The Riff - February 2011

Street Talk With Grammy Hopeful Ana Tijoux

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 7:00 AM EST

According to French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux, Chileans really know how to butcher Spanish. "Every culture has their own slang, but I think in Chile specifically we speak very bad," she says over the phone. "So we have a lot, a lot of slang."

Despite this, or maybe because of it, Tijoux has an incredible way with words. Even if listeners don't understand her Spanish, they will sense the graceful fluidity of her style, which often relies on unusual syncopations and internal rhymes. Tijoux, who spent a childhood in France after dictator Augusto Pinochet forced her parents into exile, says she's "always been fascinated by the aesthetic of words." As down-to-earth as they come, she manages to make use of quotidian conversations, minor details, and yes, plenty of "slahng" (as she pronounces it), to render the world in poetry.

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'Parent-Trigger' Proponents Sue Compton's School District

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 3:12 PM EST

[Update: A Los Angeles judge just issued an order temporarily restraining Compton Unified School District officials from requiring signature verification from parents of McKinley Elementary School students. The Court scheduled a hearing on Feb. 24.]

The "Parent-Trigger" saga at Compton's McKinley Elementary School continues with a new twist today. From Parent Revolution's press release:

"McKinley parents—along with pro bono lawyers from Kirkland & Ellis filed a lawsuit against Compton Unified School District for Compton Unified's illegal infringement upon the constitutional rights of McKinley parents and children.

The legal complaint against Compton Unified (Murphy et al v. Compton Unified) details not only violations of the Parent Trigger law itself, but violations of the constitutional rights of parents and children by the Compton Unified School District. Having already denied the children of McKinley their constitutional right under the California Constitution to an "equitable public education," the school district has subsequently infringed on the federal and state's constitutional First Amendment rights of parents to petition their government to remedy this violation of their children's rights "by crafting an onerous and burdensome process" intended not to verify their signatures, but to simply throw them out."

From the summary of the lawsuit against Compton Unified by the parents of McKinley Elementary (Murphy et al v Compton Unified School District):

"[Compton Unified has] consistently exhibited bad faith in their dealings with the Plaintiffs. CUSD refused to respond to emails, letters, and phone calls by the parent and failed to provide basic information about the verification procedure to parents until less than a week before they implemented a verification procedure."

Meanwhile, The Los Angeles Times editorial board came out against the current version of the "Parent-Trigger" law and some of the tactics used by Parent Revolution to organize this campaign. From their Jan. 29 editorial:

"The first parent trigger petition, at McKinley Elementary School in Compton, offered an example of how the process shouldn't work. The signature drive was held in secret, to avoid a backlash from the school, but with the decision pre-made for parents that the school would be taken over by charter operator Celerity Educational Group. There was no public discussion of parents' options or rights. McKinley is not a school that has resisted change; though low-performing, it has dramatically raised test scores in recent years. Some parents complained afterwards that they didn't understand the petition they were signing; others accused school personnel of threatening and harassing them to get them to rescind their signatures. Meanwhile, the school district has set up a process for verifying the signatures that is harder on parents and more intrusive than is reasonably necessary."

I Have A Scheme

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 8:03 AM EST

If you think that race relations in your urban hipster enclave have much improved since the 1950s, you probably haven't seen Clybourne Park, a hilarious, devastatingly spot-on play by Bruce Norris that has been making audiences squirm in New York, London, and Washington, DC. At moments during Clybourne Park's West Coast premiere in San Francisco last week, some people laughed and others scowled, as one would expect from a play that mercilessly shreds Obama-era pretensions to social enlightenment.

Expertly directed by Jonathan Moscone at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, Clybourne Park juxtaposes two scenes in the same Chicago townhouse across the span of a half century. In the first, a war-scarred white family is selling the house, which looks like the set to a cheery postwar sitcom, to an African-American couple over the objections of the all-white neighborhood's Rotarian booster (theater buffs will notice this as a re-imagining of "A Raisin in the Sun," a famous 1959 play about race). The second act shows the same house bare and mouldering as two white bobos (Steve and Lindsey), who want to replace it with a modernist tower, square off against black neighbors (Kevin and Lena), who view themselves as defenders of the neighborhood.

That's when things really get interesting. The PC blather deployed by both sides—the acknowledgements of past injustices, the oblique claims to victimization, the emphatic repetitions of "I hear you"—thinly veils the same jurassic territoriality of the '50s. A rhetorical arms race has complicated and in some ways deepened the old divisions, with matters of "taste" substituting for race and class in an an ostensibly post-racial world.  

Even the well-educated, well-off, obviously liberal San Francisco theater audience had trouble navigating these shoals at times. There were jokes about deaf people, gay people, black men, and white women that may or may not have been funny. (Why are white women like tampons? "They're both stuck up cunts!"). There was the moment when several people in the audience cheered as Steve tried to find common cause with Kevin by condemning the War in Iraq, only to learn that Kevin's minivan was plastered with three "support our troops" magnets, one for each of his relatives fighting overseas (statistically, African-Americans are overrepresented in the armed forces). But in other ways Kevin is a classic latte liberal.

Clybourne Park ends by suggesting that neither side in the gentrification wars really pays enough heed to the true nature of the history that it enshrines. I hear you, Bruce Norris. I totally hear you.

Realization of the Week: The Same Classroom Is Never the Same

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 1:15 PM EST

Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Click here to see more of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow Kristina's writing on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

[Previous Mission High dispatch: Will Darrell flunk this test?]

There's a spring in my step as I walk to Mission High School this morning. I can't wait to tell Natalie—the aspiring astronaut who was "kicked out" of two charter schools—that my NASA friend has agreed to meet with her and give her some college advice.

But when I enter Ms. Bowman's World History class, Natalie's not there. Where is she? I wonder. Is she okay? At least Pedro's here, I notice.

When I enter Ms. Bowman's World History class, Natalie's not there. Where is she? I wonder. Is she okay?

Bowman begins class by writing the mnemonic "EMPIRE" on a white dry-erase board for a review of the motivations behind Imperialism. Each letter of EMPIRE stands for a key concept: "E" for economic interests, "M" for military bases, "P" for patriotism and nationalism, "I" for ideology of Social Darwinism, etc.

"I want to answer the ideology question, please!" says Pedro, the sweet skateboarding kid whose T-shirt hides gang-inflicted knife scars. He has already answered the first two questions and seems to have a hard time staying still today. "Just a minute, Pedro," Bowman responds. "I want to allow others to participate in our discussion." "A body of beliefs!" Pedro yells anyway.

Pedro starts chatting with his friends in a loud voice. Bowman first offers him the choice of moving over a few seats. He refuses, promising to stop talking, but doesn't follow through. Bowman then asks Pedro to read out loud the four rules she has written near the classroom door: "Be respectful, no cross-talk, step up, and step back."

Pedro reads them out loud, then continues to joke around with his friends. Nearby, a girl is reading a Bible with a pink cover, ignoring the other students. Last week she participated in collective discussions. This week, she seems annoyed by Pedro and protests with silence. "Pedro, could you come with me for a second?" Bowman asks in a calm voice. The two walk outside the classroom for a minute. Bowman walks back in without Pedro and keeps teaching. Three minutes later, Pedro reenters the class, sits down, and starts working calmly on an exercise with the rest of the class.

As the students write in silence for a moment, it hits me: This class feels completely different from last week. It's not just Pedro's behavior. The students are still learning, but there's more tension, more cross-talk, less engagement as a group.

"Class dynamics change constantly. It's a constant work in progress."

After class I talk to Bowman; she agrees. "A part of it is not having Natalie in the class today," she muses. Since Natalie's always very engaged in class discussions, it's possible that her participation balances out Pedro's desire to be the center of attention, and other students benefit. But Bowman doesn't seem too worried. "Class dynamics change constantly," she says. "It's a constant work in progress."

I now have heard many teachers at Mission High school refer to these small, frequent cultural shifts in a classroom as little bumps. Skilled teachers feel them right away and know exactly how to smooth them out.

WATCH: Lazy Teenage Superheroes vs. Robot Bollywood [Videos]

| Tue Feb. 1, 2011 8:20 AM EST

Speaking of pot, the charming little stoner film embedded below brings $300 worth of special effects to a plot just a tad more absurd than Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Though sadly lacking in Neil Patrick Harris cameos, it's still worth a watch, if only to see what $300 will get you these days in the way of ninjas and giant robot effects. (Answer: A lot.) Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow sums it up thusly:

Lazy Teenage Superheroes is an extremely funny, extremely well-executed 13-minute rude little superhero movie, made by Michael Ashton for a mere $300. It's full of cussin', lewd speculative scenarios involving the private lives of slacker teen supes who are mostly interested in using their powers to get loaded and/or laid. And there's ninjas and herpes jokes.

Watch LTS below:

But wait: What could possibly be better than a $300 action film about superheroes who use their powers only to get high? You guessed it: Robot Bollywood. Alas, no Neil Patrick Harris in this clip either, but the lo-fi special effects are still pretty darn awesome. Watch it below:

Top image: Lazy Teenage Superheroes.