November 3, 2011

Yes, I admit science is pretty awesome.

So...it's been a while. I find it's hard to start because so much has happened and I don't want to write too much. Hmmm...where to begin? Here's a funny story from just a few days ago:


I attempted science in order to explain why winter days are short in Denmark, the setting of our story in class.
Me, holding a globe: ...and because the earth is tilted, we have seasons. Summer occurs when the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun. We get more sunlight and so it is warmer.
Student, who is my sun in this example: (opens hands wide, big smile on his face) Shine, shine, shine, let your light shine down on me!
Me: (walking around the 'sun')... and when the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, we get less sunlight and that's called winter.
Sun student: It's summer in Australia mates!
Student #2: Why don't Australians fall off the earth?
Me: Well, that's because...
Student #3: How do clouds stay in the sky? Why don't they just float away like balloons? Do balloons go into space?
Student #4: It's all about the gravity. We stay on the earth because of gravity.
Me: Yes, and...
Student #3: Yeah? Well, what I really don't understand is if we're spinning all the time, why don't we feel it?
Student #5: Sometimes, when I spin around really fast, and then stop, I can feel the earth spinning!
Student #4: That's just dizziness bra.
Me: Exactly, and also...
Student #6: Ms. Labrie, did you know that if the earth stopped and started spinning the other way, we would all walk around backwards and talk backwards and wear our clothes backwards? I read that somewhere...that means it's true, right? Or we would all die. I think it said we would all die if the earth spun the other way.
Me: Uh...no. No, that's definitely not going to happen.

Science and I haven't always gotten along, but I love how it brings out the curiosity of my students and highlights the strange way their minds work. They have some EXCELLENT questions (though some border on the ridiculous) and if you look hard enough, you can see the evolution of human history. Explanation: adults who dared to ask these same questions (probably minus the balloon) and who had the courage to seek out the answers have helped us to understand how our wacky world works. My students go through this multi-thousand year history of thought and discovery in the space of 12 years, free of charge. We have so much knowledge at our fingertips, an ever growing supply that seems to quadruple every year, helping us to understand more and more of the answers to the why. That is a beauty of education my friends, right there. 
I really enjoy when I know the answer to the why, no matter how many times a student says it. Who knows what whys will remain a mystery or will finally have a definite answer in the days to come (unless of course the world ends next year, then, well, screw investing in the future, I'm going on a cruise).

June 5, 2011

Inspirational Teachers


My summer is off to an amazing start- full of movies, books, painting and cooking (I know, I know- me, actually cooking? What has gotten into me?). One of my birthday presents (24 and loving it!) was the immortal classic Anne of Green Gables movie marathon, and as I watched a film I could act out by memory in my sleep, I realized that this movie was one of the reasons I became a teacher. It isn't that far fetched for my profession to be influenced by my biggest past time/hobby/extra curricular activity because I probably spend more time watching the silver screen than sleeping. I am so thankful that I was inspired to follow teaching as a career path and not dragon rider, Jedi or hobbit (all of which would be totally sweet by the way), because my life is full of purpose and joy and I get to influence the minds and lives of children. Whether I teach English or social studies or art (please God not math), I can't think of anything I would rather do with my life than guide children to higher learning.

Anne (with and e) Shirley is one of my favorite literary characters and someone I thought of as a kindred spirit as I grew up. Whenever I was sick or blue I'd pop in the Green Gables VCR and be transported to a happy world, full of mishaps and makeups, romantic tension and love, laughing as I watched an awkward girl grow into a graceful and confident young lady who chose to teach. As I grew older and actually read the books, I realised that teaching was one of the only professions available to young women at the time, but I still saw the beauty in her daily life, and took her journey into adulthood as an example for my own. Every adolescent girl needs a good role model in order to see the light at the end of the teenage tunnel.

One day in high school I'd come down with some sort of bug, and Anne was making me feel better (this was before I had discovered the BBC's Pride and Prejudice, which also does the job stunningly well). I was halfway through the first installment (when Anne is in the depths of despair after Dianna is forbidden to be her friend when her mother thought Anne got her drunk), and I will never forget the feeling of excitement and euphoria that I got when Anne meets Ms. Stacey for the first time. That was the moment I decided to be a teacher myself. Her introductory speech was the best in teacher history. I think I stole direct quotes from Ms. Stacey about being a guide and never being afraid to ask questions and expecting only the best everyday from herself and her students for my first day speech. It pretty much is my teaching philosophy, wrapped into a glorious two minutes, and I wanted my students to feel like Anne, getting out her pencil and ready to prove to her teacher that she was worthy and smart and able. And then Ms. Stacey goes onto provide an after school class, make home visits, never publicly humiliate, and push her students as far as they can go with great standardized results. I wanted to be her my first year, but I'm not there yet.

There are so many other teachers from books and movies that I have been and continue to be inspired by. Here's a list of their names and why:

Ms. Honey vs. Ms. Trunchbull (Matlida): "I can't abandon my children. And if I couldn't teach, I'd have nothing at all." Ms. Honey is aptly named because her sweetness and ability to see Matilda's talents always inspire me to be kind to all my students and focus on their strengths. She is the direct opposite of her aunt, Ms. Trunchbull, who once said, "My idea of a perfect school is one in which there are no children... at all."  Roald Dahl was amazing in his ability to create the perfect villain for children. If you want to read a great passage out loud to children, read the first chapter of The Witches- it'll make the kids squeal with delight.

Mrs. Wormwood (Calvin and Hobbes): Her perseverance in the face of overwhelming pessimism and insanity lend a whole new level to this comic for me as an adult. Plus, I have peppered my walls with Calvin's misadventures at school. They keep me honest.

I grew up with all of the professors from Harry Potter (by J.K. Rowling). I loved the good ones, despised the dreadful ones and learned some valuable lessons myself.
"It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live." and "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Headmaster Dumbledore
"Don't put your wand there, boy!" roared Moody. "What if it ignited? Better wizards than you have lost buttocks, you know!"

Teenage high school comedies don't provide the most inspiring educators imaginable, but they certainly stick with you.
Ed Rooney (Ferris Beuller's Day Off): "I don't trust this kid any further than I can throw him."
Grace (secretary): "Well, with your bad knee Ed, you shouldn't throw anybody."
Lesson to be learned- if you ever get in any sort of fight with a student, you've already lost.
Mr. Duvall (Mean Girls): "I have a nephew named Anfernee, and I know how mad he gets when I call him Anthony. Almost as mad as I get when I think about the fact that my sister named him Anfernee."
Lesson to be learned- pronounce student names right? And don't write a mean book. Or lie. Or get hit by a bus.
Mr. Schneebly (School of Rock): I’ve touched your kids! And I’m pretty sure they’ve touched me!”
Lesson to be learned- words don't sound the same inside and outside your head. I told my kids I was acting weird once because I was on drugs. I blame it on the drugs I was taking at the time. (Wisdom teeth people, come on- where were your minds going?)

Then there are the truly inspiring movie characters, the ones that make you feel all gooey and good on the inside. Here are some personal favorites:
John Keating (The Dead Poets Society): "O Captain, my Captain!" and "Carpi Diem!" That last scene always gets me. And I've always wanted to stand on my desk to change my students' perspective of the world.
Yoda (Star Wars): "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering." I pulled this one out when I was teaching about the holocaust and genocide. Then there's "Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size do you?" which I tell all my little ones who get bullied, and my personal favorite that I like to think of whenever I visit the school cafeteria, "How you get so big, eating food of this kind?"
If you're like me and you can't get enough of Yoda, I really recommend the new book, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. It really transports you into the mind of a 6th grader, if brave enough to face it you are!
Jamie Escalante (Stand and Deliver): This is a movie about a man who teaches math at a high level to kids everybody had given up on, and the best part is that it's true. He had a certain style of teaching that I could never use though: "It's not that they're stupid, it's just they don't know anything." Escalante and his kids are accused of cheating because they did so well on the AP exam, and I have felt his despair when facing the system that has failed this country's children. "You know what kills me... it's that they lost the confidence in the system they're now finally qualified to be a part of. I don't know why I'm losing sleep over this. I don't need it. I could be making more money, with less hours, and have people treat me with respect." To which his wife replied: "Respect? Jaime, those kids love you." It's worth watching.
Bill Rago (The Renaissance Man):  A great movie about a guy who teaches the Double D's so that they can make it through boot camp in the army. He uses Shakespeare's Hamlet on high school drop outs and it WORKS, though it didn't start out too smooth: "He wrote plays. Plays...? You know, like TV without the box." When in doubt, let the kids get up and move to a beat- if anything, it will use some of their energy up.
Detective Kimble (Kindergarten Cop): Extremely funny with great quotes, though not the most realistic of classrooms. I love this exchange- it says it all about children:
Detective John Kimble: How do I look?
Phoebe O'Hara: Take off the gun.
Detective John Kimble: That's a good idea.
Phoebe O'Hara: Little bastards are gonna eat you alive.
Detective John Kimble: Get some rest and don't worry. I've been working undercover for a long time. They're six-year-olds. How much trouble can they be?
Phoebe O'Hara: On second thought, take the gun.
Eugene Simonet (Pay It Forward): This is a touching and devastating movie. I tried to do the same lesson, have my students come up with a way to save the world, but it didn't get that far. Maybe someday.
Trevor McKenney: Are you saying you'll flunk us if we don't change the world?
Eugene: Well, no. But you might just scrape by with a C.
Coach Boone (Remember the Titans) There are so many inspiring coach stories out there- this one is my favorite. "This is no democracy. It is a dictatorship. I am the law." I have often told my students that I am the queen of the universe so there's no use arguing. It actually works.
And of course, I had to mention Ms. Shields (A Christmas Story) because I too have a drawer of confiscated goodies that kids have brought to school.

All this talk of teachers portrayed in the media makes me wonder about who else has inspired me or shaped how I approach teaching (because like it or not, teachers often teach the way they were taught). Besides literary or film examples of great teachers, I had some spectacular teachers myself growing up, and I still remember moments in their classroom with a fondness that will never be forgotten. Mrs. Dickenson, who was so sweet and kind. We grew chicks in incubators in her kindergarten class. She let me perform Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on my guitar during the talent show and wrote me a kind note during the summer which I still have. Mrs. Stringy, who taught me the difference between its and it's and showed me the importance of following directions (she gave us a sheet of complicated directions, the first of which was to read all directions before beginning and the last was to ignore all the directions in between. I will never forget standing up and shouting "TURKEY!" as long as I live). Mr. Mulligan who taught me my times tables and who I almost killed with my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Mr. Smith who told me to draw every day and said I could go far with my artistic abilities. Mr. Lewis who was so darn cool as my band teacher and kept me involved in music all throughout high school, which became my second family and helped me branch out of my shy shell by hitting stuff to the beat. Mr. Burkhart who never really taught us anything about biology but taught me how to tell a great whopper of a story. Mrs. Siepp and her craziness. Mrs. Watson who was so tough and pushed me to try harder even though every other teacher just let me do my own thing, and boy did I work hard. In return she supported me through a tough time in high school, protecting me with a ferocious strength reminiscent of a lioness. Father Gordon, who actually drank a glass of beer in my Literary Catholicism class and Dr. Els who used the entire last class to explain how to make beer (this was college of course). Dr. Eifler who gave me so much practical advice on how to be a teacher, wrapping it up in memorable lessons, some of which involved her slamming a textbook onto the floor, trying to throw a football through a solid door, and shooting the chalkboard with a squirt gun.

There are so many other teachers that taught me so much, and I wish I could recall their names. I will sometime later tonight, awakening at 3 am to say, "Oh that was her name!" This often happens, especially with comebacks. But for now, here's to the teacher that taught me how to write an essay- I wouldn't have survived college without you. Here's to the teacher that taught me the meaning of practice, to the teacher that made me read 20 novels during the 7th grade (some of which I taught my students this past year). Here's to the teacher that let me eat lunch in her room. Here's to the countless coaches that let me have fun and play while working my butt off (literally). And here's to that one teacher who made me do a report on aluminum. I still use organic deodorant because of that report.

I cannot forget my first and most important teachers- Mom and Dad. Thanks for everything you two.

I see so much of myself in my reflections on what I enjoyed learning as a child and young adult. Just as we are what we eat, I believe I teach what I was taught. I hope that next year I teach my students the lessons they need in a manner that is kind and reminds me of those who I admire. Apparently I've got quite the arsenal to choose from!

May 14, 2011

Reflections and Suggestions

May I just say that the next time I have to retrieve a student who is hiding from a parent/teacher/student conference in the staff bathroom, I'm bringing a broom. Just one of the many things that's not in a middle school teacher's job description, but hey, there's no way to plan for everything students are able to come up with- the possibilities are endless.
Summer Institute in Atlanta, Georgia- it seems like a lifetime ago.
I am nearing a different type of ending: the end of my Teach For America commitment- my induction into the "Alumni Movement" is actually this week. The last day of school is nineteen days away. My 24th birthday is twenty days away. It hasn't hit me yet that a big stage of my life is ending, because I'm staying in St. Louis for another year teaching the same subject to the same grade. Hearing many of my fellow TFAers talk about their plans to continue on into law or medical school, to move across the country for a corporate job or to work in a cutting edge charter school makes me feel...I don't know. I've been grappling with the sensation for a while now, and I think the best descriptor is conflicted.
On the one hand, I am grateful to the program for having this experience that has forced me to grow so much. TFA gave me the instructional support I needed to really focus on rigor and student success. I am happy to have finished my second year strong- I taught two more novels than I did last year, my students have mastered WAY more 6th grade standards than they did just 12 months ago, and I feel confident, organized and positive in my classroom. No matter how weird my students act (and hiding in a bathroom isn't the strangest thing, it just proves that I really am teaching children), I am satisfied with my life because I know that what I dedicate my time, talents and treasure to has a purpose.
Just thinking about how stressed out I was last year makes me smile. I took much better care of myself this year (monthly massages and living by my self helped immensely), and understand so much more. I am totally excited for all the improvements next year will bring. I can't imagine what Jessie from three years ago would do if a 12 year old were to tell me to go blankity blank in you know where, but current Jessie can stare that student down, go home and have a good night's sleep. Here's a quote from the ultimate Renaissance man (Leonardo de Vinci) that kind of sums up how I handle situations now:

Patience serves as protection against wrongs as clothes do against the cold. For if you put on more clothes as the cold increases, it will have no power to hurt you. So in like manner you must grow in patience when you meet with great wrongs, and they will then be powerless to vex your mind.

It was a personal goal of mine to not take so many things so personally- to be more patient. I have been tested over fire recently: the center piece of my final project in painting was stolen straight from my still life, one of the windows of my car was shot out by a BB gun, and students bring their personal problems to school and take it out on me more often than they should. I don't blame them- any of them. I am working on forgiving and forgetting and moving on with my life. It's an on-going goal, and it always helps that I have unlimited minutes to call my Mom when patience fails.

On the other hand, I feel the same about TFA as I did when I was hired: TFA is a band-aid on a gaping wound. This became very apparent when I hosted two new recruits (2011 corps members) and had an end-of-the-year dinner discussion with fellow 09er corps members. First, I watched the nervous, eager, naive and fresh college graduates walk around St. Louis for the first time, wondering what to expect, hoping for success, unsure of what the next two years of their lives will bring. It kind of depressed me because they were really wonderful people and I know what's in store for them- failure, frustration, and freaking hard work, among other things. This will be the first time many of them have not succeeded. Ever. You see, TFA recruits the creme de la creme, the tip top graduates, the successful leaders of colleges across the nation who have practically no experience with education.
That's on purpose. TFA wants its corps members to have a 'blank slate' when it comes to education so that they can create an educator who teaches the TFA way. I see the reasons behind this, and have lived through the problems it causes. Each education school pumps out teachers with certain mindsets: I was fortunate enough to have graduated from a superb education school (Go UP!) with very open philosophies, extremely useful skills and quite a bit of experience. That is not true of education schools everywhere, and it is part of the problem with our school system today- our teachers are not adequately equipped upon graduation. But neither is an insanely smart political science major equipped to teach the 5th grade with no prior classroom experience, which often happens in TFA.
As I ate a great sandwich from St. Louis Bread Co. (one of the many joys of living in the Lu) and discussed the last two years with my fellow 2009 corps members, I realized that TFA is like the little boy in Denmark, with his finger in the dyke, holding back the sea from flooding the land. Sure, we feel like we are serving our community and country, but who wants to stick their finger in a hole that's inevitably going to burst someday? There's no satisfaction in just keeping a broken system from going bust. TFA recruits the most talented, asks them to fix the unfixable achievement gap in two years, then they are free to go. I understand why so many TFAers leave the classroom or the city they were placed in after two years: most of us have no investment or family in the city we are placed in, a significant majority have suffered a great deal at the hands of their students, the students' parents, their staff, the school district or life in general, and many just chose to be part of this program to boost their resume. Not all, but many.

As I believe that no one should complain about something without having an idea of how to do it better, here are my suggestions to make Teach For America the real program it strives to be:
1. Recruit education majors. The only real useful preparation for teaching is teaching. We have quite a few great teachers leaving the TFA program this year because they had two years to become the wickedly awesome teachers they were capable of becoming. And now they're leaving the education field! Where's the logic in that? TFA should recruit not just talented individuals, but talented individuals who are invested in devoting their life to education. It's not a job for everyone, and TFA says that anyone can do it. A truly great teacher must first and foremost love children, have experience teaching, believe that each one can learn if taught well in the right conditions, and then be masters of knowledge. TFA has that list backwards, and doesn't always include the first two.
2. Recruit locally. I'm not staying in St. Louis past my third year, and such a small minority of TFA alumni stay a third year in the same classroom that I'd rather not mention the number. About 30% stay in education, but imagine the influence we would have if we wanted to stay in the school districts we first taught in year after year, becoming master teachers and leaders in the communities that need it the most. Goodness, we would change the world. The impression that TFA leaves wherever we go is that we are only there for two years, then we're done. Personally, that's not the right message, especially for the children. "I care about you, I want you to succeed, and I believe in you, but only for two years." It's not as if many of them don't have abandonment issues already or anything. I love St. Louis and have enjoyed living here. If my family was within driving distance, I would stay in the school I'm teaching forever. Or if I had a local hubby, but that's another story.
3. Be transparent and less business like. I didn't learn that only 25% of St. Louis corps members had made significant gains until a week before my first year of teaching began. I arrived here thinking that TFA was a driving force in educational reform, and it is, but not as much as it says it is. TFA is run by people who graduated from college with a variety of majors, from business to biology, but what we all have in common is a sense of confidence that looks like capability, whether we really are capable or not.
A recent Wall Street Journal article compared the American school system to a grocery store, mostly to illustrate just how inefficient and incompetent a system it really is, but I personally think that education should never be a business. In capitalism, there is a winner and a looser, and yes, healthy competition promotes progress, but no one should lose when it comes to learning. EVERYONE needs to be taught well, and EVERY SINGLE CHILD should be able to open their mind with education.
http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052748704436004576299571015982098-lMyQjAxMTAxMDAwNDEwNDQyWj.html

Frederick Douglas had it right when he said, "Once you learn how to read, you will be forever free." That is what education should be about- opening the minds of children to all the possibilities life holds. No one can take away the potential of an enlightened mind.
Some of my wonderful students from this year, with a Holocaust survivor.
At the end of my two-year commitment in Teach For America, I'm still not sure how to solve the problems that exist in education today. I am sure that in order for TFA to become the program it wants to be, it needs to make some fundamental changes. I hope that someday I can say with pride- "I was a part of the movement."

April 3, 2011

A #'s Game

Through the recent Friday Fish Frys at church and a new work out class I'm taking, I've had the opportunity to meet some new people. With introductions comes the inevitable question of, "So, what do you do?" The reaction to my answer of, "I teach" (in any variation of the straightforward to highly detailed), is always interesting to me. It says a lot about the person's personality, I think. Eyes wide, surprise, slight grimace of the mouth- that tells me the person doesn't think too highly of the profession, or was under the impression I was more suited for the career of under water basket weaver (it requires little conversation- something that I'm not too good at with strangers). If they honestly smile, nod and their eyes light up, I can tell they have at least some positive connotation related to the word 'teaching.' Whatever the reaction, it is ALWAYS followed by the seemingly simple query of, "Oh, do you enjoy it?"
What other profession of profession would get that reaction, every single time? Only one as complicated and contentious as teaching. As I said before, it's deceptively simple, for in fact, it is quite a hard question to answer. Add onto that my lack of witty retorts and you've got the simple, ready made response that I always seem to cough up before giving it too much thought, "Oh yes, very much. I love teaching." Sometimes I add, "It's hard sometimes, but the kids are worth it," or, "Well, there are a lot of problems, but in the end, I feel very satisfied as a teacher." Gross generalizations that gloss over the truth in order to keep the conversation rolling. I make the mistake every time of assuming the person is just asking to be polite, that they really don't want to know, and that my discomfort with the revelation to a stranger of personal details of one's life is shared by all. By thinking this emotionally constipated thought, I am sure I have missed many opportunities to start up a real dialogue and inform people of the true situation of education today as witnessed on the front lines. This blog aims to remedy that. For all of you that I have never really informed of my situation here in St. Louis, prepare to be educated...
It's really a numbers game that starts simple and gets complicated quickly. These stats may be a few years old, but they're what I've got. Let's begin with the student population of St. Louis Public Schools (hereafter known as SLPS. If you are an acronym fanatic, I suggest joining the education system. We're on a time crunch, we've got to shorten all our BS to get it to fit). The SLPS district is 24,000 students strong and shrinking by the year. Got it? OK, moving on. The state has set a goal for elementary and middle schools to achieve 51% mastery on all Communication Arts (CA) MAP (Missouri Assessment Program- given from grade 3 through 8th) tests and 45% mastery on all Math MAP tests. OK...WAIT A MINUTE...
51 and 45%???? THAT'S IT?!?!?!? In case you missed it among the acronyms, the state only expects half of its students to get a proficient or advanced score on an accredited test. And that's only in English and Math, forget about science and social studies and every other thing that actually matters. Oh wait, it gets better...Only four middle and elementary schools in the entire city of St. Louis actually met this goal in 2008. FOUR. Out of about 65 (depending on the year, many schools have been closed or have been restructured into charter schools and the like). To really bring this home, let me give you the number of students in my sixth grade class who achieved mastery on the CA MAP last year- 29%. And this is in a classroom in a good school (relative to St. Louis) I like to think of as safe, productive, well maintained and full of hearty, hands-on learning, mostly because I'm in charge of it. AND I actually raised this score over 5% from the previous year, though I still think of that number as my own personal failure to myself, my students and the world at large. Can you imagine what the scores were in a classroom that lacked rigor, management and support?
This numbers game becomes a little bit more complicated after this because the road forks in many different directions, depending on your perspective. I personally think education is too important and complicated of an issue to fit into any political box, and statistics can be twisted to prove anybody's point (72% of all statistics are made up on the spot, including that one). I mean, there are so many factors that go into the data that it's important not to think of the numbers as the end-all-be-all tellers of truth. What about the writers of the standardized test? Or the health of the children taking it? Or the teachers who fudged the scores? Or the overlooked undesirable numbers that you only learn about if your deep, deep, deep in the system (many that have to do with race and special ed)? Or the fact that the test is shortened each year because there is not enough money to pay people to grade the constructed responses? Everybody has an agenda, especially the politicians (governmental or school board) who tote these numbers around and throw them in the faces of the opposition when it suits them, and hide them when it doesn't. Education can't be about personal gain or adult professions- it MUST be about the children and their futures.
Like this one. See his face? He's not just a statistic. 
He is a living breathing, wonderful young student, destined for...
Well, the odds are stacked up against him, but I will never give up hope that he is destined for greatness.
The fact that he's reading Captain Underpants just proves he's a kid. Who likes toilet humor. 
 
So...what happens to this student population once they move on to high school (the majority of which earned a basic or below basic on a standardized test)? In St. Louis, 60% will graduate from high school. Only half of that 60% will go on to a four year college. I don't know how many actually graduate from those higher education institutions. I have heard from many high school teachers of my acquaintance that their administration refuses to allow them to fail seniors, squeaking them by on just barely D's so that they can have their graduation day and inflate that graduation number, furthering that shockingly low 30% statistic of college bound St. Louis alumni. Of the students who graduate, how many are actually prepared for the professional world and life outside of school? And of the students who graduate at the top of their class, do they realize that the best public education our country has to offer is still only 23rd in the world?
Will it shock you further to know that St. Louis is far from the worst public school district in our nation? Or are you all shocked out? I often find myself walking about in a bit of a daze if I think about it too much, and it's taken me almost two years to be able to really process all of this information and relate it to my own personal experience. This is what Teach For America calls the Achievement Gap (often shortened to AG or Ach Gap to save time. We talk about it A LOT). Now you have a taste of the uplifting data shown and pounded into a TFA corps member's head every time we have the opportunity to meet together, as we did today in what is called 'Professional Saturday,' the inspiration of this post. It is hard to see the silver lining in all these depressingly low scores, but we are told to "Go make a difference!" despite the weight of such knowledge. We are told to "Be the change we want to see in the world" without real straight-forward instructions, because hey, if it were a simple problem, it would have been solved by now. I'll spare you the list of school politics, curriculum, funding, parental support, poverty, teacher preparation and pay and who knows what else goes into why our school system looks the way it does today, but believe me when I say it makes a tangled problem even more hard to understand.
I certainly don't have the answers, but I do know what I know. And what I know is this- I can teach the students I have to the best of my abilities for every single moment I am blessed to have them. I can look at these numbers and realize I've got to improve and become better, instead of being disheartened and feeling like a failure. As long as I plan to improve next year, as long as I get ideas to tweak my lessons and procedures, I know I have hope for the future. I know that I love my job, especially when I feel deep within my soul and heart that I just taught my students something, and they liked it. I know I hate myself every time I yell at a child because they are being SO bad! I know that I am doing something so important and worth while that I hope to have the energy and creativity to teach until the end of my days. And finally, I can tell all of the people I know what I know so that they can pass this awareness onto others. Because if everybody knew this, nobody would stand back and let bloated bureaucratic blimps take the helm of education and steer it ever downward till it crashes like the Hindenburg. If everybody knew the numbers, if they stood out like blazing neon in the night, then there would be an uproar louder than anything we've ever heard.
I have no ambition to become an administrator or school board member or government reformer, because even though that's where the power lies, I know I would be burnt out as quickly as a candle in a hurricane. The voices of reason are so few in the crowd of people with power when it comes to education it's a miracle the school system has lasted this long. To be able to confront the problem head on is not my talent, but maybe it's the person behind me in a slow check out line. Maybe it's the person you talk to about educational inequity at the bus stop, or the person you chat with at church. Maybe it's the child you teach today who will grow up tomorrow to be a giant of change. Maybe it's you. I don't know. I do know that the next time somebody asks me what I do for a living, and then inevitably asks me if I like it, my answer won't be as simple as it was before.

February 27, 2011

Movie Maniac's First Screenplay Suggestions

In honor of the Academy Awards, I am going to satisfy my life-long ambition of becoming a movie critic. Thanks to the freedom of the Internet, I can write and publish myself, which is a truly beautiful thing. People actually reading what I write is another matter entirely...
Anyhoo, what I've always disliked about movie critics is that they are either extremely negative and critical (go figure) or obviously somehow employed by a movie's company (and therefore biased). That's not how I do things- in this entry, I will only make recommendations of movies worth watching, no strings attached (all are available to rent I believe). Save yourself the trouble of reading about movies that aren't worth your time or watching countless titles until you find a gem. I'll watch them and waste my time for you, cause that's what I love doing. I am a movie maniac. Hmmm, I like that alliteration...Here are a few great movies that I have seen recently:
  #1- Tangled (PG)
A delightful cartoon rendering of the fairy tale Rapunzel, it is both beautifully drawn (love those lanterns!) and wittily sung. I left the theater twirling and smiling, humming the music to myself all the way home. This tale will please the most avid Disney fan and entertain even the anti-cartoonist, if you don't mind that the only resemblance to the actual fairytale is the hair, tower and evil step-mom. I found the villain to have much more depth than many Disney bad guys/girls. Yes, the villain did out-right bad stuff (kidnapping for one), but the worst thing brought upon Rapunzel by her "mother" was all mental. Her words were poisonous, and I think Disney did a really good job of showing what words can do to a person's confidence in a highly humorous scene where Rapunzel is both ecstatic and terrified to be out of her tower. All in all, nothing new or profound, but highly entertaining and satisfying, as only Disney can deliver.
#2- RED: Retired and Extremely Dangerous (PG-13)
Based on the graphic novel by the same name, this action/adventure romp was a thrill ride through the life of a retired CIA "analyst" Paul Moses, who is just trying to meet a girl and move on with his life after being one of the most dangerous and successful spies of his time. It reminded me of True Lies and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, only with older guys and gals kicking butt and taking names. While violent and over the top as only action movies about spies can be, I laughed out loud consistently from about 10 minutes in until the end. Let me put it this way- if you want to see what John Malkovich would be like as a crazy spy who lives in the woods, or  Morgan Freeman wearing a bright robin's egg blue, yellow and pink outfit, or Bruce Willis walk out of a spinning car and then take out his would be killer without breaking a sweat on that sweet bald head of his, then this is the film for you.
#3- The Secret of Kells (not rated)
Also a cartoon, this amazing movie tells the story of the illuminated Book of Kells through the eyes of a child. The Book of Kells is a real book in Ireland (one of their national treasures and the finest example of calligraphy from the time). The style reminded me of the cartoon The Thief and the Cobbler, and at first, the oddness of the characters and scenery threw me off. About ten minutes in, however, I was totally inside the disjointed world that was based on the 2-D art of 8th century monks. The two main characters, a boy named Brandon and an elfish spirit girl named Aisling exist in a frightening world of Viking invasions and scary creatures in the forest. Both wish to turn the darkness into light with written wisdom and Celtic myths. If you wish to see a modern take on a historical time, then see the Secret of Kells.
#4- Moliere (PG-13)
This French film is a refined comedy in the line of Shakespeare in Love, in the way that it tells the story of a real playwright through one of the plays he wrote (although I think this one is much funnier and had better acting than Shakespeare in Love). Twisting Moliere's comedy Tartuffe into a exciting escapade of the author's own love-life, it shows how farce was changed into comedy of depth in 16th century France. I found it to be a lovely film with rich colors and superb actors who could make you both cry and laugh at the same time, which in fact was the point of the whole movie.
#5- The Jane Austin Book Club (PG-13)
Sometimes you just need a romantic comedy that's all fluff and little substance. Jane Austen can hardly be said to have little substance as her caricatures of people and subtle commentary on the social aspects of her time were truly awesome, but she always provides the fluff in abundance. This movie is based on the novel of the same name, and just watching it made me want to pick up Austen's books and drink in her literary wonderfulness. It is a movie about six people, all at different and difficult stages in their love lives, forming a book club with the goal of reading all six of Jane Austen's books and then meeting to discuss them. While the substance of the movie is provided by the fact that all the characters are similar to a major Jane Austen character, the fluff of the romantic mine-field set up by their modern lives is sufficiently diverting (though at times disappointing too). What I enjoyed most was the reminders of how entertaining Austen can be and that I need to actually read her books, not just watch movies based on them. I hope you get the same message!
#6- The Social Network (PG-13)
I thought a movie based on the beginnings of Facebook was the stupidest premise for a film that I had ever heard of. I think I said so to many people. I stand here today, corrected and wrong about this superb story. With great cinematography, this wonderfully shot film remains exciting throughout, even though many of the scenes are of two parties arguing out lawsuits. Not what you would think of as exciting, I know (my stint on jury duty showed me just how much lawyers like to talk), but it really keeps you worried for the characters. The characters aren't necessarily likable, in fact, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, is portrayed as a real @#$hole (pardon my French), but they speak SO fast and are SO witty that you find yourself taking sides even if you don't like any of them. Who knew computer programing could be such an interesting topic? (my apologies to all the computer programmers I know, I just never thought a movie about making a website could be any more than instructional. I was very, very wrong) I guess when you throw in money, everything becomes interesting because humans act so strangely when they feel greed. But buyer beware- don't take this film as gospel truth for many of the things that happened were expanded upon or made up. (Which kind of, sort of, slightly proves my initial opinion that it was a silly premise and would have to be changed in order to be worth watching. Oh well. It's a good movie)

I hope you enjoy these films as much as I did!

February 19, 2011

Upward and MAPward we go!

Here's the million dollar question- how do you catch the attention of 28 twelve year-olds whose minds are still at home playing on one of their hundred snow days? You start teaching them about the Greek gods and all the nasty stuff they did. Oh yes, I have resorted to shock and awe in order to drag my students into the land of learning. I can't tell you how many students recoiled and shouted 'Ewww!' 'What?!?' or 'Wait a minute...' when they learned that most of the gods marry their sisters and brothers, or that Hera is one P.O.ed lady due to her philandering husband Zeus, or that Ares and Aphrodite may not be married, but boy do they love each other! Yes, that is the sound of learning in my classroom- Ewww!

We are currently reading The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan and I am having so much fun! It's one of my favorites and I think I have successfully hooked the students with all the background knowledge of the Greek myths and gods and creatures. The book is a roller coaster ride of excitement and thrills, so even if it's a struggle for some students to comprehend, they are trying harder than they normally would because they want to find out what happens next. I love it when they moan after I say, "Alright, that's all we have time for today. Close your books!" Music to my ears.

Life is moving right along and the MAP (Missouri Assessment Program) test is coming, which means everything gets turned MAP-ward around now. Focus lessons, constant principal observations in the classroom, and a general feeling of nervous stress are the norm all over Busch and probably the district. At this time of testing stress, I recall those naive discussions I had in college classes, safely tucked in a happy corner of a protected little world, where I strongly denounced teaching to the test. How little I knew of how our wacky world works. It's not necessarily that I teach to the test- I teach the reading skills a student is supposed to know in the 6th grade and that is what the test is over, but boy does my life revolve around the test. Everything rides on it.

I don't think one can truly comprehend what the MAP means unless your spectacular students' future class will depend on their score, your school's freedom and open status depends on improving on the test, your Principal's job depends on the school wide improvement, the district's funding and standing compared to other districts depends on how all the children do, and your record is forever marked by your students' scores. All of these realities are based on the awesome idea of accountability, a double edged sword that hacks away at my confidence. Thank goodness for the book, Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, which taught me to teach my students test taking skills (which is really boosting their performance!) and to assure them that while the test is important, in the end it is a piece of paper that adults are afraid of and they should view it as a challenge, not a monster. This mantra is what gets me through the testing season.

Anyhoo, onto more pleasant things.
I LOVE PAINTING. Period. It calms and soothes my MAP-mad mind and I can't get enough of it. I am currently taking a painting class at the community college here in St. Louis, and it is my first dabbling in oil. The professor is extremely professional and likes to use big canvases, which was a stretch for me. I'm learning a lot, and want to paint all the time, be it oil, acrylic or with my fingers. I told one of my co-workers that moving from acrylic to oil painting is like eating Hershey's chocolate your whole life, and then placing a Belgian truffle on your tongue. Both are good, but boy, does oil take the cake. It moves like butter and blends beautifully, the colors are extreme and vibrant and it will last forever if you prepare and paint it right. That said, it was also intimidating, time-consuming and expensive to begin. I love it!

A few of my early canvases have been attached to this blog for your viewing pleasure.
I am also looking forward to a trip to Disneyworld with my friend Jessica and St. Patty's day here in St. Louis with my friend Allie for my Spring Break. I love being in a position where those kind of things are an option. Thank God for all the blessings in my life!
If anyone wants to come out and visit- please do! If that's not an option, call, send me a letter or carrier pigeon, or contact me in some fashion, because I'd love to hear from you.