Friday, September 16, 2016

Oops, I Did it Again. Or Did I?

I'll cede that I'm an ass. It's the natural consequence of my barely veiled arrogance and my big mouth coming together to conspire against me. I don't deny this and while I am always working to be a better person, I've come to the conclusion that I have many fine qualities and I have faults. Surprise! Most of the time, when I come to my senses after a foot-in-mouth episode, I recognize myself as the ass I am and retreat with apologies to the offended. Sometimes, I don't come to my senses and someone has to point out to me that I'm an ass so I can implement the exit strategy. I comply; I'm getting too old to keep fighting foolishly.

In this case, I'm not sure it's me.

Earlier this week, among the reams of documents I received from my children's schools as part of the annual start-of-the-school-year redundancy initiative, I received the course outlines for several of their classes. I read them, which is the first thing I'd like to point out. (If you've ever had my child in a class you already know this about me. I read everything.)

This year, as in years past, the course outlines included some errors, typos mostly, but some had faultier grips on best practices than others. For most, I clucked to myself in disappointment and moved on. When I got to the AP English Language and Composition outline my stomach coiled. The overview began with this
AP English Language and Composition functions as a demanding college-level course designed to encourage and empower student writers through a demanding course of study in reading, rhetoric, and composition.
Does this stand out to you in any way? It does to me. A demanding course designed to do something through a demanding course? I kept reading.
Students will... enter into a dialogue with the texts they read...
Students are allowed to ring a water bottle to class.
Students will develop their abilities to analyze and interpret... argumentative technique.... and will be able to explain how such... techniques lead to the effectiveness...
... good attitude is more important that aptitude. 
... in his/her pursuit for improvement
... Students will have to print out grades every three to four weeks and have the reports signed by his or her parents. 
Students will routinely respond to the texts...
This project allows students to engage in a discussion with a non-fiction text... 
... further strengthening students ability to connect... 
And my personal favorite
Students must place their assignments in the designated slots... Before doing so, students must make sure the following is written in the upper right hand corner of the paper before it is given to the teacher:
Last name, first name
Name of the class and period
Date the assignment was assigned and when it was due 
In the left hand corner, on the first line, the full name/title of the assignment and page number (if applicable)
 So the left hand corner of the right hand corner? Before or after? Or before, before?

This was five pages, double-sided, and while some of the errors were more technical than others (and I've since learned you can use 'between' when describing certain choices of three or more - learn a new thing every day!) there wasn't one page that didn't have at least two items of concern. My kid began to sweat the redder I got.

I took pics of some of the examples and, in my heat, posted them to a parent group on FB that focuses on advocacy for Chicago Public Schools. "Talk me down," I said. I did my best to ensure I was not providing any identifying information. I also sent a note to my child's counselor and asked what would be the appropriate course of action for having my concerns addressed. I thought it might be uncomfortable for the teacher to receive my marked-up copy of her course outline, and it might also affect her treatment of my child in the class, so I skipped that as a first step.

So that's the second thing I want you to know. Yes, I posted my mini-rant with evidence on social media, but I also took the serious step of asking for help via conventional channels. Interestingly enough, I got a reply - several of them - on FB, but none yet from the CPS person I approached for help. She's overworked, I know.

I was sad, really sad, to find that most people who replied on FB, including teachers, thought I was being too harsh, that the teacher was probably overwhelmed or overworked, that she hadn't had time to proof or edit because she was so under the gun, that I should overlook such errors if the class otherwise met my and my child's expectations. A few expressed some sympathy and agreement that it was unfortunate. One woman private messaged me and hoped - since her child is taking the same class at the same school - this wasn't from her child's teacher. Ultimately, one teacher took me to task for 'outing' someone on social media, quite comfortably wagging her finger at me for being so unthinking and unkind. I think this is what led the moderator to remove the entire thread from the page. I apologized for overstepping and also sent a message privately to the offended teacher thanking her for her perspective.

There are a few questions that stay with me from this experience. Have we arrived at the point where we no longer care to be excellent? If I want my children to work toward excellence, will I have to assume that their school communities will not be leaders in this endeavor? They'll do their best, they'll try hard, but they can't take the lead? That breaks my heart. I'm not a teacher and I don't know how to do some of this work, so I'm likely to fail my children. That breaks my heart, as does the fact that we've somehow managed to drive ourselves all the way from one end of the spectrum to the other, such that we not only accept mediocrity and failure, we defend it. It's ok for the person who is supposed to teach my child 'language and composition' to be, not accidentally, not incidentally, but repeatedly and clearly owing to a deficiency, faulty in her own usage. Really? Multiple instances of describing situations where students will engage in dialogue with an inanimate object? Is it me?

The teacher who spent several (well-written) paragraphs on FB, and later in a private message, fortifying her case for why this is ok felt it important to mention the citywide ranking and statistics that should make me feel better about the education my child is receiving at his school. God help me, he is at one of the best-ranked schools in the state. If this is what our struggle is for, our fight for fair funding, our storming at Rahm, our railing against Rauner and charters, if I'm wearing red for this?

Talk me down.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Don't Let the Wrong Thing Define You

This was the one that defined us. They had their own stories.

The Great Depression.

Pearl Harbor and World War II.

The Vietnam War.

And then ours.

Until we had one, I rather envied people their stories. Awful, isn't it? I so admired people who lived on a crust of bread and watery coffee for a week. I wished I could crawl into those books and wear those shoes, see those dapper men in their hats.

It sounded a bit romantic to be holed up in a room with all your family, cousins and uncles, lit by flickering candles, listening to a radio with Churchill crackling inspiration.

I've never been to a ticker-tape parade. Celebrating the end of war.

The indignation of the Vietnam War era. This, among all, was the most empowering of the old stories. Young people mattered. They wore berets and took off their bras and linked arms with black people and played guitar at huge open-air concerts.

Man, I wanted in on that!

I was rather embarrassed and disappointed to be growing up in a time of relative peace, with great strides toward equality, ATMs and Michael Jackson, the pies and parades to remember other people's stories. No stories of our own.

I was home with my babies. The television couldn't be right. My husband left with my brother to get my sister-in-law, who was working downtown. I called my old office in New York. I could hear the rustle of panicked papers behind him. The hours passed in grey.

The next day we drove down Pulaski with nowhere to go. The air was positively stifled. I remember thinking somewhere along that drive that now I was the grown-up. This was my disaster to recover from. And, more ominously, maybe this was my fault. I looked up at the sky, and nothing but sky replied.

Others will write today, and forever, about the war on terror, about Bush's greatness and Bush's weakness, about who did this to us and who we blamed. There are those stories to tell, and stories of individual worry and fear, of heroes and fallen angels.

I never understood the old stories until we had our own. Like ours, the old stories are, for the tellers, not movie-tinged memoirs of fine fashion and the abstract of how character is built by fire. They share with us, yes, the sheer blur and pain of attack, the white-hot understanding - in an instant - of how precious and fragile life is. They have their anonymous magnificents, like we do, and we all know how real evil is, how close it can come. It can touch you, and you can respond.

And you can respond.

It's in the how that we define ourselves. That is the real story. Let's make ours a good one, shall we?