December 30, 2006

so, what do I think? #1

I teach high school math in a very poor, very violent neighborhood in a major US city with a really bad school system. I'm a first-year teacher, and it's a mess. My background is intellectual, upper middle class, focused on social responsibility, politically active, and liberal: that describes my parents and grandparents, and the parents of many of my friends. Almost none are teachers. Periodically, people ask what policies I think would improve the public schools. Recently, a stranger on a plane asked. This is the first of what I hope will be an occasional series exploring some possibilities. I'm interested in seeing how my thinking changes over the next year and a half.

To put one of my premises out there: I imagine, as I say these things, a conservative (like one I recently met on a plane) saying that parents should be responsible for these changes; that expectation is not reasonable or realistic, for reasons I might write about later, and really I think it's irrelevant. Do you want students in low-income districts to have the same educational opportunities as students in wealthy districts? Yes or no. If yes, saying parents should be responsible is a cop-out, unless you have a plan to make or help parents be responsible. Without further ado, the proposals.

1. More money. Schools in impoverished areas shouldn't get funding parity with wealthier districts - they should get double the per student funding. Among other things, parents in wealthy districts provide a vast number of resources that poor parents simply cannot provide: graphing calculators that students can use at home, buying college reference books, making sure their students get therapy or medications if they have mental illness, dental care, computers and internet at home - the list goes on. Money is not the only thing my students need, and more could certainly be done with the current budget, but let's be real: many of the people who refuse to throw money at the education of poor children are the same ones who throw money at their own children's education. They're not doing that for nothing.

2. More staff. See #1. Having someone constantly available to manage a student who's out of control (e.g. an office to send that student to) would free up a lot of my time to actually teach. Instead, what happens is that if a student disrupts or endangers the class, I write up a disciplinary referral and it gets dealt with later; if I'm really lucky, someone will be available to take that student, but those people all teach their own classes and are pretty overworked; they also don't have anywhere to put the student where the student will be supervised. In better-functioning schools, you can just send a kid to the office for cursing at you; in my school, no way.

More staff also means smaller class sizes, which, wow. That would be awesome. Thirty-three kids is a lot. Maybe even having two preps be standard - I have that this year, and it's great, and I don't know how I functioned without it for 2 months.

3. Better staff. The quality of most teachers is, well, not stellar. (I include myself in this, though I think one way in which I am unlike many of the other teachers at my school is that I really want to get better.) The recent NYT magazine article about the achievement gap and the KIPP schools casually mentioned that KIPP teachers work 15-16 hour days. That's great for the students, but it's not a national policy solution. You can get a few more smart, motivated, ambitious, etc, people into teaching by upping the mystique, and a lot more by making public schools better work environments, but to do this on a national scale you'll have to up the salaries. That kind of time commitment is what people do in I-banking, where they are making boatloads of money. I'd suggest making teacher schools something like law or MBA programs, where you worry about whether you'll get in and have to be intensely devoted to it for at least a year or two; I'd also suggest having teacher salaries start at $60,000 and go up to $150,000. You could even start lower if you were willing to make the ramp pretty steep. Teaching will never fully compete with Wall Street - that's not the idea. But you want a lot of talented people who have other options? You're going to have to pay for them.

I am not sure if doing that would produce a system where I wanted to work right now. For me, teaching was a step up financially, and I was fine with that. But realistically, money is a great way to attract people to a particular job, and while that kind of environment might make me less interested in teaching now, the money (and the doubtless improved work environment) might also make me more interested in teaching long-term.

4. Better management. See #3 and #1. Management at most public schools is abysmal. I have this fantasy of having professional development that's not a complete waste of my time, seeing the teaching schedules for half-days and special events before the day of, and getting feedback from observations. This, again, you have to pay for.

5. Better staff/management development. I'm going to write more about this another time.

6. For the luvva Pete, can I please just have a curriculum for every class? And maybe a computer in my classroom? And while I'm wishing for the impossible, how about paper for the flippin' copy machine?


What's most interesting about Idlewild (OutKast's gorgeous movie set in a semi-mythical Prohibition-era Georgia) is not what it owes to the past, but to the present. The score, of course - there's no way those songs would have existed 'then' - but also the dance scenes, floating somewhere between musicals and music videos, and the characters.

It's simple, really. Before there were gangstas, there were gangsters; before there was crack, there was hootch; before there was the club, there was the club. More complicated things, too: the role of women as simultaneous seduction and salvation, the dream of getting out, the fear and reality of violence, having to choose between being cool and having a future. Idlewild is about now, dressed up as then. Elijah Anderson's Code of the Street is about the same subjects, but it's not half as pretty.

December 27, 2006

home is....

Three full-time residents, three cars. Looking around a roomful of friends and realizing I've known everyone in it for over 10 years, except for the little siblings (I met them 8 years ago). Bonjovi on the radio. "You only bought two and a half pounds of green beans? That might be enough for your little brother.... by himself!" Constantly being interrupted. An orange and a penny in my Christmas stocking; also contact solution. At least two glasses of wine a night. The promise of the interstate. New bars with exciting beer lists and murals - what's happening to this place? My grandmother's artwork on the walls. Scraping the frost off my car before I can go anywhere. Buying rounds at the bar. My dad making cappuccino. Watching most of the first season of Big Love on DVD. My little brother at the computer. Being the only one up at 2 am. Borrowing cash from my mom to go out for a beer. Drinking cream soda and root beer. Apple pie. A golden retriever sleeping sprawled between the top of the stairs and the door. Strip malls. When the cop who breaks up the [very quiet] party is my high school biology teacher's son. Sleeping until noon. Homemade granola. Tonight's dinner question: what would you do about Iraq? They let you smoke in the bars. Almost certainly being safe to drive. My sister napping on the couch. Mexican wedding cookies, molasses-ginger drops, sugar cookies, and lebkuchen. Emmy Lou Harris singing "Light of the Stable." Knowing how to get everywhere. Do you want to talk to someone on the other side of the house? No need to go anywhere - just shout! Knowing that Git'n'Go used to be a QuikTrip. Winter grasses at the edge of the garden. The lieutenant governor coming over for brunch. Frustrating and comfortable. Drinking beer in an outdoor gear outlet store at 3 am because my friend is the manager, and the cops broke up the party at her house. Dancing to Journey. My friends' parents. Hearing about Catholic Worker houses. Hypothetical karaoke. More prosciutto than you could possibly eat. Drinking champagne. The dishwasher running constantly. Driveways with basketball hoops. Someone has to go to the grocery store every day. New kittens. Two dogs. Trading Christmas cookie plates with my friends' families. The gold dome of the Capitol building. Being surprised by how white everyone is. Driving past my high school. Reading articles aloud to each other. My mom asking what I think of the garden. Red pepper pasta sauce. Adriatic pita bread. Blessings for the road. Never wanting to stay. Never wanting to leave.

December 22, 2006


In 2005, I borrowed a book called A Return to Modesty1 and got kind of annoyed with it.

Conveniently, someone else has written the same book again, so I don't have to come up with new ways to be irritated. Dawn Eden2 is older, and she became an observant Catholic instead of an observant Jew, but it's basically the same old same old. Some woman becomes religious, stops having sex, and realizes how much happier and more fulfilled she is when she's chaste (or celibate or modest or whatever) and religious. Next step: publish a book so all the rest of us can learn how to be just as satisfied with our lives.3

The arguments are oddly similar to the way polyamory advocates sound sometimes: "Why didn't I know about this before? I spent all that time trying to be [monogamous/promiscuous]! I never realized that I actually could sleep with [lots of people/no one] without being [skeevy/lame]!"

The most noticeable aspect of this interview with Eden is that the focus of her romantic life, both before and after she was celibate, was primarily on finding a husband and secondarily on relieving her insecurities about being good enough and lovable enough. Note that when she talks about her pleasure in sex, she says:

There were times when I would count how many men I had had sex with in one two-week period and thought, "I must be this really hot, attractive chick to attract so many men."
I used to believe that, if I knew that I would never get married, I would kill myself.
Not anymore, but now,
as I was writing, I didn't want to think of what would become of me if I didn't get married. It was too frightening to imagine.
It gives you a sense of how central the idea of marriage was and is to her life. Also of what she sees as the alternative.

If you desperately want one kind of relationship, and start pursuing something completely different, you'll be unsatisfied. No real surprise, then, that when she stopped sleeping around and started looking for something she actually wanted, she got happier. Chastity, in Eden's view, is about not pursuing sex, but instead pursuing serious relationships with people whose values you share.
Instead of following the pop-culture prescription, to single-mindedly pursue a man who's going to make you happy, I am suggesting women should be singular and concentrate on being the best people they can be and displaying grace as individuals and as women. In doing that they will become more giving, more appreciative of everyone around them, so not only will they be better able to have meaningful friendships and relationships, but they will also be able to enjoy this time they have as singular women.
Similarly, she says chastity made her a better friend: before, her romantic life and friendships were about activities, and now both are about values and intense personal connections.

I have no doubt whatsoever that this transformation happened in Eden's life. But check it out: fundamentally, none of this is about who you have sex with. It's about caring, respect, connection with other people. For her, that happens through her relationship with sex. FOR HER. But she, like a lot of conservatives, conflates values with sex; like Wendy Shalit, she assumes that because she fundamentally wanted marriage and preferred chastity to promiscuity, all other women want that too.

I think, honestly, that it's a failure of imagination on her part that makes this happen: for her, relationships are either permanent or superficial; either no sex until marriage, or promiscuity. It's a false dichotomy, not just because there are possibilities between those two extremes, but because there are possibilities that combine those qualities, or have neither of them. It's also a way of trying to get people to be less obsessed with sex that is, itself, incredibly obsessed with sex.4 Really, the most telling line in the whole interview is her summary of her message:
It's about having substance as a person, seeking out friends who have depth and substance.
But why exactly does that have to be about sex?

1. By Wendy Shalit.
2. The Thrill of the Chaste.
3. Start following the Amazon links for those two books to find a few more. Their covers even look similar - part of a woman's face in some kind of old-fashioned painting.
4. The most extreme example of this I know is Westboro Baptist, who protest 'gay-friendly' organizations like the U.S. military with signs that depict sodomy using stick figures. That shit is weird.

December 13, 2006


"This unconstitutional darkness, we will stab at it with our dagger until we kill it."

December 8, 2006

what to eat, #4

Those who know me (and if you don't know me, why are you reading my tiny-ass blog?) know that about three quarters of my cooking is slapped together by remembering what someone once said was the right way to do something. The other quarter involves obsessively reading every recipe on the subject and calling my mom at least twice. This is the first kind of recipe.

Roasted Root Vegetables with Basted Eggs1
What to buy
a buncha root vegetables. potatoes - yellow, purple, white, mixed fingerlings, who cares? but let me know how it goes if you try new potatoes or the big Idaho bakers; sweet potatoes; parsnips; beets; celeriac; salsify; carrots if you want, but I don't think they're much of an enhancement.

eggs. spring for happy local ones if you can, and goggle at the deep gold of the yolk.

a box of chicken broth. completely optional - you can also use veggie bouillon or water, but I really like the organic free range chicken broth at Trader Joe's, and think it makes the eggs better. you only use maybe a tablespoon for this recipe, so make sure you'll use it for something else.

What you should already have on hand
some olive oil
a little butter
maybe some rosemary or chives or something, but don't stress

What you do
1. Roast the veggies. Turn the oven up to 450, then wash 'em, peel the skins if you don't want to eat them, and chop them up into half to one inch chunks. Put them in an ovensafe pan, toss in enough olive oil to coat them very lightly, and sprinkle the salt on (also lightly). Peel a few cloves of garlic and put them in the pan whole. They're gonna turn into practically spreadable, unbelievably delicious little nubbins of roast garlic. Stick the pan in the oven. Start checking on them after 20 minutes, and pull them out when they're all cooked through (soft, but not custardy).

2. When the veggies are done, make the basted eggs. (Side note: I have no idea if this is how you're supposed to make basted eggs, but it's working for me right now. This was my big revolution in egg frying - before, I was really bad at it, and always broke at least one of the yolks. This way? It works.) Melt a little butter in a small pan on low. Keep the heat really low! Otherwise the eggs will be too tough! Crack your two eggs in there when the butter's all foamy. Once the bottom of the clear white has turned actual white all the way around the egg (while most of the depth of the white is still totally clear) slide your spatula under the eggs so they don't stick. Salt and pepper the eggs, and put a little rosemary on them if you want. I love eggs with rosemary. Now add a slug of chicken broth (or water, or veggie broth, or whatever) to the pan, and cover it. What's a slug? Who knows.2 Let it cook for a few minutes, or til almost all of the white is cooked. Flip the eggs over carefully, cook another few seconds, and slide them out onto a plate. Serve yourself some veggies, too. Yum.

3. Got buttered toast? You just made yourself an upscale diner breakfast for dinner.

I ate this 3 times this week - once fresh, twice with the left-over veggies reheated in a pan. I'm still not sick of it.

1. Hat tip to the Gardener, who made the first batch of roasted root vegetables this is based on.
2. I feel like people laugh about 19th century (and earlier) recipes that tell you to put in a handful of this or a pinch of that, but seriously? That's what my recipes, and my mom's recipes, and most of my friends' recipes tell you too.

December 1, 2006

how you know parents are on your side

"I think you owe her an apology."1

1. Especially when closely followed by "Ain't no 'sorry.' What are you sorry for?"