Saturday, November 21, 2009

Teachers love to tell stories. For example, my dear friend Joe Everett, a Spanish teacher, has three favorite words in English. He may have favorite Spanish words, but since I don’t understand most of his Spanish, I couldn’t tell you what those are. His three favorite ones in ingles are “But I digress…” Occasionally, we teachers will run into former students. Invariably, they do not remember the boffo lessons we taught about Poe, or congruent angles or eukaryotes or the irregular verbs; they remember the anecdotes we peppered our lessons with. Students know we like to tell stories, and even though a teacher may be aware that a question asked by certain students who are deliberately asking it to try to derail class, we’ll bite, because through stories we can teach other lessons, which are sometimes on topic, other times only loosely related to the topic but may be way off topic.
I have stories I tell every year, like the Don MacDonald story about letting rumor and reputation determine how you treat people. Yesterday’s story was one I tell about seating charts and choosing groups, two of the more annoying necessities of teaching. It would be fantastic if a classroom full of kids could choose partners or seats wisely, that they would sit where they will not be distracted and choose an arrangement which did not isolate anyone. Without teacher direction, they will invariably choose their buddies and not be able to focus on work, and if there is any way the seating arrangement can isolate the “weird” kid, they’ll do it.
In my very first year of teaching, I had a 10th grade English class that was difficult to control. My teacher preparation at EWU and Whitworth did not include any successful strategies for classroom control. I had one master teacher whose 10th grade class was amazingly well behaved, but his tricks did not work for me. To this day I don’t know how they worked for him. I got there in April, after the students had been trained, and I think I missed crucial steps in the process by which he beat them into submission convinced them to comply. My 10th graders one year later never did settle down. Discipline is one of the most, if not the most, difficult parts of teaching. It involves saying “no” and punishing people you like. I liked that class, but nailing down what the problems were proved extremely elusive.
Finally, one day, needing to create yet another seating chart that would make us all happy or at least not aggravated, I decided to use one of the strategies I had been taught in teacher school. I had everyone write down two people they wanted to sit by and one person they preferred not to sit by. It backfired horribly. That afternoon I tried to accommodate one of everybody’s desired neighbors and seat each person at least one seat away from the person he or she chose to “keep away.” It was immediately obvious that it would be impossible. Each person, save one of course, had chosen the same kid as their personal anathema. No one wanted to sit by Bob.
I liked Bob. He was smart, funny, nice-looking, animated, alert to the lesson most of the time, although maybe that’s just because no one wanted to talk to him, now that I think about it. I could not imagine why he was the target of so much enmity. I was troubled about how to deal with it. The seating chart I created was of my own device. I included not a single request, partly out of pique.
The next day, Bob was absent. I still don’t know if it was the right thing to do or not, but I decided to confront the class about their shared feelings about Dennis. I asked them what they did not like about him, why did no one want to be by Dennis. They shifted uncomfortably in their seats, their eyes darted to the floor or their desks. Nobody had anything distinct about Dennis that they could put a finger on. Eventually, after a long enough awkward silence, I gave them a mediocre lecture about tolerance and blah, blah, blah.
The next day, when Bob returned, he brought me his homework and pointed to the heading. “Miss Kurz,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “I no longer want to be Bob. From now on I’m Baub,” he said, sounding out the vowel tone just a bit longer than 'Bob' would.
“Baub?” I said, imitating him, "like bauble?"
“Yes,” he said, “Baauuuub.”
“Ok.” Names are important to our identity, what did I care how he spelled or said his name.
Years later, at a retreat for an A.I.D.S. peer education group I advised, I met a young may named Tom, oops, Thom. As he was short, slight and a tad effeminate, I teased him by calling him Thor. He realized I was riffing on his uncommon choice of spelling Tom with a th. He was a pretty good sport about it, and he even taught me about a tendency among gay men. “Gay men,” he said, “often will choose to either go by their complete name, like Thomas, or they’ll change the spelling, just to be different or special.” The next weekend, I went to Ivar’s with my family. Our waiter sashayed (yes!) up to our table and announced, “Hi! I’m Eric; I’ll be your waiter.” At least it sounded like Eric. I looked at his name tag. Sure enough, he spelled it Aeryk. Poor Bob, er Baub. Now I knew why the other kids did not like him and also why they couldn’t articulate their attitude. It was 25 years ago, and very few people were comfortable talking about homosexuality anywhere and certainly not in a classroom. I don't know if Baub is gay, but he was certainly flamboyant and expressive in a similar way to other gay men I've known. He also did an expository speech on Madonna. As any teacher knows, merely appearing effemnate in any way, what am I saying, just being different from the common herd in high school can make you a target of horrifying cruelty.
I have recently been reconnected with him via Facebook. He’s doing extremely well, having landed in La La Land (Hollywood). I heard part of his podcast today. It's wild and fun!. He has his thousands of followers and is of course a growing force on Twitter.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Today’s Meet the Press has a segment on education. They played a sound bite from Obama reporting that his daughter says she does well in school because she just likes having knowledge. At breakfast today at Knapp’s Pat told of being at the aquarium watching kids excited to learn things about the ocean environment they didn’t know and comparing it with having kids in a science class who truly could not have cared less about knowing anything about the ocean or any other subject in biology. I have to say I have real trouble understanding that portion of our student body that is not only uncurious, but even openly disdainful of learning, knowing things. To be smart would be anathema.
When the administration of the school offered to support a committee to discuss discipline in school, despite being really busy, I jumped to join it. We call it the Safe and Civil committee. After the last meeting, another member expressed appreciation for my presence on the committee basically because of my ability to be blunt. It’s one way I deal with discipline in my own classroom. I just like to cut to the chase. Whatever the situation, instead of dithering through discussion or argument, I want to discover exactly what’s going on, get to the bottom right away. Time is too precious. Sometimes that makes me appear confrontational, and I get in trouble sometimes. Why mess around?
My father influenced me a bit in this regard. He’s scrupulously honest, even returning extra change to a clerk. Another influence comes from my fundamentalist period. Matthew 5:37. Let your yes be yes and your no be no, anything else comes from evil. Don’t bother lying or prettying up your prose or adding obscenity or swearing to your discourse. Tell the truth and tell it plainly. Emily Dickinson notwithstanding (tell the truth but tell it slant), I’ve worked hard to try to speak plainly and honestly. Do I never lie? Well, not never, and I don’t always tell everything I know, but I do speak plainly about what my students are doing. If they’re mocking me, I let them know I recognize it. If they’re trying to control the classroom, I’m going to let them know I understand their need for control, but that I have to run the class. During my very first year of teaching, I had to confront a student who had erased other students’ work from a floppy disk (remember those?). At one point he said, “Are you calling me a liar?” Of course I did not want to admit that I was indeed calling him a liar, but that’s exactly what was happening. It was a horrible feeling.
That situation taught me a lot. Later that afternoon I called his mother. She was very grateful for the call. Her son had planned to go to a party that weekend that she did not want him to attend. She thanked me for giving her a reason to say “no” to him. I was shocked. To be fair, I don’t have kids of my own so I do not know how difficult it is to say “no” to my 14 year old son when he wants to go to a party where I suspect there will be drinking. His behavior in class was consistently poor: talking, ridiculing others, refusing to stay on task, bullying, insubordinate, surely his mother saw some of this behavior at home!
The way teachers are treated by kids completely shocks my 80 year old parents. My dad looked forward to school; he respected his teachers. I loved school, although I did not respect all my teachers I certainly did not treat them badly (except Mr. Jensen, but boy is THAT another story). Some of my students still like school, come to school ready and willing, desirous of learning and treat their teachers very well. They are not the majority. If they were, education would not need fixing. Teachers are being asked to motivate the unmotivated, move the immobile. Lots of people are talking about extending the school day or school year, but forcing unwilling kids to endure more of something they hate or are not prepared for makes no sense. Am I too blunt? More to follow…

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A long time ago, seems like a different life, now, my goal was to live in Forks and ride my horse to my job at the local radio station. I was a camp counselor at the time at Camp Sealth, now just across the Puget Sound from where I work at Gig Harbor High. Even back then I was torn between loving primitive, natural things and technology. Ah, technology! How you’ve changed. Riding home from the movie tonight we had to stop at a red light by a Radio Shack, now just “The Shack.” There had been a radio shack in the movie, Amelia. An aside about the film: Hilary Swank will not be winning as Oscar for it. Not many radios being sold in Radio Shack these days I don’t suppose. How things change. CenturyTel is now CenturyLink, I noticed. Not too long ago, in Cheney, I had a party line as my only phone. Now we connect by land lines, cell phones, Blackberry devices and computers via wi-fi and Skype. Communication is instantaneous and ubiquitous. Whereas a letter might have taken weeks to travel, we can now send our words immediately. Science fiction is real.

We must know so much more about each other now. We are constantly in touch with our friends and acquaintance, right? Wait, let me navigate away for a second and check…

I have another new follower on Twitter, even though I don’t tweet hardly at all. My dad has forwarded another uber-conservative rant, and several newspapers have updated me. Amazon is letting me know that one of the authors whose books I have bought will be publishing a new one, etc., and two of my co-workers are currently logged in to their facebook accounts. I could click on chat and talk to them. I could also just pick up the phone and call them. In actuality, I feel as though I have already made a connection. I fertilized their farms on Farmville AND Farm Town. Our friendship is so much stronger now. There: I just sent them a turkey. Maybe they’ll gift one back to me. I especially hope they’ll send me a red maple tree, otherwise they’re too expensive. I may also have some Farkle chips waiting for me.

Walking through the halls of the high school, the students have their noses in a tiny keyboard, texting each other. It’s what passes for conversation. They’ll sit next to each other, never speaking, while they send cryptic alphabet soup through the ether. Well, they can’t talk, they’ve got earbuds plunged into their ears forcing digital music deep inside. I love music; I used to listen to more music, before it got so convenient. I have an iPod, Bose headphones, Skullcandy earbuds, even a sound dock. More and more I want to hear real sounds, people, wind, birds, breathing, paper shuffling. There’s music in those sounds, too.
I guess I’m having connectivity issues, besides having my network cable cut because I wasn’t home and SOMEBODY didn’t know where that wire went. No, my issues are that I’m too connected and I don’t know whether to reject it or not. I don’t know whether I want to ride a horse or buy one for my digital farm.
Eh! I’ve got to hurry and post this on Blogspot; My TV show is starting.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

In '91, I learned a Ukrainian dirty word. I was teaching in the Everett School District and was forced to divide my time between the high school, teaching English, and the middle school in a poor section of town teaching English as a Second Language. I had no training, no materials, no help and a principal who thought I should write Individual Educational Plans for each of my students, one of whom was VietNamese, one of whom was Romanian, 2 of whom were ethnic Russians, and the rest of whom were Ukrainian refugees from the former USSR, most of whom shared the last name of Babak; they were all cousins, apparently.

After attending a conference, I learned that immersion is the best way to learn a language. It takes about three years, but so does any other method, so I divided class time into two parts, some direct instruction in English, and watching English language movies. This seemed to work pretty well. Soon, they learned enough English to express preferences, one of which no surprise, was cartoons. The other was religious movies, chiefly, Ben Hur, "Judahbengur, judahbengur," I would hear every day. "Teacher, teacher! Judahbengur!" I guess the chariot scene crosses culture barriers. Actually, these were the children of Christian refugees. They left the USSR because to stay meant daily humiliation and oppression from ethnic Russians who had been sent to Ukraine to be teachers and other authorities. The children refused to wear the red scarves that signified Communism, so they were fair targets for any bullies, including teacher bullies. They did not love Russians. The two Russian boys in the class, the Rubashkas, were ok, because they were members of the same fundamentalist Christian faith as the Ukrainian children.

Sasha Rubashka was one of the most memorable of those kids. He would speak to me frequently, quite urgently, in Russian. Every time my answer was the same, "Sasha, I don't speak Russian." He would grimace in frustration, but repeat the performance some times several times the same day. One day, as I was asking him something in English as part of my unscientific immersion style teaching, he answered in his thick accent, "I don't speak English," and then laughed uproariously. The others joined in, and so did I. It was brilliant.

Oh yeah, the dirty word. One day, as I prepared that day's video extravaganza, they gathered around me shouting "Cartoon cartoon!" but I assured them there was no cartoon that day. One of the Babak's was walking by the VCR flopping his head back and forth and repeatedly muttering, "Cartoon, pardoon, cartoon pardoon..." I asked Natalia, whose English was very good, what pardoon meant. She blushed a bit and said quietly, "um, it mean, bottom poo."

I'm remembering all of these kids because of the recent flap over R-71, the referendum to the people that endorses the legislation already passed by the state legislature that gives domestic partners, same sex or heterosexual seniors, "everything but marriage," insurance coverage, inheritance, visitation in the hospital, things like that.

By purely anecdotal evidence, the largest contingent of anti 71 demonstrators in Tacoma all attend a local slavic church. It's likely that this is the same type of fundamentalist group that fled the Soviet Union to escape persecution. Like most religious groups offended by gays, they do not make the connection between their own persecution at the hands of a government that refused to allow them their beliefs and persecution of homosexuals. The irony is that in the USSR, they could not speak freely ANY of their beliefs, and yet here in their adopted country, they are free to believe whatever conservative faith they'd like and to protest the granting of rights to another persecuted minority. Although I disagree with them, knowing as I do that being gay is no one's choice and therefore not possibly a sin, I am happy they are here in the US and free to announce their opinion and thus their bigotry. Only they don't know yet that it is bigotry. They need to be educated, to learn that whatever they fear is not really anything to fear. Gays are not going to destroy their marriage or devour their children. They will learn it, but it will take time. Immersion is the best method, though, and eventually they will immerse themselves in American life.