Friday, April 27, 2007

I Smell Trouble

Somehow people know that The Onion is a joke. We know that Stephen Colbert is not really conservative. We know that Reno 911 is not actually a documentary about cops. But what if we didn't? If a person did not have the basic knowledge, for example, of some of the things that are really happening in the news, is it possible that person might read The Onion and believe it is news?

Yesterday I asked a group of sixth graders to evaluate three websites (I've added them to my links). They were given a checklist of criteria that a credible site would have. The kids spent about 15 minutes at each site and then explained to the class what made each site credible. This is a great activity to teach kid the parts of a website, but I wondered what would happen if the websites they evaluated were bogus. The scary thing is, they didn't notice.
I'm not kidding.

One of the sites describes an elusive tree octopus. The only objection to that information was that the kids thought teachers would be more likely to assign a report on "the regular kind of octopus." The next site reported on a study of cats' reactions to bearded men. The kids couldn't really see why they would need to know that cats are turned off by pictures of Abraham Lincoln, but they didn't question that it was true. Finally, a history of the Fisher-Price airplane. Even the name didn't give it away. The kids told me this was a great site, that they would be able to find information about the plane's engine, size, and speed - all things a teacher would surely require for a report.

When I told them the sites were bogus, most of the kids were surprised and uncomfortable. One claimed he knew it all along, but I think that was because he was embarrassed about being the one who had championed the airplane site. Did the kids not catch on because they don't have the background knowledge to know better? Perhaps they just don't know enough about octopi to rule out the possibility of a tree-dwelling version. Or is it that we aren't asking enough of these kids, intellectually? If stats about a plane's size and speed is all that's required for a report, where is the analysis? The critical thinking?

It worries me, this discovery of mine. I want to rush out and give this lesson to the entire student body before it's too late. Something has to be done!

My thanks to Kathy Schrock, a teacher who has made her lesson ideas and templates available to all teachers. These activities are really all her idea.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Regular Rollercoaster Ride

Ah, this job. How I love it. How many jobs can boast that one day at work can bring uplifting, joyous encounters with some children...and also infuriating, bitter, ugly moments with others?
First I will tell you of the sweetness. Pictured here are soap sculptures that were made by a human civilizations class studying Inuit culture. It's hard to tell from the picture, but these works of art were made with subtlety and a simple beauty that I have never seen in student work. Seals, whales, fisherman, polar bears, owls and kayaks are among the more popular subjects. Anyway, yesterday a 6th grade boy was visiting the library in the afternoon. He is chubby-cheeked, has braids sticking out of the top of his head, and has a slightly girlish face. I love this guy. On his way out, he stopped at the display case that contains the soap sculptures and said, "I can name all these sculptures!"
I thought, Cool, this kid knows a think or two about Inuits, or Alaska, or animals, or something.
He points at a sculpture and says, "That's Zest." He continues, "That's Irish Spring, that's Dove, that's Zest again, and Dial..." On and on he goes, naming all of the soaps in the case. I thought I was going to pee my pants. At the same time, I wanted to hug him. He was showing me what he knew. He was serious and proud that he could name them all. It was great.
Later, an 8th grade class came in to use the computers. One student kept asking if she could leave. "Why?"
"Cause I don't want to be here, that's why!"
I wasn't sure what to think of that. What the heck did she mean? It was confusing that a students would so casually ask to be dismissed from class, from school, because she didn't want to be there. Then I thought, Who am I to force her to be here anyway? I am often uncomfortable with that part of my job. On her way out at the end of class (when she was supposed to leave) she said, "Racist white bitch."
Warm soap fuzzy negated. Back to neutral. Darn.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Soooooo Not a Scientist

Today part of my library became a laboratory (a LIBoratory, if you will). About a month ago, my assistant brought in a praying mantis egg/cocoon/pod that she bought on ebay. We put the brown, papery blob in an aquarium lined with dirt. We also threw in a plant that I had purchased at the 99 cent store and was infested with something grody. Food for a mantis, we thought. After a while, we forgot about the aquarium (apart from the occasional, "I think they're dead" comment from me).

This morning, I heard a cry from across the room.
"They've hatched Mizz Murphy! They've hatched!"

I thought, "Crap! What's hatched? Do we have bugs in here?" I attribute this reaction in part to the fact that the boy's voice was high-pitched and frantic.

When I walked over to the aquarium, swarms of mosquito-sized praying mantises (manti?) covered every inch of the glass, the plant, the dirt. It was really exciting. And then, it was scary. What the hell was I going to do with all of these? My assistant, the mantis expert, was home with her feverish baby. Luckily her son was among the squealing onlookers.

"Call your mom! She'll be so excited." Well, she would be excited, but mostly I hoped she could come help me deal with the onslaught of creepy crawlies.
True blue as always, she showed up an hour later with a million small plastic containers and lids. We separated most of the babes into their own containers to save them from cannibalism. We put multiple subjects (as the tech coordinator called them) into some containers to see if they would eat each other. Some stayed in the tank because of our cross-eyed fatigue after several hours of bug corralling (and also we ran out of containers).

Anyway, the point is that THE KIDS WENT CRAZY. Kids have been reading about bugs, finding websites about bugs, talking about bugs, and inspecting bugs all day. Some of them even read the encyclopedia. Voluntarily. That is serious business.
I don't really know what will come of this. Will they live or die (the mantids, not the kids)? What will I feed them? Where will this lead? Whatever happens, it was a great day for teaching. Their faces and little motor-mouths, impossible questions and false expertise (this time I'm talking about the kids) made my day something entirely different than what I expected at 5:40 this morning. This is definitely why I keep coming back.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Total Disconnect

Lately it has been a challenge to see how cutting-edge library practice applies to this middle-school library. I am currently learning about blogs, aggregators, podcasts, metadata, making imovies, holding video conferences, etc. These are some of the topics that come up regularly in professional publications for those of use in the library sciences, which makes a lot of sense.....unless there is little chance in hell that you will get to actually use any of this technology in the workplace.
A week or so ago, I teamed up with a 6th-grade math and science teacher to take a stab at a loosely constructed library skills class. The class is 40 minutes a day for 4 weeks. We decided that we wanted to see what would happen if 25 kids had a chance to learn certain information retrieval skills outside of the hustle and bustle of a standard class. We planned to spend a week on reference materials, a week on using the library catalog, a week on the district's digital library (databases), and a week on using websites for research. We started with websites, knowing the kids were itching to get to the computers the minute they walked through the door.
As adults, we often assume that the 'kids these days' were born with a mouse in hand, a flash drive around their necks, and Das Interweb running through their veins. We think we will be sooooo far behind these kids once they hit the workforce. Not so. Here are some of the things that these 6th-grade sweethearts neither knew nor understood:
  • the Internet is not an application
  • where to type a URL
  • what a URL is
  • not to use spaces when typing a URL
  • how to click on ANYTHING
  • how to move between websites
  • how to find the name of a website
  • why a website will not appear if its address has been spelled incorrectly

The list goes on and on and on. I was met with blank faces when I used words like homepage and browser. The kids were given a pretty standard website evaluation sheet which asked questions like "are there photos on this website?", "does the page take a long time to load?", and "does this site link you to other useful websites?". Nothin'. And I mean nothin'. Pinball they know. How to find video game cheat codes, also yes.

The funny thing is, many of these kids have computers at home. I am beginning to suspect that having a computer at home means very little if no one knows how it works. So don't worry too much, fellow adults. I think your jobs are safe, for a little while at least. My 6-month old niece might steal them from you someday, but I don't think you'll get much trouble from my 6th-graders.

Friday, April 6, 2007

We Like Our Tape Fire-Engine Red

Working in a large school district has its ups and its way, way downs. The worst part for me is my slug status in the grand scheme of things. In some ways, the district's apprehension about the conduct of teachers is a necessary evil. There are nearly 80,000 of us, and the odds that all of those tens of thousands of teachers are upstanding, hard-working, dedicated masochists is pretty low. There are indeed teachers who ignore their students in favor of email, grad school work, or just plain old online shopping. Others call in sick and leave no lesson plans. Some say horrible things to their students, things that would make you wince. However, most teachers I have known are lovely people. They have a strong work ethic (you would have to in order to wake up at the crack of dawn, take abuse from kids and adults alike, get paid less than all your friends and keep coming back), show up on time, think about how to improve their practice well after the school day is over, and pursue advanced academic and vocational degrees.

This is all theoretical ranting, you might say, but I have a concrete example of one small way the Almighty lets us know that we are not worthy. Occasionally schools will have what's called a minimum day, which in normal human language might be called a half day. These often happen on the day after teachers and students have been at school in the evening for parent conferences or an open house. One might think that such a half day makes a good reward for the hard work and inconvenience of the night before. One might even think that the teachers would be encouraged to take a couple extra hours (seriously, it's less than 3) for family, rest, and warm fuzzies about a job well done. Not so, dear readers.

Today is Friday. Good Friday to be exact. Today our students will go home at 12:40 to begin a holiday weekend (although I am not religious, I still appreciate a good chocolate-based holiday). We teachers will stay until 3:24 on the dot, under the watchful eye of our warders. Most of us won't do much work, to tell the truth. We will linger by the bitter, burnt coffee that is beginning to stick to the bottom of the carafe. We will check our email and read the LA Times. We will eat leftover half-doughnuts (these were the thanks given to the teachers for staying late last night), maybe make some copies for Monday, and probably spend a not insignificant amount of time thinking of how best to sneak out without being detected. Why do we stay, you ask? Why such inefficiency? This must be the reason our schools are in such bad shape, you say.

We stay, of course, because they make us stay. Our contract says that we are not allowed to leave. We are paid, after all, for the whole day. The whole 6.6 hour day. Wait a minute! 6.6 hours! That can't be right. School starts at 7:30. School ends at 3:24. That's (wait for it, wait for it) almost 7 hours and 54 minutes! Oh right, we don't get paid for our whopping 30 minute lunch, or the 20 minute morning break Californians call "Nutrition" in spite of the nachos that are served in the cafeteria. That's still more than 7 hours of work. Lucky for the district, our contract is so long and complicated that no one really understands how nearly 8 hours turns into 6.6. We also fail to get paid for time we spend at school before or after the official school day, time we spend grading and planning on the weekends and in the evenings, or time we spend agonizing over the daunting task that is our chosen profession. So, on a day like today, I can't help but feel that this forced teacher-detention is especially cruel. It is insulting. It is plain ol' rude.

For me, the light at the end of this tunnel is that, in its own twisted way, this vicious oppression actually helps to build relationships among teachers. During the two hours and some odd minutes that we are trapped, faces pressed to the bars of the enormous professional fence that surrounds us, we will talk to each other. We will actually stop and talk about our students, the subjects we teach, and the techniques we have recently used in class. We won't have to run full-tilt towards our classrooms at the bell, cutting off the conversation just as it's getting good. We will sit down with teachers who are new to the school, or those who a ready to retire, and we will be teachers together. We will bond over this foul treatment of our kind, and we may come out stronger for it. So HA! school district. IN YOUR FACE!

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Foiled Again!

The following is a summary of a conversation that I had today with two of my library volunteers (cousins, 8th grade, smart). They are the shyest young things I have ever met. Today the afternoon was slow and they had little to do in the way of library business. I found them sitting side by side, one swiveling on an office chair and the other on a library stool, facing the same direction and staring into space, eyes glazed, blank looks, totally quiet.

“They’re bored! So bored, with nothing in the world to do,” I exclaimed in an exaggerated teacher- voice that lets kids know I’m joking around.

Giggles from them, then silence.

“Are you telling me that you actually cannot think of a single thing to occupy your time? No websites to visit? No books to page through?”

Smirks and shrugs.

“Ok. Let’s see. What do you like to do? What do you want to be when you grow up?” By the way, I hate the wording of that question, but find it often spills out of my mouth without my permission; it sounds so superior. More smirks and shrugs. They make eye contact with each other, but nothing develops from this.

“Do you think about what your lives might be like in the future?”

Giggles, then, “noooo?”

Then, out of nowhere, one of them nudges the other and says, “A vet.” Hallelujah! This was just about to get really painful for me.

“Great!” I am overly enthusiastic about this answer. It is a common aspiration at this age and therefore pretty unoriginal, but I am so happy to have learned that their vocal cords are still functioning that I don’t care. “Do you have pets?” I learn that she has three dogs, used to have more, and one of them recently had puppies.

“What about you?” I look at Shy Girl B and wait on the edge of my seat.

Shrug. Smile. Giggle. Shrug. Smile. “Pharmacy Technician.”

Um. “Wow, really? Is someone in your family a pharmacy technician?” No offense to pharmacy technicians, but I cannot figure out where this girl got the idea unless she knows someone in the profession. It’s pretty specific.

“No, I just think it sounds interesting.” Don’t we all.

So, joyous in my success, I bound out onto the library floor and pull books about careers for people who love animals, communicating with animals, rescue dogs, guide dogs, Chihuahuas (Shy Girl A’s preferred breed), history of medicine, alternative medicine, chemistry, and experiments with mixtures and compounds. They accept my offerings and politely flip through the books for a minute or two. I have great hope that I have changed the course of their lives with this one conversation until I am thwarted by a teacher just returned from a field trip. He brings us leftover pizza, and after having plopped pepperoni on one of the dog books, the girls retreat (bookless) to the library workroom to eat theirs. I haven’t seen them since. Damn that teacher, damn field trips, and damn cold meat-lover’s pizza on a sagging paper plate.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Waels Mating, Rinos Popular

Some of the computer tables in my library are round, meaning I cannot see the many of the monitors from the front counter. This is a problem at the busiest times of day. What I believe this arrangement says to the kids is "She's not looking! Search for porn!"
Below is a list of searches that were recently performed using MSN's image search. Original spellings have been used in most cases, although the history shows that in a few cases the student made several attempts before the computer's auto-correct was able to interpret what s/he was trying to say. I should also mention that applause for the district's blocking capabilities should be firmly held. I leave it to you to pick apart this child's thought process as s/he conducted the search.
girdles [i believe this was meant to be girls, but maybe not]
pupies mating
dogs mating
rinos mating
lions mating
horses ass
jake ass
zeabra ass
donkey ass
gay people mating
mating people
kangaroos mating
waels mating
anemals gone wield
naket anemals
rhinos mating
horney anemals
horse shet
horses gone wield
zeabras gone wild