Monday, June 30, 2008

Running With Scissors

I just finished reading Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, which was both riveting and frightening. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your perspective), I couldn't help thinking anything besides this is how some of my students live.

They come from broken homes where alcoholism and unstable parents are the norm. Like Augusten, they move around constantly and may end up living with someone who's not even a relative. Worse yet, I've seen some of the places my students lived (to call them "houses" would be an insult to housing), and imagine them to be just like Dr. Finch's place on the inside: filthy, vermin-infested, and falling apart.

When Augusten and Natalie rip a hole in the roof to install a makeshift skylight and Dr. Finch declares that it gives the room a "sense of humor," I'm reminded of the parents who not only couldn't but actively chose not to discipline their children. Their kids run wild, and then come to school and expect to do the same thing.

When 13-year-old Augusten is raped by his 33-year-old friend Neil Bookman, only to engage in a dysfunctional long-term relationship with him, I'm reminded of how many of my students have described experiencing pretty much the same thing.

"How could she expect me to think about school at a time like this? Furthermore, if I had just stayed in school, look what I would have missed," Augusten muses, and I can't disagree with him. "Why listen to a teacher talk about how many quarters Nancy needs to buy six apples if they are four and a half cents each..." when he has this much excitement and entertainment to deal with? This is the mindset of so many students, it's not even funny.

I guess my refusal to stop thinking about school kind of ruined this book for me. It was a terrible memoir--but a fantastic horror novel.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Teacher Health Paradox

I don't like not working. Thankfully, I start summer school in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime, I don't know what to do with myself. What's worse is that I'm faced with what I call the Teacher Health Paradox.

During the school year, I eat a light, cheap breakfast, usually on the go. Last year I got hooked on these oatmeal bars which were low in calories, high in fiber, and roughly $0.50 each. During the day, there's no snacking of course, and I eat a small lunch in less than 30 minutes (if I eat at all). There's usually no time or opportunity to leave campus to get lunch, so if I don't bring something from home, that's it. At the same time, when I get home I'm too exhausted to exercise.

Whenever I'm not working, I fully indulge in the freedom I have. "I never get to eat out! I will go out for breakfast! I never get to eat out! I will go out for lunch!" Before I know it, my wallet is empty and my stomach is aching. However, I do exercise more because I get a higher quality sleep more often and have tons of free time.

So I must ask: how many of you go through this? And which scenario is better?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Tribute: George Carlin on Education

This is completely NSFW, and if you don't know why, please go out and buy Back in Town or What Am I Doing in New Jersey?. Then you'll know.

Turning Teen Pregnancy into Low-Rent Political Theater

Recently the principal of Gloucester High School in Gloucester, MA made national headlines when he told Time magazine that 17 girls at his school had made a "pregnancy pact"--in other words, they had agreed ahead of time to get pregnant and raise their babies together. The media has been all over this story, but for all the wrong reasons.

What should be a story about an important issue facing our children has become little more than a tabloid shocker and low-rent political theater. Instead of discussing the issue, the media is focusing on the "controversial" statements by the principal, and the local government's swift and suspiciously fierce moves to respond (the mayor is adamant that there was no pact, as if that makes this all better). Some Gloucester High students and graduates have even started a Facebook group to vent their frustrations, some more constructively than others. No one is asking, "What does it mean? What does it say about our community and our school?"

Where's the critical assessment of the district's sex ed curriculum? Only The Phoenix seems to be willing to even approach these kinds of questions. Are these students taught about the economics of raising children, or any basic financial education? The answer in most states is no. What does the school district plan to do to help and support these girls and keep them from dropping out? I haven't heard any answer on that.

I'm shocked, but shocked about the focus of the media coverage and political maneuvering, not that high school girls got pregnant. In the Rio Grande Valley, where I taught for five years, this was a reality we dealt with on a daily basis. In one middle school, a friend of mine had a 7th grade student who was actively and openly trying to get pregnant. Mom knew, but was nonetheless clueless and powerless to do anything about it.

I learned very quickly that for the most part there was no stigma attached to getting pregnant and dropping out of school. Some adults would tell my young female students that they had no place in school anyway--women are supposed to get pregnant and raise children, not go to college and/or get a job. I have nothing at all against girls growing up and being a stay-at-home mom, but I do take exception to my girls being told that's the only option.

In another case, I had a bright, hardworking student who spent her time outside of school taking care of her younger siblings and maintaining the house while her single mother was out drinking most nights. She was strong, but even an adult could only take the kind of emotional abuse that her mother wrought, and she lashed out and got into serious trouble. When I talked to her later, she told me that Mom frequently told her, "You're no better than me! You're going to be pregnant before you're 15 and drop out just like me!"

I also have stories of hope. One of my former students got pregnant in the summer after she took my class. With a lot of encouragement from my fellow teachers, she not only stayed in school, but transfered to a special district program designed to help students in tough situations (forced to work or stay home to support a sick family member, returning drop-outs, and student parents/soon to be parents). Not only did she finish her sophomore year, but took advantage of an accelerated program and graduated! Did she get the full benefit of a high school education? Probably not, but she has her degree, time to raise her child and the opportunity to eventually fulfill her dream to go to college.

Finally, I had a student who was already a parent get pregnant again while she was my student. I've had many students simply disappear when this happens; those that still come to school tend to fail because they do so sporadically and can't keep up with their work (and, consequently, fail tests). She was different. She came to school sporadically, but she was smart and determined enough to pass her classes. I can't even actually share the other traumas this girl endured leading up to these experiences, and I to be honest I can't tell you if she is going to stay in school in graduate. But I'd be surprised if she didn't.

I shared these stories to give a little perspective to this issue. I don't have the solution. I do, however, know that we can't treat these 17 Gloucester High students like idiots or pariahs. We as a society need to use this as an opportunity to discuss how to support and education our young people, to give them the best chance at a good life.

UPDATE 7/4/08: Apparently one of the pregnant students appeared on Good Morning America to set the record straight (something left out of most of the local news reports). Read Perhaps "Unlucky" Is In the Gloucester Water? from The MindOH! Blog.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Moving to Boston

Today was not only the last day of school, but my last day of teaching in the Rio Grande Valley.

My girlfriend and I are moving to Boston this weekend. There's a lot to explain, but for now all I'll say is that it is a personal decision that has little to do with the Valley, my school, or my students. It's the beginning of a very exciting and challenging new phase of my life.

I will continue teaching high school math, so expect even more projects, games and engaging activities in the coming school year.

I apologize for the relatively low number of posts in recent weeks. The process of finding a job and a place to live while working through the end of school 2000 miles away has left me with far too little time to myself. Rest assured that once I'm settled in, I'll start sharing all of the neglected ideas I've come up with over the past few months. This summer is going to be great.

Coming soon: End-of-year surveys and candid comments from my students.