Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Superintendent Gallo Fires All Central Falls Teachers

Central Falls High School teacher  Deloris Grant - Providence Journal/Connie Grosch

The discussion about the firing of the teachers at Central Falls has been framed in terms of greedy teachers facing down School Superintendent Frances Gallo who is facing the demands of the new State Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist. The superintendent threatened; there were negotiations; then threats; the union conferred and rejected the superintendent's demands. The superintendent then fired all the teachers. 

Missing from the discussion is the effect of firing teachers who have been working under nearly combat conditions for a very long time. Essentially, these teachers have been overworked for a long, long time, and their mass firing is their reward for trying to do their best and for seeking the protection of collective bargaining.

You know, everybody has something critical to say about these poor teachers but my sympathies are with them.

People think that teaching high school kids is like selling flowers for eight hours a day. It isn't. It is difficult, exhausting, exasperating work, especially in schools that serve impoverished populations. People don't take into consideration that good teachers never get time off. They finish their teaching then face parent-teacher conferences, detention supervision, library supervision, club supervisions, choral practice; debate practice, tutoring: It's always something. Then they go home, have dinner with their own kids and start grading papers and preparing for classes for the next day; then they work their entire weekends as well.

Nobody expects a secretary to provide her own paper and printer toner but teachers end up purchasing a lot of their own materials out of their own pockets. That's why Office Max and Staples have discount programs for teachers.

In addition to teaching, they have to maintain discipline which is hard enough under the best circumstances; even I have to be on top of my game every day to maintain classroom discipline, and I teach college students. The teachers at Central Falls are dealing with students, over 90% of whom are living in poverty, who may receive their only substantial meals at school; who have parents who are working at jobs that don't pay enough to support their families--IF THEY'RE LUCKY and aren't unemployed or drug addicted or alcoholic or heaven knows what else. 90% of the kids at Central Falls High School fall under the poverty line. The majority of those parents are immigrants, with few English skills. Many of the kids are involved in gangs. It's not that the parents don't care but often they come from cultures where the teachers were the educated ones, and the parents didn't intervene unless the teachers called them in because the kids were discipline problems. In America, there is the middle-class culture of the PTA and parental involvement in everything. Not all cultures have middle-class with parents in the middle of everything; one cannot assume that their non-involvement reflects a lack of caring. 

CFHS Librarian Sandy Fisher - The Providence Journal/Steve Szydlowski

Central Falls High School's teachers have exhausted themselves teaching these youngsters but the testing results are not up to grade so administrators try to squeeze even more out of them. I think it's terribly unfair. They cite the teachers $78,000/yr. salaries as being too high. I think they should get that AND combat pay. They get better pay than most ordinary Rhode Islanders? Yes, and their jobs are harder most others are.

The letters to the editor paint the teachers as greedy and call them every manner of name. They should try teaching in an inner city school for a week and see if they come out with their sanity intact.

I taught middle school (6-7-8th grades) for one year, in a Catholic school back in 1974-75; I was twenty-three at the time. Because it was a Catholic school in a Latino neighborhood, I had virtually no discipline problems. Nevertheless, by the time my work day ended—teaching, supervising the lunch room; watching the play in the schoolyard after school—I used to drive home and fall into bed and sleep for three hours before I could make dinner and prepare for my next day's classes.

Years later when I considered going to graduate school, I did not entertain the idea of teaching high school for more than a minute. It is all I can do to keep myself from asking the students I teach who are preparing to be teachers, if they have any idea what they are getting into. Do they know that they will be blamed for poor test scores, disruptive students; students who do not do well because they are working nights or they are running with gangs? Or because they are hungry? Or because they have no place to study because they are sharing a room with several siblings and perhaps bear heavy child care responsibilities for their younger siblings?

I understand that superintendents have to do something; they have to find solutions or at least look like they are looking for solutions. I know that not all teachers are excellent; some are bad and others are downright cruel. I do not have any solutions but I do have a deep sense of the injustice being perpetrated on the teachers they are firing en masse in Central Falls.

Teachers are among the most maligned groups in our society. Because educating children costs so much, the public resents having to pay the bill, and teachers, particularly those who are unionized, are attacked because their collective bargaining agreements guarantee fair pay and benefits. 

It is a hard, hard job. You couldn’t pay me enough to do it, and most people could not do it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Thinking Without a Net

Approaching sixty and what is officially considered old age (politely called, senior citizenship), I am amazed at how much the university has changed in my lifetime. I imagine that those who were alive at the time the printing press was invented might have felt the same way. 

When I was first hired in 1993, few students had computers.  Laptops were prohibitively expensive; cellular phones were not widely used; I had a very bulky and unreliable one I kept in the car in case I should break down as I drove through the woods on my daily commute. Palm Pilots and Blackberries were just beginning to gain popularity. My department chair-to-be made sure that I negotiated with the administration for a good computer and laser printer. It was a big deal. 

In the classroom, I had to persuade my students to get e-mail accounts. Since few students had their own computers, few had made use of the then still-clunky Internet. We had overhead projectors, as well as televisions and video cassette and DVD players. Digital projectors came along perhaps five years ago? They are still very expensive and few enough have become proficient in their use that those who wish to use them to teach can still do so. In my department, there are three; so far, we have not needed another one. A fourth one belongs to a professor who bought it with his own money.

Questions we could not have imagined a decade ago now demand our attention. The Internet has redefined plagiarism. Ever a classroom problem, plagiarism, is now high-tech.  The sellers of student papers are now on-line: Students can find a paper on almost anything you want on the web. The downside of this for them is that professors can also pursue the plagiarists; many plagiarists can be foiled by typing in a sample of the paper into a search engine. Sometimes we get lucky and we find a match. Then again, some give themselves away through sheer carelessness.  I once had a hockey player whose paper seemed suspiciously literate for him until I got to the last page, which had a copyright from the company he’d bought it from. Busted!

Teaching the students to be careful of what they find on-line is a new area of study. I once found a gorgeous site on the ancient Maya until I started to look at it carefully and saw that the site manager had conflated information about the Maya, Aztec and Inca. I wrote to him detailing his errors, and received the cheerful reply that he didn’t know anything about the pre-Colombian indigenous peoples but he had found lots of nice pictures to use, and he had taken advantage of a snowy holiday weekend to throw it together. When will there be a body of law for malpractice on the Internet?

The budget of the university has been skewed by the costs of the computers, not only computers for the faculty and administrators but also for computer banks for the students throughout the university. While these machines get a lot of punishment, there is far more insidious expense.  Developing computer technology renders them obsolete far too quickly.  Now there are clickers in classroom use which enable students to participate in large classes in which previously, they could not.

E-mail now consumes a fair amount of our interaction with our students. Not only do they send me notes when they are ill but they also ask questions and make comments that they might have been too shy to make in class.

One use of computers that makes me uneasy is the use of laptops in the classroom. How do I know they are taking notes instead of sending e-mail to their friends or preparing for another class?  I just have to ignore them. We make choices not to be police officers in the class all the time. This is one of my instances.  And then there are the students who are on their cell phones texting. When I see someone doing it during class, I ask them not to but on more than one occasion, I’ve had students walk out in a huff when I’ve asked them to stop texting.

It’s a curious thing about sitting in a classroom. Many students seem to think that their behavior is invisible to the professor, or that we can’t hear them whispering. I wish I couldn’t; it is distracting and I hate to stop class to ask them to stop. Invariably, I forget what I was lecturing about.

The nature of the university library is changing as well in response to the new technologies. Library renovations now include adding to the number of electrical outlets available for laptops, and a library commons which adds tables with electric outlets so that a group of students can meet and discuss with their laps plugged in. Furthermore, students can now Twitter reference librarians for help with reference questions.

Of course, we cannot ignore the tremendous difference that the Internet has made to the access to journals, newspapers, etc. Now, when I want to see something that appeared in the New York Times a hundred years ago, I can access it within minutes on the web. No longer do I have to scour the local libraries to see if someone has a complete set of microfilms of the New York Times, or make a trip to another city that might have one.

We have come a long way from the days when I started college with an electric typewriter and a $100 factory-reconditioned stereo system. I love much of the new technology even though it makes me feel that I am running in a weird steeple-chase trying to keep up and in some cases, drag my students along; in others, trying to keep up with them.

What I worry about is that the technology is overshadowing the substance of what we teach. Their handwriting is already almost completely unreadable because they are typing everything. Twitter and texting discourage correct spelling. Do u no what I meen? They rarely consult books, choosing to get all their information from the Internet and that is changing the nature of undergraduate research. More information is available at the same time that misinformation floods the Internet like a Red Tide contaminating the local shellfish after a hard rain. For serious researchers, it is an exhilarating trip even though it is harder to teach students how to discriminate. 

It is quite an adventure. I can’t wait to see what happens next.   

Monday, February 8, 2010

Is Avatar Just Another Dances With Wolves in a Different Galaxy?

This article appeared on MyLatinoVoice the week of January 25, 2010.

Scratch the surface of James Cameron’s Avatar, and there are lots of overly-clever allusions and puns. The year is 2154, planet Earth is dying of environmental degradation, and the evil Americans are in pursuit of a rare mineral called “Unobtainium” (groan!) which is located on the planet Pandora (as in the Greek myth where Pandora opens a box and all hell breaks loose), under the Na'vi’s most sacred tree which they plan to use for fuel but which is astronomically expensive (no pun intended), so the Americans intended to force the Na’vi to relocate. Critics have compared Avatar to Kevin Costner’s celebrated 1990 Dances with Wolves, where Costner plays a Civil War-era Army lieutenant who goes on a mission to the Lakota people (in what today is South Dakota) and ends up going native. 

Avatar references not only Dances with Wolves, but the main streams of Hollywood science fiction (such as the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises) as well, and wryly makes use of superhero archetypes. Avatar’s Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch, in his fury at the treason of the main character Jake, breaks a window and jumps out shooting with an assault rifle without the air mask he needs to breathe in Pandora’s atmosphere. A normal human would have died doing that, but not a United States Marine!

In Dances with Wolves, Costner used an accurate but simplified Lakota language and subtitles, erring only in confusing some of the genders of words, much to the amusement of native Lakota speakers. Avatar follows Star Trek’s invention of the Klingon language, and author J.R.R. Tolkien’s invention of Elvish for the Lord of the Rings series. The Na'vi’s world is a combination of science fiction and fantasy, and the Na’vi echo both genres.

We can make fun of Dances with Wolves, but Costner laughed all the way to bank. It won seven academy awards: Best Picture; Best Directing; Best Cinematography; Editing; Music; Sound and Writing. According to the Internet Movie Data Base, it made $184 million in U.S. box office sales, and $424 million in total box office sales, though the closing date on that figure is unclear. Heaven knows how much it has made altogether. This, however, is the most interesting fact in reference to our discussion: the Sioux nation made Kevin Costner an honorary member for his positive and compassionate portrayal of Native Americans.

Critics of Avatar who are irritated by the seemingly hackneyed nature of the story forget one thing: there are only a few archetypal storylines; most such stories are popular because they are familiar to the viewers, and movie-makers are eager to tap into that familiarity. Why else would there be so many sequels to popular movies?

Is there a more formulaic story in the universe than Star Wars? A young man is chosen to do something extraordinary; an evil power turns out to be his father; two main characters fall in love but their love is tested by superhuman trials; twins are separated at their births but find each other. I could name dozens of movies with those storylines. George Lucas’s genius was in combining a number of those stories and setting them in outer space, adding a dose of strange-looking space creatures, fabulous special effects, and incredible cinematography.

Latino and Black viewers often bristle when stories of our peoples have a white hero at the center of the story. Going back to Biko, for instance, the story of the murder of South African human rights activist Steven Biko, the film focused on the white journalist who told the story. The black community was angry about this because the real hero was Biko. Mississippi Burning, about the trial of the murderer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, focused on the white prosecutor who convicted him. Even the Matrix series has the archetypical “chosen one,” another white guy. Where have I heard that story before?

Even though there are many more blacks and a few more Latinos in show business today, Hollywood is still a very white industry. Oprah reigns supreme as the queen of daytime television but the movie studios and the television networks are owned by white men, with rare exceptions.

What if Jake the Marine, the hero of Avatar, had been played by Jamie Foxx? His avatar would still be blue, alien to the world that he is invading, and an agent of the invaders. What if no other element of the story had been changed? If the black Jake’s avatar had still fallen in love with the princess of the Na'vi and she with him, what spin would it have put on the story? Would we still be having this discussion?

Hollywood is white! White, white, white! And so is James Cameron, the director of Avatar. White people are going to make movies from their own perspectives. Part of the white experience is white liberal guilt and that is really okay, especially when you consider how much hatred and prejudice against non-whites is carried by many whites. It is the reaction of people of conscience to the hatred they see in their own people, and even in their own hearts. That raised consciousness makes them want to change things. I do not know if that was an element of James Cameron’s creation of this film but he does present a culture that honors its planet and lives in harmony with nature; the outsider comes to revere the natives' way of life. In a sense, his raised consciousness makes him an outsider in his own group. And being one of the invaders gives him inside knowledge that will help his new-found people defeat the invaders.

I like Avatar a lot. I think Cameron is a technological genius. I have no doubt that the technology Cameron pioneers in this film will change movie-making. The landscapes in the movie are amazing. He is a science fiction guy who has been imagining other cultures since he was a boy and who is white and comes from that perspective; the yearning for a more just society is a great part of the tradition of science fiction.

In short, people will not stop making films like this because there will always be members of the dominant culture who recoil from some of their culture’s treatment of minority cultures, and are trying to figure it out with the tools and the eyes they have.

Stepping Into the Maelstrom

Winter in Exeter, Rhode Island

Classes began two weeks ago and I suddenly realized I hadn’t written for the blog for the last three weeks as I prepared for and started the new semester. 

I am always excited at the beginning of the new semester. New classes, new students; I have spent a good deal of time updating things and tweaking others in my Introduction, as well as redesigning my upper division class, so starting the new term is like diving into a maelstrom. You have to swim and yet know that you will be carried along; there are lots of things over which you have no control. 

For the first few weeks, the student count is somewhat unstable.  Some students, particularly seniors, show off how cool they are by skipping the first week of school. Sorry, they say, they were on vacation in Aspen with their parents. You know they are lying but what can you do?  I will not trust anything they say from that moment on. Then you have the shoppers; they try out a class, don’t like it and then come asking for permission to enroll in my class. Even in the second week, I let them in.  It bothers me that they’ve missed the introduction and foundation to the course but they’ll just have to catch up.  Sometimes I get polite notes from students who were there for one or two classes and decide to move on to something else. I appreciate the notes and I don’t mind that they left; smaller classes are better. They are more manageable, cozier, and there is less grading to do.

Throughout my career, I have let in most students who wanted to take the class, though I do cut it off after the first two weeks because they will have missed too much material beyond that point. We have “caps,” maximum numbers allotted to the class. Most of our lower division classes, in my case, my “Introduction to Latin American Civilizations,” are capped at 35 students; I usually have about 38 students in the class by the end of the semester. I sign permissions for up to 45 students sometimes (this semester, 43) because with all the shopping, dropouts, and other attrition, it settles down to about 38.  I let so many students in because I remember, even forty years ago when I was an undergraduate, the frustration of many of my classmates at being unable to get the classes they needed for graduation inside of four years.

I never had that problem because I chose an obscure major, philosophy, and minored in classics, so I never had to beg a professor to let me into a class. All my classes had tiny enrollments except for general classes that fulfilled general education requirements, like “Physics for Non-Science majors.” I loved the professor, a slender, bearded young man, Clifton Albergotti, who made it all so interesting. We had a field trip to see the Stanford Linear Accelerator, now called the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and we read a very cool non-physics book whose title I no longer remember, but I remember loving the class. We remember only the names of the professors we loved.

That’s the thing about classes like my Introduction; while there might be a history major or two in the class, most students are using it to fulfill a requirement, and I have to engage them. I want to grab every one of them and get them to fall in love with history, and some of them will. I pick the books that are captivating and that they will want to keep when the semester ends, or that they will pass on to their parents or their siblings. As it happens, I often get the younger siblings of former students. 

This semester, my upper-division class (300-level) is called Latin American Women’s Lives Through Their Own Eyes.  Enrollments were very slow, so that for a long time, I thought it would barely get enough students to make the minimum required enrollment. When it passed 15, I started to breathe easier. Then it passed 20, much to my astonishment. The cap is 30, and we have 21 students; not bad.  There are eight men in the class. I am pleased about this; it used to be that a class focusing on women might get a man or two but that is changing slowly. I am glad I have lived long enough to see that change take place. 

For me, the challenge is to figure out how to make the class a joy. I want them to go on with their lives, understanding the importance of having an understanding of history, and how the shenanigans of politicians and scoundrels turn into history. And if my class results in a few enthusiastic watchers of history programs on TV, or readers of popular history books, I’m happy.

And if they grow up to read the newspapers enthusiastically, with some understanding of what is going on in Latin America, I’ve done my job.

Winter on India Point, Providence,  Rhode Island