Friday, November 19, 2010

The Root Cause

A teacher at my school recently wrote a great blog post that is starting to get a lot of attention. You can read it HERE. She writes about the ways in which 'failing' schools like ours are subject to all sorts of mandates that limit our ability to do the things we know (and research shows) are what the students need in order to be successful in school. She makes the point that "the root cause of our students' under-performance continues to go neglected: poverty, crime, violence, and hunger". She is right, of course. No amount of teacher training on how to deliver vocabulary development lessons will ever make up for a student's lack of breakfast. No scripted curriculum requiring teachers to deliver identical canned instruction to each and every student can begin to address the needs of a child whose parent has just been deported. As much as we need to constantly improve our teaching practice, we also need to be realistic about what our students need and how those needs are all so very, astonishingly different.

This, of course, is a really hard thing to do. Each kid comes to school with unique, often hidden, baggage. Some of it is good, like the student whose father teaches at East LA Community College and takes him to all sorts of writers' events and art openings there. Or the young girl who has been playing violin for years and even got to sit in with the LA Philharmonic last year. We don't always know these things about our students, at least not right away, and to the detriment of their schooling. When teachers are forced to limit their interactions with students to a very expensive, very rigid set of activities defined by the school district to intervene in our 'failing' classrooms, there is no longer room for the kind of personal exploration and discussion that allows these character traits and special skills to shine through.

On the flip side, there is the other kind of baggage. The bad kind. The kind that we combat every day and only slowly, if at all, can change. In small, mundane ways, kids put up walls that block them from getting anywhere close to successful. These barriers tend to have a snowball effect, as in the case of a young lady who ended up calling me a bitch last week. Over a $9 book. Let me explain.

The 8th grader in question (let's name her Shontae) owes a book to the library. It was due June 2. This has prevented her from checking out more books from the library, since the policy is that the books must be returned or paid for in order to check out more books. We often allow students to make weekly payments on lost books so that they can continue to use the library. All of this has been explained to Shontae many times, but she still will not take care of it.

On the day in question, Shontae's teacher and I were trying yet again to find a way to clear her account. You see, she needs an independent reading book for her English class. All 8th grade students in the state of California are supposed to read one million words independently. This is worked into her grade. This is the way she can improve her reading skills. This is one of the ways she can prepare for the strenuous state reading tests at the end of the year that require her to have staying power in her reading habits (and that determine whether our school is failing or succeeding). Without the ability to use the school's library, Shontae cannot really do any of these things. One might suggest that we just forgive Shontae her trespasses and let her use the library in spite of the overdue item, and maybe that will be the end result since I hate to deny anyone books, but the truth of the matter is that this sort of policy is ubiquitous in schools, important, and relevant to educating kids about the real world they will soon inhabit.

On this day, Shontae came up with some new information about her missing book. She said that she never checked it out, that a friend of hers stole and used her library card to check out the book. Skeptical but open to the idea, we called in the friend to ask his version of the story. If he confirmed that he indeed had the book, we would happily transfer the item to his record and Shontae would be free and clear after 6 months of stalemated negotiations. The friend (let's call him Deshawn) denied the charges against him. Yes, he once had the book, but it was simply a short-term loan from Shontae, who was the one who checked out the book inthe first place. Deshawn had returned the book to Shontae months before.

Ok, so, Shontae....we have a bit of a problem. Would you like to talk with Deshawn a few minutes and figure out the discrepancy in these two versions of the case of the missing book?

Sadly, Shontae did not want to speak to Deshawn about it. She wouldn't even look at him. She stood right next to him, shoulder to shoulder, and stared straight ahead, shrugging her shoulders and muttering, "I don't care." I sent poor, sold-out Deshawn back to class and turned to Shontae to say, "I'm not sure you told us the right thing. I'm afraid we can't put the book on Deshawn's account, so what are we going to do?" This is when it happened.

She turned, walked away from the counter, and spat out, "I don't care. I'm not gonna pay for any book. I really don't care....BITCH!"

Shontae's teacher turned to me and simply said, "Do you have a referral?" She sent Shontae to the dean and had her suspended. The teacher later told me that Shontae's mother also said that SHE didn't care either and did not intend to pay for the book, and she expressed surprise and dissatisfaction that her daughter would be suspended for so petty a crime.

All of this trouble for $9.86. Why is Shontae so angry? Why is her mother so angry? Do the powers that be really think that more teacher training, more assessments, more workshops, more meetings would change this? Shontae's difficulty is not stemming from the educational system or her teacher's abilities in the classroom, except for the fact that we are not allowing that teacher (or me) the time to really focus on her, to help her see her strengths, to help her identify her glowing abilities and draw them out, to build her self-esteem and reduce her stress and anger. The Root Cause of her under-performance is not being addressed, not by the educational system and certainly not by the political system that drives the choices about our schools. Our 'failing' school may be failing Shontae, failing to reach her, but it is not for lack of trying. Apart from completely disregarding her negligence and allowing her to lose a library book with no repercusions, I have done everything possible to accomodate her in terms of replacing that book. She doesn't want to. Neither does her mother. So now what?

The official answer is to test Shontae more and evaluate her teacher on the results of those tests. Maybe they'll even fire the teacher someday for not being "highly qualified" enough to raise Shontae's test scores. In the meantime, what will happen to Shontae? How is she being served by this model?

In a classroom where a student like Shontae sits right next to the student who plays with the LA Philharmonic, the teacher needs to be able to approach each student's needs differently. Doesn't that make sense? Aren't they totally different personalities with different support systems and different messages and values circulating at home? The teacher needs to be allowed to work like Ms. Beadle in Little House on the Prairie, with each child one-on-one, learning about their lives, coaching them as they grow up and outward. Ms. Beadle wasn't given binder after binder of lessons prepared by non-teachers and told to follow them to the letter. Because Ms. Beadle was a teacher - a person with a craft that is personal and progressive in its development. And Ms. Beadle's students weren't numbers in a database. They were children, with likes and dislikes, families, abilities, disabilites, hardships, and successes. They needed her, and they respected her because she was able to act as a guide and a stabilizing, nurturing force.

The more I think about it, the more I have to wonder. Did anyone ever call Ms. Beadle a bitch? WWMBD?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Chuck Norris knows no boundaries.

Today while cleaning up the library I found a page of Chuck Norris...jokes? Sayings? Maybe axioms. No student's name was on the hand-written page, so I'm sorry to say I cannot identify the Norris fan in order to return it. Instead, I'll share these bits of wisdom with you, as written, no corrections made.

Chuck Norris

When Chuck norris types or says "LOL" hes asking you if you wanna be kicked in the "Liver or in the lung."

Chuck norris doesn't need to breath the oxygen comes to him.

Chuck norris doesn't use anti-virus viruses use anti-Chuck norris.

Chuck norris doesn't pay the goverment, the goverment pays him

Bird is not the word "Chuck" is

Hitler didn't kill himself because they were loosing the wae. He killed himself because chuck norris joined the army

Chuck norris doesn't guess when he plays guess who: he knows

Chuck norris puts the "fun" in funeral

Chuck norris knows no boundaries, the noudaries know him

chuck norris doesn't go to hell, hell comes to him

why did the chicken cross the road?? because chuck norris was walking towards him

It's hard to say what I enjoyed most about finding this artifact. Maybe it's the thought of a couple middle school boys (probably boys, right?) huddled together in the library at lunch, cracking each other up as they come up with Chuck Norris joke after Chuck Norris joke. I love this especially because it's so clear how they hit upon a formula for reversing statements in order to make them funny, and then they ran with it. Or maybe it's the fact that Chuck Norris has such longevitiy, such staying power. He fascinated boys when I was in middle school too. Back in the late 80s, 12-year old boys sat around doing this exact same thing. Does Chuck know how influential he's been? Is he aware of the magical powers that exude from his person and infect pre-adolescent manhood, year after year after year? I hope so. This was a great find, and it really made my day for some reason. I have always wanted my library to be the kind of place where this kind of thing can happen.

Monday, November 8, 2010

One of those days

I am having one of those half bad, half good days.

The bad:

  • I heard a teacher say, "You better pay attention, cause I'm not gonna help you."
  • I have no afternoon help, so while I am teaching classes the phone rings and rings and rings. When I finally do answer, people say, "I have been TRYING to CALL you." They are all mad.
  • It is 2:40 and I just finished my lunch. I microwaved it at 11:30.
  • My student librarians have been making so many shelving mistakes that I haven't been able to find several books I've needed.
  • A teacher called in sick today and then sent her kids over with a substitute (not supposed to happen).
  • The kids here with the sub are supposed to be researching a "significant event". Most have them have chosen random earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Why? These are hard to research.
  • I keep looking at the clock and thinking it is an hour closer to quitting time than it already is because the school's clocks have not reset.
The Good:

  • Two of the kids from the class above are researching the advent of Coca-cola. They are reading to each other from the World Book Encyclopedia in slow, halting speech. They are enjoying what they are learning.
  • It was light outside when I left for work this morning.
  • My lunch, although cold, was both delicious and healthy.
  • I had a student bring back a book that I recommended on Friday, finished and ready for the sequel. She has decided her favorite genre is dystopian fiction. I also love dystopian fiction.
I hope that by the day's end the list of good will be longer, and the list of bad will seem insignificant and funny.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I. Am. Mortified.

On a recent trip home, my mother gave me a pile of old belongings to go through to see what I wanted to keep and what she could pitch. Treasure of treasures, my diaries from age 11-15 were in that pile! Oh, the humiliation. I thought they were lost for sure, and now I'm not sure if I'm relieved that they aren't out there in the hands of someone else, or mortified that I now feel compelled to go back and read them. I think mortified is it, because, you see.....I wrote poetry. Yes, twelve-year old poetry. Pages and pages of it. Mom, if you already read it (which I totally would have if I were you) I hope you don't love me less.

I thought it might be fun to sprinkle a few of those gems here now and again, for your reading pleasure. Since you are all my dear friends (I think, cause who else would be reading this???), I thought I would dedicate this first one to you. It is called "True Friends". I will transcribe it as it is on the page, but please try and imagine wide, looping handwriting to make this experience as authentic as possible.


True Friends (written circa 1988)

Friends can't
wait to see each-
-other. They don't
care what you
look like, where
you live or what
you wear.
They love you
just the way you
are. They don't
love you becau-
-se of your car,
your taste or your
hair. They love
you just the way
you are.

I know. It's good stuff.

But before you get too hopeful, let me end with a bit of a warning to you, just in case you are taking life, and the friends who love you for the way you are, for granted. My young self would also like you to know (from the very next page of the diary, no less):

Life is forever
if you play
your cards
right. But if you
start to bluff
it could be
ended tonight.

I have NO idea what that is supposed to mean, but it's pretty dark! Or possibly religious? Hmmm, this is going to be extremely painful for me..... and also fun. Hope you like.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Earthquake Preparedness

Well, it turns out that we at this school are totally unprepared to deal with an earthquake, should one happen from 7:30-3:30, Monday through Friday. We had the most bungled earthquake drill today, which ended with the principal barking through the hand held radios that some of us get to carry, "This just isn't working! We have to do it again! Just ring the bell for lunch!"

What went wrong? What went right!

The entire thing can be summarized in the following radio exchange that ended in the Principal's fevered cry that called the whole thing off. To put this in context, you must know that all of the students were on the PE field, lined up with the classes they were in when the alarm sounded. Various staff members were assigned to search and rescue teams and were searching their assigned wings of the buildings in order to rescue accident victims, played by other staff members and students. My role was to sit at the "Reunion Gate" where we would reunite students with the parents, which is something we've never actually practiced with any success. I predict chaos at al times. Anyway, the principal and others (including me) are connected by radio. The rescue teams report to the principal at the command center when rooms/floors/buildings are clear or when they've found a "victim".

So, on the radio we hear:

Teacher: Command center, command center, we've got a victim in room 3107.
2 minutes pass
Teacher: Command center, we've now got two victims. We're bringing them in.
Principal: I have to know what the room numbers are! (angry)
Teacher: Command center, that would be rooms 3108 and 3107.
nothing for 30 seconds
Principal: But don't they have broken legs????
Teacher: (pause) Yes, uh, that's right. Broken legs.
Principal: Then how are you going to move them??!!??
Long pause
Teacher: (sounding like he hopes this is the right answer) Uh....stretcher?
Principal: This just isn't working! We have to do it again! Just ring the bell for lunch!

Aaaaaannd SCENE!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Comprendez Vous?

Our students' reading comprehension skills are, to be frank, pretty terrible. In fact, this year, for the first time in a long time, our students did worse on the reading comp portion of the state tests than they did the previous year. We usually make some gains, but nope, not this time. So we're focusing in on these skills, which makes me reflect for the millionth time in my career on what they really are. How do we comprehend what we read? How does a kid who is 12 make sense of the material presented to him/her on a state test, or by a teacher, or in a magazine? There are several reasons why students do poorly on these tests, of course. One is stamina. They are presented with several 2-3 page passages, usually BORING passages, and asked to read and answer a dozen questions about each. This takes hours. It is dull. And the kids have no staying power. They are used to reading for 10-15 minute stretches, maybe. They are used to being coached through everything they read. They are used to being given clues, prompts, encouragement, definitions, and visuals. They are rarely asked to slog through long or difficult passages on their own, and they are therefore ill equipped to do so on the tests. This is most kids of course. I also know kids who read for hours upon hours every day. These kids do fine on the tests though, and so I'm not too worried about them for the moment.

So, how do we comprehend what we read? And what to we do when we don't understand the meaning of a text, any text, including blogs, films, conversations? I ask these questions because I am about to embark on a difficult and possibly rewarding journey that will require a lot of work on my part and will inevitably stall all of the other projects I have started in the past several months. Luckily, I have been feeling disgruntled and blue a lot of the time lately, so I haven't really put too many irons in the fire, as is my habit. I intend to up the ante in the library. Instead of bringing classes to simply get book recommendations and check out books, how about bringing classes to LEARN A READING SKILL and then get book recommendations and check out books? Sounds radical, does it not?

The idea is this. When teachers sign up to bring their classes, I find out what the kids are doing in all of the content areas. So let's say they are studying post Civil War America in Social Studies. I can then prepare a lesson/activity on, say, historical fiction about that time period in which the students will learn to read heavily accented dialogue or dialect. We don't think about it much, but at one point in our lives, we didn't know how to tackle words that some crazy author deliberately misspelled! So I can teach them, using an exciting passage from an exciting book, and then - BAM! - I can recommend more books of that genre and get them reading something new and challenging.

Seriously, this may sound obvious, but it's just not been the way things have worked. So far in my life as a librarian, the only lessons I really get to teach are outside the purview of other classes. Things relating to technology usually, or maybe using reference materials. But a straight-up Language Arts skill? I haven't directly taught one of those in years. And I love to! Usually teachers aren't too interested in having their material usurped.

What I need to ponder now is what types of reading comprehension skills will fit this model. Some ideas that come to minds are:
  • dialect and accented dialogue
  • the nonsense vocabulary of Sci Fi and futuristic fiction
  • the use of textual clues (like italics or page breaks) to indicate flashback
  • non-standard dialogue (few or no "he said" "she said" indicators
  • textual clues indicating internal dialogue (again, often italics or parentheses)
  • interpreting allusions to other, perhaps unknown, literary/historical/artistic works
Um. I know there are many, many more. Any ideas?
I think this could be really cool.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Class Rules

Apropos of nothing, I just heard a teacher say to his class, "Who is not clear on my policy on dilly-dallying? Raise your hand if you need to go over my stance on dilly-dallying again."

Why no hands?
I want to know the dilly-dallying policy!
I wonder if the kids even know what dilly-dallying is.

Other policies I would like to know, just in case:
Lollygagging policy
Dawdling policy
Monkeying Around policy
Hem-Hawing policy

Friday, October 8, 2010

An Aside on Suicide

For some reason, suicide has come up lately. There is the ever present student request for books about kids with "drama" and "problems" like suicide, abuse, etc. That's nothing new. And there are some really powerful books on the topic that treat it with the gravity necessary. Then there is the recent teacher request for book recommendations related to bullying and sexual orientation, a response to the recent discussion of teen suicide in the news. Also, par for the course to a certain extent.

But these benign suicide regerences were followed by an email sent by the LAUSD superintendent that was titled RECENT GAY SUICIDES. In all caps, just like that. Strange that it would be in all caps. Strange that the word gay was really necessary. Is there a difference between a gay and a non-gay suicide (I mean, I know that societal factors may differ for gay and straight kids, and that all suicides are different and personal; I just mean, do they really differ in level of sadness or importance)? That title is just begging for someone despicable to say something really awful like, "That suicide was so gay." In fact, I can't believe I just typed that. I feel really uncomfortable about it. But I'm going to let it stand, because I think it makes my point. It's like when people say "that black kid". Why don't they just say "that kid"? Anyway.

In the first sentence of the letter to the school district, the superintendent expresses his condolences to "the six young students who committed suicide". Probably the readers know which 6 he means, but I wonder if there are families of a 7th or 8th kid out there who just experienced a similar loss. Where are their condelences? He lists some district resources for students who are struggling with despair. One of them is the district's Youth Suicide Prevention Program. This 'program' consists of one man, Richard Lieberman, who works his butt off and is responsible for every student in LAUSD, in a way. That's a lot for one man to do. In conclusion, the superintendent has sent five LGBTQ Resource packets to each secondary school and encourages principals to make sure all staff reviews those materials. Right. I can't even say how inadequate this response is. This school is a terrible place for LGBTQ students, and I would imagine it's not the only one. It's inhospitable, harassment is rampant, and there is zero school support or activism relating to issues of sexual orientation or gender identity. I don't really see how 5 resource packets is going to do a thing. I've only heard one teacher even mention the recent suicides, much less decide to talk to her students about them. Our zero tolerance policy for this sort of harassment is a huge, huge joke. Anyway, enough about that. I'm sure you get my drift.

On a totally different note, suicide has also come up in a new graphic novel from Audrey Niffenegger, the writer of The Time Traveler's Wife. Audrey also wrote a haunting and fascinating book called Her Fearful Symmetry. Suicide happens to take a prominent role in that book as well. As for the graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile, I have a mixed review (that includes spoilers). In the author's note, Audrey says that this is the first part of a larger work. I look forward to the continuation of the work, for reasons I will state in a moment.

The basic concept is that there is a Library out there that houses everything you have ever read. Receipts, bookmarks, fliers, novels, articles, everything. And there is a librarian who manages this collection. Every time you read something, it's added. You may or may not ever encounter this library, but Alexandra, the teller of this tale, comes across hers (housed in an RV) when she's out walking late one night. She soon becomes obsessed with finding it again. She spends the next nine years wandering Chicago looking for it, reading voraciously, and wondering what her personal librarian thinks of her selections. When she encounters the library again, and then one more time 12 years after that, she begs to become a librarian too. She is refused, told she cannot, that the rules won't allow it. Then she goes home and kills herself. She takes some pills and slits her wrists and is immediately welcomed to the afterlife by her librarian who congratulates her and assigns her the library of a young girl who has just read Good Night Moon alone for the first time. He has been reassigned to a non-reader, which he finds disappointing, but still, he's glad to see her. I'm simplifying, of course, but that's the basic story. Did she know that death was the only way into the library business? And if so, why was her life so unsatisfactory that she was unwilling to just wait it out? I suppose that's what obsession is.

So, huh. Audrey's afterword is very interesting, and explains in more detail the concept behind this story. I do love the idea that these personal libraries are kept somewhere and by someone. What has each of us read that we've never discussed with anyone, either because it's a secret or because we've just forgotten? And how many books have I read that have slipped my mind so completely, but that I'd be joyous to find on a shelf somewhere?

But the suicide really gets me. And, as my dad so thoughtfully pointed out, the suicide as entry ticket to immortality or a heaven-like space, well, that really gets me too. Not that I am a religious believer that suicide sends a soul straight to the fiery depths. But here it is almost a necessary right of passage to the next, desired stage of existence. That's DARK man. Very dark. And by the way, what happens to Alexandra's library after she kills herself? Does she no longer get to add to it? In the earlier frames of the book, when she first finds her library and personal librarian, he is reading while sitting at the wheel of the RV. Does his reading material get stored somewhere? OR does he only get to read material from Alexandra's library, in which case, couldn't that just be torture? If part of the delight is to peruse the shelves filled with all you have read, then it would be a great loss to die and begin to manage someone else's collection. I would think Alexandra would rather stay alive, contribute to her own library, and look forward to a once-a-decade encounter with it. Now, as cool as it sounds, she is just going to sit around the afterlibrary and watch little Sarah Rebecca learn to read. It'll be years of Clifford the Big Red Dog! Awful. I think maybe she didn't know what she was getting herself into.

This sounds like criticism, and in a way it is. I hate to say anything negative about the work of Audrey Niffenegger, because I think The Time Traveler's Wife is one of the most perfect books I have ever read (and re-read about 4 times). As much as I may question this new book, CLEARLY it's an interesting concept. Otherwise, I wouldn't have so much to say about it. This is what I meant when I said I'm really into the larger work that she's creating. Where will she go with it? Some of my questions may be answered in the future.

So here I am on a Friday afternoon, pondering the many forms that suicide has taken in library-related discussion this week. Weird. Very.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Like a Broken Record

I have got to say, it is not easy being me sometimes. When I made the shift from working directly with students only to working with students AND adults equally, I never new what was coming. I did not expect, for example, that adults would be just as reluctant to work hard as the most disagreeable middle school boy. Or that adults would ignore emails and memos, claiming to never have known about this or that policy. Or that adults would pretend to listen during a presentation, but really their eyes were glazed over and their daydreams were interfering with their ability to glean even the most superficial information given.

But it is true. Adults do all of those things and more. Not five minutes ago a teacher asked me how to do something that I taught him how to do in a workshop on Friday. He didn't ask in the "I'm so embarrassed that I can't remember what to do next even though I know you just showed me, so please forgive me" sort of way. He asked in the "Wow! That's totally new information that's blowing my mind because I've never ever heard of such a thing" kind of way.

Another teacher today claimed that the reason she sent her kids to the library with a pass scribbled on a scrap of paper is that she never received the school-wide official hall pass binder that all teachers received the first week, and also she's never even heard of such an official pass. But she does suppose that, yes, if would make sense if she wrote, say, the date or time on the hall pass scrap of paper. Maybe even her name could go on there, so I'd know which teacher sent the kids. And even their names could be added, so that I'd know how many and which kids were meant to be there (we are a haven for ditchers, otherwise). She'll give me that. Seriously, if you are wondering why I would care about the form of a hall pass, it's because kids love to ditch class in the library. It's quiet, it's peaceful, it's easy for them. So I just have to know that everyone here is supposed to be here. Makes sense, yes?

On the other hand, I get to talk more to adults who are doing really interesting things in their classes or with their lives. Like the 6th grade math teacher who works on antique sailboats, or the technology guy who is part of a competitive dragon boat racing team. In one 7th grade class, a teacher is reading articles about bullying and sexual identity in response to the increasing number of suicides among the young gay population. Stuff like that is good.

So it's a trade off. I get a lot of the good stuff, and a lot of the repetitive, predictable behavior that teachers learn to expect from students. One teacher signed up for a whole bunch of library visits to keep from getting scolded for never bringing his class, but then conveniently forgot each time, so the kids never got to come, be he's covered just by signing up. Come to think of it, the adults' bad behavior is just like the kids'.

Some things that SOME teachers do that is a lot like some things that SOME students do:
  • Come to school tardy with lots of excuses (for kids: my mom/dad wouldn't leave on time; for teacher: traffic). I've used this one. It's almost never really the traffic.
  • Come to school dressed inappropriately (for kids: usually not suited for weather; for teachers: really high heals or way too casual/rumpled).
  • Talk while the teacher is talking (in the teachers' case, this would be while another adult is talking during a meeting)
  • Sleep while the teacher is talking (same as above)
  • Fail to listen
  • fail to follow instructions
  • fail to try to solve one's own problem before asking for help, even if it's a really simple problem to solve
  • fail to turn in papers
  • claim to never have heard of the assignment/memo/announcement/issue
  • claim to never have received the assignment/memo/announcement
  • use an absence as an excuse to get out of work/responsibility
  • claim that "He/She told me...." to shirk responsibility for a mistake or misinformation
I know teachers who do these things. ALL of these things. So if we do these things, especially during meetings, because were are not engaged, and we feel that were are being mistreated or neglected, doesn't that mean that our students do these things in our classes for the same reasons? Or do teachers do these things simply because over time the behavior rubs off on them? And does this happen in other professions? Lawyers behaving like clients, cops like criminals, doctors like patients?

*****Breaking News*******

I paused my writing because of a ruckus in the stairwell. Let me describe to you what happened in the last 20 minutes of my life.

A class came in. 8th graders who have been in school since July 6th but have not yet been to the library. Not a single time. You can assume that this means they are not reading. Nor do they remember how to behave in a library. They stomp in, followed by a substitute teacher wearing sunglasses. She does not remove the sunglasses the entire 20 minutes. I had an inkling this class would show up, but since the same teacher's morning group didn't come, I sort of assumed he was blowing it off. Especially since when I asked him what lesson he was preparing, he shrugged and said, "You know. Research."

I stopped the kids at the door, reminded them where they were, and invited them in. After assessing the situation, I determined the following: the kids didn't know why they were there, the sub didn't know why they were there, since they were 20 minutes late we only had 10 minutes to go, the teacher had PLANNED this absence and knew he wouldn't be here, and finally (last but SO not least) some of the kids thought they maybe were supposed to be working on a paper called "Does technology help us or hurt us?"

But some of the kids thought that, no, they had already finished that paper. No one was quite sure. I really just don't know what to say. This is so much worse than my usual crappy teacher experience. I could write pages about the problems just in that paper title!

It's funny how well this ties in with what I was writing before. It's classic teacher acting like student behavior. The teacher in question is most assuredly one that comes to mind when reading the list of behaviors above. What is going on in that classroom on a daily basis? It's a chilling thought.

To end on a slightly funny but slightly depressing note, I just had this conversation with a 7th grader:

Me: "So, your name is Justin?"
Boy: "Yes."
Me: "But it's spelled J-A-S-T-E-N?"
Boy: "Yes. The nurse messed it up when I was born."
Me: "Huh. Well. You should write her a letter and let her know."
Buy: "She's dead."
Me: "Oh."

Monday, October 4, 2010

Aliens are SO last year

Last night I was thinking about the book Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. I never read it as a child, but I did pick it up in my early years of teaching, and I loved it. It's exciting, action-packed, suspenseful, with an admirable main character and a crazy twist ending. I recommend this book at my school countless times each year, every time thinking that I'll get a bunch of boys hooked on this intergalactic story of military training and combat. I stand at the front of the classes, gesticulating wildly, jumping around to illustrate the excitement of each moment of Ender's ruthless training for battle with the aliens. My eyes widen when I describe how completely mind-blowing the ending is, that even I, Ms. Murphy, veteran reader, did not fully see it coming.

There have been, like, 2 kids who have read this book in the last five years.

Aliens are just out. I have to face facts. No one cares. No one cares about robots, rocket ships, spaceships (although they like NONfiction about UFOs), intergalactic voyages. Even time travel is a hard sell. These have been replaced by the supernatural or paranormal stories that pervade popular TV and film culture as well. Vampires, werewolves, faeries, ghosts, hauntings, psychics, even long dormant mythological beasts - these are the characters that populate kids' fantasies today.

So, why?

The obvious explanation is just that tastes change. A fad is a fad is a fad. This too shall pass. But here's the thing about that. Vampires were in when I was in middle school too, more than 20 years ago. They weren't just in; they were HOT! Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys! He was scary AND sexy (a combo that these modern-day "nice" vampires don't pull off, I might add). That movie was huge. Along with Once Bitten (comedy), Vampire's Kiss (Nicholas Cage's finest film), My Best Friend is a Vampire, and Salem's Lot (SO scary). These were not all books first, so I digress. It's interesting though that what they WERE was either funny or scary. They weren't, for the most part, about romance at all.

Ok, so now I want to know both why kids don't like sci fi AND why the new vampire oeuvre is all about love. But back to the sci fi for now....

Is Sci Fi out among this age group because science itself is out? These kids aren't talking about NASA or Mars or the moon. They don't want to be astronauts, probably because they've never even heard of a single individual contemporary astronaut (and really, have you?). US students rank below about 20 or 30 other countries in terms of their knowledge of science, so it follows that science fiction, which takes real scientific principles and speculates, wouldn't be too engaging. If you don't know the science, why would it be fun to speculate? One exception seems to be end-of-the-world Sci Fi, usually about a drastic global warming scenario, but sometimes about meteors hitting the moon, nuclear catastrophe, or plague. Of course, this is more about doom and apocalypse than real science, which brings me to my next question.

Is this about religion?

Years ago, Harry Potter was demonized by the religious extremists in this country, and kids all around the nation weren't allowed (by their parents, not their librarians!) to read it. Now we have a Mormon writer of a semi-erotic vampire series totally dominating the minds of our teens. I don't want to be anti-religion in saying this, because I AM NOT. I think religion can bring great happiness and purpose to a person's life and that is good. (I myself am not religious, but I know a lot of nice religious people.) However, the question has been begged:

While science fiction is speculation usually based on scientific principle or even fact, and therefore in some sense it can be argued that the things that happen in science fiction COULD actually happen, you know, scientifically....

supernatural fiction is based in the faith that beings outside the normal realm of science and experience, but of this earth in some way (and therefore not an undiscovered alien race) really do exist and can impact our lives in profound ways, including romance/love/marriage....

and doesn't that sound a little religious? Hmmmmm.....

So is the slow, decades-long transformation of American culture from scientific world dominator to religious world dominator evident in this trend in books for young people? And if the answer is yes then, again...why? For what reason do we look for (and find) such enthralled satisfaction in stories of completely unlikely creatures meeting and falling in love with us? Or protecting us? Or, in the case of Bella in Twilight, allowing us to transform into that same unreal form (metaphor for religious conversion very evident here)?

(Huh, on a side note, are there many human-alien romance books?)

And why do teens today enjoy that concept so much more than the one in Ender's Game - that humans are strong and capable, that we can and will go out and kick some butt if anyone threatens our humanity, that our intelligence is our most powerful weapon, that being smart is the best thing one can be, that being human is note necessarily a weakness, that we live in a human community that must be united to survive. Those are some really great messages, if you ask me. In the face of global warming, for example. We could use some of that! Of course, Orson Scott Card is known for being a bigot and homophobe, as well as discrediting global, well, yeah. I guess we might not want to lean too heavily on his messages either.

Ok then, how about A Wrinkle In Time! That's a goodie. Same messages there, really, without the military annihilation. Intelligence, united humanity, individualism, strong female characters, tight family bonds, loyalty. Lots of good stuff there.

Again, I am getting off point. Although, I think I may have lost my point altogether because I am completely fascinated by everything I am saying!

In sum:

Has SciFi been replaced by the paranormal/supernatural because of:
  1. a passing trend?
  2. a lack of interest in science?
  3. a growing semi-religious faith in that which cannot be seen?
And from those questions arise these:

  • Why does the paranormal/supernatural fiction now focus on human love for that supernatural being, compared to twenty years ago when the focus was fear of the being or humor at the expense of the being? Is this social commentary on the mainstream feelings toward certain religious faith in this country?
  • Are there human-alien love stories for young people, and if so, what are they?
  • Why is Orson Scott Card able to write such great books when he is actually not that great?
  • What does this all mean? and/or Am I just blowing a lot of smoke?
That last one is a doozie. I'll have to think on that some more....

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Great Success!

I am happy to report that 182 people visited the library last night.
What a relief!!!!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Notes On Various

It happened again. Right in the middle of a promising YA book, the girl became a dufus. Maybe that's not fair, since I was really enjoying the book, and will probably enjoy it well enough to the end. But come on now, it was exactly what I was talking about in my previous posts.

Girl, unsure of herself, works at fast food restaurant with two boys from her school. Boy #1 is a supposed political activist who drinks mocha lattes, reads Russian literature, and badmouths big corporations. Girls loves Boy #1 and feels that he is way out of her league.
Boy #2 is a goofier, more "normal" boy, burps, looks at girls' chests, but also waits every night to see that Girl's old car starts, passes Girl notes in class all the time, and reveals (without really meaning to) that he also has read some Russian literature. So, he's smart, and he CLEARLY likes Girl. But Girl just thinks he's annoying and focuses her sights on Boy #1, who HAS a girlfriend, but still makes mix CDs for Girl and caresses her cheek in the parking lot. Jerk.

At one point, after Boy #2 shoves a bully into some lockers in defense of Girl, and Girl's best friend points out that this means Boy #2 likes Girl, Girl actually says something like, "No, he doesn't like me, he just can't walk straight." And she believes herself, at least mostly.

I know I wrote my YA character Louisa the same way, and I understand about glass houses, so this is not an indictment of the writers. It's just such a powerful coincidence that so many people would portray teenage girls this way. It must mean something, yes?

On a completely different note, it is Back-To-School night once again. The last time I wrote about this, it was comically sad. No one came to the library. I believe this was because a) I did not aggressively encourage anyone to come to the library because, b) it was the end of the school year and we were all burnt out, especially since c) everyone knows parents don't come to conferences just a few weeks from the end of school.

At the very beginning of this school year, we had another Back-to-School night. I was ordered to close the library and stand in the quad to direct parents to the proper classrooms. I spoke to 3 parents in 2 hours. I was furious. I was humiliated. I protested.

Tonight, which is a combo Back-to-school for A-track students and parent conferences for C-track students, I convinced the administration to let me keep the library open. I insisted it was a critical part of our school that the parents need to see. I stomped my feet about the fact that I actually HAVE students whose parents I'd like to meet (both the Yearbook class and my Student Librarians).

Now I am paralyzed that no one will come. What if the library doesn't need to be open on these nights? My promotion of the evening was severely limited by the 4 furlough days I had last week and this week. I've really only promoted this with a few fliers and announcements to every kid that's come through the door for the past three days (that's hundreds of kids). I've prepared several hundred giveaway books (things we can't use anymore) and that's usually a big draw. Anyone who is into Star Trek, Encyclopedia Brown, or the Hardy Boys is really going to hit the jackpot tonight, boy!

But the question remains. If the library is open, will they come? Cross your fingers!

Monday, September 13, 2010


Our school's test results from the 2009-2010 school year.
58% on English and Math is considered proficient.

Further thoughts on the "Bella Problem"

I've been thinking a lot about this idea that girl protagonists in YA fiction can be, well, let's just say less-than-100%-awesome. It didn't start with Bella in the Twilight books, but it is most noticeable there, in terms of recent publications. Plus, since the Twilight books are so well-read by pre-teen girls, the ways in which Bella is a wuss may be more influential than one would like.

First, some titles to add to the butt-kicking girl characters list (thanks to reader comments and further reflection):

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (Stargirl is not the narrator, but is pretty butt-kicking and totally central to the story)
Lyra in The Golden Compass (and the rest of the series) by Philip Pullman
Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr (there is a love triangle here, sort of, but the girl solves her own problems in a big, strong way)
Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
Rules of the Road by Joan Bauer
ooh, and the girl character in Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix (although not the narrator, again)

I wonder how one avoids the pitfalls of writing girl characters who are unsure of themselves, timid, malleable, or generally vapid. I've been trying to write a YA book for over a year, and my main character is a complete moron when I think about it in these terms. She makes all the wrong decisions, completely ignores the obvious, constantly accepts sub par treatment from boys, and cannot see what's good for her to save her life. Now, I must say that I intended for her to be that way. It's sort of the whole point of the book. But when I think about it carefully, I have to wonder why I made that choice, and why it seems like a great idea to put her out there for the pre-teen girls of the world to read. She's an anti-example, maybe. I gave the book to an 8th grader at my school last year, just to see if I was headed anywhere good. She read it in about 3 days and came back to say that she loved the book but hated the main character. So, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

I hated Bella but loved reading the Twilight books. Part of the fun of watching a horror movie is the idea that we can yell at the screen, "No! Don't open that door, you fool!" Maybe there is a part of us that really likes to do the same thing when we're reading. When Bella prolongs Jacob's agony over her by kissing him as Edward stands and watches, don't we want to yell at the screen, "You idiot! Why are you doing that?" That tension is exciting and fun, and I think that in writing my book, part of the pleasure is actually to make the reader squirm at how agonizingly stupid the main character really is. And it's not hard to do that, since when I think back to what I was like as a teenager, I want to scream at myself, to warn myself, "What are you thinking? He's a total Neanderthal!" or "Have you lost your mind? That's the last thing you should do/say/think/believe/try!"

So what's the difference between an adult's reading of these stories and a pre-teen girl's reading of the same material? Where we can appreciate or even enjoy the discomfort of the angsty situations, since in most of our cases we've experienced some level of those feelings ourselves, the kids who are reading these same books are just at the beginning of their own years of misery. So does this act as a warning for them? Or a road map, an example, a set of instructions, a preview? Does a pre-teen girl take important lessons away from reading about the behavior of these girls, or does she just enjoy the story and leave it at that? And how do those writers who are able to create un-afflicted girls do it? Were they that well-adjusted as kids? Maybe their imaginations are far superior and they can just pretend that they know what it was like to be a strong, confident, unwavering teenage girl.

It makes me wonder if I could write something different, something that is not a reflection of my own experience or memory of high school. To write something that is instead a picture of what I would have liked to be, even then, even as I went through each day knowing that I wasn't.

And what about the boys? We can't forget about the boys.....

Thursday, September 9, 2010

You Can't Do It All...

When did you learn to tell time? Or the order of the months in the year? How about your own birthday? Was it before the 6th grade?

I thought so.

Each year, I teach our new 6th grade students to use a computerized reading program called Accelerated Reader. This program requires the kids to log into an account after reading a book in order to take a short comprehension quiz. To log in, they need to know how to write their birthdays numerically. 6 numbers. 2 for the month, 2 for the day, 2 for the year. No slashes, no dashes.

This ends up being REALLY hard for about half of the 6th graders each and every year. One big issue is that they don't all know how to assign a number to the months. In this case, I'll say something like, "Let's start counting then, January being #1. So, what comes after January?" Often the kid will catch on right away, but now and again I will get a blank stare. There I am, holding up two fingers, my lips poised in an almost-F, front teeth sticking out on top of my lower lip, ffff-ing a little to help them along. But the blank stare continues until I hear a meak, nearly whispered, "March?" or "April?"

No. It's February, kids. February comes next.

Another obstacle is this:
I ask, "So, what's your birthday?"
They say, "1998."
"Well, ok, that's the year, but what about the month and the day?"
Sometimes, I do not kid, they do not know. Other times they know the month and day, but not the year. This I can sort of understand. The former sort of implies they may never have celebrated a birthday, which is really too bad.

In any classroom, there is always (ALWAYS!) material that slips through the cracks for one reason or another. A fire drill, state testing, prolonged illness, unexpected anything. Yet some things are repeated, year after year, especially in elementary school, so that the students are given every opportunity to figure them out. Nevertheless, each year there are plenty of 6th graders who do not seem to be able to:
  • tell time
  • capitalize the beginning of a sentence, or a proper noun
  • use end punctuation
  • name the months of the year
  • spell the word library (libery is not a fruit!)
  • spell their last names (yikes!)
  • tell me their birthdays
  • tell me their phone numbers (safety be damned)
Of course, I am sure the 9th grade teachers who get the kids from my school would be happy to provide a list of all the things our graduates cannot do. And that's my point. What the heck ARE we doing then, if not helping kids learn the tell freaking time????

In order to understand this, I took a look at the content standards for elementary school. These are the guidelines the state sets for what each grade level should be learning. I have to say, I think these standards are much more accelerated than when I was a pup.

Kindergarten students are expected to locate the title, table of contents, name of author, and name of illustrator. Huh. I wonder why? But, ok.
Oh, yes. Here it is. Kindergarten students will "Name the days of the week." and "Identify the time (to the nearest hour) of everyday events (e.g., lunch time is 12 o’clock; bedtime is 8 o’clock at night)." Hallelujah!

In 1st grade, we strike gold again, for they must: "Use a period, exclamation point, or question mark at the end of sentences; Use knowledge of the basic rules of punctuation and capitalization when writing; Capitalize the first word of a sentence, names of people, and the pronoun I". Ha! So they learn these things in KINDERGARTEN and the FIRST grade. Five- six years of practice seems like a lot, but perhaps the rocket science of proper nouns and periods takes longer to brew in the average child brain?

In second grade, things get really serious. Maybe there's just no time to reinforce the basics anymore, because it's on to the kind of academic rigor that will prepare them for whatever lies ahead. These little 7-year old darlings should "use knowledge of the author’s purpose(s) to comprehend informational text", "Determine the purpose or purposes of listening (e.g., to obtain information, to solve problems, for enjoyment)", and.....ok, enough.

But wait, a 2nd grade student should also:
  • "Explain how the United States and other countries make laws, carry out laws, determine whether laws have been violated, and punish wrongdoers";
  • "Describe the ways in which groups and nations interact with one another to try to resolve problems in such areas as trade, cultural contacts, treaties, diplomacy, and military force";
  • "understand basic economic concepts and their individual roles in the economy and demonstrate basic economic reasoning skills";
  • "Describe food production and consumption long ago and today, including the roles of farmers, processors, distributors, weather, and land and water resources" really. ENOUGH! I CAN"T TAKE IT ANYMORE!

Why are we doing this to our little sweeties? And WHY are we doing this to ourselves?
Does a 7-year old child need to know the ways groups and nations interact with one another to try to resolve problems MORE than s/he needs to know that May comes before October? I think the LA Times has missed its mark with all of these articles about how much we teachers suck. And these parents who feel their children need to wait until age 6 for kindergarten, well No Wonder! This stuff is brutal.

My schooling went like this:

In Mrs. Bean's class I made a drawing of an ear of corn using the letter 'C' as the kernels in order to learn to write my letters. (I also made artwork using Q-tips dipped in bleach, but no teacher is perfect.)

In first grade I learned to write my letters, ate my first pomegranate, played with snake skins, and got my first F.

In second grade I made a gen-u-wine Indian village out of clay, listened to Mrs. Williams read Charlotte's Web and Where the Red Fern Grows out loud after lunch, and wrote a story called "Bats, Bats, Spooky Bats".

In third grade I was in charge of passing out milk tickets before lunch.

In fourth grade I read Judy Blume's Are You There God It's Me Margaret? four times.

In fifth grade I made the aforementioned model of Nicaragua.

In sixth grade, months and time-telling would have been a laughable problem should any of my classmates have admitted ignorance on these subjects. Probably I learned those things in 1st or 2nd grade, like the California kids now are supposed to do. When I think about my niece (who is four), I am convinced that she could learn anything thrown at her. The real question is, what would I LIKE her to learn in the next few years? To tell time, certainly. The months of the year, absolutely. As for the rest? I think I'd go for things like: working in groups, planning ahead, using a library, staying organized, asking clarifying questions, etiquette, loving to read, creative writing, and other strategy and process-based things, rather than content that will inevitably be repeated at every level throughout her education. Of course, processes cannot be taught in a vacuum; some content must be added in order to make it work. ARG! This is HARD!

In the end, I have no idea why these kids can't tell time or name the months of the year. Or why they haven't yet mastered concepts that were first introduced to them in kindergarten. Or why they've had five teachers since then who have either tried and failed or not tried at all to teach them these things. I also have no idea why the state of California thinks it's a super great idea to pack all this crazy content into the 2nd and 3rd grades. Somehow, these things seem to be at odds, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how to make sense of it. Where is the problem? What is the solution? I just don't think anyone knows, nor do I think anyone has ever known. Maybe that's why education is such a tricky business. And maybe it's also why I love it.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Are we all this dense at age fifteen?

As I read more and more YA fiction, something has begun to bother me. It's about the girls in so many of the stories. What is wrong with them? I mean, why in the world are they so clueless?

Here's what I mean. Most people would agree at this point that Bella from Twilight is a total ninny. She's klutzy and weak, always in need of a hero, willing to let herself be destroyed to keep her man around, etc. I've been poo-pooing Bella for a long time, recommending other titles to my female students in order to give them a chance to read about some butt-kicking, no-fear chicks. Problem is, even the girls who appear to be awesome at first often end up as mind-numbingly dense when it comes to boys. So frustrating.

Example: The totally fun books in the Mortal Instruments, and now Infernal Devices, trilogies by Cassandra Clare. I talk these up all the time. They are supernatural books, so they appeal to the Twilight drones. They have romance. They have danger. They have adventure. They are better than Twilight all around. However, in this new installment (a prequel to the first series) called Clockwork Angel, the main character Tessa is infuriatingly stupid about whether or not Will (sexy demon-killer) really likes her. This is in spite of the fact that he planted a seriously smoldering kiss on her while they were sprawled on the attic floor, he recovering from ingesting vampire blood, she delivering the holy water that would be his cure. He risks his life numerous times to save her, blushes furiosly every time their eyes meet, and every other character in the story has made some comment to Tessa about Will's interest in her. Yet she still doesn't believe it. She constantly wonders to herself why he is so rude/cold/distant/confusing/aloof. For god's sake woman!

Another example: Pretty much every book by Meg Cabot. I like these books. They are light and funny. They usually present some real confict about friendship to which my students can relate. But in practically every dang book the girls spend the entire time misreading very clear signals from boys about how they feel. Signals like: being asked out on a date, holding hands, audibly beating hearts, defending against bullies, phone calls at night, embarrassment at being called about having this crush, etc. The girls don't see it until the very, very end of the story, at which point I am literally yelling at the page every few paragraphs, "What is WRONG with you? Just freaking kiss him already!"

My question is this: Was that what it was really like? Are these realistic portrayals of teenage girls? I cannot remember. What I do remember was never thinking a single boy liked me all through high school. Could that have been true, or was I just like these girls, blind to the reality all around me?

When and how do we begin to learn to read the signals? In middle school, we send ambassadors to one another's lunch tables to explain this or that other feeling and ask for a response. In high school, what did we do? Have our friends call the other person and ask? I don't think so. That would have seemed juvenile. According to these books, we did nothing. We remained totally confused and frustrated, one moment believing our dreams were about to come true, the next feeling utterly rejected and hopeless.

When I was in fifth grade, every student in the class was paired with another to do a project about a Central American country. To choose partners, we drew names of countries from a hat. Then the teacher would call out the country and the two people would stand up to see who their partners were. When Nicaragua was called, I stood up. So did Ben Lee. The entire class went, "Oooooooooooh", in a very embarrassing way. And then? Nothing. Did Ben Lee become my boyfriend? No. Perhaps while building our cornstarch-and-saltwater model of Nicaragua (volcano included I believe) we exchanged desperately confusing signals that caused us to have rollercoaster like emotional reactions. I don't remember.

I would like to read a YA book in which the female protagonist is direct and unobstructed by her low self-confidence. Does that book exist? Maybe not, because that girl may not exist. Except that I really, really hope she does. Maybe a YA book with a girl character like that would inspire some real YAs to get it together.

Some thoughts about contemporary YA fiction:
  • It's harder to think of a boy protagonist who feels quite this way.
  • Many authors introduce a love triangle. Why? Are they really that common? They seem to incerease the confusion and frustration. Even Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, a book with a seriously butt-kicking girl main character, has a prolonged love triangle that tears her apart.
  • When there is no love triangle, the girls tend to be stronger emotionally.
  • Boy characters with low self-confidence are often funny in YA lit. Humor supersedes awkwardness. Girls with low self-confidence are often clumsy, misunderstood, or introverted.
  • Girl characters are often wondering "Does he like me?" rather than "Do I like him?". I think this is highly realistic, but I wish it were reversed. I spent a lot of years worrying more about whether I was liked than if I even liked the person in the first place. This is bad.
So, I am in search of really kick-butt girl characters so that I can spread the word. I am also curious about what anyone else things about this topic. How far off the mark am I, for example?

Finally, some books with girl protagonists who are very, very cool and are not involved in love triangles and do not, if memory serves, completely fall apart because a boy does or does not glance their way:
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
Gingerbread by Rachel Cohn
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Razzle by Ellen Wittlinger
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
The Earth, my butt, and other big round things by Carolyn Macler
Bloody Jack by LA Meyer (she is SO awesome, I can hardly stand it!)
Undone by Brook Taylor (my memory is a little fuzzy on this one, but I know I loved it)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Was this really current once?

Poor kid. Is he speed walking?

complete title: Vinegar Pancakes and Vanishing Cream

Love it. Is there a movie?

Um, those jeans are HOT!