Smart Borders

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

http://smartborders.wordpress.com

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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  

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.

Badges of Citizenship

     At the end of the first movie to feature color photography, a certain “cowardly” lion gets a badge of courage and feels filled with bravery. Anyone watching The Wizard of Oz, though, realizes that he has become courageous throughout the entire movie, and that this ceremony is little more than fanfare to celebrate who he already is.

     Working in a high school on the Mexican-American border, I am surrounded by students caught in the immigration process. For one, he waited ten years to finally get approved and win the lottery for citizenship this past December. Another student has already been told by the United States government that he is a desirable applicant but must wait until he wins his place as one of the measly 26,000 Mexicans allowed to legally enter our country each year. And then there’s your high-honors student, involved in extracurriculars and volunteering, who is anxiously waiting to hear whether her September application for citizenship has been accepted.

     Those opposed to granting even partial amnesty to extralegal immigrants in the United States are missing a vital point. Providing illegal residents a means and a hope for legalization does not change who they are intrinsically any more than the Cowardly Lion’s badge made him courageous. For these people it would be a means to greater opportunity, yes, but opportunities for which their studies and work ethic were already prepared. Students who have successfully exited ESL programs, families who are working together to stay off welfare, individuals who are paying taxes through their employer’s reduced wages – all of these people will simply be validated, legalized, and given the means to contribute further to our community.

     An “earned” amnesty initiative would assure that only people who are already acting like responsible citizens would be granted citizenship. The vast majority of the 12 million extralegal immigrants are precisely these sorts of individuals and families, American in everything but name. A piece of paper does not change their morality, their ethics, their talents, their life, their liberty, or their pursuit of happiness – a piece of paper simply ensures that they can fully participate in our democracy and are afforded the rights citizens take for granted. The small percentage of immigrants who do not work towards an earned amnesty are the types of individuals who should be the focus of aggressive national security measures; these measures become feasible only when the number of “lawbreakers” is converted to a manageable number.

     Our country’s cities, restaurants, schools, fields, factories, and economy are buoyed by 12 million individuals who contribute their talents and ideas to our nation of immigrants. The best way to secure our borders, to effectively budget social security and welfare, to maximize worker output, and o encourage each American to strive for his/her very best is to enable some form of earned amnesty in an effort affirm the decision so many immigrants have already made – to work, to study, to be active in the community, to be American.

Monopolicies

     When I was only 18, I received a check of $18 from a class-action lawsuit against BMG for its monopoly price gouging practices of the 1990s. BMG, along with several other mail-order music clubs, had decided that it would overprice its discs so that it could still make a hefty profit off its “12 for the price of 1” deal. This is all well and good, but this corporation stepped over the line when it encouraged other music clubs to do the same, so they wouldn’t out-compete each other in their markets.

     One of the most telling signs of a monopoly is that businesses in apparent competition all agree not to compete in a certain manner or venue. While the U.S. government and its bi-partisan system are arguably not a corporation, they have most certainly engaged in “monopolicies” in regard to immigration reform. By agreeing not to disagree on this issue until after the elections, they have effectively silenced the 12 million extralegal immigrants, and the millions of legal citizens who plead for them, for yet another year. Our country screams out for deep immigration reform just as it railed against Prohibition some 80 years ago. But all the major candidates have skirted the issue at best, breathing platitudes and supporting a ridiculous gesture of national defense – the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

      It has certainly brought our nation to an impasse, when politicians are terrified to speak about an issue which greatly affects our nation’s GDP, society, education, healthcare, and future. This past week Hilary Clinton was railed against when she dared say the illegal immigrants should be able to apply for driver’s licenses. Whether you agree with her other policies or not, she was one of the only candidates who would take a firm stand and propose some means of incorporating the 12 million and counting people who reside within our borders without any legal protection or identification. Nearly every other candidate criticized her statements, yet not of them addressed the underlying issue. If we are not to give these people a means to citizenship, are we to spend billions of dollars extraditing and deporting 12 million people who largely comprise our labor class? If we fail to allow residents, illegal or otherwise, the opportunity to legally register their vehicles or themselves, will that take any steps towards keeping them off the roads or “securing” within our nation’s borders?

      It is time that the people of United States take a stand against any sort of monopolicies. For too long, we have allowed politicians to tell us what the “real issues” are. Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I, along with so many well-meaning religious people, voted my “conscience” by choosing a “pro-life” candidate. These candidates, largely Republican, touted the fact that they would support pro-life policies, but in their terms of office no large alterations have been made to Roe vs. Wade but huge changes have occurred in our militaristic mindset and our warmongering ideals. It is time that the people of this democracy decide which issues they are voting on and then hold their candidates accountable to those issues. So far, the outcry for immigration reform has rested simply within our souls, but we must make it loud and clear that we cannot continue living in a country where 12 million people live without rights, protection, documentation, or hope of attaining citizenship for anyone but their posterity. If America is to have any hope in maintaining its status as a world leader, taxes, war victories, campaign reform, and even nationalized healthcare are not the real issues. The real issues, the issues which must come to the forefront of our national debates, are education and immigration reform. These are the two ways in which we can better our future today.

Published in: on November 4, 2007 at 10:12 am  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