Wednesday, October 31, 2007

This is the Stuff

Mario Perez is an 8th grader who, at the beginning of this school year, had never read a chapter book on his own. He was pretty sure there was no reason to read. He wasn't belligerent about it like some students can be; Mario had just never considered it. His English teacher approached me to help her solve the riddle of what Mario might like to read. He doesn't read well, so that was an added challenge. I/we/he chose the Shredderman series by Wendelin Van Draanan. According to School Library Journal (aka the Bible), "This entertaining story of an egghead who cannot keep his shoes tied who uses his brains to triumph over the worst bully in school will keep even reluctant readers laughing and wanting more stories about this cyber superhero." Having read some Van Draanan, I knew she was good. Even though these books are about 5th graders, I was pretty sure that subtitles like "Attack of the Tagger", "Enemy Spy", and "Meet the Gecko" would transcend age.

Mario read the first book in the series. Then the second. Then he came to get the third book and brought his friend to check out the first. The friend brought a friend who brought a friend who brought a friend, and pretty soon I couldn't keep the books on the shelf. I was turning away disappointed 8th grade boys on a daily basis. Mario had started a buzz.

Mario has gone off-track recently, meaning that he is not in school again until January. Most kids stay home during this time, watching tv, playing video games, babysitting, maybe working with their parents. Mario is here, in the library, right now, as I write this. Right now. Here. In the library. Yesterday he sat in one chair for 2 hours and 34 minutes and listened to the audio book of How to Eat Fried Worms. Today he came to school at 7:30 in the morning (did i mention he's on vacation?) and he is sitting in the same chair, unmoving, listening to another audio book (today it is the Misfits by James Howe, a great book). He's not leaving until it's finished. This will be his 21st book since July. He has caught the bug, and I have been so lucky to watch him discover this pleasure that is my favorite of favorites.

Monday, October 1, 2007

High School Scares Me

On Friday, I spent the day at a very large high school just south of downtown Los Angeles. I will spend 9 days there this semester as part of the field work that is required for my graduate studies. To tell the truth, I thought that I would be immediately intoxicated by the maturity, the independence, the intellectual freedom a high school would surely have to offer. I assumed that I would be coming back to the first tug towards a life in education that I experienced thanks to my 11th grade English Lit teacher. It would be like spending time with my middle school kids, only they would be smarter and more well-spoken. I would be WOWed by the difference a few years can make.

I was WOWed all right. High school was not what I remembered or expected. Was it just this high school? Perhaps. I hope. Oh, please. Or is it just that I am now a lover of middle school personalities, booger-humor, petty arguments, and cracking voices? That might also be true. To begin to explain my reaction to high school, here are a few of my observations:
- Almost all of the students in the library were using some sort of electronic device that is technically outlawed by the school district, like iPods, cell phones, hand-held video game systems. Although I cannot fault anyone for wanting to listen to music while they browse, research, or read, it was simply a shock to see it happening.
- When those students were asked to put their electronics away, they did not. Or they did, but then they took them back out less than one minute later.
- Very few students checked out books compared to what I am used to. Maybe 5-10% of what I would have thought.
- Of an entire 12th grade economics class, not one single student was sophisticated enough at using the Internet to successfully conduct research on a given topic. The best any of them could do was to google a vague term and shuffle through results without really taking in any information.
- One of these 12th graders was very, very pregnant. A group of girls came in later that day to ask if the library carried baby names books. It did not.
- The student workers in the library were very smart, hospitable, and articulate.
- After the lunch period, there were at least 150 students milling around campus, looking as if they had no intention of finding their classes. I took a walk at this time and noticed: a group of hulking, intimidating boys in a stairwell; a couple making out in a stairwell; a pair of cigarette-panted, thin, mod boys darting out of a stairwell when they heard me coming (smoking? lovers?); a group of couples (girls on laps, of course) lingering at the cafeteria tables; four teachers walking right past this as if nothing was wrong; zero adults working to get these kids to class.
- They have a POOL!
- A young man came to the library to ask for books that would help him learn how to read. He said that he only knows how to read a little bit. I wanted to hug him. I wanted to buy him a gift for being to brave. I wanted to shake each and every one of his previous teachers (he was in at least 11th grade) for not helping him sooner.
- There is a great college and career center at the school. Each time I walked by (3 times) it was empty except for the hopeful adult stationed there.
- Some of the students have completed all the coursework available to them at a certain grade level, and so have nothing to do for 2 periods a day. Even though there is a community college two blocks away, the solution to this problem is to have these kids sit in the library. Doing.....

I know there's more, but I am overwhelmed just remembering this much. I am sure that there are wonderful things happening in high schools, but I felt such disappointment and sadness at the end of my time on this very first day. The adults seems resigned. The students (that I saw) seemed blissfully uninterested. That's not entirely true - I did meet a few girls who were filling out college applications. I liked that. How do you run a school when some of the students there are legal adults? How do you tell a legal adult to spit out his gum? How do you promote reading for pleasure and the use of the library during lunchtime when the school is so populated that some kids don't even get through the lunch line before the bell rings for the next class? Why haven't 12th graders learned anything more about online research than what we are teaching them in 8th grade?

I hope that I am speaking to soon. Maybe the next time I am there, I will discover some of the romanticized high school life in the movies, the life that I superimpose on my own memories to make it seem like high school was fun. After all, no one at this high school (at least that I saw) poked anyone else with a pencil, was a tattletale, crawled on the ground under a desk just for fun, or ran through the aisles chasing the object of their affection. Of course, what's so wrong with those sorts of middle-grade, impulsive, uninhibited behaviors? For all that I moan and groan about the immaturity of middle school kids, I think this experience will make me love them all the more. Those poor, poor 9th graders. How did any of us get through it?