22 October 2008

An Evening with Jonathan Kozol

That's right, JONATHAN KOZOL!! I MET him!

Here's how you know whether or not you're an education nerd:
If you're currently squealing with excitement and jealousy, you ARE.
If you're scratching your head and going, Jonathan Who? then you are NOT an education nerd, not even if you're an educator yourself. In fact, if you're an educator or an educational administrator, and you haven't heard of Kozol, then you have some major catching up to do. Also, for the record, if you're an administrator and you've never heard of Kozol, then you must stop rolling your eyes at how lame and uneducated your staff is, because please. You need to read Kozol. And then stop being such an asshole.

Anyway... KOZOL!!




Jonathan Kozol


Several weeks ago, I told my awesome (and certified Major Education Nerd) friend Evone that Kozol was coming to Chicago. Her immediate response was to start looking for plane tickets. Then she turned to her school and talked them into letting her take professional development days to fly to Chicago and see Kozol speak. That's right, Evone is such an education nerd that she flew all the way from New Mexico just to listen to little 72-year-old Jonathan Kozol wave his arms and talk about poor kids for an hour and a half. And it was WORTH IT.




He had to roll up his sleeves and show us his little old man arms


For forty years, Jonathan Kozol has been the voice for poor children in this country. He has taken an unrelenting look at the economic disparities built into the public education system, and with books like Savage Inequalities and The Shame of the Nation, he's exposed the underlying racism and classism in our schools. In fact, Kozol argues that our schools today are more racially segregated than they've been in any year since 1968, the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Truly, it is shameful.

As teachers who have worked with children in rural poverty, particularly in this climate of ruthless and constant high-stakes testing, Evone and I were both thrilled to hear Kozol discuss the ways in which NCLB and high-stakes testing hurt children of poverty. I mean, it's awful, and it's absolutely heartbreaking, but at the same time there's always something so thrilling about hearing someone else put words to your experiences, reassuring you that you're not alone. The woman next to us was literally responding to him as if he was a preacher in the House of Education. "Yes sir," she kept saying. "Amen. Uh-huh! Uh-huh! Amen!"

A part of me wanted to Amen and Uh-huh right along with her, but I was too busy nodding and taking notes.

Mostly, Kozol talked about his latest book, Letters to a Young Teacher, in which he exchanges letters with an optimistic young teacher in an inner-city Boston school. The teacher, Francesca, is an example of what a difference a wonderful teacher can make in the life of a child. Unfortunately, as Evone and I both know firsthand, many such teachers across the country are being hamstrung by administrations and legislation pushing for less love and more "rigor" in the classroom. Many wealthy suburban schools can afford to ignore the mandates of NCLB, because they can afford to lose federal funding. Poor urban (and rural!) schools, on the other hand, absolutely cannot. Therefore, says Kozol, teachers in wealthy, suburban schools can afford the time to allow students to ask the big questions, to jump on teachable moments, to diverge from the lesson plan and wonder and wander and discover and explore. Teachers in poor schools, however, can't afford to do anything but drill, drill, drill. Not when a drop in test scores means the loss of your job. Not when people from the district office and the state department are sitting in the back of your classroom, giving you the evil eye if you deign to allow one off-topic question.

It's hard.

Anyway, Kozol was just lovely. He was incandescent. He was a beautiful spirit, and his was a call to action beyond a mere year in TFA. ("God did not put poor little black and hispanic children on this earth to provide fodder for brief moral interludes in the lives of white college students.") Change in this country must be real and lasting, and it must come from all of us, especially those of us who can speak for the millions of children without voices, who are being trained to fill in bubbles and comply without questions.




Evone asks a question


Afterward, we went down to meet him, to shake his hand and thank him. Organizers of the event stood around him, fussing for him to stop spending so much time with each teacher and student who had a question. They needed to move him into the event next door, they explained, where wealthy stakeholders had paid extra to drink champagne and make liberal small talk with him. The irony of it was rather painful, but Kozol ignored his handlers and happily chatted with us, congratulating the woman in front of us for dropping out of grad school and giving out suggestions of ways to advocate for children.

Finally, they pulled him away and we rode the elevator down to the street and stepped out into the chilly autumn night with his final words ringing in our ears: "Old trees, and the joyfulness of children, will outlive us all."

20 October 2008

Hatred & Racism at a Palin Rally in Johnstown, PA

If you're feeling remotely good about this country and its people today, you might not want to watch this video.




I always thought that "Of the people, by the people, for the people," was an incredibly inspiring, hopeful phrase. It's been my touchstone for understanding this country and its government for years and years. We're not supposed to question our president? Sorry bud, of the people by the people for the people says differently! The little guy can't make a difference? Community organizers are stupid? Not according to a little phrase I like to call Ofthepeoplebythepeopleforthepeople!

This year, it occurred to me -- for the first time -- that maybe "The People" are not MY people, and maybe the gaps between us are more like canyons. If The [racist, hateful, vitriolic] People are going to run this country, then maybe my touchstone phrase no longer works.

Some days it's awfully hard to keep the faith, isn't it? But I return to another touchstone, this one a quotation from Anne Frank:

"In spite of everything [and I do mean everything, you ignorant racist bastards], I still believe that people are really good at heart."





Sigh... let's hope she's right.

16 October 2008

Grammar Therapy


I am such a nerd.

I know this about myself, and I'm totally fine with it. I've made my peace, as Leslie would say. I've made my peace.

One of the many manifestations of my utter nerdiness is my interest in grammar. I wouldn't say I'm a grammar nazi, or even a grammar queen. More like a connoisseur. I'm interested in language, in general, and in finding ever more perfect ways to express myself, in specific. In person -- in speech -- I don't care too much about grammar, because we have so many ways of conveying meaning: through body language, through facial expression, through tone of voice and gesture and pitch. Grammar's job is to help language be as meaningful as possible. In speech, it's not as needed. On paper, it's far more important.

Still, it makes me sad to think about the people in this world who feel crippled by their lack of knowledge and skills when it comes to grammar and punctuation. I've never been in this particular group myself, but I HAVE been a member of the crippled-by-lack-of-knowledge-and-skills-in-MATH group, and I'm sure that they're equally unfun. Somewhere along the line, someone made you feel stupid about your inability to correctly capitalize a letter or factor a polynomial, and there's been a part of you that's just a little broken, ever since. I get that. I know.

So when Jill asked me to teach a grammar class at StoryStudio Chicago, I told her I didn't want to teach anything traditional. I didn't want to add to the grammar stress people are already carrying around in their hearts. Instead, I decided to create a class I'm calling Grammar Therapy. I'm thinking of it as one part grammar and punctuation instruction to three parts giving yourself permission to make mistakes sometimes and regaining the confidence you need to write without worrying as much about grammar and punctuation.

Also, we'll probably make some fun of the French.

Anyway, it's going to be fantastic, and if you or anyone you know needs a brush up on grammar & punctuation or permission to split the occasional infinitive, come on down.

15 October 2008

Name That Name!

Because everyone from college is now having babies or thinking about having babies or thinking about NOT having babies -- in other words, going through their late 20s and early 30s -- the Grinnellians started talking about baby names the other day. Specifically, Secret Future Baby Names, those names you hold close to your heart for future children, names that are so beautiful and perfect that merely uttering them aloud would certainly spark a tsunami of babies with the same name. Secret Future Baby Names must be kept secret, or they run the risk or becoming the next Hannah, Madison, Emma, or Nevaeh:




Popularity of the name Nevaeh, 1880-2007


So then we were talking about our favorite secret baby names that have been RUINED by popularity or pop culture or whatever, and the lovely Sarah Aswell posted a link to this site, which generates bar graphs showing name popularity.

God, I love bar graphs.

So obviously, the first thing you do is search for your own name:




Molly


Mmm-hmm. Interesting. Looks like there were only about 2,000 Mollys the year I was born. Then there's some sort of weird spike around 1991, which I'll attribute to all the women who loved John Hughes movies as teenagers hitting their twenties and having babies. Still, the Molly trend isn't nearly as big as I'd feared, which is fantastic. I like being the only Molly people know. I was always the only Molly in school until my junior year of high school, when suddenly there were THREE Mollys in the freshman class. I numbered them and announced to each of them that they would be known as Molly #2, #3, and #4 henceforth. I, of course, was Molly #1.

Except... I'm not actually a Molly on the Census, I'm a Mary.




Mary


It looks like a boa who swallowed an elephant. Anyway, whew! Glad I wasn't born between 1920 and 1960! How embarrassing to be one of 70,000+ other Marys! No, I was born in the Carter administration, and there were only like 10,000 of us that year! That's practically zero!

Comparing the two, it's clear that no matter how much I worried about the growing popularity of Molly in the 90s, I'm still more unusual as a Molly than as a Mary. Especially considering how much time I spend hanging out in nursing homes.



Popularity of Mary (in green) Versus Popularity of Molly (in orange)


The next one is for those of you who grew up in the 70s and 80s:


Jennifer


Yep. That about sums up third grade, Jenny L, Jenny B, Jenny S, Jennie W, Jennifer L, and Jennifer B.

Finally, my niece's name, Elodie:



Elodie


Twenty-two? Twenty-two Elodies, total, between 1880 and 2006?

So I guess there's good reason I had never heard this name until the day after she was born, when I got an email from my step-mother announcing Elodie's birth. "Elodie Esmee Cummins born October 21, 7 pounds 5 ounces!" My first thought was: "So... I can tell people I'm related to ee cummins?" It wasn't until I talked to Sally that I even knew how to pronounce it. Ay-lo-dee? Ell-uh-dee? (Most people use the second pronunciation, but her father uses the first. Elodie herself says "Ell-dee-dee.") (Have I mentioned that she's COMPLETELY ADORABLE? Not that I'm biased, of course.)

Anyhow, the name quickly grew on me, and now I think it's kind of perfect: absolutely unique, but not too weird or hard to say. It's just like Melody, without the M. Easy.

And yes, I looked up my Secret Future Baby Name. The bar graph would blow your mind. You can search for it yourself, as soon as I print up the birth announcements for Future Baby Backes....





...in about ten years.

14 October 2008

Busy Like Kim Kelly

Okay, okay. I know you've all been terribly neglected and you don't even know what to do with yourselves. I know you've been obsessively checking this site every day, hoping... wishing... that maybe.... It's not that I've forgotten you, I swear. It's just that I'm so goddamn busy, all the time.

Even now.

Because I don't have time to write some thoughtfully scathing-yet-fond review of some aspect of life in Chicago, or even point out that I realized last night just how well you can see into my apartment from across the street, and started wondering just why it is, exactly, that those homeless guys always sit precisely across from my apartment in lawn chairs... and oh my god how many times have they seen me naked??

What was I saying? Oh right: I actually have to run in a few minutes -- I know, lame -- but in the meantime I'll answer some of your most frequently asked questions:

Q: Are you dead?

A: No.

Q: Are you sure? Because in your case, no news is NOT good news.

A: I swear! I'm just really effing busy these days.

Q: Yeah? So... what's so important that you can't take a few minutes and update your damn blog?

A: Well. First of all, I got a second job, because one job is not nearly hardcore enough for someone as hardcore as I. Also, because I'm poor. So in the last month or so I jumped from working about 25 hours a week to working about 50. Pretty awesome.

Q: Are you writing? Aren't you supposed to be writing? That is why you quit teaching and gave up your job security and health insurance and my ulcer is so much bigger whenever I think about you, isn't it? ISN'T IT? YOU'D BETTER BE WRITING!!

A: I am. I am! I keep learning this pesky little lesson about how much happier I am when I'm writing. It's a pain in the ass lesson to learn, certainly, but it's good to know. I'm currently working on my second novel, which is in the early stages of being a complete and utter mess. But I'd like to think that in the end, it will be kind of neat.

Q: What about the other novel? The one that you're supposed to publish so you can send me to Cabo and get me out of this godforsaken grey winter hell?

A: First of all, it's actually only October. No need to panic just yet, even though yesterday the sky was awfully gray. Incidentally, did you know that they spell "grey" with an E in the Queen's English and an A in American English?

Q: Really? That's pretty interesting.

A: I know. I kind of like the E. It seems softer. Like a bunny.

Q: I love bunnies! Wait... are you avoiding the question?

A: No.

Q: Well? The novel?

A: Right. It's in my agent's hands. She and I had coffee a few weeks ago and it was quite lovely. She is a very charming person. Except when she goes through my manuscript with a red pen.

Q: Uh... isn't that the point?

A: Probably. I'm actually very grateful for all her hard work. Thanks, Becca!

Q: Did they fix your roof yet?

A: We think so. It looks fixed... sort of. At least there's not a hole in the ceiling anymore.

Q: So, are you moving?

A: Hope so. Sometime in the near future?

Q: Are you asking me?

A: No, just expressing uncertainty. Why, do you have an awesome apartment for us?

Q: Sorry.

A: That's cool.

Q: So, if you HAD been blogging in the last few weeks, what would you have written about?

A: Lots of wonderful things. We saw Judy Blume & Lois Lowry & the guys who wrote the book about the gay penguin read at a Banned Books Read Out downtown a few weeks ago, and it was fantastic. I've managed to catch all the debates so far, though I'll have to miss tomorrow's because I have a class. I got an Obama shirt in the mail the other day, but I think I'll have to give it to my dad because it's weirdly giant, and invites many awkward jokes about Obama's face and my boobs.

Q: Creepy.

A: I know.

Q: Anything else?

A: That about sums it up, I think.

Q: Wanna play Wildlife Prairie Park?

A: Shoot, I'd love to, but I have to run. Oh, there is one more thing:
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JACKSON GALE!!

Q: The end?

A: The end. For now.