Why not...

My last of twenty-seven years in the secondary classroom, my baby just now in college, a government and economy looking like something out of Duck Soup, a pituitary tumor, chronic migraines... Hell, why not write a blog?

(My students are now gone. I'm now a civilian and really no longer a "lame duck." I hope the readers of Mama Duck will come to my new blog for some new writing and new directions. My new blog is at: Writing Isle to Isle.)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Happy Talk

I’ve never liked being on script, unless, of course, I’m in a play. So today when our principal required staff members to go around the room and recite what they found “positive” about “Smart Tuesday,” I looked for a cue from the wings. I drifted momentarily into a faux South Pacific set where my principal morphed into Bloody Mary. She hustled potions, grass skirts and attempted to pimp us—the women in the room (suddenly nubile Tonkinese beauties)--willingly to handsome lieutenants. Was Bloody Mary leading us in “Happy Talk?” My fingers damn near started to mimic two talking birds of paradise, clicking much like something you’d see in the Tiki Room. Would we break into an over-produced choral number where we as a staff sang 
“You gotta have a dream,

if you don't have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?”

I snapped out of it. But Bloody Mary was still there glaring at me, awaiting a regurgitated statement similar to those previously offered from some of my colleagues: “It was nice to work one-on-one with some of the students.” “I had large numbers show up to make up work.” Shit. I hate this type of coercion.

I took a breath. “Well,” I started, “I had about six students come who were all from the same class, the result of how our scheduling and tracking seems to work.” Bloody Mary frowned. “None of them had done the same assignment, so I had them all work on one which was essential for skills needed to go on. I tried to work with them individually.” My voice was programmatic and edgy as hell. “I also had students come in to study who said they just needed a quiet place to study. I didn’t get to help them.” She moved on, grunting as she kept herself cool with a palm frond. Not amused.

Bloody Mary squeezed as much sweet nectar from the “Happy Talk” portion of the meeting as she could. But then clouds gathered around Bali Ha’i. No more “Happy Talk.”

“CUT! CUT!” A director bellows! “This is entirely off script!” But it’s too late. She had to listen to what didn’t work. At one point Bloody Mary actually “shhh’d” my husband when he countered a point about student sign-in sheets, to which she caught herself, and immediately apologized. She actually “shhh’d” a thirty-year veteran teacher with an outstanding reputation as an educator. He hadn’t been disrespectful. He’d just disagreed. And he had too obviously been right. She a few sentences later admitted as much.

Nobody expected the new program to work perfectly. And this isn’t a case of schadenfreude. But the entire scene would have been much better (or even prevented) had teachers been genuinely included from the beginning. And, are we going to fix the problems brought up in our discussion by the next “Smart Tuesday?”

No…just “Happy talk, keep talking happy talk,
Talk about things you'd like to do
You gotta have a dream,
if you don't have a dream,
How you gonna have a dream come true?”

Saturday, October 22, 2011

"You're either on the bus...or off the bus."—Tom Wolfe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test's Approach to Including Teachers in Decisions

It’s a common story in public education really. Administration goes to some kind of conference and tastes some tasty Kool-aid handed out in small flowered cups from some other administrators working the upward ladder. Needing a program, those sipping the refreshing small Dixies of information come back to their respective school districts with all the revelation of Tom Wolfe’s pranksters and laud the mind-expanding possibilities of said program. Oh, God, “if only you mere teachers, who’ve not sipped out of those cups could see the possibilities the way we do,” they say. The principals’ eyes are wide and dilated. They speak in new acronyms. The program will be a perfect fit for our school! Even though we don't have the details down, and even though the schools that have implemented the plan are nothing like our school, it will be like...like (breathlessly delivered here) "a cross between  Fernand Leger and Dr. Strange, roaring together and vibrating off each other as if somebody had given Hieronymous Bosch fifty buckets of day-glo paint and a 1939 International Harvester school bus and told him to go to it." (Tom Wolfe, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) The principal (I’ll refer to her as the chief from here on) damn near passes out with all of the beginning-of-the-year enthusiasm—some of it real and some of it just thespian mirage.

Christ, if we could just expand our simple teacher minds to see their possibilities. Maybe the chief should just distribute blotters of LSD at the library door before the meeting, and we’d climb on board. The younger teachers and new teachers are working very hard to see nothing but possibilities. They’re not going to need to place any little cartoon character on their tongues. The older teachers, the master teachers are skeptics by nature. That’s where you need to hand out the LSD first.

But of course, we’re educators, and like any group of teachers at the beginning of the year—with only one paid day to prepare everything—it’s hard to take any of this breathless prattle from the chief very seriously. A giddy chief with no logistical plan—to that we groan and roll our eyes. “How is this going to work?” somebody asks. And with eyes still dilated in enthusiasm, the chief spreads her fingers out in front of her as if to spread magical fairy dust upon the staff and happily replies “I want you to figure out how we’re going to do it.” Then she uses a new acronym she learned from her friends on the merry prankster bus ride back from the conference. We sit like dumb prisoners chained to a wall, heads all facing her, some strange shadow of reality—confused by the new shape in front of us. “Your departments,” she finally clarifies. Now, those with the lowest thresholds for bullshit are clearly not “on the bus.” Sighs and huffs are audible.

But, skeptics and optimists alike, for the next several weeks we take the sprinkles of fairy dust, mix it with clay and common sense and come up with a viable intervention plan. It’s not perfect. It’s easier to follow. Instead of a Hieronymous Bosch we offer up an Edgar Degas. We took the chief’s instructions, “got on the bus,” and fetched up a program that would work better for kids and teachers. We thought for ourselves and used our own creativity. We spent our own time working on the plan. We presented it up to a supportive staff. Isn’t that being “on the bus?” We learned this week, er….fuck no.

Evidently being “on the bus” is driving it hell-bent down hill without brakes just like the pranksters did in The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. We’re using the chief’s plan, conceived in some cosmic collusion between a top-down mandate from central office and some notion of principal autonomy. Being “on the bus” is conformity to the wishes of those driving the bus I learned.

(I suppose that’s why I always had problems with Wolfe’s book. I kept thinking, aren’t they just conforming to nonconformity? Okay, that and the fact that I hadn’t dropped acid. I could be a poor critic.)

So next week, we’re driving the bus into the land of “Smart Tuesday.” Students will get to “do their own thing” and join us “intrepid travelers” with the goal of taking their academic skills “FURTHUR.” Perhaps there will be Kool-aid at break so we all see the cosmos fly by in day glo crazy colors as we ride the brakeless bus to the bottom of the ravine.

“It's like a boulder rolling down a hill - you can watch it and talk about it and scream and say Shit! but you can't stop it. It's just a question of where it's going to go.”—Tom Wolfe (Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Why the ukulele, you ask?

I had thought it Kona’s magic
The gecko
And lifting my small singing token,
from burnt rock salt splashes
With closed eyes
I could be there for a moment.

I now have the answer
The echo
Bouncing from my empty left atrium
where my daughter’s laughter erupts
like unstoppable lava.

For to hear her giggling
like happy uke chords
and cackle with her father
over a viral video they are watching--
C, F and G7 chords.

And now, my ukulele
strums that voice
that only a banjo could rival.

Friday, October 14, 2011

'Smart' Tuesday Genesis


How Shit Happens

In the beginning was the plan…
And then came the assumptions
And the assumptions were without form
And the plan was completely without substance
And the darkness was upon the face of the Employees
And they spoke amongst themselves, saying:
“It is a crock of shit and it stinks”
And the Employees went unto their Supervisors, saying:
“It is a pail of dung and none may abide the odor thereof”
And the Supervisors went unto their Managers saying:
“It is a container of excrement and it is very strong such that none may abide by it.”
And the Managers went unto the General Manager, saying:
“It is a vessel of fertilizer and none may abide its strength”
And the General Manager went unto the Chief Executive Officer saying:
“It contains that which aids plant growth and it is very strong”
And the Chief Executive Officer went unto the Chairman saying:
“It promotes growth and is very powerful”
And the Chairman went unto the Board of Directors, saying:
“This new plan will actively promote the growth and efficiency of this organization and these areas in particular”
And the Board of Directors looked upon the plan and saw that it was good
And the plan became policy.
This is how shit happens.

--from Hank Warren’s It Simply Must be Said: A View of American Education from the Trenches of Teaching

I’ve been thinking about how this applies to the new clusterf#*k Lickspittle High is embarking upon called “Smart Tuesday.” I’m thinking it goes like this:

Smart Tuesday Genesis

In the beginning Lady Lickspittle created “Smart Tuesday.”
And it was without form.
And the spirit of confusion hovered over the faces of the staff.
And they spake of their confusion and asked for form.
And then Lady Lickspittle said, “Let there be form,”
And bade us “get into thy PLCs and so create form.”
And as Lady Lickspittle called the night Day, and the day Night, we divided like the firmament from the earth and waters into what we discovered
were really our departments.
And the departments gathered amongst their own for the entirety of the next moon,
Thinking they with dominion over pedagogical expertise
And with a genuine desire to create a workable intervention program
Might offer fruitful and intelligent design to Lady Lickspittle’s
Yet formless “Smart Tuesday.”
And she nodded, for seeing them working was very good.

And because the mornings of the fourth day would provide for more
Curricular continuity, the staff offered the idea of
“Smart Thursdays” instead
And for these there was form
And for these there was consistency
And for these there was intervention
And for these there was teacher buy-in.

But Lady Lickspittle said
“On the educational system tree fruits hang high and low,
but the apples of decisions, staff shall not pluck nor eat,
No, no!”

And the staff blinked mystified when
Lady Lickspittle sent her messenger
The assistant principal to apprise the staff
of their mistake
and that “Smart Tuesday”
regardless of thorns and thistles and
lack of form
is created in Her image
and as such
shall not be questioned.
And shall commence without such form
on October 25th.

And a flood of students shall
wander campus on that day
and for at least three Tuesdays thereafter.
And they shall wander without direction
and will not be paired by real learning needs in any
meaningful way with staff.

And the staff looked at the situation and said,
“this is not good.”

Monday, October 10, 2011

A new generation takes to the streets...

I don't know if other parents take comfort by grabbing their cell phones and finding pictures of protests with an attached message like "at Occupy _______, mom," but I do. I find great comfort in knowing that my daughter is a part of something important. And I find great comfort in knowing that a new generation is taking on the responsibility of shaking us all out of our stupors (as is evident by the cross-generational composition of this crowd). And here we thought they were just watching Jersey Shore.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Homecoming, Class Warfare, and Privatizing Lickspittle High

I don’t know what you see when you drive up to your job on a Monday morning, but here’s what I saw this week as I drove up to my usual parking spot: a posse of toothless, camouflage-capped, flanneled teenage boys doing their damnedest to emulate the bad guys out of Deliverance. Not only had they dressed like those rural river bullies, but also they stormed the quad brandishing a confederate flag the size of a whitewater raft. I put my aching head on the steering wheel. Fucking Homecoming Week.

I took my bags to my door and started to unlock it. A sweet girl came bopping up in a straw hat, freckles painted on. “Hi! Ms. __________,” she chirped. “Are you going to be a hick today?” I laughed and said “Today and every day.” I escaped into my room. What fresh hell do we have this week? I checked the schedule. Okay…
Every day we have an altered schedule. Every day we lose class time to activities. I added up the minutes. 200 minutes this week out of instruction. Why can’t Johnny read indeed?

Monday.     Hick Day (Well that explains a lot.)
Tuesday.     Pink Day (To raise awareness for breast cancer.) How cool is that? Wow!
Wednesday.     Good and Evil Day (Could be fun.)
Thursday.     Class Struggle Day Wait a minute! Did I just read that? Do they mean freshmen sophomores, juniors, and seniors? Or are we talking social classes?

I went into the office for clarification. Is Thursday really to be interpreted as social class? “Yes, can you believe it?” the administrative assistant responded. She shook her head in disbelief and disgust.
“So this really means social classes?” I still couldn’t believe it. Surely there had to be
a mistake. After all, we’re a liberal high school in a liberal, progressive community. We have an Amnesty International chapter and a Gay Straight Alliance for Christ’s sakes! I looked around for an administrator to talk to, but of course, there were none. Both were out of the office at the same time, again. I went back to my room in a huff.

I sat at my desk and tried to think rationally. I knew the kids at the helm of the Associated Student Body. These are great kids. Some of the best student leaders we’ve had in years. These are culturally sensitive, thoughtful students. What had caused them to come up with such a plan? And then it dawned on me. Their theme for the homecoming dance was Titanic (the film). Rich girl meets poor boy and their love lasts forever—or at least until the boat sinks. A ‘first class v. steerage’ kind of theme. Thursday must have been some kind of way to advertise for their dance.

The kids were right to pick up on class struggle associated with the Titanic disaster. After all, if you were wealthy and a woman in first class, you almost certainly survived the disaster. So too did your children. But if you were a mother in steerage, the chances that your child got into one of those lifeboats was less than one in three. And that went for men as well. Fifty-five of the 174 first class male passengers survived. But of 440 men in steerage, only 59 got onto lifeboats. Demographics of the Passengers on the Titanic

That should ring familiar given our current socio-economic structure. Our public education lifeboats have been and continue to be deflated so fewer and fewer of those in steerage can climb aboard. Only those with the ability to afford a first-class education, even in our land grant colleges, are promised the cold, dark ride to something better. And as we know from watching Occupy Wall Street http://occupywallst.org (okay not on mainstream media…they’re too busy sniffing faux asses like Palin’s big no duh report that she’s not running—no shit), kids who went to those land grant colleges are now standing with diplomas in one hand and 70K worth of bank notes in the other. And all in an economy dismantled by those who got to ride in a Rolls-Royce Phantom, sip Perrier-Jouet Champagne, and then step into a bailout raft while the rest of us were playing "Nearer My God To Thee."

But I digress…

Back to the kids and teaching, yada yada yada….

I had about 10 minutes before the students came into class and decided the whole thing needed to be solved by them. After all, they’d just had a hands-on lesson about power and influence when a wealthy member of our community had single handedly pressed Lord Lickspittle (our superintendent) to change the date of the homecoming dance because it conflicted with Yom Kippur. This all occurring a week and a half prior to the dance. Oh, yes, I suppose this is a subplot worth telling.

Context is everything, as I always tell my students, and the context to this story is one of a school district in the throes of financial despair saved by a supportive suburban community. Follow the trajectory of events boys and girls. This is truly a lesson in trickle down economics:

1.     Large moneyed interests got scores of deregulatory measures passed in the late 1990s and 2000s. Among these was Clinton and his cohorts getting rid of part of that pesky Glass-Steagall Act from 1933, making it hence okay for commercial banks and investment firms to have nearly unfettered love sandwiches.
2.     Wall Street taps sweet, seductive derivatives, and credit default swaps in the US alone in 2008 were worth about 58 trillion. But of course, that wasn’t backed up by anything but Monopoly money, so when the entire thing tumbled, the only institution big enough to bail out the banks that the government allowed to get too big to fail was, the government.
3.     Economic recession ensues. Political parties bicker, and stimulus packages are passed, but not enough is done to jump-start the economy, especially when one party’s main goal is not to renew the economy but to bring down the president.
4.     States’ coffers dwindle. Federal revenues to states drop. States facing their own revenue shortfalls cut state employees, state programs and their state employees’ pensions.
5.     Washington State, with $5 billion short for the 2011-13 budget cut damn near half of that from education, including a 1.9 pay cut for staff and educational support personnel.
6.     Our local district finds itself short almost three-quarters of a million dollars and scrambles to keep programs running. Seeing public sources gone, the superintendent turns for the second year in a row to private sources to run the local district. And, in all fairness, while I have many differences with the man over how our schools are run, were I to own a car dealership, he’d be the first guy I’d hire for sales.
7.     A supportive and affluent local community that cares about its public schools rallies together to raise the needed funds to make up at least a half million of the district’s shortfall. Tireless volunteers find donors, both large and small, to keep our schools and programs afloat. It really would take a damn mean dog to bark about that.

Well, Woof! Woof!

As the great and unfortunately late Molly Ivins used to say, “You got to dance with them what brung you.” And if there’s one thing superintendent Lord Lickspittle can do it’s dance.

And of all the policies we have in our district—and we even have one where we’re not supposed to help students one-on-one in our classrooms unless somebody actually can visually see us helping them—you can’t make this stuff up—the one policy in absentia is scheduling extra curricular activities with religious holidays in mind. And let me state for the record that I think there should be such a policy. Were I Jewish, I would be highly insulted if my child had to choose between spending time with her family during such an important and sacred holiday and attending a school event. I, too, would have been calling the school and demanding to know why we didn’t have a policy that was more inclusive of all religions.

But here’s the rub. I would hope I would support a change in policy, not just a change for my own religion. And, I know Lord Lickspittle wouldn’t listen to me because I’m not a big enough donor. And this little tap dance of Lickspittle’s—a last minute shifting of the Homecoming dance to the weekend prior to homecoming--was just one more example of pay-to-play politics in our district.

Right now in our high school, because of the cuts, we have huge class sizes. One of our college preparation senior English classes has 35 kids in it, so many students that they’re sitting on the drama make-up tables in the back. In contrast, because of a group of parents with money and a penchant for curriculum choreography who wanted to ensure their students would get special attention from a retired debate coach, they gave Lickspittle money for the debate program to ensure its survival during cuts. The caveat for the money was that the retired coach had to be rehired for that one class. We’ll call the debate coach the Grand Poobah. He’s truly a nationally recognized debate coach—amazing debate coach, but the guy gave up on teaching anything else a long time ago.

Now, because the principal has admitted that coach has no interest in teaching the younger kids in the room, she has a problem. To get the money for the program, Lord Lickspittle says she has to have him back. So she put two teachers in that classroom—two teachers teaching 26 kids. She’s calling it a “transition year.” Train the new guy. I kid you not! Nowhere in our staffing do we have this kind of luxury.

Obviously the second teacher shadowing the Grand Poobah would be better used to teach another section of English. I can tell you with certainty that none of us get to choose not to teach half of our classes. That’s repugnant, unethical, and cause for dismissal. But, our system has allowed a group of parents to carve out a specialty, privately funded class within our public high school. We’ve become so ravenous for cash that we look the other way when it negatively impacts the rest of the school or it violates basic educational ethics.

My husband challenged both Lord and Lady Lickspittle (our principal) on this arrangement. They scheduled a meeting with my husband; they listened to him, and then implored to know what he’d do next with his information and concerns. He said he wouldn’t go to the press but that it wouldn’t take much for the story to emerge from other sources. I told him I never made any such promises. And I was utterly disgusted with the arrangement. An arrangement that provides a more quality education within our public schools for children of wealthy patrons at the expense of the students sitting in those larger classes, many of whom come from families whose parents didn’t have the same capacity to donate. Class struggle? You God damn right!

So back to the kids coming into my room…to the teachable moment…to letting them solve the problem, if in fact they’d see it as a problem. We’d been talking about media and framing, so how the wording of what they were trying to convey was important. We’d studied Frank Luntz. I showed them this film. I asked them simply, would students end up dressing like these people? And if so, how did they feel about that? Poverty in America

The discussion was thoughtful, kind, and students decided that since it was intended to convey the theme of the film Titanic for the dance (a dance which admittedly was by then over since it had been moved to the weekend prior to homecoming week), that perhaps reinforcing the idea of First Class and Steerage would be more appropriate. Student government kids clarified that Thursday was to be a day to dress like they did in the film Titanic. On Thursday, students seem to have followed their advice. One small victory in the day in the life of a teacher during homecoming.

Going one step further to talk about rural poverty and the stereotyping of the rural poor on “hick day”…I’ll leave that for another day.