The Poky Little Pundit


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To pass or not to pass the levy: That’s not really a question.

I’ve been back to work as a high school teacher for one week, and I am TIRED. Teaching is HARD. In the past week, I have learned 150 names, I have read, studied, prepared and delivered lessons on Hamlet for AP Literature students, and I have provided 100 students with an overview on the Holocaust in preparation for studying Night (which I also had to read). I have also individually assessed the writing skills of all 150 students, and provided the majority with feedback. For this, I receive $120 a day.

teacher image

This has never happened in a single classroom ever, unless you have asked the question: Do you want a pizza party?

But wait! It gets better! Before I even had an opportunity to log on to my newly re-activated district email, I had a dozen strongly-worded parent emails crouching in my inbox like bombs. What could they possibly have to complain about, before I had taught even one lesson? Well, I took over during the final week of the first semester, so GRADES of course. It turns out that having cancer is no excuse for not having your grades updated a week ahead of schedule (and to be clear, my friend IS actually grading like a maniac while suffering the after-effects of chemotherapy). Truly my friend’s illness has impacted the life and education of 150 teenage souls, though I am doing my very best to minimize the impact. And this, dear reader, is the reason why teachers deserve respect and should be paid better. We are not monkeys. We are not easily replaced. We actually have value. Which these parents quickly found out when that meddlesome cancer got in the way of entering first semester grades.

Which is also why I start giggling when people innocently ask me whether or not we should vote to approve the latest school levy. It’s like asking if we should give food to a starving child. Or not kick sad puppies. Or pick up a screaming baby. Or make fun of Fox news. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help wondering why something like funding for schools is left up to taxpayers – many understandably ignorant of issues in schools. If passed, this levy will benefit over 50,000 students in the Seattle School District and will cost the average taxpayer about $13 a month.

Opposition statements, written by longtime activists Nick Esparza and Chris Jackins, are worth our careful reading and consideration as I reckon a large majority of voters feel like schools are mismanaging funds. We know, in fact, that they are. But I don’t think this means we punish school children for adult mistakes. It means we pass this levy and then, considering our taxes are paying for schools, we GET INVOLVED. How? Well, I am short on answers there. I don’t know. I’d like to know, though. And when I figure it out, I will certainly pass it on. In the meantime, I sure don’t want schools to get worse. I am going to assume you don’t either.

In a nutshell, and in my own colorful language:

Proposition 1 RENEWS the Operations Levy. By voting to keep this levy, you provide 26% of the current school budget. Without it, teachers’ jobs will be cut. Programs will be cut. The education of 50,000 children is in serious jeopardy. WE WANT TO RENEW THIS LEVY.

Proposition 2 RENEWS the Capital Levy. This one keeps actual school buildings safe for kids. Without it, a minor earthquake could kill a bunch of kids. Heating won’t be fixed, so kids will freeze. WE WANT TO RENEW THIS LEVY.

To read more, click here for Schools First Seattle’s perspective. And here for an excellent editorial in the Seattle Times on Sunday. And here for NPR’s take on the issue.

And while you read this blog post, I will be digging through Act I, Scene 3 of Hamlet with a group of obscenely clever 18-year-olds. Wish me luck, and pass those levies, so I can carry on edumacating our nation’s youth. (What have you done so far this morning?)

shakespeare meme 2

Oh, Kenneth. I hate your chin hair only slightly more than I hate your hyperbole.

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Progressing towards a goal

I gotta say, even at the risk of sounding bombastic, I am FIRED UP after hearing President Obama’s inauguration speech. One phrase in particular popped out at me: “Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” ACTION! So why is it that simply declaring an interest in improvement via our country’s political process seems to get people all hot under the collar? Why does it feel audacious to even say I am considering it?

President Barack Obama: I just love this guy.  Photo: REUTERS/White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama: I just love this guy! 
Photo: REUTERS/White House/Pete Souza

I spent this past Saturday at a training day for Progressive Majority, a group that helps prepare potential candidates wishing to run for office. Just getting there was half the battle: I had to rely on two grandmas to take care of 3-year-old George and my husband, who recently had ACL surgery. I could have gone skiing. I could have just sat in a cafe and read a book. But no. Sometimes I wonder what it is inside me that is never able to just settle and rest. And sometimes I wish I could just cut that part out.

So thirty other individuals like myself also spent a whole Saturday in a cold Carpenter’s Hall in Renton in order to understand how one goes from caring about issues to legislating them. And what made me laugh as soon as I arrived is that they all looked like teachers: politely and earnestly dressed, mainly middle-aged, diverse in both gender and ethnicity. And it was a lot like a typical staff meeting: lots of acronyms, an assumed knowledge base and low quality of snacks. I mention snacks because it is the main reason why I am jealous of my friends who work in corporate America. I love good snacks. And I have never worked in a job where snacks are subsidized. I have spent an embarrassing amount of time thinking about how much better teaching would be if we only had good snacks.

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A fine-looking group of political hopefuls (I’m at the front right with the ginger hair).
Photo: Noel Frame

I was actually really excited to meet one of the day’s speakers, Noel Frame. She ran this past November for the 36th District, and despite securing the vote of the PLP early on, she lost. I know – shocking. She is an active proponent for quality education for all WA state children. She primarily spoke about the necessity and art of fundraising, which made me want to throw a toddler-style tantrum.

Anyone who has ever even thought about going into politics knows it is all about fundraising. Like, ALL about fundraising. And as a person who identifies with wallflowers and was known for bringing books to frat parties in college, the idea of approaching anyone – much less strangers – for money makes me literally shudder. It brings out this deep-seated, youngest-child rebellious feeling in me, like I am going to be different. I’ll be the first candidate ever to win without spending money. It physically pains me that America wastes such a vast quantity of money on elections.

But I have to think about it in a different way. I have to think about the fact that someone is going to raise that money, and possibly further an agenda that I do not believe is the right course for our state or country. And if it isn’t me, who is it? To whom am I entrusting with my child’s future?

To some extent, I am putting the cart before the horse – because I still have no idea what I should run for. I think there should be an app where someone could take their primary interest and skill set (say, me and education), show what they are qualified for and what’s available when, and then how you actually get there. My generation loves apps. Our government needs to get on the app bandwagon. If any of my charming readers happen to know where I could find this information, I’d love to hear about it. I’ll end by quoting our president one more time: “It is our generation’s task to carry on what [our] pioneers began.”

C’mon everyone! Get fired up!


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The First Amendment Part 2: The Solution

If only I had thought of this super clever play on words when I was teaching. #shakespeare watch out

If only I had thought of this super clever play on words when I was teaching. #shakespearewatchout

The Poky Little Pundit is going back to teaching next week. For two months. A dear friend has shitty cancer and so I am going to be her substitute while her white blood cells are decimated. Damn that cancer. I’m a little nervous because she is a hard act to follow. She is one of those people who, after five minutes’ discussion on any given topic, allows you to deduce that, in fact, you are not very smart at all. The kind of person whose desk drawers look like a picture out of Martha Stewart. Mine contain things like chewed gum, hair elastics and old York Peppermint Pattie wrappers. You get the idea. That doesn’t mean that the PLP gets time off, though. We teachers have so much free time that I can no doubt write this blog during class (Hilarious joke btw. We normally don’t have time for bodily functions, much less writing.)

I digress. To review, last week I discussed how the Hazelwood ruling has limited student speech rights. Today, I want to talk about how to fix it. So here’s what needs to happen:

1) WA state needs to follow Oregon’s example (and the example of six other states) and pass legislation offering stronger free expression protection.

2) Individual districts and schools need to give student editors the authority to make their own content decisions.

The second one is easy-peasy, since giving student editors autonomy also means absolving a school district of liability – a no-brainer if ever there was one. School districts need simply to alter policy language to reflect this change, and pat themselves on the back for supporting First Amendment rights for young people.

The first one is a lot harder. In fact, I’ve talked about doing it for six years, and have educated roughly 150 students on the issue, but I have made little progress. And it is my very impatience that has been my demise. Because in order for me to make meaningful change, I need to slow down. I need to learn the process. I have to learn how to write a bill. And then that bill needs to be supported by state legislators. And I need to go to Olympia and, like, lobby and stuff. Which basically sounds about as fun as tweezing my eyebrows (trick statement – I love doing that!). House Bill 1307 died for high schools in 2007. Six years later, no discernible progress has been made.

"The great moral attribute of self-government cannot be born and matured in a day; and if school children are not trained to it, we only prepare ourselves for disappointment if we expect it from grown men." - Horace Mann

“The great moral attribute of self-government cannot be born and matured in a day; and if school children are not trained to it, we only prepare ourselves for disappointment if we expect it from grown men.” – Horace Mann

So here’s where I have failed for the past six years. Even with my considerable energy and resources, I have failed to ignite a passion in my students sufficient enough that they actually want to take on this behemoth. I lack power. Students have the cache of being young, while I am just a teacher. And school teachers are about as well-respected as baristas in this city, only we don’t make good tips. Writing this blog is part of my solution – I am attempting to untangle how one arrives at a position of power without exploiting other people in the process.

I also struggle to demonstrate for adults the importance of the cause – I can’t seem to accurately convey the maddening frustration of leading a group of idealistic, intelligent young people to whom you must constantly say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ And the reason you have to give them is, ‘because the Supreme Court gave your principal the right to control what you say.’ That is really what it boils down to, and I am not even being hyperbolic.

But even my students think I am hyperbolic. They say things like ‘It’s really not a big deal. Chill, Keogh. We’ll just re-write that story and take out ____.’ And while this kind of complacency in general horrifies me, I am consciously trying to avoid that whole ‘young people aren’t what they used to be’ trope. Adults are as guilty as young people are of undervaluing our system. Sure, the courts gave us Hazelwood, but I also know that the right words, in the right way, spoken by the right people could absolutely change that ruling. And that is just mind-bogglingly awesome.

I have pitched an idea to my old school that could easily be replicated in other student newspaper programs: A introduction to journalism class that combines history, civics and English. Students will focus on the role of journalism in our society; essentially, how writing instigates change. Classes will also contact local legislators, draft a bill, take field trips to Olympia to lobby for the bill and hopefully make some in-roads into furthering freedoms for all people. This is just one idea – and if you, dear reader, have any others, I await your suggestions with bated breath.

PLP Update: I am attending an all-day training session this Saturday with Progressive Majority – so excited to report what I learn next Tuesday!


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The First Amendment Part 1: The Problem

Most of you are probably blissfully unaware that 25 years ago, on January 13, 1988, students in public high schools across the country were quietly deprived of the full extent of their First Amendment right. The Supreme Court’s Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision allowed school administrators to censor speech they consider to be “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” The previous standard, set by Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, only allowed censorship if speech caused a ‘material and substantial disruption.’ Simply put, the Hazelwood standard gives administrators significant control over what young people are able to say, because just about anything can be twisted to fit a ‘pedagogical goal.’ I know this, because for four of my six years’ teaching in America, the Hazelwood standard – and a conservative principal – made my life a daily challenge.

Hazelwood

How is this relevant to my life? you may be thinking. Well, it may not be, if you don’t care about protecting an individual’s freedom of speech. In which case, you can go back to North Korea and stay there. But if you are still reading, allow me to convince you that the rights we uphold for our young people – however small they may seem – are vitally important to a thriving, independently-minded nation.

Today commences Part 1 of 2 posts about one way we can defend the right to speak and write freely for all citizens. And it all started last Friday when I met up with a very wise friend of mine – a fellow Eastern Washingtonian with a giant smile and a deeply rooted knowledge of local politics.

He cemented my theory that the way for me to make the biggest difference is by capitalizing on my current knowledge base. Meaning education. Schools. We all know they need help, but how? The question is so complicated and difficult that most of us just keep ours head down, send our kids to school and hope they don’t end up as meth addicts.

He had many excellent ideas – all of which made me think: Yes! Let’s do that! Now! But then he explained to me how one actually goes about making those changes and everything went a bit fuzzy. Why is it so hard in our country to make good and necessary changes quickly? One idea, involving the sinking ship my son will soon board that is Seattle Public Schools, particularly interested me: Divide up the district into north, east, south and west, but make a statute requiring levy equalization (meaning all schools get the same amount of money). This makes just absolute perfect sense to me. It is so absurdly unfair that some schools have more money than others simply because of the price of houses in the neighborhood. But for this to happen, we need to change an entire population’s thought process.

Which brings me back to First Amendment rights for young people – again, fighting the fight that I can fight, if you follow me. My greatest joy in teaching has also been my greatest misery: the school paper. I advised The Barque, a student newspaper, for six years. Now to most of you in the ‘real world,’ running a school newspaper probably sounds like some cheesy after-school club. But it is more like a full-time job. School papers must fund themselves – like any other publication – with ads from businesses in order to stay solvent. And though only one issue a month is produced, the staff are 30 teenagers with six other classes, after-school sports and a social life, so story-writing, editing and laying out the paper must take place in the four hours available each week in class. Except it doesn’t. It gets done after school. Like, for hours upon hours after school. Teachers who take on this behemoth are paid an additional stipend, which roughly works out to be $3 an hour.

Many of you might be (rightly) thinking: Why would anyone willingly take this on? Frankly, teaching the same stuff, year after year, is boring. And making a newspaper is decidedly not. At my school, it also attracts some of the most dynamic, intelligent kids the school has to offer, so you have the added benefit of spending time with people who will likely be future leaders in our communities. People going to schools like Brown or Dartmouth. People who also like to stir shit up and make stuff better. My kind of people.

The Barque class

Gold-Medalist award-winning student journalists on The Barque (and me).

But it was the very dynamic qualities of these students that so challenged our now-departed conservative principal. In one memorable issue, my students wanted to write stories about drugs in our school – a real problem that impacted their daily lives. This was not to be. Under the Hazelwood ruling, the principal could easily justify limiting talk of drugs at school as ‘reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical goals.’ So an excellent story, in which an anonymous drug dealer at school spoke candidly of their experience dealing at school, was censored. If our district or school chose not to invoke Hazelwood, or if our school was in Oregon, this story would have run. Students and parents might have read this article and productive conversations about drugs at school might have commenced.

So what can be done? Stay tuned next Tuesday for The First Amendment Part 2: The solution.

In other PLP news, I faxed in my 15-page questionnaire for Progressive Majority last week, which basically asked me, ‘Do you agree with us?’ in 50 different ways. And apart from a few ideas, I did. We’ll see if I am ‘approved.’

I’ve also decided to get involved in YouthCare, an organization supporting Seattle’s homeless teenagers, after speaking to a friend who volunteers with them. It seems like an ideal fit as I can hopefully lend my English teaching skills to kids trying to pass their GED or working on letters to get jobs. I have to attend a volunteer initiation scheduled in late February before I can start, but in the meantime, I am looking for things to donate from my own home, such as sleeping bags, hooded sweatshirts and towels. Clean out those closets and perhaps I will see you there!


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New year, new procrastination techniques

sun girl

There are people who go with the flow and there are people who make lists. I am sure you can guess by now which one I am, so it is only natural to welcome the new year by writing down some of the PLP’s goals for this year. These are markedly different from my personal goals, which include learning how to use an electric drill, working on my appalling French, and trying to eat only one croissant a week. I am already breaking one of my PLP goals, which is to post when I say I will post – but it was SUNNY in SEATTLE yesterday, which means I spent most of the day just standing on the sidewalk in sunglasses, letting vitamin D flood my weary body. It was amazing.

So here’s a few goals to start the year off. My main goal remains to take part in the political process – and writing these posts keeps me motivated. So thank you for your support last year. It is so much more fun taking this journey knowing there are people out there rooting for me (and occasionally telling me I am full of crap). Both are totally valid responses.

1. Attend a seminar called “What you need to know about running for office” hosted by The National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington. This is goal #1 because it is coming up in the next few weeks. There are many similar opportunities available nationwide – it is a simple Google search away – so perhaps I will see some of you at one of these!

2. Keep in contact with Republican friends so I can try to understand varying points of view. I don’t know if I can stretch myself as far as consuming right-wing media, but if you know of a conservative journalist who also has a sense of humor, I am willing to give it a shot.

3. Attend a school board meeting for Seattle Public Schools. Being part of a school board interests me for many reasons, though the position is unpaid (more on that later). I am not sure exactly what the position entails, though any position that allows me in any way to fight for a better education for my son sounds great. I’ve heard the meetings are incredibly boring – but I really want to see for myself what they are actually doing, or not doing as the case may be.

4. Write my second book. This is both a personal goal and a goal for the PLP, because ultimately I hope this book will change the world. (For the record, this is said tongue-in-cheek, but all writers are deeply egotistical. We HAVE to be, because otherwise, we would quit and be a person who doesn’t write books. And that isn’t an option.)

5. Stay informed. Once you attain a certain level of world knowledge, it is easy to ‘top up’ with a basic scan of news sources. Drop out for a few days, and it’s like ‘What is Egypt up to now??’ My goal is 10 minutes a day, every day. Beyond that, and I start to feel my brain wrinkling like fingertips in a bath.

6. Find an organization to support. This sounds like a vague, ridiculous goal, but it’s not! For years, I supported my students in their various causes and that is how I ‘gave back.’ They found the cause, they milked me for cash, I gave. Now it is time for me to think about how I want to invest my time and resources.

7. Press for change, even if at a very low, local level. 

Remember my post about the boys vs. girls assembly? I decided to take my own advice and write into the school newspaper to protest the assembly – resulting in the now-adviser of the school paper receiving emails from staff members saying she should not have printed my letter because it made the kids who came up with the assembly feel bad. Apart from beating people with a First Amendment stick, I want to state for the record that those kids SHOULD feel bad! So should the adults who said it was a good idea. It is important for all of us to remember the adage: Use it or lose it. It is not revolutionary to write into a school paper, but it is a start. I have these rights, and well, I intend to use them as much as possible (um, excepting the second one).

8. Run for office. I will put my name down for something by the end of this year. I’m still not sure which position, but the options are narrowing which is, for once, a good thing.

Happy New Year to all!