Monday, June 23, 2008

Freedom is Not Free (first time)

I've been looking back through some of last year's writing and marking those posts I want to be able to find again as "memories" in LiveJournal. I found something I wrote in response to a post by one of my summer blogging group. He posted something brief asking for responses. I was the only one who responded and my response was so long that I ended up having to cut it into five responses, one after another.

It was weird to read something I had written, talking about my family and how we reacted to the September 11th attacks, when my father was alive. He died on March 27th of this year, and it was sudden and unexpected. I want to remember what I wrote, so I am copying and pasting it here:

I grew up as the child of immigrant parents who came to this country and became naturalized citizens. I can't tell you they came here to escape poverty or persecution or better basic rights. My parents are both from the UK. While it's true that they did come here and have a good, successful middle-class life, they both probably would have done okay back home too . . but then there would be no ME! (They met over here.)

My son is the child of one immigrant parent (Alec is from Glasgow, Scotland too, like my Mom) and one first-generation American. His big sister, my step-daughter, is an immigrant.

The United Kingdom (from whom we celebrated our independence last week) is also a democratic society, though it's a bit different from ours in many ways. People there do not lack in human rights; in fact, there are more social services available to an extent (think socialized medicine and better public housing in some ways).

However, my parents came HERE, to the United States. And you'll never meet another couple more patriotic than my folks. (I may have blogged some of this elsewhere, but here goes.)

The reason my father came to America was because his older sister had married an American soldier stationed near their home, and she had written home from America about life in the US. My grandparents wanted to see what it was like. So they moved, bringing their two sons with them. My Dad was their youngest. Long story short, after many moves back and forth, my Dad joined the US Air Force and became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

My mother's parents died before she reached adulthood. Her father died when she was three, her sister was two, and her brother was one. My mother remembers her father. She also remembers crying on her first day of school because she thought she would never see her mother again, like she never saw her father again. My mother was about seventeen when her mother died. They went to live with an uncle and his wife (who despised them), and became very close with their younger cousins. They had a pretty poor life, though.

When my mother was old enough, she became legal guardian for her sister and brother. They moved from one condemned apartment building to another, occupying perfectly good apartments until the buildings were scheduled for demolition. (This was apparently not all that uncommon in the Gorbals in Glasgow at the time. There's nothing left of my mother's childhood neighborhood now.) My mother's friend talked her into trying America. They came as au pairs, I guess you could say.

My mother didn't like the first family she was assigned to. Her assignment was changed. That wasn't going so well either. She and her friend ended up living at the YWCA in Passaic, NJ. She was still there, considering a trip back home -- perhaps for good -- when she met my father on a double date.

The other couple never hit it off. My parents are coming up on fifty years of marriage (November 1, 2008).

They vote in every election. They support local organizations, such as the volunteer fire department (of which my brother is a firefighter, and for which my mother is a member of the Ladies' Auxiliary). Mom is active in church groups, local women's groups, and she held an office in the local regional high school board of education. She also worked, for a time, as the Social Security officer for my small hometown. She only has the equivalent of a high school education. She has mostly worked in stores and small restaurants. But my Mom is for sure one of the biggest heroes in my life.

My Dad isn't as active socially or politically, but he drives up to my sister's house, a half hour or so away, every school day, and he takes her three girls to their three different schools, and then he picks them up at the end of each day. He is very friendly with the crossing guard outside the elementary school. He has talked a few other grandparents there through the changes in MediCare. He has taken a fellow kid-picker-upper for a doctor's appointment when she could not get there herself.

During the summer, my Mom and Dad are at my sister's house about three days a week, I would say. They watch the kids and get them to lessons or to the town swimming hole, or out for lunch, or to a friend's house. I sometimes envy my sister for having them so close . . . but then, it was my decision to move to California from New Jersey.

What does this have to do with the 4th of July? Before September 11, 2001, I so often saw Americans, often second- or third- or later generation Americans, completely disregarding the importance of our freedom and of our way of life here. It was only when that was threatened by terrorists that many people began to proudly display American flags instead of just watching on the news as people in faraway lands burned them.

When September 11th happened, I was in bed. I had not turned on the news before leaving for work, so as I drove the eleven miles across San Jose and turned on the radio, I found out for the first time what had happened. A mere eight miles from my parents' home. My brother, the fireman . . . where was he? Would he be sent into Manhattan to help? My parents, my sister, my nieces, were they all right? They go into New York to see shows or for a special dance class, I think. My sister's next-door neighbor was running late and stuck in a cab on her way to a meeting at the World Trade Center.

My sister was in court in Paterson, NJ. From a hallway outside a courtroom, they could see smoke at the Twin Towers. It was not so long ago that there had been a fire there (the first terrorist attempt), so they thought maybe something like that had happened. Later, after entering the courtroom, they were told a plane had hit the WTC. Everyone assumed it was a horrible, tragic accident. A few minutes later, it was announced that the second plane had hit the other tower.

There was that moment, she said, when everyone knew.

Immediately, as this was a county courthouse, they were evacuated. ALL government buildings in the region were similarly cleared of all occupants.

My sister knew people who worked in the Towers. Her daughters' softball coach. My parents and brother knew someone. A fellow volunteer fireman in our hometown. A guy who had graduated from my high school. He was in the Navy, and he died at the Pentagon.

It's amazing, given where I am from, that I didn't personally know more people who died that day in those attacks.

My husband and I had just been back home in August of 2001, for a friend's wedding. The next time I went home, flying into Newark Airport . . . I always used to find the towers, then scan with my eye into the harbor and find Lady Liberty . . . the skyline was left with a gaping emptiness. Of course, I cried as we landed. I had, after all, grown up being able to see the skyline from the street in front of my house.

So I guess what the 4th of July means to me is that we have something in this country so powerful . . . so amazing and brilliant and worthy . . . that people who fear freedom are willing to kill and die over it. To wipe it from our planet. Perhaps they fear that human nature can't handle the freedoms we have.

The first fireworks I saw after the terrorist attacks made me jump and quiver. And not in a good way. I have since gotten over that, and I reflect instead on the Battle of Trenton, which took place in my home state, and which was the turning point in the War for our Independence. (Of course, my family was still British then, so I should say the War for YOUR Independence.)

I reflect on the sacrifices being made every day by American men and women . . . and now the most recent attacks in my OTHER homeland. My mother, husband, and step-daughter are all from Glasgow. I can't tell you the number of times I have gone in and out of that airport. My father is from Northern England, currently a bit of a hotbed of home-grown terrorism in places.

Is all this simply so that I, as an American woman, can be educated? Work outside the home? Have an opinion? Wear what I choose? Show my legs and arms? Those things I take for granted . . . freedoms. They're not free.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What about the child's RIGHT behind?

Let me start off by saying that I work in a private school. We don't have buckets of money lying around, and my salary is less than that of many public school teachers with less experience than I have.

But what we DO have, that many public schools do not, are quite a few things.

1. Our students typically don't come to school hungry. Their parents have the time, energy, and funding to make sure their kids are dressed properly and appropriately and well-nourished.

2. Our parents are employed, typically in well-paying jobs. In some families, only one parent works, making big bucks while the other stays home to tend house and make sure the kids have all the attention and supervision they require. Some families have two highly-paid parents or two working parents whose combined incomes make the family's life comfortable enough to afford private school tuition.

3. Our parents, for the most part, are involved. They have clearly communicated to their children that education is top priority, and they walk their talk by attending school functions, taking the time to find out what their kids are learning, helping with homework, and maintaining good communication with teachers. Our parents have e-mail, with access at both home and work, so they can reach teachers almost instantly. This is the case in most of our families. Some parents are TOO involved, which leads to other issues, but we've learned to manage that.

4. Because it is a Christian school, although many of our families are not churched or belong to other religions (Buddhism and Hinduism are big ones here), we have the luxury of teaching our students values education in a single, unabashed framework of the Christian faith. That means they get the same message throughout the school, and we, as staff, can back one another up. I know that most teachers impart values to their students, and most schools have a central values framework, but ours comes from outside our school (the Bible) and is one we can all adhere to because of our faith beliefs. We can tell kids that something is wrong because the Bible says so, not because of one teacher's or administrator's personal preference.

(Not everyone has to agree that this is a good thing, but it works well for us in our school.)

5. Most important to me, when I consider what my public school colleagues face, is that we DON'T have to bow down to the Almighty test score. We are not bound by NCLB, API ratings, or the results on our annual standardized tests. Our students do very well on tests, by the way, but I think that has more to do with my above-stated reasons than anything else. As teachers, we can do our jobs without having to worry about all the other things our public school counterparts face every day. That's not to say our kids don't have problems and issues. Theirs just aren't issues of day-to-day survival or safety.

What we've discovered is that test scores don't tell you much more than how that group of kids was doing with that information or skill set on that particular testing day. Teach to the test all you want; we know the kids aren't really learning anything useful (except how to play the system) when we do that. If the government (which is made up of individuals who live in nice areas and/or send their kids to private schools) could be more patient and await results, maybe public schools all over our country would have a better chance of succeeding where it really counts. Kids could work collaboratively on projects that would give them the 21st Century Skills most of our "ruling class" doesn't even know exist.

I am so tired of the hypocrisy inherent in big government, full of wealthy white guys and out-of-touch old folks, telling professional educators how kids learn and how we measure the quality of that learning. Maybe they would see us more as the professionals we are if our salary were commensurate with our responsibilities.

But that's another rant for another day.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Skills/attributes necessary for outstanding teachers

Today, Steve Dembo blogged about how people arrive at his blog by searching for an answer to the question “Describe the skills or attributes you believe are necessary to be an outstanding teacher.”

Within today's entry, he linked back to when he initially discovered this phenomenon, and how he felt these potential teachers were only cheating themselves by looking for someone else's answers to use.

From there, you can get back to his "Writing When It Counts" entry from April of 2005, when he first wrestled with the short-essay question himself.

I found the entire process fascinating, and (I admit) I am kind of wondering what Steve wrote in his response to the application question back some three years ago.

I agree totally with his assessment that each teacher needs to write his or her own response, from the heart, and not take what someone else wrote as their own. But, of course, if someone does find something inspiring from another educator, it would be only fair to cite that person's original writing. I know that when my students ask me a question to which I don't know the answer, I tell them, "I don't know that right now, but I know where we can go look to find out." Isn't that really what teaching, and indeed parenting, is all about?

Teaching prepared me immeasurably for becoming a parent. I feel the single most important attribute a teacher can have is respect, and along with that inevitably comes honesty. The funny thing is, these are the qualities by which I try to guide my entire life, not just my career as an educator or the choices I make as a parent. When we respect others, we are, above all, honest with them. We must force ourselves to be humble, even when we know that we're right about something and the other person is wrong. Students know instantly whether or not we have respect for them. But it's also a good idea to have a conversation about respect, what it means, and what it looks like, with each group of students with whom we interact.

Kids also know when we're flying by the seats of our pants. If we make it fun enough -- a sort of adventure we're on together -- they don't seem to mind as much. But if we have enough respect for them to be honest about the fact that we're discovering something together, they will feel that we genuinely care about them enough to admit that . . . "You know what, kids? Adults don't always know everything, and it's better you learn that now before you become one of us and expect too much of yourself too soon!"

Of the adults reading this, I ask: Can you remember a time that, in your role as a responsible adult (teacher, parent, etc.), you simply did not know what to do? I sure can. The key to being grown-up (other than being taller than my four year old son) is knowing that you don't know everything.

So, what if I had to answer that short-essay question right now? (Although I feel I must point out that it's not really a question but rather a command -- imperative sentence.) Would I talk about respect, honesty, and humility? Knowing me, I would probably quote the end of my favorite Robert Frost poem ("The Road Not Taken") and talk about how I have had a mini-poster of that posted in every place in which I have taught since I began my career sixteen years ago. I'm a bit of a weirdo in most settings. I have my summer hair, my funny t-shirts, my tattoo (soon to be tattoos), and I don't wear makeup or dresses. How would this serve to answer the question?

Respect starts with self. How can I respect others if I do not honor and respect myself? If I require respect from those around me, modeling respect in how I treat others, it's a win-win situation, right? I guess I have just learned to try to live by the Golden Rule and not be too hard on myself when I don't get it right. Being an outstanding teacher really comes down to learning who you are as a person, maximizing your ability to teach others using the traits you have always had, and always striving to grow in your ability to be comfortable being yourself for a living.

Almost sounds easy. Ha.