Thursday, March 31, 2011

East LA Dictionary


A sampling of the vocabulary I have picked up while working in East Los Angeles, with proper usage illustrated by real student quotes:

DOWN (adj.): cool, good, great.  May be enhanced by the addition of –assed.
            “That is one down-assed bike!”

COME OUT (v.): be seen in, appear in.
“Yo, did Kid Cudi come out in that song?”

1.     (adj.) Bad, uncool
2.     (interjection) A word used to express general disapproval
“This essay has to include three sources?! Broke!”

1.     (v.) to fight, compete
2.     (interjection) a phrase used to challenge another person
“You think can play chess?  Step up, fool!”

FRESH (adj.)
1.     Well-dressed, stylish.
“It’s free dress tomorrow, so come fresh.”
2.     Cold
“Mister, I thought you said we were supposed to have one glass of salt water and one glass of fresh water, but these are both warm.”

Some words I reasonably expected my students would know, but many don’t:
Increase, Decrease, Data, Statistic, Ratio, Free (in any usage other than gratis), Power Plant, Biology

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Kids Say the Darndest Things 4

Warning -- Explicit content this time.  May not be safe for the kids.

After I taught a round of sex ed last Fall, I've been using the curriculum I developed to talk to the freshman (who only receive sex ed once a week during PE).  Another teacher and I split our two advisories into boys and girls and have single-gender talks; I take the boys (we tried the opposite arrangement one week, but it led to crickets for me and chaos for her).

In my sex talks, I try to front-load the awkwardness and get it out of the way.  I give my little speech: "For the next few minutes, I expect you to act like adults, and I'm going to talk to you like adults.  If anyone feels uncomfortable, they are free to leave at any time.  So if you can't handle me saying words like 'penis', 'vagina', and 'orgasm', I suggest you get out."  Here the class giggles, then chew one another out for giggling -- "Hey man, are you not mature enough?" -- and, usually, we're ready to proceed, giggle free.

I answer any and all questions.  I have fielded queries on topics as diverse as the location of the clitoris, the disputed existence of the G-spot, the cause of "morning wood," the evolutionary utility of female orgasm (or lack thereof), the cross-species rates of homosexuality, and so on. As long as students aren't being deliberately vulgar, sexist, or homophobic, then I'll answer it all.

I think it's important that, in this very closed-mouth community, these young men have a male figure who they feel that they can come to with questions.  Plus I get to push my radical gay-people-aren't-going-to-hell-and-it's-not-okay-to-beat-women agenda.

Naturally, I get some interesting questions:

"So... the man is always on top, right?"

Student: "Uh... Mister?  Do girls always have camel toe?"
Me: [thinking that he is referring to the fashion faux-pas] "You mean, do all girls... wear their pants too high?"
Student: "No I mean... the shape.  Is it always shaped like that down there?"
Me: "You're asking if all girls have labia?"
Student: "Yes."
Me: "Then yeah."

Student [raises hand]
Me: "Yes, Jose?"
Student: "Hey Mister, I totally nutted on a girl's face one time!"
Me: "It's time to leave the room, Jose."

Me: " developmentally, the default path is female.  All fetuses start out that way..."
Male Student: "So... boys start out as girls?"
Me: "Yes, you can think of it that way."
Male Student [turning to neighbor, also male]: "Ha!  You totally used to be a girl, man!"

Female student: "Mr. N, is it bad when your vagina bleeds?"
Me: "Sure you want to ask this in front of the class?"
Female student: "Oh, not me!  It's my friend's vagina."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mr. N's Curmudgeonly Rant About Everything That is Wrong With the World Today / U-C-L-A Fight Fight Fight

I am very proud to announce, gentle reader, some good news: 6 of our graduating seniors were just admitted to UCLA.  If that doesn't sound like many, consider that it is over 10% of the class.  Suddenly we don't look like such a failing school after all, as long as you never step into a freshman English class.

When I breathlessly shared this news with my Mom, her response was (in kinder terms), how the hell is the same school that produces students who think it's acceptable to write an essay in text-message format also producing UCLA-calibur students?  It's an interesting question, and when boiled down to the skeleton, it becomes this: given the same environment, why do some succeed while others fail?

I don't pretend to know the answer to this question; it seems to fall into that mysterious category of inter-individual variation that we see in any biological community.  I should mention that these students do not represent the average at our school; these 6 students just-so-happened to be the AP Calculus class.

Holding income, family background, and so on constant, some students just seem to "get" school better than others.  Whether that quality is intelligence depends on whether you think that our school system has an accurate grasp on how smart our kids really are, whether forcing students to sit at a desk and passively absorb information necessarily weeds out those budding intellectuals who can't seem to sit still, etc. etc.

And I submit that, for those students who "get" school, a small, college-focused charter is a pretty damn good place to be.  The teachers are young, cool, and sexy (kidding about that last one).  College is mentioned every few minutes, and, for those who actually see an academic career in their future, it really can be an empowering message.  Everyone knows your name and your business and greets you in the hallway -- how did babysitting your cousin go last night?  How's that community college class you're taking? and so on.

The Tardigrade -- My favorite animal

In an environment like our campus, the kids who "get" school don't necessarily have to choose between smart and popular.  Kids routinely come to me to ask for extra work, and I happily edit their poems and journals, guide them through college-level genetics textbooks, or discuss with them our mutual fascination for the Tardigrade during biology class (look it up -- you won't be disappointed, promise).

That's not to say that we're an elite, streamlined operation that churns kids out to the Ivy Leagues -- at least half of our students don't meet the description I'm making, and we're fighting an uphill battle when you look out the window and see the dirty, spray-painted sidewalks, and realize that many of our students can't name a single book they enjoy (one sample exchange: Me: "You don't have any favorite books?  Or magazines?" Girl: "Well... I read MySpace... and text messages.").  Nor do they know a single person who's been to college, or really register what college attendance means; they know the odds are stacked against them, but they don't know what they're supposed to be fighting for.  Rich kids know a secret poor kids don't -- college is fun.


The saddest part of all, I think, is that the way our educational system is set up, I have to sort of waste everyone's time.  My class moves along at a fairly plodding pace, which is necessary to avoid losing the bottom half of the class, but bores the bejeezus out of the top half.  The brutal irony is, however, that the bottom half don't really seem to want to go to college anyway.  I believe that biology is the most elegant subject in the entire world, and I revel in telling my students about the classic experiments, the great heroes, the the staggering weight of the knowledge yet to be uncovered -- and still, I acknowledge that the majority of the world doesn't really need to know it, beyond a basic level of familiarity.

Obviously I am not advocating cutting students off from scientific literacy -- heaven forbid less Americans believe in evolution and global warming than do now -- but the level of rigor of the standards I have to teach is ridiculous.  Plumbers and roofers do not need to be able to explain the function of mitochondrial membranes in cellular respiration, but the state of California certainly loves to pretend that they do.

I'm sure 100% of my readers remember how these work, right?

If it were up to me, by high school students would be tracked into two separate categories: academic and vocational.  While this would make the majority of educators today terribly squeamish, if you honestly asked each of our students if they wanted to go to college, I firmly believe that about a fourth of our students would say "no" (and this is, recall, at a school that parents had to choose to send their kids to, with the expectation that it would be a college-prep environment).  I do not mean that we should separate students into haves and have-nots, but this idea we have of college attendance being the ultimate goal for every student is (a) logistically impossible given the number of colleges today, (b) demeaning to students who don't get in, or don't want to, and (c) barring the non-scholars from getting relevant education and experience that would enable them to get solid jobs and join the middle class.

But for the rest of them, finding out that in college you can go to a keg party and call it "networking" will be a welcome surprise.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Some English Guy Who Think's He's Better Than Everyone Else

           Two weeks into my teaching career, a student interrupted me to tell me that my voice made me sound like I “was a robot, or some English guy who thinks he’s better than everyone” – and that was coming from a student who liked me.  He then proceeded to ask me about my heritage, and upon finding out, he exclaimed “Wow!  I’ve never met a just white person before!”

I may be a robot but... I love you.  *Beep Boop*

            Since then, I’ve been asked about my voice several times, most recently by a freshman who wanted to know if I was “from Europe.”  I am from northern California.
            Granted, this is not the first time I’ve gotten questions like these.  Once, a bank teller interrupted me in the middle of my sentence – “So I’d like to cash a ch-“ – with a rather pointed question: “Uh, so where are you from?”  This caught me slightly off-guard, and I answered with an upward inflection at the end to signal my confusion.  “Oh,” she said, “I thought you were, like, from Australia or something.”  Then, she had the nerve to not even laugh when I awkwardly launched into a Crocodile Hunter impression, god rest his soul.

            This experience notwithstanding, it feels odd to be treated like a foreigner; the great irony is that the way my students speak would be perceived as “foreign” by the vast majority of people in this country.  “Meestur, can I go restroom?” is a phrase I hear at least once a day.  In my training with Teach for America, we had numerous diversity-themed sessions in which it was drilled into us, over and over again, that the communities we were entering would be alien to us, that there would be culture shock, and so on, but not once was it mentioned that my students would have to acclimate to me as much as I to them.
            In my credentialing classes, people never use the phrase “Standard English” without making finger quotes around the former word.  I understand my fellow journeyman teachers’ desire to appear sensitive, but I think that education classes are completely out-of-touch with reality in this case; the reality that our students don’t speak English, and desperately need to learn it.

"Finger Quotes"

            The current hypersensitivity surrounding language and culture in education classes is a rejection of an earlier model of teaching in which teachers thought of their craft as a process of purging misinformation out of students’ heads while filling it up with correct information.  When the “information” in question is cultural, this invites disdain on the teacher’s part.  I’m being abstract here, but what it really means is that an “old-school” teacher (and, probably, the majority of Americans) would blame a child who didn’t write well on stupidity and laziness, with no understanding of the deeper issues that led to that lack of ability.
            “Of course our Latino students don’t speak Standard English as well as the rich white kids,” the thinking goes.  “They don’t have parents who went to college, they don’t go to museums or listen to NPR, and they don’t have private tutors.  What we need to do is celebrate the language they have attained, instead of trying to foist one on them that has arbitrarily been designated as better.”  Therefore, instead of discussing how to teach Standard English to our students, we hold long discussions about how Black English (a.k.a. ebonics) is a fully-developed language on par with any other, and may even be a legitimate language of instruction.

NPR tote bag: Not often seen in East LA

            Except that newspapers aren’t written in ebonics, and while education classes may recognize its complex and consistent internal structure, that doesn’t matter to employers.  There is nothing terribly wrong with acknowledging that our students are not stupid and lazy, but we run the risk of allowing our sympathy with our students’ plight to become an excuse for coddling them.  We can recognize that it’s not their fault that they don’t speak Standard English and still expect that they will, and should, learn it.  If we fail to do this, we are denying them access to power.  The brand of cultural sensitivity endorsed by my school of education is encouraging me to stunt my students’ potential.
            The best way to build true understanding with our students is to be fully transparent about why we expect them to speak a foreign language in our classrooms.  A student in my writing class began an essay with “Ummm so imma write about…”.  I pulled him aside and said, “This is unacceptable.  You know you can’t write the way you speak, don’t you?”  He was confused by this, and demanded to know why – what was wrong with using familiar words?  Why wouldn’t I allow him to speak his own language?  “Because,” I said, “other people will think that you’re stupid, whether you are or not.”  If that makes me sound like an English guy who thinks he’s better than everyone else, then kiss my arse, guv’nuh. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"That's Racist, Mister"

Rarely a day goes by in the classroom that I don't hear those words uttered by one of my students.  They consider even the most mundane trivialities to be part of some grand, covert plot of racial oppression, including:

  • Being asked to move seats when talking
  • Being assigned homework
  • Having to take a quiz
  • Mention of the color of anything, animate or inanimate (e.g. "Some peppered moths are white, while others are black.")
However, my students seem to have no qualms with comparing me to nearly any dweeby-looking white guy with a big nose and curly hair.  

While I understand that it might be informative to post an actual picture of myself, as some of my readers might not know what I look like, this is not possible due to privacy concerns, and also completely unnecessary, given that if anyone were reading this besides my Facebook friends, that book deal would be in the mail already.

And so, a short list of people to whom my students have compared me:

Linguini of Ratatouille
By far one of the more popular choices; this was a favorite pick for students' suggestions for my Halloween costume.  I decided to be Ash Ketchum instead.  As much as I am loath to admit it, I do see where they're coming from.

Daniel Tosh of "Tosh.0"
Sorry kids, I just don't get this one.  He and I do share a love of cardigans, but I have yet to wear one of those to school.  

Mark Zuckerberg
Another one that, admittedly, makes sense.  No offense to Mr. Zuckerberg, but I do get a bit testy when students tell me I act like him as well.  Depending on whether one is going off of the Social Network interpretation of Mr. Zuckerberg or his real-life behavior, this is equivalent to saying that I am (a) a misogynistic dickhead or (b) boring (respectively).

Young, Pre-Op Patrick Dempsey
By far my most flattering comparison, and this one from a parent to boot!  Again, I completely get this one, although it does feel like being compared to the "before" in a before/after ad (you know, the one shot in black and white that shows the frowning fat guy getting something out of a fridge).

Steve from "Blue's Clues"

Jackie Chan in "The Legend of Drunken Master"
Admittedly, this one didn't come from a student, but it is my first inter-racial comparison, so that's significant in itself.  Plus, the hair-coiff is pretty true-to-life.

Possibly Unflattering Drawing, Anonymous
This one is courtesy of the algebra teacher at my school, who found it tucked into a stack of papers submitted by her class.  The lack of devil horns and other accoutrements leads me to believe that this was not meant to be insulting.  It's just inadvertently so.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

El Profesor Gringo

"Hey!  Hey Senor!  Hola!  DO... YOU... SPEAK... ENGLISH?!"

            It is a running joke in my third-period biology class that I have an extensive vocabulary in Spanish but a terrible accent.  The students love hearing me teach in Spanish and beg me to do it.  I will occasionally stop in the middle of a lesson and look up Spanish technical words so I can continue; in a lesson on reproduction, I talked about espermios, √≥vulos, y chromosomas, to the delight of my students.  It’s not something I do every day, but every once in a while I’ll treat them to a few minutes of my gringo accent.
            My (admittedly limited) understanding of the language is also an asset for parent conferences; most of the parents of our students do not speak English, and translators aren’t always available.  At our most recent round of parent conferences, I was feeling especially ballsy, and when our principal dropped off a middle-aged, Spanish-speaking woman at my table, I decided not to wait for a translator.  She’d be blown away by how effortlessly I could use subjunctive tense while explaining how bad her son’s GPA was!
Not related, I just know you don't like long blocks of text.

            And it was very bad.  Her son, Jesus, had failed Math Lab and Writing Lab, which were intended to be remedial courses, had a C- in Algebra I, and a C- in Spanish, which barely seemed possible, given that it was (evidently) his home language.
            I tried to soften the blow a bit by talking about how “nice” and “respectful” her son was, which was true, although he was also an enormous space-case with butt-length hair who seemed to be stoned out of his gourd most of the time.  He was undeniably talented in music and art, and I commented on this as well; his mother’s surprise at hearing that her stoner, musician son had musical talent triggered a few alarm bells, given that I have barely heard him express interest in anything else, yet I brushed this aside.
            At this point, I was feeling eminently pleased with myself for conducting the meeting entirely in Spanish.  The woman was hanging on each slightly-mispronounced word, and it was time to really show her what a fantastic human being I was.
            “The thing is,” I said, still in my mostly-correct-and-totally-impressive Spanish, “I’m just Jesus’ advisor.  You’re the real expert on him and his needs, and I want you to tell me anything I can do to more fully support him.”  And yes, ladies and gentlemen, I used the famous para que clause and the present subjunctive tense; the most elusive of all second-semester Spanish skills.

My old nemesis.

            She paused at this, slightly puzzled.  “Hmm… no, no.  Nothing for now.”  Gesturing to herself, she added  “Do you, um… do you know Barbara?”
            At this point, I realized I had skipped introductions entirely.  I warmly shook her hand.  This was easily the best meeting I had ever conducted.
            “There is one thing,” she said.  “I’m worried because my daughter just has one more year here, and she’s failing so many classes…”.
            Daughter?  What daughter?  “You mean, Jesus’ sister?”
            A look of complete surprise flashed over her face, and then she erupted with laughter.  “You mean… you’re not Barbara’s advisor?”
            Suddenly, I realized what had happened.  I had been talking for 15 minutes to this woman about the wrong kid.  We both laughed, because what else could we do?  Apparently I had given her quite a scare; her daughter was college-bound and wasn’t failing any classes.  She had just assumed that I was using the incorrect gender pronouns the entire time.

            The principal had made a simple mistake; there is a female teacher at my school with the female equivalent of my name, and that was Barbara’s real advisor.  Why the mother didn’t initially question the fact that the middle-aged woman she was used to talking to had morphed into a young man is beyond me, but I suppose she wanted to be polite.
            Word quickly spread to the students that I had conducted a parent meeting with the wrong parent.  I did manage to salvage the situation by acting as a translator between the mother and the correct advisor, which swelled my temporarily-deflated pride in my language abilities back to their former oversized levels.