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What are we teaching them?

January 11, 2009

Teacher musings:
So all school year I’ve felt a conflict between content and skills like never before. Am I teaching my students to read, write and think, or am I teaching them to analyze literature? Of course I hope to do both, but the reality is something has to be a priority. By next Monday we will have finished two novels, that, honestly, only about 60% of my students have actually read all the way through. We have read 6 short stories and 2 non-fiction articles. My students are doing an amazing job asking deep, thoughtful questions about patriarchy, power, sexuality, etc. as we finish The Color Purple, and the fact that we read a summary of the book before reading the actual book really helped take the pressure of “what happened” so that we could talk about “what it means.” But what am I teaching them? Yeah, they will have an understanding of cultural icons like Atticus Finch and Celie, but will they be able to research the root causes of the Israli/Palestine conflict? Yeah, they are learning to think more critically and to do stronger close readings of novels, but how will that help them wade through Obama’s 14 page economic stimulus plan? Yeah, they are writing thoughtful essays about character development, but how will that help them express their frustration with lack of services they have in a letter to their state representatives?

Which brings me to the wake-up call I had this week. This content/skills debate has been raging in the English teaching world for a long time and it is not going anywhere anytime soon. It is something I discuss on and off with my colleagues as we all try to work towards including the best of both worlds. I know which side I fall on and which side my current school falls on, and they are not the same. So, I have been doing it my school’s way this year to get some traction, try some new things, and to make sure I keep my job. But this week I heard about the BART shooting in Oakland (where I used to teach) and I started to cry. Because that could have been one of my kids. It could have been one of my kids who got shot. It could have been on of my kids who lost a father. It could have been one of my kids arrested while protesting. It could be one of my kids who gets harassed, beaten or killed by a cop acting out of frustration in the next few weeks. It might be useful for my kids to use literature to make meaning from their lives, but is it what they need, right this second? Or does literacy take on a whole new meaning when its a tool for survival, that lets you speak out when you need to, use language to make your voice heard, or that gets you in a position of power that gives you a change to fix this mess of world we live in? Which is why I could care less if my kids remember Atticus Finch’s name so long as they remember how to use words to make a difference. I’m not saying that teaching my kids stronger literacy skills would prevent a situation like that from happening. But maybe we need to worry less about preparing kids for intellectual dinner conversations and more for the real problems they will face.

Yummy Stuff:
I almost didn’t want to include a food mention in this post, but sometimes its nice to end on a lighter note. Cooking is often act of meditation for me. The chopping, checking the recipe, thinking about spice ratios, etc. has a calming effect, and I find that I sometimes can think more clearly and get beyond my anger and frustration when prepping for dinner. With that said, last night we had Broccoli Sesame Stir-fry from Vegan Planet – my go-to cook book when we get busy. In addition to broccoli and red bell peppers we put in some delicious bok choy to get our greens for the day. Speaking of greens, I have a new favorite way to cook kale, also from Vegan Planet. I rough chop the kale, wash it well, and then stick it in a large saucepan with the water still on in. I turn up the pan to medium heat and cover it and let it cook for about 10 minutes. I do this instead of boiling because it supposedly keeps more of the nutrients in, but who knows. Then, I mix together 1T of balsamic vinegar, 2T of tamari soy sauce and a couple dashes of cayenne pepper. I pour all of that in with the kale and continue to cook it, uncovered, for about 7 more minutes, untill most of the sauce is gone. The kale will be really wilted by this point, which might make it seem unappetizing to some, but is really, really yummy! Then I top it with a ton of pine nuts!! Pair that with some pasta or some soup and bread and you’ve got what Gary and I call a Levey-Pabst dinner.

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