Sunday, December 18, 2005

Holiday cheer

For two weeks now, my thighs have had laptop imprints on them. At least my couch is a comfortable, fuzzy place to whip out sub-par work (that, I promise you, will receive A's) on silly, pointless final papers. I now only have two things left. But one of them is going to be painful. It's a reflection on my fall student teaching placement. I don't even know what to say anymore. Here's one of the "guiding questions" that we're supposed to answer: "What are the norms, practices, rituals, customs, values, power structures, group affiliations, and status systems that define and shape your classroom setting?" I wonder if "none of the above" could be a correct answer to that.

I should say that not all the assignments were pointless. For my history class, we had to write a syllabus for a world history course. Here in NY state, 9th and 10th graders take a 2 year global history curriculum, tied to a regents exam. Here's one thing I learned while writing this syllabus: lots of stuff has happened in the history of the world. Who would've known?

I also learned that, contrary to popular belief, the histories of pre-Columbian America and pre-totally impoverished Africa are quite interesting and complex. For example, when the British first tried to colonize sub-tropical Africa in the 19th century, they kept settling near low-lying swamps with malarial mosquitoes. They were all dying off. In contrast, native Africans would settle in high-lying areas with few mosquitoes, and many had acquired immunity over many generations (sickle-cell anemia, common in African-Americans, is actually an African genetic adaptation that prevents malaria from infecting blood cells). And the British also couldn't get past the fierce, spear- and sword-wielding Zulu warriors, who they found absolutely terrifying. Unfortunately for everyone, Europeans soon discovered that quinine was an effective prophylactic against malaria, and that machine guns were quite effective against spears. And the colonial fun began. But it's ok, because these days everything is Africa is juuuuuuuuust fine.

Bill and Melinda Gates (and Bono!! hilarious!!) were just named People of the Year by Time magazine for their work in Africa. Gates just announced $400 million in new funding to what I like to call "wacky science." They're projects that normal institutions like the NIH or whatever don't want to fund because they're too "wacky" and their chances for success are too low. But at the same time, they are projects that, if successful, could have a huge impact. Like, some guys are trying to genetically modify mosquitos so that they can't smell humans and thus won't be able to infect them with malaria. Another guy is trying to modify cassava roots so that they have protein and vitamins, instead of just starch. It's cool stuff. Bono, meanwhile, wears awesome sunglasses while totally rocking out for the less advantaged. And people have paid attention, because people with one name have a certain je ne se quois (think Cher). That is phonetic French that I just made up. My mom said that taking French would be pointless. The fourth grade me pointed out that Peru is a French-speaking country, but that just didn't seem to convince her. Where fourth-grade me picked up that little gem of knowledge is still a mystery.

As for the Americas, I'm reading a really interesting book called 1491, about American civilizations that rose and fell after colonization of the Americas from Asia. The guy who wrote it definitely has a political agenda and a true "stick it to whitey" type of attitude, but he's a great writer and he presents recent archaeological and genetic findings. The new research is starting to reveal an America teeming with people with interesting, complex cultures and societies. It seems that many, many more Americans were killed by European diseases than was once thought. Like, maybe 90%. Which would make pre-Columbian population numbers in America as high or higher than those in Europe at the time. Anyway, you should read the book and decide for yourself.

Here's another question I have to answer in my reflection paper: "How have collaborative efforts affected your teaching this semester?" Do you think I can say, "They made me want to forego being alive, but, seeing as how that is impractical as well as life-threatening, I chose to pretend that collaborative efforts were not occuring"? I'm thinking I should go a little milder.

I missed my department's holiday party last week. I was sad, because they promised karaoke and I wanted to make inappropriate comments about various staff members. But I went to Boston instead, to see my kids from last year at MATCH. And it was the best part of my year so far. My kids are doing well and were happy to see me, the school is doing great, everything was as it should be. It's so, so good and soul-affirming to go to a place like that, where there are smart people trying to solve problems that arise and who don't take on a fatalistic attitude about everything. And I would like to note that many of the kids who failed ninth grade and are repeating are doing quite well, both in behavior and in academics, the second time around. It's like the poster school for failing a grade. I also got to go to the faculty party and watch a few people get a little too merry (you know who you are, people).

I'm going to try and start writing more regularly again. I don't want to be a complainer, so I will just try to observe and comment. For example, I may say, "there are many, many tiny dogs that live in New York, and I hate them." So that's the kind of pithiness you can look forward to.


At December 19, 2005 8:17 AM, Blogger lenie said...

Those reflection papers are so tedious and I have certainly agonized over them. It is best not to think about them to much and just start typing words on the screen and use one of those fonts that use up more space. Palatino comes to mind.

At December 19, 2005 6:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reflection papers can be easy once you give up on actually reflecting and just give the professors what they want. We had three professors teaching our educational theory classes this summer, and our reflective journals were divided among them. I began receiving A's from one and C's from the other two... then the one who gave me A's told me the "formula" the other two were looking for, which he even agreed took the "reflection" out of reflection papers. Never had a problem after that.

At December 20, 2005 7:41 AM, Anonymous Sherman Dorn said...

Here's one of the "guiding questions" that we're supposed to answer: "What are the norms, practices, rituals, customs, values, power structures, group affiliations, and status systems that define and shape your classroom setting?"

In theory, this is a nice prompt for some ethnographic comments. And even in a frustrating situation, it's possible to accomplish that; one of Mary Heywood Metz's gems, about the common script that infuses all high schools from awful to outstanding, probably came from such frustration. But that high-flying act takes quite a bit of practice to distance oneself from the situation. Give yourself enough leeway to acknowledge that you'll probably have that perspective... in a few years, well away from it.

And I hope that your spring placement (if you have one) is far, far better (for both the students and you).

At April 29, 2006 7:11 PM, Anonymous RShctam said...

It is soul-affirming to return to MATCH but it also make me feel even more frustrated with the NYC public school system. Can't wait til this teaching fellow thing is over and I can go back to a charter school that's brave enough to not follow the "edu-tainment" trends that are killing my students now.

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