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

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2 Things

7 10 2008

1.

On Sunday, I took Ruthie to the grocery store. Before we even got out of the car, “Green car, Mama? Can I get in the green car? They have them here. They do. I’m gonna ride in the green car.” As we walked up to Kroger, she spotted the lone green car across the parking lot. I hate those stupid car/carts because they’re breeding grounds for every kind of viral fungal bacterium that seems to stick to all children between the ages of 2 and 5 in the form of a thick crust of snot between their nose and their upper lip and often times caked all over their cheeks. Of course, my child is not prone to the snot-crust-cake because her cheeks and nose are generally chapped from the considerable amount of time I spend wiping her face off.

So anyway. She boards this ship of black grimy grundge and happily honks away on both of the horns in the car, as this is a two-seater. We head to the frozen foods aisle where I always begin my schlepping through the grocery store. As I’m debating over whether we eat enough Homestyle Eggo waffles to make it worth my while to purchase a box of 10 or a box of 25, I hear Ruthie talking to herself. “This is my special day. This is MY day. My day. It’s my day. Is it my day? It’s my day. It is.” I don’t know what she’s talking about until we get to the pizza section. It is at this moment that she turns to me and proudly declares: “THIS IS MY DREAM COME TRUE, MOMMY! IT IS!” And it is also at this moment that I realized that we have very little control over the cultural messages that our children receive in this world. My only comfort was that at least in Ruthie’s version of the fairy tale dreams come true, she was the one driving the car.

 

2.

We planted mums this weekend.





And now for something completely different…

15 04 2008

On this, my second day of Spring Break, I found myself in a situation that made me remember the very best version of myself in college. I was driving down Dean Ave with the windows down––it’s in the 50’s today in Auburn–and Jack Johnson blaring on my stereo (tracks 8 and 13 on his new album). I called one of my dearies from college who used to copilot with me on such outings that generally led to country drives way out Moore’s Mill Rd. and at least a half a pack of cigarettes on my end. Jack Johnson will always be the musical score to my Springtime.

As a result of my finally springing into Spring, I have begun my Spring shopping. For you, my friends, I have developed the Spring Enjoyment List––it might be better than the O List, but sadly, as I am an educator with a two year old, I cannot afford to give any freebies away. Instead, I will direct you to the websites where you might purchase them for yourself if you so choose.

10. Gardening gear

9. Timeless tumblers for a toddy or a sweet tea on the front porch

8. Pajama pants that you can be seen wearing in public

7. New place mats to brighten up our kitchen/dining room

6. A Corona with lime

5. A Springy wallet that doubles as a purse in Wasabi.

4. Jack Johnson: Sleep Through the Static

3. Nanette Lepore sling backs (These are still on my wish list, but they are oh-so beautiful!)

2. Votivo candle in Honeysuckle

1. New nail polish (and a pedicure to boot!)

Add to this list a brilliant novel that you’ve been putting off until you have “more time” (mine: The Amber Spyglass and The Year of Magical Thinking), a new handbag (preferably the one by Marc Jacobs that I was eyeing last weekend), and some fresh fruit, and you’re set to go.





I know what I like. I think.

2 10 2007

“It’s what you like that counts, not what you are like. Books, records, films–these things matter.” ~Rob, High Fidelity

Lately I have been trying to shed myself of my worldly identity (that is, my supposed identity that is shaped by the things that I own). This personal goal (which I will never reach) was reinforced by a piece of Pierre Bourdieu’s argument on taste which one of my professors presented to our class last week. Bourdieu basically draws our attention to the fact that everything that you think you do “in good taste” or because that’s just “how you do things” is bull shit and completely arbitrary.

Isn’t it funny how certain kinds of people do certain kinds of things in very particular kinds of ways? I think cars and music are the easiest things to classify in this way. For instance, why do so many professors drive Subarus? How did the VW bug and VW van become the choice vehicle of hippies? Clearly, luxury cars are purchased for status and minivans for convenience, but Volkswagans and Subarus cost about the same as a Ford Focus or a Toyota Camry or a Honda Accord. Blue jeans have become another kind of status symbol (which I am most certainly a consumer/victim of). So what gives?

We define ourselves and each other by our tastes. My husband’s little brother skateboards–this is something that I would have considered tasteless when I was in school. However, skateboarding is very trendy for his generation and I find myself growing proud of my limited acquaintance with the sport as this provides me with some common ground between my students and me. At the school where I work now, several of the teachers on my hall “go riding” (that is, they ride motorcycles) for fun. This is a hobby that I am familiar with only through my reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is another personality-defining cultural artifact. Blogging is another hobby that is associated with a particular kind of person (though I’m not sure I could pinpoint what kind of person this is except to say that it’s probably a similar kind of person who owns a Mac versus a PC and perhaps drinks lots of coffee).

I often get classified as a certain kind of person when people learn that I have not taken my husband’s last name. I actually had a friend from high school whose reaction was, “I always thought you would be one of those kinds of people.” I’m assuming that those people are perhaps the kind of feminists who prescribe to the notion that I have seen on my gender and lit professor’s door, which reads something like, “Each time I say something that differentiates myself from a doormat, I get called a feminist.” (I can’t remember who said that) Since I was not aiming to “come off” a certain way by keeping my maiden name, I was not wholly prepared for my friend’s comment, nor was I sure about my feelings on the matter. Perhaps what I’m getting at is the fact that there is a difference between the choices we consciously make in keeping with our orientation towards “who we are” and the choices that we make as a result of who we are, which also contribute to who we think we are upon deeper reflection.

Now I’m starting to confuse myself. All I know is that I have always been disgusted by people who see outrageous, cool things and desperately proclaim, “That is soooo ME!” Although I will grudgingly admit to thinking this to myself upon trying on a cozy pair of pants I recently purchased at Anthropologie (talk about a store that caters to our desire to be viewed as tasteful people–I feel reinvented every time I set foot in that store, even if I only buy a candle). In many ways, having a baby made me feel pressured to define myself as an individual–apart from my being a mother. I believe I am making some strides in settling into my own skin a bit with all of my new roles, despite the fact that I still buy expensive jeans and candles.

A question for you to ponder: Stripped of your things, your hobbies, your uncanny propensity for selecting the “perfect” this or that, what defines who you are? It’s complicated. It really is.





All Songs Considered

21 09 2007

For those of you who, like me, do not have time to discover new sounds, this website is TEH awesome. NPR’s All Songs Considered gives you eclectic lists of musicians new and old that may not be frequenting your air waves. It even lets you listen to a song or two from each group. Check it out this weekend if you have some time. Or, if you’re slacking at work this Friday morning, check it out now!