Sunday, February 28, 2010

Brain Smoke

Alexander Pushkin, one of the greatest poets of all time, experiencing a bit of brain smoke

Brain Smoke
I must seem like a crazy person to my students! I have had to change direction so often I am the teacher embodiment of a lost male driving. My professors keep telling me it’s ok, if something is not working – try something else. But the look on my students faces every time I do that is clear enough for me to never want to do that again. They know I am a first year teacher, they know (because I tell them) that I don’t know everything and don’t have everything figured out, but that still does not register as related to the fact I’m on a trial and error basis with them right now. I apologize when I can for my shortcomings and remind them of my intentions to be the best possible teacher for them, but I still end up leaving with a pit in my stomach like they just told me they “rather be friends”.

Thankfully we are at the start of a new semester so whatever changes I make now will seem as part of due course! Not only has the transition been normal, but I was actually able to challenge AND engage them the other day! This is no small feat; normally I hear nothing but groans and whining when I give hard work, but this day, a day that will live in… no, I gave them something really challenging and though one student simply blinked and winced in pain as I saw smoke rising from her head, the rest engaged their brains, failed at first, but on the second try got a hang of it and went with it! I then assigned a pretty difficult homework assignment and I got at least 50% less complaining! The day is mine!

For the teachers reading this and actually wondering what I did, this section is for you; if however you don’t give a damn how I am educating our future you may skip this paragraph… but I will know if you did, and I will glare at you from your sub-conscious:

Because I teach writing ( I know, reading this blog you would doubt I even know how to write, right?) I needed something about which we could write a number of essays over the course of a few months, however I also needed the subject to be rooted in U.S history in order to help them on their upcoming REGENTS exam. So I put together a list of 30 or so names from American history from which they could choose a subject. They will do research on this subject and write a number of essays with the underlying purpose to convince the reader that their subject should be “American of the Millennium”. I am doing a simultaneous study of academic essay writing for college so as to wean them off the “Five Paragraph” essay, this includes articles from Harvard, Dartmouth and University of Chicago on how to transform your writing from high school to college level. The list of possible subjects included the likes of: Ellington, FDR, Booker T. Washington, Hillary Clinton, Crazy Horse; John D. Rockefeller, Jackie Robinson, Hamilton… the great Black, Female, Business, Political, Military and Native Americans from the last 300 years… and Michael Jackson. This of course is no new concept for a writing or history course, the point is what engaged them: one of the opening activities. I wanted to show them that a documentary, something they have all seen at some point, is like a visual essay, with an introduction, thesis, voice, body, argument, counter argument, conclusion and method. If you have never thought of it that way, take a look at a good documentary and an essay will appear before your very eyes (or if you are normal, i.e. not an English teacher, you will enjoy an informational film without reading unnecessarily deep into it). I started with a recent documentary about Barack Obama; what I assigned was quite shocking to them and they were not able to do it at first: I did not want to know the details about his career, family or education, I wanted to know how the director broke up the information – how, when and why it was presented. After the first few minutes I stopped the video and asked what they came up with, the initial responses where of course pieces of actual information from the video, information like: his father went to college, his father left the family, his mother taught him to respect himself and believe he could do anything, Obama was a senator… nothing about the structure. But when I pointed out that attention grabbing first line from the narrator, the brief exposition on his career and family which included the premise of the film (thesis), the tone and focus of the narrator and interviewees, and finally a cut of him giving a speech at the democratic convention after being elected senator, the room became brighter from all the bulbs lighting up slowly over the weaves, caps, hoods and faux-hawks. The medium they understand best is the visual. (period). This has been their main source of information and upbringing for most of their lives. Cartoons, youth oriented sitcoms, movies, advertisements and commercials have the honor of being most responsible for the behavior and learning style of our students. They can’t make a decent oral presentation, but they can text at 500 words a minute; they don’t know the acronyms of any of the important political, civil rights or environmental organizations but they can condense entire sentences into 6 letters; they have trouble picking up a date in person, but on facebook, AOL or myspace they make James Dean look like Erkel. It is no surprise that when I gave them a piece of classical literature I incited a near riot. But since I can’t change 16 years of ADD inducing media brainwashing, I decided to engage the most literate of all forms of media: the documentary. Here sources are checked and double checked, research is not reliant on i-reports and camera phones, nor is the goal to keep the audience’s attention by changing the image on the screen every 1/64th of a second. The documentary is of course not the Rosetta Stone, but if it opens the door, if it sparks a bit of interest, then it is worth it’s weight in gold (x4, because DVD’s aren’t very heavy).

This is one of the first steps I am taking in making damn sure that what I present is engaging, relevant and important. I know I did not give a crap when I was in school and that could have been easily fixed, so I am fixing it, for my students.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Though I often shy away from nude portraiture, this was one of my fleeting attempts at capturing the constant abstract desire to... so abstract in fact I often fail to find the words to describe it. I have an image of the form, and perhaps sometimes its interaction with the environment, but that image lives only as an idea that I fear I will never solidify on paper. But here I try.

I often wonder how I made it here. How my path has taken me through so many jobs, industries, positions, ambitions, failures, dreams, confusions... and definitions.
From fast food to the car-wash to retail and restaurants to multi-level marketing (i did not know it was a damn scheme, none of the 3 times) to marketing to personal training to photography to massage to nutrition to tanning to finance to marketing... to finally teaching. So many years spent wandering the plains of vocation, lost and dejected, then somehow managing to acknowledge the ever present desire to teach, and to write. Maybe one day I will figure it out, for now I am like the desert traveler who finally stumbles upon succor in the shape of humanity, food, water and shelter; I am still dazed from my journey, still caged by the amnesia of trauma. So as part of my attempt to figure out what it is all about, I write of the beginnings of my path; the single room that housed my family in St. Petersburg:

The Vacation

The gray, of the now empty walls, blended seamlessly with the dim sunlight struggling to push its rays through a thick cover of typical St. Petersburg morning clouds. I wondered why the walls were empty; I was told that we are going on a trip, a long trip, but never the less one from which I assumed we would return. I have been to the black sea many times for months on end, yet we always came back to the tiny single room apartment that my mother, grandmother, late grandfather and myself had shared. He has now been gone for a few years, yet there was no more room, there seemed to be no change but a new blanket of bleak emotive energy to compound the existing gray of modern soviet life. I was of course unaware of this, as many other things, at the time. Like most children I believed what I was told and had complete faith in the word of my beloved mother and stern, fatherly grandmother. They said we were packing for a trip, they sent me downstairs to a neighbors for some compote and bread, and whilst I drifted away on sweet fruit and water dreams, they carefully put together what little of our life we could attempt to bring with us to the new world. They held entirely within their breast the danger, the unknown, the forsaking of tradition, friends, family, the comfort of the known; they made the decision, as my aunt did, to leave everything and without knowing a word of what was to become their adopted tongue, plunge into the abyss of the world unknown, the new world, the world of promise: America. And there I was, along for the ride; innocent of the tortures they would have to endure, blind to the brinks of poverty and starvation that we approached but into which we never fell.

The morning finally came, as I thought it never would, the sun seemed to move so slow, as though attempting to delay the inevitable beginning to the suffering, the doubt and pain that were to be our companions for the remainder of our lives. Alas, it came with force and wind, the wind of change it seemed, and we were up and rushing to the airport, rushing to the nether world, rushing away from the jaws of hatred, persecution, limitations, lies, betrayal… love, family, friends, culture, definition.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Mississippi River Valley - A dead field amidst bursting life - or only the final flare before all rejoin in the shadows of life.


The majority of the world is ruled by mediocrity, and my fear is that my kids will realize this; my other fear is of my own hypocrisy and that of my fellow educators in the expectations for behavior that we hold for our kids.

I became the subject of my own scrutiny, and subsequent contempt, when I discovered myself exemplifying the very behaviors we claim are detrimental to our students learning and future, behaviors for which my students have earned my admonishments. I will continue under the assumption that I am not the only adult who finds himself doodling, dozing, day dreaming, fidgeting, goofing off, counting down the minutes or disrupting my neighbors, while in a learning environment. Not only can I not be the only adult, but more importantly I am not the only educator who, if observed by my students, would lose all credibility after a few minutes of observation in a “classroom” setting.
Though I have known this about myself and have observed this in others before, it was not as clear and salient because I was not fresh from the classroom, I had not the lens of someone who has to deal with this problem everyday. I was aghast to say the least, yet could do nothing to change my behavior. My behavior was the product of fatigue, hunger and boredom; then after lunch it was the product of food coma, more boredom and pressing thoughts about things that needed to get done after class.


I appreciate the importance of the information that my instructors were attempting to transmit, yet the presentation was not engaging and I could not force myself to overcome that, I just couldn’t! Time ticked away slowly; every long winded explanation, every monotonous monologue felt like an eternity. I looked at my watch to discover that what felt like 3 hours, had in fact been only 30 minutes. When it was time to read - I read, when it was time to discuss – I discussed, but those discussions soon took on irrelevant topics, and when it was time to write and reflect on the “activity” I discovered that I could not for the life of me connect it at all to what I would do in my classroom. Lord have mercy! Did I not just describe to you the typical student on a typical day in a typical class? As I looked around, and as I reeled in, my neighbors, were for the most part equally disengaged. The main difference between ourselves and our students is that we are not wholly disruptive when we are disengaged, but that is only because we are adults who are getting paid and whose jobs rely on not acting like douche-bags when representing our school at a Professional Development. Our kids have no such incentives!!! They only have our vague promises that behaving and paying attention will somehow lead to a better life in some distant intangible future. What some of them realize, and with information more readily disseminating every day more and more will come to also realize, is that they do not need to pay too much attention, they can in fact be slightly disruptive (within whatever parameters that keep them from getting suspended), and still succeed in this world!! The day this becomes clear to the majority of our students – I only pray that I am long gone from this earth.

Let us pause and reflect on our own lives in order that we better appreciate the truth of what I am saying. Think back to the last 3 bosses you have had, in retrospect, after working for them for a few months or years, how many of them were you shocked to discovered even graduated high school, or could use a knife and fork to eat at a table? And yet they made 3x your salary and worked 2/3 of your hours. They were in fact very likely to have been B and C students, who went to a mediocre college and earned similar grades there, they were hired by an ordinary company where they managed to not piss off the people in charge with too much thinking and too many ideas and were eventually promoted for lack of better options. They don’t know Africa is a continent; who our secretary of state or their senator are; they are not sure of which country or when Stalin was president and they certainly cant tell you a damn thing he did; they likely have not read a single piece of classical literature (certainly not after school); nor can they name anyone besides Beethoven and Mozart as being classical composers; they don’t know the diamond they bought their wife was mined by a black SLAVE who likely lost at least a few members of his family in the last coup d'├ętat by someone promising change and a better life – all the while raping the females of all those who looked at him wrong, killing the men and enslaving the boys as soldiers and girls as whores. But this ignorance does not stop them from having their car, house, annual vacation, RV, golf club membership, 200 inch plasma TV, gold watch, spoiled kids and perhaps a nice young mistress to boot.

So why the hell should my kids, who often have to work, take care of siblings, manage life with a parent or brother in jail, with a relative murdered, who may live in a temporary home, who wear the same clothes almost every day, who in fact cannot buy the loose-leaf paper I need them to have in order to participate in class – listen to a damn word of what I am saying about paying attention, working hard, being respectful and not disruptive? Am I the embodiment of hypocrisy? Do I represent the “American Lie”?

I fear to some extent I do, I fear more the extent to which I do it.
But what good is a realization if there is no lesson is learned from it? I do in fact have a take away: first of all most of my kids don’t know all this about our world and reality. Thank god!!!!! Though that saves me from appearing hypocritical it does not change the fact that they still behave the way they do in class, and learn the little that they do while there. Also they are mostly black and are immigrants which certainly does not guarantee them such an easy path to that house, car and middle management position as it does to an equally (or less) intelligent white American citizen - and this I proclaim as fact and in this I am wholly honest when addressing them. I see then that my job is to, using all available resources and strength, find ways to engage them, to relieve the feeling of time dragging slowly past with daggers of boredom skinning their consciousness, to interest them in the process and content so as to create as much momentum as possible going into classroom situations where the instructor may not give such a damn about how they turn out (college) or the effect they will have on society (and vice versus).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Journeys With No End

One of my favorite shots from St. Petersburg. Angels gazing from St. Isaacs on the twists and turns of our lives, holding a book of wisdom, calm in their knowledge of what is to come, content in the wings that will carry them over the abysses of our world... a man, and his shadow dazedly seek the route to travel back to dust...

One of the great allotments of riding is the time it gives me to reflect. Though significantly harder in a city where death awaits round every corner, usually in shape of a yellow cab with gentleman at the helm who is under the impression that driving rules are the same here as they are in Jakarta; but every so often death is equipped with sirens and flashing lights, more concerned with where they are going than over whom they may run over while getting there.
never-the-less the road often offers me precious time for reflection, of the quality that only a shower or toilet can match. This week I have been thinking of the past, my dream of writing, the rejection with which it has met, twice, but I am not wholly deterred, though certainly cautious. So here I shall post it; something many of you have read i know, but I must begin somewhere and I am compelled to begin with this. This is from a collection, it is in fact the introduction, of stories not yet completed, poems not yet revised, thoughts not yet edited, but I hope you will enjoy:

From the Masses
This story, my story, the story of my people: a generation unto itself; a self contained entity of immigrants and refugees. Disparate from other immigrant groups in our verisimilitude of confinement in race and time, but in truth possessing within ourselves the very definition of what it means to be a refugee.

What is a refugee? When asked this, images come to mind of: camps, people walking in herds with their possessions reduced to what can be easily carried (or put on a mule), tents, tents, tens. Communities of tents always contained within barbed wire; tents for sleeping, tents for eating from enormous pots of gruel and mush, tents with outhouses, the few and far between tents for children and hospitals. Volunteers, red cross, soldiers, havoc, disorder, chaos, tears, fights, death, hope. Old people carted about like the young, young men in protest - of what they are not sure. The tearing apart, tearing away, something always tearing, like life itself coming apart at the seams. African, Albanian, south Asian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Jewish… all these faces you know, or think you know. You recognize them from something, a billboard, a commercial, a telethon, a magazine article… but this is not what a refugee is; it is not what you see, it is precisely what you don’t see that makes being one so…amazing! Amazingly difficult, amazingly angry, amazingly inconsistent, amazingly dissociated, amazingly…unique. The fires contained within our souls, the unquenchable thirst in our throat, the turbulent imbalance in our brains… these things cannot be seen, cannot be spoken about, cannot have funds raised for them, cannot be mended, will not die out! We can only hope that the generations to follow will find peace, will find their place, will find a balance.

Circumstantially things have changed, the world as we found it having landed in an airport and disembarked from a jet, is quite different from the one found by those who landed in Ellis Island or at South Street Sea Port and disembarked from a steamer. Ironically the challenges have remained the same in spite of advances in technologies, communication, social awareness and social programming. Because the greatest challenges were not contained in the physical realm of the tenements, ghetto’s, sweat shops, mills, factories, street corners, pizza parlors, kitchens, living-rooms, retirement homes, oil stained handyman trucks, sweat drenched movers trucks, pizza funk infested delivery trucks. No, the greatest challenges were in fact contained within the hearts and minds of the doctors, professors, engineers, musicians, scientists, writers, psychologists, artists, pilots… who worked these jobs and were placed in section 8 housing in neighborhoods which ranked only slightly higher than the slums of our native lands. We were “welcomed” with crossed arms into communities where what we were mattered not, for we did not speak the language of the land. This seemed to be the definition of whether one is worthy of kindness and graciousness and respect. Neither our post-doctoral degrees in nuclear physics nor the characters chiseled from years of hard struggle and making daily miracles from nothing so as to bring happiness to our loved ones mattered. No, we were judged by whether we pronounced “please” as “pleeze”, “birthday” as “biorzday” or compounded “I would like” as “ please I have for me”.

Retention of values? Retention of traditions? Retention of pride? What for? To what end? They have no place here. Our identity, our quality as people is now held within the parameters of how well we pass for Americans. To this end many forsake our roots and ignore the history of our ancestry. America welcomes refugees with mores, rules, predispositions, prejudices, hatred, anger. Because it does not know, it does not see, the TV did not say, who we are. It could not, it chose to not, there probably was no way it would be able, to see and understand us for what we were, what we’re worth and what we brought to the table.

We sought: freedom, rights, choices and options, opportunities, open doors, the fertile soil of a free society. We sought liberty, open mindedness, respect… we sought all this because, though taken for granted here, from where we came these things, these seemingly natural and unalienable rights, did not exist - not for everyone and certainly not for us. From where we came we needed to forsake ourselves, our religion, our rights, our hopes and dreams. Forsake our very life; forsake it all for the sake of staying alive. There is not a thing, person, god, or place that is worth, that deserves, that has the right, that has a claim on your life, and yet there we were in such a place. But within that place we came to define ourselves. From there we grew and identified, acculturated and accepted… became a part of, regardless of the opposition, Russia. We became citizens and contributing members of society; we adopted traditions and style, we adopted all that is best and some of what’s worst. We rose in the ranks, regardless of glass ceilings, pogroms, outright denial of rights and passage, we rose. We, some holding fast, others balancing, and yet others who completely disregarded our Jewish selves, rose to the top of the sciences, the visual and performing arts, music, medicine and literature. Does all this sound familiar? Does Germany from the turn to the middle of the century sound familiar? Is all this not the repeating story of Jews everywhere? One little difference though, we did not stay. We did not blindly stay when the door of opportunity was opened, when the chance came to escape, we did not wait for the return of pogroms and executions, mass murders and mass defamation, we did not wait. We, stripped of our belongings, stripped of our citizenship, stripped of everything but our pride, were shipped to a foreign land with no claim to any place on earth. And there we waited, bated breath, waited and waited, in the arms of pity extended by Italy, for America to take us in. Some waited a month, some waited a few, others a year and still others never made it and were taken in by Israel. We huddled week in and week out for a sign that America realized that we had nowhere to go, that we were not comfortably home at tea waiting for the approval of a visa, that we were the “huddled masses” desperately praying for acceptance.

The changes! How immense the alteration! What we knew to be real was gone, what we thought was truth was no longer so, whom we considered friends were left behind, that which made sense was a world away, the tongue which we spoke no longer native and no longer understood. Now we are unable to express ourselves, our pain and suffering, our hopes and striving, now we are unable to contain our anger, now we have formed into something as strange as the land where we now live, as the tongue we don’t yet speak. Where did we go? If everything outside of us has changed should we at least contain within ourselves…ourselves? Is this not how we are going to survive? Alas, it’s not. The anchors of acculturation sink deeper and deeper, detached from our understanding. Every day we have less and less which makes sense, every day we become someone we do not recognize. If before we had friends to whom we could turn for help, for a shoulder, for an ear, for a hand, for a song, for a bowl of soup, for a walk… they are no longer here. If before we had a job that brought us no money but a great deal of satisfaction because of the great barriers we had crossed to obtain it, the education that qualified us, the experience that now defined us… it is not longer here. If there was a soul, a spirit with which we could identify, as it embodied the place where we lived, as it contained its history that we shared, as it gave meaning to stone and street, bench and tree, symphony and hall, as it gave light and color to our pathetic little life… we are no longer in contact with it, we no longer sense it, if one even exists where we now live. This dis-identification, dissociation, societal and cultural dismemberment, disembodiment…is with what we are left. This is now what defines us. Now we are told to make our way in the world, and good luck! What? Really? But, how? The answers shall never come. Some of us will strive, others will remain irrelevant and mediocre, others will die of desperation, others will take their own lives, still others will turn to drugs and crime and hate. But in the end we will be redefined; in the end we will, as we did in Germany, Russia, Spain, Italy, Africa, Persia and the east… become a part.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Goals! Goals? What should be the goals of a teacher?

I thought surely one would be: impart useful information about the English language; how to read, write and understand it.

I thought another would be: teach citizenship; what it means to live in a land of privilege and hypocrisy, freedom and prejudice.

Certainly this should be one: to provide a safe place of learning and exploration – of our lives and ourselves.

Who would argue that we should also: model decency and self-worth, self-esteem and self-respect.

If no one will step up to argue this point, and lets assume you all are a relatively indicating sample of our population, why then should these goals have an opponent, why should a teachers strength be drained by unreasonable and disrespectful “feedback” and demands of… a principal? Should our obstacles not lie in the backgrounds of our kids, their parents, media, peer influence…? Should they not lie mostly outside of the sacred grounds for learning and passage into full protected and glorious citizenship? Certainly they should not be caused by the one body in the school who is wholly responsible for the achievement of all those contained within their walls.

Tales from the front? The front has but one juggernaut against whom the majority of the battles are waged.

If you are a general and one of your captains has a particularly difficult mission, and he has only recently earned his rank and command, and after every scrimmage he comes back with more men lost, injured or killed, do you try and teach him better tactics? I hope so! Do you try to show him how to better read a map? Absolutely! Do you instruct him on how to better train his men? Indeed you do! Do you also acknowledge his successes, his strengths and all that he has achieved and is striving to achieve? I think so, and perhaps you do as well, but it seems there are generals who would argue with you. There are generals who will issue commands or relay feedback and turn and walk away as you are trying to ask for clarification or ask an unrelated but equally important question. Apparently there are generals who believe that all feedback should be delivered in a nasty, degrading and insulting tone, along with appropriately degrading commentary to boot. They think this is the proper way to run a battalion. They think this is the sure way of motivating their captains to go into battle again and again, outnumbered, outgunned, injured and hungry – and they expect these captains to give 110% percent, to follow orders blindly and to have the burning desire to bring honor to their general, battalion and country!

These generals are sadly and horribly mistaken! What’s worse is at the end of the day their poor decisions can at most get a captain demoted or discharged, but an enlisted man under the captains command? His fate is more grim than a loss of bars. For him limbs, quality of life, and life itself are at stake and are certain to fall victim, not to the bullets of the enemy but, to the guile and decrepitation of his own general.

On a brighter note from my soldiers:
My day does not always contain many rays of light and hope, but on days when we write, read and publish my students poetry – I feel bathed in the glorious, regenerating and satiating sun! When they understand what it means to create an image in a line, to portray a lifetime, a moment, an emotion, a thought, a desire, a dream, a picture in a single written line – so then does clarity revisit and remind me of the amount of potential with which I am working.

Next time I will be sure to include more stories from the blacktop, for now an image from the Pacific coast around Monterey: A lonely cypress and traveler

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Flags in the Breeze

Memories from the Blacktop: A Crest in Trinity Alps - Northern California

As an ESL teacher I always look for ways in which to validate the language and background of my students. One way in which I do this is by hanging the flags of their respective countries in my room. Though 95% of my school is Haitian, the 5% are as diverse as New York itself... India, Bangladesh, Yemen, Venezuela, Jamaica, Grenada, St. Vincent, Guyana, Guinea, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic... all their banners hang from 13 feet above our heads.

If only hanging up a flag and encouraging discourse about their background was enough to invest and motivate the kids to learn. An immigrant myself, I often look back upon my own experience and wonder what was done right or wrong, how did I learn, what were some of the issues I encountered with learning a new language and culture? But I fare poorly in my attempt to compare my life as a seven year old literate immigrant with a mother and grandmother, both of whom were educated, and the lives of my fifteen to twenty year old mostly illiterate students who have no parents or relatives here, or have just one, many of whom have little or no education.

I try to conjure reminiscence of acculturative stress, and the things I later learned in college and upon reflection - but I come up empty again and again in my attempt to understand their motivations, thoughts, dreams or perceptions of reality. I administer surveys but between the language barrier, fear and not giving a damn I harvest little useful data to inform my understanding.

A brief background: most Haitians in our community did not learn English in their native country, many did not go to all the grades appropriate for their age, many are illiterate in French or Haitian-Creole, most come from poverty... one of the things they did learn in whatever school they attended was how to copy! Copy from the board, copy from books, copy from each other. Whatever original thought exists in these children, it has been duly suppressed. I get glimpses of it when I do a lesson on poetry, and every once in a while when there is nothing on the board and they are not working from a book; usually what happens in that situation though is blank staring, raised hands and dis-engagement.

I started teaching at the end of October in 2009, "green as grass" is an all too generous term for me, yet I hold in my hands the future of 90 ESL kids and about 50 English speaking (fluent) students. If they all came to school ready to learn, excited to learn, motivated to succeed, behaving like students should... this would be but an excursion in planning. But clearly this is not the case, clearly Teach for America does not work with the kind of schools whose populations are the embodiment of the aforementioned traits. Oddly enough they are not all that different from so many native high school students, what they do not however appreciate is that native English speakers don't have to work as hard to pass the mediocre standardized tests which are the determinants of success in this country. If you are a native speaker you have but to learn how to test well and you are mostly set for your middle class, middle income, middle management life. For kids who are struggling to grasp this, a most convoluted and exceptional, language - their prospects are but specks on the distant horizon. Because learning how to be a good test taker still requires certain basic knowledge of English, and to approach the otherwise regular opportunities they cannot be on the cusp of the bell curve, because an accent diminishes your prospects as once did your high heels and makeup.

It is of course my job to negotiate the balance between state requirements and high interest content; my responsibility to somehow engage and motivate my students who did not have the privilege of education being a given in their lives and with parents who know and respect and understand the value of said education. The trick then is performing the ultimate feat of multi-tasking: control and teach the appropriate behavior, ensure comprehension of all standards required by the state to pass the standardized tests, engage their interest, create a sense of urgency - because there is little leeway in high school, teach above and beyond the test so that they stand a fighting chance of actually making it through their first year of college, plan all of this in advance, manage to get more than three hours of sleep and somehow find time to address your own issues of mental, physical, emotional and interpersonal health.

So far I can honestly say I have achieved only a few degrees of growth in some of those tasks - nothing that any self-respecting scientist would call significant. Where then do we lay the sacrifice, what do we choose to exclude form our "to-do" list? How do I mold a citizen who will be a benefit to our future society and who will have access to the American Promise?

As promised here is a poem I wrote about the mentor teacher I had during my summer training with Teach For America:

Booming thunder!

Eyes a-glaze, towards the heavens

Ears are raised.

A trembling calm he spreads

Throughout the body public.

Our forethoughts he duly shreds,

And mends misdeeds so chronic.

What can I learn from him?

This force, from long years built.

I take it all in stride…

With patience I do ride…

This wave of new and brilliant light.

I remain committed to my task, determined in succeeding, hopeful of my abilities, confident in my students abilities, scared shitless of what mistakes on my part could mean.

Until our next e-encounter...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Blacktop to Blackboard: It's Green

My submission to the forces of the technology I do not wish to embrace is this blog. I hope that in the bytes that will follow I will succeed in sharing my thoughts as they emerge from hours on the blacktop to hours in front of the blackboard.
I have been writing, poorly, for many years, perhaps with your insight my futility will turn about and find some meaning in yours, if not my own, ears.
I hope that no single posting will be wholly representative of what is to come - be it from the past, present or the cloudy foresight, of my life. I hope to include poetry, subtle instigation's, reminiscence, rants, thoughts, observations, movie and book quotes, infuriates and dreams... Kadima!

As I dismount my trusty steed amidst gentle flurries and hurrying cars, the rumbling in my belly that should have subsided once the engine was turned off - only increases in it's intensity.

I stare at a 1930's behemoth of a school, with all the trimmings we find so rare in new buildings. What started as a grand gesture of generosity so many years ago, now houses three schools and the remains of one about to be phased out completely.
This is not a new concept in New York and though it has met with relative success at some sites, housing multiple schools, each of which strives to create its own culture and success, is not a task given to ease.
But be that as it may, this is now my home for the majority of my waking hours. I have my own classroom (haaaalleeelujah), my own blackboard - which to my great dismay is green, my own desk and books and computer and projector... but sadly not my own students. These I have to share with a number of other teachers, and being an only child you can imagine how well I do this.

To digress for but a moment: why the hell is my blackboard green?! One of the perks I though was the chance to write on a black blackboard, with white chalk, crisp and fresh, each stroke containing a morsel of knowledge that perhaps, if I am lucky, would be remembered many years later by the now oblivious youth, but who then would recall my words or the class discussion, and somehow steer his life to some great point of satisfaction and success.

So to quell my dissatisfaction I got a white dry-erase board on which I write with variably colored markers. Humph!

Back to the Kids. One thing that is somewhat comforting is knowing that the same excuses we tried to use when I was in high school for not doing things are alive and well in schools today, with some added gems of-course! I will try to include some of these in future posts.

What I can't remember though is whether we were as oblivious to the coming demands of college as the kids today? Did we really kvetch at homework, be it 10 pages or 30? Did we think that once we got into college and could choose our classes and when to attend them that all the horrors of education would dissipate?

We are trained to speak often of college, almost as an inevitability; we are supposed to treat all children as though they will go to a place of higher learning by virtue of them being alive, a minority or in such graces as to be found in our, the enablers, classes. But the more subtle messages we send are in contradiction to our preaching, and the reality much more grim than anyone cares to admit.

A fellow teacher and friend posted a wonderful blog on the message Regents Exams send:

The other two major "subtle" messages that I would like to mention are the continuous use of extrinsic motivators and discipline (a lack thereof).

Experiments upon experiments are shoved down our throats about the wonders of reward systems - how they quickly build some level of control, allowing you to get on with your teaching, quick! But I pose this question to the greater audience (in hubris like assumption that more than 10 people will read this): is not the educators job defined as more than a knowledge vessel hired to transmit said knowledge to the "eager minds" patiently in wait? Are we not the teachers of culture, organization, discipline, citizenship, respect, responsibility, hope and strength? Are we not responsible as much for the students college prospects as we are for decreasing the chance that said student will rob us in 10 years, become a drain on our welfare system, or not find themselves in a position to sustain us when we hand over the reigns? If we are, then how can we skip the all important step of building a sense of responsibility and desire to obtain knowledge for its own sake, and not for the sake of getting a candy bar or more tokens for a raffle? What will our students' future managers tell us when they find that they need to continually offer raises, promotions and vacations in order to motivate their employees to work? How many more jobs will go to foreign lands because we are unable to sustain profitable businesses due to necessary extravagant expenditures on mediocre employees?

Perhaps I should save discipline and the rest of this thought for the next post. But the questions have been posed.

Back to the blacktop: As you may have guessed I ride a motorcycle; what you perhaps did not know is that in my insanity I choose to ride it every single day in the most hazardous of all U.S cities.
But I argue, mostly to myself in the shower, that with every mile I clock in a given place, I gain that much more insight as to the underlying drive of the humanity contained therein. A bit too existential? Sound like an excuse to not take public transport? Perhaps to some degree, but I hope you will stick around and give me the opportunity to tell you what I mean, and give you a chance to disagree, write me off as an adrenaline junky, a lazy-ass or, perhaps, a keen observer of things flying by at 60mph.

Thank you for your engagement and patience with my piecemeal-ed first blog.