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,