Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Some Boys Are Really Nice

I'm not feeling so hot today. I'm on cold medicine that's making me loopy, alternating between a stuffed and a runny nose, and my energy is zapped. It's the last period of the school day, and the class that was scheduled to come to the library canceled. So, my three eighth-grade student clerks (Alfonso, Jesus, and Khalil) have little to do. I've let them just chill together, and watching them has been enlightening. I knew this, of course, but these boys are really, really nice. Just a minute ago, I admitted to them that I was feeling tired and didn't want to do a whole heckuva lot of work.
Alfonso said, "Just rest, miss."
Khalil followed with, "We can handle it. We can handle everything here."
Jesus rounded it out with a humorous, "You really should get some Vapo Rub miss. You do sound quite congested."

When the main office called a few minutes ago to say there were two packages that needed to be picked up, they bickered over who would go get them! And how have they chosen to spend this rare free time (I don't normally believe in free time for students)? They are shopping for books online, visiting author websites to see when their next books are being released, watching movie previews for Twilight, the hottest new book-to-movie about vampires,making short movies on the computer, and reading. And these are not dorky kids. They're just soooo nice.
A girl, Iris, arrived not too long ago to join them. When she walked in she said, "It's a slow day today in the main office", which is where she has her service job. She fit right in with the pack, discussing the various vampire series each has read.
Mysteriously, Jesus came into my office to ask what accounting irregularities are. I explained. Not too long after, he returned to ask what Tarmac is. Again, I explained. When I asked him what he was doing, he said reading a book about cars. Ok. He also wanted to know why our computers had such an old version of Flash. I didn't know what to say to that. Jesus is cooler than I am, I think. Certainly more curious.

My point is, I think, that middle school boys have a bad reputation that many of them do not deserve. I don't remember too many boys being this nice when I was their age, I will admit. My dad, I have been told, was not this nice. Although maybe he was this nice to someone. Maybe these guys are just this nice to me? I don't think so. I think they're nice all the time. Right now, crazy as this seems, I hear what I believe is Mozart wafting across the library. I think they're listening to Mozart! And remember, not dorks. Not at all.

No one knows that there are boys like this in an overcrowded, low-performing school in South Central Los Angeles. People think that the boys here are violent, hard, mean, or maybe dumb. I listen to Alfonso, Jesus, and Khalil talk about what they're planning to read next. I watch Alfonso help Khalil print out, cut, and laminate bookmarks with images from Khalil's favorite new series of books. I watch Jesus and Iris work on this movie together with absolutely no awareness of the usual tension kids of these age feel towards members of the opposite sex.

By the way, Jesus just came over and exclaimed, "Funky! Disco night is back on!"
I don't really know why he did this.

Anyway. I need to start a campaign to project this image of urban boys. Anyone would like these three. And they have friends. Lots of friends who are just like them. It makes me happy in the midst of my head cold.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Failure to Launch

In my role on the Technology Use Committee, I have worked hard to provide countless professional development workshops for teachers who would like to advance their basic technology skills. We've held sessions on Microsoft Excel and Powerpoint, Windows Movie Maker, Google, using Databases, creating web pages, using document projectors, using LCD projectors, using instructional videos, and the list goes on. At times, I feel we are making great progress. Many of our students are even mastering these skills, which makes me hopeful for their futures.

At other times, I worry that I/we are failing our students miserably....and in this case, the students I'm talking about are the teachers. After years of technology workshops (which include very specific advice about how to frame an assignment for the children), the teacher I will highlight today has managed to create what I feel is an extremely confusing and incomplete sheet of instructions for his students who are to make a Power Point slideshow about Ancient Egypt.

A few details about this assignment...
These are 11-year-old kids in the 6th grade. This is their first time using Power Point (probably) and for many of them, their first time using any Microsoft product. This teacher has asked them to make a 15-slide presentation about Ancient Egypt. That's a lot of slides. A whole lot. A real lot, as they say in Decatur. As an added bonus, these students have not actually started studying Ancient Egypt yet. When they first visited the library to use the computers, they were asked to simply "set up" their slides. I don't even know what that is supposed to mean, and I've made a hundred Power Points.

Ok, so, on a plain, white half-sheet of paper is written the following:

How to do a PowerPoint/Slide Show

Start by going to start and left click (L C.) on the mouse.

Then go to bottom left and lick on All Programs

Then go to list and click (L.C.) on Microsoft Office

Then slide mouse over to Microsoft Office Power point and (L.C.)

Now, I suppose these directions could be followed well enough by someone who knows what they're doing. I do find the (L.C.) instruction bewildering in all of its forms. First of all, who calls it Left Click? It's just Click, dammit! Also, the first time it appears, the words "left click" are followed by the acronym in parentheses. Fair enough. The next time, however, the acronym for Left Click follows just the word Click. And finally, the words Left Click are left out entirely, but the acronym is still in parentheses. The words Left Click were shed one by one, until there were none.
Another problem I have with this is that this is not, in fact, the instructions needed to "do" a Power Point. To open the application, yes. To use the application? Not in a million years.

I would like to be the kind of person who is brave and cruel enough to directly address these problems with the teacher, but I am not. After all, I am not an administrator. I do not have true supervisory powers. Also, I am a yellow, clucking chicken.
As I prepare for today's Technology Use Committee meeting, I am reminded that being a teacher is a lot like being Sisyphus. That stone just keeps on rolling back down the hill, and I/we keep charging down to get it and to start over again. Maybe we know more about the hill we're climbing up; we can avoid divots and gravel. But that stone doesn't seem to get easier to push just because we recognize the terrain. What does it say about me, about the other teachers, that we choose to do this? Are we unrelenting optimists who believe in the promise of all people? Or are we just quirky, foggy-brained, and strange?

In the end, I have to give this teacher credit for attempting to do a Power Point with his students for the first time, right? I do. I really, really, really do. Really. I do. Right?

Monday, August 11, 2008

I Have Finally Found It, After a Lifetime of Searching

This is the name. The best, strangest, most difficult to wrap my head around name that I have ever heard. It belongs to a young girl who likes to read fashion and gossip magazines in the library while sucking her fingers, like a small child would suck her thumb. She is very sweet, but her eyes always seem a little glazed over when I tell her that lunch is over, it's time to go to class. My guess is that she spends a lot of time in front of a TV. Her name makes me think of ducks. It is a wonderful name to say aloud, and I find myself adding an extra U as the next to last letter to make the name sound just a bit more rolling, a little more like it came from some long-ago language spoken by sun-baked ancestors. The name is...


Yes, Tommaniqueck(u)a, the goddess of harvest and light.
Or, Tommaniqueck(u)a, a warrior princess riding a great, tamed beast.
Tommaniqueck(u)a, who betrayed her people and brought down a curse upon them.
Tommaniqueck(u)a, who lives with her grandmother near a solitary pond and can communicate with the geese and swans who live among them.
Tommaniquek(u)a, a fierce and vengeful sorceress, dressed in animal skins and a crown of sharp teeth.

I could go on and on like this for hours. Say her name again and again and I think you'll know what I mean. The added U is necessary for me, since the harsh ending sound of the true spelling (Tom-an-eek-eck-a) does not inspire such glorious possibilities. It does however, better fit the small, fragile, dazed girl in the corner, sucking her fingers and reading about glitz and glamor.

The years go by and the names get more elaborate, more challenging for the unsuspecting teacher reading the roll for the first time, more filled with apostrophes (Arie'L, for example), and more exotic. Eight years ago, Tanjalay Lovelady crossed my classroom threshold and I thought that no name would ever be better than hers. It was so satisfying to say. One couldn't help but grin at the thought of the parent who lovingly chose it, declared it, and had it written in stone. But honestly, Tommaniquecka brings things to an entirely new level. I cannot wait for the name that I will someday find that will make Tommaniquecka sound like Mary or Beth. Just imagine the possibilities. It makes me giddy.