Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Many Prophets of Education

"An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't." -Anatole France

It's a tough time to be a teacher. Everywhere I turn someone else has appointed themselves the messiah of public education. There is no shortage of would-be saviors: politicians, talk show hosts, news reporters, those throwing their hat in the proverbial ring come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Many of these contenders has a seemingly-simple solution: abolish tenure, begin using vouchers, bring prayer back into school, establish more charter schools, make the school day and/or year longer. The list of 'simple' solutions seems endless. The only thing contending with its length is its lack of a clear understanding of just how complex an issue this really is.
There is a concept in literature called deus ex machina or 'god from the machine'. The term refers to the practice in ancient Greek and Roman drama of lowering a god onto the stage who would then decide the final outcome. The term has evolved and now is understood to be a person or thing that is brought in suddenly and unexpectedly to provide an overly-simplified solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem. In modern writing it is generally considered a failure of a writer's imagination. The easy solution is, in many ways, bad art. Nevertheless many people like these kinds of endings. Have a dying girl and a sister who sues to avoid being used as a source of spare parts? Bring on the car accident. Invest an entire season of your television show traveling a fruitless route? Oops, it was all a dream.
While these sorts of ending offer a solution, it is seldom satisfying and always lacks the verisimilitude (or realism) that most modern readers and viewers desire.
These types of endings make us happy. The feel-good solution is appealing particularly because it is so rarely found in real life. We like the underdog winning the championship, the long suffering worker winning the lottery, the love-conquers-all ending simply because it is so elusive in our daily lives. How else would we make it through our favorite team's defeats if it weren't for the hope, no matter how remote, that some ethereal inspiration might result in a sudden victory? Just today, my dear friend who is a personal finance adviser expressed dismay because one of her clients shells out one hundred and fifty dollars a week on lottery tickets and stubbornly refuses to see the wisdom in taking that money and investing it. We don't want the long-term, logical solution, we want the magic numbers, the winning ticket, the instant fix.
The problem is, the odds are against us. The truth is hitting the lottery does solve many winner's personal finance issues in the short term but without counseling on how to manage money many of these same winners end up in worse situations than they started in. It's the same with many of the proposals being offered for education reform. While many of them may provide short-term results, they are doomed to failure or, at best, limited success because they do not address the tangle of causes that lead to the problems in the first place.
This desire to overlook the complexity of the issue is hitting close to home for me.I live in a state with a governor who has compared teachers to drug dealers. He seems to have come into office with guns blazing ready to go to war with the teacher's union. He has, at every turn, sought to vilify teachers via their union. He has castigated both individual teacher at town hall meetings and the union that represents their interests. However,under his guidance, New Jersey's Education Commissioner botched an application that cost the state millions in federal educational funding. Imagine my surprise when he shows up on The Oprah Winfrey show firmly cast in the role of educational messiah. Chris Christie, the governor I have heard call teachers selfish, arrogant, and greedy gets to tout himself as a trailblazer because of a gift given to the Newark public schools by a wealthy entrepreneur but never once is he asked about his administration's botched Race to the Top application. No mention is made of his vitriolic rhetoric about the very people on the front lines of this battle to educate America's youth. I cannot help but feel this kind of blind praise is fundamentally misleading.
It would be equally disingenuous of me to blindly praise teachers. Every teacher knows that there are those in our ranks who ought not to be there. We, like every other profession, have our share of incompetence, but I can honestly say that in my experience they are the vast minority. The teachers I know and respect struggle every day to find ways to connect themselves to their students, their students to the material, and the material to the 'real' world lives of these students. The job is challenging but those with a passion for teaching meet those challenges daily.
I think one thing many of these would-be saviors fail to factor in is that education is nothing like most businesses. The people who decide to teach rarely do so for the money, most of them are, at least initially,idealist. Teaching is the type of job that draws those who feel they can make a difference not those seeking to make a fortune. I was drawn to teaching because it felt like something that mattered and I received advice from my father (himself a former teacher) that I have never forgotten. He told me to always remember that I do not teach the subject, I teach the child. What this means has become clearer to me with each passing year. This is a job that changes daily. There is no preparing for things like a student's anger spilling over on you because they have issues at home, a child who didn't do their homework because their mother has cancer and they had to take care of her all night. What of the child whose home was raided by police at two in the morning and then falls asleep in your classroom as a result? The variables in education are often incalculable and that makes finding a solution far more difficult than it may appear.
One of the many panaceas being touted is charter schools. While these schools may
be,ostensibly, more successful than open enrollment public schools, they have the luxury of turning some students away. These schools start on a completely different playing field than normal public schools because they have motivated parents who are required to participate and students who benefit from smaller student/teacher ratios. Smaller classes give teachers more time to interact individually with students which gives them a leg up from the outset. If public schools had similar ratios and a student body that was made up exclusively of motivated students and parents I have no doubt they could deliver similar results. Public schools, however, do not have the luxury of turning away students and therefore cannot stack the deck in their favor. Even if they could, when, exactly, did education become a competitive sport in which we would all benefit from cutting under-performing players?
The concept of merit-pay seems to hope to foster a competition among teachers. Those whose students perform the best will be rewarded monetarily. Despite proof that merit pay doesn't actually lead to improved scores the idea continues to gain steam. But what happens to schools if we turn education into a competition between educators? We risk creating the type of environment that pits one teacher against another and in its pursuit to 'reward' the few undermines the school community as a whole. How does this play out for teachers who are assigned under-performing or special needs students? Do they stand a chance of receiving merit pay? What about physical education teachers? How will we determine their merit? Are we going to start weighing students as a means of determining if the importance of physical fitness is being appropriately emphasized? Do people who teach honors students make more because they are given students with greater ability? Will this lead to competition for these classes and an abandonment of those with special needs because it is as good as dooming yourself to lower pay to take them on? The questions are many and those touting this method provide trite, idiomatic answers that evade the fundamental difficulties. If you pit teacher against teacher in a race to get the students who will offer you the best chance of cashing in then morale will suffer and you will have created an environment that is actually counter-productive.
What so many of those running for the position of educational messiah seem to miss is that education is as much about the overall environment of the school as it is about the individual teacher. Offering bonuses to teachers whose students perform well on standardized tests will only encourage the teaching of test-taking skills. There will be less time to develop a students' critical thinking skills, the skills they will actually need in order to become contributing citizens of these United States. If the goal of education is to produce students who are excellent test takers then the vision is dangerously narrow. Not every student is going to be a great test-taker and boiling down a lifetime of education to a single test or a short series of tests is just plain foolish.
Standardized tests are a snapshot of intelligence at best. They tell you what that child knew that day, they do not factor in the intangibles like the affects of distractions like breaking up with a boyfriend, having a fight with your mom, illness, fatigue, you name it countless factors can alter test scores. How many of us would be willing to have our intellectual life boiled down to one or two days of standardized testing? We do need to assess student achievement but standardized tests should only be one tool of many.
One of the things that seems to be getting only minor play in the battle to save education is the role of the home and the community. We forget that teachers see students for only a few hours a day and that the main influence in their lives is their parents. As a parent, I would be insulted if a teacher took sole credit for my child's accomplishments. I take pride in their victories but I also feel the weight of their failures. We, as parents, have to be active participants in our child's education and refuse to enable them to shirk responsibility. In the most troubled schools family life is often a huge factor in limiting a child's success. Any educational reform that fails to develop a plan to address these factors is doomed to fail no matter how many bonuses you offer teachers.
My message to all the would-be messiahs of education? As much as we'd all like one, there is no easy answer. Any educational reform must address the tangled web of causes or it simply will not work long term. I love my job. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to help shape the lives of my students and though I refuse to pretend that I have all the answers that does not mean that I won't keep looking for them. I wish our governor, Chris Christie, would stop seeking a deus ex machina, tone down his rhetoric and amp up his efforts to work with those of us on the front lines. There is no silver bullet here and until we are willing to see all the complexities contributing to the problem, we stand little chance of actually solving it.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Victims, Voyeurs and the New Reality

For the last three days I've been consumed with the story of Tyler Clementi, the young college freshman whose roomate, unbeknowst to him, streamed live video of Tyler's most intimate moments onto the internet for all the world to see. Though I don't suppose it is possible to know all of the factors that drove Tyler Clementi to jump off the George Washington Bridge, I think it is fair to say that the voyeuristic bullying of his roommate and all those who logged on to watch was the straw that broke the camel's back. It is tempting to see his roommate, Dharun Ravi and Ravi's friend Molly Wei as evil bullies with no redeeming qualities. It would be comforting to me, and probably many others, if they were one-dimensional villains. I could believe then that locking them away would be remove the danger they represent from my corner of the world. It is an easy, but I believe,erroneous assumption. It's not that I don't think these two should face criminal consequences, I absolutely do, but I see them as one malignant growth in a much larger cancer growing in our culture.
In America we love consumerism. I love consumerism. What do I do when I'm stressed? One of two things usually, I eat or I shop. There is something about the act of consumption that soothes me. I know I am not alone in this. Over the last several years we, as a culture, have had to start facing the consequences of all this conspicuous consumption. Our love affair with stuff; designer handbags, fancy cars, big houses, and our penchant for buy now, pay later have left us in one of the biggest financial messes in nearly a century. Our devotion to both fine dining and fast food, big portions, easy and tasty fatty foods has turned us into one of the most obese countries in the world. Undoubtedly our love of consumption has taken a turn for the worse.
So what does any of this have to do with the tragic case of an 18 year old boy's humiliation and subsequent suicide? Truth is, I'm not sure, but in the days since this case broke I've been asking myself and others how two apparently intelligent, reportedly good, young people could become so desensitized to the feelings of another that it never occurred to them that broadcasting his most private moments would cause him extreme emotional duress. As a teacher and a mother I have come to realize that good kids commit both stupid and bad deeds all the time. I have seen good students, honorable young men make colossally bad decisions that have sometimes ended their lives. I have seen 'bad' kids commit acts of kindness that have brought tears to my eyes. Life is not as simple as many people would have us believe. The kid who cursed out his teacher may have been beaten last night by his stepfather. The girl who never brings her homework in may be practically raising her siblings while her mother works two jobs. On the other hand the charming athlete with all the right grades may be addicted to pain pills or drinking himself into oblivion every Saturday night.

So, if it isn't that these two young people and all the others who watched this video feed are just 'bad' people, what could it be? There is no end to the factors that may have contributed. Community, parenting, a sense of entitlement, all these things seem like reasonable avenues to explore. But exploration shouldn't be simply a quest to assign blame. Blame is easy. Blame is tidy. It's the parent's fault, the teacher's fault, the fault of media, the list goes on and on. I just keep trying to understand what may have led these two teens and the others who sat watching to fail to realize they didn't have any right to do so?

I can't help but wonder if there is something about who we are as a culture that leads people to feel entitled to consume the lives of others as a part of seeking their own pleasure. I looked in the mirror first. I, too, have subscribed to this kind of consumption. Over the past few years I've developed a penchant for reality television. For me it started with the first season of Survivor. When Susan gave her famous rat and snake speech at the final tribal council of the first season, I, like many Americans, was hanging on every incendiary word. I remember clearly the phenomena it was at the time, newscasters interviewed people who had filled bars and friends living rooms to view the show together. The success of Survivor opened something of a Pandora's box back in 2000. Since then American viewers have been able to watch women and men compete for love, for money, to lose weight, you name it there's a reality show streaming right into our living rooms that not only allows, but encourages us to entertain ourselves with the experiences of others.

It seems the emotional and sexual ante is upped every year. In the past year we've seen ex-rock stars parade girl after girl into their bed and we've stood by the proverbial door with a subtitled ear to the door. It's not only dating shows, shows like 'Big Brother', I Love Money and Jersey Shore have used night vision cameras to give us a front row seat to the most intimate moments of strangers. Of course all of these people consented, each and every one of them signed some sort of release that opened the door for all our most voyeuristic tendencies. Tyler Clementi signed no such agreement. He did not ask for, nor did he want, for his most personal moments to be offered up for the entertainment of his peers.

So why do so many of us keep watching these 'reality' shows? I have often heard, and just as often said, that part of the appeal of watching these shows is that is makes me feel better about my life. At least I'm not that messed up. I may not be perfect but at least I'm not willing to throw myself at a man who is dating 20 other women at the same time he's dating me. I don't get drunk out of my mind and have fist fights with other women. I know, unlike Snooki, that the pilgrims predate the 1920's. It's almost pathetic how willing we are to build our self-esteem on the wreckage of other people's lives. Anytime I want to I can instantly access the lives of strangers. If I don't happen to be near a television, I can pull up youtube on my cellphone. I watch them fall off bikes, propose marriage, try to construct sheds. A whole new world has opened up for me over these past few years. This unprecedented access into stranger's lives is new to me.

It isn't however, new to everyone. Those of us who matured before the early 90's
have lived in a world where "It's none of your business" had some real, practical meaning. Those of us born after that probably never have. This generation of teens has never lived in a world without reality television. Even before Survivor, MTV's Real World put the lives of 'real' people on display. For someone born in 1992, reality television has always existed. It has always been socially acceptable, even envogue, to entertain yourself by watching the trials and tribulations of others. Privacy has been dying a long and painful death for years now. It seems to me that personal boundaries have been blurred beyond recognition for many people. Young people can post their every thought on social media sites, they can anonymously harass each other on sites like Formspring, they regularly send inappropriate photos of themselves via text messages. No wonder some of them can't quite figure out that the rest of the world does not exist solely for their entertainment.

Did Dharun Ravi target Tyler Clementi because he was gay? Perhaps we'll find out, perhaps not. Whether this was a full blown bias crime or just a couple of teenagers so wrapped up in their own desire for fun that it never occurred to them that they didn't have a right to turn his private life in their own reality show bespeaks a moral bankruptcy that can only come from years of splurging on their own desires. They laid bare the life of one young man for public consumption and in doing so left him feeling completely void of hope.

I don't know if years of cultural voyeurism had anything to do with what happened to this young man or not. I still have many questions about how young people could be so void of empathy that they failed to foresee the damage they were doing. This situation shows me just how little I know. There is one thing I can predict with a great deal of certainty though. As I write this, someone, somewhere is uncovering all Mr. Ravi and Ms. Wei's secrets, interviewing anyone they know who is willing to talk, scouring webpages, yearbooks, anything they can get their hands on in order to prepare for our consumption a feast of information about their families, their friends, their accomplishments and their shortcomings. Both these young people are about to learn just what it feels like to have your life offered up for the consumption of the curious.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Southern Hospitality?

It's late and I can't sleep. Just a few days ago I packed my three kids into the car and we headed south to visit family. We stopped in North Carolina to visit my sister Erin and then headed to South Carolina to visit my sister Elizabeth. I have, at various times in my life, been a strong critic of the South. I lived for 10 months in Mobile, Alabama in the late 80's and I definitely suffered from culture shock. The lifestyle is pleasingly slow and ostensibly friendly but I had had terms like 'nigger lover' hurled at me on several occasions when it was revealed that I had an African-American boyfriend. I held a grudge, I admit it. I painted the entire South with a broad brush and that was a failure on my part. Sometimes, in anger, it is easier to generalize than to analyze and understand.
I have visited South Carolina regularly over the years in order to spend time with my sister and her children. People here have been friendly and for the most part kind. Today, however, was different.
At 15 and 17 my sons are no longer cute, pudgy-cheeks black boys that everyone loved, they have grown into striking young men. My sons are now tall, well-built, handsome and, for some, suspect. At 6'3 and 5'11, they are robust, intelligent, and full of charisma. Growing up in a biracial home they are equally at ease with blacks and whites, they have been loved and have loved people of both skin colors and though racial differences have been addressed they have never existed as the chasm for them that they can be for others. I fear that after today, that may not be the truth anymore.
The brass tacks, so to speak, of the events are as follows; while I ran errands with my sister my children and their cousins decided to visit the community pool. Six teenagers piled into the car with towels and headed up to find relief from the stifling southern heat. They jumped into the water, they joked, laughed, and then after a little over an hour they packed up and drove home. Seeking the same kind of solace from the oppressive heat I headed to the pool about an hour after they'd arrived home, I had barely been in the pool for ten minutes when I heard a bit of a ruckus, someone had found feces in the pool.
I got out,chalking the 'disaster' to a leaky diaper or a child who, having too much fun swimming, had waited too long to head to the bathroom. Nasty, but these things happen in pools open to the community. Upon returning to my sister's home I shared the tale, showered and went on with my day.
A few hours later, however, a vestige of the Old South came knocking on my sister's door. A representative from the homeowners association had come to inquire about the strange boys who had accompanied my niece to the pool. She wanted to speak to Mary about 'the incident' because someone thought they saw one of these strange boys pull something brown from his pocket. It did not take long for me to see where this was going.
I admit, I never for a second entertained the thought that one of my sons had saved his feces, stuffed it into his pocket, emptied it into the pool and then continued to swim for over an hour. Generally, I try not to be a 'not-my-kid' kind of mom, but this I was certain they would never do.
Tone is a funny thing, when someone asks you to describe it the words are often elusive, but, if you are even half-witted, you know the sound of accusation. I wish I could tell you this was the first time I'd heard it but it isn't. The woman, after being ushered in by my brother-in-law, asked my sons to tell her what happened at the pool. They gave the typical teenage response, we swam a little and then came home. She, in what can only be called an accusatory tone went on to tell them that someone thought they saw one of these boys pull something brown from his pocket. I asked her what, exactly, she was asking my sons. I was assertive but not aggressive. She repeated, "What happened at the pool?". They looked like deer in the headlights, they didn't understand exactly what it was that she was asking but I did.
I knew this block, I'd been around it before. I asked my sons directly if either of them had defecated in the pool. They said no. She informed them that there was video tape and that she was going to watch it. This, I admit, was where my head started to feel like it was going to explode. I urged her to go do so, to please watch the tape and then to come back and share with us what she found on the tape. I asked to be there see the tape as well, to discuss it, and, barring her being a complete idiot, I think she understood clearly that I was expecting her to apologize once the tape cleared them.
Her story changed, she might not be able to see the tape, the tape might be grainy, she may not need to come back, I understood the subtext as well as she did. She hadn't expected to have to deal with a mother, with a mother who was unyielding, with a mother who knew exactly what made these two young men suspect in her eyes.
People are more sophisticated than they used to be, they avoid buzzwords, they parse their prejudices in vaguer terms but country wisdom holds, "If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck," I think we all know the rest.
Think about this accusation for a minute, in order for these 'strange' boys to have pulled this off they'd have had to defecate, retrieve the fecal matter from the toilet, shove it into their pockets, drive in a hot car to the pool, pull the odious cargo from their pocket and then release it into the pool. The logistics of it are simply absurd.
How many houses did this board member visit? Just one, the one with the 'strange boys'. Not one visit to kids in diapers, to young ones prone to accidents, just here, just to the house where the 'strangers' were. She spoke of cost, begged me to understand her position, I asked if she'd thought at all about mine. She didn't answer. How could she? What did she know about being the 'usual suspect' about people assuming your skin is stained with sin?
When she left my husband and I told our sons a horrible truth, to some people you will always be suspects. Some people will never see past dark skin and corn rows, some people simply don't see you. In order to be seen as equal you'll need to behave better, be smarter, and unfortunately goofing off is not an option for you.
Is this post-racial America? My sister was appalled by this incident. She wanted to shout from the rooftops. I just cried. I can see the mountain in front of my sons, I pray daily that these acts of the ignorant do not embitter them or me. It's not easy to believe in goodness tonight.
Tonight I'm angry, I'm hurt, I'm frightened for my sons. How easily this woman believed this absurd scenario. How quickly she and others assumed these 'strange' boys were capable of such a thing. It's heartbreaking to stare this kind of prejudice in the face, it's heartbreaking to love your children and not to be able to protect them from the ignorance some people carry inside them. It reminded me of the school children banned from a pool club outside of Philadelphia earlier this year, some patrons there couldn't see the kids as anything other than trouble. What horrible irony that the real danger lie inside the members so eager to expel 'strange' children. Tonight, here in well-manicured neighborhoods where stranger are viewed with a caustic eye, where assumption and accusation of those who are different is the norm, the past is alive and well, and hospitality is laced with hostility.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In Memorium to a Dear Friend, Alexander 'Alex' Yoncak

A little over a week ago I lost a dear friend and his death, in many ways, has shaken me to my core. Alex's death was tragedy, at only 37 years old he was killed when his car ran off the road and hit a tree. He left behind a loving wife and four small children. In the deluge of emotion that I, and all those blessed enough to have known him, have experienced in this past week, I found faith in knowing that no one who ever met Alex could have left the experience unchanged.
I learned some of the most important lessons of my from him. Alex was the kind of man who was always smiling, even though tragic things had happened in his life,he always found joy. Alex came into my life when I was in my early twenties, he was a friend of my sister's boyfriend. His relation to me was at best peripheral, or would have been had he been anyone other than who he was. I was, like most older siblings, no great fan of hanging out with my kid sister or her friends but Alex was a guy who didn't seem to understand boundaries. He saw no natural obstruction between an two people, not age, not clique, not gender or race, he just loved everyone. Such a creature seemed absurd to a sometime-cynic like me. He always seemed to be there, making us laugh, telling us side-splitting stories, over the years he became a part of our family. Whatever lines had seemed to exist when he first walked through the door were long since gone by the time he died. He didn't see divisions, he created connections.
Over the last week as I've wrestled with the whys and what ifs that inevitably follow such a tragic loss, I've come to understand that some people burn so brightly with a love for life, with a simple joy, that we cannot help but be changed by having known them.
I hadn't planned on being moved by sister's crazy new friend. He was loud and hyper, he said and did outrageous things. When Alex entered my life I was in a very dark time, I had been suffering with an eating disorder for nearly ten years and the toll of all my self abuse was beginning to make itself known. I had been in and out of treatment for several years, had had to abandon college and was dealing with the heavy physical and emotional toll of my disorder. I had slipped into what I can only refer to as a deadly darkness and in walks a man on fire for life.
I am not a religious person. I tend to reject anything that even resembles an institution and so when this loud, sometimes crass, jokester began to appear regularly at my house I never for an instant thought the universe might be sending me a sign. But I have come to realize that God is funny like that. He has a way of placing people in your path whose lives and beings fit perfectly the needs you have.
It isn't like Alex gave me some great lecture on the need to love myself, or the importance of embracing your fellow human beings, he was not a craftsmen with words. He did something very few people can or do, he simply lived these ideals. There is a quote that I think perfectly embodies my friend, "Preach the gospel always, If necessary use words." ~ St. Francis of Assisi. Some people spend their lives giving instructions, delivering profound speeches, crafting carefully deliberated sermons, others of us agonize over how to transfer meaning through language, how to craft poetry that captures what it means to be alive, some of us just embody those lessons, those meanings. Alex was the latter. He embodied the ideals so many of us just pay lip service to. He saw poverty and homelessness and bought a plane ticket, packed a hammer and headed to Mexico to help build houses. After Hurricane Katerina he established a non-profit organization to help families rebuild their homes. He wasted no breath bragging. In fact, until he died, I didn't even know about his post-Katerina projects. He took St. Francis' advice, he didn't need words. He didn't require recognition. He helped because it was what needed to be done.
Over the nearly 22 years that I knew Alex he shared some of the most important moments of my life. He was there the day I adopted my first son, he sang at my church wedding, he helped my family ring in countless New Year's, he riled up my kids at birthday parties and he traveled hundreds of miles to be at our family's weddings. It breaks my heart to think that Alex will not be there anymore. It breaks my heart to think of his wife and children having to live the rest of their lives without him. I pray daily that they will feel his presence in their lives.
I have cried a lot over the past week but I've learned a lot too. I have been preached at many times in my life, listened to countless Sunday morning sermons, but as a writer I am all too aware of how words can manipulate emotion. Rhetoric often strikes me as hollow, as contrived. What a gift to have known a man like Alex, a man who taught so many of us the lessons of kindness, selflessness, and sacrifice. A man who did all this without well honed speeches or fancy rhetoric but with laughter, and with action.