Sunday, December 28, 2014

Schizophrenia of Teaching

The title of this blog came to me this morning after reflecting on the semester just ended. This year, semester-long courses ended before the holiday break and new students and courses arrive January 5. It is a good time to review.

Part of the ruminations included moments of deep despair, survived only by deliberately ignoring the larger system within which I labor and focusing on the details of each day.  It means setting aside an awareness that "official dogma" is in direct conflict with the necessary components for real learning.

Schizophrenia.  When being honest about what could be done in relation to what we are often asked to do there is a clear division.  At times it is impossible to hold the two images at once. It's crazy-making.

And then, in an effort to avoid writing, I clicked through some missives my brother shared, one being Pope Francis' Christmas address.  And here is one of the 15 ailments the Pope sees in the Catholic Curia:
Suffering from 'existential schizophrenia.' "It's the sickness of those who live a double life, fruit of hypocrisy that is typical of mediocre and progressive spiritual emptiness that academic degrees cannot fill.  It's a sickness that often affects those who, abandoning pastoral service, limit themselves to bureaucratic work, losing contact with reality and concrete people."
Yep.  That would be it.  Thinking too hard about education means living a double life.  I'm a hypocrite.  Let me count the ways.

1. Despising the tests that I neither trust nor find a reliable measure of ability (to do what? take a test? on an esoteric bit of old information that students will quickly forget? On a computer that's as far from the real world as you can get?) while simultaneously making sure that every student passes both the reading and the writing test.
Devoting hours to collecting and pouring over data, directing human and financial resources to remediation time and rah-rah "you can do it" sessions to insure that every child passes because they cannot graduate without those passing scores, and I desperately want their 13 years in school to mean something--though it is my firm belief that the tests mean that their degree means less and less....

2. To hating, absolutely despising and decrying grades while simultaneously using them as both carrot and stick to engage students in their work.
Seriously, what is an "A"?  An abstraction for.....I'm not even sure any more.
My students are fully round people.  Some break the rules in creative and disruptive ways, and we should encourage that.  After all, how will change come about if we don't have rule breakers? Others rise above difficult lives, come to school everyday, work hard, but still just don't 'get' what intellectual pursuit is, what it means to wrestle with ideas.  In fact, some students openly avoid any equivocation in their lives.  They want to comply, to have something they can count on day after day. They don't want disruption.  Is compliance an "A"? Is risk-taking?

3. Two days before break I proctored re-takes on our state tests. Every one of the hundred or so students in the room was a 'failure,' having already failed one or more of the tests. Some would return the next day to try, yet again, to pass more tests.   Of course the idea that you can fail the test one day and pass it the next, sometimes by a 30 point margin, begs the question: what is this test anyway?
Every computer in the building was employed and our Media center was a hush of test-taking seriousness--as it had been for the previous six (soon to be seven!) days.
The kids were incredible. Polite. Patiently waiting while teachers helped them reboot computers, find scratch paper and calculators.  Raising hands to tentatively ask "Am I allowed to go to the bathroom?"in the midst of the repeat of a sometimes four-hour long test (just one of many).  Not a peep when they were reminded that their addiction to cell phones would have to be curtailed.  Hushed voices, serious, focused faces.
I wanted to scream: Walk out!  Fight back!  You're better than this!  Hell yes, you can go to the bathroom, and if they won't let you, throw some furniture! You! You're the kindest student I've ever taught. You! You're hilariously funny! You! You're athletically gifted. Celebrate that!
But I did not. I helped and encouraged them to do their best.
I marveled at how well they have learned what we have taught them: This test, on this day, is all that matters.  Your worth is being measured now.
The kids have got it.

4. While working on a strategic plan for our district we listed our beliefs.  And I believe them--every one.  But, sadly, I do not think that we will realize our vision of helping every student find their purpose, talents, and skills in this world before they leave our system.
There are too many forces we cannot control.  Over half our students live in poverty.  Their parent(s) need jobs that pay enough to put affordable roofs over their heads and healthy food on the table. Some need even more than that. The children need safe places to grow and explore before their "official" schooling begins.  All children need a variety of hands-on, playful experiences and a chance to get off their block.  Otherwise all of school is just an abstraction to which they have no connection.  Some of our students have never see the other side of town, much less a hiking trail or an escalator.
Without these supports in place the yardstick that measures success deems them failures before they ever step foot in our buildings.  And once they arrive there we begin to sort them into 'awesome" and 'abject failure,'  perpetuating a dismal view of the world.
But I signed on because if we list and fight for what we believe maybe we can get the wider community to believe it too.

So a New Year's Resolution is in order when going about the daily work of teaching children.  I will follow Pope Francis' directives and strive to be the apostle of  education.  He urges us to avoid the 'funereal face':
"In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity.  The apostle must be polite, serene, enthusiastic and happy and transmit joy wherever he goes."
Less hypocrisy.  More joy.  That is the tonic for teaching schizophrenia.

Next blog: Moments of joy.

Monday, December 1, 2014

UVA and Our Heart of Darkness

All of Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz...

If you think our country isn't currently sinking in a fetid sea of corruption born of greed, inequality, and a slavish adherence to market forces, think again. Read the recent account in The Rolling Stone of the brutal, animalistic, predatory rape of a freshman woman on the campus of The University of Virginia. The scales will fall from your eyes.

The description of abusive behavior perpetrated at the venerable university is physically sickening.

Update: This article is now under scrutiny by the media for its failure to fact-check.  This is a sad turn of events surrounding violence perpetrated on women. However, I stand by my premise that women are being abused and the powerful are ignoring their sacred trust in order to protect their 'brand.'  The evidence for this lies in the student body reaction after the article and the pile of stones placed by women on the campus, with each stone representing an event.  There is clearly a problem.

The case is finally--years  later--the subject of an investigation.  But only after the leaders of the institution have had their hand forced by the publication of repetitive, abhorrent events swept under the rug to maintain UVA's "reputation."  In the modern parlance, the UVA 'brand' must be protected so the dollars keep flowing.

If you doubt a systematic abuse of women on the campus, look at the pile of stones placed on the Phi Kappa Psi porch last week by young women who have been the victim of "a bad experience," as the women in the Rolling Stone article came to view their sexual abuse in frat houses. As in: "I had a bad experience" after I was drugged and then raped by privileged frat boys.

From the article, it is clear that money talks--and that some are more equal than others.

Thirty years of concentrated effort has been centered on privatizing nearly every institution in this country because the 'magic of market forces' promises to right any wrongs through fevered competition.  But it has brought us down to this: we would sacrifice our own children in order to maintain a money-making machine.

UVA, like other public schools across the country, has seen state funding dwindle as taxes have been held low. Nearly all schools continually search for grants, donors, and wealthy alumnus with nostalgic ties to campuses. They pander to the monied elite, many of whom have fraternity ties.  De-funding public schools has been the policy of the right, including K-12 schools where "vouchers" are promised to bring market-driven competition into the lives of all our children.

In the 70's, when I was a college student, most of the funding of state schools was provided by the state.  When state funding was the norm, students found higher ed in easy access.  Who knew these would be the golden years of opportunity to advance by furthering an education?  It was possible then to work a part-time job, live independently, graduate debt-free, and find a decent job.

No more.  But that could be the case if we had the will.

Today we pit our students against each other in a "race to the top" where achieving high test scores and grades encourages cheating and a single-minded attention to scores, not learning for its own sake. Students, too, understand the need for winning at any cost and are mired in a market that demands ever more from those competing for limited resources.

Following a high-school career driven by the desire for a seat at a college--students land on campus where they apparently drug and drink themselves into oblivion. On some level the students must realize their purposeless existence of chasing the next score (money, grades, whatever).

For those who realize their dream (is it their dream?) of graduating into a job, most face beginning life mired in debt where true adulthood--owning a home, raising a family--is pushed further into the future.

We haven't learned much from the past.  This story has been told before (Leopold's Congo, the Gilded Age, Louis XVI).

Concentrated wealth corrupts absolutely.  Our education system has absolutely been corrupted by the same forces.