The Poky Little Pundit


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“We have a civic obligation to support free public education for all.” – Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch bookAfter four days with no voice and a night spent coughing so hard that tears flew spontaneously from my eyes, I am taking a day off. And right now, it is sunny, and so the world is good. I am staring in utter awe at the hot butter sunshine, knowing that in just minutes, it will pull on its hated Autumn-grey sweater.

It has been a month now since my return to teaching – hence the lack of posting. I’d love to report how happy I am to be back – but working 10 hour days for $3000 a month continues to be somewhat of a drag. I can hear some of you thinking, ‘Well, that’s better than minimum wage, isn’t it? She should be grateful!’ And I am grateful to be employed – we all should be – but my myriad degrees (okay, there’s only three) and 12 years of experience balk at my workload relative to my salary.

Luckily, I am not the only one feeling fired up about education: Last Thursday, I went to hear Diane Ravitch speak at UW about her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. She is a tiny, fiery woman whose commanding rhetoric boomed through Kane Hall. She mentioned many ‘hoaxes’ that our media propagates – one being that American education is failing. She quickly proves how untrue this is with actual evidence – for example, high school graduation rates are at their highest point in history. Several other tidbits popped out at me (oh and by the way, these are called titbits in England, which cracks me up):

  • Test scores measure “who is in the class” – and no amount of merit pay is going to increase these test scores if all other variables stay the same
  • Teachers are not, in fact, “hiding their best lessons” in a bid to earn more money
  • America leads the world in industrialized poverty – which is the probable cause of most of our education woes
  • Standardized tests reflect opportunity – not the ability to learn
  • “Charter schools are skimming off the easiest to educate.” Totally!
  • Providing better pre-natal and early childhood care are critical in fixing our public school system
  • Reducing class size has proven benefits (And here, I want to segue briefly to state that one of my current AP Literature classes has 34 souls. In England, the equivalent class had EIGHT.)

It was lovely to walk through my former campus again, and sit back and learn for a change instead of grading papers and being ever the arbiter. Ravitch was an excellent speaker and is an excellent educator – I encourage you to read her book. Read Jonathan Kozol’s review for the NYT here.

In terms of politics – no, I have nothing to say about the shutdown that hasn’t already been said in eight different ways since last night. I’d like to focus instead on some of the amazing local candidates relying on our support this November. It turns out that part of being a Precinct Committee Officer for the 36th District Democrats involves receiving phone calls on my cell from candidates – I have voice messages from both school board candidate Suzanne Dale Estey and Port Commissioner John Creighton! I’d love to endorse them here, but I am still in the evidence-gathering phase of my voting process – I hope you are too. More on this is still to come as I learn about the candidates.

Now for a hot bath, some soup and some Vick’s VapoRub…stay healthy, dear reader!


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The Parent Tax

So last Thursday, I went into my high school to discuss my schedule for September with a colleague. My problem is that I no longer have a room – I will be travelling between two classrooms during the day to teach.

To non-teachers, that probably sounds like no biggie – and yes, there are worse things. But it is a bummer. It means I will not be able to set up my lessons for the day on a Smartboard, like I have been doing (that’s an interactive whiteboard, for those who haven’t been in a classroom for 20 years). It means I will not have a private, quiet space to complete my work each day. It means I have nowhere to put up book lists or display my favorite poetry or even make a private phone call, barring a bathroom.

But that’s not actually the part that makes me angry. What makes me angry is that my loss of a room is just another tax I pay for having a child. Yes, it is really that simple. I will break it down for you.

See, the problem is that high school starts at 7:00. We have to BE THERE at 7:00. And guess when all daycares open? 7:00. Do you see the problem yet? Let’s go a little further. Of my department, three of us have young children, which means three of us teach part time. And as my friend and colleague, who took over for me as Department Chair on my leave of absence, blithely informed me: The problem is that we all want the same schedule.

And it’s that tiny little word there – the ‘want’ – that makes me angry. Because I don’t WANT to teach part time just so I can get my kid to daycare. I don’t WANT to lose my classroom, and spend the day carting around stacks of papers, a computer and my personal belongings. I don’t WANT to lose out on a significant chunk of my paycheck because some idiot decided to make high school start at 7 bloody a.m.

And when people say, “Well, it was your choice,” I want to stab them. In all honesty, I had no idea what I was getting into, or how many choices would be taken away from me by my choice to have a baby. Parents should not have to choose between procreation and a career. And a society that sets up such an absurd choice needs reforming.

It is all part of the tax one must pay for being a parent. A tax that starts at conception and doesn’t appear to end until your child can find their own way to and from school. And what age is that? When will I feel comfortable allowing my son to wake himself up, nourish himself and get himself to school so that I can get to work on time? Age 8? 10? 12?

The solution is simple: Start high school, and all other employment where possible, at 9 am. Keep elementary and middle school start times at 8:30.

This would allow the great majority of us to wake our children, feed them, and get them to school or daycare so we can arrive at work without stress and without having to employ a morning nanny. It will also allow high school kids – who can get themselves to school, for the most part – to get much needed sleep, which is more in line with their natural circadian rhythms.

We could also simply be more understanding, as a nation, that parents are not being lazy when we go part-time or arrive to work a little late. We are making the best of a difficult situation for which there is no resolution in sight. And for those of us who do not have grandparents at the ready, or spare cash to pay for nannies, or for those of us whose spouses travel or who have no spouse at all, we are barely hanging on. And for what? So school can end at the bizarre hour of 2:30? 

Fellow parents or soon-to-be parents reading: What sort of “parent tax” do you have to pay in your job? And what can we do to take a collective stand? Considering the absolutely vast quantity of people this continuing problem affects, shouldn’t we be able to make a change if we really want to make one?


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Giving student writers their walking papers

newspaper

What happens when an institution’s watchdog no longer exists? When no one is compelled to take notice and report wrongdoing? When a community’s stories are not told?

About a week ago, a small article appeared in the regional section of the New York Times called “At School Papers, the Ink is Drying Up” by Winnie Hu. You probably didn’t read it, because you think the end of school newspapers has nothing to do with you.

I think it does.

Perhaps, you may be thinking, it is time high schools move into ‘the real world’ and realize that print media is dying an inevitable death. In the real world, just last week, The Chicago Sun-Times fired all their photographers. In the real world, today’s writer must be ‘creating content’ for ‘SEO.’ The irony is that at my current high school, the district does not even trust students enough to allow them to upload stories to a website – so if we are trying to prepare them for the real world, where online expertise is a prerequisite, we are seriously failing these kids.

Adults have fared quite well so far in the post print newspaper world – we are finding other avenues. We are expressing ourselves in droves online. Some too much, perhaps. Online, the odd teenager is producing an insightful blog or a funny twitter feed, but many teenagers don’t know how to fight with the written word. Sometimes, they don’t realize a fight even needs to take place. Soon, they will be like the proverbial lobster, slowly boiled alive. Sadly, my own idea to further bolster student expression in high schools, outlined in this post, is not going ahead next year. Blah blah funding blah.

What lawmakers and school districts may not realize is that by shutting off healthy, organized outlets of self-expression for students like a school newspaper, they are inadvertently encouraging them to find other methods that may not be so amenable to a school’s goals.

So here’s what could happen when school newspapers finally bite the papyrus: Kids could put together online newspapers outside of school, publish it for free, and say whatever the hell they want. No arguing over ethics. No copy-editing. No research. What they might gain, however, is getting the Hazelwood monkey off their backs (read an earlier post about Hazelwood here). No more principals sifting through their work. No more bowing and scraping to ‘the man.’ We are talking about an actual free press for young people – and better online content that may not be as well-crafted than students who passively drift through high school thinking they don’t have the power to instigate necessary change. (The teacher in me wants to remind students reading this that you still need to conform to libel laws and all of that other stuff I taught you.)

We should not cower in fear when we think of teenagers taking to the Internet to tell their truth, as many who make student press laws and district officials who uphold such laws do.

We should be afraid when they have nothing to say.


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The best teacher you ever had

bad teacher 2

No, I’m not talking about me, though if I am being honest, I hope a few of my former students reading this are thinking of me when they consider that (fragment of a) sentence.

I’m going a bit off course on my post today and I hope you will indulge me. What I want to write about is good teachers. Because while my teaching colleagues are busy winding down the school year, counting the days until summer break, and secretly hating every single student in their classes (don’t lie), I am already thinking ahead to returning in September. Given the time off to reflect and consider the successes and failures of my 12 year career, I am feeling strangely optimistic. I am teaching a new class, and the thrill of learning new things and inspiring new people has overtaken my brain space.

Every one of us has a distinct memory of a great teacher in our heads – usually from high school, when high emotion sometimes eclipses reason in all the best ways. And most teachers – certainly the amazing ones I work with – are striving to embody that uplifting image kids take away from their school years. So today, I want to talk about two great teachers from my old high school: Mr. True and Mr. Blizard. And I want to know what you, dear reader, consider to be a great teacher.

Mr. True was my math teacher for two years. I had him twice because I failed the first time, which was definitely not his fault (there were WAY too many cute boys in that class). After my junior year ‘F,’ Mr. True stayed after school to work with me almost every day my senior year, trying to squeeze out whatever mathematical abilities my brain contained, and managed to pull me through trigonometry with a C. I was so proud. He never made me feel stupid – but he did make fun of me a lot, which taught me to laugh at myself and accept failure gracefully.

Mr. Blizard, who taught me English, was the first adult with whom I actually connected. He was a frustrated writer, a fast runner and a passionate teacher. He pushed books towards me like they were drugs – stuff like L’etranger by Albert Camus when my parents were divorcing and I first felt the futility of life. He looked beyond my silly teenage drama and saw that I was struggling, and he helped. He saw me as a person.

And what else could we possibly want from our high school teachers? Regardless of what you think of merit pay or private schools or teacher salaries or charter schools, I’d love to hear from you today: Who was your favorite teacher, and most importantly, why? What makes a teacher great?


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Don’t ever dig holes under fences

thepokylittlepuppy

Recently a friend asked me about the title of this blog – I naively assumed everyone would get the title without me explaining. Isn’t everyone’s favorite childhood book The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey? Apparently not.

So, for those of you who don’t already know, I stole part of my blog title from the aforementioned text. And it is basically about an independent, adventurous puppy who disobeys his mother and eats lots of desserts. At least that is my childhood memory of it. In actuality, it is about accepting the consequences of our bad decisions and facing up to our responsibilities.

Which is essentially what I am trying to do here with this blog. Face up to being something other than a self-serving ignoramus who complains about ‘the man’ while leaving all the decision-making up to him. Especially when I should be making that man a woman. (Ha ha.)

On that note, last week was Filing Week – when candidates register to run for stuff in WA state for the August 6 primary election. I spent a bit of time on the King County website, going as far as registering to see what I could possibly run for. The obvious choice is the unpaid School Board position – others include City Council or Commissioner, and I don’t think one should run for an office one has to Google in order to understand it. Michael DeBell is vacating his seat on the school board (that’s my district) and three candidates have filed to run for his position. I have not, because I simply do not feel qualified. (Here’s a list of all candidates who have filed, if you are curious.)

So what does it take to become qualified? Why aren’t there little ‘starter’ positions for people who want to ease their way into politics? Teaching involves a great deal of politicking, but truly I should not be making large decisions on behalf of the people of Seattle – I’m still deciding myself on important issues in education, such as teachers’ unions.

Which brings us to Timothy Noah’s article, “The 1 Perfect Are Only Half the Problem.” Firstly, how lovely to read an article by a writer whose bias was not immediately apparent. Secondly, I had no idea he was going to be talking about labor unions until the very end of the article. Basically, he thinks labor unions are a great way to fix middle class economic woes. And while my socialistic leanings predispose me towards loving unions, I don’t.

I want to be clear, though (before my colleagues think I am crazy, and Progressive Majority kicks me off the farm team): I am not anti-union. The NEA and the WEA (the National and Washington Education Association respectively) are integral to supporting teachers. But I do think there needs to be serious reform, including the right for teachers to choose how their union dues are spent – especially since in WA state, we are forced to join them. (I’m still deciding on the right-to-work debate – for the moment, forced unionization seems necessary. Read more about a recent right-to-work debate regarding Boeing here.) Perhaps a trifle petty, but if I ran the teachers’ unions, the first thing I would cut is the eight pieces of propaganda that arrive at my doorstep every day. Seriously? A group of educators made this decision?

One thing I will do in September, when I step warily back into the public education sector, is become involved in the Washington Education Association – boring, but necessary in terms of understanding how unions function. In the meantime, read up on the candidates who have filed – a brave step by many quite amazing individuals! I thought by now the path into politics might become more clear; alas, the murkiness continues unabated. If only I could cut under the fence and still get the dessert, just like my favorite poky puppy.


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Sharing the wealth

kid at desk

I’ve decided that my tipping point is one month. After one month of living out of a suitcase, travel officially becomes boring and my Seattle montage starts playing in my head: A run along Queen Anne’s hilltop, an Americano with half and half at Cafe Fiore, and a simple, homemade green salad while sitting out on my back deck in the sun. Yes.

I’m also really looking forward to new topics of conversation. How to get your child (or grandchild, or niece) into a ‘decent’ school consumes the thoughts of everyone in London. I am not being hyperbolic. The disparity between schools is terrifying. Many of our close friends, who happen to be atheists, attend church every Sunday, espousing a fervent belief in God, simply to get into the local (C of E or Catholic) school – and not just the year before the child is due to enter Reception (our Kindergarten). We are talking THREE YEARS of church attendance to get your kid into a state-run school.

Other friends and family members are lucky enough to be able to afford private school, but it doesn’t end with money. For my own son to attend the school his father attended, he would have had to take AN EXAM at age three to get into Reception, and another at 7 to secure a place in the junior school and another at age 11 to secure a place in the senior school – all for the bargain price of £12,000 a year.

Truly, it is a tragedy for parents here, which is why they must verbally process it at every social occasion. You can see the dilemma etched into the worry lines on their faces. Do you save and scrimp for private school, only for your child to become a toffee-nosed arse, or tossed out for poor exam results at age 11? Or do you attend church for three years to get into the free school, regardless of whether or not you believe? The alternative is too hideous to contemplate: sending your child to a failing school in a bad area where they are certain to receive a terrible education and probably end up robbing grannies after school. Of course, working class, poor people have no option at all, but it isn’t really cool to mention that.

It is tempting to feel rather smug on my way home today – George is certain to get into his local school, which is 400 meters away. If he doesn’t, there are two others in our neighborhood that are equally well-respected. That’s it. End of story. Our only complaint is that there is not a lot of green space. At our free, amazing school down the road.

But inequities in education obviously exist in America as well. Just six miles away, in the same county we pay our taxes in, school choices are starkly different to my own.  And I wish I could just carry on with my life, appreciating the amazing fortune afforded me by my parents and my own hard work. The fact that so many of us are able to ignore the inequities is perhaps the reason why they continue. But what do we do?

For a start, I think we should mimic Portland, OR (minus the organic hippie beard thing). They decided last year to pool one-third of all PTA contributions and re-distribute the money to failing schools. And since schools such as Coe Elementary (where George will go) raise almost $200,000 a year in parent contributions and schools down the road raise virtually none, this seems a place to start. I would love to give to my child’s school knowing it might also benefit other children whose parents are less able to support their local school. (This is disregarding the fact that WA state schools are hideously underfunded to the point of a Supreme Court order – that is a whole separate issue. Truly, parents should just stop topping up funding for schools so the government will cover the bill as it should, but as a representative parent, I am certainly not willing to prove a point with my child’s life prospects.)

I’ve been reading Diane Ravitch’s blog as well as Save Seattle Schools, a community forum. Both offer perspectives on the issue, but few real solutions. Can anyone offer other reading suggestions?

Next Tuesday, I will be en route to my fourth continent in the span of four weeks: Australia. I will be visiting two friends – one in Melbourne and one in Perth. Ah, the benefits of a year off teaching – cheap travel during term time!


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Taking personal responsibility for each other

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Maggie Thatcher in one of her many ‘striking’ hats. (Image from Biography.com.)

I’m not sure what the mood is like back home, but it has been fascinating being in London in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s death. Everyone has something to say about her – from a friend whose grandfather and father went ‘down the pit’ but still respects her to friends who say things like ‘she really sorted this country out’ to people who truly think she was the devil incarnate. The media here has, of course, gone WAY over the top – every paper in the country is desperately trying to out-milk every fact you could ever want to know about Maggie (or Mrs. T as some call her – not sure if this is flatteringly polite or a way of belittling her by marking her as some nameless married woman). Just this past Sunday, Hilary Alexander of the Daily Telegraph told me that Thatcher “owned a striking array of hats.” The word ‘Boadicea’ has been used to describe her upwards of 500 times. Compelling stuff, I tell you.

My personal viewpoint? Well, I like any woman who is getting it done the way she wants it done. So yes, I think she was rather amazing. I’d really like to see what she would do with the political stalemate in America, were she in power right now. And would teachers be the new coal miners, and would she be bessie mates with Michelle Rhee?

Which brings me to today’s point (I know, you were starting to despair). I haven’t read many American reactions to her death, but in my concerted effort to canvass a variety of news sources, I stumbled upon a piece from Steve Tobak on FOXBusiness called “America Needs a Margaret Thatcher” which unsurprisingly espouses her virtue in employing the much over-worked phrase ‘personal responsibility.’ What gets me about this phrase is that, yes, of course, I wish more of us would take responsibility for our own decisions. I wish people ate and exercised better so our health care costs would go down. I wish gun owners would take responsibility for America’s absurd gun violence. I wish everyone driving in America would pass in the #$%*% left lane and then move the hell over.

But – and this is an important but – I also wish that everyone had the fortune to be born with a high-functioning brain and a family who fed them well enough and loved them well enough to enable all individuals to take personal responsibility for themselves. This is, unfortunately, not the case.

So let’s take the case of Freddie (as I will call him here), who I taught two years ago as a senior in high school. This boy was, quite simply, not given the gift of academic intelligence, though socially he was off the charts. He was always making the class laugh – mainly at his expense, because he realized he was not understanding a damn thing I said. He also had a string of girls hanging on his every word. But this kid could not write a sentence to save his life. He could just barely read. Freddie was quite good at (American) football, so he received special support throughout high school. He managed to graduate (with LOTS of mandated help from me as well, I might add) and was given a scholarship to play football at college as well as a new support teacher there as well. Problem was, he still could not write a sentence.  And here’s where it starts to unravel.

End of story, Freddie dropped out because he couldn’t cope with the workload. And having no other path to follow, he is now living at home and unemployed. The part of me who loves the idea of personal responsibility shouts out, ‘We gave him too much support! He should have been allowed to fail as a child!’ Part of me also thinks he could get a minimum wage job and work up from there. But it’s just not that easy. Freddie’s mother told him right in front of me he would amount to nothing. And Freddie confided in me, many times, that he was the stupidest, most worthless human being on the planet. And in a school system that only values academic success, what other message could he receive?

What would Maggie have made of Freddie? According to liberal thinkers here, she would have allowed him to rot and die. I can’t really speculate, because I was 14 when she was kicked out by her own cabinet, but here’s what I would have liked to see happen for Freddie.

I would have liked to have the chance to direct Freddie towards a vocational course – one that might take advantage of his charm and sociability. I would have liked to set him up with a viable educational and/or career alternative that did not make him feel terrible about himself. I would not have buoyed up his hopes with a football scholarship (he wasn’t THAT good) and I would not have allowed him to graduate from high school without mastering the art of writing a sentence.

What it boils down to is this: People who are gifted with money or brains must take responsibility for people who are not born with the gifts to better themselves. It is all well and good discussing how we should take responsibility for our choices, but the people saying these things have possibly never even met someone who has not had a fair shake from the very start of life. The obstacles they have to overcome are, in some cases, truly insurmountable. Which is why our society creates safety nets (and should consider creating a few more).

The fact that anyone deplores such nets illustrates that they are probably from a privileged upbringing. Am I wrong? Do tell.