Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What Education Reformers Tend to Overlook

I teach high school in Camden, New Jersey — cited, yet again, as the second most dangerous city in the nation.
"I could never work where you do," this guy said to me at a social gathering I attended not very long ago. It was a friend of a friend who had been teaching in a suburban school district for over twenty years and whom I had just met. There were several teachers at this party because we teachers, like fish, tend to travel in schools (I hear the groan from here!). "Why not?" I asked. He looked at me as though the answer was obvious. "It's Camden," he said chuckling.
"And...?" I said.
He looked around the five of us who were standing in the kitchen. He was looking for help and wasn't getting any. Then, in a more serious tone, he said, "Well, being white..."
"Being white?" I said as if I misheard.
"Yeah. Being white I couldn't tell the kids, you know, what to do," he said.
"Why not?" I said.
"They're not going to listen to some white guy," he said.
I looked at my own complexion and then back at my acquaintance. "That has never been an issue for me," I said.
"But I hear the pay is good," he said as if I hadn't just addressed his last point. He was a classic overtalker, someone who will keep yapping with little regard to anything anyone else says. "Combat pay, that's what you guys get, combat pay." Was this attitude why inner city schools are plagued with such teacher turnover problems? Do people really believe you need to be a certain race to be effective with a certain population? And if that's so, do they also believe the inverse is true? Was this irrational and ignorant fear, subtle racism or inherent guilt?
"The idea that inner city teachers make more money than teachers in the suburbs is ludicrous," I said.
"Look at test scores," he overtalked. "They're always lower in the inner city. You know why? Because the kids are so bad that these schools have to waste money on higher salaries, combat pay."
"Combat pay is a myth! And you want to talk test scores?" I said. "On a practice assessment test once supplied by the state, the writing prompt for the persuasive writing section begins with a scenario: After a soccer championship, the fans, in celebration, charge the field and many cut pieces of the goal nets to take as souvenirs leaving the nets as tattered threads. The principal, so it goes, says that the money for the repair of the goals will come from all the school's clubs. The task is to write a letter to the board of education agreeing or disagreeing with this decision," I said in a single breath.
"Yeah? So?" He said.
"Soccer isn't exactly a big sport in the inner city. But in the suburbs..." I let my voice trail off.
"Doesn't matter," he began. "A test is a test is a test. The state standardized tests are the only way to measure achievement across the board."
"It's only one way," I said.
"It's the only one that counts," he said. "And all kids have the same opportunity to pass. These kids just don't take the opportunities that come their way."
"I'll grant you that there are inner city kids who live up to the expectation society and the suburbs have put upon them, but in no way do these kids all have the same educational opportunities. There are kids who have to care for their siblings because a single parent is off working her second or even third job. Others aren't sure if there will be a meal when they get home. Many walk the streets in fear and live in houses with bars on the windows to protect what little they have. Many do not have a desk with ample light and parents who have gone to college, parents whose parents have gone to college standing close by to help them with their homework. The opportunities are as far apart as their economic status," I said.
"Aw, you're just rationalizing because your test scores aren't as good as the suburbs," he said.

"You know what real school reform would be? Maybe school districts shouldn't hire teachers. Maybe the state should. Then a teacher could work at one school for a few years and then be transferred to another for a few more years and so on. Then a teacher could work in both the more wealthy suburbs and the inner cities putting their real teaching skills to the test. If a teacher can get high test scores from their students in the most affluent districts, let's see those same teachers do it in the least," I said.
This friend of a friend sipped his drink and looked at me and chuckled, "A lot of teachers think like you when they first start teaching. Don't worry; you'll get like the rest of us. You'll grow out of it," he said.
"That's funny," I responded. "Teachers have been telling me that for years."

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Icycle Light Plea (A Form Letter)

The following is a draft of a proposal on an idea of a concept.  Readers are urged to clip, copy, sign and send it along to their local town representatives.  Remember, the more of these they receive, the more likely something will be done about this most heinous problem.
Dear Representatives:

My name is (your name here), and I live at (your address here).  I would like to bring to your attention a serious problem that is not only plaguing our little corner of the universe, but most other places as well.  In fact, the problem is so out of hand that we are in danger of it’s becoming an epidemic.  You must take serious action now before it is too late and there will be no turning back.
Let me start by saying that I am not a killjoy in any way.  I like having fun as much as the next person and in a festive spirit, I’ve been known to make rather merry.  Let me also start out by making it clear that I believe in the rights of all private property owners and that there ought to be limits to the powers of local government.
That being said, however, I sincerely demand that you, (insert local form of government here:  township committee, town council), draft, pass and strictly enforce an ordinance that forces homeowners and renters to take down their icicle lights within a reasonable time after the winter holidays.
There was a time when people ridiculed those who left their holiday lights up past the Super Bowl.  That behavior was once reserved for those who also thought that a broken down car made an excellent lawn ornament.  Alas, no more. 
Today, unfortunately, it seems that leaving the lights up year round is in vogue.  I challenge you to drive through a neighborhood without passing a home sporting the glistening tentacles dangling from rooftops.  Even those developments with “executive homes” – you know, those slash-and-build neighborhoods that was a orchard just last week – have a few families who must think that icicle lights are permanent lighting fixtures just because they come with nifty plastic clips.
Perhaps these perpetrators believe that no one can really see the lights dripping from their rain gutters.  Perhaps they think that they are attractive and add to the aesthetics of the block.  Perhaps they feel that if everyone left their holiday lights up, it will become the norm.  Whatever these people may believe, I must strongly state that they are wrong, wrong, wrong.
Not only are they a safety hazard because they are not designed permanent outdoor use, but these lights are just plain ugly.  They make your house look like an Appalachian smile. By keeping them up, residents are showing a lack of respect for themselves or their neighbors but also for (insert name of town, borough, city, berg or township) itself.
It is time for our (insert town type here:  town, borough, city, berg or township) to stand up and take swift and decisive action.  It is time for all (insert name of town, borough, city, berg or township) residents to tell their fellow community members that these lights are an eyesore, that at night, during the holidays, they are a delightful adornment, but now, during daylight saving hours, they look not unlike an albino millipede racing across a roof.
Even though there are most likely ordinances already in the books dealing with temporary and permanent outdoor electrical wiring and lighting that can and ought to be used to control this ever-growing problem, a specific ordinance may help many people to realize that the appearance of their homes are as much of a reflection on me as it is on them.
Thank your for your quick attention to this problem.


(Insert name here)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Refinishing Your Inner End Table

When Michelangelo brushed his last stroke on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, I imagine he must have stood back to take in his work as a whole:  one part admiration, three parts relief at the work’s being complete.  As I hammered the last finishing nail in the window trim of my bathroom, I stood back to take in the work as a whole:  one part relief at the work’s being complete, three parts amazement that the nail went in straight.

After several jump starts, mishaps and do-overs, it is finished.  The total bathroom renovation that began with a burned out light bulb in 1998 is finally done.  From gutted room to new towels, my leviathan of a lavatory has been conquered. 

When I had put the last of the tools back down in the basement, I stood at the bathroom door, staring, noticing a couple minor imperfections that few others would perceive.  I like to believe those little imperfections, like the bumps and wrinkles of life, are what make a place, a life, our own.  Perfection, after all, is in the eye of the cynic.

Still standing in the doorway, I tried to picture what the room had looked like before I started.  I wondered what it had looked like before that and then even before that.  Our house is around a hundred years old, so I figure it must have gone through many renovations.  All those minor imperfections painted, papered and paneled over to lay a claim, to mark a territory, to discover a land anew over and over again. 

And then a thought occurred to me:  Aren’t we all constantly renovating our inner rooms?

It’s like Deepak Chopra meets Bob Villa.  A person needs to tear down a facade put up years ago, perhaps in another lifetime, before rebuilding.  A healthy individual needs to know the dimensions of his own door jam in order to put up new trim.  The sub floor must be flat, smooth and clean before laying the new, improved vinyl flooring.  Seams between sheets of dry wall must be tapped and spackled well so the wall can be one flowing wall in itself and of itself.  Paint looks best over a coat of fine primer, that is, our outside is only as beautiful as what lies beneath because if you can’t get at what’s really underneath, at least keep it from bleeding though.

Furniture refinishing is much the same thing.  When I got my first apartment, I raided my parents’ attic.  Along with an old set of plates I don’t ever remember using; forks, knives, and spoons; a few pots and magazine rack, I was able to confiscate two matching end tables.  They had been the end tables of my youth, permanent fixtures in our living room until my brothers and I were out of the jump-on-the-furniture-with-your-dirty-shoes phase when my parents bought new furniture that wasn’t akin to burlap.

When I set up my living room that also played the role of dining room, office, guest room, and hamper, the end tables gave me a familiar, homey comfort feeling.  Seconds later I made the decision to refinish them.  It wasn’t that they were in bad shape; it wasn’t that I didn’t particularly like the style.  It was that I was not living at home anymore, I was on my own and I needed to strip off the fine, natural wood finish of my parents and paint them with the good black semi-gloss of my independence.

It’s not just the big jobs that help us renovate our inner rooms.  The smallest jobs around the house are just as important.  Touching up paint on a baseboard, fixing a leaking faucet, even simply Spring cleaning can be as insightful and meaningful toward a more fulfilling sense of self as a Wayne Dyer marathon during PBS fundraising.

For those who believe that it’s best to leave such major improvement projects to the professionals, I’d reply that people must be their own contractors, sub-contracting only surrenders one’s power to another – although having a good plumber really helps.

With the desire, patience, and the proper tools, any inner room can be improved upon.  Just don’t forget to wear your safety glasses.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Odyssey of the Playground

In his famous journey, Homer’s Odysseus had to suffer and prevail over great challenges both mental and physical before he could finally return home.  With the help of his guardian from Mt. Olympus, the goddess Athena, Odysseus was able to escape the eye of Cyclops and the voices of the Sirens.  Of all the hardships, however, the hero of the Odyssey never had to endure anything as arduous as the elementary playground at recess. 

My son once came home from school complaining that one of his classmates had annoyed him during recess by constantly inflicting a “spider hold” on him.  A spider hold, I deducted by his description and rather annoying demonstration, is sort of like that Vulcan knock-out pinch to the neck that Mr. Spock did on Star Trek to those who annoyed him.  My son told me that all the kids were constantly giving each other the “spider hold,” but he found it ridiculous and, frankly, somewhat uncomfortable.

My heart went out to him.  I remember those seemingly innocent albeit slightly injurious rites of passage in the schoolyard.

“Hey, Chester!”  Wham!  A full force blow to the upper body.  “It’s good to see you back.”  Whomp!  A breath-taking slug to the back.  There were others.

I dreaded Tuesdays.  In my school it was referred to as “Toes-day.”  On this particular day, someone would walk up to you and stomp his foot down on yours as hard as he could.  I would wake up the next morning with mixed feelings.  Yes, I had survived another “Toes-day,” but now it was “Weddings-day,” a day wrought not only with physical pain, but emotionally scarring as well.  On “Weddings-day” the nuptials were performed by a blind-sided shove that made you go flying into the nearest girl, preferably one in need of a good emollient.  Any contact constituted marital bliss. 

Painful though these were, it was merely the light stuff, the work of the underlings. 
Those who perpetrated these little annoyances were the imbecilic henchmen to the archenemy that was Gunter; six feet forever to my four foot whatnot, Gunter was the bully’s bully.  Gunter had been left back so many times that he had his own parking spot.  Gunter was so mean that he’d step on your toes and push you into girls on any day of the week.

Gunter had it out for me.  Mostly everyday during sixth grade I was either tripped, noogied, Indian burned, Charlie horsed, ear flicked, or just plain punched by sasquatchian kid.  I had no idea why until one day when he was caught red handed, that is, he had me in a headlock grimacing in pain when a teacher walked up.  The teacher told Gunter to stop pummeling me.  “But he’s wearing Bo-bos,” he said about my sneakers with the tell tale “BB” on the sole.  “That’s stands for basketball,” I said from inside Gunter’s elbow, repeating the words of my mother.  Even the band kids laughed.

According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, approximately one-third of school children have been bullied or have participated in bullying by the time they are in high school.  Unfortunately, children learn to tolerate these unwarranted assaults as a means of self-preservation.  It’s the classic catch-22:  If a child complains, he is ridiculed by his peers or he may incite the bully to take even more violent actions.  Telling a teacher is completely out of the question.  The code of ethics among school children wading their way through playground politics is clear on this one.

In this age where schools are installing metal detectors, completing random locker checks, practicing lockdown drills where students stand in a darkened classroom against a wall so that the classroom will appear unoccupied to a gunman in the hallway, implementing and enforcing zero tolerance policies, and completing volumes of paperwork when bullying is reported, some abusive behaviors are still being over looked and even encouraged in schools by those who still believe in the antiquated adage that boys will be boys. 

A simple punch in the arm my look innocent enough; however, accepting even the slightest nudge could be a sign of something far worse.