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....