23 March 2006

Eagle Colts Unite

Last night, the board announced a decision to combine the two middle schools in the district, and this morning my 7th graders were FLIPPING OUT about it, because for some reason the other middle school has been allowed to become our school's biggest sports rival. (This has always struck me as incredibly misguided.) The kids kept telling me, "Edgewood kids are SNOBS!" "There are going to be so many more fights next year!" "We hate them!" Finally, I put my hands on my hips and said, "I can't believe this! We've spent the last four weeks studying Anne Frank and the Holocaust, and you have told me that you can't understand why Hitler would single out the Jews, and yet here you are telling me that you hate an entire group of people just based on where they happen to go to school!! Are you kidding me??" In that moment, I saw about five kids just snap out of it, like their little faces were skies clearing after storms. It was very cool. At the end of class, I said, "If you still don't get this, ask Melinda, because she clearly understands why you need to go into this with an open mind," and Melinda -- future Jerry Springer poster girl Melinda -- got this HUGE grin on her face and nodded in agreement. "Yeah, Ms. Backes, I'll tell THEM! You guys gotta be cutting out the HATE."

15 March 2006

Reading The Diary of Anne Frank

Bell: Ding! Ding! Ding!
Class: Awwwwwwwww! I was really getting into it!
Me: !!
Julia: Wow, Ms. Backes, you actually found something that we like!
Me: I'm... I'm not really sure what's going on! Who are you? Where are my real students??


Kid reading part of Edith Frank: I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.
Eliza: Um, Miss Backes?
Me: Yes?
Eliza: Isn't that, like, from the BIBLE?
Me: (checking the notes in the teacher's edition) Yep, it's psalm 121.
Eliza: I don't get it.
Me: Um, what?
Eliza: They're Jews, right?
Me: Right. That's why they're hiding from the Nazis.
Eliza: Then why are they reading the BIBLE?
Judah: Yeah, I thought Jews didn't believe in God.
Me: (taken aback) Oh. Okay, that's a good question. Um, okay. So who knows the basic difference between christians and jews?
Judah: They don't believe in God, right?
Me: No. They believe in God. In fact, they share a part of the Bible with Christians: the Old Testament. But while Christians believe that Jesus was a divine figure, an actual god, Jews believe that he was a prophet, but not a god.
Sam: That's all?
Me: Well... that's the big one.
Eliza: Uh uh! Uh uh! They don't celebrate CHRISTMAS.
Me: Um, right. Because Christmas is about celebrating Jesus, right?
Judah: Oooooohhhhhh, I get it!
Sam: So Jews are basically a lot like us?
Me: Pretty much.
Sam: How come Hitler wanted to kill them so bad?
Me: I really don't know. I guess when you're looking for differences instead of similarities, little things can seem pretty big.
Judah: That's messed up. They're not even that different.
Me: True. But even if they were, no one deserves to live in fear like the Franks and Van Daans had to. No cultural or religious group, no matter how different, deserves to be exterminated.
Eliza: Miss Backes? Was Hitler insane or something?
Me: I don't know. I really don't.
Eliza: How could he kill all those people, for one little difference?
Judah: That's messed, yo.
Me: I agree.

07 March 2006

No Goat Left Behind

The school where I teach is in a pretty rural area of New Mexico, home to children of ranchers, farmers, and migrant workers. More than two-thirds of the students come into middle school unable to read at grade level, and (as I discuss below) at the high school level, 27% of the student body can't pass Algebra I. For two and a half years, I've told myself that it's because they're farm kids. They're ranch kids. This book larnin' doesn't much apply to their lives. And that's fine.

Because it's a rural school, many of the teachers also come from farms and ranches, and this time of year the school counselor often brings in baby goats that were born that morning and need special attention to live through the day. I love this about Moriarty. It reminds me of my own childhood, where my classmates would often bring in baby farm animals for show and tell. My elementary school saw everything from baby geese to baby horses -- kitties, pigs, goats, sheep, calves, puppies, etc. I feel very comfortable and happy in a school full of farm animals. (Insert joke about middle school being the perfect place for me, ha ha.) In my ideal world, there would be animals in every school. I think it's healthy, and of course Dewey et al advocate for making connections between school and "real" life.


Last Friday, one of my students informed me that the counselor had brought her "puppy" [GOAT!] to school. Which reminded me of last spring, when another of my students saw the Registrar's calico-colored goat tripping around the schoolyard and asked me, "Whose kitty is that?" I said, "Sweetie, cats don't have HOOVES."

Seriously? I'm supposed to make more than two years of growth in reading levels with farm kids who can't even tell the difference between a CAT and a GOAT??


-- Ms. Backes, this class is pretty bad, huh?
-- Mmmm.
-- Are you going to put us all in ISS?
-- No, but I might just quit my job and run away to Mexico. And then you'll be stuck with a mean teacher who will yell at you.
-- What?? NOOOOOOO!! You guys, get to work or Ms. Backes will run away!
-- You can't run away, Ms. Backes! You're my favorite teacher!
-- Yeah Ms. Backes, you have to be here so I can have you next year after I flunk 8th grade!
-- How flattering.


The New Mexico PED (public education department) just handed down requirements that students be able to pass Algebra, Algebra II, and Geometry in order to graduate. But. 27% of the students at MHS can't even pass Algebra, much less Geometry and Algebra II. So increasing numbers of students are opting to drop out and just get their GEDs. Which would be fine, except for the fact that drop-out rates and graduation rates affect adequate yearly progress (AYP) under NCLB, so as long as we have such a high drop-out rate, there's literally no way we can make AYP, but as long as we require that the student body make it all the way through Algebra II in order to graduate -- when on the GED all they have to do is basic skills -- our drop out rates will remain high. And the thing is, [ Nathand], a great number of our kids *will* grow up to be mechanics and waitresses and small business owners and ranchers and moms. Is it right to force these kids to take Algebra II when they honest-to-god will never use it? Why can't they take an alternate math -- we used to offer "Business Math I" and "Business Math II." Moreover, is it right to punish the 73% of the school who can pass Algebra because the 27% chooses not to put up with the hoop-jumping bullshit and takes their future into their own hands? As long as the GED kids are dropping out, our school will never make AYP, and within a number of years -- two, three -- our high school will be at the highest level of "school improvement," meaning that the government can come in and replace the entire staff of Moriarty High School. At which point, I sincerely believe, the government is just as likely as not to outsource that job to independent corporate contractors (think "rebuilding" Iraq) and suddenly our school will be just another franchise in a long line of failing schools.