Thursday, June 29, 2006

Excepting schools in the city of Jackson, corporal punishment is legal in the Mississippi public school system. Please take the time to re-read that last sentence. I was not made aware of this fact until about a week after arriving in Oxford, and upon hearing it I was (ignorantly?) shocked.

Perhaps more shocking to me is the implicit (albeit sometimes begrudging) acceptance corporal punishment enjoys from the leaders, alumni, and second-year members of the Mississippi Teacher Corps. Some second-years see it as an embarrassing joke, many seem to accept it because they must, others pragmatically support it because they think it works, and some of my peers seem to even take a smattering of joy in assigning “licks” to their students (from what I understand, punishment is most commonly administered by each school’s principal or assistant principal). I have asked my teachers and program leaders to engage in a classroom-wide discussion on this topic, and though they have always been welcoming to the idea, such a discussion has yet to happen. Whenever it comes up in class, the teachers’ eyes seem to roll and the usual answer is, “We’ll have that discussion sometime later.” The discussion/debate seems to carry a stigma because it has been both extended and heated in the past; I can imagine idealistic, virgin members of the Corps being pitted against the program’s hardened veterans and Mississippi natives.

As you, dear reader, can no doubt tell from my tone, I am completely against allowing corporal punishment to exist in public schools. Why such a pacifistic stance (and a blissfully ignorant one, my detractors will tell you)? The simple answer is that I am not sure; I just feel that the policy is repugnant. I cannot recall being spanked as a child beyond one occasion, when I tried to kill my younger sister by throwing her off a rock wall. I was probably 8 or 9 at the time, she 6 or 7, and for the fruitless attempt at sister-cide I was spanked handily by my father. Other than on that occasion, my punishments were always based on making me feel isolated and ashamed of my actions: go sit on the steps for a half hour, go to your room, etc. Though I am clearly an impartial observer of my childhood self, I’d say the punishments worked and I turned out to be a relatively well-behaved child, all things considered. I have friends (some in Teacher Corps) who were consistently spanked as punishment as children, and they seem fine.

So why my opposition to this form of public corporal punishment? First of all, despite any legal ramifications of in loco parentis or any other Latin/Greek phrase, teachers are not the parents of their students. To me, this is a very clear, very simple concept. Teachers have no right to abuse, physically challenge, or physically confront their students in any way (but for the purpose of putting a stop to a greater physical confrontation that is brewing, such as a fight). Nor do I think parents have this right, but for the purposes of this discussion I am primarily concerned with legality.

Given, you say, but won’t parents beat or physically punish their children regardless of what happens at school? Yes; one of my close friends in the program who is a teaching partner for summer school and a Mississippi resident, told me last night that probably 95% of our students are beaten at home. Unfortunately, I have no control over such parental decisions; I an only concern myself with what I can change: my own school and my own classroom.

In a greater sense, and within the framework of this program, teachers should be better than their students’ parents. Many of the students that will be in my classroom have been party to domestic violence their entire lives. There is no need for them to be party to a similar system when they come to school. For children who have been pushed around their entire young lives, school should serve as a safe haven from the concerns of home life. And, by extension, teachers must serve as role models for their students, examples of what gentlemen and ladies truly are, as well as examples of what authority figures should be. Violence should never be associated with authority, particularly in a time and place where my students are becoming figures of authority themselves (parents, guardians of younger siblings and cousins, etc).

I know my idealism may sometimes seem ignorant, particularly when confronted with the opinions of veteran Teacher Corps members on this issue. However, I am totally unapologetic about my opinions in this particular instnace: they will not change, they will not falter, and I will do all I can to see that my students never have to face corporal punishment. And, if given the opportunity, I will work with state officials to end that practice in this state; somebody has to. To steal the motto of the 2004 Red Sox and apply it to the 2006 Teacher Corps: why not us?

Sunday, June 25, 2006

For EDSE 500 this week we were supposed to try new a new teaching strategy. Given my wariness about doing arts and crafts in my room, I decided against doing the "folding activities" and tried to get the students to work in groups. Maybe not the best of ideas. The class size had dwindled from 22 to 16 that day - most were playing hookie, one girl had to stay home because her 5 month-old son was sick - so we had four groups of four who were supposed to read "the Sniper" and then answer a number of questions related to the short story. Usually the kids don't like to read aloud in front of the entire class, so I figured that they might be more open to reading in small groups. I even found a story I thought they might find interesting, one that included some gore and some gunplay... and it went over like a lead zeppelin. The students would work when I was standing right over their group, but as soon as I moved to another part of the room the discussion would quickly change. The sound of their unsure reading voices would suddenly turn into a faster, slang-laced dialect that had no interest in communicating ideas about plot, theme, or conflict. Although I passed out an assignment to be completed as a group that was going to be graded, the students seemed to care less about their grades than they were about the latest gossip flying around the halls of Holly Springs High.

As my professor for EDSE 500, Ms. Monroe, and I discussed, perhaps I was not clear enough in explaining the rules for group work. Knowing my inability to give clear enough directions has been a constant problem for me, I tried to pace my words and give simple, forceful instructions about reading to one another, completing the worksheet, and staying on task. I suppose my efforts were not good enough. As I discussed with my friend Landon last night, my difficulties are probably the result of being unable to relate to students who cannot make the same common sense connections as those people with whom I usually interact. Meaning that, because of a lack of experiences and/or worldly knowledge, or perhaps as a result of the fact that their brains have not been sufficiently challenged over the past few years (perhaps their entire lifetimes), they cannot draw the same connections which are second nature to my friends from high school, college, Ole Miss, and even the high school students I taught in Providence. Though the "lesson" I took from this group-teaching experience was that I need to plan better and provide clearer directions when attempting group activities, I doubt that I will use extensive groupwork during the teaching year. In the future I will be much more likely to use pairs if I want the students to work together.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

As an assignment for one of our graduate school courses here, EDSE 500, we were told to implement one of three new teaching strategies we had learned in class. I chose to try one called "the Muddiest Part of the Lesson," in which each student would record, on an index card, which part of that day's lesson they considered the most confusing. Friday's lesson just happened to be on subject-verb agreement.

The new strategy totally flopped. When it came time to collect the cards at the end of class, not one student had written a question. While I would like to say that the amount of white I saw could be attributed to the clarity of my lesson, I know this is not true. What I think happened was that the students either 1) were too involved in the game we played for the second half of class (subject-verb agreement baseball, courtesy of Mr. Joel Hebert. None of my students have exceptional "subject-verb agreement fantasy baseball" values, but I'd watch out for Troy and Hannah in the later rounds of your draft); 2) weren't involved enough in the lesson to provide a detailed, critical analysis of what they were retaining and what they were not; 3) didn't want to do anything I had assigned, regardless of how simple; or 4) simply forgot about their index cards (even though I explained their purpose twice at the beginning of class and then referred to them again about halfway through). I am inclined to pick #4, particularly given the fact that I told the students they could keep their questions anonymous if they so chose and didn't get the requisite "Mr. Elias, are you gay?" or "Mr. Elias, where do babies come from?" responses.

What can I take away from this? Although one of my lead teachers mentioned that the students were as engaged during the "baseball game" as they had been during any lesson all summer, I still think I am lacking in student engagement. If they were truly learning (and learning actively, that is, as I want them to), they would have been able to critique my teaching and their involvement in some way, however minor. All of this is to say, I really need to do a better job of engaging my students.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

My first lesson is tomorrow. I will be teaching a brief section on "comparing and contrasting." Until I met the kids, it seemed like an overly simplistic topic for a 50-minute lesson (the topic was assigned to me), but after seeing our students in action I feel that such a lesson will be useful, even if it does prove to be review.

I'm nervous, and excited, and cautiously confident. It is sometimes difficult, even after only ten days in the program, to remember why I chose to take this position. To wit, becoming a member of the Teacher Corps was not only something I chose, but also something I dreamed about and actively pursued. Standing in my dormroom this morning, looking at the dirty floor, beat-up desks, and generally unfavorable conditions, it was easy to wonder where else I could be. This is not to say that the summer has been difficult thusfar; I know I "ain't seen nothin' yet." It is the knowledge of how difficult this job will be that makes me think twice.

I still have difficulty getting out of bed so early. On the bus ride to school each morning, I sit quietly, with few thoughts in my head, asleep but for the fact that my eyes are open. I watch the scenery pass as we head to Holly Springs: churches, shacks, fields, farms. Small homes. Untethered dogs. Men gathering the morning paper. I don't really see a poverty-stricken area, I just see lower-middle class America. I sigh, tired and wary of the teenaged mayhem that waits at the end of the bus ride. I imagine the other places I could be and the places I have been.

But then we get to school. And I step off the bus. And I leave everything that is bothering me behind, as I should. I walk into Holly Springs High School, looking at the kids who will sit in my class and other classes that day. They look at me and my attitude changes. I wonder how I could have ever doubted this decision, even if that doubt was less than lackluster, less than fleeting. I walk up the stairs to the English II classroom. I get excited for the day to come, for the lessons I will teach, for the questions I will answer, for the students that will challenge me. I breathe in. I wait for the students. I wait to teach. And teach I will.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

As an assignment for class we have to read a paper authored by a second-year member of the Corps and write a reaction to it. The paper I have selected is by my summer teaching mentor, Joel Hebert and is entitled “Rural Schools: Definite Problems and Possible Solutions.” I selected Joel’s paper because I believe him to be an excellent mentor; I have learned something about teaching from every interaction I have had with him. True to its title, Joel’s paper systematically examines the issues currently facing rural schools and the various opportunities to remedy those poor situations. He lists a number of obstacles that need to be overcome in order to improve rural schools, including general poverty, lack of parental education, smaller tax bases, declining populations, low teacher salaries, and transportation difficulties.

While Joel is extremely perceptive in determining the current issues, his diagnosis fails to consider numerous underlying issues that are central to the failure of rural schools. As a result, Joel’s plan for improving rural schools seems to fall short, particularly in its usage of and reliance on technology. Specifically troublesome is Joel’s misguided endorsement of distance-based learning (“A student in rural Mississippi can receive instruction from a teacher in Boston, Massachusetts”), a development that would only highlight the disconnect between student and teacher. During these students’ developmental years, true learning can only occur when students can witness excellent teaching firsthand. Additionally, good teachers will also serve as positive role models for their students (I remember first realizing this aspect of teacher-as-role-model when I watched Sidney Poitier in “To Sir With Love”).

That said, technology does have a place in the rural classroom and should be used to bring the resources of major institutions of research – such as internationally-renowned museums and research facilities – to the rural student. To facilitate this connection, public schools should be partnered with local public universities (Delta schools with Ole Miss, Gulf Coast schools with Southern Miss, etc.) to facilitate the sharing of academic materials. Where distance learning does have value is in its ability to educate rural teachers, who do not commonly have the monetary or geographic access to top-notch graduate programs, conferences, and seminars. A similar pairing of public schools and public universities could serve to improve the quality of rural teachers, a development which would exponentially better student academic life.

I will be teaching in a rural area next year, a position I hoped for when I applied to the Teacher Corps. I think that rural poverty in the United States is a largely ignored plight, as both the government and private citizens seem to focus largely on urban poverty. This disparity in attention is particularly highlighted in regards to education; the vast majority of Teach for America teachers are placed in urban areas and the other major alternate-route teaching programs are based in large cities (such as New York and Washington). What is additionally troubling to me is the fact that children in rural areas are so intellectually and socially isolated. They do not have the myriad influences and daily interactions that their urban peers enjoy; this isolationism quite often allows prejudice and general ignorance to thrive. Earlier in this post, I critiqued Joel’s paper for not coming up with a solid plan to end rural educational inequality. The truth is, nobody knows what to do about this problem. In a country as wealthy as ours, if a solution could have been found it would have been implemented. All I can do is offer my time, experience, and sweat. I don’t know how my students will turn out in the end, but I do know that I will do all I can to expose them to a world that is beyond their own. That is the best strategy that any teacher/parent/mentor can have.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

I guess I was a little negative in the last post, so maybe I should write about what I like about Mississippi. First off, everyone’s nice. Everyone will engage you in conversation: the checkout person at Wal-Mart, people around campus and on the street, bartenders and waitresses, fast-food restaurant staff. During all those conversations, I am always called “hon” or “sweetheart” by the women and “sir” by the men. Despite this general kindness, the car salesmen are still snakes. The heat is not (yet) as bad as I’d expected. The women are ridiculously beautiful (as one friend put it, “They put on their makeup to go brush their teeth in the morning”). The accents are not nearly as annoying as I thought they’d be, and have actually turned out to be quite calming. The architecture is beautiful, particularly that of Ole Miss. The town square in Oxford is reassuringly traditional. Almost every meal feels as if it has been home-cooked.

The greatest place to eat around here is called Taylor Grocery. Jon, a fellow member of the program who has been living in north Mississippi for two years, introduced it to me two days ago. The restaurant is one of five buildings in downtown Taylor (pop. 200) and serves the best $5 meal I have ever encountered. For a 5-spot you can get one meat (chicken-fried steak, fried chicken, meatloaf, pork butts), three vegetables (fried okra, mashed potatoes, cabbage, creamed corn, navy beans, etc.), and a dry hunk of cornbread. Water and sweet tea are free. The building itself is appropriately ramshackle: the porch slopes off to one side, the stairs the other; three or four rocking chairs sit on the porch, always inhabited by men complaining about the heat; the door is held shut by a pulley mechanism that is anchored by an empty bottle of Jim Beam; I don’t think the place has been painted since Nixon was in office.

Inside there is writing all over the wall, most of which has to do with fraternities, sororities, and Ole Miss in general. Carved in the wall at numerous spots (as well as in a large font on the floor of the porch) are the letters “CSA.” Along the wall are various paintings of the Grocery, various Ole Miss memorabilia, a great sign that reads “Eat Here Or We Both Starve,” and a photo of Steven Segal when he ate at the Grocery (exactly the kind of C-list celeb that one would expect to find down here). There’s also a painting that consists of the Confederate battle flag, a “CSA” cap, and a magnolia flower. It’s exactly the place Sidney Poitier would have been tossed out of if he had tried to enter during “In the Heat of the Night.”

My peers in the Teacher Corps are quite amazing. I feel as if my resume cannot come close to measuring up to my peers, many of whom have taught before, been in the Peace Corps, and worked in other service-based organizations (one worked with 7-12 year old sex offenders in Memphis). Another one of my classmates went to Harvard Law, hated practicing law, and then decided to become a teacher. I have immediately gained respect for my peers because I have admiration for anyone who would take their overstuffed resume and sign up for this gig. The second year members of the program all seem very accomplished, and regardless of what I think of them outside of the classroom, I am in awe of them when they step in front of a class and begin to speak about lesson planning, their students, or education in general. The two lead teachers of the summer school class I'll be helping to teach (English II) are particularly accomplished. All this said, I am a bit worried (if not surprised) about the general cynicism that has reared its head amongst the 2nd years. However, the cynicism is always about theprocess (i.e. the administration and districts) rather than the students themselves, a nuance that is comforting.

The leaders of the program seem extremely competent and extremely demanding. While I am in awe of the dedication and passion of everyone involved in the Corps, I am particularly mystified by the dedication and passion of those who have been working in Mississippi’s educational system for decades (here I am specifically thinking of the co-director of the Corps, Dr. Andy Mullins). The program manager, Ben Guest, seems demanding, brash, intelligent, dedicated, and (I hope) fair. The professor of my introductory class, Ann Monroe, is excitable and kind. Sometimes I think she is a bit too bubbly, but then I realize that her enthusiasm is the only thing keeping me awake in afternoon class. Thinking of her class makes me realize that I should go and do some lesson planning. More later.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

It’s funny how one can discover so much about a place just by observing the simplest things. I have only been here for three days, but I can say this for certain: the state of Mississippi has the worst bathrooms of any place I have ever been. The folks up at CBGB in New York City would be proud (though, if I recall correctly, I think that the famous punk-rock club was closed last year). The dormitory bathrooms at Ole Miss are awful, but I suppose that I expected that. I am not sure if they are unclean and poorly designed because this is the state of Mississippi or if it is because they are part of a public university, but I would expect the answer relies on a bit of both factors. What has surprised me is that every restaurant bathroom I enter, regardless of the quality of that restaurant, is completely disgusting. I suppose that I should spare my readers the details, though I am sure even the most vivid imagination would be surprised by what I have found, but let me say this: because of the heat down here, each day I find myself covered with a thin layer of sweat when I sit down to dinner. As a result, I have reverted to the laws of my youth and now thoroughly wash my hands and face before every meal. Despite careful precautions taken during this minor bathing process, I can assure all of you that I feel dirtier when I leave the bathroom then when I arrive. This lack of cleanliness and proper facilities stays consistent, regardless of the quality of restaurant I frequent.
Also fascinating about the public bathrooms is the sign that hangs next to the sink in each in every one. Although I cannot recall exactly what it says, the sign reads something like this:

The Department of Health of the State of Mississippi asks that you…
after you have:
1. Used the restroom
2. Been outside
3. Been in contact with any public facilities
4. Handled raw meat or poultry

The sign goes on to briefly espouse the benefits of washing one’s hands and cleanliness in general, but I really cannot remember what the State Board of Health lists as the specific advantages of general cleanliness. Though I laugh every time I see it, I am also saddened that such a sign has to exist. What does the hanging of such a sign say about the public health knowledge of the general population? Do they know about general health issues such as proper nutrition, basic first aid, and other cleanliness concerns (like the washing of clothes and the home)? Perhaps most importantly, will my students be familiar with birth control and STD prevention?
The graffiti on the walls of Ole Miss’ bathrooms is also troubling. The first thing I saw upon entering the bathroom down the hall from my room was the following joke:

Q: What time does a Chinaman go to the dentist?

A: Tooth-Hurty

Yes, before you ask, I did chuckle. But then I thought about what would happen if such graffiti appeared on a bathroom wall at Brown. There were some pretty disgusting things written in the stalls of the Rockefeller Library, but nothing that could have ever been termed as racist or ethno-centric. Would Brown students organize a protest against the joke’s nameless author and the culture of racist machismo that would allow such a joke to be written publicly? Would there be seminars and speeches about the problems of growing up Chinese in America? What I can say for certain is that the graffiti would have been erased or painted over immediately; not by Brown University janitors but rather by Brown University students. That the black ink in which the above joke was written was faded makes me wonder about the degree to which the citizens of this state continue to accept racial and ethnic stereotypes as well as the (in)ability of that citizenry to actively oppose such backward mindsets. Though I would like to say that I will be a part of helping to alter that way of thinking, I both know and fear that the issues I will have to confront in my classroom will be much more immediate, much more pressing, and much more important to the survival of my students.