Friday, March 20, 2009

Movie classrooms

We've just watched two very different movies about classrooms.

The 1988 movie Stand and Deliver stars Edward James Olmos playing a (real) high school teacher who'd quit his computer job to teach at the largely Latino Garfield High School in Los Angeles. He manages to turn around math teaching at the high school so that many of his students pass AP Calculus. In the movie this happened in a year, in real life, it took several and was a struggle. In a 2002 article in Reason Stand and Deliver Revisited we can read about what happened when the teacher finally got tired of the odds against him, not because of the students, but because of school bureaucracy, envious colleagues and whatever else can cause a teacher to burn out.

The other is the excellent French movie Entre les murs (The Class in English,) which takes place in a middle school in a very similar location in a present day Paris suburb. Pretty much all the students are either first or second generation immigrants, from a wide variety of countries, mostly north African. Their teacher (the actual author of an autobiographic novel of the same name) does a remarkable job treating his students as people, allowing them to talk and ask questions in his attempts to bring them into mainstream French life, which they know (and he probably does too) is not very realistic. But toward the end we discover that he hasn't really been listening as much as we thought, and he makes a fatal error of judgement to save his skin. He has favorites in the class as well as at least one student, the target of his tragic error, whom he (and maybe the school staff as a whole) has failed. Manola Dargis wrote an excellent review of the movie Learning to Be the Future of France in the New York Times, from which the picture above was borrowed.

Both teachers are working against enormous odds and both ultimately fail because those odds are too high. The French teacher has much more support from his colleagues than the American one, but in the film (at least) the backup support of counselors, tutors and the like is sorely lacking and you are left wondering why they couldn't prevent the ensuing tragedy (of a lost future, not a life.)

I watched both films with a new-found interest in how teachers manage difficult classrooms, and was impressed with both teachers for treating the students much more as fellow human beings than in the stories I've been reading about American classrooms.

For example, I recently received some helpful guidelines about becoming a substitute teacher which were all about this thing called "Classroom Management." It told me to ensure silence and raising hands, to not turn my back on the class, move around to keep my eye on everything the little perps are doing, and pounce before they get me (my exaggeration.)

I didn't need to teach like that when I taught in Denmark. I hope I won't have to here either. I have collected some books to read about this topic, which I will review as I finish them.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Fall Seven Times, Stand Up Eight

One of my favorite sources for inspiration is the Sierra Club's Daily Ray of Hope email, which led me to the Nelson Mandela quote which inspired this blog, and the Japanese proverb that titles this entry.

Today's quote reminds me about my life in general. I am not quite sure how many projects and careers I have started in my life, all of which have been exciting, interesting, challenging. But they have all either lost their charm or petered out or actually failed. So is math teaching what will keep me on my feet?

My first major career desire was in advanced physics, but I now think I should have become an engineer, like most of the men in my family, back to my grandfathers and up to my son. I think I had two reasons, besides loving physics and math in high school: I wanted to "show" my father that I could do something more esoteric than he did (even though all my genes and inspiration for math and science came from him!) and women just didn't become engineers back then, at least none that I knew. But I got hung up on the theoretical math, and my secondary interest in languages took over, so I switched to German, and did graduate work in linguistics, which at least is a logical science. I remember at the time thinking that majoring in German was just learning a language, but I was cutting myself off from a career I was passionate about.

So my next goal was a university career in linguistics, but during my studies I spent a year in Denmark, married a Dane, brought him back for 3 years to finish my degree, had a child, and then moved to Denmark. Then it became impossible to work with my advisors, so I ended up doing a Danish MA and became a high school teacher in English and German. After about 3 years I became bored, because this was not at all my passion. Linguistics was, science was, and the environment then became my passion.

I left teaching, except for subbing to pay the bills, and tried getting a job in business, which was not as successful as I had hoped. So I started an environmentally-friendly diaper service, which was popular among my customers, but never turned a profit.

Then I studied things like environmental management and graphic design, mostly subsidized by the Danish welfare system, which was convenient. But never found a really appropriate job with that either.

In 2000 I moved back to the States, to California (that's another story!) and ended up a technical writer, which I worked at for about 7 years, until it just petered out last year.

So this time I'm back with one of my passions, math, and hope that I can stay standing up this time!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Doing the Impossible

Pomegranate sprouting branch
Pomegranate sprouting branch,
originally uploaded by bonbayel.

I just took the California CSET Math I and II tests in Algebra and Geometry. These are the qualifying tests to be able to study as an Intern in math for California High Schools. This wouldn't be so unusual I guess if it wasn't that my last math class was in 1963 - more than 45 years ago.

In my other blog, Sustainable Rays, I wrote a short entry about words that Nelson Mandela apparently said:

It always seems impossible until it's done
I think I want to make that my theme as a teacher.

In this blog I will write my thoughts about teaching and learning. Right now it is before teaching in California schools, although I taught English and German in Danish high schools for about 14 years earlier in my career. But I think this will be an entirely different challenge.

I plan to start by observing some classes nearby, and then in June I will start my internship training. I am sure that then I will have much more to write about!