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One Bad Apple May 30, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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4 comments

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The Los Angeles Times recently ran a story about how difficult it is to get rid of teachers, who’ve been deemed, for one reason or another, to be incompetent, but have tenure. Yes, I have tenure, and yes, the first two years I taught,  I made sure I flew under the radar and didn’t make any waves because I wanted that tenure.  That said, I’m a damn good teacher.  

Actually, the majority of the teachers I’ve worked with, and work with now are good, if not excellent, teachers.  Here’s the bottom line.  Teaching is TOO much work (without commensurate pay), to do this job unless you’re passionate about children and education.  (Being a Bleeding Heart or a Masochist can also take you far in this profession.)  But there are those who should hang up their spurs and ride off into the sunset.  I don’t pretend to have the answer to this problem, but I do have a story.  So, I give you Exhibit A (or shall I say Exhibit B, as in burnout).

I was in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD – Yes, it sounds like LOST and how appropriate is that?) Intern program back in 1997 when California was implementing class size reduction.  Teachers were in short supply, so anyone with a pulse was fair game. After six weeks of intensive training in classroom management, I was ready to be dropped behind enemy lines into a classroom.

My mission – Take over  a modified bilingual class (3 English speakers and 17 Spanish speakers) mid-year.   The teacher, “Dr. B ,” was moving to an administrative post at the school.  I was to observe him for three days (Think – Sitting at the foot of the master.)  Then the class would be MINE.  I was nervous, but excited.  I brought along paper to take notes, as I had so much to learn.  I needn’t have bothered.

Dr. B took immediately took a shine to me.  You should know that when you’re the only adult in a classroom all day, any contact with someone over three feet tall is a cause for celebration.   He pulled up a chair for me to sit in, then sat down beside me.  I thought I was going to see him in action, but he rarely got out of the chair.  There we sat side by side for three days – Sort of like a road trip only there were 20 others along for the ride whose final destination was supposed to be Knowledge.

Dr. B assigned the students a lot of seat work.  Copy this.  Copy that. Recopy this.  Recopy that.  This freed him up to regale me with stories about how he’d worked as a mercenary in Central America. Oh, the stories I could tell you!  I hadn’t realized until then that being a killer for hire was actually a career option.

These were obviously Dr. B’s glory days and he still played the part.   He drove an old Jeep and walked around the campus with an Australian outback hat that made him look like a deranged Teddy Roosevelt (sans monocle).  His hobby was hunting wild boar. When I mentioned I had a pet pig, I saw a glint in his eye.  I have to admit that I actually enjoyed talking to Dr. B.  But, what did I learn from the master?

When it was time for lunch, Dr B would tell the class a good 15-20 minutes ahead of time to get ready. He’d have them line up, but then tell them they were too noisy and needed to return to their seats. “We’ll just have to try that again,” he’d say and then have them line up again.  “Still too noisy. Let’s try that one more time.”

That’s when he turned to me, and HONEST TO GOD, said,  “A really good way to kill time is to draw out the transitions.”  I didn’t blink.  Then he rose from his chair and we walked the students to lunch.

Eventually, I dropped out of the District Intern program and left the school. Last I heard, Dr. B’s job as an administrator had been phased out.  So, he returned to the classroom.   And there he sits.

Photo Credit:  Mercenary by kojman47 on Flickr.

English as a Foreign Language May 25, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Language, Travel.
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6 comments

chucks&tea

I’d like to think I’ve got Culture – only it’s spelled with a “K.” So that’s how Lesley and I ended up having a posh lunch at The Swan in Southwold on the Suffolk coast.

The bartender explained that we could have a drink OR if we wanted to eat in the dining room, we could have two courses AND a drink for a bargain price.

Lesley literally sprinted to the dining room where I enjoyed gammon (think thick ham) and mash (as in potatoes) and a glass of wine. Everyone was wearing a suit and tie and looked frightfully proper. But when you’re wearing Converse aka Chucks in the UK, you can just pass yourself off as eccentric. We had the most lovely lunch and convinced the waitress (who confided her nickname was “The Rottweiler”) to take our picture.

Though we share a common language, I confess that when I’m in England I feel like I’m an English Language Learner. Just when I’d gotten used to “car park” and “pegging out the wash,” I was inundated with a barrage of new expressions that bear repeating.

Take “bovver boots.” While in Southwold, Lesley and I popped into Daddy Longlegs, where I sprang for a pair of red boots. There were Doc Martens on the shelf above, but I loved the cherry-stained color of the ones I bought. The clerk informed me they were handmade in Spain. (I asked if a man named Manuel had manually caressed them, and she rather fancied that idea.)

Back in Fram, I put them on to wear out to the pub. As we walked down the street, Lesley informed me I looked like a “bovver boy.”  Huh?  “They’re “bovver boots” she replied, and then seeing my blank stare, informed me that “bovver” is the working class equivalent of “bother.”

When we got home from the pub, us giggling Googlers found “bovver boots” and “bovver boy” in the Urban Dictionary. I learned that they (and yes, Doc Martens are the ultimate bovver boots) are worn by undesirables looking for trouble. Moi? I’m flattered, though to achieve the real bovver boy look, I’d need to shave my hair and wear braces (suspenders). There’s also a lot of saying “oi” involved, as it’s Cockney slang for “hey.” (Thanks again to the Urban Dictionary.)

I’ll leave you with a few English expressions that will add spice (and not just curry) to any conversation:

I’d like to p%ss on his chips!
I don’t know whether to take a p%ss or to comb my hair.
AND
I don’t trust her.  She’s got one eye on the pot and the other up the chimney!

 


What’s Buggin’ Me May 21, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Travel.
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3 comments

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The weather in England is fabulous, so what could be wrong? I’ve been through two, count them TWO, computer adaptors, and I’m now running on the second battery. T’was not meant to be. But, I just had to post this photo of a poster I took in the window of a shop at Southwold.

I’m half-way round the world and the first thing I thought of when I saw it was, “Bug Girl (on my blogroll) would love this!”

Lesley and I had an outrageously fun day in London. We went to the National Gallery first. Touring a gallery with Lesley is oh so educational.  She studied Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, in which Venus lounges while Mars is having a snooze, and announced, “They’ve obviously just had sex, he’s smoked a fag and is already asleep.” I think these cultural exchanges are invaluable.

When I return, I shall post about our romp through The Portrait Gallery, the Tate Modern, and resting on the crypts of some of Britain’s most historic personages. In the meantime, Lesley and I are conspiring to win the Turner Prize, and there are chickens that need tending. From across the pond.

Always, Jan

Leaving on a Jet Plane May 16, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Travel.
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jet

Forget what clothes I should pack. I’m too busy trying to figure out which cables, battery chargers, and atomic reactors I need to take to keep me and my Significant Other (Mac) up and running in England. Then there’s the cell phone and the digital camera…  So much for getting away from it all! If you’re feeling a tad envious that I’m jetting off, just reread Time Zone Zombie – Asleep at 30,000 Feet. Feel better now?

Photo Credit: Leaving on a jet plane by Aky B on Flickr.

London Calling May 9, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Life, Travel.
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3 comments
picture-4

Screen shot of Lesley showing me her date book so I would pick a date.

I’m off to England, I’m off to see the queen!  No, not THAT old girl – my friend Lesley, a sassy redhead, who could teach the royals a thing or two about having a good time.

“You know this is all quite mad?” Lesley said as we chatted via SKYPE. But it wasn’t so much of a question as a statement of fact.

But some days, I think the whole world’s gone mad. Fortunately, I subscribe to the “Life is short, eat dessert first” school of thought. So, when I found out I got accepted to graduate school (See Masters of the Universe), I knew I needed to reward myself before I got bogged down with classes two nights a week for the next year. And since the classes start only four days after the last day of school in June, it had to be soon – before the end of school.

Lesley and I met via the internet less than two years ago. When she invited my husband and me to come to England to celebrate New Year’s Eve with her family in 2007, all of our friends thought we’d both gone quite mad. (See Thinking of England) But, we’re two crazy redheads, and yes, everything they say about redheads is true! I once read an interview with a man who’d lived to be 105. He said his secret to a long life was he stayed away from “wine, whiskey, and red-headed women.” Poor old sot!

After Lesley and her family spent two fabulous weeks with us last summer, we both worried it would be too long until we met again. So, I couldn’t believe it when she’d offered to pay half my airfare just to get me over there. I found a cheap enough flight, so I’m going on my own dime. I was able to sandwich (as in The Earl of…) the trip in between Testing and Open House, so I’ll only miss five days of school. The MANDATORY MEETING for grad school is May 15th. On May 16th, I’m outta here til May 25th.

We’re taking the train to London for a day to see the art at the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. The rest of the time, I’ll be blissfully enjoying English village life in Framlingham where we plan to sit out front of The Dancing Goat cafe each morning, have breakfast, and watch the world go by.

I’m still deciding whether to take my laptop along so I can blog from the UK. I’ve been known to get “the DTs” (Digital Tremors) when deprived access to the internet for too long. I’m SO not PC –  as in I don’t do PCs, so I might have to pack my Mac. Okay, I’m taking it. You should know that we redheads are prone to impulsive behavior, but we DO know how to have a good time.

Can’t help but add Mad World from one of my all-time favorite movies, Donnie Darko.

Teaching Sex Ed May 1, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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sex

“Are you comfortable teaching Sex Ed?”  My interview for a long-term sub job as a 6th grade Math and Science teacher was going extremely well when this question stopped me in my tracks.  I really needed the job.  I really needed the money. “No problem,” I said without a moment’s hesitation.

Middle School is a DMZ between elementary school and High School. Nothing prepared me for Middle School, except my own miserable experience in Junior High.  And just referring to it as Junior High dates me. To be honest, I was less intimidated about teaching Sex Ed than teaching math.  The principal informed me that the regular teacher had fallen off a desk while hanging a project up from the ceiling and was out on disability. (Later, I learned there was more to it than that, but that’s between you and me.)

I taught one period of math followed by one period of science with the same students twice a day.  The good part was I got to keep the good students for TWO whole periods.  The bad part was I got to keep the bad students for TWO whole periods.   The class was pretty much equally divided between Asians (mainly Chinese) and Latinos (mostly Mexican).  I had my token white student, who had Asperger Syndrome, and could rattle off the box office take for every Batman movie.  And there was one African American girl named Princess.  Don’t get me wrong.  There were some really wonderful kids, whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to private school.  And there were some really not so wonderful kids, who already had two strikes against them.  Once the hormones kick in, sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other.

If you’re like Middle Schoolers, you’re already getting restless.  “When is she going to start talking about the good stuff?”  Penis. Vagina.  I just threw those in to keep your interest.

During Period 4,  I taught Intervention Math for students who were more than two years below grade level.  This class included two Gypsy boys, who’d moved to California from Chicago when their father was released from prison.  They had never been to school, spoke Bulgarian, and were still learning their ABC’s.  I had another student, Eddie, who was prime gang recruitment fodder.  Yeah, it was grim.  If things got really bad, I could call Ed, the behavior aide, who wore mirrored wraparound sunglasses, and would escort the “offender” from the classroom.  Round up the usual suspects.

After the first month, two girls told me someone had written something bad about me in a book.  “Does it rhyme with witch?” I asked.  They exchanged looks and seemed disappointed that I wasn’t more shocked.  So, I was less than thrilled at the prospect of teaching these same kids Sex Ed.

Oh, I forgot to mention one small detail.  In the class next door, there was a 6th grader who was pregnant. Yes, the girl (and she was a girl) was 12.  The father was 19 and the girl’s mother planned to raise the child as her own. (Think “She’s my sister!/She’s my daughter!” from Chinatown)  The girl’s belly was already showing, and some of the girls wanted to have a baby shower. Suddenly, teaching Sex Ed seemed way more important than teaching the kids to calculate the radius of a circle.

There didn’t seem to be an actual curriculum for Sex Ed.  There was just talk about The Film.  And about the all important Money Shot, where the animated penis gets an erection.  But, I had yet to see The Film, so I had no idea what to expect.  Another veteran teacher, who’d taught Sex Ed for years, told me she liked to break the ice by writing PENIS and VAGINA in huge letters on the board.  But, I was a sub.  I really needed the money.  I did not plan to write PENIS or VAGINA in huge letters on the board.

There were two Chinese American girls, who sat at the back of the classroom.  Compared to some of the other students, who were 12 going on 21, they were almost childlike and sat two stuffed bears on their desks each day.  I couldn’t help but notice on the day we were to discuss Sex Ed, they’d made blindfolds out of Kleenex and covered the bears’ eyes.

Day 1 -The atmosphere in the classroom crackled with anticipation.  I thought we’d start by talking about where our attitudes and information about sex come from.  We made a list: Parents, friends, TV, movies, music, music videos, religion, and books (including comic books with those busty vixens who ride shotgun to the superheroes).  So far, so good.  I was actually surprised at how easy this was for me.

Finally, it was time for The Film.  We should have just fast-fowarded to the “penis rising” shot as the kids were so eager to see the rumored launch, they weren’t paying attention to anything else.   The star of the show finally made its appearance.  The animation wasn’t top notch and the tip of the penis wasn’t even in the shot.  It was like watching a bulldozer slowly lift a load of …?

After the film, students (some who were still flustered) were to write out questions.  All students received a piece of paper and had to fold it it up, even if it was blank, and drop it into a bag.  That way no one would know who asked the question.  I read the first question, “Do people sweat when they have sex?”  The class let out out a collective groan and looked at the boy with Asperger’s, who they knew had asked THAT question.  “Well, sex is physical, so it is possible you’re going to sweat,”  I answered.  Okay, one down.  I grabbed some more questions.

“Is having sex really like warm apple pie?” “Why do women like to be handcuffed to beds for sex?”  “What’s a dildo?” “Will drinking Mountain Dew prevent you from getting pregnant?”  “What’s rape?” “What makes people gay?”

Holy sh*t!  Some of the questions seemed incredibly vulgar, but I came to realize that these were the only words the kids knew. Some questions were so graphic, I couldn’t read them aloud, but had to paraphrase them, or just toss them in the trash.  When it came to sex, these kids knew Everything and Nothing.  They’d watched sex acts on TV and in movies, but totally out of the context of a loving, committed relationship.

This is what I remember saying:

Because I don’t like apple pie and didn’t see the movie American Pie, that analogy is lost on me.  I do like cherry pie though, so sex could be like cherry pie.

Sex without love is just sex.  It’s like brushing your teeth only you can get pregnant.

I’ve never known any girl who said, “Boy, I wish I’d had sex earlier.”   But I’ve known plenty (including my son’s friend who lost her virginity at 11 when she got drunk at a party) who said, “I sure wish I would have waited so it would have been special.”

If you were a sailor and went off to sea, would you rather your wife keep herself company with a carved replica of “yourself,” or have sex with another guy?

Rape doesn’t have as much to do with sex, as it has to do with violence.  It’s a way for someone to use the act of sex to humiliate another person.

A good recipe for date rape usually includes alcohol.

The bell rang.  But, it was like the students didn’t want to leave.  Sex Ed was two days long, so we had  another day of Q&A.  As the kids filed out the door, I looked over and saw several boys combing through the trash hoping to nab one of the reject questions.   Eddie, the wannabe gang banger, offered to bring one of his condoms the next day, but I told him that wouldn’t be necessary.

Day 2 – The students couldn’t wait to get into class and pick up where we’d left off.

“Handcuffs?” Well, maybe some people find that exciting, but that’s all about make believe (It’s not like I was going to introduce them to S&M), and some people like fantasy more than others.  Just like when you’re a kid and you dress up and pretend you’re someone else.  Remember how you’d pretend to arrest someone and haul them off to jail?  They nodded.  I drew a line on the board.  At one end it said Some People (handcuffs) and at the other end was Most People (masturbation).  Think of it as a Sex Ed graphic organizer.

“Mountain Dew as birth control?”  I recognized the handwriting on that question.  It belonged to a girl who was the top student in the class.  The girl who won the DARE poster contest.  I’d ridden with her in the back of a police car over to the Civic Center when she received the award.   If she thought Mountain Dew might prevent pregnancy, they were all doomed.   “When I was your age, it was Coca-Cola, and that’s just as silly as Mountain Dew,” I said.  “The only way to be 100 percent sure you don’t get pregnant, is not to have sex.”

“What makes people gay?”   What the kids didn’t know (and what I didn’t tell them), was that my own son had come out as gay three weeks earlier, so this was a subject close to my heart.  I told them 10 percent of the population is gay.  Let’s see, that would mean that 3 students in the class could possibly be gay.  But I didn’t go THERE.   Children can be cruel and quick to point fingers.  But, here’s what I did say.

“If one day a year, all of the people who were gay had orange eyes, you’d be amazed at how many people you know have orange eyes. People you know, people you respect, even people you love.   But many of them are afraid to tell you.  They’re afraid that you won’t understand that this is the way they were born.

I was getting ready to pass the bag again when Princess raised her hand. “Can’t we just ask you the questions?” she said, and I realized she was speaking for the whole class.  I nodded.

For the next half hour, students raised their hands and asked me questions that I can’t share with you.  Because what happened was between me and my students.  I answered each question as honestly as I could.   As a parent, I kept in mind what I would want a caring adult to tell my child.

It was almost time for the bell to ring.  There was time for one more question, and this time I got to ask it.  “How many of you would feel comfortable talking to your parents about the stuff we talked about?  The students’ incredulous looks told me what I already knew.  I reminded students that their parents knew a thing or two about sex (after all, THEY were here), and that parents often feel awkward talking about sex too.  As the students flew out the door, I saw the pregnant 6th grader walk past.  I’d like to think that had it been a year earlier…

“Are you comfortable teaching Sex Ed?”   Yes!  I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Photo Credit:  May is Sex Month on YouthCast by Youthcast1 on Flickr.

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