Pulling on Superman's Cape

The four labels that define me best are: mother, teacher, lesbian-feminist and Orthodox Jew. My life has always been about breaking through the constraints of labels and definitions. You will find much here to challenge all of your preconceptions of what those labels mean.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Failure of the American Educational System, Part 2

Welcome back, Welcome back to the place you used to be... (to the tune of "Welcome Back, Kotter). I have been over-worked for the last year and a half but I am back now. I hope to blog once a month as a minimum, no promises of course, just a goal I want to meet.

During the 2005-6 school year I was a teacher for the public schools in my city. During that year, I was what was known as a cadre. No, I was not cloned into a small army of educational experts (although clearly the higher-ups in the city's public school system never looked up the word "cadre" in the dictionary). I was a substitute teacher who was assigned to one school. As part of this deal I was paid more than a regular substitute and they guaranteed me work everyday. I should have realized for a pot this sweet there would be a catch. There was. The school which we shall call "C"was in an underserved part of town. (Wasn't I polite just now? ;-) ). Anyway, I wasn't worried about the neighborhood, nor was I concerned with working with "poor" children. When I had lived in California I worked at schools where the vast majority of the children were on the federal free lunch program and a number of them were the children of migrant farm workers. Labor that is so difficult and pays so little US citizens would rather collect welfare than work as migrant farm labor. It is only illegal immigrants who cannot get welfare that are willing to work under these conditions. But that is an issue for another post. This post is about the conditions at "C".

So here I am working as a substitute teacher but always in this one school. I get to know the kids since I am at the same school everyday and I get to know the families since I taught everything from Headstart to 8th grade at this school. Most of the classes had between 20 and 25 students. Good numbers for teachers. There is only one class of each grade. Except 6th grade, which had 41 students. Why 41 students? Well, for a couple of reasons. See, 6th graders can't pass into 7th grade unless they pass the district wide assessment (each district in this state can choose its own district wide assessment), which in this school district happens to be a standardized test. So, even if you get "A's" all year in school you can't go to 7th grade unless you pass the test. Kids who can't pass the test tend to bottle-neck in 6th grade. And good thing too, because we can't have kids going on to middle school who can't pass these sorts of tests, it will hurt them in the future, I hear you cry. And I might buy that argument if these kids actually got help in how to pass the tests , but of course they did not. Now don't get me wrong here, I do not think any of the 41 kids in the class had straight A's for the entire year and then flunked the test, but if they had they would have been held back and there were certainly kids who could have gone on to 7th grade based on their classroom grades and were held back because of test scores.

But the issue I really want to talk about is not why there were 41 kids in the classroom, but the fact that there were 41 kids in one classroom. Anyone who knows anything about schools can tell you that you can not teach 41 kids sitting in one classroom. There are just too many of them. The kids are too crowded; discipline can't be maintained. So why not split the class into a class of 20 and a class of 21? That would make sense now wouldn't it? Because the system doesn't allow for splitting classes into classes that small. The city public school department assigned teachers on the average size of the classroom for the school. Remember how I said that most of the other classes were 20-25 students, well that meant that on average the school had very small classes and no matter how hard the school's administration tried they could not get another teacher assigned to the building. In the end they got around such a stupid rule by claiming they needed a cadre and when all of the teachers were at school, I worked with the 6th grade teacher to help her maintain discipline enough so she could teach.

The forty-one students in the same classroom were so crowded (despite having the largest classroom in the building) that they probably could not have all exited in the event of a fire (God forbid!) safely. Mostly I can't get over the stupidity of the
bureaucracy that can't see 41 children in one classroom, but can only see the "average classroom population" in a building for the purpose of assigning teachers. This is exactly what is wrong with the American educational system, we spend too much time looking at averages and not enough time looking at individuals.

Your comments are welcome.

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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Please do not feed the Orthodox!!

The letter "K" does not mean that something is kosher!!! It means that the manufacturer thinks that if he/she puts a "K" on the package you will think it is kosher, or it is a shelving code, or it is an homage to the package designer's 5 year old daughter, or any number of other things. But it does not mean that it is kosher! Of course, the product might be kosher. There are many kosher products that do bear the plain letter "K" on them, but the "K" does not mean they are kosher. They are kosher and they have a "K". They are not kosher because they have a "K". What really gets me going is not that so many non-Jews and non-Orthodox Jews do not understand this. I can forgive them for not understanding because I assume they were never taught the difference between the letter "K" and a heksure (a trademarked seal used by an agency that oversees kashrut supervision), or why a product needs an actual heksure to begin with. I blame their "rabbis".

If you are the spiritual and educational leader of a group of people, it makes sense that you would research what you teach about rather than just spew forth uninformed opinions about another group's practices. As readers of this blog know, I am an Orthodox Jew, and an unapologetic one at that. However, I teach Judaic studies and Hebrew language at a non-Orthodox synagogue. I would not/do not attend services where I teach. I am not part of their movement. I do not expect to bring their children to synagogue where I go to services. I am not teaching them MY brand of Judaism either. I do not look at teaching there as an opportunity to discuss Jewish law, as the Orthodox interpret it. All of that would be deceptive and wrong. I expect the same curtsey in return. I, however, am dismayed when I attend a meeting at the school in which I am told that they went out of their way to get me kosher food and none of it is heksured. Therefore I cannot and do not eat any of it, which they choose to find insulting. If they had asked me I would have happily explained the situation to them, but I will not compromise what I see as a commandment from God Almighty to save their feelings. I am not in the least nasty or strident, I will not comment unless asked, but if I am asked I am truthful.

When I invite people to my house who have not eaten here before I am careful to explain that while everything is kosher, I do keep chalav stam (I will use milk produced in the US that is not overseen by Jews, as long as it is heksured); just in case my intended guests only eat chalav Yisroel (milk from Jewish sources). I also do not keep strictly glatt kosher (although one has to seek out non-glatt meat with a reliable heksure on it, which I do not. I buy what is available). For the same reason, if my intended guest keeps strictly glatt kosher they may not consider my house kosher enough. That is ok. I am rarely insulted. The difference here is that I am sensitive to what might be an issue for my guests and ask.

Please do not do me any favors. Don't tell me that you want me to eat at your event unless you are willing to find out what that involves. It is far easier for me to eat at home, then to feel obligated to find the one item at your event I can eat without compromising my principals so that I can save your feelings.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Who is living a Torahdik life now?

Arthur Miller is said to have written Death of a Saleman as his answer to a bet or a dare that a true American tragedy could not be written. I do not know if Death of a Salesman fit the requirements of a tragedy or not, but I know that what is happening to Rabbi Alan Stadtmauer in the name of Torah Judaism is certainly a tragedy.

I am appalled, but not surprrised that Rabbi Stadtmauer thought it necessary to not only leave his post as Principal of a NY yeshiva high school before coming out, but that he left an observant lifestyle. I am only slightly appalled at Rabbi Stadtmauer. I am far more appalled at his community.

This is not to say that I am in any way surprised that he felt it necessary to leave his community. Many gay and lesbian Jews have been taught that a frum lifestyle is incompatable with living as an out gay person. While I have been out for almost 20 years and I have been frum for more than 10, I would never say that it is easy. For about the first 5 years or so, I would say that I got more garbage from the gay community for being a frum Jew, than I got from the Jewish community for being gay. I no longer say that, because I have had to put up with a lot more garbage from the Jewish community. Of course, the Conservative and other movement shuls are always delighted to have me (I feel a lot like Groucho Marx, not wanting to join the club that would have me as a member.), but I am not interested in eating at the home of people who do not keep kosher to the standards I do or who think that the Torah was a human document, etc.

I do not blame Rabbi Stadtmauer for leaving frumkiet. Despite all the "rabbis' stories" about people being visited by angels because they kept Shabbos on a desert island and sang all of the Shabbos z'meriot (songs) alone; it is very difficult to do. I have more than once been invited to a shul only to find myself at kiddush being studiously ignored. "Don't look at the Pink Elephant children, if you ignore her long enough, she might go away." Now, I could understand their attitude if I were say an embezzeler (we had one in Jewish community here, no one made them feel uncomfortable in shul), or an adulterer, or had committed some other sin. My only "sin" has been that I am the victim of lashon hara (gossip, the eveil tongue)*.

But back to Rabbi Stadtmauer. It is a shanda (embarrassment) that the Jewish community should make anyone feel unwelcome (especially during the month of Elul), but to ostercize a Rabbi, someone you used to respect! Well, that takes chutzpah. The frum community needs to remember that just because he is gay, does not mean that he is committing averiot (sins). Certain acts are averiot, not states of being.

To be continued...

*If you are incline to write me and tell me that if I am in fact a lesbian than it is not lashon hara to spread that news around town, then you are sadly mistaken. Lashon Hara is when you spread gossip that is true! Motzei Shem Ra is when you spread gossip that is not true.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Why "Pulling on Superman's Cape"

Why "Pulling on Superman's Cape"?

In the 1972 Jim Croce song, "You don't Mess Around with Jim", the singer tells Slim:

You don't pull on Superman's cape
You don't spit in the wind
You don't pull the mask from the Ol' Lone Ranger
And you don't mess around with Jim

It is sort of a metaphor for not fighting city hall. In the song Slim does not heed the advice of the singer, he does "mess" with Jim and in the end Slim gets what he came for.

I don't plan on leaving this mortal coil until I get what I came for. Hang on, it is going to be one long, strange trip (drugs not included).

Failure of the American Educational System, Part 1

The following is a true story. I was there.

If you have read my profile you know that I am a teacher. When I was doing my student teaching we had a transfer student assigned to our mult-cultural, mult-lingual (mother toungue multi-lingual, the language of instruction was English) public school classroom. Nothing unusual, so far. The resource teacher came to us (me and the master teacher) to warn us that this student currently qualified for services. "Currently"? Was she about to lose her acess to resource services I asked? Yes, she might, see she (we will call her Dora) was currently listed as mentally retarded, but the resource teacher believed that she wasn't actually mental retarded. The resource teacher believed that she was of low but normal intelligence and had known so little English when she took the intelligence test that she showed up as mentally retarded, even though she wasn't.

So what is the big difference between being mentally retarded and of low intelligence? Afterall, what label they placed on Dora did not have any effect on what she could do in class. A fourth grader who needs a physical object (like cubes) to figure out an addition problem is not suddenly going to be able to perform addition in the abstract because we label her as having a normal level of intelligence. The big difference is whether or not Dora qualifies for additional services to help learn addition in the fourth grade.

To qualify for additional services like resource help, a child has to have a defined disability (for instance cerebal palsy or mental retardation) or be working two grade levels below their intelligence level. Dora did math at a first grade level. If she was mentally retarded she qualified for services because that is a defined disability. If she had normal intelligence (i.e. was capable of fourth grade math, just did not know it) she would have qualified for services, because she was achieving at more than two grade levels below her abilities. However, Dora wasn't mentally retarded she was just...well...stupid (low intelligence, if you prefer) and therefore she was working at the level of her abilities. So, she recieved no services at all.

Now, I can hear all of you saying, "Well, if she can't learn why should we waste precious (in the sense of scarce and limited) resources on her?" But that is not the end of the story. See we really do not know what Dora would ever be capable of because of two factors. One, is her parents. Where were her parents in all of this you say. Why aren't they fighting for their precious child's educational rights? Easy. Remember I told you, dear reader, that Dora was a transfer student? She was transfering because she had been reassigned custodial parentage. Her mother, who had been her custodial parent, was going to jail so she was being transferred to the custody of her father. Good, he must be the better parent, right? Well not really, see Dora hardly knew her father because he had only been recently released from jail and the last time he had spent any time with her before she had been placed in his custody she was a baby. These parents just did not have the skills to advocate for their child even if they had the language skills and knowledge that such advocacy would make a difference. But there is another reason that Dora was consigned to failure by the system.

Social promotion. We do not have the resources to educate every child to the highest level of that child's abilities. (We also do not have the knowledge of how to do that in anything but a one-to-one teacher-student ratio, but that is another article) So despite the fact that Dora is working out of a first grade reading book and doing first grade math, she has to do so in a fourth grade classroom. The fourth grade teacher has no additional help nor resources to assist Dora in making the transition to fourth grade work. The system has given up on Dora. She will be allowed to slide along falling farther and farther behind until she drops out. If the fourth grade teacher offers her additional help, it will come at the expense of the other students. Either she will help Dora after school and have less time for lesson planning or grading papers; or she will help Dora during class which means less time for the other students in her class.

The teacher cannot win in this situation and neither can Dora, all because of a label change.

Education is supposed to be about more than labels, too bad no one in Sacramento, CA ever met Dora.