Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bad Teachers, Part 4 of ∞ : When You're The Problem

Every job has good and bad days, but a bad day or week teaching middle school is about as bad as you can get. It must be what it's like for a doctor to have a week in which every patient dies, or a farmer who has to watch a week full of hailstorms hit his sorghum field in late August.


And maybe it works this way for doctors and farmers too, but a few bad days of middle school teaching and you're not only doubting your abilities but your job, career, and right to breathe oxygen on planet Earth.

Last week was one of those hailstorm-filled nightmare weeks that come around every once in a while, and my classroom and psyche are still assessing the damage. I think and worry greatly that my students suffered as well, but middle schoolers are far, far more resilient than the middle aged. They have to be. Remember middle school?

It is also somewhat comforting to know, after 14+ years of doing this, that a few days will pass and even us old people will largely have forgotten a week of sketchy pedagogy, harrowing curriculum and long periods of time spent thinking "what the Hell am I doing here?". The focus being on the word "somewhat". Meanwhile, after asking oneself "what the Hell am I doing here?", the thinking process goes something like this::
  • "What other occupations, ones that I might not be horribly incompetent at, might be available?"
  • "Perhaps if I just wrote that unpublishable novel I would be incompetent in the privacy of my home instead of in front of hundreds of schoolchildren. Might it not be time to quit, write the unpublished novel, and move on to a diet of ramen and tuna fish for the rest of my life?"
  • "Is a day in which the Dow Jones goes down 700+ points a good day to consider career-changing options?"
  • "How long can I keep this look of competence plastered onto my face before my wily middle school kids see through the mask?"
  • Answer to question above: about five seconds.
  • "What would be worse: to have to endure this week of teaching or to be a doctor and have every single patient of mine die, even the ones with ingrown toenails and psoriasis?"
  • "Would the students notice if I just curled up into the fetal position here in the dark corner of my classroom?"
In one's first or second year of teaching, a week like the past one can lead to a real career change, as any statistics regarding teacher retention will tell you. But after a year or so of teaching experience, you learn (some of us) that George Harrison was right and all things do pass, including George Harrison. A day or so of reflection, context and fetal-position depression, and you're back and ready to tackle the middle school teaching world. You're buoyed by an almost epileptic level of sudden clarity, and an almost post-hangover degree of seeing endless possibilities.

Until the next one. And you know the next bad stretch is coming sometime. It comes to all of us. And somehow that's okay, and you're okay, and I'm okay. We're all okay. Hail-damaged, psychically-scarred and far from perfect, but still here for the 1st Period bell.

Here come the kids. It's showtime, folks.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Weekend Homework Assignment: You Are The Educational Emperor Augustus..or Caligula

Hey folks, it's Friday! Let's not forget that, regardless of how coma-inducing the following blogpost is. Besides, it's Friday, and this is the Internet...you can surf elsewhere today and save the following for a day/time less celebratory and more in tune with the reading of boring, "educational" stuff. Like next Tuesday around lunch or something.

The number and quality of comments on these K-12 matters is such that we'd probably be better off just all meeting at a bar one afternoon and speeding up this whole "blogpost/comment/off-topic blogpost/comment" multi-day cycle, but this is the Internet and the thought of having a small, very small group of people meeting due to a shared passion or issue brought up online is creepy.

Let's start with a few questions (and try to keep Scot's word count below 15,000 this morning):

  • For starters, let's eliminate the stickiness of determining criteria for "good" and "bad", and just say we can make simple Roman Circus Maximus gladiator fight concluding "thumbs up/thumbs down" conclusions here without feeling guilty or defensive about it. Also, no middle ground...just up or down.
  • Teachers: while holding your coffee cup in the other hand, make a quick "good/bad" determination about your current principal. Do you work for a good or bad principal? Hold your thumb out accordingly (and yes, I know that the whole "thumbs up/down thing in Rome was actually backwards from how we know it today...a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, no?)
  • Teachers: Now put the coffee cup down because you're going to need both hands. Count on your fingers the number of "bad" teachers at your school. Take your shoes off if necessary.
  • Teachers: Write that number down and do the same mental calculation for the number of "good" teachers at your school. For both of these counts do not be shy and worry about things like "I really have no idea what they do in their classrooms". Calculate a ratio of good to bad teachers.
  • Parents/Students: Do the same as the teachers above, based on your own observation and student reports. As with teachers above, calculate a ratio of "good" teachers to "bad". Now do the same gut check for your principal. Good or bad?
I know this is utterly without scientific merit, but I would be very interested to see the results from the questions above. What is the "conventional wisdom" for the ratio of good/bad principals/teachers? What are these gut reactions based upon? My feeling is that knowing the answers to these questions can be the basis for better understanding of where a particular critic/analyst of public schools sits philosophically on the relative importance of things like getting rid of bad teachers.

Here's what I think, personally, first on "good/bad" teachers:
  • Their are many ways to teach well. Because of this, I don't like the whole "thumbs up/down" method of determining good teachers. At the same time, I've been around enough to know that some teachers with styles completely at odds with my own are good. I can think of specific examples. No, I won't name these teachers. Not even if you ask.
  • In my 15 year career I would say that the ratio of "good" to "bad" teachers is, in my opinion roughly 50/50. That is a ratio worth worrying about. It should be something like 90/10.
  • I feel that the negative impact of a "bad" teacher almost always outweighs the positive impact of a "good" one. Teachers...think about the worst teacher at your school (and, by sheer definition, there has to be a "worst" teacher). What ripples of destruction does this "worst" teacher have on the structure of the school? How much teacher/teacher, parent/teacher, student/teacher conversational time and effort has been wasted on this "worst" teacher?
  • Because I feel this way, I understand the need to recruit and keep "good" teachers, but think at least equal energy needs to be spent on dealing with the "bad" ones. Right now a ton of energy is wasted unsuccessfully trying to get rid of "bad" teachers because the mechanisms to do so in APS and other public school settings crippled principals in this regard.
And speaking of principals:
  • I think the job of principal as currently constructed is disastrously conducive to having them fail.
  • I think the number of perceived "bad" principals is much higher than the actual number, because the job as currently constructed is a massive setup to fail.
  • I think principals should be paid around $125,000 a year. Really. And that's after having the job duties reconfigured ala the post I wrote a few days back.
  • I think the ratio of truly "good/bad" principals is probably 3:1 (good/bad).
  • I think the ratio most teachers/students/parents would state is probably closer to 1:2.
  • As Willie Nelson might say, it's the difference between teacher/public perception and reality that "makes the jukebox play". Part of the dysfunction in the current setup is a job duty recipe that turns principals into lightning rod scapegoats for all the problems at a school without empowering them with the means to do anything about the problems at the school.
  • Bad teachers included.
So, if all three of us Burque Babble readers were to meet at a bar one afternoon, as creepy as that would be, the above would pretty much sum up where "my head is at" going into the confab. I wonder how far my head is from "conventional wisdom", or from the mindset of the other two readers of this blog. I also wonder if the number of real and perceived problems in public schools is so great that we all (all three of us) are playing a fundamentally useless game of whack-a-mole here.

Okay, the answer to the last "question" is the easiest to answer. Of course we're wasting our time. But at least this type of ranting and steam-release is less deleterious to our bodies than hours and hours of "bar therapy". Or is it?

Have a good weekend, everybody. And let's get this homework turned in by next Tuesday at lunch. Remember only 50% credit for late work.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Real Reason To "Suspend" A Pointless Campaign

I need some better photos of this guy

Last night's blogpost was called on account of horses. Instead of didactically, pedantically, and ranticiliously (new word) going on and on about whether there are more bad teachers or bad principals in the public school world, I was walking a horse under a moonless, starry sky, playing a very small part in trying to prevent a colic.

Worriedly walking fast in deep arena footing in the dark along with a possibly sick horse...you kinda realize what really matters. Everything looks okay this very early morning, but the older guy we know as "Volare" (pictured, badly, above) is a damn sight more important than any pointless blather I can make about public school teacher firing policies.

And with a 7:30 staff meeting this morning, more pointless blather will have to wait. I'm not much of an artist, but I think I'll spend the meeting doodling horses on the agenda and other "important" documents handed out at the meeting.

Pet something you love today.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Standardized Testing Funnies: Looking for Laughs Amid a Geography of Pain

For many public school teachers out there, the photo above needs no explanation. For others in the "real world", it's a tiny view into the mysterious world of standardized test reporting. To be honest it's too tiny...click on it to see a larger, more visible version.

For those of you gloriously unaware, the above is a snippet of the individual student SBA report we teachers get. If I remember correctly, this one is for the current 8th Graders at my school. Those unfamiliar with terms like "proficient" and "nearing proficiency" should probably just thank (insert deity or probability here) they don't know what these terms mean. As for the three-digit numbers listed, don't worry about not knowing much about them, we teachers don't know anything about them either.

Okay, time for the punchline. The sole reason to flash this "secret of the temple" document before Babble-readers eyes today is the column headers: "Reading", "Writing"....etc. Notice how there are scores listed for Reading, Math and Science? Notice how the column titled "Writing" says "Will be reported at a later date"? Finally, notice that the final column has nothing but "This column intentionally left blank"?

Now why is this funny? Yes, perhaps it's not funny, especially if one is a Social Studies teacher, but non-teachers out there...think back to your own K-12 education. Remember those classes not called "Language Arts/Literature/English", "Math" and "Science"? You know, like Social Studies? Well, at least in the SBA reports we get in the Albuquerque Public School those classes should really be called "This column intentionally left blank".

Which means that the "intention" is to never test kids in Social Studies or associated subjects like Geography. Or at least to "intentionally" never count the scores of such testing, if such subject testing were to ever occur again.

I guess there are two ways to look at this situation. The Social Studies glass vis-a-vis standardized testing can be seen as horribly empty or amazingly full. Empty glass types might see it as a great example of how Social Studies isn't appreciated as an integral part of a school's curriculum. Other, glass brimming to the point of spillage folks, might take advantage of this testing hole and figure "who cares what the Hell I teach? I can teach U.S. History any way I damn well please, focusing on whatever the Hell I want!"

Me, I now teach something called "Humanities", which has something to do with "Writing". "My" subject "will be reported at a later date". As in when Hell freezes over or the Cubs win the World Series, whichever comes later. I take this as a sign to curricularly run as fast as I can, trying not to spill too much from my over-brimming glass. Your spillage may vary.

P.S.: I'm now officially behind on post regarding bad teachers, bad principals and the like. There's a comment in particular I want to address, and I want to flesh out my stupid ideas on reallocating job duties for school administrator folks. I promise to get to that tonight as I have no grading to do, for a change. Those SBA meaningless writing assignments take forever to wade through. Why do I bother? Oh, right...testing isn't everything.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Financial Planner You Can Trust: Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson

Old financial saying: "If you owe the bank $1000, the bank owns you. But if you owe the bank $1,000,000, you own the bank."

Updated financial saying: "If you owe the bank $1000, the bank owns you. But if the bank horribly mishandles $700,000,000,000 in a orgiastic capitalistic bender, you get to own 80% of the bank, at least until the flabbergastingly mild slap on the banker's wrist ends, and these scumbags can return to their six-figure incomes, vacation chalet in Andorra and completely unregulated industry."

Meanwhile, it has come to my attention that I misspelled the name of our esteemed (and heretofore completely invisible) Treasury Department Secretary, Henry M. (Pat) Paulson. I spelled it PaulsEn, an offense unforgivable when the guy is splashed across the Internet these days like a Lindsay Lohan photo circa last Spring. By the way, if anyone has any Lindsay Lohan-esque photos of Mr. PaulsOn provocatively passed out in his Bentley, now would be the time to share them. If my Photoshop skills were any good, I'd be working on it right now.

We at Babble will get back to our Unabomber-esque Manifesto on revising school administrations tomorrow or so. For today, I just want to scream at pictures of Henry M. (Pat) PaulsOn, while throwing ibogaine-tipped darts at his portrait.

"I coulda swore we had enough money in the bank, Mr. Cheney, but I just looked at the statement online...and Holy Jeebus, we're $700,000,000,000 overdrawn! We gotta do something before the bank opens tomorrow!"


P.S.: Remember way back when, in the last days of the Clinton Administration, when Bill pardoned that international commodities trader, Marc Rich? And everybody freaked out? Doesn't it seem that the Bush Administration, in most probably the last days of a Republican Administration in quite some time, is pardoning an entire industry? Hmmm....

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bad Teachers, Part 3 of ∞ : The Not-So-Grand Administrative Plan

Before I get started, two mea culpas.

1. Last Friday I wrote something about Instructional Coaches. I got a ton of feedback, including a Instructional Coach job description from my own school's Instructional Coach. She was very nice about it, but let me know that I knew pretty much knew nothing about what Instructional Coaches do. I now more quite a bit more, and thank her for the information.

I'd rather devote a whole 'nother blogpost to some of the things learned (and will do that later this week or so), but in my thin meager defense I will say that my previously ultra-low level of understanding about the role of Instructional Coaches is not unique to your humble brain-deficient blogger.

I would bet that very, very few teachers know much about the Instructional Coach role, and that almost no one knows, as I now do, that the job is sorta like that of the Catholic priest. Teachers, especially those who commit the "sin" of bad teaching, are observed by Instructional Coaches. As outlined in a very long comment to my previous post, the "priests" treat the teaching act as Catholics do Confession. Coaches observe, listen, and provide feedback, but they do NOT report anything to the Principal.

They have nothing to do with the firing of bad teachers, and the whole interaction between teacher and Coach has the same level of confidentiality as that between attorney & client, and priest & confessioner. With the small exception that dozens of students are in the room when the "confession" takes place. More later about Instructional Coaches.

2. As can be seen above and in pretty much any blogpost written here, your humble blogger tends to spend far too much verbiage explaining far too little. Well, in an exercise in overcorrection, he will instead now spend far tool little time explaining far too much.

Below is a simple bullet reallocation of administrative positions and job foci. I think I'll just vomit it out there now, get some feedback (if, dear readers, you would be so kind) and return to the individual jobs/points later. And yes, this is the point in the show where the humble blogger actually presents an "idea", which is another way of saying the point where the dear readership undergoes a big let-down and says to themselves: "Is that all there is? What a stupid idea."

The "New" Typical APS Middle-School Administration: "Principal as Benevolent Dictator"
  • Principal: Provides public face for school, and vision for its curricular direction. Spends significant time daily in teacher classrooms. Oversees revised/improved (Professional Development Plan) implementation (more about this later). Is directly in charge of hiring/firing at the school (of course, more about this later). Handles budgetary matters. Meets with departments regularly, and develops a department meeting schedule that allows principal to be at as many department meetings as possible. Does not handle discipline.
  • Assistant Principal: Assists principal in all of the above. Serves as principal in time of absence. Enacts curricular direction of the school by creating "master schedule" during summer break, and schedules/schedule changes for individual students during the year. Acts as liaison between principal and discipline providers (see below). Attends department meetings not attended by principal.
  • Name To Be Determined Later (but certainly not "Dean of Students" or "Instructional Coach"): Working with newly hired on-campus police, this person enacts the discipline system put in place by APS and the school principal. Is trained in both "traditional" and "restorative justice" methods of discipline. Collaborates with counselors to make sure proper therapeutic treatments are employed to help students with chronic discipline problems. Reports to assistant principal.
  • APS Police Officers: Works under untitled job above to implement the discipline system of the school.
  • Counselors: Counsels students and teachers. Period. Provides group and individual therapy on common issues such as grieving, stress and going to high school. Works with outside agencies to provide additional therapeutic services. Does not work on student schedules. Has nothing to do with scheduling whatsoever.
Okay, there's the bare bones. I'll haphazardly fling some follow-up in upcoming days, and very much welcome feedback and ideas on all of the above. And yeah, I know...what a letdown. Still, let's see where we end up theoretically in the next few weeks, right before APS Superintendent Winston Brooks imposes his "Centrally Controlled" administrative ideas and makes any "site based management" impossible. It will be a fun waste of time. Really.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Treasure Secretary Paulson Proposes a "Nation of Racinos"

Earlier this week, U.S. Government officials announced a proposed $700 billion bailout of a banking system run amuck. Now it has been learned that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, working with State of New Mexico officials, has come up with another audacious plan to prop up the economy. Paulson will urge, in fact demand, that Congress and President Bush authorize immediate construction of a "Racino" on every street corner in America.

"I was at Yonkers Raceway trying to calm my nerves after a crazy week when it hit me," Secretary Paulson explained at yet another hastily called press conference Sunday morning. "I looked around the track and video gaming casino areas and noticed that people were betting like crazy. They didn't care that the entire U.S. banking and credit systems were about three seconds from collapse. They just wanted the number seven horse to win in the second race. And then my Harvard-trained M.B.A. mind starting whirring, just like those wheels on the video poker machines I love so much.

"Trust me, my brain works way too fast to explain here, but in simple terms what crossed my mind was that without a completely unregulated banking system in this country, thousands and thousands and thousands of soon-to-be-unemployed credit/security market M.B.A.s won't be able to basically gamble with the American economy. Myriad billions of dollars will no longer be up for capitalistic grabs on a daily basis by stiff white-shirted brainiacs. What are these soon-to-be bailed out, unemployed traders to do with all the taxpayer money we give them along with a pink slip not allowing them to short stock, straddle options and execute questionable loans? And what is credit/security trading if not gambling?"

The Secretary scanned the room, noting that several reporters had fallen asleep. "Huh? Huh? Hey sleepy press, did you hear my questions? Are you even paying attention? What's the difference between unregulated banking and betting exactas at a harness track. Nothing, I tell ya, nothing!

"Then I get home yesterday from playing video poker and do some Googling. I see this story in a New Mexico paper about some beautifully monopolistic deal where the State of New Mexico offered up damn few "Racino" licenses to investors from all over the place. I didn't even know what a "Racino" was until I read that story, but it got me to thinking. And when I start thinking, you know what that means.

"You got a large population of poorer people who will do anything to get their minds off the fact they're probably gonna lose their job in about a month, can't pay their mortgage or sell their place in this burst bubble housing market, and will do anything, including throwing money on the seven horse in the second race at Yonkers. Then you got all these bailed out M.B.A.s who just love thinking up ways to make money in deregulated markets. Hey lazy reporters...put two and two together (no calculators you lazy swine) and what do you get?"

A fairly lengthy tense silence ensued before a reporter finally, haltingly answered: "You build Racinos all over the country, staff them with ex-banking and credit market professionals and provide diversionary entertainment to the poor, jobs to the criminally entrepreneurial, and tax money to a government who just went "all-in" on the banking bailout?"

Secretary Paulson then motioned for one of his Treasury Department to offer the reporter a job running one of the new Racinos. The reporter gleefully threw his press notebook into the air, dancing a crazed jig, while other reporters looked on enviously. The now suddenly alert press instinctively started throwing their hands into the air, some to ask questions about the Racino proposal, but most to ask if, they too, could find employment at the Racinos.

"Now you pay attention! You people are pathetic," Paulsen said trailing off. As the commotion in the press room died down Secretary Paulson added, "licenses for the new Racinos will be auctioned off on a special Treasure Department EBay web portal called 'Gamble For America'. Racino site locations are hurriedly being picked out right this second by Treasury staff on Google Earth. If we see any unused land on any street, anywhere, we're throwing eminent domain on it pronto. Hell, in this depressed real estate market we can buy 50,000 large empty lots for less than $700 billion! Maybe 100,000. Just think of the ancillary improvement that will have on property values, and now all those illegals in the construction trades will have something to do instead of going back home.

"I tell you, it's beautiful man, beautiful. Am I the smartest guy in the room, or what?"

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bad Teachers, Part 2 of ∞ : Instructional? Coaches?!?

I intended to wake up this morning and flesh out a "Grand Unification Theory" of how to reallocate administrative positions at public schools in a way that allows each administrator to do the job for which they are best suited, maximizes the ability of schools to teach, counsel and discipline students, and allows principals the chance to observe classroom teachers as part of a system that allows principals to fire bad teachers in an informed, empowered way.

But then the Great Attention-Diverting Satan that is Politics reared its ugly Hydra heads and I ended up writing some pointless comment to a stupid online newspaper editorial. I am to politics what Chet Baker was to heroin, I swear.

Anyway, I do want to spend a minute or two introducing a little known position at many of your APS public schools: The "Instructional Coach".

I don't know the whole story behind APS and "Instructional Coaches". I'd love to know more about it. All I know is that somewhere around 1997, my middle school hired one of these things, and nobody on staff knew anything about the position other than somewhat resenting the fact we had just spent an allocation to have someone NOT be in the classroom. It was also unclear as to just what authority this new position had in terms of interacting with teachers, whether teachers could be evaluated by these "Instructional Coaches", what "coaching" meant exactly and just what the Hell these people were supposed to do other than drink coffee, eat doughnuts and walk around the building looking busy.

Quite honestly, we teachers pretty much felt that the "Instructional Coach" position was designed to give burned-out teachers a desk job while they tried to overcome their desire to kill children after having suffered years and years of classroom abuse.

Well, it's 2008 now. I work at a different school, a better, shinier place with Lake Woebegone kids and water fountains that spout ambrosial liquids into our high-achieving mouths. But, just like my school back in '97, we still have an "Instructional Coach" and we teachers still have no idea just what the Hell these "coaches" are supposed to do and why the Hell we have one.

Now in saying this I am in no way denigrating the "Instructional Coach" my school has. She is a very smart person who by every appearance seems to work at least as hard as I do. She is always skittering around with standardized test scores to show teachers, sets up "professional development" days, and evidently sorta-kinda leads our Instructional Council. On this last point I have to admit I wouldn't know, as I treat "Instructional Councils" the same way I treat poisonous snakes and hand grenades. I stay far away. Far, far away.

So I admit I could probably do more research and find out exactly what it is "Instructional Coaches" do. I have done a little research on the subject, namely finding a job description for the position attached to one of the many openings for "Instructional Coach" on the APS website. It says:

Requires a Bachelor's degree (in Education preferred); valid New Mexico Education License; 7 years teaching experience with experience in support of peers; and demonstrated knowledge in core academic subject matter, preferably literacy (reading and math); and knowledge of State and District language and math standards and benchmarks, performance and assessment. Must be currently highly qualified according the No Child Left Behind Act at the level of the position (elementary, mid, or high school).Prefer Master's degree in Education; ability to communicate and interact effectively and productively, both verbal and written, with all school and district staff; ability to demonstrate effective lesson planning and delivery for English learners and students with other special needs per Frameworks for Teaching, Effective Sheltered Instruction or Differentiated Instruction; 3 years experience teaching bilingual/multicultural and/or special needs students; 1 endorsement (preferably reading, ESL, language arts, early childhood or math) and/or Special Education License; and knowledge of technology as an integrated, instructional component, implementation of staff development standards, and implementation of continuous improvement methodology. Essential functions include: Must achieve the following outcomes with or without reasonable accommodation: Mentors and/or coaches new and experienced teachers to deepen knowledge in core academic subjects and instructional strategies; supports standards implementation in all disciplines; plans and implements staff development; procures and provides resources and instructional support to principal and teachers; facilitates study groups and other collaborative efforts that develop teacher knowledge of content and students cultures, and examines student work and learning development; and acts a growth agent in the school to build a collaborative culture of learning among adults (including the principal) and students.

No, I have no real idea what any of the above means either. It's so broad, it's like a ratatouille of every education buzzword one could cook up. And my more cynical side still thinks the blob o' text above could be translated as "Requires teacher who doesn't want to become an ex-teacher, but is currently about a single five day waiting period away from shooting every student they come into contact with. Position demands knowledge of how to drink coffee and appear busy at all times."

More importantly, what is seriously not clear to me is exactly what powers and responsibilities these "Instructional Coaches" have. For purposes of our discussion on bad teachers, can these people indirectly "fire" the teachers? Can they conduct "intensive evaluations" and other steps on the tortuous road to APS teacher firing? Can they suggest such steps be undertaken by principals?

I guess one way to put it is this: are "Instructional Coaches" real coaches who can cut underperforming players, or simply cheerleaders who lead pep-rally "professional development" days with coffee for pom-poms? Or does it depend on the school?

Lots of questions, and I'd love to get some teacher/administrative feedback on this before I start performing invasive surgery on the whole administrative structure, as I promise I will do next week, whether I know what I'm talking about or not. I mean, why should this topic be different than any other discussed here?

Have a good weekend, everybody.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Answering The Question of Bad Teachers: Part One of Infinity

Probably not a good example of the "Benevolent Dictator System" introduced below

About a week ago I threw out one of those eternal koans of public school education: How do we get rid of bad teachers? The responses were many (well, relatively so for Burque Babble) and generally sincere. From them, and pretty much all other discussion on this important, yet seemingly unanswerable question, one might construct one of those continuums that always seem to stick in my head:

union******************************** non-union
byzantine process********************** no process
firing almost impossible*************firing overly easy

The funny thing about such a continuum is that, unlike the typical range of extremes on important issues/concepts (e.g., "Political Left/Right") in which pretty much everybody falls somewhere in the middle, the systemic responses to the question of bad teachers almost invariably lies on one extreme or the other. It's like a light switch: on or off. There is no "middle way" as the Buddhists like to put it.

Several of the ideas brought up by commenters over the last week illuminate why the situation tends toward the extremes instead of a "middle way". Human-based criteria, like peer teacher or students evaluations are problematic because, well, because peer teachers and students are human. More objective measures, such as test scores, are implemented so poorly at present as to be unusable for anything, teacher evaluation included.

So what do we do here? As you might have guessed, I propose a "middle way", one that includes union representation AND a human element that can successfully get rid of bad teachers without a requisite two or three years of constant bureaucratic wrangling.

And, having read way too much Plato as an undergrad, I'm calling it the "Benevolent Dictator System". Basically, I want school principals to have more power in getting rid of bad teachers effectively and efficiently. Really. But to do this we have to change some fundamental aspects of the job description of principals in the public schools. Namely:
  • The casual observer of public schools may not know this, but school principals almost NEVER observe teachers teaching. We're lucky to have one "formal" observation a year.
  • On very rare occasions a principal will drop by our room, but 99% of the time these visits have nothing to do with our classes or what we are doing with our students.
  • Teachers have to drag principals from their daily duties to observe our classrooms when we are doing "fun stuff" that both we and the kids want to show off before our leader.
  • Principals are always reporting that what they miss most is seeing classrooms in actions, kids learning and teachers doing what they do.
All of the above is caused by the fact that every administrative job in the today's public schools is focused on the wrong thing. Today's principals spend far too much of their time on discipline issues. Same with assistant principals. "Instructional Coaches", a position I will have more to speak on down the road, spend all of their time trying to maximize standardized test scores. Counselors spend far too much of their time on scheduling.

So we have an administrative system in which things like "school vision" and teacher evaluation get lost while all these highly trained people do something other than what they are highly trained for. I propose that this stop.

Yes, I realize that the rudderless Titanic that is public education will not be moved by some obscure blogger saying "stop". I also realize that I brought up something called the "Benevolent Dictator System" and haven't explained a damn thing about it.

So let's call this Part I of a ludicrously large, multi-part mind-numbing series of blathering. Like all those koans, the answers are simple, but getting there takes a terribly long time. At least for me.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Louters Will Be Shot

And in the category for "Best Misspelled Sign Evar", our most recent candidate is....

Photo: Sharon Steinman, Houston Chronicle

Perhaps the strongest since....

Which, I realize, is saying a lot. I mean "Morans" is hard to top, but "Louters" combines poor edumucation with weapons and threats of death. Still, I notice neither "Louters" nor Hurricane Ike is getting anywhere near the coverage deserved. Why is "louters" not going viral?

Speaking seriously, I humbly suggest a glance at Houston TV, or the Houston Chronicle. Just why is this not getting more national coverage? And by "this" I refer to the devastation, curfews, loss of property, loss of life, and yes "louting". Puzzling.

One School's Very Faint Brush With Education Pop Stars: A "Special" Non-Report

The staff and students knew early yesterday morning that it would be a very special day at my school. Parked in the front parking lot was a giant white bus, featuring a sizable picture of the music artist known as "Ludacris". Surrounding the tour bus was the standard array of police cruisers. The entire entourage arrived before me, but reports were it was a quite a site as they drove up to the building on Lomas and Girard.

Several parents contacted my school yesterday morning asking if Ludacris was indeed on campus.

Only it wasn't a tour bus for "Ludacris". It was instead a bus for a large group of dignitaries, including Albuquerque mayor Martin Chavez and APS superintendent Winston Brooks, to tool around APS School Board District #4 checking out schools before coming back to my own place of employ for a "District Relations Committee Meeting".

And yes, the big name/picture on the bus was "Ludacris". You can't make this stuff up folks.

What I must admit is made up would be any real news I can provide regarding the event. My only contact with any of the busload of "important" people was having APS Board Member Robert Lucero pass some of my film students and me in the hall, while a student danced maniacally with a jester's hat on his head.

The student danced with this hat on while I repeatedly told him "crazy, crazier dance please...more legs, more thrashing". The dancing was part of a student music video for the Beatles "With a Little Help From My Friends".

After waiting until the film crew working with the dancing student said "cut", Lucero and mini-entourage scooted past us down the hall. I did my best to avoid any eye contact whatsoever, only glancing long enough to see that Lucero had that same semi-demonic smile he seems to permanently countenance. I should have asked him to dance for us with the jester's hat on, but wimped out and instead almost strained my neck making sure of zero eye contact.

And that's it. I can report nothing else from the meeting held about 100 ft. and two walls away from my classroom. I did read the Journal this morning, and it appears that at the meeting Superintendent Brooks did make the following comparison between golf and standardized test scores:
"Rio Grande getting 50 percent gains? That's not doable. That's like saying I'm going to shoot a 10-under-par the next time I play golf."
I'll have to trust the Journal that Brooks really said that. I wouldn't know. 98% of my school colleagues and I weren't there. The only real impact the dignitary shindig had on me or my classes was a few in-class references made to "guys in suits in the building", what those "guys in suits" would think of certain references made in my students creative writing pieces, and about five minutes of my prep I wasted trying to get a picture of the "Ludacris" bus.

Damn....the bus had moved. No picture.

That's it, folks. Sorry for the lack of journalistic investigation. I'm sure some pretty darn important stuff was discussed, some of it even about my school. But I and 98% of my colleagues wouldn't know. All we can tell you is that a "Ludacris" event took place near us yesterday. Just how "Ludacris", we can't tell you.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Harper's: David Foster Wallace

Note: I'll try to pull something together tomorrow morning regarding the aforementioned "District Relations Committee Whateverthehell" meeting that occurred today at my school. Rest assured, it will have almost zero "content", as the meeting had almost zero impact on my teaching day.

Meanwhile, I see that Harper's magazine has graciously posted some (all?) of the David Foster Wallace pieces it has printed over the years. The link is in the evil .pdf format, but may I humbly suggest Wallace's first-person account of the Illinois State Fair, 1994?

And yeah, it's just about a requirement to be dead before a decent writer can get a mention here at Burque Babble. Or anywhere else.

P.S.: The State Fair piece is also included in the essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. One of my favorites...especially now that the guy is dead. See how this "Great Literature" thing works?

The Wizards Are Off To See Us, Well Not Really

This morning and early afternoon we're hosting something called a "District Relations Committee Meeting" at my school. Outside of an email from my principal, I know pretty much nothing about this event, and I can't find any real news about it online.

As I understand it, the main order of business is that Superintendent Brooks and several "Very Important People" (Feudal Prince Marty Chávez, Lieutenant Governor Denish, the State Public Education Department head Veronica Garcia, the APS School Board) will be eating breakfast and lunch in our somewhat grim-looking Library. One hopes Lt. Gov. Denish won't be stuck eating beneath the flood-damaged ceiling tiles in the Library.

One also wonders if those ceiling tiles were finally replaced in anticipation of the event. This would be pretty humorous, as these brown, ravaged, drooping tiles have loomed over students and staff for what must be going on three years now.

But I'm sure that this meeting is about more than butt-ugly ceiling tiles. I just don't know what that something more is. Outside of eating in our grim Library, I believe the idea is for the VIP entourage to get on a school bus and go to just about every school in APS Board Member Marty Esquivel's District Four. Since they are going to about 12 schools in three hours, they will perhaps just have to drive-by and take pictures of the smaller schools.

And here comes the fun part when it comes to my school (outside of the Library eating thing):
  • It is possible that, on the way to what must be a very fast schoolbus, the VIPs will "drop in" on a classroom or two. This slight possibility (threat?) most certainly has had every staffmember of my school in a state of ironing clothes, bulletin board straightening kerfuffle. I expect to see some very, very peculiarly acting colleagues this morning when I get to work. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" kind of peculiar. As in one will want to wave a flattened hand very close to the "Snatched Body" colleague's face and say "Earth to Colleague...Earth to Colleague" repeatedly.
  • The staff at my school has been informed that we cannot eat with the VIPs, or join in their "round table discussion" in the grim-looking Library. We're supposed to just have a "regular" school day (well except for the fact we can't use the grim-looking Library and will have all these VIPs with media accompaniment straggling around the place). I understand the need to have the teachers do their job instead of asking pesky questions and acting boorishly in "public", but it is a wee bit of a morale bummer having these decision-makers so close to us, yet so very, very far away in practice.
I would have more about this event, but I know nothing more about it. I also have to break out the iron I haven't used in weeks and find my hair brush. And where's my beard trimmer? And my nice shoes...the ones without the horse manure smell?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Geek Comrades: You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Sitemeter

I know we have slightly more important, slightly more screwed up things in the world, but if you want to see some high quality rants this afternoon go to Google, type in "Sitemeter" and click on the "Blogs" selection. It's a blog geek rant-fest the likes of which we haven't seen since Microsoft Vista came out (or any day since the introduction of Real Player 3, 4, 5, 6, 7,8, 9, 10, ad infinitum).

You see Sitemeter did the dreaded "upgrade" this weekend. As a Sitemeter geek myself who has been trying to access things while grading papers today....I must say I agree with every hyper-geeky expletive you will find. Unimaginably awful "upgrade". So bad Sitemeter has already given up and is moving accounts back to the "old" system.

So while we blogger types might not be able to Smash the State, Eat the Rich or write a decently constructed sentence, we have been able to thwart the evil "updating" of Sitemeter. For now. But who knows what updating evil lurks in the hearts of programmers...

Late Night Lamentations: David Foster Wallace

Every school year, around the 2nd or 3rd day of class, I hold up a ridiculously big, orange-spined book and inform the students that this big, fat tome might be my all-time favorite.

That book is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

I wave the 1100 page behemoth menacingly at my students, scaring some who fear it might fly out of my hand, and squish them like a bug. I tell the cowering students that I've read the damn thing three times. That sometimes I just open the thing to any random page and start reading, enjoying myself again immediately. That I particularly love the book for its complete failure to have any decent conclusion, even after 1100 pages.

The cowering students alternate between the fear of heavy book assault and confusion as to the sanity of the man wielding the giant blob of literature. It is one of my favorite little moments of the school year.

And now Mr. Wallace is dead, at 46, having hanged himself on my own 47th birthday.

We all fundamentally know that, despite our limitless self-absorption, events around us almost never have anything to do with us. For example, Hurricane Ike didn't skirt slightly east of Houston just because some guy in Southwest Houston did a good deed for somebody on Thursday.

Yet it's hard for us not to want to see some meaning in the nihilism that is reality. And right now, deep in a Saturday night, it's hard to resist connecting the hyper-personal dots of having seen a documentary ("Gonzo") about one of the writers I most admire, Hunter S. Thompson, right around the same exact time another one of my most admired writers was hanging himself.

And yeah, it also occurs to me that both of these literary "idols" ended up a suicide.

Oh well, having had a birthday the day after 9/11 the last few years just makes a birthday weekend like this seem perfectly normal. Hurricanes, train wrecks, wives walking into rooms with great writers hanging from the chandelier...nothing out of the soul-crushingly typical I guess.

We move on, almost all of us. Regardless of whether we try to draw some personal meaning out of this shit blizzard of depressing news.

Still, I'm never going to wave that big, fat orange-spined book quite so cheerfully over the cowering heads of my students in future years. The details of the "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" and all the other 6.33 million audaciously creative thoughts flying from the pages of Mr. Wallace's work will always mean something slightly different than the joy and amazement they brought previously.

And right this second, right this very now I detest the power of fantastic writing and literature to make some schmuck watch "Gonzo" and read the news of David Foster Wallace's death and say to themselves: "What a waste of writing talent! What is the point of being a great writer if you just end up hanging from a chandelier, or blasting your head off with one of your 23 guns? What's the point of being a "Literature" teacher if those most writers admired are the most unhappy? What exactly is the point of anything?"

Funerals are for the living. Suicides are for the psychotherapists. RIP Mr. Wallace. We'll keep wallowing in the mediocrity as best we can in your absence.

Friday, September 12, 2008

So Exactly How Should We Get Rid of Bad Teachers?

All I want for my birthday this year is the answer to the problem of bad teachers, and for this new fantastic idea to be implemented by 10 o'clock this morning in a glorious revolution involving guillotines, firing squads and kids throwing water balloons at those judged "bad".

At the same time, I remember reading Miles Davis' autobiography a few months back. In it, the great trumpeter and even greater band leader bad mouths just about every other jazz great of his era. He is particularly harsh on pianist Oscar Peterson, who might not have been Art Tatum or Abdullah Ibrahim, but no less a person than Duke Ellington called Peterson the "Maharaja of the keyboard".

And Miles just trashes the poor Canadian bastard, saying of Peterson:
"Oscar makes me sick because he copies everybody. He even had to learn how to play the blues."
And you might be asking, rightly, Scot, just what the Hell does this have to do with the price of tea in Toronto or "bad teachers"? Well, I've always considered teaching its own kind of artform, one similar in execution to jazz. To my mind, teachers either "swing" or they don't. And bad teachers don't swing. An objective observer, aged 8 or 80, can watch a teacher for only a minute or two and figure that out. A teacher who doesn't swing, who leads one to bang their head instead of tapping their intellectual toes, is a painful thing to watch.

But the Oscar Peterson example shows that it's not always so simple. I like Oscar Peterson. I always thought he "swung", even if he did play overly schmaltzy versions of standards at times. A guy's gotta make a buck, hell even Charlie Parker recorded that ghastly "with Strings" album and you might remember Miles' cover of a Cyndy Lauper tune. That was awful.

Enough of that jazz. Let's cut back to the chase of bad teaching. Every school has at least one teacher who can be considered "bad". A "Kenny G" of the teaching profession, if you will. Problem is, not everyone uses the same criteria for what constitutes bad. For example, as much as I hate to say it, not many school districts or principals use "swing or don't swing" as their criteria for getting rid of bad teachers. Instead, because of union employee protections and a ton of other bureaucratic garbage, the firing process of bad teachers is slightly more byzantine than a John Coltrane saxophone solo circa 1965.

And if there aren't employee protections or a union in place, it is possible for a teacher who "swings" to be fired by an administrator who "doesn't swing". Trust me.. I know a little something about that kind of situation. And I'm not gonna talk about it.

So what to do? How can we get rid of the blatantly bad without wasting three years fulfilling "intensive evaluation" and "administrative transfer" processes? How can we empower on-site administrators and colleagues without turning them into little Robespierres, executing capriciously under the phony authorization of some "Committee of Public Safety" (i.e., "Instructional Council" or "Lead Team")?

I don't know. And for my birthday today I want somebody to answer that one, and do it by 10 o'clock this morning. And while I'm waiting for my "present", let's see/hear the late Oscar Peterson play one of those tunes I'm sure Miles Davis thought "didn't swing".

Actually, I think I do have an idea or two on how we can get rid of "bad teachers", but I'll wait on throwing those out for now. I'd prefer to hear from you guys on the subject. Besides, it's my birthday...you guys do all the work, while I listen to some swinging jazz piano.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Could Someone Pass Me A Little Blue Standardized Testing Pill, Please?

The hard-hitting Albuquerque Journal series on "passing" schools in APS continues with a in-depth analysis of Georgia O'Keeffe Elementary winning a "Blue Ribbon" award.

In case you don't know, Georgia O'Keeffe Elementary is located at:

View Larger Map

For those who have followed the standardized testing rants here at Babble the last few days, here's the test scores that helped Georgia O'Keeffe win this award.

I know we don't have socio-economic class distinctions in this country, and that even bringing up class conflict and inequality just demeans those who might be in the unmentionable "lower classes". I mean this is America! We don't have lower classes here, just people who won't go out and get decently high paying jobs.

So forget I'm bringing up socio-economic class distinctions at all. That's crazy talk. I deeply apologize for it. It won't happen again.

P.S.: And yeah, Georgia O'Keeffe's AYP subgroup populations were too small to be included in the "pass/fail" analysis, but let's give that point a rest here. In fact, let's just quit thinking about what might one school "pass" and many others "fail" standardized testing altogether and just give some schools a shiny "Blue Ribbon". So much more pleasant this way.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Obama Talks Education

Mere hours after complaining that Election '08 was bypassing substantive discussion of public school education issues like "No Child Left Behind" (see ranting comments section), I note this morning that Barack Obama is in Ohio talking about doubling federal funding of charter schools:
''I'll work with all our nation's governors to hold all our charter schools accountable...Charter schools that are successful will get the support they need to grow. And charters that aren't will get shut down.''
and getting rid of bad teachers:
''We must give teachers every tool they need to be successful, but we also need to give every child the assurance that they'll have the teacher they need to be successful...That means setting a firm standard -- teachers who are doing a poor job will get extra support, but if they still don't improve, they'll be replaced.''
In case you've forgotten...Barack Obama is the Democratic Presidential candidate. No word on whether Senator Obama favors compulsory prayer in the public schools and immediate implosion of all underperforming K-12 institutions nationwide.

I kid, of course. Still, while I'm glad to see the candidates talking education issues, it is a wee bit scary to see them try to our-Republican each other here.

That is not to say that I, alleged hyper-liberal that I am supposed to be, am against either charter schools or getting rid of bad teachers. I love the idea of charter schools. I desperately want to get rid of bad teachers. And many, many public school teachers agree with me on both positions. My personal squirming here is that:
  1. I have zero confidence that a Government capable of screwing up academic accountability so royally with NCLB can regulate "bad teaching" without disastrous results, regardless of whose Administration it is done under;
  2. I take the words "charter" and "bad teachers" as code for "get rid of teacher's union altogether". While I have big problems with teacher unions around the country, I fear that instead of fixing the current labor status, lawmakers, etc. will merely overreact and use the move to charters as a means to eradicate teacher's unions altogether. As someone who saw the problems of absolute zero union representation at a charter school first-hand, this worries me.
Blah, blah, blah...I seriously seem to be operating on a Presidential level of hot air bellowing these days.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Eubank Elementary: I'm Calling BS Here

"It is such a good thing, publicly, to be off that list," she said. "It makes us feel good there is some kind of validation."
-- Karen Butchart, Principal, Eubank Elementary School, APS, quoted in Albuquerque Journal, 9/8/08

This morning's Journal has one of those feel good Standardized Testing stories that just perpetuates the BS of winners and losers when it comes to meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). A casual reading of the story makes it appear both positive and pretty simple. Eubank Elementary made AYP in Math because of the positive actions of a bunch of concerned teachers, administrators and parents. Explicit here is the argument that:
The school's subsequent turnaround in math is due to its in-service training for teachers and Butchart's strength in curriculum, said Rose-Ann McKernan, APS executive director of instructional accountability.
Implicit in the story is that Eubank passed because of a bunch of concerned teachers, administrators and parents, and that other schools are failing because they don't have a bunch of concerned teachers, administrators and parents.

Well both the explicit and implicit arguments here are BS. First, all schools have concerned teachers, administrators and parents.
It's true that some schools are more efficient and effective in turning these concerns into higher scores and better student performance, but efforts exactly like the one at Eubank Elementary are in place are tons of failing APS schools.

Second, given the set of statistical circumstances at Eubank Elementary many of those failing schools would have passed. Let's look at those statistics.

First of all, Eubank didn't make AYP in reading at all, a fact glossed over in the Journal story. I love the quote from Assistant Secretary for the NM Public Education Department Carlos Martinez:
"If they make AYP for next year, everything is fine."
And if that frog doesn't jump next year it won't keep hitting it's hind end on the ground. Whatever. Now let's get real boring by looking at an actual number or two. Interestingly, Eubank Elementary was able to count the proficiency for only about half of its students. While 268 students were tested, only 143 counted toward AYP because only that smaller number was considered to have attended for the "FAY" Full Academic Year (doncha love all these acronyms?). As it states in the glossary at the PED website "f
or AYP proficiency calculations, students continuously enrolled in the school for a full academic year at the time of testing are counted." For whatever reason, the FAY number at Eubank is dramatically lower, as a percentage, than the typical school, elementary or otherwise.

Now I'm not saying there is a conspiracy here, and that Eubank got a bunch of less academically talented students to disenroll from Eubank, go down the street to X Elementary School for a few weeks, then return to Eubank. No, I'm not saying...although I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts it has happened somewhere in the United States in the last few years.

What I am saying is that because of such a low number of "FAY" students, the subgroups ("Students With Disabilities", "English Language Learners", etc.) are reduced to the point where the scores of these subgroups don't count. For instance, Eubank had 40 "Students With Disabilities" tested in Math. Only 20 were FAY. 20 is below the 25 required to be statistically relevant. So.....Eubank didn't have to include its "Students With Disabilities" in its AYP report this year, which is nice because of the 20 who were tested only 20% or four were "proficient". It's easy to pass when you eliminate significant subgroups from consideration..and I'm sure many others school with "concerned teachers, administrators, and parents" would like to have the same deal.

Now I know all these numbers make some people's heads hurt. For instance, your humble blogger got in trouble at a staff meeting recently for noting that the small testing samples of subgroups in standardized testing made any percentage increases/decreases statistically irrelevant. I'm still living that one down.

But gosh darnit, if we refuse to take the time/mental energy to really look at these scores we're just setting ourselves up for a "winners/losers" world in which BS newspaper articles are written about supposed "winners" in the testing game, with casual readers (and anyone else not crunching the numbers) left with the impression that "well, I guess that school really cares and other schools don't, or they would pass too".

That's BS thinking. And I'm afraid there isn't anyone around to call these folks (and I include the APS and PED officials quoted in the story in the "folks" category) on their BS here. Well, except for a wild-eyed, crazy ranting blogger here and there. Like that's gonna accomplish anything.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Wanted: Someone to Write "All The APS Lunch Lady's Men"

I don't have time this morning to get into the "slush fund" aspects, but I'd love to have an minute/hour/week to follow the money trail that exists between the food/drink APS kids thrown into their mouth and the District/vendors that gobble it all up.

I raise this point after reading today's Journal story about Feudal Prince Marty and his dictate that City offices switch to "healthy" food/drink from the usual doughnuts and margaritas sold in its vending machines.

Hidden within a story centering on some vision-impaired folks who think they may be out of a job because city employees don't like rice cakes is a yummy statistical morsel:
Albuquerque Public Schools recently switched to healthier drinks in its vending machines. A Pepsi official said last year that sales were about 70 percent lower than they were in the peak of 2002.
And that 70 percent drop is just the very small, icy frosting of the giant news iceberg that is food & drink sales at APS and public schools in general. If your humble blogger was anything but a listless, lazy loafer perhaps this post would be a detailed look at the sordid world of pizza, Pepsi and porkbarrel. There might be a 25-part series devoted to the topic, with break outs on the relationship between school "snack bars" and principal discretionary spending. Stuff like that...with charts, graphs and
twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one.

But instead, your lazy blogger will just point out that his school has a student vending machine outside the cafeteria. It is loaded to the gills with unsold Nutragrain granola bars. It sits largely unused mere feet away from our "snack bar" where literally hundreds of oil-glistening pizza slices are sold every day. Even closer is a little area where the dance team is selling untold ice cream sandwiches for a tremendous markup.

And only a few feet further away is the "Teacher's Lounge". Inside this little used sanctum is a heavily used vending machine filled with Skittles, Milky Way bars, and those little powdered doughnuts sitting in a powdery row inside tantalizing clear plastic packaging.

Occasionally, a teacher will reward a student by saying "Hey Johnny, would you like something from the teacher's vending machine?" Johnny's eyes invariably light up like a 5-year old staring at his birthday cake.

Have a good weekend, everybody.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Last Chance, China: Step Away From the Pandas!

That's it. Let's declare war on China. We want pandas. We deserve pandas. And now China ain't giving us the pandas we want, deserve and paid $56,000 trying to get.

To quote Randy Newman, "let's drop the big one and see what happens".

We've tried to stay happy here in Albuquerque. But as citizens, despite our attempts to ignore it, there has been a hole in our existence. A void. We try to pretend to live happy lives, filling that void with things like balloons and Isotopes Park and maybe an arena, but the hole in our hearts is still there.

And we've always known only one thing could really fill that hole. Pandas. Cute, cuddly pandas.

And now those Godless Communists, or former Communists, or whatever the Hell they are now Chinese have pulled the panda rug out from under us, leaving us bereft. Is that fair? Is it fair that just because we can't produce our own lovable, cuddly creatures to put in our zoo that some authoritarian country half a world away can prevent us from being able to adopt one or two?

No, it's not. We just want to have pandas. Like any prospective city would. One might say it's one of the biggest steps to becoming a real city, getting pandas. And now, we're barren. We're pandaless. And there ain't any combination of hormone shots and fertility drugs around that can help us now.


Sorry, it's hard for a city to not get emotional about something like this. We've just got to pull ourselves together, suck up that $56,000 we spent and try to move on with our lives.

But you know what would best help us carry on in this time of pandaless misery? Getting back at the ambiguous economic modeling bastards that have left us this way. That's right. Let's use some of those 2,000 or so nukes over at Kirtland and blow the Chinese to Kingdom Come. Hell, it probably won't even come to that.

Just have some folks at Sandia National Labs (remember, they want the pandas, too! They want to share custody of the pandas!) threaten to blow Shanghai off the face of the earth and we'd probably have a pair of cute, cuddly mini-bears in a week. Two weeks tops.

And if that didn't work, I'm prepared to go all the way. Total thermonuclear war. Because living in a city without pandas is living in a city not worth living in. The pain of walking by an zoo cage lovingly strewn with bamboo and not seeing those little "bandit" faces is just too much. The hole is just too big.

So let's fill the hole with weapons. You have to admit, bombs are the one thing we Americans have enough to share with everyone. You won't play ball with us, China, we'll share with you. You wanna deprive us of the right of adoption, we won't deprive you of the right to go straight to Hell.

Who's with me? Who's ready to show China and the world how badly we want to adopt a panda? Who wants to quit walking around our forlorn city metaphorically pushing an empty panda baby carriage, shopping at Panda Baby-R-Us and crying ourselves to sleep every night hugging a pillow shaped like that cute, cuddly panda cub we so desperately miss?

Cue the rest of the Randy Newman song...."boom goes Guangzhou, boom Beijing...more pandas for you and more pandas for me...."

Monday, September 01, 2008

I Pledge To Keep This Blogpost Almost Sarah Palin-Free

I do not know whether Sarah Palin is pregnant, if her daughter is pregnant, if Trig Palin is actually the daughter of Sarah Palin or Bristol Palin, or even whether Trig Palin is younger than Bristol Palin or the other way around.

And I hope I speak for 99.9% of Americans when I say my level of concern about any of the above is absolutely nil compared to my concern about Sarah Palin's views on abortion, energy, foreign policy and future Supreme Court justices.

Yet once again the shiny object that is politics has diverted my attention (this time from grading papers and watching online video of the Industrial Canal in New Orleans during Hurricane Gustav). Still, embedded amid the innuendo, mudslinging and total lack of focus on actual issues, is a real issue having to do with public schools.

The Pledge of Allegiance.

For it has been totally blown out of proportion by the "liberal" blogs that Governor Palin once responded to one of those newspaper candidate Q&As thusly:
Are you offended by the phrase “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance? Why or why not?

SP: Not on your life. If it was good enough for the founding fathers, its good enough for me and I’ll fight in defense of our Pledge of Allegiance

Of course we can all have a nice, jolly laugh at Governor Palin's expense over the fact that she demonstrates a poor grasp of when the "Pledge of Allegiance" was written, especially the "Under God" part. Ha, ha, ha. Chuckle, chuckle. Guffaw. Chortle.

Only I'm not laughing, and it's not because Sarah Palin scares me as quite possible the dullest tool in the Vice Presidential woodshed since Dan Quayle. I'm not laughing because your humble blogger, me, has to participate in this "Pledge of Allegiance" thing every school morning.

You see, every school day around 8:23 A.M., my 1st Period class and I perform a little dance of social dynamics. It starts when a student comes over the intercom and says, "Good morning, (insert school name and mascot here), please stand for the pledge." At this point the following occurs:
  • About two-thirds of the class, teachers included, stand up (btw, this percentage has varied in past years from almost 0% the mid 00s to almost 90% in other years);
  • The other third remain seated, fidgeting while also looking somewhat defiantly up at the standing folks;
  • Some standing students/teachers look up at the U.S. flag, and one or two put their hand over their left chest, the others just look around the room nervously while standing;
  • Noone looks comfortable;
  • Everyone looks either defiant, sleepy or nervously unsure of themselves;
  • Sometimes the Pledge is given in Spanish, and on these days the number of those reciting it audibly increases, not because my students are 1st language Spanish speakers, but because saying the pledge in Spanish is novel and gives them a chance to show off how smart they are;
  • The pledge ends, those standing sit down, those sitting stop looking quite so defiant and the whole class, teachers included, NEVER EVER mention having done the Pledge or that it even exists.
  • The whole experience goes into some sort of dysfunctional family vault, never to be addressed because public school is a BizarroLand when it comes to religion: we are supposed to never talk about religion, yet we do the "Pledge" including the "Under God" part.
  • So the "Under God" part becomes like some unspoken family secret, like Dad coming home drunk from bowling every Wednesday night, that we all know happens but can never talk about or admit occurs.
And that is both surreal and damn unfortunate. In fact, to show how surreal and damn unfortunate the whole public school Pledge/Under God fiasco is circa-2008, I'm strongly guessing that a high percentage of teachers reading this blog right now are saying to themselves "Scot, shut up about the Pledge....shhh...shhh...ixnay on the ledgepay. Stop talking about the Pledge! Let's just continue to silently put up with a minute or two of awkwardness every school morning, and just pretend it doesn't exist. Hush. This weirdness has gone on without too much trouble for years now...don't make trouble."

And I can almost understand this form of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", for I'm sure there are many Americans, Governor Palin probably included, whose heads would explode if they ever saw a typical U.S. public school classroom during a typical recitation of "The Pledge of Allegiance". Bringing this up does not make me proud, embarrassed, or defiant. It's just the way it is.

I thought of this fact during my school's "Open House" last Thursday. We start with a large group shindig in the gym. All the parents, teachers and administrators are there, and we, of course, start with "The Pledge". We all do a smashing job on "The Pledge".

And while meekly helping with this smashing job, I looked up into the stands and saw many parents who quite obviously weren't used to reciting "The Pledge of Allegiance", and treated the experience as some sort of arcane, nostalgic ritual. Which is exactly what it is. A ritual largely unperformed in any setting other than public schools.

As if these institutions have some sort of secret combination of code words and pithy phrases empowered to make our children "American" just long enough to reach maturity, thereafter enabling them to never having to recite the damn thing again, unless they get stuck at a city council meeting, or their kid's "Open House".

Yet for those of us in daily contact with public school, "The Pledge" is not something to be abstractly defended or nostalgically reminded of on rare occasion. It is our reality. And the reality is that schoolchildren are being used as pawns in some sort of loyalty struggle between the allegedly patriotic amongst us who demand public schools use "The Pledge ("Under God" included), and the allegedly unpatriotic amongst us who have serious concerns about "The Pledge" and even more serious objections to the "Under God" part.

But because debate on actual content and use of "the Pledge" has been de facto strangled in recent years, we are reduced to schadenfreude "gotchas" about whether friggin' Sarah Palin friggin' knows when the friggin' goshdarn "Pledge" was friggin' written.

Meanwhile, tomorrow morning a voice will come over the intercom at my school a t 8:23 A.M., and say "Please rise for "The Pledge". And some students/teachers will stand, and some won't, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, schoolday, after schoolday, after schoolday.

No, I'm not laughing.