The Riff

How to Handle a "Challenging" Classroom

| Fri Jan. 14, 2011 9:00 AM 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 all of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow Kristina's writing on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

It's 8:10am and I'm sitting in a Mission High School World History class waiting for 20 kids to trickle in. Theoretically, these are some of the more challenging kids to teach. One student near me is a "safety transfer" from another San Francisco school, where gangs invaded his world. A student I'll call Benton walks in late with a serious, apprehensive look on his face. He towers above the other kids, and is considered loud and disruptive in other classes.

Twice I've watched teachers ask this kid to leave their classrooms. I wonder if this teacher will too.

Twice I've watched teachers ask him to leave their classrooms. I wonder if this teacher will too.

World History teacher Jenn Bowman passes out an assignment while students talk about the recent shootings in Arizona. "Did you all hear about this?" she asks. "My father told me about it last night," says the safety-transfer kid. "Why do they hate immigrants in Arizona?" a Latino student wonders aloud. Ms. Bowman asks a student to summarize the latest Arizona news for the rest of the class.

The class moves on to their assignment: Completing sentences that place "capitalism" and "communism" in historic context.

"Can I have a piece of paper?" asks a student with a copy of Alan Gratz's "Samurai Shortstop" on his desk.

"What are tenements?" another student yells out. "Very cramped apartments," someone stage-whispers in response.

Ms. Bowman asks students to raise their hands if they have questions and walks around the classroom with extra supplies, responding to students in a low voice. Students hunch over their papers for 10 minutes in silence.

Next, Ms. Bowman darkens the room for "China Blue," a documentary that follows the life of 17-year-old Jasmine, a Sichuan province native who works 22 hours a day to produce jeans in exchange for a pitiful wage. This part of the film shows how some of these jeans are transported to America, across the Bay. "Oh, I can see them boats from my house!" one young woman mentions. Benton starts talking to a girl next to him during the film.

"Benton, could move a few seats to your right please?" Ms. Bowman asks him.

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Tea Party Backed School Board Kills School Integration in Raleigh, North Carolina

| Thu Jan. 13, 2011 6:34 PM EST

Editors' Note: Click here to see all of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow Kristina Rizga on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

The Washington Post reports that a tea party-backed, largely Republican school board in North Carolina has vowed to "say no to the social engineers" and voted to abolish its policy of socioeconomic integration. (Raleigh's inner-city schools, which are essentially magnet schools filled with economically and racially diverse student enrollments, often have waiting lists and are some of the best in the city.) Reports WaPo's Stephanie McCrummen: 

"Critics accuse the new board of pursuing an ideological agenda aimed at nothing less than sounding the official death knell of government-sponsored integration in one of the last places to promote it. Without a diversity policy in place, they say, the county will inevitably slip into the pattern that defines most districts across the country, where schools in well-off neighborhoods are decent and those in poor, usually minority neighborhoods struggle."

 The NAACP has filed a civil rights complaint and federal education officials have visited the county, first steps toward a possible investigation.

Unfortunately for students in Raleigh, socioeconomic integration was one of the policies that actually seemed to work. As Gerald Grant wrote in his book Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh, this approach "reduced the gap between rich and poor, black and white, more than any other large urban educational system in America." Besides, it's cheaper than charters and better-tested, argues Richard Kahlenberg, a leading voice on this topic and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

Despite the data, even progressives are deeply divided on whether socioeconomic integration is practical. As Andrew Rotherham, one of the most influential voices in school reform, argued in a recent column, "The glaring problem from a policy perspective is that low-income families tend to live in the same neighborhoods, and dramatically changing housing patterns—or school-zoning boundaries—as a large-scale reform measure is impractical." Affluent parents are usually against socioeconomic integration, argues Rotherham.

Stay tuned to Raleigh. As McCrummen notes:

"The situation unfolding here in some ways represents a first foray of tea party conservatives into the business of shaping a public school system, and it has made Wake County the center of a fierce debate over the principle first enshrined in the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education: that diversity and quality education go hand in hand."

Black Writers and English Teachers on Huck Finn

| Thu Jan. 13, 2011 12:00 PM EST

Should a bowdlerized version of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn be taught in high school English classes? As the only African-American student in my English class when this book was assigned, I can assure you that 219 repetitions of the word "nigger" were discomforting at best. But I don't entirely agree with MoJo blogger Kevin Drum's take on NewSouth Books' forthcoming censored Huck, which replaces "nigger" with "slave." Writes Kevin:

The problem with Huckleberry Finn is that, like it or not, most high school teachers only have two choices these days: teach a bowdlerized version or don't teach it at all. It's simply no longer possible to assign a book to American high school kids that assaults them with the word nigger so relentlessly.

I sat down with Mission High School English teacher Tadd Scott this week to see what he—an African-American teacher in a primarily non-white high school—had to say about teaching Huck Finn. (He assigned it when he taught American Literature to high school juniors and seniors.)

How did he deal with the text? Well, students weren't allowed to say the word "nigger" in his classroom anyway, he explains. Instead they skipped over it or used the "N-word" phrase instead when talking about the book.

But how did they feel about the word itself in the text? Students were offended by it. "It's like 'faggot' and other horrible, demeaning words," he says. Still, he doesn't think the text should be rewritten. "I'm an artist," he says. "I don't believe in changing someone's art. Leave it as it is." If the goal is to introduce students before college to Mark Twain's writing, he advises teaching Tom Sawyer excerpts or The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. If it's to introduce high school students to the realities of slavery, assigning slave narratives like this one would be a better choice.

"America right now is not white, it's multicultural. So 'American literature' should probably reflect that."

Besides the "n-word," NewSouth Books is also changing the word "Injun Joe" to "Indian Joe" and "half-breed" to "half-blood," which this Native American blog discusses. But there are plenty of reasons—other than the book's inclusion of historic slurs—why English teachers could choose to teach other texts in American Literature classes, Scott explains. "Who was Huck Finn written for? At the time, it was written for a largely white male population, maybe a few women got it. But America right now is not white, it's multicultural," he says. "So 'American literature' should probably reflect that." One American Lit option he recommends is Langston Hughes' Mulatto: A Play of the Deep South, the first black play performed on Broadway. Another choice: Black Boy, by Richard Wright. Both have been well-loved by his students, he says.

Scott remembers reading Huck Finn when he was 15 as a black student in a mostly white class. "All my teachers of English were white men and white women, and maybe they didn't have the background to understand. But I never saw great black women or men writers during my high school experience, and I do know that I want my people to see themselves in literature in a wonderful way."

What If Loughner Sought Mental Health Help in High School?

| Wed Jan. 12, 2011 5:30 PM EST

Editors' Note: Click here to see all of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow Kristina Rizga on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

Before 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner first got suspended from his community college, exhibited signs of schizophrenia, and purchased a gun, he was just another troubled high school kid. So what if Loughner tried to seek help as a teenager? Would he have been able to get it?

In 2008, when I ran Wiretap, we published a series of stories related to mental illness in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings. During the reporting process we discovered that of the nearly 15 million young people diagnosed with a mental disorder, only one-quarter receive the treatment they need, even when resources exist to help them. Why?

It turns out that budget cuts are just one piece of a complicated puzzle. Confronting mental illness stigma on high school campuses remains an issue for both students and administrators, and the media that reaches teens—MTV, VH1, BET—tends to shy away from real discussions about mental health. There are decent mental health care services out there for young people, especially in urban areas, but to get help teens are usually forced to first navigate a maze of disconnected school and community-based programs. It's nearly impossible to do this successfully without a strong adult advocate. Meanwhile, some doctors prescribe meds hastily, without providing adequate long-term mental health care and follow-up.

Parents, of course, also play a role. "Every time we lie and say we're fine, we're teaching [kids] that that's what you do. You pretend, you wear the mask," says Terrie Williams, a mental health advocate with the Stay Strong Foundation.

One more thing came up frequently in Wiretap's research. Possibly the most important factor impacting a young person's long-term mental health state? The presence of a trusted adult or peer with whom they could be open about their feelings. We don't always have to wait for the government or an expert to provide a little bit of that.

Sarah Palin Retreats (Editorial Cartoon)

| Tue Jan. 11, 2011 6:37 PM EST

Mother Jones illustrator Zina Saunders creates editorial cartoons and animations riffing on the political news and current events of the week. This week, she questions the wisdom of Sarah Palin's now-infamous "target map." (Here's what a Palin aide says about the controversy.) In light of the recent shootings in Arizona, will politicians and talk show hosts dial down the rhetoric a notch? Read MoJo's exclusive interview with alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner's longtime friend, or see MoJo's related coverage—The Editors

With Red Baraat, Always a Dhol Moment

| Mon Jan. 10, 2011 6:34 AM EST

Enter tribal dhol beats on amphetamine followed by a race of trumpets, all percolating with the wanton energy of a two-year-old after a tray of Diwali sweets. That's Red Baraat (baraat is the Hindi word for wedding procession). The nine-piece New York City-based dhol-n-brass band claims it's the first of its kind in the United States, melding bhangra (see our recent interview with Panjabi MC) with brass-infused funk and jazz. Front and center is the dhol, a huge barrel drum that's slung over the shoulder, using sticks to strike both heads, and the wooden sides, too.

Red Baraat's 2010 debut CD, Chaal Baby, earned praise from music critics, and the band is headed back into the studio next month to record a second album, pretitled Shruggy Ji. The musicians also won bragging rights when one of their songs was selected as theme song for the closing credits to the recent movie The Yes Men Fix The World. I asked front man Sunny Jain for the lowdown on Red Baraat's cultural and musical influences, and his social-justice side project, entitled Taboo.

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State (of Emergency) Education Roundup: Charters and Budget Woes

| Fri Jan. 7, 2011 2:10 PM EST

Click here to see all of MoJo's recent education coverage, or follow The Miss K Files on Twitter or with this RSS Feed.

This week California's new Superintendent of Public Instruction declared a state of emergency in schools; California, which educates one in eight public school children in America, is staring down a $28 billion budgetary hole. Kristina Rizga has the details on what budget woes mean for educators across the land.

Now that the GOP's pro-charter school elements have officially landed in the General Assembly, bills allowing the independently run, publicly funded educational facilities have sprung up all over the place this week. Meanwhile, North Carolina tea partiers aim to eliminate caps on the number of charter schools in the state.

On WednesdayThe New York Times hosted a debate on whether Congress should give tax-breaks to parents who home-school their kids, a plan newly elected conservatives are pushing here and here. For more on the tea party's impending war on schools, read this piece from The Daily Beast's Dana Goldstein. Tax breaks for home-schoolers raise questions about using public funds for religious instruction, since many parents who homeschool do it for religious and moral reasons. Also at stake is money that could go to public schools, which NY Times commenters note everyone should have a role in paying for since everyone has a vested interest in the greater good. MoJo's Stephanie Mencimer detailed what Rick Scott's Florida should expect; in short, privatization. 

How much is a good teacher worth? About $400,000 annually. That's if you consider the future earnings of 20 students in a class, which a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research did recently. According to the abridged, free version of the report:

Replacing the bottom 5-8 percent of teachers with average teachers could move the US near the top of international math and science rankings with a present value of $100 trillion.

The NBER report drives home the point that everyone in the country (people without children included) has a vested interest in the education of kids in their community. HuffPo weighs in with more info.

On Monday, a trial date was set in the case of black children who were improperly placed in Special Ed. Read The Philadelphia Inquirer for more.

Also this week, Kevin Drum reported that teachers now have the option of teaching a censored version of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn that replaces the "n-word" with "slave,"

And, the Advocate reported that a Phoenix-area teenager notified officials at every school in Arizona that if they don't institute policies prohibiting gay bullying, he'll file a lawsuit. The emailed letter was sent to more than 5,000 school administrators.

Batman Submits to Sharia, Gotham Freaks Out

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 1:20 PM EST

Image courtesy of DC ComicsImage courtesy of DC ComicsHelp us, Phoenix Jones! You're our only hope.

One day after conservative icon Grover Norquist was outed as a Jihadi stooge (the beard was a tipoff), AFP reports that the anti-sharia blogosphere is up in arms over the latest, greatest threat to Western Civilization: Bruce Wayne. Wait, what?

Per AFP:

In the December issues of DC Comics Detective Comics Annual and Batman Annual, the caped crusader has set up Batman Incorporated and wants to install a superhero in cities around the world to fight crime.*

The hero he picks in France is called Nightrunner, the alter ego of a 22-year-old from Clichy-sous-Bois, a tough Paris suburb where urban unrest sparked riots in immigrant districts across France in 2005.

Nightrunner, known to his family and tax collector as "Bilal Asselah," is an expert in parkour, which is awesome. He's also a Muslim who hails from Algeria, which seems to be what conservatives are really upset about. Big Hollywood's Warner Todd Huston, for instance, called the comic, "PCism at its worst." He added: "France is a proud nation. Yet DC Comics has made a foreigner the 'French savior.' This will not sit well with many Frenchmen, for sure."

For sure. Frenchmen (and Frenchwomen) would never embrace a Algerian Muslim as a national savior. But there's more:

US comic book creator Bosch Fawstin, who wrote on his blog that "DC Comics has submitted to Islam," is coming up with his own antidote.

"If you're as sick and tired of this IslamiCrap as I am, be on the lookout for my upcoming graphic novel, The Infidel, which features Pigman, an ex-Muslim superhero who is the jihadist's worst nightmare," he blogged.

Pigmen aside, I'd just add that Nightrunner's debut is actually the second Muslim superhero controversy in the last year: Last fall, the New York Post slammed President Obama for praising a cartoon featuring 99 Muslim  superheroes who each embody a virtue of Allah**. Looks like Captain Planet is finally off the hook.

Six Self-Control Tips From Experts

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 8:59 AM EST

Over the past four months, I gained a little weight. About 20 pounds to be exact. My beautiful runner's abs have slowly softened into a jelly belly, my butt has become a pants-busting behemoth. In short, it's time to hit the gym. But like every journalist, I'm an expert procrastinator. What better way to stave off actually doing something about my new love handles than to conduct "research"? Over the holidays, I read Daniel Akst's new hardcover, We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, which relies on scientific studies to help explain why it's so hard to resist fatty foods and tobacco and other indulgences, even when we know the consequences. To help us all in our New Year's resolutions, I've summarized below a few self-control tips from Akst, some from his book and others from this interview I did with him. Now excuse me while I go hop on a treadmill. Or at least think about it.

1) Be humble. Know that your willpower is limited, evolutionarily disadvantaged, and will fade under stress. Acknowledge that you don't have total control of yourself, as willpower is strongly correlated with genetics.

2) Pre-commit. Knowing your weaknesses, take steps to "pre-commit" to your goals, meaning you change your environment to include or exclude desired presences. Don't want to eat cookies? Don't buy them at the grocery store. Want to work out? Take a new route to the office that forces you go past the gym, or pack a work-out bag and put it in your car. 

3) Document. If you mark on the calendar that you've resisted the donut shop's siren call for X number of days, give yourself a reward. But don't overdo it. Instead, strive to make your next number of days even longer. 

4) Enlist others to help you. Knowing we traditionally used others to help ensure harmony (e.g. having people witness your wedding so you're less likely to break its vows), do the same with your resolutions. Make a bet with a friend for a significant amount of money or a donation to a cause you hate. E.g. if your weight goes above 200, you must donate $500 to the NRA or give your friend $1000. The higher the price you set on failure, the likelier you are to succeed. 

5) When faced with temptation, you can deal with it with resistance techniques such as thinking of something else, reading a book, keeping the desired object out of your sightline, or listing unattractive attributes of the object of desire rather than focusing on attractive ones.

6) Go outdoors. Studies have shown that spending time in nature strengthens self-resolve, even among the weak-willed. Time spent among green, living things will not only up your willpower, it's an easy way to work in some endorphin-boosting exercise or meditation. 

I Was a Wayne Barrett Intern

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 6:30 PM EST

I almost never got the chance to meet Wayne Barrett, who announced today that he's been let go from the Village Voice after more than three decades at the weekly as one of New York's best political journalists.

As it turned out, I had the pleasure to be among his final interns when, last summer, he taught me the fine art of hounding politicians without mercy after digging deep through the archives, ensuring we neglected no one with anything to hide.