the twit



    to revisit myself, and perhaps shed some context on my statements in light of the tut-tut brigade. i’ve chosen to respond – and to respond at length – because the voice and content of the frustrations with my last post are common ones. in this light, their anonymous tags are all the more fitting, and it is then fortunate that they've reduced my own thoughts to the familiar battleground of conventional rhetoric and polemic, because it’s afforded me an opportunity to reflect on those position and counterpositions that will seem inescapable in the years to come – both as i form opinions, and as i translate the opinions of others.

    this first post is a monster, and i’m going to take a break now. since school is out until next tuesday due to hurricane katrina, i’ll do more reflection before time is up. feel free to write your angry or not-angry responses to what i’ve said. i’d appreciate substantive discourse, but i also welcome the chaff vacuum of the anonymous hissy-fitter or rah-rah-rah-er (as - of course - i risk the chaff vacuum with my own overdosing of overwriting).

    “…how dare you ever tell a student that they might not go to college. It is our job as teachers to ENCOURAGE students, and never to discourage them.”

    there is a fine and important line between intending to engage a student in a relationship with his or her own academic reality, and actually discouraging that student. by noting to my students that – in light of multiple attempts to assess their prior content knowledge – it seems that they have a lot of work to do if they’re going to graduate from high school (let alone survive in institutes of higher education), i’ve chosen to hover closer to that line than a warmer and cuddlier reach-for-the-stars advocate would, but – i assure you – my attitude is not intended to be one of active discouragement. rather, i’ve noticed (through the imperfect lenses of my own cultural, attitudinal, and experiential biases, yes) a couple of things:

    (1) even if these kids were on track – in a content level sense – to graduate from high school and survive in college, they’d have a lot of work to do before they got there (re: the assertion that any student is at risk – necessarily, mind you – of not attending college.) and i apologize for my tough-love attitude, but it seems that a certain level of self-awareness and self-doubt is critical to the level of internal motivation and innovation that cultivates actual success. furthermore, i’m skeptical as to how grounded a reach-for-the-stars attitude is in the process it takes to actually get to the stars; that is, i’m at a point where i can either follow these unchecked dreams up with “you can do anything, as long as you put your mind to it,” or “if you’re not putting your mind to it, you’re at a huge risk at not really doing much of anything.” these two statements are – mind you – logically indistinguishable – so if one is encouragement, so must the other be (or be allowed to be). i’ve chosen to lean towards the latter because it seems like we’ve been lost as a culture in the first half of the former conditional – the “you can do anything” – and that we’ve got a lot of people harping on the benefits of possibility, and then displacing failure out on purely external factors when they don’t become doctors and lawyers. we’ve forgotten what it means to “put your mind to it,” and it seems like we’ve got a whole lot of kids that of course understand the “doing anything part,” but have little care for being called to task on whether or not they’ve been “putting their minds to it.” sure, its totally within their powers to not put their minds to anything, but they should be reminded at some point that this isn’t a very good magnet for success. the way to remind them – of course – is not to discourage them, or to rant at their stupidity and ignorance, but to find a way to convince them to engage in invested progress. sometimes, the spark for such re-engagement is a so-called “reality check.” sometimes it’s worthwhile to remind kids what it means – from the reference point of attained proficiency, or the lack thereof – to graduate from high school, what it means to go to college, and what it means to be a doctor. they’re already well-trained enough to want these things in a distant sense, and they even know – from a distance – what it takes to approach these wants, but i’m not so sure that they’ve been called to task on how well they’ve synthesized and/or embodied their wants with their strategies of approach.

    (2) it seems there is a fair amount of understandably self-protective humor – admixed with denial – about the crippling lack of mathematical literacy present in my classes (note: i’m not writing “the crippling lack of mathematical literacy present in my classes” because i somehow don’t believe in my kids, or think that they’re unintelligent people, but because there actually is a huge lack of proficiency in mathematics present in my classroom. true, my own infancy as a teacher may skew my ability to accurately translate proficiency, but i’d venture to guess that there’s only a limited number of ways to interpret the fact that a surprising number of my kids – these are 10-12 graders that “plan” on going to college – simply don’t know how to add fractions, or plot points on coordinate axes. my issue – i’ll repeat myself before this monster post is up, i’m sure – is that i somehow have to explain to these kids that the thin motivational creed of “college” will have to be backed up at some point with whatever academically-bounded things these kids do or do not have a functional grasp of, and that if there isn’t a functional grasp of a certain area of the high school curriculum, there more or less needs to be one before they can realistically activate the “college” creed), and

    (3) there is a gigantic, gigantic operative disjoint between (i) the expressed goals of many of these students and (ii) a lived experience of those systems extending from, through, and around these goals – to such a degree that i’m uncertain as to how grounded the words “ceo,” “obgyn,” or – in days of yore – “astronaut” carry with them any realized sense of the process, function, or rigorous attainment involved – which are more or less necessary to each of these performatives. so, while of course it’s great that an individual wants to be a lawyer, and that he/she can write down the assumed/trained attitudes that follow from this cultural signifier (e.g. “i need to study hard, and get good grades, and pay attention in class”), there is still a massive gap between the successful digestion and regurgitation of a cultural ideal, and any sort of understanding that an individual may be falling short of that ideal at any moment – which is why it’s an ideal. that is, it’s relatively trivial to say that i want to be a lawyer, or say that i need to study hard and pay attention, if these ideas are neither grounded nor called to task. furthermore neither this student nor i can separate this profession of a branded, reduced cultural idea from the fact that the performed role of “lawyer” actually necessitates a certain high-level proficiency, which may or may not be being reached by this student at any point in time. this last clause, which sparked a “how dare you” from the cloud of anonymity, is something that is simply true – and i find it a bit of a disservice to students if were going to so rashly protect them from the truth of risk – which is actually nothing more than a latent championing of their own ability. saying a student might not go to college is another way of saying that he/she can go to college (both of which are ways of denying the case that a child either “will go to college” or “will not go to college”), and if he she gets there, it’s because he/she actually did something about it, and not that it’s going to be handed to him/her because he/she is smiling and hopeful.

    “I have seen children in the Delta be contacted by Harvard.”

    that this would be considered in any way a response (for reasons other than its emotional appeal) is exactly my problem. of course – in a given population – there’s probably going to be children “contacted” by harvard (whatever that means). this is not even to mention the possible story-book incentives (not bad ones, mind you) that would be added to harvard’s interest in the delta (one is just reflected above); nor the considerations of building a diverse community at harvard, or the affirmative action mindset that would precondition such contacts (they do, of course exit – which again, is more or less a good thing). this is just talking about the mere probability of a strong candidate or candidates for upper-tier higher education coming out of a given set of human beings. this is of course going to be the case; there will be harvard-caliber people. (how’s that for expectation?)

    however, when people are reaching for success stories as defense for the very system that produces this or that success, what seems to be sometimes forgotten is that the existence of a success story is predicated upon the mere fact that it is an exception to the rule. that is, we only have the concept of a success story when there is a system that fails at consistently or naturally (to approximate the term) producing success. somehow these children rose above the hardship of the delta, and made it to the big and beautiful college in the sky. rags to riches. american dream. which is both great and wonderful, and i’m sure these were brilliant, wonderful kids – and that they deserved to be contacted by harvard (on whatever conditions deserving such a thing are grounded), and that they had a good chance of being successful there or any other college of their choice (heaven forbid amherst), etc. but – and this is where the success story argument is moot – i’m not concerned with these kids, because their academic existence – though undoubtedly impressive – is improbable, not only because of the selectivity of the harvard brand, but because of the environmental conditions these kids have to work with – which is exactly why they’re called “success stories.” what i’m worried about – then – is the massive level of un-success that is more or less cultivated in these environments, and particularly these schools. forget kids getting contacted by harvard – how many kids in the delta are going to four-year colleges? how many are graduating? how many are graduating high school? how many have functional competence in mathematics? how many can add fractions? how many can read? now, the numerical answers for these questions are staggering – both as stand-alone figures, and in comparison to other areas of the country. this – of course – makes the case of the harvard delta student all the more impressive and all the more irrelevant.

    now, it actually is the case that schools in mississippi are failing – and failing miserably – to prepare students – and i’m talking about all students – to go to college, to graduate college, and to function as literate adults. (i may be young and inexperienced, but i’m not completely imperceptive.) of course, plenty of these people will end up functioning as literate adults, but i’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s a development only nominally assisted by the schools they attend – at least as systematized institutions (this is condition bars the case of those “teacher changed my life” cases). no parading of a token harvard student (remember, exceptional intelligence exists naturally in populations) can avoid this. no courtesy call from an upper tier college can somehow overshadow the fact – the mere fact – that there’s a whole class in the only IB program in the state of mississippi (i.e. the one i teach in at jim hill) that is entering algebra ii with a crippling lack of knowledge of basic algebra.

    also, (i) if the school system weren’t failing miserably (at least in the sense of having enough teachers to teach in it), my program wouldn’t exist – so, in a sense, mississippi would be “better off without [me],” in a very literal sense, (ii) if the school system weren’t failing miserably, we wouldn’t have to stretch for the most hyperbolic of success stories to defend it; we’d merely respond to such outlandish claims with the sober realization that our kids going to the public schools are learning, graduating, and succeeding – which, in all operative senses, they’re not.

    at the end of the day, i’m talking about the system of education, and how it is failing students in droves. the kids in my classes are beautiful and intelligent – they are so necessarily because they’re people. however, there seems to be a failure in how this system manages this beauty and intelligence – which is tragic and frustrating. students from the delta going to harvard should not be some shining success story, it should be simply the natural result of a healthy, consistent school system. students in these schools should be taught to reach for the stars, but they should also be called to task on how they are or are not navigating towards these goals. to fail this is to run into a quagmire of pissed-off pipe dreamers and overcompensatory diamonds in the rough.


    chalk it up to righteous indignation

    [copied - and mildly abridged/added to - from an e-mail to my "old college buddies"]

    the life of a carpetbagger is a jolly one. the boiled shrimp, the fried catfish, and things of that sort are good; the belles are nice to look at, but can't hold their salt in conversation [or haven't yet in my experience]. still singing to my cahoon for that one.

    teaching algebra ii, and one section of calculus. content knowledge ranges from dismal to minimal - some motivated kids, but a lot of those for which the ideals and methods of our traditionall curricular outlook and environmental management are far from relevant. on the bright/humorous side, it seems that a lot have dropped (or - for the girls - never picked up) the rhetorical echo of "nba star" when prompted about career goals. this has been traded for an unbroken chain of "ceo" or "lawyer" or "obgyn," though not for much of a gain. a lot of kids who are at serious risk of gaining a high school diploma are confusing the finger pointed at the moon with the moon itself; then, when you try and open a dialogue abut the fact that there's a possibility that they (or anyone, for that matter) won't go to college - or graduate from it - some intrepret this as an affront to their natural and/or infinite ability- rather than a subtle wake-up call about the amount of actual ability that is at risk of being wasted. what jackson - and the south (probably the whole country) - needs is a strong black middle class [or, from a deracialized perspetive, a rehased projection structure for opportunity awareness], and it appears that a generation of kids haven't gotten past the i-want-to-be-an-astronaut stage of conceptualizing the future. granted, i'm not sure if whiteness (or even my experience of it) is constructed any differently, but there seems to be a grander absurdity of missing-the-point in a 99.9% afro-american public school system that is (a) systematically incompetent on a myriad of levels and (b) more or less numb - perhaps in an understandibly self-protective way - to the conditions of its de facto segratory status, and the malignment of civil liberties and opportunity actualization that seem to plague these neighborhoods as a result. the football games, however, are crazy.

    in a more sitting-at-the-computer-in-my-boxers kind of news, i'm loving jackson. oxford, ms was a bit cooler - more amherstian, and better music; but jackson's a cool place with a lot of messed up things to observe and ponder. i kind of wish teaching involved less baby sitting and environment organizing, but i'm not surprized that this is the case. when you have kids sitting on stacked milk crates and overturned garbage cans because you've run out of desks, it's all you can do to stop them from eating each other. this, and many things like it, seem to stem from [matt] katz's point [in a previous e-mail] of incompetent administrators [he does tfa in st. louis]. it's very clear why teaching retention is so low. it's also very clear how quick-fix programs like TFA or the TeacherCorps seem to have questionable impact [agreably, TeacherCorps - which encourages/trains its members to stay in the educational field - is less "quick fix." however, there's only so much we-can-overcome that can get done behind the broken-record myth of "once i've closed the door in my classroom, i'm in control." honestly, it seems like the return on that control is so minimal, and while you'll get a certain gain in tear-jerking "this teaher changed my life" anecdotes, there's so many simple things that this level of civic missionary work is not approaching, like textbooks, desks, and safety - which are not impossible things to come by.] i've never fully bought into the whole changing the world one kid at a time thing, anyway. i would, however, like to change the world one useless system at a time. but i'm sure i'll get older and wiser.

    oh, i'm also helping out with the cross country team. just running with the kids and stuff. they'd never done a workout in their lives before i ran them ragged for two 600 intervals last wednesday.


    when 36 become 37.

    i promise - to both the unlikely you, and the pieces of me - that i'll write something again substantial in this space at some time. i've been doing too much of the whirlwind, i fear.

    somehow i'm in a newspaper: saving the world , like i do.

    so, my class of 36 became a class of 37; a big ole +1 after i had been stabilized at 36 when i gained one but lost one. we spent the whole period today focusing on being quiet and filling out a worksheet - agreeably, this is perhaps the educational model totally contrary to the needs of this particular set of children ("regular" alg II, as opposed to the vastly more mature IB kids), but i feel as if i need to be able to trust in the relative productivity, managablility, and stability of the environment before i can ever hope to accomplish anything with those kids in this class who choose to actively engage in it. anyway, we had 2 office referrals and 3 detentions during second block; and things seemed to be at a sustained fluidity for a good 70 of the 95 minutes. this is much better than the last two weeks (one office referral, one detention, and a voice-losing mountain of warnings for the whole period), but it's hard to be the militant flavor of disciplinarian (the kids were laughing during the beginning of the period because the tone of my voice had changed so much; they laughed their way to detention, i guess). just gotta keep adjusting, keep working towards a system that will work, and that can be flexible. but we've gotta start simple. we need to be able to achieve a space for independent practice/development.

    in other news, my IB kids - after looking at this: 1995 info about correlation between income level and degree status - seemed ready to ask some interesting questions, starting with "why don't women make as much as men?," and heading towards "why aren't there any white people at jim hill?" before we realized that we were late for lunch. after giving them a some basic info about alexander v. holmes (1970) [which ended ms's wholesale resistance to brown v. topeka (1954)], segregation academies, and white flight - i had this awful feeling that i'm the last person that should be teaching them their own history.

    damn carpetbaggery.


    all of the sand

    nowhere really to begin. at some point i hope to have enough pause to give some informational catch-up.

    suffice it to say that (a) as of today i'm an assistant cross-country coach (b) no one in my classes will sit within 4 seats of me when i take them to lunch (c) i've got a lot of things to work on.


    also: blog spam?


    blood on the sheets.

    misplaced paperwork, 3 ~1/5hr classes, and a major scheduling mess later - i'm still kickin' it.

    just had dinner with jake at a cheap/decent greek place. too tired to rummage for dinner; much too tired to think. i fear that these texts will be less analysis-heavy (a certain number of you applaud), more sparse (a certain number of you are said) as i adjust to all these new patterns. if nothing else, i hope posts to be a best of/bloopers reel from whatever i've gotten mysef into: amherst english major meets jackson public schools.

    as for today, the dreaded day 1 (soon to be followed by the dreaded days 2, 3, 4, and 5), i taught three blocks of alg II after a free block in the beginning of the day - spent mostly with the lesser demons of panic. "blocks" refer to block scheduing - in particular, AB block scheduling - wherein students take four classes on "A" days and four different classes on "B" days, which alternate on the five day classweek. i.e. today was A day, tomorrow will be B day, wednesday will be A day again, etc. also, next week's AB days will be an inversion of this weeks - going BABAB.

    my A day schedule:

    1. free
    2. Alg II
    3. IB Alg II
    4. IB Alg II

    B day:

    1. Calc
    2. IB Alg II
    3. IB Alg II
    4. free

    i had one rowdy class (block 2 - 29 students), and two relaxed ones (blocks 3 and 4 - 6 and 25, respectively). apparantly class sizes will smooth out over the next week or so. who knows.

    the rowdines wasn't so bad. i do need to tighten the screws a little bit on my management policy. perhaps it'll be more functional when we're actually doing work. the students responded quite well when i rose my hands to speak, though would dissolve into chatter at the slightest pause. understandable.

    my IB classes seem promising. the class of 6 was a dream today- no surprise. the larger class - even though they'd been through a long day of housekeeping and forms, did actually engage in my preliminary activity.

    the scheduling mess refers to block 3, which is the lunch block. (n.b. teachers in jackson public schools [JPS] have to escort their kids to the cafeteria, and sit with them. lunch comes somewhere in the middle of block 3). something was a bit off, and i had to hold my kids for 2.5 hrs. as it was a small, very relaxed group - we played logic puzzles and chatted. had i had the rowdy bunch, i may have been eaten alive.

    time to figure out a filing system.


    guillespie became gillespie, and 736B became 736E

    sufficiently moved in. finally clear on my own address. totally, totally exhausted.

    the room is ready. the kids come monday. i've been professionally developed in the past week like you wouldn't believe. also, this seems to envolve an even more reduced form of unrealized theory and underqualified reform than at mtc. that being said, my new god is "literacy across the curriculum."

    time to let down the old hair, see what jackson has to offer in terms of a saturday night.