I think Boys of Baraka is airing on PBS right now, because this week I've gotten a ton of hits from people searching for information on the Baraka boys. My blog has been linked a couple of times on a PBS Discussion Board and many are finding my review of the film, seen here, and many are leaving comments or sending e-mails. It's all very moving and I hope something - anything - can be done about about the state of education in urban areas around the country. While I have some issues with the movie, mostly stemming from knowing one of the kids and how he ended up, the filmmakers still did a great job of depicting the starkness of the choices that Baltimore youth face. There are a few good choices for high schools, maybe a couple for middle school (but they rely on lotteries or geography), and a couple good elementary schools. Yes, scores are rising, but the facilities are terrible, the teacher turnover rate is extreme, and the red tape stemming from North Avenue, the state of Maryland, and NCLB is often unmanageable.
And me, I often remind myself that I'm lucky to be teaching where I am. Every time I go to a graduate course at Towson, I hear stories of teachers in Anne Arundel County or Baltimore County who are required every day to read from a script every single day, and have a note put in their file if they are off-pace on any certain day. Me, I get to plan my own units and develop my own lessons. There's no script. If I had it any other way, I wouldn't be a teacher. I tell stories in my graduate classes about administration pretty much leaving me alone and parents looking to help instead of criticize, and my classmates look at me like I'm teaching in a utopia.
Yet I have 36 kids in my 9th period and only 35 desks. In my 8th period, I have 35 kids. My student load is 174 right now, spread across five classes, so my average class size is well over 30. If you look at her blog (she's another Baltimore teacher), you'll see she has 52 kids on her role for one class. How does that even happen in this nation? How are we allowing this to occur? It's criminal.
That's why sending kids over to Baraka worked for a bit. It's too bad it didn't do more. The kid featured in the film that I know, I haven't heard where he is this year. I'll probably see Montrey at a football game this season, or a basketball game in teh winter, and I'll ask him how he is. The two kids that I taught from the Baraka Program are now Seniors; I taught them both as 9th graders. They were in the last group to spend both years in the program before the program shut down, and they look back at the experience fondly. They'll be fine in life; both are nice kids, both average to slightly above average students, both are athletic and natural leaders. Both, you can tell, are crying out for some male influence at home, but that's a problem with a lot of kids that I teach.
So, has my opinion changed since the film? No. I still feel that the film was "moving, even devastating, and frustrating, even infuriating." One of the comments suggested I watch the film with the directors' commentary, and I'll do that when I get a chance; perhaps it will shed some light on some of the problems I had with the filmmakers' narrative. But I'm certain it won't do anything to assuage my anger at a system that fails our kids so mightily, something I see portrayed not only in the devastation of the film, but also every day in my classroom as I gaze into the eyes of 36 hard-working, bright kids who are jam-packed into a classroom that would comfortably seat just 25 and doesn't even have enough desks.
So, what can you do? And this is for all the new visitors to my humble little blog:
1. Donate some money to programs like the Baraka program. Here's a good place to start.
2. Write to your congressman and insist on a repeal of No Child Left Behind. While it has (some) good intentions, it's unfunded, meaning that already cash-strapped school systems must pay to administer tests. And the tests dumb down kids, forcing them to focus only on the state tests, and not social studies, art, music, even recess.
3. Be a Big Brother or a Big Sister. Volunteer. For good reason, BCPSS makes you jump through some hoops to be a volunteer with the youth, but we definitely need them. I remember when we had a Writing Center after school for kids a couple years ago until the money dried up. Kids went there with their essays, and trained peer tutors would work out the ideas of the essay with them. A teacher left, and now that's no more - and everyone's loads have gotten considerably larger since then and no teacher has taken up the mantle again. I'd love to, but I'm already leaving at 7 or 8 most nights.
4. Start insisting on an Amendment to the Consistution guaranteeing Equal Education to All. The Equal Education Amendment is something I'd love to see sometime in my lifetime, something that really makes the American Dream attainable for all and not just those born into good school systems.
I'm just thinking off the top of my head here. But also remember that it's so easy to get frustrated with American education, and there really are great things that happen in the schools every day. Today, I had six students stay with me until after 5pm, working through their essays. They came up with daring theses linking Aldous Huxley with Anne Bradstreet, and we problemetized them together, and made sure the arguments didn't have holes. They were excited and rapt. Another pretty low level kid I have, I make him sit with me and read after school. He's reading Of Mice and Men and actually laughing out loud as he reads. Do you know what a higher level skill that is, to find humor in something as you read? It made my heart sing that he was that into the book, because he had worried me in the course until that moment. Now, I know he'll be fine.
And we didn't have to send him to Baraka. What that was, though, was a small group of kids after school. Do something about class size, funnel some more resources into the city schools, and maybe options in Baltimore might be better.
NL Notes: Amarista, Nationals, Morse, Krol - Here are a few National League notes as we head into the weekend: Padres utilityman Alexi Amarista has switched his representation to Martin Arburua, tweets ...
4 hours ago