Sunday, January 30, 2011

gray matters

In his closing argument to the jury, To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch says that whether Tom Robinson is guilty is “as simple as black and white.” This was a quote that many students brought up in discussion recently. They liked it for the double meaning: there was Tom’s factual story and the Ewells’ made-up version; there was also Tom’s damning blackness and the Ewells’ whiteness, their only asset. My students are adept at seeing two sides of an issue. They often don’t explore the other side much, but they’re capable of citing what it is. What they’re less capable of is recognizing, and reconciling, the gray areas.

For instance, students were bursting with questions and comments the day after they learned that the story’s town drunk, Dolphus Raymond, was not a drunk at all. When he offers a sip from his brown bag to a child with a stomachache, and the child, along with my sophomore readers, learn that the contents are actually Coca-Cola, he instantly becomes complex. He “perpetrate[s] fraud against himself” because he loves and lives with a black woman and their “mixed childen”—a fact that that townspeople simply couldn’t wrap their minds around unless he was a drunk. So he gives them an excuse, and they leave him alone.

My students suddenly thought this man was fantastic. Dolphus was morally above the petty citizens of Maycomb, determined to love the woman he wants, and content to share his secret with two children. They beamed and chuckled and added positive comments under “Dolphus Raymond” on their notes.

Until Stacey had a question. “Wait a minute—what was that part earlier,” she began, as she thumbed through the pages, “about his fiance shooting herself?” Another student chimed in: “Yeah, wasn’t he having an affair with the black woman?”

“It sounds that way,” I said. Thirty-nine teenagers stared at me in silence.

Then came the confusion: Why did he get engaged to the white woman if he didn’t love her? Is that why the town doesn’t like him? Are you sure he had an affair? Maybe we misread it. How could he? But he’s so nice to the kids!

After a barrage of questions and pages flipping, they stared at me again, awaiting a simple answer. I said something about the possibility of him being flawed like the rest of us, and the sophomores seemed perturbed. No one answered my leading questions (“Can Dolphus be an admirable character without being perfect?”), and they began choosing other plot points for discussion.

A few days later, in my freshman reading class, I leaned over Abe, an English-language learner, to check his reading summary, where he’d scratched a blurb about the main character being bisexual. I was still reading when he looked up at me and whispered earnestly, “I didn’t put the g-word because I didn’t want to get in trouble.”

“The g-word?”

“Yeah. So I put ‘bisexual’ instead.”

“Do you mean ‘gay’?”


Abe is in one of my two classes who have been reminded many times not to call each other gay. I explained the difference between describing someone as gay because they are (okay) and calling someone gay as an insult (not okay). He said that he understood, and he seemed relieved to have received a whispered, good-natured explanation rather than the red-faced fury that usually arises when the so-called “g-word” comes up in class.

Abe’s sweeping application of the “don’t say ‘gay’” rule and the sophomores’ bewilderment over Dolphus’ complicated character are just two examples of the torrent of false dichotomies I witness frequently swirling about the classroom. I’ve begun wondering lately, especially amidst the reinvigorated political hype following the State of the Union address, whether our society is breeding a culture of this-or-that thinkers. In my experience, seeing complicated issues as merely black and white or right and wrong is a practice of the ignorant. In children, it’s expected, but as they grow and receive new and conflicting ideas, those stimulating shades of gray emerge. Open-mindedness means using those gray areas as starting points for discussion rather than viewing them as threatening hypotheticals.

But that’s not what’s rewarded with ratings on television or with votes on Capitol Hill.

What I see in students is a hunger for gray, with trepidation about how to approach it. For many, school will be their only opportunity for really complicated, confounding conversations; yet, school so often stifles that middle ground between two (or more) truths with its prefab curricula. Kids who try to deconstruct their teacher’s message are often ill-equipped to do so, interrupting with misinformation or being argumentative in nature. Thus, opportunities for light to be shed are lost amidst the struggle to maintain classroom order and stick to a schedule.

I’m guilty of the well-meaning promotion of either/or as well. When we read Julius Caesar this semester, I will likely pose this question at some point: betrayal is bad, but when is it good? I’ll feel smug about stretching their minds a bit—encouraging them to assign positive possibilities to a word with negative connotations. But how far will that really take them? It’s still portraying something—in the case of Caesar, killing one’s best friend—as either bad or good. Black or white.

I recently attended a lecture by the political activist and author Angela Davis. She received several audience questions at the end that sought simple answers for complicated issues. Davis ended up repeating the same message about “dwelling in the tension”—being okay in that space between two opposing forces. Wanting to close prisons doesn’t mean she has no concern for accountability of criminals, she said. Being angry at Obama over the escalation in Afghanistan doesn’t mean she no longer supports him or can’t continue to be elated about having a black President.

I thought about my students as she spoke, and I vowed to spend my last semester with them in that muddy middle ground, where things aren’t so clear and learning can be downright exhilarating.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

updates: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Back in October on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday, room 137 suffered the theft of its infamous illustrated toilet seat hall pass. Recently, a diligent young man reported a sighting (which I appreciated) but didn’t tackle the perpetrator (which I would have preferred).

Then, last week, Daniel, one of my former students who had heard of the disappointing loss, came into my room after school with a gift and a story. He and a friend had been driving and caught a glimpse of a detached hubcap on Front Street. Daniel had shouted, “Let’s get it!” (Who wouldn’t?) After procuring the filthy prize, they decided it would make a suitable replacement for my hall pass. And since it was already covered in grime, Daniel explained, it would deter students from choosing to leave my class, for they wouldn’t want to touch it. “But if they absolutely need to, they can just pick it up with a Kleenex like this,” Daniel said with a demonstration.

As a testament to poor timing, our school is moving toward a uniform hall pass system next month, with a nondescript, plastic pass for each room. My principal, who walked in toward the end of my conversation with Daniel, said that Daniel’s idea of gluing the boring plastic pass to the hubcap wouldn’t fly. So there’s really only one thing left to do: assemble a decorating committee to doodle on and bejewel the hubcap, then hang it on the wall until I retire.

November was a month of heated exchanges at New York City PTA meetings. Cathie Black, who has never worked in or studied education, took the helm as the new school chancellor. I wrote at the time about the irony of teachers being pressured under NCLB to be deemed “highly qualified” while Black, who wears $47,000 bracelets, is tasked with slashing costs in her school districts.

I wished NYC the best as Black and her deputy (who, unlike Black, did not need a waiver to serve in his position, since he has been a teacher, principal, and school founder) presumably buckled down. I read an article where she challenged the public to give her a chance, which seemed fair enough. But then she opened her fat mouth and shoved her Manolo-Blahnik-heeled foot into it.

I should point out that I’m not someone who typically gets riled up over verbal gaffes, be they by students, colleagues, pundits, or politicians. The outrage and media coverage following slips of the tongue are usually more irritating than the slip itself (which is often funny and more than a little true). Further, people make jokes within their professions that would be misunderstood by those outside, even if they were taken in context.

But when you’re in Cathie Black’s position, starting out in the red on the ledger of public opinion, you don’t assume you’re part of the fraternity that can now make “insider” jokes, and you certainly don’t arrogantly try out your humor at community meetings. Her joking response to the problem of overcrowding in classrooms was that birth control “would really help us.” My jaw dropped when I read it, and not because it wasn’t mildly amusing, but because it underscored her detachment in so many ways, not the least of which was implying that she was overwhelmed and had thought—however briefly—that her job would be easier if only there were fewer kids.

Again, as with many solecisms, her comment was true: education would be helped if we didn’t have to spread our resources so thinly. But in this economy, I doubt that any teacher less than two months into her job would venture to make such a thinly-veiled complaint. Black needs to shut up and swallow this bitter little pill . . . and leave others’ pills out of it.

November was also a month of heated exchanges in my school community when a stolen 9 mm gun was found in our building, a case still unsolved by local police. Partly as a result of three years of my nagging about the dangers of potential violence on our campus, we were two weeks away from a scheduled lockdown drill (complete with a half-hour, school-wide lesson plan) when the handgun turned up. Those of us who had worked on the drill watched in bemusement as our administration announced and reiterated countless times that “this drill has nothing to do with the gun found on our campus.”

What could be so terrible about scheduling a lockdown drill in light of recent events? Isn’t that, one of my colleagues wondered, what we call a “teachable moment”? We never received an explanation about why connecting the gun and the what-to-do-in-the-event-of-a-shooting lesson was such a bad thing, but it’s not surprising in a school and a district that has turned a blind, na├»ve eye to reality for years.

Recently, one of my colleagues interrupted a brewing fight in the hall. A student removed his sweatshirt, and a knife fell out. Warning nearby kids and alerting two other teachers on their way over, my colleague yelled, “Knife!” The kid picked up the weapon and ran, with the three teachers chasing him through the halls (over a girl) and out the building. They didn’t catch him, but they knew who he was, and those of us hearing the story that night were not surprised when we learned the name of the fugitive.

Three days later, the student strolled past me in the hallway. I learned that he had received only two days of suspension—not for the knife at school, but for running from the teachers. An administrator told me that the teacher wasn’t certain he’d seen the knife, so there wasn’t any solid proof of its existence. My BS meter pointed at red for two reasons: [1] when I heard the story from two of the teachers who pursued the kid, there was no expressed doubt about what had fallen on the floor; [2] if what had fallen was, as the kid later claimed, a skateboard tool, why would he run like hell?

My district touts a “zero tolerance” policy regarding weapons that’s been in place since 1993. I can easily explain the policy, as their application of it mirrors my own zero tolerance policy toward mushrooms: I loathe them, but if I’m at someone’s house and it’s just too inconvenient or awkward to mention my distaste for mushroom casserole, I’ll eat it. And that’s what happens in our public schools time and time again. They’re not fans of teenagers with weapons, but bad press about expulsions makes principals look bad, makes good athletes get transfers, and makes the front office frought with phone calls from worried parents. Therefore, they swallow the nasty truth and wash it down with a big gulp of denial.

So what is more terrifying: the knife or the placid response to it?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

recession means reduction...and refocus

I wanted to post here two Fridays ago, on the first Friday of 2011. My draft was entitled “This week: hell—but the kids were swell.” It was going to be, in part, about meetings I attended where we learned that next year, our jobs are in jeopardy, our salaries will certainly be slashed via some yet-to-be-determined means, and—here’s the kicker—that we’ll need to be 40% more efficient in our work (that is, despite larger student numbers and longer teaching hours, the paid time we currently have to get work done will be cut by 40%). As bizarre as it sounds, that latter piece of information made me most upset, and, as I found out later, led to tears and atypical alcohol consumption from a few of my colleagues that night.

Some may wonder how a sane educator could value the time within her job over the job itself; after all, isn’t the job teaching students? No. That’s half of the job. Before a surgeon cuts you open or a lawyer stands up to make your case, you assume they’ve taken the time to review your file and research the necessary procedural requirements. No one questions the fact that a surgeon or a lawyer has an office, because we realize that not all of their time is spent in the operating room or courtroom; their jobs require a certain amount of prep time before and after that task for which they’re most known. So it is with teaching.

I’ve written before about how much time I spend working beyond my work day, and that’s a reality for most teachers I know. And most teachers I know care deeply about students and are constantly trying to improve their knowledge and practices to better serve them. And most teachers I know are constantly trying to find a balance between professional and personal because their days don’t end when the clock does, and their weekends are rarely without a stack of work (or the guilt associated with a neglected stack of work). Thus, news that we’d be teaching more students for more hours with less time to manage it all was scary and overwhelming. How do I realistically confront these demands (because I cannot possibly give more of myself to this job if I want to keep my spouse) and still be a superb teacher for all of my students?

When I posed that question on behalf of my staff (in a genuine, non-combative tone) to my principal, his curt response was that “the public doesn’t care about your prep time.” To me, that means that the public doesn’t understand that my prep time directly correlates with how well I teach. I need time to create rigorous and relevant lessons based on state standards, time to gather and prepare the materials for those lessons, time to grade papers and give constructive feedback, time to answer parent emails, time to meet with and tutor students about academics, time to counsel and coach students about everything else, time to ask questions of my colleagues, and occasionally, time to use the restroom. These are the things that take up my prep time, so if the public doesn’t know that, we have, I said to my principal, a PR issue. He disagreed and things got uncomfortable.

That was what my post was going to be about two Fridays ago: the fact that even though it was one of the most deflating weeks in my career, filled with worry about what’s coming, a lack of support from administration, and a public that continues to grow increasingly louder about an education system that, frankly, they don’t understand . . . the students were wonderful.

I was leery about seeing them after the holiday break. I supposed that they would be skittish after two structure-free weeks; that decorum and courtesy would be largely forgotten and that I would have to start from scratch with some who’d, after a long semester, ended 2010 with me somewhat successfully. I’m not sure where I got this notion—perhaps from years past?—but I was mistaken. This school year has been a queer one for me for reasons I cannot articulate well. The best I can do is to say that it took me longer to connect with kids this year. Longer to make them laugh, to convey my respect, to know that I earned theirs. But during the first depressing week of the new year, the students were, as they should be, the best part of my job.

In my reading classes, many of my freshmen are blossoming, becoming more contented in the pages of a book, becoming braver about taking the risk of reading aloud, and becoming confident enough to hold each other accountable. My sophomores finished To Kill a Mockingbird with all the laughter, rage, sadness, and reflection that the novel inspires. And like every group of sophomores before them, they surprised me with their insights about the text, pointing out parallels and subtleties that had never occurred to me.

One afternoon, when we were discussing the hypocritical and racist character Mrs. Merriweather, I asked what information students had recorded about her on their character study sheets. Liz proudly answered, “I wrote ‘ignore a moose!’” There were several moments of silence. “Did you mean ignoramus?” I finally asked. Yes, that’s what she had meant. We all had a good laugh, and I remembered, as so many times before, how much fun this gig can be.

Veteran teachers have told me countless times in countless frustrating situations (typically those that have little to do with students but end up encroaching on my job anyway) to “just keep your head down and keep on teaching.” As a young teacher who still feels capable of and responsible for establishing change, this passive approach often irritates me. But sometimes I wonder if it’s that approach that’s necessary to becoming a seasoned veteran in this field. After all, the public won’t suddenly “get it,” and new or recycled initiatives and ideas will be forced onto our plates over and over without our say, as they have been for decades.

So what else can I do but keep on teaching? It’s not all of my job, but it’s my favorite part. And as far as reductions in time, money, and possibly my job? I’m sticking to Scarlett O’Hara’s mantra: “I won’t think about that now. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”