Smart Borders

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

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A River Runs Through It

     There is more than enough criticism in the world. Films and books, in my estimation, should be reviewed as to what they awaken in the viewer rather than attempting to base it off some shifting aesthetic truth. Like wine aficionados imploring you to envision dark cherries and raisins when you taste a chianti, perhaps we could all get more out of our media experiences if we discussed what it awakened in us. For that is the ultimate point of the arts, to awaken memories and fan passions and serve as a catalyst or an encouragement for some change.

 

     Last week I saw A River Runs Through It for the first time. Its sweeping epic, the gorgeous shots of Montana and its nostalgic views of fly-fishing all made me feel as if I were partaking in a classic. They reminded me of my own life, reminded me of the dreams I had as a child, as well as excited in me the desire to take up fly-fishing.

     What spoke to me even more than the stunning landscapes, though, was the idea that someone can make it something beautiful simply by loving it. Paul Maclean, the rebellious son who is embroiled in gambling and drinking problems, somehow elevates all those around him through the simple act of his beautiful casting. As a child he wanted to be a professional fly-fisherman, and even as he grew older and was forced to take other jobs, that driving passion still propelled him and gave his life meaning. To go fishing with Paul was to almost guiltily snatch a glimpse between a man and his true love.

     It strikes me that this is the fundamental act of teaching. Teaching is about many things – imparting responsibility, engendering independence, drilling the basics, and preparing students’ goals – but it is most especially the act of communicating a passion despite its utility. Surely writing and reading are noble classroom subjects, but for me they are more than that, the essence of what holds us together and the foundation of understanding. Literacy is the path to independence, to expression, to nonviolence, to a heightened sense of self.

     On a daily basis, my job is to communicate that emotion I get when I read a paperback with the rain drizzling just outside my window. I try to make my classes sense the excitement of new worlds offered in readings, the pleasure of saying something both necessary and beautifully. At times, this makes teaching the most frustrating job in the world. Rarely do we put our passions on display for others, and one always risks a profound un-appreciation which is both depressing and disheartening. To come to class ready to discuss Holden’s motivation for cleaning off the bathroom walls, only to discover not a single student has read that chapter, is to contemplate whether or not this is the profession to which you were called.

     But, in those instances when you see the flicker of the flame of interest, it is all worth it. Nothing in life compares to the sight of a pupil’s pupil changing from a black hole of disinterest to an open portal of independent discovery. A teacher never teaches an entire class; to hope for 100% passionate students is to set oneself up for failure. But, we do teach for those children who are waiting to get turned on to something meaningful, who have as of yet not been introduced to beauty by someone who loves it to distraction. It is my hope as a lifelong educator that I might be able to share my loves in such a way that my students cannot help but be curious about the power of writing and the self-fulfillment of reading. If only I can love it deeply enough, openly enough, and communicate it truly enough. This is an educator’s dream; this is the river which runs through us.

Published in: on December 9, 2007 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  

Suspenders

I wore suspenders for the first time today.

     One of my heroes at school is a 77-year-old man who has lived four lives and still has more gumption than most football teams. He has served as a missionary in Latin America, transported and sold fish from coastal Mexico, and taught for over a decade at a struggling border school. He is a bastion of faith, an indomitable man who volunteered to teach the toughest kids, the “failures,” when everyone else was running for high ground clamoring for AP classes. My hero has helped me bring in a speaker who worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. He supported me as I bungled through my first year teaching. My mentor drops off articles of interest, invites me to observe him, and offers me his encouragement and advice.

      When my hero told me today that he was leaving teaching after this semester, reality suspended. He has been teaching for me. My school and its students will lose the chairperson for junior English teachers. It will sorely miss his administration of the ACTs, his tutorials, his willingness to accept challenges, his dedication to bringing social activism into the classroom. We English teachers will miss a man who wholeheartedly loved to discuss Yeats, the Spanish Armada, politics, cavalier poetry, Shelley, Chicano history, etc.

      Most of all, I will miss my friend and mentor. No Child Left Behind is in the process of leaving lots of teachers behind, with its high-stakes testing and accountability measures which are doing little to drive up success but plenty to increase stress.

     I wore suspenders for the first time today because they are his signature wardrobe choice. He has different suspenders for every day of the week. I vividly recall one of my first days at my new school when Jimmy told me, “Suspenders allow maximum freedom. They don’t clamp down on you; they give your body room to breathe and be free.”

      I would have to agree with him. As I taught today’s lesson about gratitude, I could not help but appreciate the novel feel of loose-hanging khakis. Jimmy would have been proud, but only in equal amounts to my own.

Published in: on December 5, 2007 at 9:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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  

Part Teacher, Part Mentor

     It is the fate of all educators to come across those students who put teacherly ideals to the test. For first-year teachers wanted to make a genuine difference in every child’s life, it can be frustrating and job-ending to realize that not every student is going to make significant gains in the classroom that year. Students who come but once a week, or who are tardy more often than not, or who transfer late in the year, or who are so far behind they cannot realistically pass their grade-level’s state test – all of these students can be overwhelming when one is truly working day in and day out to teach one’s subject.

      And then there are those students, the ones we we educators do not miss when they are gone. Those students, the children that sleep on a good day and cause ruckus and insurrection in a normal period. Such students seem unfazed by discipline, straight talks, or exciting lesson plans. No matter how many calls home or referrals or verbal warnings or praises or rewards or motivations, these students seem bound and determined to get nothing from our classes.

      Yet that is where we teachers sell ourselves short by measuring our success by a book or a test. At the end of the day, we are equal parts mentor and instructor, role model and educator. And that is how Kourtney (name changed) taught me a lesson. Be it grammar or ghost story, Kourtney just didn’t seem interested in anything more than chatting it up with her friends or attracting the eyes of a male passerby. As a ninth-grader, she had all the emotional maturity of a 2nd grader. I struggled to not give her the negative attention she seemed to crave, but it is tough when students like her offer so little opportunity for positive praise.

      Kourtney had a 20% and seemed to be proud of it. But even though she had missed every major assignment in our six-week grading period, she still faithfully came to every volunteer activity we held. She seemed to come alive helping other people, in a way that she did not in the class. She was curious and almost empathetic. Kourtney seemed more mature outside the classroom (maybe a 4th grader), and she genuinely seemed interested in serving our community.

     That was my epiphany – perhaps it was not my job to teach Kourtney run-on sentences and vocabulary words this year. Maybe my job was not teach her to recognize fragment sentences but help her piece together the fragments of her broken home as she reached out in service to others. If I can just show her the positive power of service as laid out in the Bible, in Martin Luther King, Jr., and college handbooks, maybe I could be a teacher who began to make a difference. I felt a peace, not the peace in giving up on a child but the serenity of realizing one’s role in another person’s life.

Published in: on November 4, 2007 at 6:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pacifism as Sissyfism

As a male teacher and a recent convert to pacifism in hopes of nonviolently protesting for real immigration reform, I have been made to feel effeminate in ways I had never dreamed before. Anyone who is familiar with either of these endeavors must surely be puzzled to see them “sissyfied” by America popular culture.

 

In these United States, men in the teaching profession are forever judged by their gender. It may be that K-12 education is the closest men can get to sexual discrimination. Despite one’s best efforts to keep the classroom door open and avoid one-on-one situations with female students, the media and the public seem to question a young man’s desire to go into high-school education. The all-too frequent and awful headlines about teachers abusing their privileges should surely be cause for careful accountability, but it should not tinge an entire professional gender.

 

On top of this, there are the “joto” and “gay” comments from male students trying to establish their own pubescent masculinity. To be sure, I need not take offense at the comment for its implications about sexual preference, but it is highly puzzling to walk around with a ring from my fiance and hear students question my sexuality. While teaching may not seem as hyper-masculine as raising fences, shrimp-boating, farming, or day-laboring, it is all perspective – few of these “men” are forced to work for respect on a daily basis, to discipline and motivate 130 individuals, to face high stakes and long days, or to deal with teenage pregnancy, chisme, pranks, drugs, and general apathy. All of these prove extremely challenging for me, and I know no one who finds them a cakewalk. On what, then, do we base our concept of masculinity and machismo?

 

Not only am I a teacher, but I am also a firm believer in nonviolence. While Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi pioneered this form of militant action, it has largely been ignored and branded “weak” these past 30 years. Since when did pacifism signal “sissyfism?” Armed with nothing but beliefs and trusting only in the defense of a God-endowed conscience, nonviolent activists should be portrayed as every bit as courageous as soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, some of whom do no believe in the cause for which they are fighting. It should be noted that both King and Gandhi held strict requirements for their recruits, turning away more people than the military as they sought to find only those individuals with the steadfast spirit to endure anything, even death, in the pursuance of their beliefs and faith. The monks in Myanmar, although thus far ignored by much of the world’s media, are at least as courageous and militant as the man who grips his gun in battle, for they are willing to sacrifice all they have to forward a worthy cause.

 

And yet pacifism has always been construed as the way of the weak. The Mayday demonstrations of 2006, the Wakova ghost dance of the Iroquois, the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, the marches on Washington in the 60’s and today – all of these have been billed as a safe and indirect substitute for true action (read violence). Indeed, on the surface, violence appeals to our love of the immediate, but in the end its effects are always evanescent and victory is always marked by loss on both sides. Nonviolence, contrastingly, seeks to bring about reforms and peace by using peaceful, yet deliberate and effective, means. Nonviolence’s best attribute is that it aims to change the future not by employing weapons of the past but by utilizing the very ends it seeks. While those who dub it weak or retreatist fail to see its urgency and its power in the now, anyone interested in true reform both today and for years to come must practice nonviolence.

 

Japanese haiku is dominated by the simple plum tree. Its white blossoms are breathtaking, but its most salient characteristic is its flexibility. Unlike hardwood trees, the plum’s strength rests in the fact that it can bend. Traditional hardwood trees, though, meet violent force with violent opposition, often ending in their downfall. Nonviolence may never have trading cards or round-the-clock television coverage, but it is the only philosophy for conflict resolution which can eventually unite both sides of a dispute. What is sissy about survival for all?

 

Another week begins, and I will most certainly hear more passing remarks about Mr. Webster’s “non-heterosexual” enthusiasm in class. I am also sure to have to explain my stance on nonviolence to students and colleagues alike. While it can be tiring to constantly come back to the same issues, just think about all those teachable moments for them and for me.

Published in: on October 28, 2007 at 9:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

No Teacher Left Behind

Today was one of those days that make you think God wasn’t talking into your good ear when you thought you heard your calling.

Education is a troubled issue in America today.  No Child Left Behind will be critiqued and criticized and amended for years to come, but that is utterly ignoring the real underlying issues at work in our nation’s educational systems.

One, there is very little respect for teachers, both inside and outside of the classroom.  In the world without, teaching is a regarded as a fall-back job, something to do if engineering or computer programming gets too difficult.  Except in economically depreciated parts of the country, teachers are paid far below the importance and responsibility with which they are supposedly charged – namely, the future of children’s souls.  Gone is the respect for people who go into a life of service through teaching the community; now, the main highlights in the charitable world are million-dollar donations from our country’s super-rich.  If I stay in education for the rest of my life, I will be forever explaining my job choice to family members, my wife, my children, and my high-school teachers who had “expected so much more” from a promising student.

The respect within the classroom is just as corrosive.  Within America’s classrooms, teachers are degraded on a regular basis.  Be it from blatant disrespect, trifling paperwork, student disruptions, or apathy, a job they care for passionately is trashed daily.  Much of a teacher’s job comes at the end of the day, trashing the inevitable wads of paper and gum and hoping to regain some of their dignity and self-respect in the waste basket where their class left it.  A lack of support from school administration and outside resources means that teachers are encouraged to solve discipline behaviors internally; for students who fail to care about grades and field trips, this means ignoring sleepers, apathetic do-nothings, and casual disrupters.

Second, there is a pervading sense of both apathy and entitlement.  While they may at first appear dipolar opposites, they in fact stem from and result in the same phenomenon  of passivity.  Apathy, which is top on the list of most teachers’ prime enemies, infects everything from intro-level math classes to pre-AP classes.  Students who cease to care for their own education and, by proxy, their futures, are extremely difficult to motivate or reprimand.

The concept of entitlement, too, is a pervasive issue in our nation’s classroom.  Special education students demand their rights, students bellow that they are entitled to be marked present even if they skip half a class.  The sense of entitlement knows no single class or group; AP students feel entitled to acceptance at a good university and high honor roll grades, while some Special Education students will cry out whenever a modification means they can study less for a test.  Entitlement begins to rob the joy in teaching when above-and-beyond field trips and clubs are taken for granted by students who expect adult attention at all times.

If we are to change the state of America’s education, we must also examine and seek to modify the moral state of our classrooms.  The lack of respect, the overwhelming sense of entitlement, and the pervasive apathy all hinder true education from occurring.  No child should be left behind, true, but teachers should not be left behind either.

Published in: on October 18, 2007 at 10:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Further Insight into a Flawed System

Every once in a while, I am overwhelmed by the fact that, as a teacher, I am messing with people’s lives.

Today, that all became poignantly clear as I began my first day of reviewing ESL students’ folders and determining whether or not they could exit the program this year.  We have students who are exiting after 2 years and students who will be retained for their tenth.  Special Ed. students have no hope of exiting the ESL program because they take a modified test.  I was discouraged by the number of students who took 1 out of the 3 mandatory tests flippantly and thus were retained for yet another year.

One questions a system that pays schools a certain dollar amount per ESL student, which obviously encourages schools to retain their ESL students rather than graduate them in the best interest of the student.  One also questions a system that can contribute so much paperwork to a child’s student id, yet apparently so little to their overall education.  For too long, it has been solely the number of students in a school’s ESL program and not the quality of that program which warranted government money.  As we move forward into an age of increasing accountability, I pray that the students are the better for it.

It was joyous to me whenever one of my current students successfully exited the program, as if I were in some way responsible for their learning in middle school last year.  The sad realization was that these mini-celebrations happened too few and far between.

Perhaps it is the fact that these students have little reinforcement at home.  Maybe they don’t read or write because none of their friends do, none of their heroes or role models do.  Maybe it is our curriculum, or our classrooms, maybe the system or NCLB or policy.  Whatever it is, it is messing with people’s lives.  Just as I must hold myself to that standard at the end of each grading period, our nation will answer this question about the quality of its education in but a few years.

Published in: on September 25, 2007 at 3:08 am  Leave a Comment  

Nonviolence is not just about protest

“Nonviolence is not just about protest.” As I teach my high-school freshman English students about Gandhi and MLK and Thoreau, I tried to be very careful to temper it with the other side to this philosophy. Life is more than just reactionary, oppositional forces, and so it is for nonviolence. If nonviolence is only about resistance and protest, then it will never help to create the world it envisions – it will simply stop a worse world from existing. Nonviolence, like humans, must be productive in order to be successful. I did not want to infuse them with a cynical, angry, rebellious fire without also making them passionate to change their community for the better.

This weekend, my students volunteered at the local zoo. Though few were there on time, 30 students showed up for this 3-hour volunteering session from 9-12 on a Sunday morning. I was amazed, amazed by their presence, amazed by their enthusiasm, amazed by their interest and their work ethic and their excitement for volunteering. They were cleaning filthy cages, feeding ungrateful monkeys, sweeping dusty paths, making toys only to be torn apart by hyperactive parrots, and yet they served cheerfully and joyfully because they had internalized this lesson much deeper than I had imagined. Many of them had never been in the zoo before, though they’ve lived here all their lives. Likewise, many had never volunteered before in their 14 or 15 years of existence.

Driving home at the end of the day, my students’ questions about “when we would get to do this again” still ringing in my ears, I realized this was the most important thing I have taught in my teaching career. The writing’s important, but only as it is directed towards something positive; reading’s fundamental, but service is even more rudimentary; communicating with words and letters on a page is second to communicating through service or acts of love.

Nonviolence is so much more than protest. It took my students to teach me that. Who you are, ultimately, is not what you stood against but to what you contributed.

Published in: on September 25, 2007 at 1:53 am  Leave a Comment