Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A volunteer military?

Who should make up the armed forces in our country and what role should the educational system play in that decision? Do you really know what NCLB does? Can you be patriotic without being pro-military?

Today was a pretty smooth day by our school's standard. We are still on a shortened bell, extended division (homeroom) schedule, but I had all of my classes today.

Since it's the last week before Winter Vacation (冬休), the kids are pretty restless. I gave back some exams, which I had graded rather leniently and gave the kids free time to work on their final projects.

In the second level course, they are preparing a grant proposal in English and Japanese. It's a wide range of performance--some kids have barely managed the English portion, and are just slapping some translated words into the process. Others are harassing me for new grammar points so they can write a good translation. Regardless, it's a good skill for them to work on--how to put your dreams into words and present them to others.

The first years are working on a picture porfolio introducing themselves and their families in "Amelie" style. Yeah, we actually watched a clip from "Amelie" in Japanese class. But hey, language is just a mask for communication right? So, just like in Amelie, they are to build people's personalities through a series of "She likes/She doesn't like" sentences.

But my most proud moment of the day was when one of my students who isn't actually in any of my classes (she takes French), but is in the room constantly, brought in a rough draft of a presentation I asked her to work on.

You see, my style tends to be to tell a whole bunch of students, "You're bored, why not try this? I think it's something you'd be interested in!" They get enthusiastic, but most of them soon forget--it's hard to follow through on things.

But she came in today and was like, "Yeah, it's kind of short, but I hope it'll be good", so I set it up for her to present to the other students who work in the room after school.

Her presentation was on "The Opt-Out" form for military service. I probably should back up and explain: Under NCLB (No Child Left Behind), every school district must turn over the names, home contact information and other personal information of all of its 10th-12th grade students to military recruiters. Really, I'm not making this up. It's part of the law. Basically, the only way to prevent this from happening is for students or their parents to sign "Opt-out" forms which would remove the student from the list that is being turned over.

So the student went through the details, gave a little too detail, and not enough enthusiasm (I think she was a little nervous), but then went into the question and answer session. And she was incredible. The kids gave her a bunch of tough questions and she had an answer for everything:
Q: What wrong with them calling us?
A: Well, think about this, you have a terrible day, get several failing notices, and get in a fight with your parents, and then this recruiter calls promising you some dream life...
Q: How do I get this form?
A: Well, I've a stack of forms?
Q: Do I need my parents to sign this?
A: No, only you need to sign this--it's not a legal commitment to anything, it just gets you off of the list.

Our school actually gave out the forms once--on report card day. Unfortunately, only about 25% of our parents come to Report Card pick-up. Furthermore, since they are only handed out to the parents in a big stack of forms, only a couple ever come back.

I finished out the Q&A session by asking:
Q: My father is in the Navy, what's wrong with the military? He's proud to serve the country!
A: This is not about being pro or anti-military. It's just about making sure the people who are in the military are people who want to be in the military.

I'm really excited about this--it's not the politics. Sure--it helps that she's informed and active on a vital issue. But it's just exciting to see kids determine for themselves how they think the society should be and take action to make those beliefs into real societal change.

There's a lot more to the "Opt-Out" and counter recruitment movement that deals with the socio-economic and racial inequities of the current recruitment system. If you are interested, check this out:

Please post any comments, especially critical. Thanks!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Student (and Teacher) Development

I'm teaching full-time in a new environment again this year, so you've probably noticed that my updates are non-existent.

It's always this way--when I have the most interesting stuff going on in my life, I write the least and my experiences are lost to the page. When I'm navel gazing too much, I write a bunch of self-absorbed crap.

So I'm going to try to break through and do a few updates. I'll start with an artificial framework in the hopes it will help me write. Most of all, please respond and chip in you perspective if you can--it will help make me write and even if it fails to do so, I'll certainly learn a lot from it.

Today: Tuesday, only four classes period, eighth was cancelled.

I missed my eighth period kids, but I'm kind of exhausted from that class--it's the one that was twelve students and the kids were blasting through the material and then they dropped 20 extra students into the class with 3 hours notice eleven weeks into the semester.

I'm not really sure how they were supposed to pass, but I've been pretty flexible and there are a small handful that are doing completely awesome. A lot of the students are understandably bitter about the forced add of a foreign language at such a late date, so it's taken some work to get them moving in the right directions.

We had a Student Development team meeting today. I got the memo during my division (homeroom) period, twenty minutes before I had to attend. That kind of threw my planning into disarray, but I'm excited to be on this team.

A couple people from the downtown office came to visit us and solicit grant proposals. It's a good program--for a portion of the grant, teacher proposals are not accepted--the activities must be student written, led and executed. Unfortunately, we don't seem to have students on our student development team, so I was kind of irritated by that. I mean, no matter how many times a bunch of well-meaning teachers meet with each other and chat, there's a point of diminishing returns.

I mean, I feel a strong bond with our students--during division time today, we had an extra half-hour so we watched "Head of State" together, Chris Rock's first film about himself running for president. It has a strong understanding of politics and campaigning, and the kids had a lot of questions about how presidential debates and other aspects of the campaign work. They cheered loudly when Rock's character won, but I didn't point out that Rock had said that he was torn over the ending. Finally, he decided that there might not be another chance to have an African American win a presidential election--real or fictional--for a long time, so he couldn't pass up the chance.

I see that in my kids often--the realization that they are not welcome in the political process and sometimes a "well fuck them if they don't want us!" response that I try my best to explain to them "the best way to mess them up is to get REALLY involved."

So following the meeting, I had a very chaotic hectic day in which the kids were loud and rambunctious, but did seem to get some work done on their projects. I've got them writing fake grant proposals (weird coincidence) in English and then transferring them into Japanese. So I announced about the need for student grants, but there was little interest in trying to import their classwork into the other projects.

During sixth, one of the other teachers came to ask for help on some disciplinary issues. She a great person and a good teacher, but she happens to be caucasian and very sensitive and the kids sometimes just eat her alive. It's kind of hard sometimes to watch someone who cares so much about the kids have to choose between getting a little bit more cynical or bursting into tears or occasionally both. It's been a rough week in general--we had a ton of fights last week and at least two gun incidents, so security has been very tight and I think the kids are a little on edge, doubly so with the break coming up. I've seen a lot more teachers taking kids into the hall to try to deal with them. Technically we can't really send kids out, so there are extreme situations where it's hard to know what to do--a kid has had it rough outside of school and comes to class determined to mess up the entire process. The teachers who don't seem to be stressed out are more "survivors" than experts. There are the great teachers, but it seems like we are mostly judged from the outside just on our classroom discipline, which to be honest, I don't think is really that important. I mean, how many brilliant people do you know who can't sit in their chairs and shut up?

During my "planning periods", I let the students into my room, so they have a safe place to study and avoid the general atmosphere of violence that permeates the school. At first they were concerned that the fighting might spread to my room, but I just explained to them repeatedly that I would step in the way of anyone fighting and if they continued, they would end up punching me in the head.

They tested that promise on a couple of occasions by starting a fake fight and my head was barely spared, but it seemed to satisfy them, so there have been no outbreaks of violence in my classroom.

It does get a little loud sometimes.

Today, I really needed to get some high concentration work done, and I'd heard, "We'll try to be quiet if you don't make us leave" several times to no avail, so I set a limit at 3pm (I was actually done with work at 1:30), and said no talking past that point.

They actually decided to stay and not talk--did some reading and then started to chat a little, but in extremely hushed tones.

I got a ton of work done and at 4:15, I realized that they had stuck to their promise well over an hour, and I had almost finished my grading, so I eavesdropped a little.

They were discussing the upcoming presidential race. "Clinton or Obama, both would be good--the first of their uh, group".

I was a little surprised. Then they proceeded to discuss things that needed to change in the school and how they wished there was something to do.

I smiled, finished my grading, complimented them on their conversation and then tried to sell the grant-writing assignment. They got excited and said they'd have me several ideas for a proposal tomorrow.

I drove my hour commute home, ate my first meal of the day and am now contently rummaging through the day in this space.

Hope someone gets something interesting out of this.
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