Monthly Archives: February 2013

Of Furlough Days

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I’ve been laid off today with all of the employees of my school district, and, by proxy, all of the students in my school district. The school doors are locked. Do not enter. Sorry, we are temporarily closed. We do not have enough money in the coffers to pay for a full school year, so we’re cutting days and cutting pay and cutting another 6 hours of educational experience for the children in our community. There are, I think, 8 furlough days scheduled for this school year and talk of 10 to 14 for next year.

Many students might be happy to have another day off–but I’m sure there’s a great number, too, feeling a bit slighted.  I think most people, especially parents of the younger ones, are inconvenienced and annoyed by this state of affairs, and some might be outraged, but there’s a pervasive feeling of helplessness about it. What can we do?  People go to the state capital with signs.  Some people write letters to their legislators. Others talk of having teach-ins in public places to raise awareness.  I’m writing a little blog entry.  Not sure what effect any of this has.  If the money is not there, it’s not there, right?  I’m no economist. I am not knowledgable enough about how governments receive and spend their money to offer any kind of explanation or solution. I don’t know whether or not they have mismanaged or misappropriated school funds, about whether there are less deserving programs receiving money that should go to schools, about whether there is a path toward additional revenue that our elected officials are ignoring or refusing to try.  Would a sales tax solve the funding woes in Oregon’s public school system?  Would voters ever go for that?  Ultimately, the community has to decide how important  it is to educate our young ones, and then, I suppose, elect people into office who can find a way to pay for it.

Are students performing less well, are they dumber, or less educated overall for the want of 8 to 14 more days of school? It’s hard to say.  What’s undeniable, though, is that something is being sacrificed: the reading of another book, the introduction of another important concept or entire unit in math, an entire decade of history glossed over or missed altogether, an important aspect of second language grammar they will need for their progress next year, and, perhaps most importantly, the experience of coming together in a room with peers from their community to talk about, read about, and create or discover important things.  For teachers, it looks something like this–last year we had not a single day for staff development. While the federal and state department of education, our leaders in our district, and our administrative team are talking about new reforms, new assessments, high stakes testing, adopting the Common Core Standards, in short, more and higher expectations, we are being provided with precious little resources to be able to rise to the occasion. So we do the best we can with what we have and hope for better days.

But here’s something to think about, at least on the federal level:

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What I was surprised to discover, however, after thinking about these shocking numbers for quite a while now, is that in actual fact, the United States Government spends more on education than they do on the military!*  That doesn’t, by any means, make the incredible imbalance in military spending okay; it does mean that you can’t say, if you’re just thinking about numbers of dollars, that the U.S. underspends other nations on education.  But while we outspend everybody on the planet on this account also, and while, according to the University of Southern California, we have an impressive 99% literacy rate, we are in something like 9th or 10th place worldwide in science and math.  And you have to be living under a rock not to know, that despite our good work, there are–what Jonathan Kozol called–savage inequalities in our school system country-wide and within states.  I believe that it’s true, generally speaking, that our most impoverished communities have the worst schools. I also know there are exceptions–Deborah Meier has done phenomenal work in these kinds of schools, as have others.  So, perhaps, it’s not at all about how much money is spent–but about how governments and school districts spend the money they have.  But maybe far more important than that, what kind of programs are in place for kids, what kind of teachers are in the classroom, and what kind of learning communities are being built inside schools?

I’ll include this graphic here because it’s surprising and important, but also because it’s one of the prettiest info graphics I’ve ever seen.

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I feel so fortunate and lucky to work in this district, at this high school, with this staff, and with these administrators.  In my entire career I have worked in this same place and over my entire career I have found it to be a respectful, collegial, lively, safe, and invigorating place to work.  Our student population is as diverse now I suppose as any other suburban high school population–in some ways more diverse culturally than in the gentrified neighborhoods of Portland.  And I have found in that student population a consistently high number of really superb examples of humanity.  Each furlough day, to me, is just another day on which this incredible community cannot do the work it needs to do, the work of growing the hearts and minds of the young people who will inherit the wonders and challenges of our future.

 

*This 809.6 billion dollars on Education is not all Federal money.  My understanding is that this figure is a composite of Federal, State, and Local funds.  So, yeah, this is how much $ government agencies spend a year on education–but the Federal budget alone pays for the Military.  Something else to consider, perhaps.

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Of Fatherhood: The Most Difficult Job Ever Invented

Outside of motherhood, that is.  The way I see it, the three most difficult jobs ever invented, in this order, are motherhood, fatherhood, and teaching in an underfunded public school.  I’ve taken on two out of three.  I find fatherhood exceedingly difficult and this perturbs me.  Whose big idea was it in the first place, inventing fathers?  They’re inefficient.  They’re inconsistent. They don’t know what they’re doing most of the time. They’re trapped in patterns of behavior or responses to behavior that betray their better selves and butt up against what they believe.  They allow 7 year olds to the get the better of them. Some fathers have three college degrees and still–the 7 year olds get the better of them. They can be even-keeled, relatively mellow individuals, and be put often in a state of utter frustration, moral or emotional devastation, and sometimes blind fury–by a 7 year old.

Why is this?  Why can’t it be easier? And here’s the creepy part of it.  Growing up in the world, having been a 7 year old once themselves, perhaps, having become teens, young adults, and  men, accumulating years and years and years of being fathered and watching fathers, either they don’t remember or they never see the kind of difficulty I’m speaking about.  And no one ever discusses it.  Not once did I ever hear my father or my older brothers say about fatherhood, “Man, this is hard, maybe the hardest thing ever.”  I think, if someone would have said that to me, I would have listened, and maybe I would have done some studying over the subject. It’s like a kind of conspiracy–one that was perhaps crucial to the evolution and survival of the species, because, if fathers talked openly to other potential fathers about how difficult the job is, no one would ever take it up. That would be the end of us.  I guess I’m glad my grandfather never had the opportunity to tell my dad how difficult fatherhood had been for him before he keeled over mowing the lawn and died. I might not be here today to have such difficulty being a father.

I recently blogged about a project I’m participating in with my students to follow Benjamin Franklin’s lead to become, by conscious, deliberate effort, morally perfect.  It’s not going well for me.  And TRANQUILITY, number 11 on Franklin’s list, is the virtue that I find most severely lacking this week, especially in relation to–actually only in relation to–fatherhood.  I want to go one day without losing my cool with the resident 7 year old.  One day would be good.  It’d be a start. Listen, I am not a hot head.  Rarely do I get hot headed.  Only in the realm of fatherhood and in the presence of the resident 7 year old do I get hot headed.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t regret becoming a father.  Regret is a fool’s game. And despite the fact that my son is, for the most part, the only one I get physically and verbally angry at, I love him more than any other human being I have ever loved.  When it is good, I can find myself weepy with happiness at his beauty, his wit, his curiosity about the world, his budding bilingualism, his artistic streak, his lovely singing, his rare but heart melting tenderness. When it is  good, it’s really good (and first, I must confess, that it is good 80% of the time, and I’m sure that compared to many fathers on the planet I’ve got nothing to complain about); but when it is not good, it is bad, bad enough to bring a grown and relatively happy man to despair.  That despair is temporary; it passes–but it is about the most awful feeling I know and I wish there was a cure.  To my credit, perhaps, the reason I despair sometimes is simply because I give a shit.  I don’t want to be so lackadaisical about fathering as to become permissive, or to relegate my parenting to television and video games, or to simply walk away from the oppositional and sometimes nasty resident 7 year old, or to be oblivious, uncaring or dismissive about my own anger .  At bottom, and most terrifying, is the fear that the lesson won’t take, that he’ll become resentful, that the opposition will grow, that his teenage years will be just as difficult if not more so. This is a trap, too, I know, and I try diligently not to fall into it.

I have worked with teenagers every day of my real working life now for about 25 years.  It happens that sometimes they get under my skin, make me lose sleep, disturb my tranquility, make me angry, but it is rare, especially in comparison to the challenges presented by the resident 7 year old.  So, I take that as a sign that every year fatherhood will get easier and easier.  But I don’t have to live with the teenagers under my charge–so maybe it would be totally different and equally difficult if we were under the same roof on a permanent basis.  That’s not a happy thought.  It’s all relative, right? And most of it is dependent upon the kid and the family and the happiness quotient of both.  In the end, I imagine that all of this is the stuff that every parent and every father deals with to lesser or greater degrees, but most don’t talk about it, they keep it mum, they don’t let on, they put on the peachy-keen mask.  Parenting is hard, fatherhood is hard.  As is everything that is worthwhile doing, I suppose. I know I can’t be the perfect parent.  I just want to be better.  But I want it to get easier, too, which is, in a way, lame.  I’d prefer it to get easier than to have to develop new skills for the difficult stuff. Somebody, tell me it gets easier, or, tell me I will get better at this most challenging work.

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Of Moral Perfection

This is the assignment I gave to my students this week in American Literature. I wrote it on the board. “For homework, arrive at moral perfection. You have one week.” A few of them looked at it right away and were puzzled and slightly amused, but as we worked through the lesson of the day, a short introduction to Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography by way of a passage titled “Arriving at Moral Perfection,” they started to get kind of squirrelly, started to suspect something was actually up. We read about Franklin’s project toward self improvement, his settling on 13 virtues at which he would consciously practice, and for which he would record in a little chart he made in a book a black dot whenever he transgressed any of them.  He planned to spend all year doing this, in thirteen week-long courses, each week focusing on a particular one of the thirteen virtues, but all the while keeping track of transgressions in all of the others in his little virtue book.

This is either a very admirable task for someone who is conscientiously working on self improvement or a kind of early documentation of obsessive compulsive disorder; students are not quite sure which.  Students are amused by the seemingly impossible nature of some of the virtues:  Silence–speak not but what may benefit yourself or others; avoid trifling conversation.  Okay, how often, they think, do people in our culture engage in meaningless or trivial conversation?  Most of the time.  Who can keep mum absolutely unless it is to benefit someone somewhere?  None of us.  And students are particularly amused by number 12: Chastity–use venery (sex) only for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or to the injury of yourself or others.  At this point, as the result of the giggling about the health aspect of venery, I find it somewhat obligatory to offer the recent findings on sexual behavior on a person’s health, that it does, in fact, work the heart in an aerobic fashion, and studies show it makes people happier.  What’s difficult is discussing how one may become “dull” or “weak” as the result of it.  We kind of skip over that one.  In their imaginations, though, and perhaps in their own experience, they may be perfectly aware about the ways sex can be injurious.

So once we work our way through this short excerpt in our textbook, and we’ve figured out  some of this new vocabulary (temperance, frugality, humility, resolution, industry, tranquility), we’ve had a few laughs at Franklin’s fastidiousness, and we’ve made some predictions about how his little project will go (our textbook’s excerpt is heavily truncated; we don’t get to the part where he tells us what a failure it has been), I pass out the homework assignment.  It is a pretty faithful replica of Franklin’s weekly virtue chart, seven days across the top, and thirteen virtues listed on the left, each with it’s own row for the week, a box for every day. The instructions: Check with yourself at the end of each day in the following week and make a black mark or a tally of some kind for each time you’ve made an infraction in one of Franklin’s virtues.  At this point they are in a bit of a panic.  I find it hard to stop giggling.  Even though the instructions tell them to keep this chart private, that there may be things here they will not want to share, they are asking me if they have to turn it in.  I clarify, no, especially with regards to temperance and chastity, I do not want to know; instead, I tell them what it is I actually want to see from them in a week’s time.

After having made a good faith, serious effort to keep track of their daily faults, I want them to write a reflection–a reflection, not a confession.  I want them to write about what the experience was like, whether or not it taught them something, whether or not they find, as did Benjamin Franklin, that while moral perfection may be mostly a pipe dream, the deliberate, conscious effort to think about our behavior and our ethics may be worth the energy. The practice may not make us perfect, but it might make us better, or at least, more awake to the nature of our characters.

And then a student asks me, are you doing it, too?  And then a few of them demand, Jarmer, you have to do this, too.

The homework assignment officially begins on the first day of the week. Tomorrow.  And as I make it a general practice never to ask my students to do a thing that I myself would not be willing to do, I think I’m ready for the challenge. Game on.

For a sneak peak at what’s ahead over the next seven days, here is the complete list of Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues with some personal annotations :

  1. Temperance:  Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.  I’m okay with the first bit.
  2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.  I think this one might be somewhat possible, kind of.
  3. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.  My desk at work is a mess.  My office is a mess.  This will need attention.
  4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.  I can do this.  This week, I will do this.  It’s a new week.
  5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; that is, waste nothing.  Okay.  Sounds reasonable enough.
  6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.  Well.
  7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; speak accordingly. I can’t trash talk my colleagues or my students?
  8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.  I’m good on this one.
  9. Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think you deserve.  I’m a pretty fair guy, I think.  I’m a lefty, but I think reason guides my politics and extremism of any kind scares me.  I’ll be all right here.
  10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.  There’s that messy office.  There may be a bit of a consistency problem here between the home and the workplace, between body and habitation.
  11. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles or accidents common or unavoidable.  Could be a problem.  I tend to get hotheaded over minutiae. Fatherhood tests me on this one daily.
  12. Chastity:  Rarely use venery but for health or offspring; never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation. Hmm.  I know, if it occurs, it won’t be for offspring.  Health then. Here’s to health.
  13. Humility:  Imitate Jesus and Socrates.  I think I can be humble, but these two cats set the bar pretty high.

There it is.  No problem.  Let’s see what happens with a week of close attention. Wish me luck.  I think I may need it, even though, clearly, none of the above has anything to do with chance.

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Filed under Culture, Education, Self Reflection, Teaching