Wednesday, December 26, 2012

On School Security

Since it's the holidays I thought I'd address a light topic, guns in schools. Yesterday was my wife's family Christmas and as an elementary teacher I was asked a number of questions about school security. Had we had any lockdowns? (yes) Had any students threatened the shoot people? (yes) Did we close school because of the threat? (no) What did I think about arming teachers or having armed guards in the schools?

Let me answer that one in some length.

The NRA's proposal to have an armed guard in every school is silly. Not because it wouldn't work. In fact, it probably would work in the way everyone affected by the tragedy in Connecticut really wants it to--by offering a false sense of security. After all, there's a reason the President and other well-off individuals of power choose to enroll their kids in highly-secured schools. But it's silly because it's completely impractical. There is no way the country can afford to have an armed officer in every building.

So how about arming the teachers? I'm against this one as well. First let me say that I myself would never carry. I've never owned a gun, never felt much like shooting one, and wouldn't trust myself with the thing.  But how about those who have experience, have been trained, who know how to use it should he/she need to? Still against. The ugly truth is that I've worked with too many unstable teachers and having them armed scares the hell out of me. You might think an adult should be able to hold it together no matter how much kids push their buttons, but after eight months of dealing with the same kid and his same behaviors, and when you add on the additional stresses that come with teacher evaluations and districts looking to cut money, it's not hard to envision a teacher losing it. I don't want that teacher armed.

If you want a so-called solution, my suggestion would be to do it the same way airlines do with federal marshals. For schools, police departments would designate a different officer on different days to rotate through the buildings in their jurisdiction. They would be plainclothes officers, but carrying a concealed weapon. No one except the police departments would know which officer was at which school. Hopefully, this system would act as a deterrent. And it would add that sense of security so many parents are craving.

But the truth is it is impossible to secure schools in any significant way and still have schools that are anything like those we grew up attending. I know a principal who fielded a call from a parent who was concerned that the cafeteria in which the students ate was walled with windows that faced the parking lot. This principal tried to reassure the parent, but what he did not tell this father was that five minutes after those kids have eaten in that cafeteria they would all be outside on the playground.

And that is the hard truth. Schools are not very secure. Any person intent on harming our kids can do it, especially if they don't care if they themselves live to see another day. Even if you secure the building, are you going to building eight foot high walls around the playground? Are you going to take away outdoor recess? Are you going to arm the bus drivers too? Will these armed guards have to attend the Friday night football games and sit in the student section? Will they be at your child's holiday concert? And even if you do all of those things, will that really stop someone crazy enough to shoot up a first grade classroom?

Like after 9/11, we have decisions to make that will sacrifice our liberties for a phony feeling of security. If you need any reason to err on the side of liberty, I ask you to picture this: the TSA for schools.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Similies from my Students

Did a simile lesson last week where students were given the beginning and had to complete the simile. Here are the good (okay, decent) ones. The trainwrecks are further below if you'd rather just skip to those.

The Good

Happy as...

a mouse with cheese
flamingoes in water
a tiger hunting
a bird soaring through the sky
a rabbit with a carrot
as a boy who just got a girlfriend
an obese man eating donuts

Dark as...

a thick forest
the fabric of space
inked words in the night
night in a forest
a fresh Oreo cookie

Crazy as...

a monkey fighting a squirrel over a nut
a five-year-old that just drank pop

The Bad

Purple as a monkey eating a banana
Dark as a ghost flying through the air
Smart as tater tots in my mouth yum!
A quesadilla as tan as a Mexican
Smart as a nerd acting like himself
Dark as a really dark cave

Monday, October 15, 2012

Evaluating Teachers Part 1

Anyone who follows education in America even at a distance probably knows that there has been a strong push in recent years to evaluate teachers and hold them more accountable. And this is, theoretically at least, a good thing. I don't personally know any teachers who don't think they should be evaluated. The concerns are in the details.

This will be the first in a series of posts about the hurdles to meaningful and fair teacher evaluation.

The first question that must be answered is: What is an effective teacher? I''ve written on this before, but judging a teacher is not like judging a salesman, chef, lawyer, or doctor. Consider the following teachers and tell me, if you had to fire one (or rate them "Effective" or "Ineffective"), which one would it be?

Mrs. K has been around for ever. She's tough, demanding, and blunt. Her kids will learn the standards, come hell or high water. Every year, her data show that she succeeds in this. Her students score very well on tests. But they don't like going to school and being treated like soldiers. And parents are often rubbed wrong by Mrs. K. They complain about her to the principal, and the principal sympathizes, because Mrs. K. challenges her at every meeting and in general is a pain in the butt.

Mrs. D. has great relationships with kids. They truly love coming to school. They are taught to care about each other and parents are delighted because their kids love school, even those kids who hadn't before. Mrs. D. is patient and she helps kids solve their own problems. Mrs. D gets along with other teachers and is very supportive of her principal. She volunteers time after school to start a journalism club because she's passionate about it. Unfortunately, Mrs. D's kids haven't scored too well on the state test the last three years. Of course, she tends to get kids with behavior problems because she's so good with them.

If forced to choose, your answer would probably depend on who you are. As a parent, I'd want my kid in Mrs. D.'s class. As a principal, your choice would be tougher. If your own job depended on how well students in your schol did on the state test, then you'd keep Mrs. K. If there was no such incentive, you'd keep Mrs. D., just so you didn't have to put up with all the hassles Mrs. K. brings. For most students, the choice is simple. The superintendent would likly keep Mrs. K because the Board would be impressed by her students' data and Board members spend more time looking at data then they do looking in classrooms.

And there's nothing to say that Mrs. K is doing a better job. Because if her students get turned off by school and in subsequent years struggle without her iron grip, she may have done them a disservice. Conversely, Mrs. D.'s students, while they didn't learn as much that particular year, might see school as a fun place, and the skills they learned in her class might translate to greater success in the future.

I think the above illustrates why evaulating a teacher is almost impossible. (With the obvious exception of teachers who don't give a crap and are just collecting a paycheck--they're easy to judge.) Because until we can agree on what consititutes a "good" teacher, how in the world can we ever judge them?

Friday, October 12, 2012

I Miss Blogging

While I'm pretty sure no one will actually read this and that it's been so long since I've blogged that some of my followers have probably died, I kind of miss writing on this thing so I'm starting again.

But there will be a small difference. 

I was never one to blog much about my writing and quest for publication, but it was sort of the impetus for this blog. And while I frequently strayed far from that topic, most of my followers found me because of their own similar journey. But I'm not trying to get published anymore. Haven't written a thing towards that end in months. And while I could go through lots of reasons why I'm quitting on that dream, the big one is that I don't have an overwhelming passion for writing. It's fun. I amuse myself (and, admittedly, mostly myself. Just ask the agents that read my work.) It's something I'm halfway decent at. But I don't think you get very good at anything (and certainly not good enough to get published) without committing more time and energy than I'm willing to commit.

So what will I blog about? Mostly awesome things, like my extraordinary life.* And I also plan to blog about education. I've got LOTS to say about that. And I think it might be fun to blog about books I'm reading. Because when you're trying to get published you have a tendency to play nice because you don't want to ruffle any publishing people's feathers. And maybe you don't tell the whole truth about the industry or agents or writers and their books. So I don't have to worry about that any more. Anyway, stuff. I'll be blogging about stuff. 

*For instance, tonight I went to the store and bought some things for tailgating tomorrow. But when I  paid, I forgot that I needed cash to pay for parking and I clicked "No" on the Any Cash Back question. Silly me. So now I have to go to an ATM and pay a fee tomorrow morning. It's like I'm being punished twice for my forgetfulness!

 See? Extraordinary.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Exclusive: The Kim Kardashian Flour Attacker Talks

Hey. It's me, the flour that attacked Kim Kardashian. I'm resting comfortably in the bottom of a vacuum cleaner bag at the moment, but it's getting pretty boring in here. I mean, not that the flour canister in which I resided before this whole thing started was Club Med, but at least I didn't have to put up with carpet lint and gum wrappers crowding my space, you know? Anyway, anyone think they can bust me out of here? I mean, I'm like the most famous flour on the planet right now. I'm sure you can find a use for me. Ebay, anyone?

Anyway, here's how it all went down, 'cause I'm sure you're dying to know why I went ahead and spread myself all over Kim Kardashian and ruined her little perfume launch party.

Like I said before, I was hanging out in the bottom of the flour canister when suddenly the sky opened up and light poured in and my owner, a little Asian gal who mostly eats out, peers down at me. And of course I'm thinking, "Finally, she's gonna bake cookies or something."

But no. She's got a Ziploc bag in one hand and she starts scooping me up and dumping me in the bag. Of course I'm wondering what the hell is going on. I'm flour. I don't belong in Ziploc bags.

Once all of me is in the bag, she stuffs me into her purse and then we're off. I don't know where to; I'm stuffed inside a bag inside her purse and can't see shit. So if you're looking to blame me, look elsewhere. I'm innocent...mostly.

It's quite a while later when I feel her hand squeeze me and the bag is lifted out. Nice place: red carpet, pretty ladies all dressed up, cameras flashing everywhere. Very exciting. And then I see her. Kim Kardashian. You might wonder how I know who Kim Kardashian is, but I live in America. Everyone knows Kim Kardashian, even if you don't have any reason to.

And I see what's going to happen. I try to stop it. I do. I shout, "Run away, Kim! Kick off those marvelous heels and run like the wind in your spectacular leather pants!" But no one hears me because Ziploc bags seal really well.

My owner, the Asian lady, rushes at Kim and lifts me up and then---KABLOOEY!--I splatter all over Kim Kardashian. A lot of me gets on her very classy looking coat and a little bit of me ends up on her blue shirt (it's very soft and nice). Some of me gets on her face, even. And I'd like to report to you that Kim's face is exquisite, but the truth is it's so covered in make-up that it's hard to tell.

But the hair. Oh, the hair is another story altogether. And this is where my innocence may be called into question.

Being all over and up in Kim Kardashian's lustrous hair was like running on clouds and swimming in pools of the finest milk chocolate. It was like sledding down a mountain of silk. I was assaulted (yes, I was assaulted!) by the intoxicating aroma of tee tree oil and peppermint, of rosemary and lemongrass. I spread out to absorb into my essence as much of whatever haircare products Kim Kardashian uses.

I took, greedily.

And then everyone started screaming and pointing at me and I was ashamed. I had been caught. Much of me jumped off then and fell to the red carpet. The beautiful people stared at me with disgust in their otherwise beautiful eyes. Photographers took pictures of me. Bruce Jenner loosed his trademark acidic tongue. "Crawl into the carpet and die, you fucking flour!"

And I would have, had not the vacuum come along and spared me further humiliation and scorn.

So there you have it. Judge me as you will. None of this was my idea, but I cannot say that parts of it were not enjoyable. And if Kim Kardashian's fragrance is indeed a "True Reflection" of the smell of her hair, then count me in. The world needs more beauty.

Some Growing To Do

To say that the visitors’ locker room was a shithole would be paying it too high a compliment. The cracked cement floor was painted a depressing gray. Rusted metal lockers that you could sort of tell had once been robin’s egg blue lined three of the walls. Near the lockers were heavily lacquered wooden benches where you sat to tie your shoes. And behind those benches, right out in the open, with no walls or doors to conceal them, sat three toilets.

We were captivated by those naked toilets. Taking turns, we approached them in groups and found them disappointingly normal, complete with clumps of soiled toilet paper clogging the drain holes, dried piss drops on the rim, and a floating turd in the one on the left.

A few brave souls (Davies was one of them) contributed their own urine to the mess and were cheered loudly for doing so. No one dared sit down, though.

It was at this point that I felt the first faint stirrings in my abdomen. It had been a long bus ride and I really should have thought ahead and addressed any potential problem before climbing aboard. I was about to rue my lack of preventive action.

My condition quickly deteriorated. I probably exacerbated it by thinking about what I was going to have to do. There was no way I was going to be able to avoid those exposed toilets. I sat on one of the wooden benches and bent over, my head between my knees. I took deep breaths and kept glancing at the toilets, hoping against hope that walls and doors might somehow magically materialize.

As usual, my teammates ignored me and changed into their uniforms. I prayed I could hold off until they took the court for warm-ups. As more and more of them exited, I began to feel better. It was going to be disgusting to sit on one of those commodes, but at least I wouldn’t be witnessed by my older and more physically mature teammates.

Finally, the last of them left. I was alone. There was no time to spare. I dashed to the middle toilet while unbuckling my belt. I yanked down my khaki pants and sat. No sooner had my bare ass touched down on the cold and sticky seat did it explode. Shrapnel burst forth and sprayed the inside of the bowl and my whole body shivered in response. The force of the blow was such that I involuntarily closed my eyes, like when you sneeze, and when I opened them again, Tyler Prescott was standing with his mouth open across the locker room.

“Aw, gross!” he yelled. He spun out of there shouting, “Finley shit! Finley shit!”

There followed a stampede of upperclassmen, all eager to see the spectacle for themselves. I was wiping when they stormed into the room. They kept a respectful distance and gaped.

“Sick,” someone said.

“That’s so nasty,” said another.

“Goddamn, Finley,” a third teammate chimed in. They had finally recognized my presence and they were awed. Also repulsed.

Coach saved me, or so I thought at first. His deep voice boomed ahead of him. “Let’s go, guys! What are we doing? We’ve got a game to play!”

My teammates hustled out and I stood to hike up my pants. I guess Coach wanted to make sure everyone had cleared the locker room, because as I gripped the top of my khakis, he cleared his throat. Instantly, I straightened.

Coach's eyes flashed to my groin and then just as fast snapped back to my face. He looked embarrassed and I thought I knew why. Male teachers and coaches have to be careful in locker rooms, and I’d just caught him checking out my junk. But as it turned out, I misread his embarrassment.

“Well, you’re only a freshman, Patterson,” he said. “Don’t worry, you’ve probably still got

some growing to do.” Then he gave me an abrupt, businesslike nod, spun on his loafers, and took

the court.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Fault(s) in His Story

In which I express my disappointment with the beloved John Green's latest novel and receive worldwide scorn (or would, if anyone read this blog).

I owe Jon for this post since I originally wrote it as a comment on his blog. Some minor editing has been performed.

First, let me say this: I love John Green's writing. I like that it's funny and smart and doesn't treat teenagers like they're all horny morons who do nothing but play video games or pine over Hollywood actors. He has what I believe is a perfect grasp on male friendships. I could go on, but all of the above has been said before and you're reading this for the criticism, not the praise. I know what you want.

As for The Fault in Our Stars, I thought Green's intelligence (and ego) got in the way of the story. This manifests itself most egregiously in his main characters' dialogue, which I found completely unbelievable. Even if you accept that Gus and Hazel possess expansive vocabularies (and I don't accept that in the case of Gus, who is a stud basketball player, plays a lot of video games, and reads the literary equivalent of fast food), I don't know any teenagers whose every conversation drips with metaphor, irony, and witty rejoinders.

Secondly, as he does in all of his books, but especially in this one, Green sacrifices story on the altars of theme, metaphor, and symbolism. It's almost as if he's writing in the hopes of impressing high school English teachers enough to use his book in place of the dusty classics. This one was so full of metaphor that it became impossible for me to read about the smallest detail without wondering what hidden meaning I was missing. I felt like I was in eleventh grade again, with Mrs. Rief prodding me to notice the symbolism on every page. A piece of playground equipment isn't just a piece of playground equipment. Kissing at the Anne Frank Museum isn't just two horny kids kissing. Stuff falling out of trees into a Holland river is probably more than just nice imagery. And even if it isn't, there is so much metaphor and symbolism and theme that you think it must be. It pulled me out of the story (what little story there was) time and again.

As a result, I didn't feel the emotion I know Green intended me to feel. It's hard to fall for the characters when Green insists on asserting himself with such attention-seeking regularity. Whenever I began to get sucked into the story, there was Green, pants off and waving them in the air, to remind me that he--HE--had written this. And wasn't it so damn full of MEANING?

Also, I found the references to the "genius" of Peter Van Houten off-putting, since he was invented by Green. Nothing says massive ego like having your characters gush about the genius of the words of another character you created. Disagree? Try this on for size:

"There are two kinds of people in this world," Lester said. "The kind that stop for a raccoon crossing the road and the kind that swerve to hit it."

Billy was speechless. He had never heard such truth spoken so eloquently.

Gagging yet? Unless I'm mistaken, Hermione and Harry didn't sit around talking about how wise professor Dumbledore was. Rowling let the reader make that conclusion. Possibly because she didn't feel the need to remind her readers how flipping smart she was every fifth page.


And speaking of Van Houten, his reappearance at the funeral was something out of a bad movie and an editor never would have let a rookie author get away with it.


On the other hand, there are things to recommend the novel. Much of the writing, while self-aware and overdone, is gorgeous. And Green excels where it counts most: in telling the truth. I've never had cancer, but the way his characters handle it-their thoughts, reactions, fears, hopes, etc.--felt authentic to me. And it's balls-to-the-wall ambitious to tackle the topic of teenagers with cancer in the first place. One might argue that it takes a certain amount of ego to even think you can pull it off, and one would be right. Nevertheless, I admire authors who are ambitious, even if they fail. Perhaps because they fail. And for kids who have or have had cancer, the book is probably a comfort and might even be profound. If that's the case, and from what I've seen online it is, then despite its many faults, I'm glad John Green wrote it. My opinion isn't worth much when compared to a fifteen-year-old kid going through chemotherapy.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Glen's Superpower

I've heard it said that everyone has a superpower. Glen's was sharpening pencils. He was the best I've ever seen. He knew it too. How couldn't he? There came a time in that year, 2004 I think it was, that the rest of the class simply gave up on doing it themselves. Whenever their pencils got dull or broke or a new one was needed, they brought it to Glen. And I let them. It was an arrangement that worked for everyone. The student got his or her pencil sharpened quickly and without hassle. Glen got to do what he loved to do. And I didn't have to sharpen any pencils myself or put up with the incessant grinding associated with repeated failures.

Glen had a method. He told it to me once, explaining it with the same level of passion experts in other, more respected fields possess. He did this over coffee during an afternoon recess. He wouldn't tell me anything without the coffee.

You stick the pencil all the way in and hold it firm, Glen said. Firm, he repeated. Grip it close to the entry hole, leaving only enough space to account for the pencil being drawn in by the spinning blades. Never let it spin. He took a drink. Letting it spin was a rookie mistake. Did I understand?

I said I did.

A pencil that spun got an uneven cut. You'd end up with one good side, the lead nice and sharp, and at first glance you'd think you did it. But turn that pencil just a little and you'd see the lead on the other side still covered with wood. So hold it firm, let the blades do their job. Glen drank more coffee.

There was something else I needed to know. Something important. Something attitudinal, not technical.

You had to show the sharpener who was boss.

Not only did you hold that pencil firm and not let the blades turn it on you, you pushed in as you sharpened. You fed the blades the pencil. Not too hard, that could break the point off, but steady, forceful. It was the left hand, Glen insisted, that did the work. True, the right hand was the one that was moving, rotating the handle around and around. But like any great magician, Glen said, the real business was done where those in the audience rarely thought to look. There was technique in the handle turn, easy and consistent, not too fast, not too slow, but it was what you did with that left hand that made all the difference.

And then Glen leaned close to me. He checked behind him. And he told me the difference between a good pencil sharpener and a great one, one who got it right every time.

The secret, he whispered, the thing he never told anyone else, was knowing when to stop. Most kids stopped any old time. For them, it was like chewing food or brushing their teeth. They did it for awhile and when they felt like they'd done it for long enough they quit. But if you sharpened a pencil too long you could break the lead all over again. And if you stopped too early, it was almost impossible to pick up where you left off.

So how did Glen know when to stop?

He listened. A sharp pencil made a different sound than an dull or nearly sharp one. And when you heard the change you stopped immediately. You pulled the pencil free, and it was perfect. Glen always heard the change.

I asked him to describe it to me, those sounds, the difference between done and not done, perfect and something quite not. But Glen only smiled and told me you either heard it or you didn't. And then he thanked me for the coffee and went outside.