Day 47 Sunday May 15, 2010: "Higher Ground" - Saving the Mont
 
Day 47 Sunday May 16, 2010: Higher Ground

 

Today is Sunday, May 16, 2010 and is Day 47 of my time left at the Mont. I’m in a thoughtful mood (yeah, insert obvious joke)—been contemplating the death of a friend yesterday, someone I’d just reconnected with this summer, which led me to a movie watching binge: “The Big Chill,” which I always seem to watch whenever I get the word about such things, which led to “The Breakfast Club,” which I was dragged to by my closest friend instead of him letting me sulk; you may notice the appalling number of references to that movie in my writing and my speech, often connected to things not happening: “It’s an imperfect world, sir. Screws fall out.”. Another connection? He’s dead, too. And tomorrow is the anniversary of my mother’s death, the 20th is my father’s. A bit of a dark spiral, eh? But I think a lot of ideas come out of the dark.

 

I’ve been musing about the “Coalition for Change” that Mr. Balderas should probably put together, that group of dedicated “Laker” students, parents and teachers who will support his vague plan sent out to the parents and approved by LAUSD at a presentation made at D7 last month. Maybe good old Alfie, who abandoned the District and went to a charter, the one who thought a Dream Team of “Laker teachers” would approve of the coalition, since all of his PDs seem to have been wasted on us, since we remain sow’s ears. Of course, since he went to a charter from D7, that speaks volumes, doesn’t it? I guess he’ll get to pick-and-choose students, unlike a PUBLIC school, and he won’t have to deal with those pesky UNIONS, like the ones a social studies teacher would teach about.

 

After all, the District needs to rev up the propaganda machine, find its own Josef Goebbels to spread the gospel of reconstitution, even though a teacher who reapplied wrote an angry letter to UTLA stating that 80% of the teachers want to stay, and therefore approve of the changes to take place at the Mont. If the approval rating is 80%, maybe those of us objecting ought to get a large serving of “Shut the Hell up!”

 

A couple of problems here. Are there 80% who approve of the changes at the Mont? If there are, which I doubt, are they approving of the impact this will have on the students? Or are they approving to keep their jobs?

 

What are our jobs about, eh? How many of you feel that using lessons out of a can is the best way to reach students? (This also begs the question, “How many of you went straight from one side of the desk to the other, without doing something else for a living?” I worked with Federal inmates for a couple of years.)

 

I was not a stellar student. I was a bit of a “free spirit,” which was why my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Nelson, selected me, along with several other students, to go on “independent study” for a quarter; all I had to do was check in and show a finished product. Result? I adapted a favorite novel, “Earthlight” by Arthur C. Clarke, into a screenplay. An anthropology professor at CSULA tried the same trick. Instead of a poem about a Cinco de Mayo festival in Lincoln Park, I wrote a collection of poems, some of which were published. I was also a lousy history student. As quoted in the documentary in which I appear, “In Service to the Dream,” “I was a lousy student. I’d read the history book on my own, but when I was told to read a section and answer questions… ‘Yeah, that’ll happen.’”

 

My point? Often you need a non-traditional approach to reach students who are turned off to the traditional. What is your goal during the day? To get kids to dutifully turn in completed work or to make them think? We deal with poor student attendance daily. The two really bad years for dropping out are 9th and 10th grades, which is why I teach 10th grade exclusively. Have I made a difference? I do not know. I’m sure there are some statistics someplace. I try to make organizing a notebook and taking notes non-threatening. I encourage writing and try to make it as non-threatening as possible, falling back on what every writer has ever told me: “The only way you get better at writing is to WRITE.” Result? About 1600 poems written, a quarter of which were published, mostly under “Yaroslav Olynyk”, some stories as well. Yeah, got rich off that, eh? But students take it to heart.

 

Are you going to get these lessons out of a can?

 

I remembered AP English teachers who swore every kid they had would pass the test—and squeezed any love or even toleration of reading out of them. They came into Mat Taylor’s class dreading books, placed there because a counselor thought it was a good idea to have as many kids taking as many AP classes as possible. Because I often shared these students, and because I often had them for AP Government (yeah, I used to be allowed to teach AP students once upon a time—go figure—try 47 students in an AP class and 4 books) we were in each other’s classes all the time, teasing each other in front of the students that his class was “Story Time,” while mine was “Cut-and-Paste.” And I watched Mat work his magic wearing his prescription sunglasses.

 

Traditional? Kind of like Socrates. A teacher, some students, a tree stump to sit upon. Will the students at the New Fremont get that? Does that come in a can? Will you get that in an overpriced PD next year, complete with highly-paid consultants (to use the grant effectively) to help you implement that?

 

I doubt that. But I saw kids reading, getting over their loathing of books, as they read “Ask the Dust” or “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”. Students did SSR in Claudia Pilon’s class. How can you measure that? I don’t know. I got removed from teaching AP. I might not have been any good, according to some. My approaches were pretty non-traditional, as well. I wanted the kids to give a damn about what they were learning, from which all else follows. Ask Bianca Cortes about my AP Government class. Ask Ramon Mendez about what it was like to be a student in my World History class. Better yet, don’t ask them. I wouldn’t want to get anyone in trouble.

 

Given the proper circumstances, the canned lesson might work. But what about the kid it doesn’t work for? In a world of “pacing plans,” how many students is it acceptable to leave behind (keep in mind NCLB) on the bloody altar of “one size fits all”? How many kids will you be willing to lose to a “pacing plan”?

 

What will the “80%” who are offended by the actions of the Committee to Save Fremont do about the kids who just won’t fit in with “one size fits all”?History class.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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    Chuck Olynyk is a Social Studies teacher who saw the effects of reconstitution upon John C. Fremont High in Los Angeles. These are reposting of his original blogs from the Save Fremont website.

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