Monday, November 28, 2011

Songs Everyone Should Know to Improve Life, From a Student

Here's one of the greatest things about being a teacher: asking questions and getting answers. You might think this is a mundane thing. But every day, as I am surrounded by these amazing human creatures, I ask questions and get answers that fascinate, amuse, fill me with chagrin, fill me with wonder.
I know it's a good question when I get an answer that I did not expect.
So one of my kids had finished his work and was between tasks.
So I asked him, "What music should I hear to make myself a more complete human being?"
And he just nodded and got out a piece of paper and I moved on to the next kid.
The next day he presents me with a list.
A very extensive list.
He gave me a paper with over sixty specific songs. He called it "Songs Everyone Should Know to Improve Their Life and Music Libraries."
It is one of the best things ever given by a student to a teacher in the history of the world.
I am going to share parts of it with you, with his permission.
1. Anything and Everything by Bon Iver
2. Anything by Florence and the Machine but especially:
a.Shake it Out
b. Spectrum
c. Cosmic Love
3. Adele--Someone Like You
4.Alexi Murdoch--Orange Sky
5. Alpha Rev--New Morning
6. Angels and Airwaves--The Adventure
7. Augustana--Boston

I can say unequivocally that I really haven't heard of these people.
But I can use all the help I can get in being a better human, and my boy gave me an answer to a question, and I am so humbled and joyful about it.
I'm going to honor it by getting me some music.
End of Part 1.

Friday, November 25, 2011

We Don't Need New Ornaments. We Need A New Tree.

I got into teaching a long time ago. I wrote about the best advice ever, that really applies to everything, which is "Love them no matter what. Run class like football practice."
The other best thing I ever heard is something I keep repeating. But it makes people uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable.
Here's the story.
I attended a Big Conference With Answers To Everything Ever To Fix Education about thirteen years ago. These conferences happen with a frequency that would be admirable if anything actually ever came of them. Anyway, there was a guest speaker, and I can't remember his name. But he said something like this:
"If we really want to change the system, we need a new tree. We keep changing the ornaments on the tree. Nothing will change until we change the tree."
I got really excited.
I'd seen lots of ornaments, each touted as The Thing That Will Change Education.
But they were just ornaments.
The good news is that soon after that I got hired to help create a new kind of school. I fought hard for a new tree. And I had some cool people who fought, too. And I am proud to be part of this school.
It still isn't enough. Because it's still part of the System that relies on what looks good on paper.
Until we have a system where all students are visible as people, not statistics,
Until we have a system where students are in a real community of learning, challenged and supported, where they can demonstrate learning in meaningful ways,
Until we have a system where kids are more than the sum total of their transcripts and test scores,
Until every dollar spent in education is looked at in terms of exactly how what it's spent on is moving kids forward in a significant way,
Until society stops using kids like political footballs,
we're going to have the same tree.
We tell kids to think outside the box then tell them to bubble in the answers on standardized tests. Be careful to erase stray marks.
This will never make sense. This is "Eduspeak."
This is dangerous and sad.
So I fight back with books. And by teaching a subject no one has figured out how to test yet.
So let's keep fighting against shiny new ornaments and fight for a new tree. This will make people mad and uncomfortable.
The kids will always be worth it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Abolish the Homework Packets. Just Read.

Parents have this love/hate relationship with homework.
I know this because I've been teaching a long time.
On one hand, parents seem proud of the amount of homework because they think it shows how academically rigorous the curriculum is.
On the other hand, parents are concerned because the amount of homework their kids have interferes with family time, down time, free time. They worry that their kids are tired all the time and not getting enough sleep.
Kids seem to feel the same way, comparing the amount of homework they have with the amount they believe students of other schools do. And yet they complain about the work, too.
I'm not a fan of homework.
I'm a fan of reading.
Yep. Just reading.
And yes, graphic novels count.
I know this view makes people uneasy in this age of accountability. People will point at studies that show our country's students are falling behind.
Falling behind what? Other nations? Based on...standardized tests?
Not a newsflash: Our kids are more than their ability to wield a number two pencil effectively.
I don't believe in homework for kids of any age. If homework worked, we would be moving ahead in all areas of measurement. If homework worked, we'd have kids still be excited and lit up about school when they hit high school.
Everyone's job should be to read. Older students can annotate as well. Parents of younger kids should consider that nightly reading is as critical to their kid's development as feeding them.
Why should a second-grader be stressed out about homework?
Because it makes adults feel good. It looks good on paper.
It's not good for kids.
I say that kids need words and stories and worlds.
I say that kids will grow academically in all areas when they are allowed and encouraged to explore ideas and develop an inner life, unplugged from iPods and computers.
I think writing their own words and stories and creating their own worlds is good, too.
Call the school districts and school boards.
See what happens.
Revolutions have started on less.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Boys. Sexuality. (un)Shhhh!

I wonder what the "YA" scene would look like if there was a male Judy Blume.
I saw a book for the first time a few weeks ago called Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume. And I haven't read it yet, but just about every woman I know could have contributed to it in some way. We all read Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret and Forever. Those books helped a lot to map out what was happening to our bodies and what might/would happen when we started using them.
Judy Blume was big-time comfort.
She's also big-time banned, which shows that many people don't want these maps given out, which also shows that people are still scared of women getting uppity with their sexuality. Or just acknowledging it.
Discussions of boys and their sexuality would be a good thing.
I don't see this happening.
Even in "Health" classes where these discussions would be natural, there are so many constrictions on what can and cannot be said that it really is tragic for the boys and the girls. A lot of parents want to have those "discussions" themselves, which would be great if they actually happened and/or contained facts.
The fact that there is a difference between "sex" and "sexuality" doesn't seem to exist. And questions about sexual orientation? Better not bring them up, even in the "anonymous question" part of class.
Who do the boys turn to for their "map" as girls turned to Judy Blume? Who addresses the most dreaded and embarrassing questions?
Who can they take their fears to?
If I were young and male, I would be angry about all this. I'm angry about all this and I am not young or male. In many ways, I'm not the one who should be asking these questions.
Maybe they are the wrong questions.
But it's a place to start, right?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Never Averting Your Eyes

This quote from Akira Kurosawa, Japanese director of movies such as The Seven Samurai, hangs out in my head a lot:
“To be an artist means never to avert one's eyes.”
I read/hear this quote and I am grateful to writers like Ellen Hopkins and Andrew Smith and Laurie Halse Anderson and Sara Zarr.
I am grateful because the books by these writers take readers through experiences without averting their eyes, and by doing so honor the truth of what really happens with drug use, incest, rape, violence, and abuse.
This honors and validates the truths of the kids who read their books knowing these horrors first-hand.
The truth makes those who haven't suffered more empathetic to those who have.
And the truth is that many adults don't want to know the truth.
They don't want kids to know the truth, either.
Which is why books get banned, or labeled "dark", which is an insanity when what these authors/books really do is cast light.
Just this week a book by one of these authors was instrumental in helping one of my students ask me for help.
And so this weekend the life of one kid is better because of an author who told the truth, and I hold this to my heart and am grateful.
Because right now I am very sad.
A lot has been written about Penn State and the staggering, abject, unforgivable failure of adults to tell the truth.
They averted their eyes. Over and over and over again, they averted their eyes.
I think of the boy being raped, and an adult came in, and I think maybe there was a moment of hope in his heart, hope that he would be seen. Hope that he would be helped.
And the adult averted his eyes and walked away.
And the horrors go on and on.
The light in this darkness is those who fight, in all kinds of ways, for survivors of abuse and violence. One of these organizations is the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network. Organizations like these make a difference. Countless volunteers at Rape Crisis Centers make a difference.
Writers make a difference.
Averting your eyes can allow you to pretend that a person, a problem, a situation doesn't exits. Abused people, animals, environment? Just avert your eyes.
This is an abdication of humanity.
Akira Kurosawa spoke of art and life, which, in the end, are the same thing.
Or they should be.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Conversation with a Young Man About Reading

Yesterday I asked one of my senior boys how he was doing.
"I'm tired," he said.
Seniors are tired this time of year. They are busy with college applications and school and work.
I asked him when was the last time he read a book for pleasure.
He had to think for a few seconds.
"I don't know. A long time." Thinks. "The Knife of Never Letting Go."
I brighten, because I love this book.
"Yeah. That was four years ago."
I sag a little, because that's a long time to go without reading a book for pleasure.
I asked him if any of the books he'd been assigned during his school years appealed to him.
He liked 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.
I asked him which books he didn't like.
"Tale of Two Cities. I hated it. I didn't even read it. And to make them do it in the 9th grade. That's just not good."
So I asked, "What is the best book that represents the kind of reading that spoke to you least?"
Instant, reflexive reaction about this book. Since the author is still alive, I do not want to say which one it is. My boy expressed his opinion about it succinctly and vehemently.
And I get it.
I taught English for a long, long time. I know that not every book will speak to every kid.
But why isn't there room for kids to choose books and do more with them than write book reports?
I hate book reports.
What's wrong with just reading because it is a good thing to do?
So I made part of my student's assignment to read The Ask and the Answer, the sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness.
Just read.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Boys Got Left Behind.

I have been spending a lot of time with statistics this week.
I don't like statistics.
But I do this every year, because I do a project with my students that involves researching colleges.
My argument every year is that I want students to be eligible to apply for a four-years school when they graduate. I call it "Keeping Options Open."
Going into the military? Taking a year off to travel? Volunteer? Work?
Going to a community college because it's the most affordable option, and then planning to transfer? Whatever the choice, there are going to be more options if a student is eligible to apply for a four-year college. In California we call them the A-G requirements.
I'm sure there are other options. I like options. I like kids to have options.
The fact is that kids need some kind of post-high school training if they want a chance of leading a life they chose.
The fact is that they need high expectations set and then given the help they need to meet the expectations.
So about those statistics.
I went to The College Board to look some stuff up.

UCLA: 57% Women, 43% Men
UC Berkeley: 54% Women, 46% Men

Cal State Los Angeles: 57% Women, 43% Men
Cal State Long Beach: 59% Women, 41% Men
Cal State East Bay: 63% Women, 37% Men
Cal State Monterey Bay: 65% Women, 35% Men
Cal State Channel Islands: 71% Women, 29% Men

California Polytechnic State University, Pomona: 43% Women, 57% Men
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo: 48% Women, 52% Men

I look at these statistics and I am happy that we have done a good job of getting more women to college. When I was in high school I was not allowed to take Auto Shop, and our Junior High P.E. classes were segregated. One of the male coaches who taught P.E. treated us with a kind of amused contempt when we attempted stuff more challenging than badminton. "You don't want to mess up your hair," he would say.And there is still a long way to go for girls and science, math, and technology.
I look at these statistics and I am furious. Where are the boys? At what point in their education did they just decide to take themselves out of the college equation?
Is it a decision? What were the adults in their lives doing or not doing to or for them?
Who told them the equivalent of "You don't want to mess up your hair," and why did they believe it?
I don't have the answers I wish I did. Like changing the system, really changing it, so that all kids can move ahead and have options. I'm working on that one, and have been for over twenty years.
One of the answers is to get books into their hands that speak to them.
Boys read. They need books that don't just take them into other worlds--which I love. They need books that help them see and deal with the reality they are living now.
These books need to be written and read and made available in bookstores and classrooms and libraries. Booksellers and teachers and librarians need to know about them.
This is something we can do. I would say that most indie bookstores have a good handle on what boys read, but just yesterday I told a bookseller about OPEN WOUNDS by Joe Lunievicz. Talk about an apt title.
At the local Barnes and Noble I requested that they stock a number of books that were not in the store. They told me they could order them for me. And I said that I wanted my students to be able to walk in and get them and pick them up and see them.
Yes, I begged.
Because at the end of the day this isn't about statistics or The College Board.
It's about lives.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Men: An Appreciation, Part 2. And OctoberPalooza Concludes.

On Sunday I attended an event called The Why Chromosome: Why Boys Do Read.
I saw something I have never seen before.
I saw more than one man on a panel. They talked about writing good books and why boys read and books they read and all kinds of great stuff.
I know.
This event was as balm of Gilead for me. It is painful to experience the invisibility of half my students in so many elements of society,like education. And the book industry.
I know boys read. These authors know boys read.Boys know they read. And yet if you go into a major bookstore and go to the "Teen" section, you'd think that mostly/only girls read.
I know I have more to say about this whole event. Truth is, I was so excited by all of this that I felt like someone done give my brains a stir.
I need a few days to absorb and process.
In the meantime, let me say thank you to the remarkable men of the panel:
Andrew Smith,Greg Van Eekhout,Allen Zadoff,Jonathan Auxier,John Stephens, and G. Neri
This event was sponsored by Bridge to Books. Everyone involved in Bridge to Books should be showered with praise and funds so that they can continue to produce events like this.
And if you haven't been to Mrs. Nelson's Toy and Book Shop, you haven't really seen a bookstore. This is a bookstore to make the angels weep for joy.
And on a related note, we have a winner.
Thank goodness for randomizer.
Deb Marshall, you are now the proud owner of a signed copy of THE MARBURY LENS and page five of PASSENGER.
I thank all of you for your support and comments.
And a major league thank you to my friend Andrew Smith.

Love them no matter what. And run class like football practice. The only advice you'll ever need.

The best advice I ever got from anyone about anything came from a man named Bob Stevens.
Bob Stevens was the father of my best friend. He was a big man, an athlete. He taught junior high. He was a coach.
I couldn't even imagine calling him Bob. He was always Mr. Stevens to me.
I remember how he could carry his daughters and me around without effort. That means he carried four girls, who clung to him like shrieking morning glories.
He had one glass eye, and sometimes he would leave it out and in the room with us so that we would behave.
He never called me Kristen. He would roar "Pelfrey!". It felt like a roar, even though I don't remember him ever raising his voice.
I adored him.
When we were in junior high he was paralyzed in a bicycling accident.
He became an avid wheelchair athlete.
So one day I am at my old high school, and I went to ask him about teaching. I was in the credential program and I had doubts. Not about the kids. About the system.
I was miserable in the requisite Little House on the Prarie de rigeur outfits I was supposed to wear. Those outfits counted for a lot in getting through the program.
So I meet Bob, and he looks at me and my dumb outfit and my notebook full of rigid, seven-point(less) lesson plans. He sees my wretchedness writ large.
He picked up one leg and crossed it over the other.
"Pelfrey," he said. "Love them no matter what. Run class like a football practice."
And he wheeled off.
He had a workout to do.
His words became my mantra.
You have to love the kids in a real, true, clear sense.
Not in a greeting-card kind of way, or a warm-fuzzy kind of way. Or a yearbook-signing kind of way, or a bunny-stamping kind of way.
You have to see them for who they are, see the worlds of possibilities inside them, and push/whisper/gentle/sing/shout/ them toward those worlds.
Every single moment you have them you must do things that move them forward in some way.
And, if you think about it, his advice holds true for writing. Good writing.
I think you know what I mean.
I, and many, many others, miss Mr. Stevens in ways that cannot be numbered.