April 25, 2008

joy and trouble

A huge blacksnake, maybe 6 feet long, coiled and motionless on a tree. The secret language of porcupines: yowling, mewling, and complaining like a baby animal. Descendants of Malian kings. Two hours making a contract with a student, only to have it broken in all but the most technical sense because "I'm me, every day, 100%" - which apparently means talking shit about everyone else. Learning bits of French and Haitian Creole. Stories about Montparnasse and Bamako, soccer and football and the beaches in Ghana. Adolescent romanticism. The most beautiful views. Sleeping outside under a full moon, river and mountains shining below. Another blacksnake. A weird guy who found a huge turtle. "I want to go home, and I'm not going to change my mind" - "Ok, we'll talk about it more at camp:" at camp, "I don't want to go home anymore." Learning break-dancing moves. Standing on my head. Being back in my wilderness family. Yoga on a ridge top. A bear, 20 feet away, walking along like we weren't even there. Climbing a rock face and being first to the top, so other people got inspired to go again. Mac and cheese with nutritional yeast. More than you ever wanted to know about adolescents' bathroom habits. Five kids want to go back for two weeks. Facilitating the hell out of a group conversation for an hour and a half. The sweetest group journal. "When you go to Mali, you can stay with my father. He will do everything for you. You can go to Timbuktu with my uncle. He goes every time." Insight and recalcitrance. Signing a kite. Plans for a dinner, soccer games, popsicles. Venison on the grill.

"Can I come back next week?"

April 24, 2008

culture of poverty

Harry at Crooked Timber has a piece up about the deficit model of poverty. Which, more or less, is the idea that poor people have deficits that need to be fixed, and is, depending on who you are, either absolutely obvious or terribly offensive. There are some obvious ways in which poverty creates deficits: lack of time, money, knowledge of how to manipulate the system or what to say to get a response. Also, as Harry points out, poverty is a stressor, which makes it that much harder to adapt to situations effectively and make long-term plans. In addition, I would agree that, for example, inner-city African American culture has certain aspects which can disadvantage its members in terms of mainstream social success.

So yes. Deficits abound, and as far as I'm concerned it is foolhardy to ignore the problems in a culture simply because the group of people with that culture is oppressed. But it's the way this theory gets used, as well as the specific ways it gets promoted, that are troubling. For one thing, most cultures have significant deficits. My mainstream middle class culture sure has a lot of problems, but because we have social privilege, no one worries about those deficits. But glass houses and all that.

For another thing, when people talk about the problems with various cultures, they end up conflating problems with differences. As an example: current mainstream rap and hip hop promote a violent, supremely materialistic view of the world, but that's not all that rap and hip hop are, and it's not a problem with the style of music itself - in fact, I'd argue it's a problem with the record labels that choose that kind of content to promote. Another example: Amish culture values craft skills far more than academic skills; while this value disadvantages the Amish in terms of economic competitiveness, it's not a problem per se (especially since as far as the Amish are concerned, economic competitiveness is close to meaningless). The assumption that everyone should value the same thing is the road to cultural impoverishment, and also to something like the cultural equivalent of monoculture: a world in which, if conditions change, our culture collapses because it has become too specialized.

There's more to say, but I'm having trouble articulating it clearly. Something about the way people use irresponsibility, a quality present in all communities, to essentially wash their hands of the problems of poverty; and something about the way cultures develop, and the adaptive quality of certain cultural values in an environment under pressure. And maybe something about how if you're part of the oppressing group, you're probably not the best person to be telling the oppressed folks how they ought to act.

April 23, 2008

I miss my old job

I just spent 5 days in the woods with my kids. I came back happy and sunburned and loving my students and dissolved into tears in the middle of 3rd period because the teacher relationship is so limited and sad compared to the wilderness instructor relationship and I love my kids in class too but I don't get to feel it, almost ever, at least not during class.

I was always worried about what would happen if I started crying in class, and now it's happened and it was ok. I'm glad it was that class. Four girls stayed after to say they were sorry and it will never happen again and are you ok and please please please just don't cry, ok? Don't cry.

It's a good reminder both of why I don't want this job again next year, and why I do, desperately, want to be the instructor for next fall's wilderness course and go to soccer games and help kids get into college and send them pictures of trips for their myspace pages and yeah. All that. Everything but teaching math, which is the only reason I know any of them to begin with.

April 15, 2008

teacher turnover

I'm in my math methods class, talking about how most of us are leaving teaching at the end of our two years in TFA and how worried we are about education and its systemic problems. One woman talked about how she's always wanted children, and the terrible state of education makes her feel like having a child is a bad idea. We're talking about our guilt about abandoning our schools. And what it would take for us to stay.

While the things we talked about - feeling valued, feeling effective, being able to learn to be better teachers - matter, what it would take for me, as a baseline, to even consider it is very simple: it would have to be a better environment. People being nicer to each other. Less yelling. It's hard for me to concentrate on being a better teacher, on learning, on students learning, on having good relationships with kids, when kids are yelling at each other and other teachers (and sometimes me) and administrators are yelling at kids and other teachers (and sometimes me) and I need to yell to be heard in the hallway. It's just really stressful all the time. Make my day feel better. I still probably wouldn't stay, but I would think about it, at least for another year.

I think a lot of us feel this way, but it's hard to admit that we can't handle the environment, that we're not tough enough to hang - that it's not ok with us to get punched or threatened or cursed out or belittled or yelled at in front of students, and have that just be the cost of doing business. (All of those things have happened to me or teachers I know, and all but the punching have been done by both students and administrators). So we talk about professional development and observations. Not that they're unrelated. Just one is more important than the other, for me anyway, and it's the one we're not talking about.

I wrote this mostly on Saturday and a little on Sunday, and then yesterday school was awesome and I feel like a rock star. But all of this is still true, even when things are great.

April 14, 2008


"Hillary Clinton is not an attractive personality for a lot of people," said O'Brien, who noted that it's "very convenient that the same people who have a sense of discomfort with female authority they prefer not to examine" also object to her personality and record in specific terms, an antipathy they feel comfortable voicing. "What you get," said O'Brien, "is the energy of the first expressed in words of the second." (from Salon.)

April 13, 2008

guns and money

The United States outspends every other country on defense by $509 billion. Which is a pretty awesome statistic.

Except it's not the most relevant one: France is really part of the EU, so all EU defense spending should be lumped together. The US is at about double EU defense spending, which is still absurd but not quite as absurd.

(via Bitch, Ph.D. who lists the top two countries for defense spending.)

April 12, 2008

home dairy production

In the last couple of months, the Gardener's been bringing home unpasteurized, unhomogenized milk from grass-fed cows (and once from goats!) that was about to expire, and turning it into food.

So far she's made cultured butter, regular butter, halloumi, sour cream, yogurt, paneer, buttermilk quark, whey ricotta, cottage cheese, rice pudding, and chevre. All of it free.

Sometimes my life is awesome.

April 11, 2008

signaling devices

My students ask me about Obama all the time. They themselves are pretty much evenly split between supporting him intensely and having no idea what a political party is. For the first crowd, my endorsement is like a signal - about me, not him. It's like, maybe that white lady's ok. Maybe she really is on our side.

April 9, 2008

in honor of spring

If you are considering sending livestock, we would like one of these

and one of these

both of which were recently born to farmers in this area. The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese is full, as my girlfriend points out, of people who got one goat and ended up with a dairy. You can kind of see why. Also, she wants to get a goat. Just one. And she's been making cheese. Please make space in your fridge for our future dairy.

(They're both interesting breeds, too. The goats in the picture/link are Nubians, who have really excellent, high fat content milk. The calf is a Devon-Highland mix, and, as you can tell from its fuzziness, is going to be perfectly happy living outside, mostly on pasture, year round.)

being female in public

Maybe a month ago I was walking downtown in the early evening, with traffic bunched up. There was a woman ahead of me wearing heels and a skirt, and a guy in a car leaned out the rear window and, clearly drunk, started talking to her, "You know, you're very sexy right now."

I couldn't help it. I shouted, "You're an asshole!" The woman, her friend, the Gardener, and I all cracked up.

A couple days later I told a friend - another teacher, about my age - about that incident, and he said, "What if that was the nicest thing she'd heard all day?"

I hate this. I hate it when people (well, men) act like it's totally cool to say things to women on the street, as long as the comments are nominally complimentary. (Similarly, last night some guy said, "Nice belly," to me, and acted offended when I flipped him off. "I just said nice belly.") It's not hard to hear something nicer than "You're very sexy right now" from a drunken stranger, because that's not a nice thing to say; in the context, it's harassing and possibly threatening. It's a claim laid to her body, to judge and appraise it, and "Here's your change" would be a nicer comment.

April 8, 2008


The toad fish in this picture looks fake, like somebody made it out of old carpet scraps and foam and two fancy antique mother of pearl buttons. In fact, it looks very much like several creatures that live in my parents' basement, legacy of my grandmother's costume and set projects.

Also, my household has become obsessed with baby goats. And dogs. It must be spring. Please send livestock! They can live on the half-roof out the kitchen door.

bad planner

I have never yet managed to hand in a major end-of-semester paper without taking a sick day. This makes me feel bad about myself.

April 6, 2008

irritating hypocrisy

Stock prices are down, CEO compensation is up.

At least when people complain that teachers (average salary: $47,602) should get paid for performance, they can blame the unions. Maybe what teachers need instead is a board of directors.

April 4, 2008

dinner at the Experimental Cafe

You know those elementary school cookbook fundraisers where everyone puts in a favorite recipe, and inevitably one of the recipes is for 'puppy chow' and another is for 'mud' made from chocolate pudding, oreos, and gummy worms? or, and this I find truly disgusting, kitty litter cake. Well, there's a new recipe in town. It's delicious, disturbingly realistic, and what the Gardener made for our dinner last night.

Poop in the Grass
(for 4, or 2 plus lunches)

1 pound Jamison Farm merguez lamb sausage, defrosted
1-2 pounds baby sweet potatoes, scrubbed well and trimmed
spring mix and maybe some microgreens

goat yogurt (and maybe some sour cream for body)
herbs (rosemary and thyme)
salt to taste

Put the sweet potatoes in a lightly oiled pan, and roast at 425 until soft.

While they're roasting, make the dressing: whirl the goat yogurt in a food processor with the herbs, or just chop the herbs and mix with the yogurt. Put in sour cream if you think it would improve the texture. You could also use buttermilk or regular yogurt thinned with buttermilk if goat yogurt doesn't happen to end up in your fridge.

Cook the sausage in a pan over medium-high heat with a tiny bit of oil until it's browned on the outside and no longer raw in the middle.

Arrange the spring mix in a circle on each plate. In the middle of the circle, put sausages and sweet potatoes. Garnish with microgreens, and serve the dressing at the table.

(local: everything but the salt, which is from Maine, and the olive oil, which is from Trader Joe's.)

April 3, 2008

the flexible economy

Mobility is down 27% year to year, likely due to the housing bust: people can't move if they can't sell their homes, and are much less likely to move if they can't get more for the homes than they owe. In economic hard times, it makes it even harder for people to get work.

Here's the thing. Constraints on mobility and innovation are also long-standing results of our health insurance system. Fear of being unable to get or afford health insurance is one of the biggest existing deterrents to starting a small business, free-lancing, or otherwise innovating in ways that free-market economic principles would seem to support. I don't understand why universal (preferably single-payer) health insurance isn't the single biggest issue for the Chamber of Commerce and every small-business organization out there, as well as for anyone who has ever considered starting a business or has free-lancing skills.

Big corporations should be in on it too, seeing as their competition throughout the industrialized world already gets the huge subsidy of paid-for employee health insurance. They have to pay taxes for it, yes, but, unlike health insurance, that's a predictable expense that grows fairly slowly.

April 1, 2008

why I should stop teaching K-12

My brain isn't on at 7:55 am. It just isn't. Knowing that today I had 3 hours of state testing to wake up made me practically skip for joy this morning.