Empowerment through Language...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Buttermilk Torture - Middleschool Instruction at Its Best

I have been immersed in middleschool energy since January. There are those who do not appreciate this age group but I love this age for many reasons. And I love how I can goof on them in ways that give the students new perspectives. That is my job. I am asking students to look at the world, to look at language, to look at themselves in expansive ways that may be outside of the norm. Adolescence is an age in which individuals are very self-focused so using that focus as a tool to open eyes to a broader view is very exciting.

Yesterday, as a part of study of the wonderful memoir poem, "Knoxville, Tennessee" by Nikki Giovanni, I stopped at the grocery store at 7:20 a.m. to find foods referenced in the poem. Okra was not available fresh so I decided I would use the internet for photos instead. I had to bother two produce department staff for a bunch of collard greens. I found disposable cups and a quart of buttermilk for taste tests.

Ah...the taste tests. What drama! The faces as the cups were raised to lips to sample the half-teaspoon of the liquid were priceless. The retching, the hands grasping their own necks, the groans, it was all predictable and humorous. This is not an adventurous age for culinary experimentation but they did indulge me. There were those who were more polite about the experience. Each class also had at least one kid with a huge smile declaring, "Hey, I like it!" Brownie points for those young gourmands!

I have been working with this poem for nearly 3 years at all grade levels. We have wonderful conversations about family traditions, about church hats, about our favorite foods, etc. My personal favorite conversation is always about the origins of okra and how it got to the North American continent. I speak to the imaginations and empathy of students to consider the courage and tenacity of that one person kidnapped hundreds of years ago from their native African soil who managed to cling to a pod of okra all the way through the horrid ordeal of the Middle Passage to bring that one element of home and life before identity was stolen from them. I thank my mother for giving me the taste for this vegetable and I thank whomever it was who brought it west to plant in new soil so that now, I can pick those small pods from the bin at the store and prepare them for my dinner.

I do not thank my grandmother for making me drink buttermilk on a hot summer night when I was very young. I don't love it. But I do love asking students to experience its taste and select similes and adjectives that reflect their opinions. "Nasty," "disgusting," "old cheese" are common. I had to laugh as I asked the one student who said, "It takes like sweaty armpits" just when it was that he had that experience. He caught my humor, thankfully. He did not ask for seconds on the buttermilk though.

And, since every teacher I work with gives me a new tool or perspective on my work, I thank my colleague who keeps a bag of Dum-Dum lollipops in her drawer as rewards when earned. I will never do the buttermilk sampling again without that vital tool!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I Am Confused! Blaming Teachers Is Like Blaming Privates for the War!

A quick note before I run to my next class:  today's news broadcast that the state of California is issuing pink slips to 22,000 teachers, on top of the 16,000 laid off last year. This is not the only state facing this sort of difficult decision and who will suffer? Other teachers and all students!

I recently looked on line to see a news headline stating that the Kansas City School District is closing half of its schools due to budget issues and the economy. Additionally, I hear the President calling for greater accountability, proposing privatization of schools and more charter schools, as well as creating a climate of competition for much needed federal funds for effective education of our youth.

New York State schools are unexpectedly losing millions and millions of dollars in the middle of the school year because our state is nearly bankrupt and the state legislators are embattled once again.

I am a huge fan of our President but I think that the current education policy that this administration is developing is something that he has DEAD WRONG. How can teachers accomplish effective education of our youth as states are going bankrupt and the local and federal funding is so much less than is necessary to meet the needs?

Teachers are being blamed for so much beyond their own control.Teachers are expected to teach today's youth with an untenable challenge of:
  • a huge increase in the number of students who are within the Autism Spectrum;
  • high divorce rate and split families;
  • violence in our communities that is unprecedented, making even our schools unsafe;
  • an economy that has likely impacted families everywhere that undermines the safety and well being of the youth in desks before them;
  • emotional, developmental, and learning disability needs;
  • lack of technology to meet the 21st century requirements;
  • some teachers do not even have textbooks for their students (they have to photocopy lessons and generally with a restriction on how much paper and copier use they have access to during the school year); and/or
  • poor nutrition for students of all economic classes that affects learning and brain function.
We revere the tall man who can dunk or hit a ball and pay him mega-millions! We see physicians bill outrageous amounts for moments with us when we are sick. We see financial and insurance executives earn tens of millions in bonuses on top of their multi-million dollar salaries. Teachers who mold the minds of the future may earn $50K?! What?! And then those same teachers will spend hundreds of their own dollars to supply their students and classrooms with paper, pencils and pens, highlighters and markers, glue sticks, books, construction paper, rulers, instructional supplies and posters for their room, maybe even their own chalk to write on the blackboard. Add to it, tissues and hand sanitizer for the flu season that seems to be year round now.

I am confused. Department of Education Secretary Arnie Duncan and President Obama are placing the onus on the teacher.  Do we blame the low-ranked enlisted man or woman for the course of any war? Do we blame the secretarial pool for the failures of Wall Street?! Do we blame the groundskeepers when the football team has a losing season? In a blog and letter I emailed to his office last spring, I challenged Arne Duncan to send a check to every teacher in a public school for their personal annual outlay as a part of the stimulus package. No answer. Now they will sell teachers out for the privatization of our public education?! I am waiting for definitive rebuttal from the teachers' unions as well. I repeat...I am baffled. Can someone show me the logic?  It totally escapes me.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

A Brief Visit Home

Last week, after 2 days of my start with middle school students, encounters with the demons that plague classes with substitutes because the teachers are out, wondering why I even do this work, the snows hit. The storm of all storms for the Northeast. It was unlike any winter storm in 30 years for New York, New Jersey, parts of Pennsylvania, all places not as equipped as Central New York in dealing with the repercussions. It was also that heavy snow that is more water than ice, causing much damage.

Wednesday morning was certainly a snow day. I relished the fact that I was awake early, coffee in hand, and a day to myself in a home other than mine so I had fewer distractions, or so I thought. I spent a great deal of the day tending the fire. I was all Laura Ingalls Wilder in my brain. I had my knitting, a number of books, my journal, and then there was the artful act of observing the snow globe world through the window. 

Thursday morning the weather seemed just as ominous but my computer did not show a closing on the school web site. How could this be?! It was horrid outside. Then I realized that my page was not loading properly...magically the red font of a weather emergency displayed itself as the connection was made to the greater world. Day 2 and this one, I slipped back into bed for a nap. What luxury. And the day of fire tending would rest before me once I rose. I settled into a lovely peace.

Thursday night I thought I would be able to take a train from Poughkeepsie to NYC on Friday morning to attend one of the last of the Association of Teaching Artists board meetings of my waning term of service. Most of my colleagues had made it safely into the city from their homes and since I would not be in the classroom, as I had anticipated, I was delighted that I would be able to attend after all.

But that notion was put to rest by an unplowed driveway and a plow guy with a broken plow, coupled with the dreadful weight of that wet heaviness that was deeper than the hubcaps of my little car that I often describe as Shaquille O'Neal's rollerskate.

My friend Lani, with whom I was staying, had cancelled her plans to drive to Boston for the weekend in an act of prudence. Since Saturday marked the celebration of Purim, Lani was going to bake her famous hamatashen and she agreed to teach me.

I love when I get to be student. I watched her mix the dough, stir the ingredients and cook them down for different fillings, then the rolling of the dough, the portioning, the careful press to make the triangles that are the essence of this tradition. I tried the rolling and Lani was patient. I know she had knots in her stomach. It was a good time for her to wash some of the mixing bowls and pans while I made a mess of my first attempt. And when we cut our circles from the sweet thin dough, my little triangles hardly looked like an adult was involved. I felt like a 5-year old again but I also saw the benefit of experience.

The house filled with the perfumes of cookies baking, coffee in the pot, and fires at both ends of the house. There was music. Lani told me of her joy in walking through the halls where she works delivering the pastries to friends and colleagues. She shared the Purim story with me. And we sampled all the flavors. Yummy they were.

The universe made the decisions for us. We needed more to stay put than to wander out. In the afternoon, we went out to play in the snow for a little while, as well as survey the damage to the trees from the weight of the precipitation. Lani declared that she had never made a snow man as she packed a snowball. She is from Los Angeles. Snow men are not part of the culture. Since I have not made a snow man since I was approximately 9 or 10, of course we had to put ourselves to the task.

We giggled like kindergarteners. We rolled and patted our "snow chick" because it was obvious that she had a gender. We made her beautiful, a talisman to the day of peace and grounding. She has already melted but we took pictures so she is immortal. Lani made snow angels but the snow was deep and she needed to be pulled out. I was full of laughter.

When I returned to school on Monday, it had been 5 days since I had seen the teachers and students. Many of the kids had shoveled for cash and were proud of their industry. I think in an odd way, many of them were ready to be back in school, back in their routines. My routine and process was back in place as well, although I had to regroup five different groups of students and bring all of the brainstorming to the forefront. But I was rested and optimistic.

Three days later, I got in my car to drive home for 4 days in my own space. I did banking,  paid bills, took my car in for well-overdue maintenance, had brunch with my friend Jennifer, watered my plants. I read a month's worth of posts on my friend Jill's blog, as well as entries in Linda's. I made bread in the bread machine as soon as I got home. I realize now that I need much more respite than I used to require. Perhaps that is where inspiration resides. Maybe that is the cave where the poems rest. And that is where I center and remember who I really am.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Today's Homework

Today's Homework
      for Juan

His was a simple request.
Can you write a poem...right now?
I faltered for a moment. 
We had just met, his class before me
a pool of new faces, of challenges.
Why should they trust me?

Instead, I offered to create a poem
as homework.
I have homework every day.
I would make words tie together
in knots and rhythm to weave
verse as currency to buy attention.

The young man is like so many.
A cloud hides his light, the brightness
shielded from exposure, from ridicule.
I question often.
Why are classrooms full of storms
and flannel gray veils?
Where do brilliance and curiosity reside?

The next day he asks
Miss, did you do your homework?
I give him my blank stare.
My cloud has settled in.
The night before, I was as distracted
as leaves blowing
on a November morning.
I had forgotten.
I was them.

Another day, again he called for my work,
evidence that I, too, pay attention.
It's only fair.
My requests seem simple enough.
My assumption is bold.
Respect, engage, create.
I face the clouds, the gray pall hovering
over the throngs of faces behind those desks.
I pray to bring sun to a dull day.