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  

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.

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…

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  

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