Damped and Driven

Antiquis temporibus, nati tibi similes in rupibus ventosissimis exponebantur ad necem
March 30, 2008, 5:59 pm
Filed under: School

So the other day after my 3rd hour, which didn’t go so hot (shit-show), my neighboring teacher called me over and said he had a poster which needed to be in every classroom. Mel was there also as she borrows my computer cart that hour. The poster was in Latin- she studied Latin in college and i’ve studied it a bit. So we set about trying to decipher it. We didn’t get very far before he told us what it meant:

In the good old days, children like you were left to perish on windswept crags.

Wow. Pretty much encapsulated what i was feeling at that moment after a crappy class, it was perfect. Sometimes class is just not fun and thats how it is, but don’t worry sometimes class its really great too. On the one hand i wouldn’t want to post something as negative as that on my wall. On the other, they wouldn’t know what it meant…

I hate how sensationalist some of this sounds.
March 25, 2008, 10:16 am
Filed under: School

Thinking about my last post, i wanted to sort of mollify it with a comment or two. Sometimes i really don’t like/regret talking to people about how things are here (on the rez) because when we talk about it or write about it to someone on the outside it sounds so sensationalist; I think it sounds a lot worse than things really are. I fear thats how my post from the other day came across. I’ve chatted with Darius and others about this problem and thought i ought to address it in a blog entry and see if i can tease out some understanding.

One factor is that, like it or not, i think everybody is a rubber-necker. Our attention is grabbed by the unfortunate situations, the bad things, the craziness. Isn’t that why people watch NASCAR, and why those charity telethons always have video of pitiful children with flies on their faces? It’s terrible i know, but you can’t not look, at least for a bit. I think that same phenomena may be partly responsible when people talk about the rez, part of why the crazy stuff inevitably comes up.

Another issue i think is the inadequacy and limitations of language (writing or speaking over the phone to someone). It’s hard to soften the edges, explain the intricacies, the real situation, from afar. It’s not so accurate to talk about people when the person you’re talking to can’t talk to those people. It’s also a lot more difficult to convey the small successes, the regular, normal, school-as-you-would-recognize-it features of things, than the things out of the ordinary. But those don’t make the most provocative posts and as a result i think are not equally represented in the scheme of things.

For example say I mention something like a student stormed out of class today and gave me the finger. Say that discussion occupies half the time you talk about school. It’s not representative of the situation as a whole. For me that would only be the behavior of about 1.3% of my students, and only a few minutes out of a whole day, <1% of the day. It’s not an accurate picture of the day as a whole, but describing how we worked on the same lesson about kinetic and potential energy in all my classes isn’t very interesting.

Another thing is the indelibleness (is that a word?) of writing or talking about it. If you’re talking to someone or writing and you mention something bad, like “a student was high today in class,” that post is a permanent record and it paints a picture, a more lasting stain of a picture than actual interaction with people does.

We’re all messed up in one way or another. It just isn’t all documented, talked about. I dunno, so in reflection it makes me a bit uncomfortable. Does that makes any sense!? Maybe this post is just another piece of evidence to what i’m talking about. It can be hard to get across exactly what you mean through writing.

So today something i had dreaded finally happened,
March 18, 2008, 11:13 pm
Filed under: School

but first a little back-story:

Our district is blessed to have a lot of monetary resources and fair bit of that goes toward technology. Most schools are not this fortunate in this way, but the circumstances here are acute enough, and the percentage of native students high enough that we get a lot of federal support, in the form of dollars poured on problems. Also it helps that the district has an excellent grant writer who’s managed to help to channel a lot of that federal money our way. Although all the technology helps in some ways, i’m not convinced that money couldn’t have been spent in better ways.

Anyway, so there is a lot of technology in the district, lots of smart boards and computers, not exactly what you expect on the front lines of educational inequality. We don’t have 30 children sharing one textbook or computers with floppy(5.25 inch) drives. The challenges are different. In my classroom this technology is manifest in a cart of 20 MacBooks. These are pretty nice machines, and i have 20 of them. I have no class that has that many students. I’ve always been a bit paranoid about using them, because it can be hard to manage. Some of the kids have a knack for doing exactly what they’re not supposed to be doing on a computer. Also, they’re expensive and after the number of them that have gotten stolen in past years, teachers are now responsible if they turn up missing.

Today, i had an assignment (that only a couple of students were working on) where they were supposed to do some research on the web about different kinds of energy resources. We’re learning about energy in terms of physics this unit and i had really wanted to work in a little bit about where our energy comes from, renewable energy, etc.

Anyway, at the end of 1st hour, as i was cleaning up for 2nd hour, I went to close the computer cabinet and #10 was not there. I looked around, a student must have left it on a desk or something. Nope, hmm, must be under some papers, did they hide it? No? I scoured the room and my mind, where did it go? Shit! The students who had been working on the computers were really good kids, i couldn’t imagine that they had swiped a computer. WTF?

I qc’d our tech person and told her the situation. She told me who to talk to and i informed them too. So during the next class period the wheels were turning. They interviewed the students who had used the computers and still nothing. At the end of 2nd period, an announcement over the intercom: Teachers hold your students in the room and account for all your students, i.e. lock-down.

Security went through and opened student lockers in search of the missing computer while students were held in their classes. It turned up (WHEW) but that meant that one of my students stole a computer(BUMMER).  I got it back, hes on his way to jail, and it saddens me. He’s a goofy kid, not a great student, but not a mean one either. I never imagined he’d swipe something. From what i gather, he was in a spot and desperate. I can only imagine the predicament he was in. I only hope this bad experience serves as a lesson and sets him back on the good path.

Grading Papers Breaks my Soul
March 13, 2008, 7:58 pm
Filed under: School

Right now i’m halfway through my 2nd hour’s papers with 3rd,5th,6th,7th to go and thought i’d take a break and write a post about grading papers.

So i think i would probably enjoy teaching orders of magnitude more if i didn’t have to grade papers, juggle papers, swim in papers, deal with papers. It’s not difficult or challenging; its the opposite of stimulating. Its just boring, mind-numbing, soul-crushing, dolorous tedium. And the best part is that it never ends. Theres always more assignments going out and theres always late work fluttering in from all corners.

That was something that didn’t come across in the petri dish that is institute. You are absorbed by your ONE class of students, the novelty of it. Just wait until you’re teaching 6 classes instead of 1 and have 6x as many students, 6x the paperwork. Yikes! When i could be planning and designing better lessons, that strength is sapped and spent swimming in papers. The good news is that you’ll learn to design efficient assignments in a hurry.

Following politics in a very rural very red state with the last possible primary date
March 11, 2008, 5:54 pm
Filed under: Not School, Science and Other Nerdiness

I don’t know that much about politics, and feel i should really do my homework in preparation for the upcoming election, but can’t seem to scratch out time to do much. I find all the information a bit overwhelming, and can get cynical about the process, but i have poked around and thought i should share a few tidbits that i’ve come across related to politics in South Dakota.

Lets start at the beginning: The word ‘politics’ is derived from the word ‘poly’, meaning ‘many’, and the word ‘ticks’, meaning ‘blood sucking parasites’. As compelling a definition that is, its actually just a quote of the day credited to Larry Hardiman, although it does do a good job of informing you about my attitude about politics at times 😛

Anyway, what i actually learned.. So if you haven’t gathered, South Dakota, the happiness is a warm gun state, is quite a conservative place. When i started looking into this post, i decided to do a little research (thank you interweb and wikipedia) and figure out just how red it is. Let me preface this by saying that i don’t have much (hardly any) knowledge about political history and how the parties and their platforms have evolved, but i do know that it is a lot more complicated than red=republican=conservative, blue=democrat=liberal. Maybe this post could start some discussion.

Anyyyyyway, South Dakota became a state in 1889. Since then, from what i could find, it has voted Republican for every presidential election except for 5: most recently SD went democrat (Johnson) in 1964. Interestingly, that was one of the most lopsided presidential elections ever, with Johnson carrying 44 states, and getting 61.1 % of the popular vote, the highest percentage of the popular vote a candidate has ever gotten. Before that, SD went democrat for Franklin Roosevelt, in 1932 and 1936. These were desperate times and again these were some 2 of the most lopsided races in history. In 1932 Roosevelt grabbed 42 of 48 states, and in 1936 Roosevelt won all but Maine and Vermont, getting 60.8% of the popular vote, numbers hard to imagine today with the extremely close races we’ve had the last few times around. In 1912, SD didn’t go Republican but they did go for Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive (Bull Moose) party. Roosevelt had founded his third party after failing to get the Republican party nomination. In any case this was a republican-esque party and also a very strange election, interestingly and also depressing, the last election where a third party came in second in the electoral college. The only other time SD didn’t vote republican was shortly after it’s statehood in 1896; SD went for Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Bryan carried most all of the rural states in that election.

Conclusion: SD is a solidly conservative state, fair enough. However, i would argue/speculate that there is a pretty big difference between SD conservatives and the Religiously minded conservatives that have been so ripe for exploitation and vital to Republican success in the last two presidential elections. I think SD republicans are more of a libertarian variety, they want the government to leave them alone and they don’t want as much to impose a moral agenda on the rest of us or have one imposed on themselves.

It’s interesting, there are a few anomalies. One is that although SD has voted overwhelmingly for Republican presidents, we have also voted for a lot of democratic representatives to congress. SD is home to former Senate Minority leader and Majority leader Tom Daschle, and has had a lot of democratic representatives to congress. Currently we have Johnson and Herseth, both Democrats, and Thune, a Republican. The prevailing simple explanation is that although South Dakotans prefer to have federal leadership with Republican ideologies, they also prefer, as a sink of a state that draws a lot from the federal government, to have representatives who are more socialist minded, and can procure funds for the state.

Another interesting anomaly are the reservations. So if you look at the 2004 election, SD was overwhelmingly red, going for Bush 60% over Kerry 38%. However if you look at a map by county, it looks like this:


(Thanks CNN) Now notice those dark blue counties- The one in the south central part of the state is Todd county, the Rosebud Reservation, where I teach. That county went overwhelmingly Kerry (72%) over Bush (25%). The county a couple to the west of there is Shannon county, Where the Pine Ridge reservation is. It was even more lopsided there, 85% Kerry to 13% Bush, Wow! In fact if we look at a map that shows the reservations in South Dakota:


The pink areas are the reservations, and as you can see there is quite a correspondence. At the very least it shows you how the reservations are quite different than the rest of the state. As far as i understand, the reservations tend to vote democrat because they’re so dependent on federal money and so connected to welfare programs.

Another interesting thing about following politics in a small state like South Dakota is that while you may think your vote is worth less, it’s also worth more. This happens because the states population is so small. A state cannot have fewer than 2 senators and a rep to the House, but if all the representatives were alloted solely by population, states like SD would have even less than that. As a result, voters in South Dakota and other small states actually vote for ‘more’ of an electoral vote than voters in populous states.

To illustrate: in the 2004 presidential election, in SD there were something like 388,000 votes cast for 3 electoral votes, thats 7.7 x 10^-6 electors per voter, compared to MA where 2,912,000 votes were cast for 12 electoral votes, thats 4.1 x 10^-6 electors per vote. Dividing the two, that means, SD voters vote for 1.87, times as many electors as Massachusetts voters. Conclusion, SD voters get almost twice the representation in the electoral college than voters in Massachusetts. So thats neat, its cool to be a voter is SD!, until you stop to consider that most all of these small population states are very rural and conservative and this little curiosity helped to elect G W Bush.

And thats about it- I wish i would have gotten this post out earlier while there were still more primary races to follow, but there it is, thats most everything i could think of regarding the pecularities of following the presidential election in SD.One last thing: before the 2004 presidential election i had stumbled on a website that i really liked. It’s an independent site so it isn’t cluttered by all the advertisements or affiliated with any media corporations. Also, the site is very data-oriented which i enjoy, as i feel there isn’t a lot of fluff or speculation. The person behind the site does an excellent job of analyzing how the numerical data and trends in the vote talk to each other. Basically its quality and you should check it out:


Mandatory Free Lunch
March 9, 2008, 10:11 pm
Filed under: School

I was talking to one of my neighboring (adjacent classroom and neighbor; we live in a small community) teachers the other day. He’s from the area and has taught at the high school for I think over a decade. Anyway, he often has interesting insights and I like chatting with him about school and strategies for class. He mentioned something that i hadn’t really thought about before, but upon reflection is actually sort of strange: our kids aren’t allowed to bring lunch to school.

I imagine when you were in school you might have brought your pbj and an apple or whatever it was you brown-bagged, you probably brought your lunch to school at least sometimes. I know I did. Well, we don’t let students bring lunch to school. When students come into school, if they are carrying food, it gets confiscated. All students get lunch through the school and in fact most all of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Prevalence of free or reduced price lunch is a strong indicator of poverty, community poverty a strong indicator of academic achievement. Moral of the story, it was a reminder of the strangeness of this place and what we are here to try and help. Even so, if you’re provided with lunch you should probably be able to bring in your own lunch if you want to, weird.

I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.
March 5, 2008, 4:39 pm
Filed under: School

Theres TFA in a nutshell for you. I have a little ‘quote of the day’ app in my google homepage (yay again for google homepage) and i feel like that quote (by EB White incidentally) does a pretty good job of summarizing what this experience is about.

One of the things i most enjoy about this experience is the common vision shared by me and my TFA buddies. In college there were groups that i was in and friends that i had where we shared a vision, passion for things, but never have i been in a situation where most all of my social peers are this united. It can be a powerful motivating force. It’s interesting when everything we do (including crazy cathartic shenanigans) is done on top of the foundation that we are here to fight educational inequality. We are determined to change things.

I mean it isn’t all good. One of our main limitations is that we aren’t that well integrated into the community and the community can see that. They know many of us are only here for a short while and its a problem. Our schools would be better if there wasn’t such tremendous turnover. However, in many rural places, it can be difficult to find ANY teachers. That doesn’t mean we can’t take steps to get involved, (see my post on Lakota language), and i must admit many do a better job than I.

Another thing that this quote touches on that is central to teaching, and to life i’m beginning to think more and more, is planning. Teaching goes infinitely better if you are well planned. When i say well planned i mean you have a good long term plan and unit plans; with that in place, lesson plans will be easy. I think its sort of like driving in fog with the cruise control on if you’re not well planned. You can’t really see whats ahead, you can maybe get lucky and get by in the short run, but the unexpected can pop up at any time and throw you off course. Not to mention, its a stressful way to go.

At the same time, i am a firm believer in in-action plans. I think its important to have time that is not structured, time for spontaneity. For me, thats a big part of what ‘having a hell of a good time’ is. From racing outhouses to brass monkeys to scrambling around in the badlands, these are the necessary and ridiculous things that keep me charged and excited enough to be a teacher. ‘Sometimes it can make planning my days difficult’