Thursday, March 2, 2017

Many Problems; Few Solutions

I'm not sure if I can explain it, but there is something that changes when you put some geographic distance between you and the USA.  It is also significant that we don't watch television and our only source of news is old newspapers guests arrive with (usually the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune) and what we get on our AOL and YAHOO email feeds.

So we all knew that Trump was addressing Congress on Tuesday evening.  But margarita time is always at 7:00 pm followed by dinner at 8:00.  When we finally retired to the salon for after dinner coffee it was almost nine o'clock.  I asked if we might see if we could get the speech on our one tv English network- FOX!  So we turned it on, and there he was looking very serious and restrained.

Now it's important to know the composition of the guests right now.  One couple is very liberal; one is extremely conservative; then there is Fred & Kat who are moderate conservatives - and finally Loren and me!!  So I would say there was a "guarded" sense as we watched the address.  Shortly after we turned on the TV Trump began talking about Navy Seal Ryan Owens and the camera focussed on his widow who remained seated while the entire Congress gave a standing ovation.  Then Trump continued about the mission and how Ryan had been a part of a very successful raid and his comments were followed by an extended ovation with his widow standing this time toking upward with Ivanka standing stoically next to her.
I have never seen anything like this.  My heart ached for this young woman and wanted her to sit down, but the prolonged applause kept going and going.  When it finally died down, I didn't know what to make of Trump's off script comment that Ryan had just made a record.

But there was no discussion afterward.  The pundits on FOX were ecstatic and stated that there were far more "we's" than "I's" - something worthy of note.  When the Democrat from Kentucky began his oration, we turned the TV off.  And we haven't talked about it since!  Is it worthy of our conversation?  Did we miss something big?  If we had been in the US, in San Francisco, listening to it on PBS would we have a different "alternative" view?  It came and went and life in Cuernavaca has not changed.  I have to say I'm okay with that!!

We had a lively discussion last night about education.  David was a superintendent of schools in a Chicago district while his wife, Susan, taught history at a public high school in the suburbs of Chicago for her career.  The grandson of one of the couples was attending a charter school that required an admissions test which only admitted the brightest students.  These kinds of schools, called selective schools, are among the several choices in the Chicago public schools.  In addition to those that have admissions requirements, there are magnet schools emphasizing a certain area such as the sciences or the arts, and there are neighborhood schools which comprise most of the choices.  Then of course, there are a number of private schools available to the wealthy.

It was generally thought that public school teachers get a raw deal.  For the most part they are dedicated and work very long and hard but are disrespected by society and are rarely recognized for their work.  I was unusually silent during this discussion for the most part.  I did mention the fact that teachers can get tenure in California only after two years and they really don't need to do anything to earn it which I think tends to feed the lack of respect in the general population.  Then, if they perform poorly, it is almost impossible to fire them.  Both David and Susan countered that immediately.  David, as a superintendent, said that he needed to fire a number of teachers and was not encumbered by their tenure status.  So here is someone on the front lines saying that the accepted "facts" out there are wrong- is this another example of "alternative facts?"  I'm beginning to worry about how and where I am to go to get at the truth of things!

I think the reason I didn't join in much of the conversation is that I am uneasy about my opinions.  I taught only in private schools where class sizes were never more than twenty.  I finished my career at Castilleja where I have fifteen in a class and only had four classes.  Susan told me she had 190 students in her history classes in suburban Chicago!!

When I retired, I didn't miss the correcting or the faculty meetings or the administration or the parents, but I did miss the kids.  So I volunteered at The James Lick Middle School in Noe Valley in SF.  Noe Valley is a predominantly white upscale neighborhood of SF, but the local school is comprised of Latino and African American students who are mostly bused in.  I went every Tuesday and Thursday to help students with their writing in a 7th grade English/history classroom.  The teacher was a dedicated, young African American, but I couldn't help wonder how she could keep coming every day.  In a private school, almost every student in that classroom would have either been asked to leave the school or at least been sent out of the classroom to the principal's office.  Chaos erupted every five minutes with students jumping up or talking or running around or talking on their cell phones.  During my first week, I had given a writing prompt and most students had begun to write something.  I saw one boy with his head slumped on his desk doing nothing, so I went over and sat down next to him and said, "May I help you get started?"  He slowly raised his head, looked me straight in the eyes and said, "Why don't you fuck off lady."

In over thirty years of teaching that had never happened to me.  I stood up and walked away.  There was another student, Arthur, who was probably the worst behaved in the class, but there was something about him that drew me to him.  I later asked the teacher what his story was.  She told me that Arthur's mother was shacking up with some guy who hated Arthur.  So everyday, when Arthur went home, he was never sure if the door to his apartment would be bolted or not.  If the boyfriend was there, Arthur would do his homework in the hallway, go with out dinner and sleep on the floor outside his apartment.  I was appalled that a mother could actually allow that to happen, and I never looked at Arthur the same way again.

For about ten years I had recited a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay to all of my students.  My best friend and I had always started the Christmas season reading this poem together, so when she died, I committed the poem to memory and had a poster made up that as illustrated by a friend who was an illustrator for children's books.  I recited the poem and then gave each one of my students a copy of the poster.  Since this was the first year of my retirement, and I no longer had students of my own, I asked the teacher if I could recite this poem to her class.  She was delighted.  So I told these young 7th graders about my friend and how I had memorized the poem after she had died and recited it to my students.  I thanked them for listening and allowing me to keep the tradition going.  Then I recited The Ballad of the Harp Weaver by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  There was silence in the classroom;  every eye was fixed on me.  When it was over, I handed out the poster to each of them.  Arthur raised his hand and said, "I never heard a poem that long before."  When the class was over and the students had left, every poster had been taken.  In my private school classes, there were always several who left their "gifts."  Although many of my private students appreciated the poem, I never felt it was anything special to them.  The next time I went to the 7th grade classroom, Sequoia came up to me and said, "You know the picture you gave to me?  Well my Mama tacked it up to our living room wall."

I stayed with that 7th grade class for the year and it was a wonderful experience for me, but it also made me sad to see the state of our public schools.  I don't know how long I would have been able to sustain my enthusiasm as a teacher.  Class sizes were huge, supplies were low, behavior was unacceptable.  It's almost as though our society tells teachers to run in to a burning building, knowing there is no fire truck available to come to their aid.

So what is wrong?  Where do we pin the blame?  I read the the United States spends more money per capita on students than any other country in the world.  Would more money help?  Certainly in California when Prop 13 destroyed the tax base our schools went "From First to Last."  We also know a young person who gets paid $49,000 a year and his sole job is to take a paraplegic to school everyday and be with him in each of his classes to help him get the education he is promised.  We know another student who is asthmatic and has a registered nurse in class with her at all times just in case.  There are students in California who are so unruly that cannot be kept in a normal classroom setting and need a "lock-down" high school.  Since there are no lock-down schools in California, they are sent to Nevada at the cost of $100,000 per student per year.  We have a law in this country that says EVERY child has the right to an education, and we must provide that education regardless of the circumstances.  This is laudable, but is it practical?

Many blame the families.  When you step just outside of San Francisco to Marin or the Peninsula, there war fabulous public schools.  If a music program is cut, parents have a fund raiser and reinstate it.  Parent involvement is key.  So how do you reach Arthur's mother to help her understand how she is influencing the future of her child?

Since leaving the James Lick Middle School, I am now volunteering in high school classes through Dave Egger's 826 Valencia Program.  Every public high school in San Francisco has guards at the entrances.  Violence in our schools is an issue.  There are over 72 different languages spoken in the pubic schools of San Francisco.  Most of the students with whom have English as a second language.  Their writing skills are very poor; way below average for their grade level.  But their stories are amazing.  For the most part they want to succeed and are very grateful for my help to improve their writing.  I love working with these students one-on-one, but again, I have tremendous respect but also feel very sorry for the teachers who are trying to help these students.   How can you possibly help 190 students, most of whom don't have a grasp of the language, to succeed.  I don't know what the answer is.  I had a very privileged life as a teacher in private schools.  I seriously doubt I would have lasted in the burning buildings of public schools.

I guess I can't leave this discussion without bringing up Betsy DeVos.  The liberals, in general, think she's totally unqualified and will be disastrous for our public school system.  The more conservative thinkers have a wait-and-see attitude thinking that school choice could bring more competition to the system and the good schools will thrive and the bad schools won't.  Fred, our always thoughtful, deliberate moderator points out that the Secretary of Education really doesn't have a lot of power and that it is the states who make the important decisions around education.  That could be, but if the states are given more authority, and if charter schools are less regulated,  what's to prevent religious schools from teaching only creationism, or a southern school extolling the confederacy, or a Muslim school condoning honor killings?  I certainly don't know the answers to these very complicated questions.  I know there are some wonderful success stories coming out of public schools, but I also see the problems first hand as I volunteer in San Francisco.

1 comment:

Essie said...

Several comments:

I too feel very removed although I'm 'only' in a vacation community in Florida. I've avoided all news and so on, and it's been a welcome respite. Michael and I promised each other that while here we will ponder where to turn our energies (regarding politics) when we return. Currently we are thinking one project will be to join the reelection campaign of one of our 2 outstanding senators, Chris Murphy* (remember that name!). I did get the local Sunday paper, because I thought I perhaps it would be wise to look at what 'the other side' is my great surprise it was very moderate and even-handed...MORE so than our local in CT which I cannot bear to read.

I would love to have the education discussion with you, and appreciated your comments and those of the others. I agree that the ed sec'y does not have much 'power' (or hasn't in the past) directly, but can be quite influential in terms of her leanings. What is most upsetting to me is that BDV literally bought her doubt about it. I'm getting worked up! Time to go for a walk on the beach. We are so very lucky, Nancy. I almost cannot bear to be white and privileged are these vacation spots. I live in a similar place, but at least we're paying taxes and doing volunteer work and so on. My most recent (a few years) commitment has been to give less $ to the libraries, indp't schools, land trusts and so on in our area and more to boots-on-the-ground organizations like our New Haven resettlement agency.

Thank you so much for taking the time to write....eloquently and articulately as always.

*He will be up against GIANT Koch $...that's already known...because he is such an outspoken and liberal senator. We've got to enact campaign finance reform. Please ask your group how they feel about that.