Monthly Archives: February 2014

#75: The InEquity NonPoem (a manifesto)

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The InEquity NonPoem (a manifesto)*

In my school district
we’re having the conversation about equity,
and mostly, we’ve been asked to focus on potential
inequity between white kids and our students of color
and how to minimize or abolish that inequity.
Let’s do a quick little statistical analysis, shall we?
Of 80 students in my IB English classes, 72 are white or
Eastern European white. One white kid identifies as Hawaiian,
but not ethnically. Another white kid identifies as Cuban,
which, despite her light skin, makes her decidedly not white.
One is Mexican and a native Spanish speaker. One is Vietnamese.
Two are black. One is mixed-race, partly black.
Another one, mixed-race, but not black.
Of my 7 students of color in these high level classes,
three are struggling; that’s almost half of them. But
the other 4 are completely on top of the game,
some of my very best students.
There’s that. The same could not be said of the white kids,
that almost fifty percent of them are struggling.
But there are a lot more of them. If I pulled
the right 6 or 7  kids from the white population,
I might find fifty percent of those kids were
struggling also and the other half were on
top of the game. More interesting to me than
the fact that 3 of my 7 non-white kids in IB English
are struggling is the fact that there are only 7
non-white kids in the entire group of 80.
Let’s talk about equity, honestly,
and come to terms with the fact that in a junior class
of which a full 20% are non-white, only 13% of those
are enrolled in a college level English class, while
33% of their white counterparts are enrolled
in a college level English class. And while we’re
at it, let’s remember that equity is not only about
race but also about gender, and let’s wonder why
girls outnumber boys in my IB English classes
2 to 1, while boys outnumber girls in my “regular”
English classes 2 to 1. And guess which gender is
typically more challenging, behaviorally and
academically. The boys are. Which gender has
the highest number of failing grades? The boys do.
Could we complicate things even further by
thinking about income inequality? No, we can’t.
I’m told no one has access to that information
except the cook and the  bookkeeper and that they
are explicitly told to keep that information
confidential.  Here’s my guess.  The students
in my IB English classes are mostly from middle
class families and above, and the students in my “regular”
English classes are not–for the most part; and also, it is likely
that most of the kids I have who are successful
are from middle class families, while the kids who
struggle are not.  How do I know this?
Statistically, it is true that the greatest indicator
of a student’s success on a standardized test is the neighborhood
he or she lives in, the student’s socio-economic status,
and most of the students in my IB English classes
are doing just fine on their standardized testing.
There are always exceptions.  There are always exceptions.
Generally speaking, though, the above is accurate and true.
So what does it mean? First of all, it means that, yes,
we have issues of equity in my school and in my district.
Secondly, the inequity is systemic, and not related
to how kids are treated in my classroom.
And finally, to conclude the inEquity nonPoem,
I must now reach a more satisfying conclusion.  I conclude that working
for educational equity is the most important kind of school
reform we could ever undertake–but that working for equity
is not so simple a thing as race, gender, or class considered
in isolation, and that gender inequality should not be ignored
because most of the kids suffering are white boys–who
historically were not the ones underserved, but the ones
on top, and finally, that economic inequality should not be ignored
simply because we can’t see it with our eyes. And ultimately,
the way we battle any kind of inequity is the way we
make effective classrooms possible: knowledgeable, caring professionals
who understand or can learn the culture of their various students;
a humane teacher-to-student ratio that makes it possible for teachers
to KNOW their students in meaningful and significant ways;
a challenging, rigorous curriculum and high expectations for every kid,
despite race, gender, or class differences–which means ultimately
accomplishing the thing I’ve been railing about for 25 years:
the elimination of a tracked curriculum where the haves
are separated from the have-nots, where mostly white kids
and girls are taking high level college credit classes and getting
the very best education tax money can buy away from “those other kids.”
This abruptly concludes my manifesto: The InEquity NonPoem.

*this piece was composed and organized in lines so that I could call it a poem. Because that’s how I roll. The “nonpoem” in the title is just a way of expressing my misgivings that there’s anything poetic about this piece at all. Maybe I have invented a new genre:  the essay poem–not to be confused with the lyric essay, a poem disguised as an essay; this is  rather an essay disguised as a poem. O genre gods, forgive my trespasses.

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#74: The American English Teacher is Worried about the Burnout of His Colleagues

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Perhaps, they love teaching and learning.
And while they may not love children
just because they’re children,
they love the idea of helping young
people reach their full potential,
navigate the waters of young adulthood,
use their minds well, think about important
things, become more humanely human.
It’s all noble, noble, and good.
And yet, something is amiss,
something is afoul, something is rotten
in the state of the classroom
when good teachers–when the best
teachers–consider leaving the profession
or at least leaving the public high school
because they are demoralized, defeated,
angry, and tired. Especially those coming
late to the profession, who may have
everything together except for the fortitude
of a twenty-something, these folks,
who can never retire, really, not in the usual
sense, find the forces against them
greater than their capacity to soldier on,
from the gigantic class sizes, a culture
often antithetical to intellectual work,
the impossibility of knowing students
in a way that could really make an impact
on their learning and their lives, to
the top-down and corporate driven
standards and standardized tests,
one set after another, always different
but always the same, interrupting and
displacing what good teachers do best.

And of course the best teachers
often find these things under their skin,
preventing them from sleep–
and it’s not because they’re obsessive
but because they care deeply.
But at some point they decide
perhaps that they care more
about their own health and sanity
than about the schoolhouse.
And this makes perfect sense–
but losing our best teachers is bad for schools
and bad for kids and bad for democracy.
And it’s bad for me–I will miss them
when and if they go, those who have
enriched my life and my teaching
beyond all reckoning, whose energy
and spirit and humor have prevented
in me the very burn they experience now
that makes them want to leave.

I’m not burned-out, in part, because,
despite all the issues that make
the job more difficult than it should be,
sometimes impossibly so,
I like the work far more often
than I hate the work, am happy more
often than I am despondent, and
because I have made compromises
to protect myself; but also in part
because I can see the light at the end
of the proverbial tunnel, am getting
close to this strange thing called
retirement of which the elders often speak,
and perhaps, if and when my
colleagues move off before I do,
these are the things that will
keep me going until my final
and penultimate
high school graduation.

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100 Poems by April

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The title of this little blog post, I realize, is deceptive.  Please know that you will not find included herein 100 poems by a person named April.  Rather, it is my hope and goal (hence, this public announcement) to write my 100th blog poem by April 1. My rationale is, initially, silly. In April of 2013 I participated in the National Poetry Writing Month by writing a poem a day every day in the month of April. For some reason, I think, maybe to distinguish the poetry from other things decidedly NOT poetry, I decided to number these poems. 1 through 30. But then I kept writing poems. And I kept numbering them. I just posted #73. And my secret (now public) fear is that if I participate again in NaPoWriMo (which is my plan) I will find myself in the unenviable position of writing poem number 93 on the 17th day of April. That’s just not good. So the silly reason for writing 100 poems by April 1 is so that on April 1 I can post poem #101 and on the 3oth of April I can post poem #130.

The second reason for writing 100 poems by April 1 is simply to have written 100 poems in a year’s time.  I’ve said this before.  I don’t know if they’re good poems.  Because mostly they’re written quickly, they may read kind of like Anne Lamott’s concept of the shitty rough draft. And because they’re public, they may not “delve” in the way some of the best poetry delves.  In other words, there may be subjects I’ve avoided, or incidents of self-censorship I’ve allowed. There may be artful risks I’ve side-stepped.  All of this may be true, but it’s still a pretty cool thing to say you’ve written 100 poems in a year, and if I’m able to do this, I’ll be able to say it.  I’ll say, hey, I’ve written 100 poems in a year.  Cool.

So, if I just posted #73, I will need to write 27 new poems in February and March. Over two months, it’s about half of what I will do in April. It will be good exercise, I think.  And maybe you can help.  Do you have any suggestions?  Are there kinds of poems or subjects that would amuse you in a Michael Jarmer composition? Let me know. Seriously. Really.  Please.  I have my work cut out for me anyway, but without your help, I may have even more work cut out for me.

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#73: Unstuck In Time (Don’t Know Much About History)

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The student reading a William Stafford
poem mistakes the 1930’s for
The Civil War in America—when, you know,
there were electric elevators.
The first impulse, if only
inside of a thought bubble, is to make fun,
but the second, more reflective response
is a deep sadness. The kid is unstuck in time
and unstuck in culture,
has no idea when the Civil War took place,
probably believes the elevator man in Stafford’s poem
was a slave, and countless other pieces
missing altogether, the result of more
days of school missed than attended,
and the ones attended, for her, ill suited,
and who knows what else in her life
and the lives of her family prevented
her from learning the most basic
fundamentals of American history.
I don’t hold it against her.
Instead, I am angry about the circumstances
that lead to this kind of ignorance,
feel that she has been cheated in some
significant and grievous way
against which I am totally ill prepared
and unsupported to do meaningful battle in her defense.

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#72: Potter Author Trending

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First of all, I’m embarrassed
that I took the bait, hook, line,
and sinker, in the sidebar list
of stories “trending” on the
Mighty Social Network; secondly,
I’m ashamed I clicked on this
particular subject matter,
an author I am only nominally
interested in–an author for
which only in the very
most minimal way could I say
I am a fan. I am vicariously a fan
because I have a young son
interested in The Potter and must
admit also to having personally
enjoyed the films, and must admit
also again of not liking her
mostly because everyone
in the universe liked her, and
somewhat because she learned
to write in public and that just
makes me jealous.
No, all of that
is pretty much a non-starter.
This is what caught me:
J.K. Rowling regrets the romantic
pairing up of two characters,
Ron and Hermione, wishes she
had not written that romance.
And I think, on the one hand,
that this is hilarious–but then, on
the other hand, that this, more
than anything else she has done
as a writer, instills in me finally
an enormous and new respect
for J.K. Rowling, who says the
romance was wish fulfillment
and not literature. This is decidedly
not hilarious. All of my
fiction is wish fulfillment, I think,
and I feel bad now, for my fiction,
but also because I think I have
not been fair to the author of
The Potter. Listen, you naysayers,
you Harold Bloom thumping elitists
of which I used to be one:
She’s serious.

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