Saturday, November 22, 2008

My Feverish Look at the Obama-Biden Plan for Education

So I have been home sick most of this week—fever, headache, you know the drill—and therefore gifted with a failing body and a racing mind, I am simply full of ideas.

I sit at my desk, and in a fit of delirium, begin flailing through my folder labeled “Potential Blog Topics.” Like cascading autumn leaves, the air is thick with fluttering sheaves of paper. Then, right in front of me, there it is: The Barack Obama and Joe Biden Plan for Education In America. Change we can believe in, right?

I started rereading the plan, available here. Obama wants to reform No Child Left Behind. Is it worth reforming something that arguably has failed? He will start by funding the plan, something Bush forgot to do. That might change failure to success.

“Obama and Biden believe teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests.” Amen and hallelujah. “He will improve assessments used to track student progress to measure readiness for college and the workplace and improve student learning in a timely, individualized manner.” Okay, is the “he” Obama or Biden? Or, is it some kind of two-headed beast: the Obama-Biden Education Monster. (It’s the fever talking.) The sentence has to be incredibly awkward and wordy, as well as offering to change the entire world of American education in one fell swoop.

Obama-Biden will “make math and science education a national priority.” I hate math. I can say that because I am over-compensating for my intense fear of math. Science, I can snuggle up to, but why make only those subjects a national priority? Make them all a national priority! And where is the literature? And where are the writing skills? And what about history, and languages, and culture, and philosophy, and geography? What about theatre, dance, art, photography, and ornithology? (Where did that last one come from?) How about ichthyology? (Jesus, I need a B12 shot.)

In an article in The New York Times a while back called “Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?” (here), we learned that some of our most prominent, influential Americans, like American Idol runner-up Kellie Pickler (surely the Joni Mitchell of her generation [sorry, Joni]) do not know that Europe is not a country. In answer to the question “Budapest is the capital of what European country?” Ms Pickler responded by saying that she thought “Europe was a country.” She had never heard of Hungary. “That’s a country?” said Ms. Pickler. “I’ve heard of Turkey. But Hungry? I’ve never heard of it.” If Hungary, eat Turkey. I swoon.

The article goes on to quote Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, who says that America and its citizens are in a bad place, firmly caught up in “anti-intellectualism (the attitude that ‘too much learning can be a dangerous thing’) and anti-rationalism (‘the idea that there is no such thing as evidence or fact, just opinion’).”

“Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge,” Ms. Jacoby says, “but they also don’t think it matters.”

The only thing that matters is that we be seen at the mall with our Gucci dog carrier and our adorable Chihuahua. But I digress.

All in all, Ms. Jacoby asserts that “Although people are going to school more and more years, there’s no evidence that they know more.”

Obama-Biden should make all the subjects—in fact, all knowledge—a priority. That way, we might just make it to Mars, and be able to tell a rock from ice from sand from alien life, and possibly have read Ray Bradbury and H.G. Wells as well.

Hop scotching around the plan, our new fearless leaders will recruit teachers with promises of scholarships. They will require all schools to be accredited. And most controversially, they will reward teachers for their excellence: yes, this means merit pay.

Why is merit pay such a problem? If someone does a good job, shouldn’t they be rewarded with more pay? In the business world, in the real world, aren’t employees rewarded with higher pay for greater productivity, higher sales figures, better job performance? Why should schools be different?

I am dreamy with excitement and the buzz of last night’s shot of Nyquil. I believe that Obama-Biden might be the breath of fresh air we have been looking for. I am buying into the hype, the promise; I am not just drinking the Kool-Aid, I am swimming in it.

Then Nicholas D. Kristof, writing in The New York Times, throws cold water in my feverish face. “President-elect Barack Obama and his aides are sending signals that education may be on the back burner at the beginning of the new administration,” Kristof writes here. “He ranked it fifth among his priorities…”

Kristof believes this is a mistake, and I agree. He believes, and claims there is a “fair amount of evidence” to suggest that it is our school system, “which for most of our history, was the best in the world but has foundered over the last few decades” that has made America great.

Once again, we hear America’s greatness in the past tense. We were once. Will we ever be again?

Politicians are forever running on a platform of educational reform. They promise change, they promise accountability, they promise money, they promise the moon. Then they get elected and education is forgotten.

I hope this time it is different. I hope. But I have my doubts.

In the fitful dreams of a feverish slumber, education and the life of the mind become America’s first priorities. Oh, and I look like Brad Pitt.

Hey, a boy can dream.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Week of 11-10-08 Through 11-21-08

I got a late start this week on preparing my published schedule for each class. Since grades were due last week, I had many a sleepless night. Therefore, I took the weekend to catch up on some reading and some much needed rest. This is the time of year when things start bogging down, mainly because both the students and the teachers are burned out and waiting for the holidays. We are also all irritable; I have had more than one or two skirmishes with students this week, and things will not get better any time soon. The day off for Veterans’ Day will help some, but next week are Parent-Teacher Conferences, and depending on the class and the performance of the student, things could get testy that day as well.

But let’s not forget the most important part of all this: the classroom and the study. Learning is its own reward. I do wish the reward was sleep, however.

In my English II Honors course, we are steaming through Hermann Hesse’s classic novel, Siddhartha. I have been outlining the tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism for students, and we have spent some time comparing the theologies and dogmas of Christianity with the Eastern counterparts. I have tried to impress upon the sophomores that Jesus would have made a great Buddhist. This idea will surface later when I ask them to write about the book.

The other thing I have stressed in class is that words are not sufficient to capture the essence of these two great religions. Indeed, most of the books written about Buddhism and Hinduism turn out to be very thin. Few words often equal deep thinking. Some of the texts I use to prepare to teach the novel read like poetry. In fact, the Bhagavad-Gita is poetry. Here is a sample: “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in minds.” Good advice for those entering the teaching profession.

The fulcrum of our discussions so far has been Siddhartha’s quest. We are all on a quest—to find ourselves, to find out place in the world, to discover our lives. That is Siddhartha’s quest in the novel. This is difficult for my students to grasp because so much is handed to them. They are a generation that rarely feels want; their needs are met, sometimes to extravagance. I do not fault them or their parents for this. We all want our children to have what we did not. However, struggling through difficulties, and doing without builds character, as we will see in Siddhartha’s situation.

My freshmen are giving persuasive speeches, and I must say, I have not been impressed. We are done with about eighty percent of the class, and only a rare one or two really nailed his subject. Most only give superficial reasons and evidence to support their assertions. They also lack the performance aspect of the speech. We need to really work on this in the next few days. They are young, and even though they have known each other for many years, they are extremely nervous getting up and speaking. Being able to pull this off is an important skill and part of the California State Framework in English. So we will spend some time recapping and examining their performances later this week.

They will take a break on Wednesday this week from the speeches to read C.D.B. Bryan’s great short story, “So Much Unfairness Of Things.” Then they will do some writing about the choices we make in life.

The seniors in AP Literature and Composition are reading Hamlet. We are nearing the end and the devastating finale. So far, the students seem coolly receptive to Hamlet’s plight. I feel like I need to schedule some kind of activity or exercise to make the play more real to them. Sometimes when fatigue sets in, the books become just something to get through. I hate when that happens. We have a curriculum and a set time to cover it, but I want the works we read to have the maximum effect on the students. Right now it feels as if we are reaching to understand Hamlet’s problems. Reading things as a class assignment makes them often more cerebral than visceral. We need to get into the tension of Hamlet’s dilemma and feel his desperation and anxiety.

My eleventh grade AP Language and Composition is in the same situation as the senior class. We are knocking off one essay after another in the Norton anthology, yet our class discussions feel circular and stagnant. This week we will move from profiles to a section on human nature. Again, the struggle here is to make this meaningful for them, not just reading one essay after another.

The same group of students in SAT Prep/Composition are really suffering, and I am beginning to doubt the benefit of this vigorous test preparation. The books we are using are self-directed workbooks. The answers are there, so students, when faced with other homework and responsibilities, do not always take the exercises seriously. Yes, they want to improve their test scores. Yes, they want to go to good colleges. But the workload is heavy right now, and doing the exercises in this book seem mundane.

With preparation classes for the SAT, the trick is the trick, meaning that most test prep centers work not only on the content of the test, but tricks and nuances to defeat the test. I am admittedly not an expert in these shortcuts. I did some research, but I focus my attention more on the content of the test. But the content is also covered in our curriculum and textbooks. Unfortunately, we were thrust into this situation by the principal responding to parent concerns. Most students take outside classes in SAT preparation. I really think we would be best served in the classroom to concentrate on the content as it comes up in our curriculum.

So, my goal is to get them through these prep workbooks as quickly as possible and get back on writing and grammar. Hopefully, this will help them lock on to the lessons and concepts more concretely and with more urgency, and therefore find themselves more prepared for the SAT.

So, as we steam toward Thanksgiving and the holidays, the struggle continues, the learning, hopefully, goes on.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Barack and Roll

At 8:00 this evening, all the major news outlets are projecting that Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States, and the first African-American to hold such an office.

I am thinking of the dead in Iraq, the falling towers of 9-11, the divisive politics of the last eight years in this country. George W. Bush is the worst president in history, and now he belongs to history.

The road ahead will not be easy. One of my students today suggested we might be in more trouble with a fully democratic government—president, House, and Senate. Our country faces financial ruin, demoralization, a lack of education, and worse, a denigration of the value of education. Racism is still an issue. Gun violence plagues our cities. We lack direction, a good reputation, an honor code, a mind life. We are America, land of the free, home of emptiness and failed possibility. We used to be somebody; now the world hates us for our arrogance and for what was once our dominance.

So it is time for a new resolve. We must return America to the top of the world—the ethical nation, the nation that helps other nations, the place of opportunity, the beacon of hope in the world. We must make sure every citizen has health care and a place to sleep safely at night. We must take care of our elderly, our mentally ill, our people.

This is a tall order, and might be impossible. But this is America, and we used to pursue the impossible as a matter of course. We, the American people, have infinite potential and unlimited possibility. We must seize the day, tighten our belts, and fight the good fight.

Only in America, where black men and women were once traded as property, and were once counted as three-fifths of a human being, who had to fight and scrape for every human right and dignity, could a black man become president. This is history; this is the dream. We are living in a new age, a new time. We are witnessing the greatness that is America, the great experiment of the world.

Let’s Barack and roll.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Turning Point, Hopefully

I found it poignant that we spent some of last week reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in my ninth grade English class. And of course, I was asked all week who I would vote for come Tuesday, November 4th.

I did not answer the question. I am not trying to be evasive or defensive. I tell the students straight out: “It is not my job to tell you what to think, or to tell you how I think. It is my job to make you think.” So I answer the question by outlining what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate based on what I have read in newspapers, magazines and journals. I encourage students to add in their own thoughts and ideas. If they are in a listening mood, I might also tell them how the ancient Greeks considered participation in the democracy to be incumbent upon every Greek citizen. Therefore, as descendants of that classical civilization and democracy, we should be discussing the merits of the candidates, the propositions, the issues, and arguing vehemently for our opinions in coffeehouses, meeting places, and classrooms, even if we never come to a consensus.

My actions are a little idealistic, but you get the picture.

Education is about teaching people to think for themselves. That is the principle of the classroom. So who will get my vote? Senator McCain certainly has a long resume. I like that he has not always voted with his party, and that in the past, he has voted based on his beliefs and ideas, even if they differ from his fellow Republicans. I also admire his service to our country during a difficult and unpopular war. Having had three uncles involved in the Vietnam conflict, I see that war as turning point in our nation’s history. We no longer view wars and the military in the same way after the 1960s. One of my students asked me this week if I thought McCain would bring back the draft. That question is a product of the Vietnam War, and no, I do not think McCain would bring back the draft.

In the same breath, I also do not think McCain’s service to this country and his years of torture and imprisonment during the Vietnam conflict make him a good candidate to be president. His experiences are worthy of our admiration; he is definitely courageous and a true warrior. But these things are not the only characteristics of a strong candidate. A president needs diplomacy, patience, an iron will, the ability to deal with stress and remain cool and calm. In this long campaign, and even in his history in the senate, McCain has not always been able to control his temper and his emotions. He often looks as if he will explode into anger. He has engaged in some questionable behavior—I was less than enamored with his “Bomb, Bomb Iran” rendition and his reported gambling habits.

Barack Obama is a smooth and polished politician, and this might be a reason not to trust him. However, what we need in a president is a polished negotiator, someone who can present an intelligent and competent face to the world and follow up with reasonable action and discretion. What Obama lacks in experience can be remedied by the people he surrounds himself with as president. He strikes me as an intelligent man who will be a quick study. His ethnicity may also be just the thing we need to convince the world we do not hate people because of their religion or color of their skin. He represents the multi-ethnic society that is America, and that is just what we need after the disaster of George W. Bush.

But to adopt a big picture outlook, I do not think that one president in one term can change everything that is wrong with our country and our world. This mess will take years to sort out, and will involve sacrifice and hardship for every American. We will pay for the sins of the last eight years.

When we were attacked on September 11, 2001, the world was horrified. Most countries quickly registered their condemnation of those terrorist acts. Now, years later, how many of those countries still side with us? Many have distanced themselves from us, and we have alienated the world with our belligerence, our invasion of Iraq, our arrogance and dismissal of the rest of the world as somehow inferior to the great America.

So whoever wins on Tuesday, the road ahead is difficult and laced with dangerous potholes. Joe Biden was correct, I think, when he said we will be tested in the future. McCain leapt to the conclusion that Obama would be tested; I would propose that we all will be tested. The test, in fact, never ends. This is our world, and we must all find a way to live in it and get along in increasingly more dangerous times.

All of this returns me to Martin Luther King’s dream. Tuesday, we will either elect a black man as president, or a woman as vice-president. We will usher in a new age, one only King could imagine all those years ago on the mall of Washington D.C. But we know from experience that in dreams begins responsibility. We must vote, we must act, we must think, we must endeavor to do what is right and just, and always consider the rights of others in our own actions.

I think of King giving that speech all those years ago, the assassination of John Kennedy only a few months away, King’s own murder on the horizon, the Vietnam War, the hope and promise of a decade of change, the Civil Rights Movement—was there ever a more tumultuous time in our nation’s history outside of the Civil War? Arguably, the 1960s brought some of the most important changes to our Great Society, as President Johnson called it then.

We stand on the edge of another turning point this week. I do not know that Americans have the strength and character to truly change the country and the world. Some might think we lack the fortitude of previous generations, like the one that weathered the Second World War. But I hope we are, to quote Tennyson, “One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

As we enter this crucial week, the most challenging week in recent history, a turning point in our life and culture, this is what I hope.