Smart Borders

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

http://smartborders.wordpress.com

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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.

Rio Grande Valley Tactical Infrastructure EIS Document Response, or The Difference between 1907 and 2007

    2007 marks the centennial of the United States’ peak year of immigration. 1907 marked a year where, despite awful discrimination against Asians in the ongoing Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the introduction of the Japanese Gentleman’s Agreement, America drew well over a million to its shores to participate in our thriving economy. The centennial of that year finds a very different attitude towards immigration in the polis of America. With the inhibitive and overly restrictive immigration laws and lottery system, we have no real concept of how many migrants, sojourners, asylum-seekers, refugees, and visa over-stayers “immigrated” this year. We do, however, know that some 12 million extralegal citizens currently reside in the continental United States, as defined by the Mexican-American War; in addition to these teeming extralegals, there are millions of other Americans complicit in this immigrant labor and success in our nation.

    While positive, concrete immigration reforms stalled in a staunchly partisan triumvirate political system last year, the only significant immigration legislation in recent years is the Secure Fence Act of 2006. This legislation is slowly, imperceptibly creeping along the Mexican-American border, attempting to replace the natural Rio Grande with the inefficacious Muro Grande. the 538-page U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report entitled “Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Construction, Maintenance, and Operation of Tactical Infrastructure Rio Grande Valley Sector, Texas,” detailing the border barrier and its efforts was just published to the public this past week. Having read these words with an eye to its impact on my own backyard of Brownsville, Texas, it appears to be a shameless show of smoke and mirrors. The purported aim of this barrier, in keeping with the same goals of this present administration which has already brought us to the desert of Iraq and the shores of Cuba, is first and foremost to counter terrorism, presumably being trucked across our Southern border as you read this. In addition, though, the border wall is also supposed to deter drugs (to help our healthy black market “just say no”) and stymie the flow of illegal immigrants in ways that legislative reform cannot.

    Preexistent in this lengthy document, however, is its own unstated downfall. The document brings up token dissent as a means of disproving “all” alternatives to a border wall stretching some 70 miles through the Rio Grande Valley and up to 700 miles along the entire border, but the criticism undoubtedly ricochets back at the wall. The report states that a natural hedge would slow crossings and promote nature, but that it regrettably would not be a foolproof deterrent and would need constant reparations. Such criticism could be directed at the border wall itself. Its staunchest supporters admit it will do littler more than slow down illegal crossings. The report itself states that, because the wall is not continuous, it will probably just shift illegal activity to other, arguably more treacherous, crossing zones.

    The document also proposes that the wall is a “force multiplier” to aid in stopping immigration. Intriguingly, this has been the rallying cry for American businesses so desirous of cheap immigrant labor. Additionally, this report ignores the fact that providing more legal means to citizenship, as opposed to vindictive threats of deportation and Catch-22 scenarios for extralegal aliens already here, would do more to reduce illegal immigration. Just as providing CHIP and family assistance does not serve as an incentive for the impoverished to have illegitimate children, neither will this sort of immigration reform open up the door to illegal immigrants. Rather, it will provide a way and means for qualified individuals to forgo a cruel lottery system in order to officially enter the ranks of the Americans they work alongside already.

    The border wall espoused in this document, replete with its treatment of dissent, is politically little more than a token gesture that both Republicans and Democrats are “tough on immigration,” though hardheaded and medieval in their means. Tokenism is, as Martin Luther King, Jr. writes in his “Bold Design for a New South,”

not only…a useless goal, but…a genuine menace. It is a palliative which relieves emotional distress, but leaves the disease and its ravages unaffected. It tends to demobilize and relax the militant spirit which alone drives us forward to real change.

Socially, ethically, morally, and economically, the Secure Fence Act which is now being treated as inevitable, is a negative, self-defeating gesture which will cripple our workforce, legislate nativism, forgo and delay meaningful immigration reform, and sap precious resources from our nation’s poorest. This wall will brutalize the fragile ecosystem and cultural legacy of La Frontera and will set up a racially-suspicious immigration which leads heavily in favor of Western European countries with its emphasis on numbers, irregardless of population size. This lengthy literary exercise in bureaucracy will soon disappear in the vaults of the Library of Congress, but if we erect a barrier in this Western Hemisphere and ignore real legislative reform for immigration, its legacy will be that of 1924 and 1882, rather than that of 1907, the biggest year yet in immigration. Future generations will peer inquisitive at our contemporary history, befuddled by the ways in which a country so in love with globalizing technology and overseas production could be so obstinately opposed to a globalizing populace.

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…