Piper Update Stalled…I know.

So for those of you who don’t know, Piper is the comic I’m creating that I was supposed to update on Friday.  But, because of a much-extended visit to the university, where we finally sorted out all my financial aid and I could finally register for classes, I was left with just enough time to…come home and make dinner.

Piper will, I apologize, actually be updating tomorrow, though I doubt there’s a whole lot of people wailing out there.  a) It isn’t entirely all that popular, and b) the people who are used to the comic are also used to its creator.

One of my goals should be to become more dependable about the art front, which seems to currently be the area that suffers most from my scattered…ness.  I’ll work on that.

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Gardening: There she grows!

If you aren’t all groaning at the title, you should be.

I’m learning through a little of that promised experimentation that things grown in water, sans dirt, are so far fairing heartier than the seeds.  Then again, that’s not exactly a fair comparison — but at any rate, if you ever feel the need to grow carrots or garlic, look no farther than any disposable container or container lid deep enough to hold a little water.  Re-use re-use re-use, folks!

I used the top to one of those cheap alluminum containers you sometimes get salad or other meals in at diners and pizza places and whatnot.  Voila:

I have no idea how the image gallery function works on wordpress, so we’ll see what happens.  If you can’t see anything, it’s completely my fault and I’ll have to remedy it with photobucket and some basic html.

If you can see it, the garlic has been there for about two weeks, maybe a few days less, and the tallest-growing carrots about the same.  The carrots I added gradually as I used them, hence the difference in growth.

Even a day after I took these pictures, including one of the first sprout of broccoli which is really not much more than a contrast-heavy bright spot in a mound of dirt, the yet-unsprouted carrot tops showed new growth, the others showed root growth, and three more broccoli sprouts popped out of the soil.

Tomorrow, or at least sometime this weekend, I’ll post some more photos of the progress as well as the whole windowsill setup.  I figure it will look a little more impressive with things actually growing in it.  (Actually, the truth is that I’m just feeling lazy right this second, too much so to take new pictures.)  I’ll also give an update on our friends the worms, who are at home in their wormbin and may need another pound of friends to consume the amount of foodscraps we make in the house.

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EPA = Ever-Powerful Authority?

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103208627

tl;dr version: The EPA concluded that greenhouse gases contribute to climate change, and that these gases, and climate change, are a public health risk. This gives them the ability, more-or-less, to monitor and control anything containing/utilizing/spewing forth these gases, from cars to electricity. NPR’s All Things Considered did a great segment on what this could mean.

So what about it? Is the EPA the next Big Brother? Discuss.

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On the Subject of Merit Pay – In a Roundabout Fashion

I was planning an in-depth look at Merit Pay what with Obama’s recent backing — well, not necessarily recent, it isn’t as if he hasn’t suggested this idea before. While he was still on the campaign trail in late ’07, he was already endorsing the idea of “merit pay”, but avoiding the term, with the reluctant blessing of the NEA.

Now, the thing is, if you google ‘merit pay’ and ‘education’ and even-and-especially those two plus ‘Obama’ you can find a million different opinions on the topic. These make a general shift: from “Is merit pay good for teachers?” to “Is merit pay good for education?”

The real problem is, what educator, or really anyone already entrenched in the education system professionally, can answer that second one honestly?

Teachers are doing noble work, but they (or, I should probably say, ‘we,’ since it will happen soon enough) still have their own interests to look out for. And while what affects teachers will inevitably affect education in some way, shape, or form…well, there’s a certain variable in the intensity of the effect that is dependent on the teachers themselves (or administrators, etc.).

Obama’s ‘merit pay’, as it says in the article, does not base teacher pay solely on standardized test scores, but does give rewards to teachers whose students score well. This could, as proponents say, encourage innovation; but just like so many other practices in education, it also depends on where it’s done. It perpetuates the already ever-present complications of SES (socioeconomic status) of the districts teachers work in — is it fair, for example, to offer the same…we’ll call them ‘performance bonuses’ to avoid the tricky term that so many people take arms against. So is it fair to offer the same performance bonuses to teachers in high-SES districts that one might offer to those in low-SES districts?

Take into account the fact that there are many, many factors affecting low-SES students that do not generally affect those from high-SES backgrounds. Hunger, homelessness, parent absence, unsafe neighborhoods. These students are already part of an education system that doesn’t necessarily give them the same things that it does to higher-SES students, simply because low-SES neighborhoods can’t match the same financial backing of schools as high-SES neighborhoods. These students not only generally score lower on standardized exams than high-SES students, but then get fewer resources from the education system to boot.

Considering this, the question becomes, in part: how can we hold teachers accountable for aspects like these, which have such a strong affect on student performance? Would performance bonuses for teachers in, say, a higher-class suburban district, be much more than giving themselves a pat on the back?

Necessity is the mother of invention, not performance bonuses — or merit pay. And I can’t help but think that, if a teacher is only putting in their best work and innovation when you dangle that carrot in front of their nose, maybe they should look at another career.

Of course, then there’s the idea of simply rewarding them for work well-done. But again, how can that work on a larger scale when a teacher in the south Bronx may have to work twice as hard to help their students try to meet standards as someone in, say, the Hamptons? Are we really rewarding effort with this?

These, of course, are an argument against it.

But then, there’s also a logical argument for it, in a way — and that’s best given perhaps by people in areas where teachers are grossly overpaid, with their unions who enthusiastically protect while their schools and their students are suffering budget cuts. It may seem like an unrealistic scenario, but it happens. As a resident of Long Island, I can attest to that. Within my own education classes I hear constant stories of people who’ve been searching for teaching jobs for sometimes as long as several years.

And in the current educational climate, with NCLB having created a fierce need for low-performing districts to change, why can teachers not find jobs?

Because, it turns out, these people are looking for teaching jobs only on Long Island. If you recommend teaching in the city, you may very well be looked at as if you suggested they walk off a bridge.

Long Island teachers’ unions can manage to refuse to give up salary raises in times when hard-hit districts are already forced to make copious budget cuts by saying the raises are contractually obligated. Districts then have to struggle to meet these demands while cutting programs, calling for tax raises on already irate communities and laying off faculty altogether.

So this comes to my point (aren’t you glad?):
Is it merit pay that’s bad for education, or the politics of teachers’ unions when they’re put to the wrong use?

Now, as a future educator, I did make sure to mention “wrong use.” Moreover, it’s the general, pervasive selfishness, those sorts of politics, that cause this problem. Where is the line between teachers protecting themselves and the “looking out for me” mentality that can destroy a school?

One has to wonder if, were these teachers to suspend their contractual salary increases for a year, less of that money would have to come from the students’ academic experiences. Granted, it wouldn’t save the entire district from economic hardship, but if it can save one afterschool program, or a colleagues job…

And if the money is such a dire problem for the unions, because Long Island’s cost of living is admittedly abysmal, why not only raise the salaries of those teachers making under a set amount? Because teachers making over that set amount would howl, no doubt.

I’m sure, as a future teacher, I would be expected to side with the unions on this; however, to give perspective, the mother of someone I know well from school and live close to was a high school math teacher. They had a place in the summer for when they went skiing every year. I can’t imagine anyone would be able to afford that if they couldn’t already more-than-afford their first home, the food on the table, other assorted necessities. And, when I was younger, they had her teach either a class of regents (non-honors) students, or a mixed-ability class. I can’t quite remember. What I do remember is that she proceeded to complain that she was going to have to teach “the dumb kids.”

But damned if she wouldn’t get a pay raise that might have been contractually obligated.

This is still about merit pay, but there’s more than one place I can point to in order to question the good of teachers’ unions to education.  Unfortunately, some are just inherent — like general teacher union opposition to charter schools.  These schools are generally good for students, and I’m not going to link to pros and cons to that effect because they would require quite a lot of linkage, but it would certainly be an easy search if you want to pop it into a search engine.  But the more students in these specialized public schools, the fewer in regular ones.  Less enrollment means less funding.  Those two can mean faculty layoffs and a whole barrage of other negative impacts on teachers.

So, essentially, the sheer existence of charter schools, coupled with their success, could be considered a threat to public school teachers’ careers.

But they’re good for the students.

Now what?  Well, the teachers’ unions are going to focus on the former, because that’s their job.  Enter all the messy politics that ensure, wherein students can become completely lost from the equation.

What I think we need more of, all around, is personal responsibility in the case of all teachers as well as parents and administrators an other stakeholders in education. But certainly the teachers. I know, I know — as it is, there’s already enough a teacher is held accountable for. But shouldn’t a teacher have some sort of personal responsibility — not just a federally, state, town, district, or school-mandated one — to consider their students’ well-being, by sheer virtue of being a teacher?

With merit pay there needs to be balance — teachers can’t be penalized for circumstances beyond their control, especially if they’re willing to work within those circumstances, while there are plenty of people still waiting to find a job in a safe, ‘easy’ sort of district while schools in NYC lose funding. Likewise, I do agree that certain teachers could stand to put in a little more effort for some of their summer homes. And most importantly, a distinction needs to be made between the two kinds of teachers, as one certainly isn’t the other.

And just like merit pay needs balance, so do the politics of teacher careers and salaries — a little readjustment, a lot of introspection.  For some, depending on their motivations and how that affects their performance as a teacher, career readjustment might be in order.  Maybe a review of why teachers teach is in order for everyone.

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Education: Cultural Balancing Act

I’m currently a student at Dowling College, but I transferred from SUNY at Stony Brook.  SBU has a relatively dense Asian and Asian-American student population, and I was spoiled there by the Wang Center; Taiko drumming; a year and a half of Japanese; Korean literature; and a formidable program in East Asian studies.

So one might imagine my chagrin at the Humanities program here, which is heavily Eurocentric and offers, among its array of Philosophy, Drama, Arts and Culture courses, one course in “The Theatres of Asia” and one course in “Eastern Philosophy.”

Now, having long been fascinated by the different schools of thought and religions in East Asia, it was the “Eastern Philosophy” that bothered me the most, because certainly all of Asian philosophy — from the China/Japan/Korea trifecta to India to, depending on how East their East considers, Iran —  cannot be summized in a single course.

But this is not Dowling’s fault, nor is it even necessarily its shortcoming.

Because, thinking on this, I realized that I was, as I said, spoiled by an atmosphere that included what seemed like at least one Asian or East-Asian foreign TA per major course.

So why do I bring this up when I usually go on about more encompassing topics, or at least, topics that are more encompassing in the context of Elementary Education, whereas this is university and generally completely different?

When students have access to another culture, it enriches their academic experience.  This is true not only of university students, but of any student.  And why should we deny younger students this opportunity?

Consider, for example, Dual Language programs in areas where there is a high concentration of non- or limited-English-speaking students.  In this situation, those students who are considered to be at a disadvantage — those not of the American culture — are integrated into the mainstream American school system gradually, without shocking them with not only the new material but a new language and culture.   At the same time, American students are introduced to a new language and culture, widening their experiences and allowing them a glimpse at another way of life.  In fact, younger students have the strongest capabilities for learning new language — if we want them to succeed in this front wouldn’t it make more sense to introduce such things early?

Then there’s the matter of acceptance.  What are we gaining by encouraging students in the American system to study only their way of life; only their language; only their culture?  By relegating students who are culturally and linguistically different, if they can function in the mainstream classroom with additional support, what are we teaching our children about being open to other nationalities, and about our own?  And how are those students going to become part of the American culture if they are not experiencing it in what should be the arena of their most fundamental education?

If this country is still aiming to be a ‘melting pot’, how does wrenching a students’ pre-existing background away from them and forcing them to live, essentially, a cultural double-life — learn to act like all the other students at school and keep your funny words, your funny customs, and your funny ideas at home — uphold that ideal?

I’m not saying that we should tear down our ESL programs and install a UN interpretor for every language in every classroom.  I’m not even necessarily suggesting that we teach the mainstream classroom in more than one language, per se.  What I am saying, however,  is that if we are truly serious about expanding the academic — and real-world — experiences of our children; if we are serious about integrating foreign students into our society; and if we are serious about moving beyond the current, often Eurocentric education our youth receive to one with a more global focus, then we need to start in the classroom instead of expecting our students to seek out opportunities for cultural enrichment for ourselves.  Lack of access to museums or cultural institutions is sometimes cited as contributing to the disparity of many of our students ‘whole education’ (and I do in fact agree with this, especially in situations where these institutions are within reach but not within access, for example, to low SES students in inner-city districts who can’t afford to fund trips, when the Smithsonian or the Museum of Natural History may be right in their backyard).  But why aren’t we looking at the fabric that makes up our academic community for the same inspiration?  Why aren’t we inviting students and parents and families to share their culture with the class?

It’s my opinion, at least, that — whether due to language barriers or politics or, let’s face it, lack of real desire to move beyond a Eurocentric education — these families, these stakeholders, are sometimes locked out.  There are a dozen different speculations I could make as to where the fault lies, and it would be different from experience to experience.

But in the meantime, we need to find a way to balance the new and the already-accepted, already-assimilated, already-taught.  If we can’t look at it in the context of English Language Learners, then we can at least acknowledge that all students could benefit from access to new ideas, whether it be Mexican meals or Japanese dress or African dance.

We don’t even need to crane our necks outside of our borders if we lack the resources.  Sometimes even cultures that are already prevalent in our society are completely foreign depending on your community.  When I was working in Little Rock and some fourth graders and I were talking about holidays, I mentioned that not everyone celebrated Christmas, and the dialogue went something like this:

“What do you mean?”

“Well, not everybody is Christian.” (This was in fact the context the students understood Christmas in, not just Santa Claus.)

“They’re not?”

“Well, no, some people don’t believe the same things.”

They asked for an example, and I figured I would go with something safe — for a New Yorker, Judaism seems pretty safe.  I said there are some people who believe in God but don’t believe that Jesus was God’s son, since they were talking about the birth of Jesus and one child had previously given me a little sermon.

“Oh!  I know people like that!  They’re…German!”

“…you mean Jewish?”

“Yeah, that.”

It’s easy to laugh at this, and it’s also easy to not laugh at this, depending on your point of view and how long you think about the problem.  Some of you, I’m sure, are thinking that it was inappropriate to talk about religion so specifically.  But if students aren’t aware of the existance of any religion, or language, or culture, other than their own, how will they learn later about the rest of the world?  Can you imagine a student reaching units about World War II and not knowing the difference between German and Jewish?  And what about when they try to comprehend the current state of the world without an understanding that there’s another religion other than Christianity?

I’m not abdicating, by the way, that we start full religious discussions and tangle with that touchy subject while children are still learning about their own religion; though I would want my own children to be aware that everyone has their own beliefs and that these should be respected, I’m not about to press my personal ideology on students and parents through the school system.  I don’t have any religious ‘agenda’.  But awareness of certain basics — that there are people who believe different things than we do — has a very real-world significance, from something as complex as current events to something as simple — and applicable on the elementary level — as the holidays other students may or may not share.

I realize that this has probably reached the point of rambling; that this idea is not a new one; and that I may not have addressed the issue adequately.  But as far as I can see, there are many people who still aren’t aware that this is a problem, and it is in fact a problem.  If we want our students to be able to function in an increasingly globalized world, we need to prepare them for it, the same way that we might prepare them to use computers in a technology-heavy society.

Dowling does the best it can with what it has — which is why we need to examine the virtues of inviting new experiences.

That, and I have to admit, I do miss my Sakura Matsuri.

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Writing: Snippet, “War-Song Dream”

He had a dream. He was with his father, and they were dancing around the fire. They sang a war prayer his father had written, because there hadn’t been war prayers before him, not for them. And they lifted their voices and called to the gods, if there were any gods, Jon had always doubted to the shame of his mother who’d otherwise raised three devout boys and two more girls. But it was his father’s fault, it was his father’s song, and they clasped hands and spun each other around the flames and sang to the gods that mightn’t have been there or mightn’t have listened,

Lead us in battle
shelter our kin
if there our souls are
forced from our skin
We do not fight for
your name or your grace
We fight for our mercy
to find us a place

He’d never sung his father’s war-song before this, alone, terrified of its magnitude, of the way the idea of it settled heavy and constricting in his chest. But now the fire flickered against his robes — he was wearing robes, card-readers’ robes he’d never touched in his waking life — and his father’s dark face, illuminating golden tones in his skin, the gold-laced stitches in his thick worn coat making cold blue flames of light dance with them across it, the boldest blue he’d never forget.

Their dancing was merry. It was merry but not in the celebration of victory or the optimism of coming freedom. It was merry in the way that men danced when they knew it might be the last dance they ever had, around the fire, singing together. And then his father took him closer in a warm embrace, a swinging trot, and he was dizzy, and he felt tears on his face but couldn’t feel if they were his own or his father’s thrown against him by the wind they made together, dipping and turning. And then something warm in a liquid way, and it blossomed against his chest, and his father’s coat was gone and instead there was blood, blood everywhere, and he realized that his father was shot and where he was shot Jon bled too.

It poured forth from their chests but he couldn’t stop spinning, and hand locked in his father’s he wouldn’t let go. One of them was on their back and he wasn’t sure who, but the heat became drier and he realized that both of them were burning, the fire consuming them, and their matching blood, and his father’s bare chest, and his card-readers’ robes, pale passion blue-turned-crimson.

He tossed through the rest of the dry summer night with a fever that smothered him late into the morning.

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Education: Classroom Bailout

Just a very quick post — need to get blood tests and catch a train.  But this caught my eye and I couldn’t possibly pass up passing it along as soon as possible.

http://www.viddler.com/explore/MrAsClass/videos/10/

Mr. A, or Kevin, follows me on Twitter (I don’t know why — I don’t say much that’s interesting!) and posted this recently.  Anyone who’s at all up to date with politics should get a big kick out of it — and anyone with a few extra dollars to spare (in this economy I know that’s rough) should see if they can’t contribute.

Very smart video, and your students are great.  Can we share while I wait for a class of my own?

So, what would you do if you could formulate a bailout plan for education, whether it be the entire system or a single classroom?  I’d love to hear.  Once I’m settled later, I’ll give my own ideas, plus a few more posts I have in store.

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