Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The System Is Down

One of the things about suddenly having a teenager in our care is that we have been given new insight into her education.  One of our biggest focuses since becoming fake parents has been her academic performance and getting her accepted to college.  In general, this is easy.  She's a good student, she's responsible, and she wants to go to college as much as we want her to go to college, so it's not like we're sitting around pushing her like crazy to do the things she's supposed to do.  What isn't easy is hearing about the state of the education she's currently receiving.  After seeing some of the assignments she brings home, and hearing about what goes on in her classrooms, I'm suddenly not surprised that her school is on a list of Persistently Low Achieving schools in the state.  We have a kid who is considered high achieving.  She doesn't pad her schedule with a lot of blow off classes.  She loaded her senior year with chemistry, calculus, a fourth year of French, and what is supposed to be a "college level" English class.  She's trying to push herself in difficult subjects, but what I'm observing is that her subjects aren't difficult.  As far as I can tell, her calculus class is the only one that involves comprehensive teaching.  Her assignments are challenging, her teacher is dedicated and each lesson takes up the entire class period.  He stays after to tutor students, and has been known to show up to study sessions the students have planned together in the evenings at the library.  Beyond that, I'm not sure what the rest of the classes are teaching her.  While her chemistry class is nowhere near the challenge I got when I took chemistry in high school from a teacher who was tapped to teach nuclear chemistry for the Navy and turned it down, there at least seems to be a lesson system in place.  I do think the teacher is more focused on making sure all the kids pass her class rather than putting an actual challenge in front of them, so the assignments are soft balled, but maybe that's the environment we have created in this world where teachers may be evaluated based on the success of students.

When talking to Jasmine about her previous history classes, she has openly admitted that she doesn't really remember much of her US or World history lessons, because they were handed a bunch of work sheets and told to fill them out, turn them in, and that was pretty much it.  Busy work that required absolutely no critical thought at all.  It's possible that she's learned more history from talking to Jason about world events than she ever did in her classroom.  Same with her health and sex ed classes.  When I found out how those were taught, I was horrified.  I'm suddenly no longer shocked by the teen pregnancy rate.  Then there are her English and Literature classes.  This year she is preparing for college, and her English class is being taught in a way that makes me wonder if I should bother sending her to sixth hour or if I should just write lessons at home and teach her myself.  She said that on a day to day basis, they do worksheets, and they take quizzes that test nothing of their reading comprehension.  They are asked questions like "What color shirt was Harvey wearing in chapter 3?"  That tests nothing aside from whether they read the chapter.  Right now they are reading "All Quiet on the Western Front" and I asked if they discussed the part where the Paul goes home on leave from his time on the front, and he has a hard time re-acclimating to the world he once knew, because the war has already changed him.  Her response was "We don't talk about the book.  We just do worksheets".  WHAT IS SHE LEARNING?!  Nothing!  She's learning nothing.  This is supposed to be a college level course, but answers to quizzes are only considered "complete" if they contain 5 sentences, and the teacher counts the number of periods in each answer.  If you can give a comprehensive and well thought out answer in 3 complete sentences, you have not followed the directions and will be marked down.  Additionally, when the kids are given writing assignments, they are not given a page limit, or a word count limit, they are told that their paper must be 8 paragraphs consisting of at least 5 sentences each.  Again, periods will be counted.  So, you might be able to write a really good paper in 6 or 7 paragraphs, but you have to throw in a BS paragraph to meet the requirements.  Plus, I'm not sure what the heck they've got to write about since there is nothing discussed in class.  No themes, no comparisons made, nothing.  Just worksheet testing basic low level knowledge, and nothing else.  Why should she even go to class?  All she's being taught is to read at the surface level so she can answer stupid questions about the color of a person's shirt, not to actually understand the book, or understand the importance of the literature.  This is doing her no favors, since in college she will be expected to be able to make these connections and she's had no teaching on how to do it.  I'm appalled, just as I was appalled at how little she retained from her history classes since they were never expected to discuss any of what they learned.  There's no scaffolding, there's no building on earlier lessons.  There's just a day in, day out routine of "Did you read this?" that they follow.  It's a waste of time.  It's not an education.  There is nothing that challenges any of the students and then the teacher is blown away that they have no dedication to class, or any interest in what they're supposed to be learning.

Then she tells me that he hands out assignments with comments like "Most of you might want to consider taking credit recovery while taking this class, since you have no hope of passing", or makes allusions to how stupid all of the students are while he's giving directions.  Things like "You have to laminate your poster.  I'm sure most of you won't because you can't understand or follow directions".  What is that teaching these kids?  For kids who are already struggling, it teaches them that there's no reason for them to continue trying.  For kids who are generally good students, it leaves them bored and uninterested in class.  But to demean students openly in front of their peers as a way of shaming them into motivation, that's just unacceptable.  It's a horrible practice, and it accomplishes nothing.  It's amazing that he's been teaching for 15+ years and he's never discovered that this tactic does nothing to improve student performance.  What has me more upset is that HE HAS BEEN TEACHING FOR 15+ YEARS AND NO ONE HAS STOPPED THIS BEHAVIOR.  I understand that it's a challenging district to teach in, but for goodness sakes, someone needs to do better.  I'm just so disgusted.

Then I start thinking about whether we should tie teacher pay to student achievement, and while I am against that practice in general, I wonder if these teachers my kid is suffering under would step it up if it meant they might lose pay.  Or maybe her school is just fundamentally damaged, and they need to purge and start over.  I just find myself worrying about what college will look like for her, since high school is literally teaching her nothing.  I also wonder if the principal, superintendent and school board know this is what's going on in her classroom.  Having dealt with this particular school a lot in recent years, the frightening thing is that I'm not sure they care.  I think they protect their own at all costs, even when the teachers clearly do not deserve protection.  And where are the parents?  Why aren't they beating down the doors to the superintendent's office and demanding better for their kids?  How is this allowed to continue, year after year, without someone saying that there has to be a change?  Shouldn't the school care that their students are getting more comprehensive lessons on literature from Youtube than they are from their teachers?  I know they are, because I've heard what's happening in their classes and pointed them to full lessons on Youtube for the books they are reading, and I've had students tell me they wrote papers based on that Youtube lesson because it taught more in 5 minutes than their class did in 3 weeks.  I feel like someone at the top should care, and should be removing people who can't teach a better lesson than Youtube could.  The whole thing makes me sick.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Writing Prompts: Part 2

So the last writing prompt I did was kind of fun, and I decided that I'd work my way through the list for a little while, just picking the ones that I liked the most rather than trying to write one entry for every prompt on the list.  Not everything is going to jump out at me and spawn some sort of idea, so why beat my head against a wall to write something against a prompt that I don't find inspiring?  I guess that could be part of the challenge, but I'm just doing this to remind myself that I can write when inspired, and sometimes it's not total crap.  Plus, it's mostly for fun.  So I'm going to take the same approach each time.  Pick a prompt, write what comes to mind and then publish without re-reading or editing.  If I ever want to use it for something, I can go back and edit, but I tend to over-think when I write so it's best to just send it out there raw and untouched at first.  So there it is.

Today's prompt: The garden was overgrown now.

The garden was overgrown now, untended by anything but nature and time.  Its paver paths, once maintained in such a meticulous manner that a blade of grass would not dare grow too close to their boundaries, were now overrun by moss, grass and debris.  Looking at it struck me as a metaphor for the lives of those who once spent their time here.  When we stop showing love to the things we care about, they quickly become unkempt and show signs of neglect.  I sat on a wrought iron bench, my toes scuffing the edge of the path, clearing away a fraction of the moss to reveal smooth stone beneath.  My fingers brushed the soft petals of a wildflower that had pushed its way through the intricate curlicues of the seat as it pushed its way skyward, seeking to gain more affection from the sun than its fellow flowers.  Maybe I was the wildflower.  The strong survive when they are willing to push themselves skyward despite the iron hard obstacles.  I laughed at myself and my newfound philosophical nature.  Maybe sometimes a flower is just a fucking flower, and I'm just myself.

The last time I was in that garden, I was fourteen.  It was summer, but the curtain of oppressive heat never fell that year, and we found even midday outdoors to be perfectly enjoyable.  The entire estate was manicured perfectly, not a flower out of place, not a weed to be seen, not a blade of grass too long.  It was fragrant, with bees humming occasionally nearby as the sun filtered through the trees to dapple the lawn below.  Everything was exactly as my grandmother mandated it should be, perfection even under her sharp scrutiny.  My grandmother never could tolerate anything but perfection, as I was all too well aware.  I would not have been surprised if she lined up the bees each morning and dictated to them which flowers they should and should not visit as they set out to work that day.  She was from another time, when the perfection of a garden reflected so much more than the ability to hire a skilled gardener. She clung to her traditions and sense of normalcy with fierce determination as the world around her refused to heed her commands to remain familiar.  Each summer I spent with her was like a walk through the past, where I could easily imagine my mother's childhood.  Nothing changed, not here.  It did change, though, eventually.  When the money was gone, and the despair set in, the change became inevitable.  The staff were let go one by one, though the gardener was the last to go.  Then there was nothing.  No more parties.  No more entertainments.  No more pristine paths to wander in the afternoon hours.  All that was left was a shell of an estate, and the shells of those who had once been so happy in it.  A graveyard of dreams, that's what this garden had become.  And yet, there were still flowers who pushed forward, determined to carry on.

Ran of of steam.  That's all you get.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Fun With Writing Prompts

I thought it might be fun to write something creative instead of whining on and on about my life and what a mess I am on any given day.  You know, break things up a bit.  Whining peppered with moderately bad creative writing for flavor.  So I looked up some writing prompts, because I always seem to get stuck coming up with ideas, and then I get stuck when it comes to structuring a plot.  Then I get stuck when it comes to actually writing an adequate ending.  But the point is, start somewhere, so I found some writing prompts here and decided to pick the one that jumped out at me the most when I glanced through the list.  So, here it goes:

#3.  The city burned, fire lighting up the night sky.

The city burned, fire lighting up the night sky.  The smoke choked the air as the sky turned red, reflecting the death and destruction below it.  Screams of pain, fear, and panic could scarcely be heard over the roar of the flames, and most of the time the smoke smothered the screaming before it had run its course.  That's where I found myself, staring in a daze at the chaos around me, unsure of how I got there or where I was to go next.  All I could see was flame, and soon the human noises were dissipating and being drown out by the groan of buildings struggling to hold their form against forces stronger than themselves.  I felt like one of those buildings.  I felt like I was struggling to hold myself together while the world had been wrecked and was attempting to tear me apart.  I staggered forward.  One step, I kept telling myself.  One step, start there.  Then another.  Soon my feet were listening to me and the dislodged gears of my mind were beginning to fit together again, whirring me back to life and to action.  It was an explosion, the memory moving from a fuzzy shadow to a sharp focus.  An explosion that lit the sky on fire before the city ever ignited.  Larger than a bomb, or at least I assumed it was, having never experienced a bomb before.  That's when I noticed the smell.  Mixed in with the smoke and flames, there was something acrid.  Something chemical that was burning my eyes and throat as I forced myself to continue breathing, fighting the urge to choke against the burning I felt in my lungs each time I forced in another gasp.  I kept moving, I don't know where I was going, but I had to keep moving.  I had to move away from the twisted metal, from the growing flames, and if I kept moving then maybe I could move far enough away from my fear as well.  That's when I realized that I was the only person moving.  Anyone who could run must have done it already, because all around me there was only death, and the wounded waiting to die.  I kept moving.  I don't know how long I stumbled through the streets, meeting no one, seeing not one friendly face to help me, and I began to realize that maybe there was no one left.  By dawn, I had reached a large expanse of open space that had been a park only hours before.  As the sun rose, I sat on the curb, watching ash rain down around me.  There was an eerie peace to it.  The soft, gentle fall of ash against a city that was just beginning to fall silent.  I sat there, letting the ash fall all around me, watching the sun rise slowly over the horizon.  I think a piece of me hoped that the new day would somehow erase the terrors of the night, and that everything would be over.  I never realized it was just beginning.  I was six years old.

So that's it.  That's what I came up with.   I haven't read it over, I literally just typed it and hit publish (this is an amendment from after publishing it, though I still haven't re-read it) so there are no edits, no polish.  Just my first instincts as I started writing.  I don't know if it's any good, but writing it felt good.