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

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.

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