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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Problem With Not Being Finland

Over the last twelve years, I've taught in a college preparatory alternative school run by the county office of education, a charter arts and business school which I helped to plan and found, and a second charter arts and business school before landing at my current post. My career trajectory has been an intentional downward arc which has finally settled me into a place where I am working with the students who could not, or would not, be successful in other schools.

I like it here.

The job is not without its difficulties and it isn't a place where many teachers would want to be because much of our time and energy is spent on matters that are not directly related to the inculcation of knowledge, skills and ideas. Instead, the balance of our days are spent on management, discipline, coaching, cheerleading, comforting, counseling, and herding and if you've been following this blog for a while, you've probably noticed that these "non-teaching" roles are the ones to which I am the most attached. Whether it be with Marvin, Donald, Serena, Sally, Roberto, Jorge, Laura, Walter or Jerry, the things that catch my attention are not curricular, but social because so much of what is wrong with our educational system is unrelated to the curriculum (though the curriculum blows, too). Our educational system suffers from a social disease.

This was highlighted recently in a
Recent Wall Street Journal Article on Finnish Education which explored why Finnish schools are the best in the world even though:

High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don't start school until age 7.

How, the article asks, can a system that discourages competition, offers no gifted classes, and puts few limits on student behavior be so amazingly successful?

They don't pay their teachers more and they don't spend much more per capita on education than we do.

It must be because they're homogeneous. The article tells us that:

Despite the apparent simplicity of Finnish education, it would be tough to replicate in the U.S. With a largely homogeneous population, teachers have few students who don't speak Finnish. In the U.S., about 8% of students are learning English, according to the Education Department. There are fewer disparities in education and income levels among Finns. Finland separates students for the last three years of high school based on grades; 53% go to high school and the rest enter vocational school. (All 15-year-old students took the PISA test.) Finland has a high-school dropout rate of about 4% -- or 10% at vocational schools -- compared with roughly 25% in the U.S., according to their respective education departments.

This is almost always the answer I hear when people start talking about why another country's schools are better than ours: If we were all the same like they are, we would be able to be just as good. It's the fact that we aren't all white or asian (yes, that's what they are saying, don't deny it) that is holding us back.


What's holding us back is the fact that large parts of our country really do believe that competition, stratification, and limitations on freedom are a prescription for helping foster a learning environment.

What's holding us back is a dedicated and powerful minority in this country that believes that universal public education is a mistake.

What's holding us back is a nationwide shared delusion that tells us that education is merely a product of schools and teachers, absenting the rest of our society from any responsibility for what happens to other people's children.

What's holding us back is a belief that even our most provincial municipalities should wield near complete control over their schools' curriculum.

But mainly what is holding us back is the fact that our country is divided not just by race,religion and culture, but by class.

Finland, being stupidly socialist, has little to offer in the way of income disparity and so also has little to offer in the way of bad neighborhoods, chronic social unrest, childhood malnutrition and obesity, obscenely high crime rates, or high concentrations of desperate people.

Finland also never refused to educate entire portions of its population because they were different and lesser.

Finland also never believed that separate could be equal.

Finland also never allowed it's cities and townships to control its most vital natural resource, thereby preventing provincial prejudice from derailing national interests.

Finland also decided to not let its people starve in the streets.

We have done it to ourselves and, at least here in California, we are going to make it worse with deep cuts in the very social programs that allow kids to come to school even marginally able to learn. And then we're going to cut education even further.

And yet each day, 300,000 teachers go to work in this country. We go to try and mitigate the damage, to try and scrape out another few success stories, to try and inspire kids to look beyond their cirucmstances, to try to make things a little more less-worse.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Travon Free's open letter to Gingrich

In case you weren't convinced that Newt's an idiot by my open letter to him, here's Travon Free's. His open letter is his personal story and it's worth a read.

Thanks to Eminent Credulant, Michael Gallagher, for the heads up and link!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Goodbye Roberto; A Fond Farewell to A Kid We Couldn't Save

Roberto came to us last year when he was seventeen and had passed only 18 classes in his three year high-school career. A big kid, matching my 6'1" and besting me in weight by a good twenty pounds, he has a kind demeanor and a giggle that gurgles out whenever he's uncomfortable. He won't say much about what happens at his house, but what does leak out is painful to listen to.

He's smart and wants good things for himself, but he's an habitual pot-smoker and smoking has derailed both his plans and his efforts to right his own ship.

Like many of our chronic smokers, Roberto displays many other classic symptoms of PTSD.

But he's eighteen now -- a legal adult with no access to juvenile services so there isn't much we can do for him.

He knows he's got a problem. We've talked about it. He's come to me for help for it, but aside from referring him to counseling services, there's little I can do. He was of age before we got any insight into his homelife, so we can't call CPS. We can't legally refer him to any of the spiritual-based 12-step programs because we are a public school (though I've mentioned MA to him and told him how to look it up), but we can't continue to look the other way as he tries to sort it out himself. He's set off the smoke alarms twice trying to get high in the bathroom and he was busted a third time for smoking three feet from one of our school's ubiquitous surveillance cameras.

Childhood Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is, by some accounts, more common than obesity in neighborhoods like Watts, a byproduct of being chaperoned through childhood by sudden violence and needless tragedy. I'm not a psychologist, but I'm willing to bet that Roberto's seen enough of both. But there are limited services available for those like him that self-medicate against their own suffering. Counseling services have been thinned like all services in the great recession and even though the counselors we have are dedicated and good, they are not enough.

Roberto tries not to smoke, but on the days he comes to school straight, he wanders. He wanders to the bathroom. He wanders to talk with other students. He wanders to the printer. He wanders to the pencil sharpener. He wanders in wide slow circles around the classroom.

When he's not high he can't concentrate.

When he's not high he has trouble sleeping.

So we sometimes look the other way as kids cope as best they can. We don't ignore it. If they show up red-eyed and smiling with a soda in one hand and a can of Pringles in the other, we turn them around and send them home. If they smell like they've been smoking, they don't make it through the door.

But the ones like Roberto, who are professionals, they eat before they come, they change their shirts, they buy Visine at wholesale prices, so they fool most people. But they don't fool us. We cajole and remind and nag and hug and scold and praise and cheer, but we cannot cure.

The kids call him "Mota Man," which embarrasses him. One of the only times I've ever seen him angry was when a student called him that in front of me. He doesn't want to let me down.

He thinks of me as his father. He feels understood by me. He feels loved by me.

He cried when he told me that I was like a father to him. I wanted to cry, too, but I didn't.

On Friday I had to tell him that he was going to be dropped from our program at the semester.

I don't want to, but we can't keep him. We have too many other kids waiting for a space and he's had a year to show some improvement. Even though his attendance is good, his academic progress has been negligible. And he's been suspended a bunch of times.

Maybe the time away will be good for him. He'll be able to continue the counseling and maybe losing his adopted home will be the push he needs to change.

I told him that he could reapply in a while and if we have room he can try again.

But maybe he'll just fade further away, disappearing into the forests of lost young men in Watts.

He's been in my thoughts and prayers since he started with us and he will stay in them when he leaves us. He and so many others of my kids seem to need an act of God to save them.

Maybe if the rest of you all could pray for him, too, it would help.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pidgen-Watts: Life or Death Language Lessons in South LA

I was in the office the other day and ran across a new kid. He was morose, sitting in one of the shit-seats where kids in trouble fidget while they wait to meet with the principal. He stared at me through a mop of thick stringy hair that fell in his face. I didn't know him, but I took a moment anyway because he looked like he needed a friend.

"Hey man, what's up?"

He looked at me. Friendliness from adults makes most students suspicious and often only brings defensive chaff in return, but this one was beyond that. He didn't say anything and he looked like he was going to cry. I sat down across from him.

"What happened?"

"I didn't know." He mumbled through his hair.

I began to feel like Dudley Pippin's principal -- a reference the kid in front of me surely wouldn't get.

"Didn't know what?"

"That fool didn't know enough not to say bootie out loud 'round here. Boy nearly got his ass kicked -- he was lucky it was in class and not in the hallway," another student in another shit seat offered before laughing and going back to her phone.

The poor kid was obviously not from around here.

Moving to Watts is like moving to a foreign country where the local language consists largely of English homophones -- it often sounds just like English, but the meanings are vastly and sometimes dangerously different. Fuck isn't rude, but Bootie can get you killed. That's what this kid had run into.

In most neighborhoods, bootie is a time-honored slang for a person's behind, most recognizable in phrases like "shake your bootie," or "bootie-scratcher," but here using it is bad news. Bootie-heads is what other gangs call the Bounty Hunters who populate the Imperial Courts housing projects and our school is filled to the brim with Bounty Hunters. This new kid had just called out one of our largest gangs accidentally. He wasn't morose, he was scared to death.

Bootie isn't the only one. You have to be careful about offering Bubblegum, too, because of the Broadway Crips. Don't mention Miniskirts or the Main Street Crips'll sit up and take notice.

I once called a kid a slob in class for leaving papers and trash all around his desk and the room nearly exploded with "oooh's" and "Oh shiit!"'s. A slob is an insult to Bloods. I now make sure to use "messy" instead, which doesn't offend anybody.

I love language more than most people and, for me, coming to work in Watts has been a gift. Each time a new word or phrase is tossed at me, I try and catch it so I can toss it back. I figure that if they have to learn formal English, the least I can do is learn to speak pidgen-Watts. There are multitudes of other, less dangerous, adaptations, too. If you get called thirsty, it doesn't mean you're parched, it means you're being overly aggressive and controlling. If you are angry you're "Turn't up," and if you share somebody's personal business, you're "Puttin' them on Blast." Being crusty isn't good. But being a "cold piece," means you're hard-hearted but respected. I, it turns out, have Swag and I also "got jokes" because I can hold my own when going to the dozens.

There's a lot to learn for a newcomer here. I struggled at first but as a teacher, I got pretty much a free pass so long as I was willing to learn; like the rest of us, kids would rather teach than learn. I've incorporated a lot of the language in my school-site discourse. My wife wouldn't recognize me if she heard me talk at school.

For me, it's fun. For kids, though, it can be life and death.

This poor kid in the shit-seat wasn't going to get a free pass. As a kid, he was going to have to learn the hard way. Even in a community as transient as ours, there is a strong slant towards the nativists and they enforce it. Hard.

"What's your name?" Not nice, not kind, not pitying, agressive so he'll know I don't think he's weak.

"Jorge." He looks up at me for the first time.

"You pretty much stepped in it, didn't you?" I laugh, hoping he'll laugh a little bit, too. He does. He nods.

I told him about calling the kid a slob. He looks at me, as lost as I was when it happened. I explain. He nods. I give him a rundown on some of the other no-no words and he listens. I don't know them all yet -- I discover new ones all the time -- but I know the main ones. He will, too, if he wants to survive.

Because it just isn't hard enough to grow up poor and transient.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Gulag Education: Walter Russell Mead and the Death of Liberal Arts

Every once in a while, somebody important takes a break from keeping the world spinning just long enough to point out just how the rest of us aren't pulling our weight. Walter Russel Mead, internationally recognized expert on foreign affairs and editor of "The American Interest" magazine, has just done so, taking his hands off the wheel just long enough to use his bully pulpit to beat the shit out of a 22 year-old freelance writer.

Thanks, Walt.

Vanessa Formato, the writer in question, is a 22-year-old self-proclaimed "vegan cupcake enthusiast" who "tweets about puppies" and I am sure that she intended her article to neither be an exegesis on policy nor the topic of conversation at "The American Interest."

But Mead, who strongly encouraged regime change in Iraq, is evidently still a subscriber to the policy of overwhelming force and he employs it here against poor Ms. Formato. He accuses her of "producing prose redolent of relentless stupidity" and holds her up as an example of "the vacuous nature of the modern American mind"

What horrible thing did she write?

A puff-piece published in the Boston Globe entitled "10 College Courses You Wished You Registered For" that dared to wistfully yearn for the ability to take classes in surf culture, burlesque and toy design rather than a courseload full of classes that "you're absolutely dreading."

Mead pedantically explains to his blog readers that classes like these are step one in his "7 Steps to Ruin Your Life" and that students will destroy themselves by wasting their college years taking classes that don't result in "marketable skills."

The fact that he takes the time away from world events to declare Formato's writing to be "soggy, tasteless mush" is beyond uncalled for. But the real issue with Mead's screed is that it is yet another lightning bolt from Olympus that is squarely aimed at one of the things that makes education complete:

The context for all those marketable skills.

The Liberal Arts were developed by the ancient Greeks to be the foundation of a good education and they have slowly expanded since the Classical Era from rhetoric, grammar and logic to also include mathematics, geometry, music, literature, languages, philosophy, history, psychology, and science. The argument goes that a student who is versed in these areas will have both the skills necessary to be a productive citizen as well as the context necessary to know how, why, and where to best apply those skills to better themselves and the world.

And for those who do not want such things as art and music cluttering up their money-making, we have always had vocational, technical and professional schools instead. UEI will charge you just as much and they won't make you take anything fun.

But now, just as with K-12 education in this country, there is a direct and powerful assault on the liberal arts by those who would see our education system reducted to a Soviet gulag of marketable skills. Mead and others like him argue that any study that is not directly tethered to a vocation, to a profession or to a technical skill is a waste of time and money -- a dalliance that will distract and destroy the pupil. They envision a world where the educational mission is reduced to a metric of simple employability, saving no room for those who crave more.

Mead specifically sites one specific sort of student who should studiously avoid taking "fluff" classes -- a student who has taken out loans. His argument seems to be that, instead of re-investing in our post-secondary schools as a nation so we can provide a holistic education to all comers, we should solely reserve the fun classes for those whose parents are wealthy enough to let their children enjoy learning.

The enjoyment of learning, it seems, is a perk of privilege.

At Bard College, where Mr. Mead sits high on his endowed chair, there are classes in "The History of Cinema; The Silent Era", and "American Popular Song" that I am sure he is actively attempting to get means tested so that poorer students are disallowed. After all, to let them take such courses would be "financial fraud"

By his own argument, I would think that Mr. Mead himself shouldn't have earned that BA in English Literature -- we all know that lit majors don't get jobs.

But the fact is that they do. And so do anthropology majors and history majors and music majors. Oddly, psychology and geography majors are the most employable and IT majors are the least. Most companies would rather have a literate thinker than a technician. I have two friends who are highly successful in IT. One was a music major. The other majored in journalism. They could think, communicate and learn which means that they have stayed relevant into their forties.

What's really sad about it all is that these days high school sucks. The last thirty years of banshee wails about our "Nation at Risk," coupled with reductions in school funding and the emergence of high-stakes testing have led to the steady scraping of "chaff" from our curriculum. We have lost woodshop, creative writing, auto shop, home economics, visual arts, music classes, and drama all over the country.

I see transcripts every day from students entering our program and it is rare that I see a class that isn't directly tied to a state requirement or the mandates of No Child Left Behind. "Read 180," "Math Intervention," and "CaHSEE Support" have choked out everything else.

And it seems that if the Meads of the world have their way, college will be just like high school.

On some level, I know that Mr. Mead understands that we cannot survive in a world where there are only engineers. He himself once saw the utility of courses in the Romantics and chose seminars on Pindar over Applied Physics. I'm sure at the time he understood that we did not create civilization in order to limit ourselves to marketable skills, that instead the glory of civilization is that we are able to spend our time pursuing our interests, not just meeting our needs.

And I'm sure that if he thought about it, he would see that the ones who most desperately need to indulge their curiousities are the very students he and others would preclude from the opportunity to do so. Being poor is already its own punishment -- there's no need to make it worse.

So shame on you, Mr. Mead. You owe Vanessa an apology and maybe you should audit that class on silent film so you can remember what it's really all about.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tablets not Textbooks? What do you think?

So, as this article shows us, it's already beginning to happen. Textbooks are being replaced with tablet computers. I'm still on the fence about this personally, so I'm curious what you all think. Good idea? Bad idea? Strengths? Limitations? Pitfalls? Potential?

Comment and coverse so I can figure out my own mind.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Interesting Article on Standardized Testing

I haven't commented much on standardized testing, but I will be doing so soon. Here's an interesting article that relates the experience of a (possibly) NYC school board member who took the 10th grade required exams.

He failed them, and his take on the process and its implications are worth sharing.

More later!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Learning from Beggars: How to Be Human So People Will See You

Sally asks for money at least once a week. It started small with cadges like, "Singer, you got a dollar for the bus?" I'd give it to her if I had it. Sometimes I'd dip into the cash we keep on hand for kids who need a little. She's a good kid. She's friendly, funny, she works hard and her homelife is a massive mess.

She's not alone, by the way. Teachers tend to be soft targets for kids who need a little bit of fold in their pocket, but most kids aren't as nuanced as Sally. Most try asking for money with "Give me a dollar. I know you got one." I give them a dollar occasionally if I have one and I feel like it.

Sally's better at it than most. She started including a back story and the amounts started to grow. Her brother took her cash and she couldn't afford food. Her mom stole twenty dollars from her and she needed to buy some personal items. She started to spread it around, too, asking other teachers and the IAs. It became a topic of discussion among us -- whether she was lying, whether we should continue to give her money.

She sensed the change in our attitudes as we transformed from cavalier benefactors to tightfisted misers. She began to change her tactics.

She started to leave notes on my chair:

"Dear Mr. Singer, I know I'm always asking you for money and I feel real bad doing it again but I need five dollars so I can buy some food. My mom said she's not gonna let me eat hers no more."

That one earned five dollars.

But just as Mr. Peachum, who's job it was to arouse human pity, had to continually find new ways to entice the hardhearted citizens of London to part with their pence and shillings, so Sally had to continually find new ways to arouse our pity.

The notes started to come in envelopes. That worked for a little while, but then we forced her to up her game again.

She began new notes by telling us how important we are, how much she appreciated everything we were doing for her.

I'm softhearted. I keep giving her money, but some of my co-workers have decided to try and cut her off. I can't say they're wrong. They probably aren't. My coworkers are suggesting that we refer Sally for counseling.

I'm not convinced there's anything wrong with what she's doing. As a matter of fact, I think we could learn from her.

Daniel Ariely, a personal hero of mine, recently did a study on begging, specifically looking at the question of why some beggars were more successful than others. What he found was that the more closely a person in need adheres to the basic elements of polite social interactions, the more likely they are to be paid. A person who sits on the sidewalk, eyes down, is easily ignored. A person who is standing, puts out their hand to shake yours, makes eye contact, and converses directly with you is highly likely to end up with change in his pocket.

His conclusions are important:

I think there are two main lessons here. The first is to realize how much of our lives are structured by social norms. We do what we think is right, and if someone gives us a hand, there’s a good chance we will shake it, make eye contact, and act very differently than we would otherwise.

The second lesson is to confront the tendency to avert our eyes when we know that someone is in need. We realize that if we face the problem, we’ll feel compelled to do something about it, and so we avoid looking and thereby avoid the temptation to give in and help. We know that if we stop for a beggar on the street, we will have a very hard time refusing his plea for help, so we try hard to ignore the hardship in front of us: we want to see, hear, and speak no evil. And if we can pretend that it isn’t there, we can trick ourselves into believing –at least for that moment– that it doesn’t exist. The good news is that, while it is difficult to stop ignoring the sad things, if we actively chose to pay attention there is a good chance that we will take an action and help a person in need.

Sally picked this up intuitively. Her earnings (and our discomfort with her earnings) are evidence of the fact that she has effectively exploited our social norms and as a result we've each parted with considerable sums of cash.

This cat-and-mouse between people in need and people who can help is age-old. Each of us engages in it on a regular basis whether it be with the guy holding a hand-written sign at the stoplight, a student, or with the charity mailers that separate the bills in our mailboxes. Each is working hard to push through our willful blindness in order to engage us on a human level because they know the simple truth about most humans:

If we are forced to confront the fact that other people are suffering, we feel obligated to try and help.

There are, of course, notable exceptions to this maxim. just ask Kitty Genovese, but on the whole most people, when forced to identify with somebody in need of help, will do so. It works on the individual level quite well. If it didn't, people wouldn't continue ask for help. We are not John Galt, no matter how much some people wish we could be.

Where it doesn't work as well is in the larger abstract sense. When people aren't confronted with the reality of need, when it is presented as an abstract concept like Welfare or Unemployment Benefits or WIC or Housing Assistance or Failing Schools or Starvation or Homelessness, we are able to substitute the distance and caution that comes along with every use of the third person plural, "They" instead of the connection and concern that comes naturally to most of us when we are forced to use the second person, "You," or the first person, "We."

Sally gets money from us because she's Sally. Poor kids get told that they have no work habits because they are "They."

So, in order to create change in our society, we must create a personal connection between the 1% and the 99%. As long as we are "they," we can be ignored. As long as "they" are "they," they will be hated. Just as in Daniel Ariely's study, if we cannot make eye contact, if we cannot force a handshake, we cannot get the change we need.

The Occupy Movement has been enormously successful in forcing awareness, but already the level of interest has waned outside of those of us who are involved. By stepping outside the social norms, we made the first step -- we got them to look at us, but we we didn't force any form of personal connection and we are already being re-ignored. To continue along this line, we would need to continually up our game just as Mr. Peachum said and just as Sally did.

But just like in any family fight, after the shouted catharsis must come the quiet conversation, not louder shouting. Without quiet considered conversation, no changes will be made and the fight will recur and escalate.

Most of us are not beggars -- and neither is the Occupy Movement. Therefore, we need to be able to engage in direct conversation. We need to create circumstances where one on one dialogue can occur. It may seem counter-intuitive when we are dealing with a problem as massive and as complicated as income and wealth inequality and a lack of social mobility, but without human connection, we each will continue to be "they" to the other and that will mean that, just like a panhandler, we will have to get continually louder and more aggressive in order to be heard because they will continue to get better at ignoring us.

It's time to talk without shouting. Ed Speenburgh, an occupier in Gainesville, Florida is hard to ignore even though he speaks softly. Another raucous demonstration in the streets is getting easy to ignore because it's simply more white noise.

As a society, we are good at ignoring massive upheavals, but we can't seem to ignore the plight of a single individual and will move heaven and earth to help. Just ask Mamie Carthan Till or Baby Jessica.

Marches and protests are important, but massive changes in society have always come about with a massive change in individual beliefs caused by humanization. Now might be the time to start talking.