An awkward return to blogging and some thoughts on forever

27 04 2010

(c)2010 David Parker

Okay, so I’ve taken a hiatus from my blog for, oh, I don’t know, like a year? This post for me feels about as awkward as the first post ever (which I composed nearly four years ago!). I’ve lost a bit of the feel of writing as a daily habit. I’m always telling my students that writing is like running: You can map out your course, buy new running shoes, read about running, watch other people run, but the only way to become a runner is to start running. One foot in front of the other. So here I am, one word after another, writing again for the first time in what feels like forever. I’m sure that I’ll be sore tomorrow.

So where have I been and what I have I been doing? Well, for starters, I’m divorced. That might be a bit of an overshare (awkward!), but I think that my hiatus was largely due to the fact that I felt inappropriate writing about the divorce as I was living through it and in the wake of it. I’m a very big fan of honesty, and divorce is fairly consuming, so I couldn’t really find much to write about honestly.

Getting divorced is strange because when you get married, people tell you “Oh, you should be really sure about this because marriage is forever.” But then, when you get divorced, they say (with their voices dropped so as to indicate the seriousness of the thing), “Oh, are you sure about this? Because divorce is forever.” The finality of divorce felt really good to me. Like, okay, this really is forever. But then I was talking to my friend on the phone a few months ago and she was telling me about her divorced friend who just re-married the man she divorced. This was terribly unsettling to me. I mean, if divorce isn’t final, what is?

In my family, we call the last drink of the evening the final-final. Of course, you can have more than one final-final (and we typically do). And so, in the same way that the finality of divorce was comforting to me six months ago, I’ve come around to taking comfort in the idea that maybe nothing has to be final (or even final-final). There is a lot of freedom in the belief that I can always change my mind. I don’t have to be wedded to any dreams of what my future life will look like or any convictions I may hold now about how the world works.

All of this being said, I feel like I need to be very clear about something here: I do still believe in marriage and I do believe in forever. Two of my very dear friends got married this year and I believe that they have met their for-real final-finals. I also know lots of people who’ve been married for a long time who would say (and I would agree) that they’ve met their for-real final-finals. I find that there is a lot of comfort in believing (in anything) and there is a great deal of freedom in allowing myself to change my beliefs as I grow older and learn more about who I am and the world that I live in.

So, there it is, my awkward over-sharing return to the world of writing on the internet. I am still wandering through life with both hands full of Ruthie, my precocious four-year-old; cynical ninth grade students who don’t want to write, but are impressed when they manage to try; books I’ve been meaning to read; and bags of groceries that tend to burst wide open in really inconvenient places. It’s good to be back.





Super Fruity

31 05 2009

grocery shopping

Fruit selection is not my strong point when it comes to grocery shopping. Bananas especially stress me out. I feel like they’re always either all green or beginning to turn brown, and I can never gauge how long it will take for my bananas to spoil, which attracts those annoying hovering fruit flies that take me days to get rid of. I see these people at the grocery store who can just walk up to a bunch of bananas and stick them in their carts with a sneer of confidence on their faces, like ha! how bout these bananas, bitch! It takes me a good two to three minutes to figure out which bananas will work for me. Sometimes, when I notice a person who takes the time to sniff and kind of squeeze peaches or lemons or whatever, I’ll go behind them, careful not to pick up the ones that they put back. All of my own sniffing, squeezing, and general fruit fondling leaves me feeling kind of pervy and ridiculous since my own fruit selection is completely arbitrary. Aside from, you know, avoiding apples with severe bruising, I just pick the prettiest ones. The trickiest part about fruit selection is that they trick you with their tricky fruit and vegetable lighting that enhances the greens and oranges and yellows to make them look all luscious until you get them home. And then there’s the worst trick of all: the strawberries that are moldy on the inside of the crate, but all red and smelly-good (as Ruthie would say) on the outside. That fuzzy stuff totally gives me the creeps. I wind up double bagging it and taking it out to the garbage. Sick. 

Ruthie loves fruit, so I usually wind up making several trips to the grocery store each week just for fruit. Yesterday I was doing my little banana routine (analyze the entire selection, pick one up, turn it over, put it back, reach for one then change my mind, rip three off of a group of five, put those back, finally grab some random bunch of three or four and walk off in a huff), when it struck me how much parenting is like picking out fruit. No matter how much I know about it, no matter how many times I see people do it, I find myself doing with Ruthie what I so often do with the bananas and all of my arbitrary fruit selection in general. You can’t ever be prepared for what you’re going to have to deal with, and whatever it is that you’re going to do, however you’re going to handle it, you can’t take more than a few seconds to make up your mind or all hell breaks loose. And the most difficult things to handle are usually the simplest. Topics like death or illness or male/female genitalia or basic hygene or, I don’t know, body image can leave you so dumbfounded that you wind up explaining something with the pitiful refrain that left you insatiable as a small child as well: “because that’s the way it is.” This phrase is the equivalent of my huffy grab at a random bunch of bananas because I’m sick of trying to figure out which ones will last longest and taste best. Why does Sam tee-tee standing up? Because he has a penis. Why? Because he’s a boy. Why is he a boy? Because he is! And there you are, with your bunch of green bananas that will never ripen in time for you to eat them in one hand, and your toddler in the grocery cart mulling over the word penis, which will probably have to be explained to her again once you get home at about the same time you realize that you just bought a bad bunch of bananas AGAIN.





Undoing Unteaching of “Those Kids”

9 04 2009

I’ve been meaning to post a link to this article that really every educator, and every person whose tax dollars go into public education, should read. During my tenure as a teacher in a rural community where 12% of the adult population has a college degree and just over 65% have a high school degree (data taken from census.gov), I have often felt misunderstood by my colleagues and my peers. In this article, Kylene Beers, the president of NCTE, brilliantly (and succinctly) captures the cultural beliefs governing so many “underachieving” schools. The tricky thing about cultural beliefs, those because it is beliefs, is that they are usually taken for granted and thereby invisible. Beers stares down some pretty damning evidence of the kind of deficit thinking that has tainted the public educational system since its inception in the mid-1800s, when Horace Mann and his contemporary cronies established public education as a means of educating the poor. Please, please, please take a moment to read this. It’s short (only 4 pages), and it will rawk your brain!

The Genteel Unteaching of America’s Poor





Something Missing

6 12 2008

"Schoolhouse on the Hill" by Diana Dignonis

 

Lately, I have felt ambushed. As a public educator, I am unesteemed in the world of the Academie, I am held hostage by standards that do not measure understanding, I am stretched across achievement gaps, I am passionate, I am outraged, I am desperate for social justice in my classroom, in the communities where I work and live. I am longing for a rhetoric about education that is not caustic, accusing, and defensive. I am frustrated, but not hopeless. 

A few months ago, I attended a cocktail party at the University. A Research Fellow, who had helped himself to a few drinks by the time of my arrival, had some suggestions for me as a public educator. “If you could just get these kids to write a sent-ence,” he spat. “You know, a subject, a verb, and a DOT on the end. I mean, a simple sentence. I mean, how hard could it be?” I was the only teacher at this gathering, and this sneering (supposed) intellectual’s remarks did not make me feel any less alien. Unfortunately, this is only one example of my instances where I have been on the receiving end of feedback like this about my professional field all the time. Teachers are criticized by everyone: parents, students, administrators, politicians, mechanics, engineers, researchers, doctors, lawyers, husbands and wives. The quality these critiques share is the smug arrogance of their delivery. I suppose that since nearly everyone has been a student at some time or another, the general public feels as though they have enough knowledge of the field to believe that they are themselves experts. 

And we are teaching their children. John Taylor Gatto, New York’s Teacher of the Year, says that we (schools) “adopt” students, we are “entrusted” to take on a parenting role for other people’s children. Passion does often override reason, especially when it comes to parenting. When parents argue with me about the way that my classroom operates, I try to remember the many occasions when I have (tentatively) argued with my child’s doctor over a diagnosis, informed by my feverish midnight reading of Web M.D. 

Despite my (attempted) understanding, I can’t help but yearn for a time when educators might be treated as professional experts in their field. The mountains of meaningless paperwork alone is insulting, but the even worse are the public’s unsolicited knee-jerk reactions to the educational system and the complex dilemmas, issues, problems it faces. Everyone thinks s/he’s got the answer. Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. There is a wide range of possibilities for improving the complex and diverse set of problems with education. 

So where to begin?

Last week, I stumbled across this reading for the Composition class I’ve been taking this fall. In 1996, Mike Rose wrote “What We Talk about When We Talk about School.” You can find this article in the September 25, 1996 edition of Education Week. After a heated “conversation” about education around the Thanksgiving dinner table that left me reeling, I was relieved to read Rose’s perspectives on the issue(s) facing public education and the rhetoric we use to discuss them. 

For three years in the early  90s, Mike Rose travelled across the country, visiting successful public school classrooms in an attempt to “fashion a response to the national discussion about public schools, a discussion that, [Rose] believed, had gone terribly wrong.” He analyzes the rhetoric of the conversation about public education, which he describes as being “flooded… with alarms and bad news, with crisis talk and prescriptions for remedy.” 

When asked about standardized test scores and school failures, he admits the problems with public education, but he also recognizes “the problem with assessing our schools through a few reductive or inaccurate measures.” Ultimately, he claims that “we need to think in richer ways about what we want from our schools.” Of course, he was received with “vehemence,” a response that he describes as “angry, disbelieving, assured and articulate, and terribly upset.”

What follows is his vision of “what’s missing” in our thinking about schools, schooling, and what we can expect from public education:

It is, of course, legitimate to worry about the relation between education and teh economy, and national and state goals, frameworks, and standards can play a role in improving the quality of schooling. But there is something missing here.

As I sat in those good classrooms in Los Angeles and Chicago, Missoula and Tucson, Wheelwright, Ky., and Indianola, Miss., a richer vocabulary of schooling began to shape itself. To be sure, there was concern about the economy and attempts to prepare students for it. But I also heard talk of safety and respect. A commitment to create sage public space and a respectful regard for the backgrounds and capabilities of the people in it. I saw the effect of high expectations: teachers taking students seriously as intellectual and social beings. I saw what happens when teachers distribute responsibility through a classroom, create opportunities for students to venture opinion, follow a hunch, make something new. I saw the power of bringing students together around common problems and projects – the intellectual and social energy that resulted, creating vital public space. And I saw what happens to young people, 1st graders through 12th, when they come to feel that those who represent an institution have their best interests at heart.

Safety, respect, expectation, opportunity, vitality, the intersection of heart and mind, the creation of civic space – this should be our public vocabulary of schooling – for that fact, of a number of our public institutions. By virtue of our citizenship in an democratic state, we are more than economic and corporate beings. 

If we are a nation divided, we are also a nation yearning for new ways to frame old issues, for a fresh language of civic life. The last year [spent “documenting excellence” in American classrooms for his book Possible Lives] has deepened my belief in the strength of this yearning. To generate this language for public education, we need to move a bit from the boardroom and the athletic field and closer to the good classroom – that miniature civic space – to find a more compelling language of school reform and of public education in a democracy.

I can’t imagine that many people would disagree with Rose’s depiction of public education in a democracy. I can’t imagine a parent who wouldn’t want her child in a classroom like the ones Rose documented. What is perhaps the most frustrating piece to this puzzling puzzle is that we all, everyone–rich, poor, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, American– we all want this for our children. And we want it so badly, and so desperately, that we have to cling to oversimplified solutions in order to believe the possibility of “the good classroom.” Unfortunately, the solution is not singular and it is not simple. 

Frustrated with public education in America? Your name is Legion. For God’s sake, please have a bit of compassion on those of us who are sweating it out on the front lines. Just like our students, we need patience, understanding, open-mindedness, and support. 

If you’re interested in reading more of Mike Rose’s stuff, check out his blog

Antique School House Room Box & Antique Bisque Dolls, circa 1900