Friday, December 18, 2009

Eels, Arne Duncan, and education

I've got eels, Arne Duncan, and education running through my head.

I spend a good chunk of my awake hours with larval humans. I enjoy it, and so far as I can control what I am doing, I think I am useful, no small thing in today's culture.

Today, on the coldest day of the season, we talked about global warming. Yesterday we talked about a local company that employed over a hundred folks in my town while legally spewing tons of a probable carcinogen on my neighborhood.

These are good lessons for a lot of reasons. These are bad lessons for one reason: they will not help my lambs pass the mandatory state exam given in May.

Too bad. I teach for Bloomfield, not New Jersey, not the United States. Most of my salary is subsidized by my neighbors, many, maybe most, working hard to keep their families intact while the economic world collapses around us. And make no mistake, the world of the working class is collapsing.

But first the eels.

We really don't know much about anything.

Eels matter. We eat them, we sell them. (Nordstrom's will sell you an eelskin purse for $1580, but no worries, "At Nordstrom, we are committed to offering you the best possible prices," and to be fair, they're not American eels--but the elvers poached here in Jersey will cover your heating bill.)

The north end of our town is its wealthy end. The North End likes causes--one of the local causes is cleaning the Third River. We live by the Second River. (There is no First River--it remains an etymological mystery.)

A few wealthy Northenders hired a biologist to help their cause, to prove that the Third River is a viable stream. The biologist was paid good money to point out the obvious--eels live in the Third River.

My kids found adult eels living a few blocks away under a foot bridge that crosses our Second River. I mentioned this to the mercenary biologist after he pontificated about the virtues of the Third River, the river of the monied class here in Bloomfield.


Well, nobody bothered to tell the eels. They're there yet. Come by and I'll show you.

The biologist took our Bloomfield money and left. I offered to show him the eels, but I suspect it was not the eels that motivated him to come to the meeting.

And he's an idiot, a well-paid, respected, professional expert idiot.

Peerless Tubing employed over a hundred locals. It also spewed over 12 tons of trichloroethylene in my neighorhood in 2001. You could look it up.

The CEO was not a bad man--he got himself elected to the New Jersey Assembly, he made decent money ($196,000 in 1996), and his company kept a lot of families afloat here in Bloomfield.

But he released over 12 tons of a probable carcinogen in my neighborhood in 2001.

We discussed this yesterday, me and a few dozen adolescents. And they got the subtleties--they like to eat, they like heat, they like shelter. They knew the implications. They were upset that toxins were dumped on their homes, but they also knew the value of a paycheck.

I do not have an answer. I just want my lambs to be aware.

This is a Bloomfield issue. No other community in the world is going to teach this lesson, and the state is certainly not going to test it. I taught it anyway.

Arne Duncan controls less than 10% of the money coming to this town for education. He knows nothing of our eels, of Peerless Tubing, of anything local.

Any man that would move his two young children 600 miles for personal ambition is not to be trusted. Arne Duncan did that. And he's an idiot, a well-paid, respected, professional expert idiot.

I would gladly give up the 8% of my salary subsidized by the Federal government to teach what I know about our town, in the context of science.

Heresy, of course--it's the American Way.

But it's not the Bloomfield way.
Family matters above ambition.

The road to national power, to D.C., is littered with the bodies of folks who decided that the eels in their local streams mattered more than the opinions of experts, that their children's lives mattered more than ambition, that knowing a tiny patch of the world mattered more than ruling a mythological piece of the universe.

I am a teacher, and I am becoming a good one.

Not because I am nationally certified. Not because I follow the tenets of a confused Secretary of Education.

Because I live, and love, the town I chose to live in, the town I chose to raise my children. My adult children do not have to travel 600 miles to return to their 1st grade classroom.

Parochialism has become a bad word. Arne wants my children to succeed in the global marketplace. I want my children to see the eels in the stream just a few blocks away.

The photo is from the state of New Jersey--that's our state record eel--
I bet the ones in our local stream, are bigger., but we aren't saying....


John Spencer said...

Great blog post. You haven't been blogging lately, but I feel as though we're thinking about similar things.

This morning I did a podcast about facing the consequences of the bad economy while never getting to reap the benefits.

A few days ago I wrote about a pisspoor test-taker who taught me about deserts. He assured me, today, that it's not my fault since I wasn't raised here.

My students have parents who worked construction during the boom times and it never trickled down. I have a hunch the TARP funds won't trickle down, either.

This week my kids painted pottery for a local hospice. If we are given permission, they'll walk a line close to death. Last time this happened, they learned about World War II and Goodyear Tires and a former soldier told the kids about the cancer clusters in our area of town that resulted from Motorola and Revlon.

"People are dying so that they can look sexy." He pointed to his breathing machine and told the kids about emphysema.

I'm not sure if this will happen again this year. Last year, we were told that we had to stay away because of swine flu hysteria.

So, I now have to share my after-school space with a company paid to do intervention. Actually, they are paid, not to intervene, but to monitor kids who stay on Study Island.

She can quantify her results. I can't. Honestly, I often leave my group of misfits and wonder if I'm making a difference. Painted pottery doesn't raise test scores.

A lady from the intervention group asked me to be quiet. Our joviality was distracting her clients. She used the term clients and I shuddered.

I don't teach clients. I teach students.

doyle said...

Dear John,

Thanks for the words. I had already heard your podcast when I wrote this, so you may have influenced me a bit more than you (or I) realized.

In medicine, "patients" became "customers" and "clients" and (even worse) "consumers."


Our educational system is geared towards raising a generation of consumers.

We, too, are blessed with third parties providing consumable services to our resource-scarce socioeconomic percentile.

When things make little sense, follow the money (or the hormones). In this case it's the money.

A shame.

Jonthan said...

I think parochialism (and its sibling, provincialism) are very dangerous on a couple of levels. First, parochial thinking leads, inevitably, to a rejection of ideas that fall outside the existing worldview of the person. It also leads to a "it's someone else's problem" mantra when it comes to the big issues facing the world. How can we get students in New Jersey to care about the wolves Sarah Palin is shooting in Alaska if they don't care about (or can even find on a map) the 49th state? That said, I agree that it's vital to get children interested in something local first, some they can touch, smell and experience. Something that has the ability to teach them, and maybe even hurt them. As you so correctly point out, there's much more relevant biology learning in a pond than in any textbook. (I will also add that it brings this lapsed field biologist no shortage of joy when my 5 year-old insists that we go over to a nearby inlet to look for manatees every time we go outside.) Once the link to the natural world has been established on a local level, extrapolating beyond that microcosm is essential.

doyle said...

Dear Jonathan,

If parochialism "inevitably [led to] a rejection of ideas that fall outside the existing worldview of the person," I would not espouse it. But it does not.

Do not confuse insularism with parochialism. Until you know the ground under your feet, you cannot know the ground beneath someone else's feet a thousand miles away. You might think you do--our Federal gov't is full of ambitious folks who think they know me--but you do not, and cannot.

The wolves in Alaska mean nothing to a child if she knows nothing of wilderness. If she cannot find wilderness in Bloomfield, she certainly will not be moved to support wolves on the other side of the continent (though she might yet give money as an adult through guilt, conceit, or trickery--she will not do it for love).

Education must start locally. A good education will ultimately lead to a larger world view, one based on love and logic. A child can be changed by the hours she spends staring at a pond's edge in far better ways than she can be changed fearing for the lives of polar bears she has never seen.

I'd daresay parochialism is dead anyway--if folks really knew and loved their land, their water, their homes, they'd have fought long and hard decades ago to prevent the destruction that has been inflicted around them.

Centralized power will never fix problems it cannot see--and I'd bet there's not a breathing policy maker in D.C. who even knows the Second River is a live river here in Bloomfield, nor would care even if it were known.

Charlie Roy said...

Don't know if you've been following Ira Socol but I think you'd like his thoughts on the topic of education and "parochialism". It's in line with your interests.

doyle said...

Dear Charlie,

Thanks for pointing me to Ira--I just wandered around the SpeEd Change blog, and now have it bookmarked.

(I'm hoping to see some words on yours, too. Got you on my feed.)

Usayinpa said...

Well I ran across your post and think you are a pretty good writer in addition to your science teacher gig. It sort of reminded me of the spring I found the bog turtle near Exton pa. By rights it hould not have been there and yet there it was.

This reminds me of my own situation and I suppose of the situation of Mr Duncon. Sometimes we humans show up in the unlikeliest of places. About two months ago I showed up near Philadelphia as a math teacher. It was not sometihng I started out wanting to be. The kids are not really my peeps but still I feel a connection to them and to their needs. I started out sub teaching in the burbs and it was so different and in many respects easier for me. Some jobs were just ten minutes from my house not 600 miles away.

I think Arne Duncan is misplaced as an education secretary. I don't know him personally but I doubt he has ever really had to strive for something as my kids do each week. There was always someone thee to give him a hand up and the kind of teachers and environments he grew up in were safe suburban ones.

So perhaps he was raised in a parochial environment and will never fully comprehend the eels, my bog turtle, or anything else about the education of small minds into great big ones. Lets hope that together we can educate him before he damages our education system in the many ways an educational secretary can. Let's hope but let's not hold your breath because unlike the eels we don't live underwater.

doyle said...

Dear Usayinpa,

Thanks for the words--this is one of my favorite posts, and your comments one oof my favorite replies.

Especially the last line.

(I'm never sure if anyone is reading these things. beyond a couple of people whom I write for. Thanks for taking the time to respond.)