a priori

April 19, 2007

So at the moment we’re reading two diaries; one of an Israeli girl and one of a Palestinian girl, both from the same week of fairly horrific bombing during 2002. I think reading diaries from people their own age makes it more engaging; I’ve had students volunteer to read out loud in every period, and normally I have to shame them into reading.

The problem with teaching, sometimes, is that I’m not smart enough to figure out what they don’t know. I taught the same lesson on the same diary five times over a couple of days, and it wasn’t until the fourth time on the second day that I realized they didn’t know what “terrorism” actually meant. Once we cleared that up, everything else fell into line.

Well, except I keep having this conversation (as is to be expected):

“Miss, who was in Israel before 1948?”

“The Palestinians, imperialized by the British.”

“Okay, but who was there first?”

“Well… The Jews were there until around 70 A.D.”

“But who was there first?”

“Before the Jews there were other ancient people there; Babylonians, Sumerians, those guys.”

“Miss! Who was there very first?”

“…Cave people?”

“Well, lets give Israel back to them.”


March 10, 2007

The kids answered these questions on Friday. It may not seem like it, reading here, but I actually work pretty hard in class to push kids to come up with their own opinions, and then to justify them. So if they’ve said something I think they decided I want to hear, I demand a lot of them; “Really? Why? What if X, Y, or Z?”

They had quite a range of opinions. In every class there was a student who insisted we had to go help in all four scenarios, although the reason ranged from “Because we’re the richest country,” to “Because we have freedoms and they should, too.” In every class there was also a student who insisted that we do nothing in all four scenarios, although there the reasons ranged from “Why should American soldiers die for some other country’s problem?” to “I don’t care if they kill the homos” [that got the students into quite a heated debate] to “As long as they don’t kill Americans it doesn’t matter what they do in some other country.” Several classes started yelling about how “This is what got us into Iraq, and now look what’s happened!” (They don’t really know what’s happened, but they know they don’t like it.)

I also turned it around and asked the students how they’d feel about some other country intervening here. They were fine with it, actually, as long as it didn’t involve an army marching through our country. (I don’t think they really get the idea, but they’re getting there.) And they were actually excited about the idea of Bush being assassinated — I tried to talk that down, and got nowhere.

An Inconvenient Truth

March 9, 2007

I showed An Inconvenient Truth to two of my classes today. We’re going to start working on a project with a teaching artist about recycling and global warming next week. I was genuinely worried that this movie would be too talky and graph-heavy for them; they tend to really enjoy crap like Alexander and when nothing blows up, they get bored.

But they were won over pretty quickly by the cartoon explanation of global warming, and they even seemed to enjoy Al Gore’s folksy charm. They understood the graphs pretty well, and were awed by pictures of glaciers and what would happen if the sea level rose 20 feet all over the world. (Luckily, the movie shows what will happen to NY, so they had a lot of buy in.) In fact, by the end, they were annoyed when I skipped ahead. I’d say “This part is nice, but I don’t want to drop too much science on you,” and they say “Miss! We want to know what happens to the birds!”

At the end of the period, six kids came up and asked me if they could borrow the DVD. The second time, two students asked to borrow it and one asked for the title so she could rent it. They were suddenly very excited about bringing recycling to our school and telling their parents to use cold water when they wash clothes.

I need to have more faith in them, I think.

unforseen consequences of teaching

February 20, 2007

I hear myself saying the strangest things, sometimes. For example, right now we’re studying India and Pakistan, and the causes of tension between the two. (Sample student response: “Who cares? Let ’em blow each other up, and then we don’t have to worry anymore.” Me: “OH MY GOD STOP SAYING THAT.”)

I was listening to NPR this morning and heard the story about the train blowing up on its way to Pakistan. The first thing out of my mouth? “Oh, good! That’ll be great for class.”

I would like to stress that I am not a lunatic who is pleased by the deaths of 66 innocent people. I am a victim of my own never-ending quest for relevance in class.

small schools

February 4, 2007

When I was in graduate school, there was only one criterion for where I would end up working that I was sure about; I wanted to work in a small school. I remember giving a couple of impassioned speeches about it during seminars. I had very, very strong feelings about it.

Having worked in one for two years, the reality is somewhat different than the ideal.

There’s a lot of good in small schools. I know every student in all four grades at my school. I know the entire staff. I know every secretary, I know who will have a band-aid when I slice my finger open putting up bulletin-board paper, and where to steal staples and tape. I love the feeling of community — my school has an amazing staff, and wonderful students.

There’s a lot of not-so-good as well, unfortunately. One of the first things you realize at a small school is the amount of budgeting that goes to support staff. We need an attendance person, deans, the principal’s secretary, a payroll secretary, the AP’s secretary, the parent coordinator… and they take up a huge percentage of the money for the school. Proportionally, we have nearly half as many of them as we have teachers, and our budget goes to them instead of to special-ed teachers, or other hires, because you HAVE to have someone putting out paychecks, right? (Maybe this is just my school, but I think it’s fairly endemic, especially because most small school principals are fairly new to being principals.)

We have a lack of options we can offer our students. First academically; we just don’t have the scheduling or budget to offer any foreign languages beside Spanish. (We used to, but that’s a whole different complaint.) There aren’t enough special education teachers to offer 12-1-1 classes and so we’re always out of compliance. (Again, that’s a whole other rant for someday when I’m employed elsewhere.) We only offer SETSS once a day, so not all our kids who are supposed to have that get it. We often can’t offer honors because there just aren’t enough teachers to go around.

Along the same lines, there are no sports at my school. If you check our official website and DOE listing you’ll see that we offer them, but that really refers to the “big high school” we’re inside, and most of our students don’t participate there. The boys at our school have been asking for a football team for four years, and are no closer to getting one, although we do finally sort of have track. Cheerleading used to be a whole-school activity, but there were inter-school rivalries and all our students dropped out. There are also virutally no clubs, because we don’t have the per-session budget for it. (I run two “unofficial” and unpaid clubs, although they’re more like informal student gatherings.)

Scheduling is a HUGE problem. My school is one of five inside a larger campus, and we share a cafeteria and the gyms. That means that we all have to run on the same schedule every day so that kids can still go to gym — our teachers teach kids from all five schools. We can’t have special our-school-only activities. (This is how we ended up having to give the PSAT to all four grades one day.) Any time we want to use the cafeteria, the gyms, or the auditorium it requires weeks of negotiating between schools. And if you’re a teacher I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that increasing the amount of pettiness and bureaucracy is never a good thing.

There is also a lack of oversight which I suspect would be true at any school in this godforsaken system, particularly now that we’re an empowerment school, but I’m not well enough versed in BOE policy or how anything works to really speak to that. Sometimes our teachers feel very much cut off from the rest of the world and because small schools tend to hire newer teachers, we don’t have a lot of teacher-leaders around to tell us how things are supposed to work. On the upside, we have an incredibly motivated and hard-working staff. On the downside, we seem to be calling the UFT about things all the time, and they’re not usually major; there is simply no one around who knows what to do.

On balance I’ve soured on small schools, although I still like the idea. It seems to be a peculiarity of the education system that they insist on reinventing the wheel over and over and over every few years. Why not break up the big schools into mini schools within the existing system, so that students felt more like they belonged, but teachers still had the resources they need? More like a college system, where students come into the school of arts, the school of science, the school of humanities, but everyone takes core courses together. Or would that make too much sense to be implemented? Lots of our troubles come from the idea that everything has to be done from scratch, but the don’t: there have been some successful schools in the city all along. Why aren’t we basing our curricula and scheduling after those schools and just creating a new inner structure?

Right, because it’s education, and no one’s interested in input from the teachers or students. Oh well.

moment of understanding

January 4, 2007

This warmed my liberal, pacifist heart today in class:

“Miss, how can we really say anyone ‘wins’ a war? I mean, if we blow up their cities, they blow up our cities, and then we kill each other. But even if they surrender, it’s like… Our guys are still dead and our cities are still ruined. So how did we really ‘win,’ you know?”

Fine Line

January 1, 2007

A month or two ago my students asked me about the war in Iraq. They hate George Bush and the war, but for them it’s a case of hating because they’re supposed to; they have as much idea as your average American why we’re in Iraq. I asked them what they knew, and got the expected — and dreaded — response; “Saddam Hussein did 9-11, miss.” Oi. I also had a kid refer to him as Saddam Bin Ladin, totally not joking.

I’ve decided to spend tomorrow in my classes reading about Saddam’s life and the two Gulf Wars. It’s barely a page of reading, very basic — “What natural resource does Iraq have?” “What happened to Kuwait?” — and then we’ll have a discussion about why he was killed and what it might mean. The danger, of course, is promoting my own agenda at the expense of the students’ learning. It’s easy to think “Well, they all agree with me anyway, so it doesn’t matter,” but it does. On the other hand, naturally, I think I’m right. My goal is to have them ask questions. It’s an ongoing theme of my history class; perspective in history, history writen by the victors, and so on. If I can get them to ask questions, I figure I’m doing my job.