Smart Borders

All future postings from blogger Matthew Webster will now appear on:

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Words are…Power!

WORDS ARE….POWER

    This call-and-response begins class every single day in F114. I impress upon my students that I love my job because literacy is the heart of life. If you do not have a working literacy, you are forced to believe everything you hear. Without the ability to read, analyze, and check sources, my students must take everything I tell them at face value; and while I would never intentionally lie to them, there are plenty in this world who are less scrupulous with the truth.

    At the heart of students’ success is a working literacy. OCHEM, Fluid Mechanics, Intro to Statistics, World Geography, Government – all of these courses are based on a working written language. This fact is highlighted in border schools, where ESL students comprise the vast majority of the student population. The success of each students can largely be predicted by that student’s literacy. Additionally, Mexican culture was a primarily oral culture until just a few years ago, and still many parents and their children do not prize the capacity to mark and interpret black strikes on white pulp.

    Which brings me to the subject at hand. The national push to “modernize” our educational system can be summed up in a dark anecdote published by Time Magazine.

Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century after a hundred-year snooze and is, of course, utterly bewildered by what he sees. Men and women dash about, talking to small metal devices pinned to their ears. Young people sit at home on sofas, moving miniature athletes around on electronic screens. Older folk defy death and disability with metronomes in their chests and with hips made of metal and plastic. Airports, hospitals, shopping malls–every place Rip goes just baffles him. But when he finally walks into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is. “This is a school,” he declares. “We used to have these back in 1906. Only now the blackboards are green.” [“How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century” Dec. 10, 2006]

 

The past few years of NCLB have seen the American education system throwing millions of dollars to “technologize” its neediest schools. A week after Amazon.com released its revolutionary Kindle ebook system, some may be signing the death warrant of paperback books and their inclusion in our educational system. Grants abound for electronic funding and computer purchases, and private backers love to revolutionize and modernize needy schools (as opposed to buying them 500 books 1/10 the cost).

    Currently, border schools such as the one in which I teach subscribe to 3-5 different computer literacy programs aimed at different student populations. They also “utilize” at least that many test-preparation programs for reading. Many schools have SmartBoards in every class, several boast ELMO’s, and virtually every school is equipped with the bare necessities of their thousand-dollar LCD projectors. Still, however, at the end of the day, my particular school, like many other schools, lacks the capacity to provide books for its students. IN my particular case, I can only supply books for one of my 5 classes. Our school houses only 60 copies of Romeo and Juliet, despite the fact that all 900 freshman are required to read it each year.

    In the well-intentioned hope of modernizing, we are are neglecting the very heart of literacy – personal, private, independent reading. It is good and well if a students can interpret words in a movie or HTML, but they must also be able to glean information from a single sheet of pressed wood. Nothing can replace the physical joy of breaking in the spine of a new book, of completing that last page, of conquering a book, of downing your first full novel.

    At best, these technological frills are good supplements. Our students will not learn reading if they are never enabled to have reading homework. I have printed 100 copies of Huckleberry Finn from the amazing Project Gutenberg for my students, just so that they could interact with the text and take it home to read independently. I have also utilized a grant to purchase a book for every single one of my students to read and keep. For some, it was the first book they had ever read; the book took on new meaning as a trophy for them and, quite often, for their family. And by entrusting students with their own books, we as educators are teaching them personal responsibility and independence. The excuse that books are old-fashioned, costly, or unnecessary will not hold true unless there are no more books at all. The excuse that technology is the future is based off the implied fact that students possess basic literacy. With increased access to text but decreased literacy skills, our students can never hope to succeed in today’s world.

Words are Power.

Role Models

    Teaching 99% Mexican-Americans, I keep coming back to the same role models in my motivational investment lessons: Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), Corky Gonzales (1928-2005), Dolores Huerta (1930-present). While Dolores is 77 and still speaking publicly, most of the other true role models for my Mexican-American students are dead or less than ideal. The first Latino Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, resigned under a flurry of less-than-honorable allegations this September. Few movies, songs, or other media sources depict Mexican-Americans as anything more triumphant than good workers of low-wage jobs.

    If heroes are supposed to model roles for our children, the roles being modeled today in the Latino community are those of ultra-sexed chicas, the drug runners of narcocorridos, the gang members of inner cities, the toiling migrant laborers in America’s fields. Education is seen as unnecessary or superfluous for any of the roles currently being modeled in America’s Latino experience.

    Obviously Latinos are capable of more than these stereotyped roles, and they often have risen above the odds to achieve truly successful careers. However, the fact remains that Latinos, and specifically Mexican-Americans, have an atrocious drop-out rate nationally. The cycle repeats itself when students, lacking highly-educated role models, drop out of high school to perpetuate another generation of un-education.

    In his book Where Do We Go From Here, Martin Luther King, Jr., writes about another racial minority that,

In two national polls to name the most respect Negro leaders, out of the highest fifteen, only a single political figure, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, was included and he was in the lower half of both lists. This is in marked contrast to polls in which white people choose their most popular leaders; political personalities are always high on the lists and are represented in goodly numbers…”

King notes here that all groups have their role models; the difference, therein, lies in the quality and the influential positions of these role models.

    For Mexican-American youths, it is often difficult to name a singly influential Latino who is working to enact change in the nation they inhabit. That inevitably leads to apathy, a defeatist mentality, and a resignation to the current status quo expectations for Mexican-Americans. We must do our best to herald true heroes in the Latino community, as we also work hard to prepare our students to become the role models Mexican-Americans so need.

Published in: on November 15, 2007 at 7:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

Objects at Rest

    Some days at school, a teacher feels like a car colliding with an oak tree. Our job is easy, or at least easier, when we are educating and mentoring students already active in sports, the community, their churches, or their homes. The students which give teachers, schools, and communities the hardest time are those students at rest. This sums up the nationwide educator’s complaint of apathy at its worst.

    How does one move an object at rest? As a teacher, we exploit any prime motivators in our students’ lives in an effort to get them moving towards successful learning. But when a student lacks coaches, involved parents, spiritual advisors, or an employer, there is little to nothing a teacher can do to lever them. Intrinsic motivation such as grades and “self-respect” only influence someone who is interested in change or motion.

    This sentiment is present to some extent at all schools. A border school, however, and specifically a school in the poorest border city in the United States, has these motionless drifters in ample abundance. The students who must be the most motivated in order to succeed are often the most listless and defeated. Some of this is because they have been discouraged in the past, beaten down by authority figures and offered little prospects of succeeding.

     However, some of this has to be the environment in which they live. The border is a unique area of the United States, no doubt. It is the home to huddled masses waiting for their loved ones to one day cross the border. La frontera is an alternate reality, where Spanish and English and Spanglish all are legitimate and equally useful in all contexts, public and private. The border is poor, and the economics of poverty can be seen in the gaudy show of “wealth” through bling, cars on credit, stereos, and designer clothes. Many of the border’s residents do not have the means, whether legal or economic, to head north, and slowly that desire ebbs away from them. As a result, they are content to live in their parents’ house until they marry at 35, content to endure a minimum-wage job, satisfied to live and function in a largely illiterate or literary-neutral location.

    How, then, does a teacher ignite dreams in students which are not there? Is it even right, to light fires under students which may only burn them and their families? I sit at my laptop drinking coffee, clutching my Protestant work ethic and my hopes and dreams, wondering if it is ethical for me to foist them upon my students, if I even can. Perhaps a teacher’s job is twofold: 1.) to teach every student to varying extents; 2.) to give those students who seem destined for more the means to achieve something outside their environment.

    Through all this, it becomes painfully clear that a teacher never teaches a class; we can only ever teach students.

Guy Fawke’s Day

Guy Fawke’s Day comes to a close uneventfully in America’s borderland. The British have burned thousands of effigies today to commemorate a man who attempted to demolish Parliament and was hanged by King James I, also the commissioner of the most popular Biblical translation to date. Watch V for Vendetta and am filled with vim and vigor for change, but I cannot help but be skeptical at the violent means V uses to bring about drastic change with uncertain future ramifications. This is the nonviolent scholar in me.

 

As an English major, all my classmates had their area of expertise pegged out by sophomore year. This one used Marx to critique everything from fables to ballads, this one took a feminist view take on Shakespeare, another opted for the Freudian analysis of memoirs. It would have been easier for me to choose one of these; as it was, each critique could be radically different than the others and I had little basis for analysis besides my own young ramblings.

 

If I had it over again, I would opt to be a nonviolent scholar, examining the ways in which nonviolence is sissy-fied and violence, particularly redemptive violence, is still applauded in our popular culture. Despite its efficacy in the 1960s, few people truly believe nonviolence is the option of the brave realist in today’s world. Nonviolence is synonymous with passivity rather than active pacifism. True, thousands of movies would never have been made without the vigilante justice model, or the heroic knight archetype, or the crusading revolutionary role. My essays would stress, however, just how different the world might be if the Academy Award went to a film whose characters eschewed special effects and elaborate fight scenes to instead focus on the redemptive power of a means which justifies the end.

 

Nonviolence, as it were, has lost its academia. It is not taught but for a few token references to King’s “I have a dream” speech.  University professors tend to focus on fringe topics (such as lesbian haiku or neo-Gothic comedies), because it is easier to carve out a niche for themselves in the publish-or-perish competition of academia.  And yet nonviolence is the single best critic of our current culture and its self-defeating militaristic mindset. I wish I could go back and write 10-page papers detailing how nonviolence, or the lack of nonviolence, changes the outcome and plots of every story. Perhaps then, through my academia and studies, I could impart something more than just one more critical voice, a voice we all acquire at college though without the tools of creation.

 

Guy Fawke’s is a fantastic myth about a man who hoped to change his country’s religion in a violent manner. Although he is dead and and his effigy burned every single year, people keep carrying on his spirit of violent defiance and armed resistance. Though it makes for great screenplay, would it have been possible if he hadn’t planned a demolition? Nonviolent scholarship would say yes, that the means must match the ends, that it is ludicrous to hope to bring about peace through violence. If only the proletariat had read this sort of scholarship in their mandatory English classes…