing some "research" on college campuses and college life and all that. I have my doubts as to the actual pertinence of this activity to some of the kids who appear to be sleeping right now, but I hope all the best for them. In back of me there was some faculty meeting about ID badges and their cool new functions (oh the joys of an administration career in education) that the teachers rightly yawn at. So, I guess I won't be lulled to sleep like other days I take a nice comfy chair in here.

I had a thought on my mind when subbing for some teachers. Is it a regular thing that women will adorn their desks with baby pictures, and them and their friends, but never them and their husbands? Is it the same way at your job? Or are they divorced? I know some aren't divorced, they just prefer their little babies. What is it about the whole maternal attachment? Maybe you could tell me. Heh, maybe you'll get it too.

A feeling of familiarity with the kids and the building have definitely eased my mind somewhat about my work. I pretty much know what to expect and I'm even knowing faces, and the kids know me. It makes a difference, for sure. Oh well, sticking to high schools which are few and constant certainly gives me that opportunity."

"Right now, I'm in a class that has only 3 people left in it. the rest seem to have gone to some pep rally. One of the kids has been staring at his fingers for over 20 minutes that makes me wonder if he has some natcotic buildup in his veins causing some hyper extended stupor in his mind. The other is a anime girl clad in all of hot topic's latests threads and another is some quiet Mexican kid...."

"Today was a swell day. Much better than yesterday. The teacher I subbed for trained his classes well. The kids knew what to do and most didn't give me any crap except for first period pleading for a "free day". But, even they finished their worksheets. So, it was a good day. Everytime I go to that school, Newman Smith, I'm pleasantly suprised. They have a good faculty. I can't really say that for the school yesterday, which was its rival, R. L. Turner. I was back to normal and got some reading done and there hasn't been any call from anyone.

Heh, one of the highlights of the day was this program I could use. It controls the whole network of computers so when kids were looking at things they weren't supposed to, I could override and close it. I only got to use it one class though, and most of the kids were good. I did get to close some anime fan art thing. That felt nice."

"Today was a crumbum day that I just wasn't ready for. Agriculture should be renamed "Dreg 101". The teacher left me with a pack of untamed hoodlums and a lesson plan written on a post-it note. It was a shitty situation. Kids came in leisurely having no assigned seats, no routine, no notice that there'd be a sub, or any kind of consequence. They had an assignment that they knew wouldn't be graded and a whole bunch of time to be annoying.On top of it all, they were all boys, and all delinquents. Simply, a situation that makes you cringe.

I held my own and did pretty well keeping them from killing each other. Though, at the end of the day, I just wanted to go so I thought I'd let the class leave early. Seriously, this class had NOTHING to do. And I knew very well that what I was doing was wrong and there really wasn't anything to justify myself except that I was tired, bored, and wanted to see if I could actually get away with it. Plus, I just really hate walking through overcrowded hallways with nasty kids. I dismissed the class 8 or 7 minutes early. I had my stuff ready and took it to the office where I'd sign out. As I was signing out, the secretary received a call right then about my dismissing my class and I got reprimanded. I meekly pleaded that I just wanted to avoid the bustle of kids, and that the group was small and they completed the (non-existent) lesson plan incredibly fast. Oh well, she told me that I'm not supposed to do that and that I was caught either way. She told me not to do it again and that I could go since the teacher I was subbing for came back anyway. I apologized and left. I don't think I'll get banned, but you never know....

Ok, I just called the sub system, and I was requested (as it I was specially requested) to sub again for the same class next week. I even called the lady to verify and she was very friendly. I took it. Kewliez (yes, there it is in writing). I guess I'm off the hook in that case. Better get some more word searches."

"I managed to get a break. It's always appreciated. I have one more class then I'm coming back home to eat. The classes have been going just fine. I'm pretty used to the behavior kids feel like giving. They always come in loud and obnoxious, they leave as quiet as mice. It's the same ol' song. Children are never creative or new. I know them better than they know themselves."

"I'm subbing for ESL right now. Boy, is it quiet. One of the great marvels of technology is this new program catered for English learners. So, at the moment, the kids are staring at the screen doing whatever. Well, honestly, only some are doing what they're supposed to be done, some others are making a meager effort, and the rest are staring off into space. Heh, I love ESL."

"My 3rd period has come in and they started. I had to quiet down a few chatty ones, but it's cool now. Taking a closer glance at the program they're doing, it looks pretty dumb. More memory games than actual language comprehension. But, so it goes. People (at least, education people) are harping on using technology to teach, but it just seems super expensive and utterly useless, even serving to dumb down the kids. I got to sub for a teacher who had to attend some workshop that was supposed to train the teachers on this new software that they might receive. It's alot like that thing you have in your class where there's a question on the overhead and all the kids can answer it with a remote that's given to them and the results are immediately sent to the teacher's computer. Even in Law School, the thing is stupid and time wasting. Imagine it in the hands of middle schoolers who are the most hazard prone individuals you'll run across. What's more, each machine is 4000 dollars! That's one machine per class! That's more than my whole yearly salary as a sub at that district. Oh well, you now know the biggest drain on school funds that cause people to gasp. Not teacher salaries, or even the beauracracy (that's 2nd), but all this stupid high-tech trash."

Notes on Substitute Teaching Part I

As requested by some people, here are some live accounts of my lovely job as a substitute teacher taken from different e-mails I wrote while working. I got a nice taste of just how little regard a person required to have a college degree receives at a school.

"I'm glad you were given a break. I could sure go for one too. The class I'm subbing for at the moment is really making me an ugly person. They just can't keep still and read. They're supposed to be advanced placement and all that, but they're all immature brats. I do my thing walking around talking down the rabble rousers, but it's pretty futile. Oh well, another bad report. Still, I have to keep things at an acceptable for the good kids that are doing what they're supposed to. Only for their sake do I admininister discipline because I really hate doing that stuff."

"Sorry to bring up work again, but here I am, and man, this lesson plan is terrible. Allow me to tell you "The kids should get their books and read the whole period." What shit is that?! Is there a grade at the end? No. Is there any assignment to be done? No. Is there any accountability at all? Not at all. What can I do? The whole class has books in their hand while they go on stupidly. And no one has assigned seating letting them jabber on with their friends before I have the move them myself. Two classes over 30 kids and the rest over 25.

Hold on. I'm going to have to take this sucker out. Referral!

Ah.... sweet tranquility. It's funny what a difference one student can make. It's such a pain to pull out the big guns but what's done has to be done. Fortunately, this last class is looking much better. Eh, stupid kids. Really Rita, if you ever got aquainted with kids your age or younger, you'd understand why young people get no respect at all. They're absolutely idiotic sometimes.

Now, I take a deep breath. I'm so ready for this week to be over. Waking up before sunrise again and again is taking its toll. I think I've been spoiled with previous assignments I had because today and half of yesterday were pretty tedious. Man, when was the last time I had an advance placement class? It seems like all the jobs I'm doing are the classes full of dregs. This is depressing. I'd like to tell you that these are the exception. There are a whole bunch of good kids with a future, but they're such a narrow lot. They're like endangered animals in the school world. I'm still unsure how things will be when we have a kid."

"Right now, I'm on a subbing assignment babysitting a World History class. Unfortunately, I'm having to encounter the lowest common denominator that seems to grow and grow as time passes. They all speak Spanish and there's not a blue eye to be seen. The all-star cast that I'm with today is Akram, Aldo, Mario, Marco, Perla, and Mayra. A good group of kids that have issues with basic reading comprehension.

Ah, ok, now I've settled them down. I feel like a sheep dog having to bark at the sheep so they do what they're supposed to. It's a workout sometimes. But, I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else at the moment. It's just funny to reflect sometimes."

"Subbing has now become something as routine as J.C.Penney. I know the procedures, nothing surprises me, and the days go by swimmingly. Taking on another class is like taking on another few customers. Behavior problems are like returns. A really bad kid is like an angry customer. I'm unfazed. I think the kids appreciate that. Heh, it's funny when a kid guiltily looks up when I tower above him catching him in the act of eating candy. I tell him to share with me, and all is well.

Right now, I'm in the middle of fifth period. The last period I tricked a student into logging me in. Heh, I'm so clever. Unfortunately, there isn't much amusement online. I read the paper and some sports news, gaze at a few comics, get my chuckle then it's back to the riveting Plutarch. It's hard to take as a historical document since much of it so far comes from myth. Then again, I've been doing Theseus and Romulus. The founder of Rome and the founder of Athens. It's just a hard thing to tell."

"Heh, it's funny looking at this one kid. He's a pale red head boy and the only white kid in the class, plus the only one with glasses. I just want to remark "My oh my, what are doing here?" But, that'd be inappropriate. He doesn't seem to look alienated, so that's good." -I found out later this kid was hispanic and spoke Spanish.

"Ok, had to quell a bathroom request. Ugh, these kids are really weasles sometimes."

"I get the bad feeling that today is going to be a long day. I’m in my second period right now, and none of the kids are doing their work at all. You see, being the 8th substitute they’ve had, any sense of accountability has completely been drained from them, and well, they don’t feel like doing French anymore. What’s more, they’re given a long-term group project of something they don’t seem to understand. This is what you call royally screwing the sub in a classroom quagmire. I’ve done this before in a Math class a few weeks back as you know. What I’ve learned from that experience is that it’s an impossible battle. Therefore, I’ll concede defeat and let them waste their time and be the babysitter.

Ah well, now I have the older more advanced classes and they’re much more cooperative. Still, the lesson plan was crummy and vague. They’re supposed to make some kind of lesson plans for the lower level French classes about French geography or something. I told them to look at the assignment make what they can of it, and go with it. So far, most people have been doing just that. I check on their progress ever so often. Some of them were reading Canterbury tales or American History! Heh, I actually talked books or history with them before getting them back on task. Yeah, I’m cool.

I know, I know, it’s just my job, my job, my job. How can I make this interesting to you? I really try. But, maybe there’s just no getting around it. Once something becomes an actual occupation it loses its luster in conversation. It was much more intriguing anticipating than simple recounting. Oh well."

Friday, July 6, 2007

Indulging in a little vanity

You know, people will always ask how you are, or what you might be up to, but you're never given the time to explain yourself. Instead, you skirt the question and move on, sputtering off some mundane drivel that might unfairly define you in the eyes of others forever afterwards. Like most other people, I lack a convenient outlet for simply explaining my life adaquately, so like other people I write a journal or a blog to suit the purpose of answering that popular question "What's up?". When faced with an "About me:" for this blog, I wanted to merely introduce my very ordinary situation, but it ended up having too many characters. Thus, it has become my second post:

I'm a bright eyed youth embarking upon the noble profession of teaching. I love working with young people and hope to give them a brighter future like an English teacher once did for me. I was obstinate towards literature and poetry until she opened up that magical world that liberated my soul and gave me the gift of expression. Who knew Shakespeare could appeal to an apathetic teen brought up on television and videogames?

Actually, I am none of the above except that I am a person embarking upon the profession of teaching. I’m not sure how long I'll stay in it before pursuing some kind graduate or professional degree. I’m not so fond of young people, but I consider that a strength. I've had terrible teachers, especially in English, so my motivation would be to illuminate dim adolescent minds with a flicker of academic prospect. I’m not too keen on Shakespeare, at least, not for modern youths struggling with words over three syllables.

I do love learning, so that is why I teach. It really wouldn’t matter what subject I taught so long as it’s something I respect. My general humanities major allowed me to teach history or English. Knowing that history teachers in Texas are usually coaches, I chose our modern Lingua Franca, English.

To get experience in the classroom, since the classes for teaching certification offer absolutely nothing, I subbed from 2006-2007 in a nearby school district and worked for pennies teaching English at a private summer school program at the Catholic school my mother worked at. I’m not a complete novice, but I don’t have a classroom (or in the poorer schools, a cart) of my own.

Right now, I pursue a job. I’m not completely certified, so I’m probably going to be left with the teaching jobs no one wanted. My first post explains the overwhelming progress of my job pursuit.

Monday, July 2, 2007

The start of a new career

I woke up early this morning to start my search for a teaching position in English. The hold on non-certified, non-disctrict-alternative-certification, should have been lifted by now according to the bureaucrat that happily dismissed me a month earlier when I sought a job. My status forces me to wait until the district goes into desperation mode. It's kind of like playing "Chicken" (that game where two cars speed towards each other until someone swerves out of the way) with the two sides usually losing.

Allow me to explain my situation. I've gotten pretty good at it after going to two job fairs and doing a few interviews. Here's how it usually goes: Right now, I'm a candidate for probationary certification, meaning I have everything done (coursework and tests) except my student teaching. I have had experience as a substitute teacher and a summer school teacher at a Catholic school. My school allows an academic year of internship in place of student teaching. However, it's upon me to find a contract with a school district willing to hire someone not completely certified. That leaves only private schools who have very few vacancies and terrible pay or bloated urban school districts who need fresh meat to tame the thugs. I've tried the private school route, and now I'm trying the thug taming route.

That morning I renewed my effort to simply get somewhere in terms of a job. I telephoned the HR office who then transferred me to the recruitment office who then transferred me to the calling center of the recruitment offices. No one answered the last transfer, so I repeated the process twice more before resigning myself to leaving a message to which I felt certain that no one would bother responding.

I certainty was confirmed. An hour passed, so I called the office again. Someone actually answered and pretended to know nothing of my previous message left. After explaining my desire to arrange an appointment with their "representative" to fill in one of their vacant English positions, I was told that they only do that with Math and Science teachers. My only option was to attend one of their job fairs at the end of the month, and to fax my resume to all the schools that needed someone.

For the moment, I peddle in yogurt. For anyone curious about these teacher shortages, most of it lies in the incompetence of these vast HR departments. They serve no one, neither the employers nor the employees. All they can do is dismiss people like me by sending us in circles on the phone and hand out pamphlets for the next job fair or their new Internet site that functions only half the time. They are one of Public School's many examples of wasted tax dollars. The actual interviewing and reference is done through individual schools, who I now inquire for the possibility of employment. Unfortunately, the principals happen to be on vacation right now.

I get an eerie feeling that this job pursuit until the very last week before school begins. I'll try all I can to get a response before then. I've faxed 8 cover letters and resumes to 8 different schools (a task that took me much longer than anticipated). I might try calling next week. In the meantime, I'll just read some books, write a bit, honing my English skills.

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