Thursday, September 29, 2011

Communication Breakdown

Let's start today's entry with a story. We'll hop into the Way Back Machine and head all the way back to 2001. Imagine Mel, just a few days into her brand new teaching career. I had just finished a scintillating lesson on sentence structure or something (talk about a glutton for punishment -- starting my teaching career trying to teach freshmen how to write!!). The class period came to an end and two of my students approached me. At this point, I really didn't know the names of a lot of my students because I'd only known them a few days. This was before computer attendance programs that included student pictures, so I knew the names of students in my classes -- I just couldn't match names to faces yet. Very shyly, the young woman (we'll call her Sofia) informs me that she doesn't speak English very well and that the young man standing beside her (we'll call him Jose) speaks next to no English and has only been in the United States for a couple weeks.

I was completely floored. All of my college education had somehow failed to prepare me for a moment like that. Every single education class I took carried with it the assumption that my students would at least be able to speak the language in which I was teaching. I was filled with regret at deciding my freshman year of college to drop Spanish 101 and stick with the French that had gotten me through college ( a decision made after my Spanish professor informed me that I was speaking Spanish with a French accent -- if you can't beat it, re-join it!) ... and at the subsequent decision to stop my French education as soon as I fulfilled the college's minimum foreign language requirement. How in the heck was I supposed to help these kids? At the time, our school had nothing in the way of ESL services, and many of us were wading into uncharted waters to help our growing Hispanic population. Looking back now, I know that I probably failed Sofia and Jose. I did the best I could with my limited experience, but I also feel fairly certain that they left my class without a lot of improvement in their English skills. Yes, I gave them some modified assignments, but I could have given them more individual attention, given them some alternate readings ... all things that seemed completely overwhelming for a first year teacher who already felt like she was struggling to keep her head above water.

Over the past eleven years, I have had many students like Sofia and Jose walk through my classroom doors, and I've slowly but surely found ways to help them. Some have a stronger grasp of English than Sofia and Jose. There have been several that I have been shocked to discover had only been in the States a brief time. My school district, too, has also become more adept at addressing the needs of these students, setting up stronger ESL programs and services that give the kids a stronger sense of ownership and confidence. I've also seen kids blossom -- that shy little freshman who did not speak a word the entire year I had him in English I becomes the sassy senior who will not stop talking the entire year he spends in my junior/senior-level English Fundamentals class. That success, though, has often occured outside of my "realm." I am an outsider to their success in ESL classes, success that then transfers into their other classes.

Last year, a new population began to emerge at our school. About midway through the school year, two Burmese refugees (a brother and sister) joined our population. Ko was put into my English Fundamentals class, and I am embarrassed to say it was a bit of a disaster. He was placed in a class that was pretty high maintenance already, and I struggled to give Ko the attention I think he needed. At the end of the semester, it was decided to move him into a lower level English class with his sister Mya. I struggled the rest of the year with the guilt that I had essentially given up on Ko to make life easier for me. I sucked.

Jump to the start of this school year, and our Burmese population has roughly tripled. Instead of just Ko and Mya, we now have four more students who have found there way here. Three of them were placed, along with Ko's sister Mya, into an English I teacher with a brand new teacher (who just got her job about two weeks before school started -- a gig that includes teaching our intensive senior-level writing class). Almost immediately, their teacher realized that our first unit, reading Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, was going to be nearly impossible for them, particularly since Alexie writes in a very informal, colloquial style that is loaded with terms and phrases that are literally completely foreign to these kids. An alternate text was selected, and the students were pulled out of their English I class to work individually with my student teacher, who was not taking over teaching my English I class that meets the same hour until we were done reading the novel. We then agreed that I would step in and work individually with the kids while my student teacher was teaching. What happens when my student teacher leaves? Well, we decided, we would cross that bridge when we came to it.

Our novel unit came to an end, and suddenly, there I was sitting at a table with these four kids whose grasp of English ranges from relatively strong to what education folks might call "emerging." It's a challenge -- no doubt. It really makes you marvel at how much we actually accumulate in our language and how much we take for granted. Every day, I have a moment where I am amazed at what they know and what they don't know. I've also gotten to know these kids as more than just students. The first assignment we really worked on together was a descriptive essay for class, essays that became tales of their journeys from Myanmar to the United States, stories filled with being shuffled all over Asia, being arrested, being beaten, being placed in camps until the United Nations came in and helped them find new homes. I'm sure there is even more to their stories that they can't tell me because of the language barriers that exist between us -- and that I probably do not want to know anyway. The resounding theme in these essays, though, is how happy they are to be in this country and how grateful they are for the opportunities being here affords them. It always sort of stuns me how much of our 45 minutes or so together is spent giggling. After all that these kids have gone through in their comparatively short lives, they still are filled with tremendous humor and joy. It kind of makes all those reasons we want to scream "FML" seem pretty trivial when you see the sparkle in eyes that have seen so much suffering.

After one of our sessions together, I went to our school counselor and made a request that would have stunned first-year teacher Mel ten years ago. I asked if my four new friends could be moved to my section of English I. I realized that, when my student teacher's time in my classroom came to an end, I was really going to miss these four kids. Ten years in, I know I'm ready to be the teacher that they need, the teacher I wasn't able to be for Sofia and Jose.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

They Like Me. They Really Like Me.

Early Friday morning, I received a text from a friend on Facebook saying, "Congratulations on Teacher of the Week."

I had no idea what she was talking about.

I was in a hotel room in Normal, Illinois, attending the Illinois Speech and Theatre Association annual conference. I didn't have a way to easily find out what was going on. I assumed she was mistaken. Another teacher from my school had received the Teacher of the Week recognition from the local radio station, so I just kind of figured she had misheard. As the day went on, I didn't think much about it as I moved from workshop to meetings to receptions. During an evening reception, as I sipped a glass of wine, I pulled out my cell phone for the first time since that morning and hopped onto Facebook. There was a status update from the local radio station congratulating me for being named Teacher of the Week.


For someone who occasionally considers herself a performer, I have to admit that I struggle with praise of any sort, and I am not really sure why. I don't have a huge self esteem problem, at least no worse than any other woman in this country. I don't know that I'm an exceptionally humble person. So why does accepting praise make me so uncomfortable? Why is it when I read about my recognition did I think, "Thank goodness I wasn't at school today so there wouldn't be a special faculty meeting to announce it like there was when Brianna won it"? It's not that the honor is meaningless to me. I had to fight tears when I saw the post from the radio station, and there was a slight perma-grin on my face for the rest of the night, and yet the idea of actually receiving the honor made me blanch. I've even gone back and forth about posting this blog entry for fear of sounding arrogant when I mention this honor.

I see this sort of thing all the time -- and shockingly, not just with girls. Yes, I know that women and girls struggle with accepting compliments and that there is this sort of programming we appear to be born with to deflect any praise. I made a resolution years ago to accept compliments with a "gracious thank you," but even though my mouth is saying "Thank you," inside, I'm shirking in embarrassment at the recognition. When I compliment my male students, they seem to be going through the same struggle that my female students endure -- fidgeting, eyes looking down, pink cheeks of embarrassment. And the funny thing is that, as uncomfortable as I am with compliments, I'm also really free with giving them. I feel like a huge portion of my day is spent telling people I like their shoes or how funny they were when they said a certain line. I guess I'm a hypocrite once again -- a complimenter who hates compliments.

Is there a solution to this problem? Not one easily reached in a little-read vanity blog like this. It would take a dramatic cultural shift to re-train ourselves that there is nothing wrong with being good at something, that there's no shame in being smart or talented or good at what you do. As a society, we need to raise people up more, and then, when we do raise them up, we need to recognize the worth of that honor rather than turn right around and tear that person down for being arrogant or secretly not being as cool as we think. We need to actually LIKE our number one songs and value our leaders and honor our intelligence rather than hiding behind cool or cynicism or ignorance. As Martha Stewart (a person who is often mocked for her skill and seeming perfection) would say, "Being good at something? It's a good thing."

And so, I'm going to step out of my comfort zone a little and say that I was named Teacher of the Week....and I'm really flippin' psyched about it. Huh....that wasn't as hard as I thought it would be......or was it?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Prime Factorization

Come on, friends, you know I had to do it -- I HAD to watch the premiere of The X-Factor. I mean, that was a total no-brainer. Simon and Paula reunited in the search for the next Ameri- er- person with the X Factor? (Yeah, they need to work on that.) How could I resist?? So last night, after dinner, the sis and I hunkered down to welcome that dynamic duo back into our living rooms with open minds and open hearts.

For the most part, we were pretty pleased. Yeah, it's American Idol 2.0 -- no doubt.. It still knows how to work the heartstrings (I lost count of how many times I cried during last night's audition episode ... and several of those cries were nasty, ugly cries, man.) There were several painful auditions to break the monotony of the tearjerkers (although am I the only one who found myself crying watching that 70+ year old couple from Nevada? They really broke my heart, especially that whole conversation about how expensive the hot dogs are. I finally had to convince myself they were just cheap old people and NOT poor old people like my sis posited, firm in the belief that they had probably spent their last cent to drive to L.A. and embarrass themselves in front of 4000+ people). There was the delicious flirting between Simon and Paula. There was the crazy hyperbole. (Simon, baby, not EVERY auditioner can be the best you've ever heard.)

The differences, though, kept X-Factor from being too monotonous. (Not that I would mind if Idol essentially became year round...honest!) There's no denying that Simon has clearly re-discovered his joy where this whole process is concerned. In that last season of Idol, his apathy and frustration was evident, palpable, and it made it harder to relish in his nastyness when that nastyness clearly was coming from pure misery rather than gleeful honesty. The added element of auditions taking place in front of an audience upped the drama (even if it did remind me a lot of America's Got Talent, a show I've never particularly liked). I assume host Steve Jones will get a more prominent role in the proceedings when things go live, but he seems likable enough and the fact that he wasn't necessarily this constant presence during auditions the way that Seacrest often is was rather nice, too.

Overall, I enjoyed last night's debut. Yes, it's really just Idol with some tweaking, but they are the kind of tweaks I kind of wish Idol would have considered. I like the fact that LA Reid seems willing to take a stand against the majority and challenge Simon, yet he's able to do it in a far more powerful and knowledgeable way considering the enormous industry cred with which he sits down at that table. He's the kind of judge I always wished Randy would be (and that it seemed like Randy was trying to be last season before getting swept up in the love fest Steven and J.Lo apparently decided to make the show). Is Nicole Scherzinger really all that necessary? Maybe, maybe not. If she has the same kind of effect that Kara DioGuardi had on Paula during Paula's last lap around the Idol track, then yes, Nicole is needed. Paula became much more astute and constructive when there was another pretty lady sitting next to her at the table, and I would suspect Paula realizes that she needs to bring that game to the table rather than the drugged out rainbow babble she often spewed during the middle of her Idol tenure. Let Nicole be the touchy-feeling one, and let Paula be the mama with the tough love. (Am I the only one that looks at Nicole and thinks that she is totally the love child of Simon and Paula?) And please, let Paula maintain the seat next to Simon rather than switching her and Nicole back and forth. Simon and Paula are at their absolute best when they are sitting side by side, trading barbs and little asides. When they have to lean over Nicole for those moments, it's just awkward.

As for the auditioners last night, there were some pretty impressive people on that stage. I absolutely adored little Rachel Crow. Note to Disney and/or Nickelodeon: Snap this kid up. She is your next cash machine! With that sass and sparkle and voice that's a bit rough but totally promising, she could make the world forget all about your aging divas and keep tweens glued to your programming for years to come. Can she win this competition? Based on what we saw in the two hours that followed her opening audition, it's probably a long shot, but there is a star waiting to be unearthed in that kid. Make it happen, Nick!

Someone who may have a shot is 42-year-old single mom Stacy Francis. I'm not going to lie. During her pre-audition package, I was worried about Stacy. She seemed like a potential train wreck, and I was really angry with the producers for making me potentially care about this women only to have her turn out to be a deluded nut bar. Her "Natural Woman", though, was a thing of beauty. America is always susceptible to sentiment, and Stacy's story is filled with inspirational ammo that turns the speed dialers to jelly. That chick is going to go far.

Another favorite of mine was Marcus Canty, the 20-year old cutie who was nearing the end of his mama-imposed deadline for becoming a star. LA Reid's comparison to Bobby Brown was spot on, and the nice thing about Marcus is that he seems like a cleaner, more marketable version of Bobby. He has the swagger, but he seems like someone to whom trouble is a complete stranger. He could give the industry the Chris Brown it needs without all the girlfriend beating. As the auditions go on, I know Marcus may very well fade, but for right now, I like this kid a lot.

The first audition episode closed out with Chris Rene, a recovering drug addict with a small son to support who performed an original song. Again, I was sure there was a train wreck about to crash into the station. Original songs are usually hideous, but Chris's was actually something I would NOT turn off if it came on the local pop station. Like Marcus, he presents a figure that the current pop scene is in need of -- a white hip hop artist. Yeah, there's Eminem, but Em is aging and becoming less accessible to younger markets. With Chris's hard luck tale, he becomes an embodiment of a certain element of the American dream -- the idea that you can overcome anything and still make your dreams come true. The fact that he's less than three months sober is concerning, but I kind of trust LA Reid when he tells Chris he's going to be calling and checking on him. LA Reid seems like someone you do NOT want to disappoint. Ever.

So yeah, I'm going to stick with The X-Factor and probably even blog about it on a fairly regular basis this fall (gotta keep those pithy observations sharp for Idol in the winter, yo!). My allegiance to Simon is pretty mighty, so....sorry to those who tune out when I go all Idol on you. What can I say? That man has cast a spell on me, and jumping ship to a different show is not going to break it.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

I Am Woman

I am a feminist. It's something I've never been ashamed to admit, but it is something I've often found myself having to defend. The defense comes not against sexist men but rather fellow women. Some women find the term condescending and exclusionary. Some women find it outdated. Some consider it a relic of a time long gone. But me? I embrace the term because it has power, it has unity, and it is my way of honoring the women who fought long and hard to make the term seem like a relic.

This all was brought to mind recently when I watched HBO's documentary on Gloria Steinem. I grew up idolizing Gloria Steinem. I would guess I was rather young when I first "discovered" Gloria, and I can remember being enthralled with this glamorous woman who was getting up and speaking and leading marches. In high school, I read Ms. Magazine the way some girls read Seventeen. (Don't get me wrong -- the back-to-school issue of Seventeen was like a Bible to me, but so was Ms.) I was a lucky little girl in that I grew up in a rather enlightened household. Even though my mother was a stay-at-home mom until I was in junior high, she was adamant about the fact that women could do anything and raised my sister and I to build careers rather than homes. My father, despite being of an older generation -- the generation that seemed most threatened by Steinem and the women's movement, was equally adamant in encouraging my younger sister and I that the sky was the limit. He expected nothing but the best from us, and his definition of "best" did not necessarily include becoming wives and mothers. (It probably helped that my father was raised by a single mother who was one of the first women to graduate from her law school and go on to a successful law career in Chicago -- a career that included arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court in the 1950's. Having a role model like that definitely creates a father who believes in the power of his daughters to succeed.) My sister and I both were tomboys to a degree as we grew up. I think my sister had a permanent layer of mud on her body until she was about twelve. We were encouraged to play with Hot Wheels AND Barbies. We were taught the ins and outs of the major sports, allowing us to watch football, basketball, baseball, et cetera with tremendous knowledge and understanding. We were taught to cook and how to change a tire. My parents created two pretty strong, independent women.

Growing up, I knew that there was a women's movement. I knew there was a fight going on about the Equal Rights Amendment. I knew that not every household was as enlightened as ours. But I also knew the times were a-changing. I just didn't realize how much they were changing until the past several years as I've read about or seen interviews with women of the 1970s talking about their struggles for acceptance and independence. In the documentary, Gloria Steinem talks about her inability to rent an apartment on her own because landlords assumed that a woman with a stable enough income to afford the rent must be a prostitute. In an interview on Oprah, Jane Curtin (another one of my childhood heroes thanks to my shockingly early discovery of Saturday Night Live) talked about single women in the 1970's being unable to get a loan or even a credit card. The things that women like Steinem and Flo Kennedy and Bella Abzug were fighting for are things that I think women my age and younger take for granted. We live charmed lives compared to the lives led by our mothers and grandmothers. On a nearly daily basis, my grandmother had to correct someone and tell him that she was NOT the lawyer's secretary but was indeed the lawyer. An assumption like that today would be considered an offense; back then, it was just natural.

Of course, the fight continues. There are still tremendous injustices being done to women in this country and around the world on a daily basis. Women in Saudi Arabia can't drive cars. Seriously. In other parts of the world, it is illegal for a woman to seek an education. In this country, women are still fighting to break the glass ceilings constructed to keep them from the executive suites, and although there are cracks developing, the glass is still pretty solid in a lot of areas. Many women are still struggling with archaic pay structures, hostile work environments, and a lack of flexibility when they need to balance work and a family. Just because we can get credit cards and rent apartments without a husband's name to prove our dependability doesn't mean that we've achieved true equality.

And that's why I'm a feminist -- because I still dream of a female president (just not one named Palin or Bachman!), because I still have female students who think their dreams are impossible, and because I owe it to women like Gloria Steinem and my grandmother to make sure that our seat at the table isn't just a card table set up in the kitchen while the men are feasting in the dining room.