Friday, February 27, 2009

Time To Play


This morning, while at the check out stand at a local grocery store, I had an interesting interaction with a checker called Michael. He's Nigerian-American and was commenting on Michelle Obama's beautiful face gracing the cover of one of the pseudo news magazines always surrounding the check stand. "I didn't really know much about her till recently," he said in accented English. Then he added, "It's like this writer in my literature class says, 'the world is a stage and we are the players.'"
"Yes, that's Shakespeare," I replied, never having heard The Bard referred to as "this writer."
"When it's your time, you'd better play," Michael said, confident that he was enlightening me and anyone else in earshot.
"Yes it's her time and she's knows how to play," I remarked. Michael was all smiles now and there was a glint of authenticity in his obligatory "have a great day"
I'm reminded of another conversation I had with a Nigerian some years ago. As a graduate student, I qualified for legal aid in Berkeley and went to see a lawyer about the possibility of doing my own divorce. I'd made a mistake that was compounded by the pressure of the draft and the Vietnam war. Now, suddenly free of that burden, finally pursuing my teaching credential at the University, I wanted the complete feeling of a new beginning. Legal Aid turned out to be just the thing for me. Still I was nervous. It's difficult to talk about a relationship best forgotten when you still have strong feelings for the other person. I knew we'd still be lifelong friends, but I wasn't thinking about any of that when I entered the small crowded building deep in Berkeley's industrial section. Settling down in an uncomfortable waiting room chair, I shuffled some papers and felt the presence of a well-dressed gentleman enter the room.
"So...oo, what happen witcha baby?" boomed a tall Nigerian law student whose grin radiated off his starched white shirt.
He just asked me what happen wit mah baby, I thought. Immediately I relaxed. I supposed we filled out all the forms and he collected the $39.95 that this exercise in do it yourself people's law required. I remember all the paperwork came and went at all the right times. I remember the day the divorce was final, and that, yes it did make a difference, a big difference. But most of all I remember that question about "my baby."
When it's your time, you'd better play.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Guess What?



I heard something interesting on the radio the other day. While going about my business and alternately catching bits and pieces of NPR throughout the day, I chanced upon a program about U.S. oil imports and the use of the term "foreign oil." So just where does the U.S. get it's oil these days? The answer might be surprising. After a little fact checking and updating, here are some results. Gives one pause, no?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Will Work For Nothing



The Madoff scandal deepens. We all seem to be incredulous that an elaborate Ponzi scheme could wipe out so many so fast. Did they really think they were in on something special? They were.
While I truly feel for those who have lost most of their life savings, guess I have too. Anyone who dares to look at a retirement account statement these days will find the math pretty simple. 50% =1/2. Half of all those good intentions, those deductions, those brave decisions, and in some cases, half of something passed on down the line.
Of course the opportunity here is that we get another chance to ask ourselves what matters most. For those who need to keep up appearances, this must be a tougher time. I can only wonder what that must be like. I can only imagine what it must feel like to people whose values are tied more to their bank statements than the deeds they do. As always, the little guys often get hit the hardest. Maybe retirement isn't all it's cracked up to be, they wonder. But their images of an easier day, some time to reflect, maybe even travel or go places when everyone else doesn't are in the shredder too.
I hear the governor of Oregon wants teachers to work at least four days for no pay. It's his way of saying we all must sacrifice something more in this kind of economy. It's bad enough that budgets don't even approach enough money for the kind of education that our children deserve, now those who often make daily sacrifices must work for nothing. Oh they will. They always do. Some even feel guilty asking for what they almost deserve. I say almost, because the inequity is rife.
Item: one of the Portland Trailblazers was recently traded. The article said that he would probably welcome the chance to get more playing time with his new club. It also said that he averaged something like less than 10 minutes of playing time a game with the Blazers and about 3.2 points. Oh yeah, his salary for this year is just over $2 million.
When the new Attorney General, Eric Holder, used some rather strong language the other day and said we are a nation of cowards when it comes to talking about race, I knew he'd have to pay the price for being so honest. He's right. That's why we can't talk about the NY Post "monkey" cartoon without risking being misunderstood.
But we are also a nation of cowards when it comes to educating our children. We like to think that it's not about money, that the misguided notion of an "achievement gap" can be bridged with just the right standardized tests or just the right test preparation, or anthologies with snippets of whole books and multiple choice answers.
With all it's budget problems, at least California has an adequate teacher's retirement system. Makes me feel I did something right. Yet I never imagined I'd be as thankful as I am for that system. I have always known that I could live on less money than most. That to make me content, material possessions could go. I just never figured that belief would matter as much as these times dictate. Maybe that's the real lesson.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

My own Blues


Yesterday, I gave a presentation on the history of the blues in two of my student teacher's classes. First time in about three years I returned to the front of the classroom. I jokingly told Chip (student teacher) he should critique me. I think he took me seriously, though. I'll have to fix that.
He's teaching all his cooperating teacher's classes for the next 3 weeks and there are three sections of a class called Arts and Communication. I think it's a catch-all media literacy type of course. Since they were doing a unit on the history of Rock & Roll, he asked me to present some material on the blues. In planning the unit I suggested some things and let him know I had a fairly strong background in working with blues music. I thought it might also be a good opportunity to model teaching to him. All three of the groups are very different. One group is definitely more talkative. One is at the beginning of the day and one is the last class of the day; both have very different personalities because of the time frame.
Yesterday went fairly well. I have the early morning group to go next week, but here are some thoughts.
As always, students are very receptive to music; especially when the teacher whips out a harmonica and plays a riff or two. Lots of kids know very little about the origin of popular music in America with the beginning coming, in their heads, somewhere in the 60s. One class was particularly resistant to bring up race, but through the courage and curiosity of one student finally did.
The student population of this school is very different than my old school. It's quite likely that this early blues music is unlike anything they've ever heard. I know much of the history is also new to them as well.
Chip tells me that the group next week is his biggest challenge, and somehow I've never observed this class before. It'll be good to tweak the lesson plan a bit so that I can keep them engaged. I think they may enjoy writing a blues lyric, especially if it is about themselves.
A final note: In one of the classes yesterday is a girl who lives in her wheelchair. She has an aide most days, but the aide wasn't there yesterday. We helped her write some things down (she is severely paralyzed) and I was pleased that she participated a bit in the discussion. When the class was over, she remained behind and then came forward to talk to me. "You're the first person named Bruce I've ever met that was a nice person."
"Oh really, why is that," I said.
"My father is named Bruce but he abandoned me when I was 7."
"Well I hope I'm the first of may more Bruces you meet that are all nicer than the one before."
She smiled but returned to telling me a few more times how she had been abandoned at age 7.
Everybody's got their own blues, I guess.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Tao of Glory


It's been one of those weeks when the contradictory patchwork quilt of human existence becomes particularly vivid. We learn that the number of military suicides in January of '09 is greater than the first month's combined deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. For those young men and women the war never ended. They knew and tried to tell us so. While commanding officers debate whether or not PTSD qualifies one for the Purple Heart, they say look, you want blood, we'll shed blood too. Perhaps suicide is violent enough for some.
A child loving woman adds 8 more to her single parent family and thinks it'll all be fine when she earns her Master's degree. Her only hope of sanity is a reality TV show. We all know how mentally stable those folks are.
A large dose of American brand "messy glory" got spread over everything like salmonella laden peanut butter when Barry Bonds went back to court. He's in deep peanut butter and now can lift a hand to A-Rod to help him out. Michael Phelps will watch from the sidelines for awhile because they don't allow anything faintly resembling a bong on cereal boxes. What if he'd been sipping a crystal glass of Kentucky bourbon-would it make any difference?
Seems like these folks are always going to their own funerals. Maybe that's why they always seem to be picked up and delivered in black SUVs.
We live in a green light culture. Go on ahead. Go for it. Go Baby Go! I'm not sure what we enjoy more building up our celebrities (they are not heroes, most of 'em) or knocking them down. What's certain is that we do both consistently well.
II.
Last night, on a whim, I Googled the address of the home where I spent the first 22 years of my life. When I left almost 40 years ago, only my father lived there. Our family had disintegrated around him. First my sister married and moved on, then, a year later, my mom died. Three years later I finished college and went off to be a VISTA volunteer and ultimately get my teaching credential. My folks little American Dream fantasy island was all they really had. My dad obsessively manicured his lawn. It was his lawn. Even the big Silver Maple in the middle of the yard, (the tree that endlessly shed leaves that I could never rake up completely), died soon after.
I was prepared for the worst. I know the area has changed over the last four decades. Much to my surprise, the house, still recognizable, was one of the best cared for homes on the street. The lawn was perfectly groomed. The front porch was gone in favor of additional landscaping. Looked like an add-on in the back yard. Many of the best cared for homes back looked rather worn and bare. No lawn, large trash barrels scattered, generally haggard, looking their age. Somehow, it brought a smile to know the place that will always be known as "my house" is being cared for, and cared for well.

The fundamental idea of Buddhism is to pass beyond the world of opposites, a world built up by intellectual distinctions and emotional defilements. - D.T. Suzuki

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Blue Monday


My student teachers are showing some signs of progress. Both feel more comfortable in the classroom, but continue to assume that the reality of a teacher's life is something that it isn't. Fatigue, for example. Both have begun "solo" teaching. This means that they have assumed their Cooperating Teacher's (formerly referred to as Master teacher) full schedule. They weren't prepared for how tiring that can be.
I identify with both these young men when it comes to discipline and management issues. I too preferred to avoid confrontation whenever possible, but learned how important it was in building my presence to find a teacher voice. That'll come for them. They will find the tipping point and cross the threshold. For both it will not be easy, but every observation I make reveals boundaries being pushed, missed opportunities, and furrowed brows.
Yesterday Chip asked me to do a presentation in 3 of his classes on the history of the blues. He knows how passionate I am about the subject and has begun teaching a unit on the origin of Rock and Roll. I jumped at the chance. Then I started to wonder if that might not be beyond my role. The way I figured it was a chance to model teaching something you love. Nevertheless, I wrote a note to my superiors asking if that was appropriate. I think it'll be OK. For the first time in three years I'll be going back in front of a class. Should be interesting to see how these students in a very different school respond. Coming from a very diverse student population to one that is less diverse, especially in African-American students, and presenting information that is largely on the African-American experience should be fascinating.
I dug out some of my old tapes last night. They'll need to be revived--all frozen in my back room. I've got about a week to get the tunes together, some graphic organizers, and some handouts. Don't forget one harmonica; the ultimate grabber. Teacher whips out harp, plays a light, airy Irish sounding fiddle tune. Then contrasts it with a deep blues riff. Teacher can play the blues. Teacher can get down a little...walkin' contradiction.