Friday, November 6, 2009

Leave the seat up. I BEG you!

Why is it that about 50% of all middle school boys do not know how to properly use a bathroom? Don't they learn this when they are, oh, I don't know.....three?!?!?!?
I have a bathroom in the library. I allow students who work for me as Student Librarians to use it. Sometimes I let a kid with an emergency use it, or a kid who used to work for me, or a kid who just hangs out in the library a lot. This is something I should not do for two reasons.
  1. Boys often do not life the lid! Ew! I really could not care less if they put the lid DOWN at this point. I would just like them to lift it in the first place so that they do not coat the seat with, well, you know. Gag.
  2. Boys do not flush. What? How do you forget to flush? So, entering the bathroom often results in a surprise, and it's not a good one.
  3. Boys cannot aim. Why is this? They've had a decade of practice, yet the floor (yes, the FLOOR) is often slippery with their......blech, I want to barf just thinking about it.
I don't understand this. I have NO idea how to address it ("Um, guys, could you please flush the toilet and try not to piss all over the place from now on?"). I can't stand the potential humiliation of that conversation.

At this point, it's a real gamble any time I walk in there. SO. GROSS.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Experimenting on Angsty Children

I've become increasingly interested in my students' music lives, particularly their knowledge (or lack of it) about bands that I consider classics of teen angst, like The Smiths, The Cure, and lots of others that kids have been wallowing to for a few decades. Over the years I've found a certain subset of students who are aware of these bands, usually through an older sibling or an aunt/uncle. Those kids tend to be the ones I would have considered the cool kids if I were in middle school with them now. Their bangs cover their eyes. They wear black. They smirk.

A few days ago I was teaching a class and I happened to mention Madonna (who knows why?) and a girl said, "Who's Madonna?" My jaw dropped for a moment and I was about to admonish her for her negligence when it hit me. Madonna doesn't translate. She's not actually timeless. Her songs from the 80s and early 90s sound dated now. I mean, who among us regularly pops in La Isla Bonita or True Blue and really rocks out? Once a year maybe, but there are other bands that we do still listen to with regularity, bands that still sound fresh, like the Pixies or Depeche Mode. It's no wonder she hasn't heard of Madonna. Madonna appeals to old people now, people who liked her when they were young. Young people don't care.

This realization made me think about which bands from my youth still sounded fresh, which ones would teenagers today latch on to and make their own the way I did with bands from before my time. Along with all the contemporary music I listened to back then, I also played my parents' Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin albums. I discovered Bob Marley as if he hadn't died with I was in kindergarten. Even a lot of the music I listened to as a surly teen was technically before my time. New Order's first album came out in '81, the Violent Femmes' in '83, and The Smiths' in '84. I was in grade school then and wouldn't discover these bands until junior high when my sister and my friends' siblings showed us what we needed to know to be cool.

So I am going to conduct a little experiment. I've created a playlist of 20 songs that I liked when I was 13. Songs that were cool. I'm going to burn a few CDs and give them to a few students who have already expressed some interest in one or more of the bands. I will ask them to listen to the CDs over the weekend and answer a few questions about them. The questions are:
  • Have you ever heard this song before?
  • Do you recognize the band/singer?
  • Can you name the band/singer?
  • Can you name the song?
  • Do you already listen to this band/singer?
  • Do you want to hear more like this?
  • Rate this song an a scale from 1-5, 1 meaning you hate its guts, 5 meaning it's freakin' great.
On Monday, we'll chat about what they thought. I want to know how deep their exposure has been, and I guess I also want to get a chance to be a part of exposing them further if they so choose. I am grateful to so many people who turned me on to cool music, and I think it'd be rewarding to hear what these kids like to listen to when they are staring at their ceilings, hating school, hating life, wishing for adulthood and freedom. Isn't that what we were thinking about then? It's the memory I have when I listen to so many of these songs. I'd also like to know how they know what they already know. Who's their source?

Wish me luck, and here's the playlist:
The Smiths - Girlfriend in a Coma
The Pixies - Wave of Mutilation
Violent Femmes - Blister in the Sun
Fugazi - Waiting Room
Pixies - Monkey Gone to Heaven
Nirvana - Breed
Violent Femmes - Gone Daddy Gone
The Cure - Why Can't I Be You?
Morrissey - Every Day is like Sunday
Depeche Mode - Personal Jesus
Morrissey - Suedehead
Depeche Mode - Never let me down again
U2 - Sunday Bloody Sunday
Nirvana - Heart Shaped Box
Echo & the Bunnymen - Lips Like Sugar
The Stone Roses - I Wanna Be Adored
Jane's Additcion - Jane Says
Dinosaur Jr. - The Wagon
The Church - Under the Milky Way
U2 - New Years Day

Friday, September 4, 2009

Perhaps I Need a Spa Day

Today one of my students told me that I look like I am sick. I'm not sick. Ah, well.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Is that Manure?

Today fires in the San Gabriel mountains (I think) have caused Los Angeles to be covered in a cloud of pungent, hot smoke. The temperature is high, and even walking from the library to the classroom building is extremely uncomfortable. Now add in manure.
For some reason, the school district has chosen this last week of August, one of the hottest of the year, to spread truckloads of manure over our school's PE fields. Particulates are flying through the air, mixing with the smoke and the heat to create a wall of hot stink. A few minutes ago the bell rang for lunch. More than a thousand children poured out of their (mostly) air conditioned classes to eat the fried, greasy, school-issued lunch in the heat and manure. They are almost all wearing heavy, black hooded sweatshirts which they refuse to take off. This is the only personalized clothing item they can get away with and still be in uniform, so they insist on wearing them no matter the conditions.
After they get properly sweaty and steamed up, the bell will ring again and they will march back into windowless classes (or the library) to sit and cook for the next three hours. They will smell and the rooms will heat up to the point that there might as well not be AC at all.
Sometimes this job is disgusting.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Pesky Little Bloggers

This year, my friend Jimmy and I took over the school's Yearbook class. Hm. We aren't sure that was a great idea. Neither of us really cares all that much about yearbooks, so we decided to make a little more out of it. We now call it Yearbook/Media, and we've created a student news blog. Our kids are writing editorials, conducting interviews, writing reviews, composing polling questions, acting as photographers. It's pretty great.

We set up a system of Elders, four 8th grade students each assigned a caseload of reporters. They check in on the stories, edit, and finally publish. This is all happening using Google Docs and Blogger. There is no paper in sight. We are happy.

So check out the Laams School News blog in its fledgling youth (only two days old!). My favorite article so far is called "Educational Institution...or Juvenile Detention?" It's a bit of a spoof, and the photography is fantastic.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I Am a Nerd Magnet

Two boys (6th grade) were caught hanging out in the library stairwell and the end of 1st period today. One of these boys is one of my student librarians. The other is here two or three times a day. They were ditching PE. Well, sort of. They had gone to PE and then sneaked out at the very end, after everyone had changed back into their normal clothes and was waiting to be dismissed. That meant that they were probably only in the stairwell for 10 minutes or so....but still.

So, I interrogated them. First C arrived (having been sent by his science teacher - you see, I only found out about this after the fact; I didn't actually catch them). He explained to me the details of the situation and then said that he hated PE at the end of the period because the teachers were still supervising the locker rooms (so nothing bad can happen) and the students are left to their own devices out on the field (good plan). C says that he gets pushed, hit, and called names by the other kids. I believe it. He is not your average boy. C shed a few tears and I told him that I didn't want anyone to be mean to him, but that he couldn't just sneak out of class when he felt like it. I explained all the reasons about safety that I thought were so bogus when I was a kid, but now I totally understand.

Then D arrived. I assumed that his reasons for sneaking away would be the same as C's. D is a sleepy-eyed kid who dances to the beat of his own drum. When I asked why he had done it, he told me it was because he wanted to be the first in the library at Nutrition. He wanted as much time here as possible to read and look at Where's Waldo and Ripley's Believe It Or Not books. I was flattered....but still.

So I took the poor boys (one sniffly, one unphased) to the deans' office. I asked them to sit and wait while I explained the situation. When I told the dean that D just wanted to get to the library as fast as he could, she said, "Wow, you really get the big nerds up there, don't you?" I laughed, because it was funny, but I was a little ruffled by it too. Yes, I get the big nerds. The huge nerds, the total nerds, the major geeks, the complete losers. It's true. It's safe here, and it's also awesome. What most people don't know is that I also get the drama kids, the soccer players, the rockers, the Emo's, the giggly girls, the mean kids, the skaters, the gamers, the golden girls and boys, the misfits, the outcasts, the teachers' pets, the teachers' worst nightmares, the braniacs, the freaks, the jocks, the rebels, and the princesses.

The point is, I get it all. The library is an equal opportunity space. I will admit that a certain population dominates up here, but I think that's cool. A nerd-dominated space is somewhere that I, personally, don't mind spending time. Especially since these nerds like to READ.

I am sorry that C is having a hard time. I like him a lot and I wish kids would just leave him alone. D, though, really made my day. To ditch a class to come to the library, well, that makes me feel good. Kids do it all the time, but they are really just trying not to be in class by faking passes to the library. It's not that they want to be in the library, but that they don't want to be somewhere else. D's intentions were truer. It was here that he wanted to be over any other place in school, so much so that he broke a rule and got sent to the dean.
Talk about a warm fuzzy.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hiring New Blood

It's that time of year again, and I've begun to accept applications from students who would like to work in the library next year (as an elective class). On the application, my two favorite questions ask the students their reasons for wanting to work in the library and any special skills/talents I should know about. Here are some great responses from today's batch.

When asked to describe the reasons for wanting to work in the library"

"I always wanted a job when I get in my teen years."

"The library is the best place to be because of two reasons: first you can read and reading helps you learn, and second the library is a nice quiet place to get unstressed."

"I want to work in the library because I am tired of doing nothing about books in the wrong place and out of order." HIRED!

When asked to list special skills/talents"

"I have Day ja vu a lot when I sleep. I can do 2 things at the same time." Are these separate or related skills, I wonder?

"I love to dance and I have great skills. I also have a great talent of finding books."

"Excel, in drama, singing, talking, vampires and monsters."

That's all for today. More to come.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Economic Crisis + School Uniforms = Teen Angst

Today I had a meeting with the principal about students who want to use the library while they're off track. (For those of you out of the loop, our school is year-round, with three tracks that go four months on and two months off. So, there are always two tracks on, and one off.) In the past, we've allowed off-track kids to wander onto campus and come to the libary as long as they could show their school IDs at the front entrance. Sadly, some young darlings have chosen to abuse this arrangement, bypassing the library entrance completely to visit teachers in their classes, go to the PE field or locker room, or just randomly wander. It makes sense that the principal needs to tighten things up a bit, and we came to a decent enough agreement that kids could visit the library from 8am-11:30am while off track. They still need to sign in at the front entrance, show their IDs, and (this is new) wear their school uniforms.

This is the part that really interests me. They're off track. They are coming from home for maybe as few as 10 minutes to return a book. Why do they need to change clothes? I'll tell you why. According to our assistant principal in charge of security, our uniform policy is going down the tubes fast and we need to save it before there is mass chaos at the school (Oh no! Cute shoes! Funny t-shirts! Personal style! Aaahh!).
More and more kids are showing up every day completely out of uniform. What is the reason for this? Is it defiance, protest, civil disobedience? Nope. It's the economy. I really wouldn't have thought of this, since I just assumed that kids who bought their uniforms at the beginning of the year would still be able to use them. Then I remembered that, of course, kids grow. So some of our families can no longer afford to buy new clothes for their kids. Or at least not two sets, one for school and one for home. But there are other, less obvious reasons for this too. Our kids and their families are moving, and moving quickly, into and out of their homes. We have kids coming back from Riverside and other outlying communities where their families hopefully bought houses and then could not make it work, or had ballooning mortgages, or lost their jobs and came back to live with family. We have kids who are evicted and actually have to leave their homes without being given the time to pack all of their things. Perhaps some of them even come home to a house or apartment where the locks have already been changed and their things have been lost in the shuffle.

So what does the school administration do in this situation? Is there some kind of precedence? They can't very well punish a child in these circumstances, nor can they abolish the uniform system. As of now, I believe they are using a two-step process to fix the situation. Step one has some interesting implications.

Step one: Have the parents sign a uniform waiver so everything is on the up-and-up. You see, the school district has a very secret uniform waiver that parents can request that allows their student to come to school without a uniform. At most schools, the administration will try to talk parents out of this, listing all sorts of scary security reasons that justify uniforms in the first place. Every once in a while though, one meets a cool kid in cool clothes and asks, "Why are you not in uniform?" The cool kid will coolly reply, "I've got a waiver, miss." And then one can share a short moment with the cool kid where the following is communicated telepathically: You have cool parents who thwart the system, therefore you too are probably cool, and you should know that I am cool and thwart the system, only I can't really do so openly because this is a school and I am a teacher, but you should know that I dig it, man.
In terms of this current uniform and economy crisis, however, the waiver serves a different purpose. It's just there to make sure that everyone's i's and t's are properly dotted and crossed, and I'll bet that it is presented to the parents in such a way that they walk away believing it is only available as a temporary measure and not as a permanent choice. The danger for the administration, obviously, is that some of these kids and parents will uncover the truth and decide they want to continue the waiver for good. I'm really hoping that happens, if only to observe the hands-tied reaction of those who will undoubtedly hate it.

Step Two in the process to get these kids dressed is to send a very nice man to the home of the student and (I believe) begin some paperwork to get uniform clothes for the family that are paid for by.....and here I just don't know. The school, the district? It's anyone's guess. What I heard today is that it takes a few weeks to make this happen, so I assume paperwork is involved. And who is this nice man? None other than our Pupil Services and Attendance officer, known to most of us as the Truancy Officer. Usually when you see him coming, it means someone has missed a lot of school and the school demands answers! He's actually very kind and nothing at all like Edward Rooney, but nonetheless, his job can't be easy or uplifting. Going into homes to discover the root of trouble that causes kids to miss school or not have proper clothing must send him home at night with knots in his shoulders and a heavy heart.

So there it is. Direct and visible impact of the GEC (global economic crisis, pronounced geck). It must be manifesting in other, more discreet and sneakish ways. In part I am extremely curious about them, and in part I dread knowing.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Two Good Days

In spite of all this layoff hooplah (which is not getting any better, btw) I just had two of the most satisfying days of teaching I've had in a long time. Yesterday was better than today, I admit, but I'm counting them both as successes. Here's what I did....

A US History teacher (8th grade) came to me a couple of weeks ago with an assignment he wanted to do with his students. Civil War Biographies. Could I help? Of course. We talked for a while and I admitted to him that I thought the assignment was a bit of a snooze. Really, I liked writing bios in school, but i thought that the kids might respond a little better if we mixed it up. I've been working to make some inroads with the history department for years, so this was my chance to design something cool and incorporate technology.....and basically win them over.

I convinced the teacher to drop the birth, death, family, education, bo-ring angle. Instead we developed three basic questions the students needed to answer. What was the person's role in the Civil War; how did s/he contribute to its outcome? What clues from his/her childhood inform us as to why s/he ended up playing that role? What could s/he have done or decided differently that would have dramatically impacted the outcome of his/her life (or in other words, what were the paths untaken?). Aahhhh...that felt better. The kids would be forced to analyze what they read, rather than just listing loads of 'who cares' information.

I developed an example product. The teacher developed criteria for grading the product. I collected probably a hundred web resources for the kids to use. We were so ready, it's not even funny. And you won't believe it....

It worked. Every kid got it. Every one got INTO it, which is amazing. (Well, not one. One ate cookies, cussed at me, stole another kid's keys, and was picked up by the dean all within the first 10 minutes of class. It was impressive.) The rest of them, though, were amazing. We did everything electronically. They took notes by copying and pasting text and images onto a Word document, keeping track of each web address as they went. No antiquated note-taking practices here! They used multiple sources (in one case nine!) and they saved their work to the school's network so they can access it from any computer on campus next week.

They asked really cool questions, like how did John Wilkes Booth get away from the theater, anyway? They showed me a picture of the chair that Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot. It has a dark stain that was once thought to be blood, but now we know is hair pomade. They liked that. They read speeches make by Frederick Douglass. They read Jefferson Davis's 1861 Inaugural Address. They were intense! I'm not sure I've seen anything like it for a loooong time.

It was a good couple of days, and it reminded me of what it takes to be in the classroom day in and day out with the same kids, plugging along, teaching the same lesson to six groups, teaching it again to students who were absent, grading their work, finding new ways to deliver that dang 'ol instruction. It's hard! I am exhausted. I'm often exhausted by my job, since it's very go, go, go. It's a different kind of tired, though. My days are varied and unexpected. I talk about science and math and books and ancient empires and vampires and earthquakes and video games every single day. The variety keeps it light. These past two days, though, oh man. Six times I said, "In order to save to the network, you'll...". Six times I said, "In order to give credit to your sources, you'll need to copy the URL to your notes....". Six times I said, "In just a few moments, you'll need to do your final save.." And so on, and so on. It's tedious to say the same thing six times, you know?

The teacher was happy, I was happy, and now I am ready to go home and flop. I don't want to talk for the rest of the night. I need to watch a movie and rest my brain for a while.

I hope people know what it means for these teachers who might be losing their jobs. They like to do this, after all. What will they ever find that's as satisfying as this?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Beyond the Bell is Busted!

LAUSD's Beyond the Bell Branch is not going to be funded next year (or so we've been recently told). This is the branch of the school district that takes care of before/after school programs, Saturday school, summer school (and for year-round schools what they call intercession), honor band, drill team, outdoor education, and Students Run LA (a marathon training program for kids).

At my school, our after school programs offer guitar club, a video game space, soccer, basketball, homework help, and lots of other activities. The kids get snacks, they are supervised, and they often stay at school until 6 or 6:30 in the evening.

Where are these kids going to go now?

The Beyond the Bell Branch website states : LAUSD has made a commitment that all students within our district have access to high quality, safe and supervised educational, enrichment and recreational programs that engage and inspire learning and achievement beyond the regular school day.

I guess they'll have to remove that part. Oh wait, the whole website will probably be taken down. That'll take care of that.

I am willing to talk about a pay cut, furlough days, and lots of other solutions to the financial problems of the school district in order to save Beyond the Bell. Because where will our students go? Maybe they'll go home to an empty house. That'll be great. Or maybe their parents don't want them to be home alone, so their parents will try to rearrange their work schedules and end up getting fired. Also super great for our kids. Maybe they'll go to friends' houses where there are no adults. Or they could hang around at South Park, where there are tons of adult men lingering at all times of day. Perhaps they could just roam around the neighborhood and play with some of the many stray dogs I see every day. That would certainly give them some outdoor education. Or maybe they could flood the few overextended community centers in the area that already have trouble making ends meet. I'm sure that would all work out fine.

What is wrong with the people making these decisions? Our students need these programs badly. They need a place to spend time with positive adult role models. They need to be supervised at all times; they're in middle school for goodness sakes! Middle School! They cannot be trusted to make strong, healthy, careful decisions when they are given hours of time home alone. I mean, c'mon. You know it's true. How many of them are going to go home, do their homework, eat a healthy snack, feed the pets, empty the dishwasher, and curl up with a good book? I can think of a couple kids who might, to tell the truth. But there are hundreds, thousands who will not do anything even close to this. This is bad, people. Very, Very bad,

Monday, March 30, 2009

More Super Fun Times at School

First, some clarification from my last post. I suggested that the district redistribute teachers from areas like the valley where fewer people got RIFfed to make sure that all schools had equitable layoffs and re population by cubicle dwellers. It was a humorous suggestion. Of course that would never work. My point was that it would sure get the attention of those involved, and that attention may help rectify the situation. I meant to point out how unfair it would feel to those teachers and families to have their entire lives and school communities disrupted so thoroughly. I was hoping to illustrate the fact that those "nicer" areas may be more successful in blocking such disruptive action, while our more "disadvantaged" neighborhood simply gets bulldozed for the millionth time. I repeat, I do not actually think teachers should get moved from one school to another on the whim of a principal or district-level employee.

Having said that, I would like to applaud some of the teachers at my school for beginning to take some action. This weekend, they developed this blog, Don't Forget South Central. The letter posted by our teacher Ms. Infante was sent to the superintendent of schools. It was then distributed to all certificated staff within LAUSD. Yay Martha! So that's progress.

I've been attempting to collect numbers from other schools to find out how many teachers got RIFfed. So far, I know very little.

Millikan MS in Sherman Oaks. 18 out of 80 teachers RIFfed. According to LAUSD's website, this school is 48% white, 35% Hispanic, 11% Black, and 6% Asian. 15 of their teachers are first-year teachers.

Gompers MS on 112th Street in Watts. 38 out of 80 teachers RIFfed. The school is 71% Hispanic and 29% Black. They have 19 first year teachers and 25 more with just 2-5 years experience.

Bethune MS on 69th Street in South Central. 35 out of 90 teachers RIFfed. The school is 86% Hispanic and 14% Black. There are 30 first year teachers and 35 with 2-5 years experience.

Cleveland HS in Reseda. 11 out of 180 RIFfed. The school is 15% White, 62% Hispanic, 6% Black, and 16% Asian. They have 16 first-year teachers and 44 with 2-5 years. Um, what? With 60 teachers with less than 5 years experience, why only 11 RIFs? I don't get that.

Fremont HS on 76th and San Pedro in South Central. 40 out of 240 RIFfed. The school is 91% Hispanic and 9% Black. There are 58 first year teachers and 96 with 2-5 years.

Los Angeles Academy MS on 56th and Avalon in South Central. 42 out of ~120 teachers. The school is 93% Hispanic and 7% Black. There are 36 first-year teachers and 48 with 2-5 years.

Mark Twain MS in West LA. 7 out of 52 teachers RIFfed. Here there are 25 teachers with a year or less, and 19 more with 2-5 years. Again, why only 7 teachers RIFfed if that is the case?

Pio Pico EL in what I might call Mid-City or West Adams. 27 out of 95 teachers RIFfed. 23 of the teachers at Pio Pico have about a year of experience.

It occurs to me that some of the district's info on teachers' experience may be bogus. I don't really think we could possibly have 36 first-year teachers at this school. Maybe they mean first year in LAUSD? I know there are a lot, but this seems ridiculous.

Whatever the case may be, a few things are clearer after looking at these numbers. First, high schools may be retaining a larger percentage of their teachers. This is most likely because their credentials are in specialized subject matter, and a chemistry or algebra teacher is harder to replace than a 4th grade teacher (according to the system currently in place). The other thing that is clear is that I don't have enough numbers. I'm trying to collect them, but the going is slow. I will keep you posted.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Some Serious Social Injustice

35% of the teachers at my school are in danger of losing their jobs. More really. Only teachers with tenure were given the courtesy of receiving RIF notices from the district. Those teachers who are so green they barely have their paperwork stamped will be given only 15 days notice before leaving their jobs.

At neighboring schools, I have seen numbers that show up to 49% of teachers in danger of being let go. These are all schools in South Central LA, Watts, and other socio-economically disadvantaged communities. Rumor has it that some teachers in West LA schools aren't even aware of the layoffs. I heard that in one valley school, only 4 teachers got RIFfed.

A proposal:

Instead of laying of 42-50% of the teachers in disadvantaged areas and replacing them with the before-mentioned cubicle workers, instead we should just redistribute. So, some teachers from the valley and West LA could come to our school, and some of the cubicle workers could go to their schools, so that it all worked out evenly for our students.

I'll bet if our superintendent created a plan along these lines, this matter would get the publicity it deserves. Can you imagine the parental response? It would by mayhem. Now I just need to figure out a way to make it happen....

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Who needs good teachers? Not us!

So, here's what's happening at my school (and across the district in varying degrees):

Over the weekend, 42 teachers got RIF (Reduction in Force) notices that told them that as of June 30, their services are no longer needed. Forty-two! Nearly half of the faculty.
These are not just brand new teachers. Some have been with the district for nearly ten years. Many are our best, most successful, most charismatic educators. A few are stinkers, it's true.
These teachers received RIF notices because LAUSD is $718 million in debt. We don't know if we'll get any money from the state or the federal government, and we won't know until May. So these are "worst-case scenario" notices, and we hope the teachers won't really have to go. The district is offering 2000 people early retirement, and other measures may be able to offset the 8800 RIFfed positions.

Anyhoo, you might be wondering, "But who will teach the children????"
Who, indeed.
The teaching positions are not going to be eliminated. No, no. Class sizes will grow, it is true. But in most cases, the RIFs are to accommodate the downsizing of the administrative offices. You hear me right. The administrative offices are too full of people. Can you believe it? We have more bureaucrats that we need? I wonder if that has anything to do with our budget crisis.....
So, who are these people, working in the dreaded, hated Beaudry building downtown (and several other mini-Beaudrys around LA)? Some of them are clerks, secretaries, etc. Some of them are executives and the like. Many (dare I say most?) of them are former teachers. Teachers who chose to leave the classroom, chose to leave the school site, for various reasons.
What are these reasons, I wonder?
For some, it was a genuine desire to do something bigger, something that could impact more kids, more schools, and more teachers. I can understand this impulse, since I also left the classroom to work in the library. I wanted to impact more kids, more teachers. I think I do.
For others, it was out of fatigue. Get me out of here! They cried.
For still others, it was necessity. They were bad teachers. They moved from school to school, and still they got poor evaluations. Eventually, they were hidden in cubicles, protected by the union, to live out their days.
I am simplifying things, I know. I'm trying to make a point, here.
So, these former teachers have not been in the classroom for years, maybe even decades. But they have seniority over the teachers at my school who got RIFfed (I will get to seniority in a moment), and so they will not be laid off. No! They will be moved back to the schools, back to the classrooms that they clamored to leave. They will become educators again, and our school will change forever.
So many questions arise, don’t they?
How can the union let this happen? And what is the union’s reaction to the RIFs?
How will the children and the school be served if unwilling, outdated teachers are forced to return to the classroom or lose their jobs?
Where is the social justice, when 42 teachers from this school in South Central got RIFfed, and schools in the valley had only two, four, or six teachers receive pink slips?
These and many other questions will be the subject of my enlightened commentary over the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more dish on the state of affairs in LAUSD, please.
Before I go, however, I really need to address the union paradox that is going on right now. First, a disclaimer. I am a member of my teaching union, and I believe in unions in general. Having said that let me now anger many, many people.
In a way, this is our own damn fault. (pause for a lightning bolt to strike me down)
Of course, it’s not our fault that the budget is screwed up, or that the administrative offices waste money like nobody’s business, or that the entire country is in the middle of economic collapse. That is not our fault.
It IS our fault, however, that there are crappy, surly, outmoded educators scattered around the district, still on the payroll because the union makes it impossible to fire them.
I once knew of a teacher who knocked a kid down and kicked him in the ribs…..and just got transferred. I know teachers who read the paper in class, spend all their time online, tell kids that they are stupid, scream at the class to shut up, show R-rated movies on a weekly basis, and owe schools hundreds of dollars in lost and broken materials and equipment. They might get transferred to a new school, they might get transferred to Beaudry, but they probably will get to keep their jobs until they retire. I don’t like it, but it’s they way of unionized labor. We need the union to protect us. We do, I know we do, I pay my dues, I believe in the concept. The union, however, has done too good a job. We, as a union of educators, really need to revise the way we protect our own, because we are now (and by we, I really mean our students) are now going to suffer for it.
You see, the seniority system has been championed by the union. The seniority system is what will now allow the district to lay off motivated, wonderful educators and replace them with people who prefer an office setting to a classroom.
I don’t have a solution to the problem of seniority. I know that there has to be some objective way to evaluate teachers, and there is none, and so we rely on seniority because we don’t know what else to do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased that I am protected because of my seniority, but I also believe that the quality of my work would protect me equally if that happened to be the measure used to determine who must stay and who must go. I work hard, I want to be here, I collaborate, I improve myself, I use technology, and I love the kids. I think I could stand on that. I think a lot of the teachers who got RIFfed could stand on their performances too. I know they could, because I watch them perform, and they (many of them) are excellent, natural-born teachers.
Think of your very best teacher, and then imagine you never got to have that teacher because s/he got RIFfed. Urg.
So, the union wants to strike. They want us to start by coming in an hour late every Friday. Huh? The union wants to punish the district, but the union’s policies helped create the district’s solution to this budget crisis. The union wants the district to cut waste in order to spare teachers. Me too! But I haven’t seen any kind of balance sheet that would tell me if that is even possible. Tally it up people! Can we save 8800 teachers by cutting paper waste, external consulting contracts, unnecessary testing materials, multiple academic coaches at each site, and software licenses that nobody uses anyway? Does that equal 8800 teachers’ salaries? And if it does, doesn’t that just mean that 8800 people working at the administrative offices stay in their cubicles and continue pushing carbon paper in triplicate? And is that really ok?

Man oh man, I could go on forever.

If you’ve read this far and you don’t hate me yet, that’s fantastic. If you do, just let me reiterate: I don’t know what the solution is. I think the district and the union need to do more, need to give a little, need to reevaluate their overall philosophies of what is best for our students. I think that bad teachers should find another job. I think that administrative offices should reduce waste by using new technologies. I think that good teachers should get to stay and teach whether they got their contracts last year or twenty years ago, because I think there are people who can teach and people who cannot teach, and I think it is an art, a science, an instinct, and an intense love of children that requires more work that most people ever put into anything. I am so sorry this is happening, and I hope that when we are on the other side of it, our schools are better, not worse.

Like I said, stay tuned.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Problem with People

Every week, Ms. G brings her class to the library. Her class consists of three students. I've never quite figured out why she only has three students, but I think it must have something to do with the fact that these kids have been labelled "emotionally disturbed" at some point in their school careers. Along with these three students, there are three adults (besides the teacher) assigned to the class. Each kid has a one-on-one, as they are called. Normally, these one-on-ones are really just under trained, under payed babysitters. Not in all cases, but in most.

Anyway, Ms. G's class usually just spends time looking for books, reading, working on projects, etc. The adults read magazines and books. It's mellow and usually follows the basic school policies for classroom behavior, although there is never any real curriculum or instruction happening. But that's fine, because all kids need some plain old library time, right?

Today did not work out this way, I am sad to report. This is how it went down:
The kids came in. The one boy (who really loves to read) renewed his book and hunkered down at a table, perfectly happy. The two girls went to computers, presumably to use the catalog. One aide went into a conference room, closed the door, and started working on...what? School work (as in undergrad or grad school work)? Aide #2 sat down with a magazine, aide #3 did the same, all the way on the other side of the library. No one was anywhere near the kids.

Then walks in....the sub. Oh, man. He introduces himself as a retired teacher, sits down, and makes a call on his cell phone. This does not bode well.
I let it go, however, choosing to believe that the kids will prevail over their lack of leadership. The boy did; the girls did not.

A few minutes later, I hear the girls giggling and saying things like, "He look nasty!" This is probably not school work, I think. It is not. They are looking at pictures of Chris Brown on Google images. If you do not know who Chris Brown is, I do not blame you. He is a singer, heart throb, and major cause of swooning among 8th grade girls. So I ask,

"Ladies, what are you supposed to be doing for class right now?"

And they answer, "Nothin'! We got a sub! We just s'posed to come to the li-berry."

To which I respond, "Well girls, we don't allow free time on the computers, or during school hours in general. I'm sure there is something that we can find for you to work on that is school related."

During this interaction, the girls get increasingly fussy, grunting things like, "This school is dumb!" and "I hate this school!"

The aides and the sub continue their relaxing reading time.

I go to one aide and say, "Are there no lesson plans for today? They can't just browse Chris Brown pictures. What have they been studying in class?"

She says, "Well, I'm just a sub."

Great. Two subs. So I ask the other aide (the one not closed into a conference room). She says, "So you want us to leave?"

I look at the sub. He says, "I see where you're coming from, but I'm just a sub."

Ok, before I tell you the rest, let me just ask a question here. Since when do subs have ZERO responsibility for delivering instruction? Are they not expected to read and execute the lesson plans left by the teacher? And if there are no plans there, are subs not expected to have a bag of tricks to use to get through the day? Educational videos and games, books and stories to read aloud, etc. A single backpack can easily arm a sub with activities that are worthwhile for the kids.

So, I say, "Well, I suppose if there is no plan, and the girls are not going to use the library's resources, then yes, it would be best if you return to the classroom." I cringe for the poor boy, and I know they will do nothing academic in the classroom, but I cannot allow that to be the case in my classroom.

The girls get up and disappear into the stacks. "Ima getta book! Ima getta book!"
The subs and aides drift listlessly towards the door.
And then everything is just sort of suspended in time. No one coming or going. So I approach the girls one last time.

"I think we've been pretty clear that it's time to go ladies."
"We gonna get a book!"
"I'm sorry, but I think you've lost the chance." See, I don't take kindly to kids being flat-out rude, rude, rude to an adult in a position of authority. I get what defiance, insolence, teen angst, and general grumpiness are all about. What I don't accept is pure, unadulterated rudeness.
"I don't CARE!" This is the more vocal girl. "This a ol' raggedy library anyway!" (We have one of the best library's anywhere around.) "This a ol' ugly library! I don't know why she [me] always got somethin' to say. Fuck! With her fat self, this school's dumb. I hate this school!"

Girl 2 chimes in a bit, but I don't catch it. The subs and aides are already out the door. They're gone. They are so done for the day, and since the teacher is not there, their job has been reduced to waiting for the bell, just like the kids.

As they walk back to their room, I look out the window to watch. Each of them moves in a mosey, adult and child alike. None wants to go into that stuffy, dim classroom and sit there with angry feelings about the library and their wasted, pathetic Friday afternoon. I've ruined their day, with my anti-Chris Brown policy and my raggedy fat-ass library.

This sums up so many of the problems with this school, this system. It's a parable, a story to illustrate the kind of low standards and just-keep-them-busy mentality that pervades too many classrooms. It's a sorry way to end a good week.

On the other hand, my boys are here again. One is wearing a loose tie over his t-shirt. Another sold me a caramel chocolate bar for a fundraising effort, and I promptly gave it back to him to eat. They happily moved boxes of books in the rain for me. They asked me if I was really sure when I told them they had done a good job and could spend the last few minutes pursuing their personal interests, which they are now happily doing.

This begs the question: What's the difference between 'free time' and pursuing one's personal interests? Good question, and to many people it would look like the same thing. Here's why it's not: students who actively pursue their personal interests seek deep understanding and complex information from a variety of sources. For example, a student I am working with wants to write 'a book' about vampires. He asserts that vampires are real. He plans to read fictional accounts of vampires as well as vampire lore in order to write his book. He uses reference books, novels, and web sites. So, pursuing his personal interests often looks like he's just checking out some random vampire website during school hours. Some would assume he's goofing off, but he's not.

That's why I always ask what the student is supposed to be doing, or how that site is somehow relevant to a pursuit of knowledge and understanding. I know immediately when it's goofing off and when it's serious. If those girls had explained to me that they were working on some kind of project to, say, take a book they have read and cast the (imaginary) movie, and they needed to find the perfect photo of Chris Brown to do the trick for the main character, I would have known they were pursuing their personal interests in a thoughtful, purposeful way. I would have encouraged and helped them.

So, why aren't those girls doing a cool project like that? And why do some kids at this school get to, while others are just shuffled into a class with three bored adults who simply want to go home as soon as the bell rings? Can you IMAGINE what a one-on-one adult to student ratio could really do? The power of that is astounding, yet it got Ms. G's class nowhere fast this afternoon.

Now one of my boys is watering our plants. Soon they will be gone, and my fat self will head home in the rain to unwind, read my book, have a beer with my sister, and kiss my niece. I'm ready.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I'm Surrounded!

There are currently ELEVEN 8th grade boys in the library. They are the smartest, funniest, coolest ones, too. Sic of them are my Student Librarians, four of them are student Tech Operations workers (out of work today because their leader is absent), and one is just visiting. They are hard at work, helping me number, label, sticker, tape, and box a few thousand books. There are constant complaints, jokes, questions, mysterious sounds, laughs, and whatever the modern equivalent of yo-mama slams are. One of them just got his new 8th grade class t-shirt with all the 8th grade students' names on the back. The other boys are pawing him, nearly knocking him over to find their own names and their friends'. Every few minutes they ask me if they can stop working and just hang out. Then they warn me that letting them do so would be a big mistake. Then they look at me expectantly, as if I am just fool enough to give them the go ahead in spite of my own (and their) experience. They keep asking me what to do if. What to do if there are more than 36 books in a box. What to do if some of the books have different covers. What to do if they run out of green stickers. What to do if they run out of blue stickers. What to do if Ms. Murphy runs screaming from the room.

As I said, they are the best, brightest kids. They are applying to $25,000 dollar a year private schools on the west side. They know exactly what to do, could do it better then I could, and will most certainly snigger about my silly little procedures later when I am out of ear shot.

But they are in 8th grade, and they cannot be contained. I will so, so miss them next year.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Robert and Javier - Bloggers!

Finally, I've convinced a young person (two, actually) that writing and publishing online is cool. I can't tell you how many deaf ears this message has fallen upon. For a while now, I've been trying to show kids the way that people are using online communities to, well, do just about everything. The thing is, the only thing they seem to understand is myspace. Forget about the fact the myspace is just one of thousands of online communities. They don't see it that way. For most of my students, there are no other websites where people can talk, laugh, joke, publish, and admire each other to a dangerously compulsive degree. Well there are!

So, how did this miraculous blog creation happen? It was a total fluke. Because an English teacher happened to be encouraging her students to enter a variety of writing contests online, I decided to show them a few of the many teen-authored sites where they can regularly publish their fiction, poetry, artwork, and music/game/book/tv reviews. I also (on a whim) showed them a few teen-authored blogs about fashion and music. I wasn't trying to convince them that blogging was for them. I have tried and failed at that, and have curled into a little fetal ball to ride out this wave and wait until a new idea hit me.

I left the students to their book-choosing, assignment-avoiding, friend-teasing, end-of-day activities and went about mine. Then Robert, dear, sweet, smart Robert asked, "Ms. Murphy, so, how can I make a blog?"

Hip, hip hooray! Javier joined in and they are, right now as I write this, customizing their new blogs, adding content, and transforming into the little digital natives that I knew they could be.

It's always seemed funny to me that we older, less intuitively tech-savvy adults assume that all teens and pre-teens are born with wires growing out of their ears and antennae embedded in their skin (oh, wait! we don't need antennae anymore! do they know what an antenna even is???), but the truth is, many of them are more clueless than we are. Hard to believe. They don't just learn to crawl then walk then speak then blog then master the online universe based on pure machine instinct. Someone must show them, and that someone WILL BE ME!

Well, maybe it will and maybe it won't, but inspiration has struck again and I am unfurling myself from the crumpled, balled-up librarian in the corner. My wings are drying off in the light of Robert and Javier's discovery, and I am ready to tackle the problem of teaching these so-called digital natives how to type/search/save/print/google/blog/copy/paste/highlight/find/email once again.

Robert's Blog Idea

I'm sitting here with a student who's going to make a blog!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Jehovah's Witness Meltdown

The entire school district in LA slowed down on Tuesday to watch the Inauguration, which I believed was an obvious and reasonable thing for the schools to do. I would never, ever have questioned this activity as one that might possibly disrupt a child's world view in any way. Until N.

N is a boy that stands out the moment you meet him. His pants are pulled up very, very high. His eyebrows blend together in a fluffy, soft looking unibrow. There are often beads of persipiration on his upper lip. N is not tall, he is constantly in motion, and he rarely makes eye contact. He loves to read, loves to play computer games, and is often so deep in his own world that he doesn't hear his name being called over and over and over again by his patient, kind, friendly school librarian.

When Obama's speech was nearly over, I noticed that N was preoccupied. He was in and out of his backpack, knee bopping quickly up and down, looking for a pencil, looking everywhere but up at the screen. When I caught his attention, N shook his head back and forth, mouthing something that I couldn't understand. I crooked my finger at him (pleasantly) and he got up and stumbled over his pile of belongings to join me away from the crowd of kids watching the speech.

"What's up, N?" I asked.
Foot tapping, he replied, "I'm not comfortable with this. I'm a Jehovah's Witness."
Huh? So, I ask, "N, I don't understand. Is there something about watching a president speak that isn't ok with your religious beliefs?"

Does that sound harsh? I didn't think so, but that's when the waterworks began. From that moment on, it took thirty minutes, many tears, a call from N to his father, another teacher, and a lot of confusion on my part to finally come to these understandings about N and maybe about Jehovah's Witnesses (but I think N has got to be confused about some of this).

- N was made uncomfortable by the invocation. Ok. So was I.
- N was not able to make much of a distinction between the invocation and Obama's speech.
- According to N, the Jehovah's Witnesses do not recognize the president as a true authority figure, and so having the school stop to watch the inauguration was in some way a violation of the separation of church and state.
- According the N, he has no interest in voting (ever) because man's laws do not really matter, that people will do what they will do, and the consequences will be what they are.
- Because N was distracted, because he is often distracted, he is negatively representing the entirety of the Jehovah's Witness population. He commits "bad acts" and is ashamed. (In fact, N has ADHD and is 11, but apparantly that is beside the point).
- Boys in N's class make fun of him for his religion.
- N used to be bothered by the many religious activities in school, but he says he has mostly gotten used to it.

In the end, N elected to spent the remainder of the inauguration (what amounted to about 5 minutes at that point) sitting in the main office waiting area.

The questions this interaction brings up for me are ones that both surprise and infuriate me. My first reaction is simply HOW CAN ANYONE DO THIS TO THEIR CHILD? HOW CAN ANYONE CHOOSE TO CONFUSE A POOR KID INTO TEARS? The boy seems not to know exactly what is going on, and clearly his religion is being used to make him feel ashamed of his behavior. This makes me both angry and sad.

Upon further reflection, however, I think there are some issues here that I wouldn't have expected. First, of course, is that N has a point about the invocation and benediction. They don't really have a place in school, but I don't know how we would have easily worked around them to watch the speech.

Second, N and his family have the right (although I feel a little uncomfortable saying this) to reject the idea that any living person has authority over their lives. They have the right to stand away from politics and rely only on the ten commandments to rule their lives. Don't they? During our discussion, N mentioned that one of the commandments says that one should not worhip false idols. In N's mind, we were worshiping Barack Obama on Tuesday. He has a point, does he not? It may be as close to worship as I've come in, well, my whole life. So that fact that I do not see this worship as religious does not mean that someone else, like N, might be bothered by such an open display of reverence, sanctioned (even required) but the public school that he attends.

Now, I am going way out on a limb here. I do not actually believe that having kids watch the inauguration in school is anything like asking them to observe a religious celebration. But I can see how N would be confused. I can see that we blur these lines to such extremes on a regular basis (Halloween, Valentine's, certainly Christmas; all of these have religious and secular followings, and all of them are permitted in schools to a certain extent) that a child whose parents may not be clarifying things well would cry in frustration and fear of offending his god, or his mom, or his dad, or his whole congregation.

I am grateful that my parents never put me in this position. I am sorry that N is so confused, and that he was unable to see the greatness of what happened on Tuesday. I am sorry that I know nothing about his religion and therefore could not be a comfort to him. I am sorry that my immediate reaction was a biased, judgemental one that condemned his family's beliefs to the realm of kooky extremism. I hope he can one day reconcile his religious beliefs with his ADHD, with his responsibilties as a citizen of this (or any) country, with his peer group, with his parents' expectations. How will he manage it?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Names! The Names!

Do you remember Beronica? Today I met Birginia.

A few minutes ago I heard a teacher call across the room, "Stalin, stop doing that."

Yesterday I met Ike's little sister, Ikiesha.