Sunday, September 25, 2011

What kind of change? You tell me.

So in the spirit of Corners (and if you haven't read it, it's blogged below, from the bottom to the top), what would Shelley do about the American public school system?

Fasten your seat belt, because as reasonable and naive as Shelley may appear on the surface, she is still at heart a radical for social justice, in her own way.

By now, Shelley would be a teacher, probably of troubled teens.  From her very tiny window which is a classroom, she would see a thing that extra high-uppity-ups in the school system try very hard not to see:  she would see the place where the grinding gears of the federal, state, and district systems meet and mandate her to death, such that she cannot respond, for the very control of it all, to the daily small things that make or break her students.  She would see what Hermann Hesse wrote about ever so long ago in his book "Beneath the Wheel."

Sigh - some things never change.

And how would Hesse describe the purpose of schooling as he knew it in 1906 Germany?  Here he described his experience:

"What would many happy citizens and trustworthy officials have become but unruly, stormy innovators and dreamers of useless dreams, if not for the effort of their schools? In young beings there is something wild, ungovernable, uncultured which first has to be tamed. It is like a dangerous flame that has to be controlled or it will destroy. Natural man is unpredictable, opaque, dangerous, like a torrent cascading out of uncharted mountains. At the start, his soul is a jungle without paths or order. And, like a jungle, it must first be cleared and its growth thwarted. Thus it is the school's task to subdue and control man with force and make him a useful member of society, to kindle those qualities in him whose development will bring him to triumphant completion."

Beneath the Wheel, 1906
Right in the spirit of No Child Left Behind!

What would Patrick Henry think of No Child Left Behind?  But never mind, I digress.

From her classroom, Shelley would see that there are two types of students in public school - students who "bring their own," and everyone else.

The first type of student - or the one who would have learned anyway - was taught to read at home at an early age.  This student loves reading because she first read in the warmth of her mother's, or daddy's, or nana's lap; and has now acquired many models of language which allow her to speak and write fluently, because she has continued to read so much, as is her habit.  She is allowed to take richly, elegantly designed Advanced Placement courses (at least, better designed by comparison) because she is successful.  She was successful on her first day of kindergarten, has received positive strokes for her success ever since (plus the reading and conversing lessons at home, as well as piano), and therefore is pleasant to teach and earns A's easily.  This student never has to repeat classes because of failure, and therefore has time for every gram of enrichment the system has to offer, and therefore the greatest relief from regulation because most of her coursework flies high above the radar.

The rest of the students are students who do not arrive reading as well, or as much; or who are just regular everyday kids whose parents both work till all they can do is lie down when they get home; or who have a single mom or dad, or are a foster child or an abused or neglected child, or any other factor that prevents them from achieving a seamless development of internal structure and personal self control.  Both of these, structure and self control, are rare gifts for the young in this day and age.  I believe they can be taught in public schools by allowing students to develop passion for what they do and a vision for their own future.  But that's another story.

If students are of this latter type - in other words, average kids - they will be treated to classes that are chock full of required learning standards.  These standards will have been prepackaged in one or more purchased instructional programs, which must by federal, state and local mandate be "implemented with fidelity."  This means you have to do it all, and in order, whether this package seems to be producing astute users of the content or not.  Whether or not students are astute users will not be tested, at least not until the Common Core comes out (that might be a whole other blog, if you don't get bored).  For now - that means today, for your kid - the standards will instead be tested by multiple choice, and therefore must be taught in a fashion which results in the proper selection of prepackaged answers.

Believe it or not, most teachers rise above this by virtue of the fact that they "work in" richness and elegance to the program anyway.  For those who won't, or don't know how, or who just don't come made that way, the only way to learn this skill of "working it in" is in proximity with other teachers who have "it," and who are patient and caring enough to share "it."

As higher-ups consider this fact, it is not lost on them that their basic program is extremely dry and therefore does not result in retention of knowledge or depth of learning.  So locally, teachers are mandated to include continual incidents of additional prepackaged "engagement" strategies called "pair-share," or "foldables," or "checking for understanding," all in a specific prescribed manner.  Observers should be able to see "pair-share," "foldables," or "checking for understanding" going on, whenever they enter the classroom, whether it is a common sense time for such a thing or not.  These strategies are expected to enliven the program, and create "sticky" places in the students' brains for the massive number of strategies they are learning to make a nest.

Some of us - teachers - were chatting in the hallway the other day.  We believe that since we have dramatically increased  the use of "pair-share" and "foldables," our students seem more frenetic, less calm, less able to bring their minds around to focus on a concept with any depth.  Hmmm.  Who would listen to that?  This year, probably no one.  There's something more that's needed - we know it.  But we don't have time to look for it, what with all the folding and pairing and checking and whatnot.

So what is the moral of this story?  This system - the big, sprawling American public school system - is alive, and it has a DNA.  And it's DNA is programmed for CONTROL, unless you are a privileged child.  This control ripples from the federal level and the state level down through the local level.  The system is therefore locked, at all levels.  Control is our practice.  Fidelity is our mantra.  There is no escape unless something very large happens that upends the whole thing.

What would Shelley do?  Shelley is honing her craft, and wants to be a professional teacher who develops students' minds.  And she would have no idea what to do, because indeed it seems unstoppable.  But she would sure start asking questions.  So here we go.

How do we change the school system so that ALL STUDENTS CAN LEARN?  How do we empower teachers to make learning happen the ONLY place it ever happens - in the CLASSROOM, not in Washington, not in Sacramento, and not in the Board Room?

What has to change?  You tell me.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Real life, not a book

About 7:30 each morning, I hear the buses pull up.  They come from all over the east side of the county:  Merced, Atwater, Livingston, and points in between.  Places known for their poverty, low levels of education, teen pregnancy rate, gangs.  We've been written up in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the LA Times for these things.  Now turn your thinking cap around backwards.  We have also sought and won the right to be home to the tenth campus in the University of California system,  a crown jewel of the American scientific research engine, and the planned home of a future medical school.  We are strange, and we are beautiful, in my town.

Michelle Obama spoke at UC Merced's
 first graduation ceremony because students
 wrote her  letters and asked her to come.
Our students, too, are different, and beautiful.  My school, Sequoia High School, is a community day school, and is therefore more different than all the other differents.  Secretly, I also think our students are more beautiful.

Some of my students have been featured on A&E network's Beyond Scared Straight, the Corcoran Prison edition.  All of my students' stories are varied and detailed, and I will not tell them to you, because in case they read this, I love them far too much to have them believe that I'm talking about them personally.  But you can use your imagination, and it will not fail you.  Start with foster homes and the statistics I gave you above, and you will arrive in the right places.  You will be right if you conclude that some of them are grieving for parents and siblings and friends lost to indescribable violence, and some have children of their own.  Some are expelled from regular schools because of things they've done.  That's enough to know.

So we're reading this book called The Three Doctors.  It's part of a program called X-Treme Reading, and we are one of the only school districts in the nation - I really think the ONLY district, but I want to be sure so I don't exaggerate - that is piloting the program to the extent that we are.  For this reason, important people at University of Kansas watch our progress closely and personally.

Note - part of what makes us strange and beautiful:  we have hard times, but we try REALLY HARD here.  That's how we got the new University.  That's how our Congressman (who grew up a little boy from Atwater) got one of our high schools $450,000 for an Engineering Academy, so our students can go to the brand new Engineering School at the new University.  That's how Charles Ogletree and Daniel Silva and Bernard Berrian, and hundreds of Japanese Americans who were interned during WWII and then landed on their feet, came from here.  Having hard times and trying hard.

But I digress.

We're reading The Three Doctors.  The Three Doctors are real people who have been on Oprah.  They grew up in New Jersey and were once little boys who had lives just like my students, and now they are doctors who have a Three Doctors Foundation, LLC, that helps kids see a better future.  You can look at their pictures in the middle of the book and watch their faces and their postures change from streetwise and arrogant and scared, to distinguished and kind and mature as they grow up.  My students want to know:  HOW DID THEY DO THAT?  None of my adults, after being a kid like me, grew up and did exactly that, they say.

Since we watched The Freedom Writers and are journaling our life stories in my class, my students asked me, why don't we write to the doctors and ask them to come see us?  Even if they can't come, maybe we can talk to them some other way, skyping, or telephone. So we did.  We wrote them letters, and we're mailing them next week after we've made them beautiful.

On Friday we, my class and I, called The Three Doctors Foundation, LLC, on my cell phone, too, and I put them on speaker while I asked the lady there some questions.  You could tell even from the other end of the line that she thought my students were very cool, because they were writing letters to these doctors she knows personally, right then and there while we spoke to her from 3,000 miles away.  There was a twinkle in her voice that I know must have been reflected in her eyes, and you could hear the twinkle.

But the best part was, even the very sound of her voice on the other end of the line made my students' eyes light up very bright, and hopeful.  Even just the sound of her voice did that.

So because of that, we really, really hope that we get to meet the doctors, or that at least we could talk to them somehow personally.  We are going to work and beg and supplicate, and fundraise if we have to, and seek permission like crazy in hopes of making it happen.  But even if we NEVER exchange words with the doctors themselves (but I believe we will, no jinx), the very act of TRYING HARD will have made a difference to my students.  We are writing other letters, too, and someone who has tried hard and landed on their feet will come and tell us how they did it.  And we will always have our effort with The Three Doctors to talk about, and how it made us think differently.

By doing this, my students will have rewired themselves just a little to be bright-eyed and hopeful all the time, and to try hard every day.  Maybe someday, ten years from now, they will remember that they journaled their life stories, and they will use their material to write their own book, The Three . . . I'll let you finish it.  Or better yet, I'll let them finish it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11: We fall down, and we get up

Facebook is filled with reflections this morning, this 9/11 day.

This is evidence of what I love most about America - well really, Americans.  We reflect.  We ask questions.  We speak freely.  We rage, sometimes against the machine, and nobody stops us.  We are thinkers because we are free to think our own thoughts.

Yet even though we think our own thoughts, we hold the same values by and large, like all successful families do.  We do this regardless of our political bent, regardless of whether or not we have succeeded in living these values.  Faith.  Family.  Work.  Others.  Freedom.  Country.

America is also a resilient nation, on the whole.  We are resilient individual Americans born of resilient stock.  Otherwise, we wouldn't be here, in this place called America. In fact, there would be no America at all.  When we fall down, we get back up.  Either personally or with our families, either first in our generation or descended from a line, we have come, or been brought here, or been born Native into this earth and hung on here, because we are resilient.  We are all descendants of a people who have survived great odds, wherever we, or they, may have come from.

And we continue to survive successfully because we are people of action.  The common thread of our reflections, whatever may have come, is WHY are things as they are, and what am I going to DO about it to make it better?  We talk it over, friends even sometimes without meeting.  And then we take action, one by one, one at a time and together.  We are people of action, we Americans, and we demand of ourselves that our action be for good.

Josephine Harris, the resilient grandmother who survived Stairwell B, said once as she reflected on that day, "There was no time for cryin'."  Time only for surviving, believing, praying, climbing, and living to bring hope to others.  Time to lean on the gallant firefighters of Ladder 6, who ignored the grit in their eyes and their bruised and broken limbs and their own panic, and focused on saving Josephine and each other.

Today, in remembering 9/11/01, there is time to cry, and there is time to reflect.  We reflect on Americans at their best,  Americans in the act of sharing values and surviving together, against all odds.  To look terror in the face and to stand up anyway is the heart of heroism.  That is what Americans do because it's who we are, and I thank God that I am a member of this family.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

We get up

Excerpt from Shelley’s Diary
November 28, 1998
For some of us it takes almost a lifetime to grasp how precious life really is.  It’s been twenty years now since we were twenty-five, since our lives turned the final corner from childhood to adulthood.   And on that corner, we came face to face with the cold hard reality that the best of intentions and well-laid plans do not always produce the ending we would have chosen.  Nevertheless, life is still good.  I am thinking about this today, because today I went to visit Bob at Holy Cross for the first time. 
dacoach89, flickr
Bob would have said that with faith, and hope, and love, we can find a much better ending than the sappy-happy, superficial ending we would have thought of for ourselves anyway, because faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,[1] greater things that are beyond our understanding.   And love breathes life into that unseen substance.   Bob lived that, every day of his life, especially in the latter days.  Bob knew what love was.  Love doesn’t play recklessly with the precious miracle of life.  Love ministers and suffers and serves with a true and compassionate heart, a steward’s heart, the heart of Jesus. 
My Bob, my soul mate, has been gone a month now.  Sometime in ’82 he got the same flu Bob Rizzo had, but not before our precious boy Robbie had been born, our baby who turned eighteen just this week.  I have only God to thank that Robbie was born HIV negative, and I too remain so. 
After the flu set in, Bob embarked upon a long and winding road deep into the Way of greater things beyond our understanding (did I ever mention that The Long and Winding Road had been our song?).  He became part of every field trial for every drug imaginable, and gave the villainous HIV a good run for its money, sometimes much to his body’s consternation.
Eric Luse
But in ’94 they found a spot on his liver, and the war began in earnest, a war that would pull him deep into the wards of San Francisco General, waiting by the bedsides of the dying; manning the desk in the free clinic; being an anchor in AIDS support groups; bringing his humor, his hope, and his love to people who thought they had none.  His hands became a blessing, just like Barb had told him they would be.  His Dad would have been proud.
But the last person I expected to see today was Bruno, off in the distance beyond a quarter mile of headstones, visiting our good friend George Moscone, the grave still heaped with flowers and gifts from those who came to pay their respects on the twentieth anniversary of his death yesterday. 
When I saw him, I stood quietly and stared, knowing that eventually he would feel my presence and turn to look at me.  Sure enough, he finally turned, and we walked toward each other slowly among the rows, finally standing face to face.  We hugged, and then just held each other. He told me how he had married Janet about 15 years before, no kids, and how he hadn’t bought that house at the bottom of my parents’ street to scare me.  He had bought it because he had already picked it out anyway, for us to live in, for when he and I got married, so I could make a closer relationship with my parents.  He was going to ask me to marry him the day I had walked out on him, but I hadn’t given him the chance.  And he told me that he had never really shot anyone with the gun, but he surely would have, if I hadn’t reacted like I did that day. 

I told him how Bob and I had given birth to the most beautiful child ever to be born, a boy whose eyes undulated with all the colors of the earth and sky as his mood demanded.  And I told him how I had, in the end, found someone to spend my life with after all, seemingly quite by accident, who was not the yin to my yang, the fire to my ice, like my Bob had been.  Instead, he had warm, mysterious, soul divining Daisy eyes, just like mine, patient eyes that I could fall into and rest in, eyes that would stand in the gap to help Bob and Russ and I parent our child. And while we appeared to be polar opposites, we were in fact quite the same, driven leaping flames of perfectionism each in our own way, and this made our union the ride of the century.  A perfectly fine ending even though I wouldn’t have thought it up by myself, now that I finally knew Who I needed to have along on the ride with me, now that I knew how to hear His Voice among the others, and how to forgive myself.
Graham married once, briefly, and never again, and remained a master of computer science and a corporate lifer, while maintaining his status as rebel art aficionado. 
Jacki was haunted for years by government commissions and agencies, questioned until she had no more answers to give, and then disappeared into the mist to start life afresh, at first small and wounded and confused, and then rising up new and strong, serving the mentally ill and the homeless somewhere out there in parts unknown with a steward’s heart, while raising a remarkable daughter.  She was a poet now, and stayed close to the true branch of the very same Christian church that Jim Jones had perverted in his Temple. 
And Barb and Yonas?  After a stint in the Peace Corps, and three children later, they went to Ethiopia on a government project, putting their legal and engineering talents together to assure that communities have ample supplies of wholesome, clean water.
Pleased with how we found ourselves and our friends reflected in each other’s eyes, after all these many years, Bruno and I held each other again, there between the headstones, one last time. Then we stood back and took a good long look before we went our separate ways.  One last time, his ice blue eyes warmed up just for me, and he mussed up my hair, saying, “Take care of yourself, bella mia.  Un milione di baci.”  And as he walked away, I could have sworn I heard him say, “Meep meep.”       
*  *  *
This book would not have been possible without the love, support, and discerning eye of my husband Bob, who faithfully read every word I wrote, even when it was produced at 2:00 am.
For my children, Jenna and Steven, and for Scooter, and their friends, I have nothing but gratitude for their patience with my wild stories, the hours I spent with my face in the computer screen instead of with them, and my laughing jags.
To my friend and mentor Judy LaSalle, a formidable writer, thank you for being a mirror to hold my work up to, day after day after day, and pushing me along when I couldn’t push myself.
To those whose lives are reflected in this book, my endless love.
I give special acknowledgement and undying respect to Dr. Fielding McGehee and Dr. Rebecca Moore at San Diego State University’s Jonestown Institute, whose massive, lovingly assembled collection of research and primary source documents is a miracle unto itself, and without which this book would not have been possible.  Additional thanks to Michael Bellefountaine.
And special thanks to Tehetena Girma, aka Queen of Sheba or MiMi G, of the Lion of Judah Society for helping to acquire translations of Mezmur 23 and the Lord’s Prayer from the original King of Kings Amharic, and for being excited about the possibilities of this book.  Buruk Fiqir.

[1] Hebrews 11:1, NIV Bible, Zondervan