Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Myth of the Evil Teacher Union, Part I

Last night, as I lay in bed, I found myself itemizing some of the most pernicious lies people accept about the teaching profession and the teacher’s unions in particular. Then, when I came into work, I received this great cartoon from a colleague (and my former student teacher) and felt compelled to put it all down on paper (so to speak).

parker - Share on Ovi

We'll get to merit pay in a few days. As I began to hammer out this list, it quickly became too long for a single post, so I'll put them up in serial form. Here's lie #1:

1. Teachers unions are responsible for keeping bad teachers in the classroom.

I can’t speak for every school district nationwide, but if my district is any guide, this is flat-out wrong. I’m not saying we don’t have any bad teachers teaching in our district. But the union does not protect them. Our contract, like many, creates a three year window at the beginning of a teacher’s time in the district (regardless of how many years he/she has taught elsewhere) in which a teacher can be fired for no reason whatsoever. The union does not prevent these people from being fired, but in my years as a teacher, the district has not exercised this ability once. Not once. Teachers have been let go due to budget cutbacks (Reductions in Force, or RIFs), and a couple of teachers have been let go because of inappropriate behavior which came to the attention of the state’s Teachers and Standards Commission (TSPC), but new teachers, even if they are really struggling, aren’t fired. That’s not the union’s fault. In fact, the representatives who serve on union committees are all teachers, and we don’t like it when a bad teacher makes us look bad. But getting teachers fired isn’t our job. We play our role, trying to fight for fair and consistent working conditions, and we privately wish that administrators would do their jobs and take care of certain teachers.

Now, once a teacher has survived that three year probationary period, they CAN still be fired. At that point, it gets a bit more difficult because the school district would have to find a reason. But they have a lot of discretion in this area. They would simply have to do some classroom observations, put someone on a dreaded “plan of assistance” (the threat of which can often send a teacher into early retirement or in search of another school), and then show that the teacher was not making adequate progress on that plan. The union does try to make sure that this is done fairly, that the school district isn’t running someone out for political reasons or creating some unfair and impossible plan of assistance as retaliation for union activity, but if a teacher is performing below par, they could certainly be let go and the union couldn’t do a thing about it.

Unions don’t keep bad teachers in the profession. School districts that are frightened of consequences, or loathe to do the extra legwork, allow those teachers to stay in the classroom. Or they try to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings by promoting the bad teachers into (sometimes made-up and completely unnecessary) administrative positions. Some administrators were great teachers. And some are great at their current jobs. But the Peter Principle is alive and well in public schools, and that's not the union's fault. We don't make hiring decisions for teachers or administrators.

So if your kid's teacher stinks, don't blame the union. Look up the chain of command. But don't be totally shocked if you find yourself talking with someone who wasn't all that hot as a teacher once upon a time.

Tomorrow, Myth #2: Teachers are overpaid.

Monday, March 29, 2010

How To Train You Dragon, Avatar, or Native American

We went to see How To Train Your Dragon this weekend. Short version: We all loved it, and I think I may have enjoyed it more than Noah or Paige, though it was a close contest. The sensation of flying on a dragon's back was captured just as magically, if not more so, in HTTYD as it was in Avatar, the characters were more likable, the dialogue vastly improved, and the action just as engaging, though it didn't have the immersive quality of Pandora's jungles.

Here's the thing, though; the story is almost exactly the same. Sure, there are dragons and Vikings, but Avatar had its Na'vi and Marines, Dances With Wolves had its Native Americans and Union Soldiers, The Last Samurai had its Samurai and Union Soldiers, Last of the Mohicans had its Native Americans and colonists... you get the idea. This is not a new story.

But two of these stories in such close proximity, and both enjoying such wild critical and box office success, has me wondering about the zeitgeist. What does this say about us? I wonder if the marines references in Avatar obscured the point, to some extent. Sure, these can be read as a critique of U.S. foreign policy. They can be dismissed as the normal liberal PC apologies from Hollywood. As David Brooks pointed out, the "White Messiah" fable is both a racial pat on the back and more than a bit racist when it's about human beings, so dragons are a bit safer in that way.

But I wonder if there's more to this coincedence.

Zygmunt Bauman, in this interesting piece, posits that we are living in an "interregnum", a period between the traditional power structure of the nation-state and a period where the next order, of some new and as-of-yet undefined nature, takes hold. I'm skeptical of these pieces. Part of me wonders if they are the academic version of a guy standing on a street corner with a sign that says, "The End Is Nigh!" (For that matter, Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers was published in 1987. Every time I read someone say he was just a bit ahead of his time, I wonder how long we can stretch out that "bit".) Still, Bauman makes an interesting case, comparing the way multinational corporations, international criminal organizations, terrorist groups, and individual "non-state-actors" can all circumvent the traditional model of national sovereignty. Could films that tell us to reexamine some of our presuppositions about our friends and enemies be tapping into our collective discomfort? Perhaps this goes well beyond our disenchantment with US foreign policy. We should all have felt some unease going back long before the "War on Terror" to our involvement with the Contras, supporting Saddam, the internment of the Japanese, ignoring the plight of the Jews at the beginning of WWII, and on and on. A critical eye toward the actions of the US government at home and abroad is both healthy and patriotic. But, in the context of this interregnum (if that's truly what we're experiencing) I wonder if these kinds of films can also tap into a queasy feeling in our stomachs related not to seeing our government's warts, but instead caused by a world that is genuinely shifting under our feet.

Maybe we just want to fly with dragons and have sex with giant blue people. Fine. I have no problem with either of those. Zoe Saldana is super hot, even when digitally remastered, and I've been into dragons since I was a little kid. Maybe it's just a coincidence. But if I was going to go into a Hollywood pitch meeting tomorrow, I'd want to sell a story about one of US joining up with THEM, only to discover that THEY are cool and WE need to learn to understand THEM. We want to believe this story right now, because we know the world is changing, and though we're not sure who exactly THEY are, we hope they turn out to be friendly.

Please submit your suggestions for the wildest versions of THEM and US. Because I have a sneaking suspicion that it wouldn't really matter.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Mom the Early Adopter

I just posted a comment on the first post of my mother's blog. She's blogging as a marketing tool for her new business (she's a life coach). If you're interested, you can find the blog here.

My mom is something of an early adopter. We had a personal computer, complete with a black and orange monitor and that paper with the edges that had to be neatly trimmed off, before most folks in our income bracket. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on it. I'm pretty sure my dad typed his on his type writer.

I'm not sure which of us discovered email first. I know I'm more addicted to it (I check it hourly, and worry about it during camping trips). Mom had a cell phone first. I resisted, based on the idea that I would be giving up my freedom and privacy. Now I can't remember how I lived before my phone. My wife and I call each other from opposite sides of a Target in order to meet up.

I do know Mom beat me to Facebook. I resisted that one, too, on the grounds that it would be as lame as MySpace. I beat Mom there, but that's nothing to brag about. It's like saying "I discovered that farts smell bad before you did. So there."

I certainly wasn't on the cutting edge of blogging, and I still enter into it fully cognizant of the narcissism inherent in the medium. But that's where I think Mom has me beat once again: I blog for no justifiable reason. Mom blogs for her work. Point for her.

I have beaten Mom to Twitter, which has all the drawbacks of blogging and only one discernible benefit. It's an education in brevity. And, speaking as a teacher, I can say for certain that an education does not necessarily lead to an educated student. But I've put that too succinctly to make my point. Let me drone on about that for a bit... Oh, nevermind.

My latest salvo in the early-adopter war with Mom is my itouch. This is, frankly, the coolest thing I own. I love it, and it's a portal to another medium I've discovered: the podcast. My mom has an itouch, but, for the first time, approaches the technology like your grandma did the VCR. She claims it's too complex, that she can't keep it charged, that she can;t figure out how to adjust the setting so that it will update the podcasts she might be interested in.

I am going to enjoy this slight edge for as long as I can, because I expect that she'll soon realize that she can not only market her business with a blog, but also with a podcast, at which point she'll be creating with a purpose while I dink around pointlessly.

Thank you for reading this post which argues against its own existence. Again, here's my mom's.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Is the Internet like Edward Scissorhands?

If you haven't seen the new video for the OK Go song "This Too Shall Pass", you've short changed yourself. If you missed their last viral hit, for the song “Here It Goes Again”, well, I'm not sure what you do with your time on line, but you either work too hard or don't know how this Internet thing works.

As I watched the video for "This Too Shall Pass", I caught the little Easter Egg of the smashed TV showing the Video for “Here It Goes Again” and remembered lead singer Damian Kulash's op-ed for the New York Times. He describes the way his record label, EMI, shot themselves in the foot by trying to maintain ownership of the video and keep it from going viral. He tries to empathize with their old-world view of property rights but explains how they stood in the way of democratization at their own economic expense.

Watching the new video (backed by their new label, Paracadute Recordings) I'm reminded of the kind of quality appearing online. Without the gatekeepers (or in spite of the efforts of gatekeepers like EMI) the quality of work on the Internet seems to be bifurcating. On the one hand, we have artists like OK Go and, arguably, Lady Gaga, have come to the attention of mass audiences because they work so well in the medium of video and thus benefit the most from YouTube. That’s not to say that OK Go and Lady Gaga aren’t talented musicians (I have three OK Go songs on my ipod right now) but their videos are better, and I don’t think that’s any knock against them. They are masters of a medium, in very different ways. That particular medium, the music video, has been well served by the rise of the Internet. But all other media have been affected as well (I’m struggling to think of one that has remained largely unchanged. Opera, maybe?) and that got me wondering: has the loss of gatekeepers been good in other media, as it has for music videos, or bad, as it has for music?

When I say music has been adversely affected, I don’t mean that people aren’t listening to music. Thanks to iTunes, which essentially saved the industry from Napster and the like, we’re still even willing to pay for some of it. But pop music, as a whole, has been diminished. Artists used to be able to think in terms of an album, if they so chose. Top forty radio could then turn audiences on to a track from an album, but the album itself retained that cohesion. Now, the concept album is dead. The Decemberists, a band with a loyal following who could risk a concept album, came out with one just last year, called The Hazards of Love. I listened to the tiny samples of songs on iTunes and bought one song I love. It just seemed too expensive to buy the whole thing knowing some songs wouldn’t really work while on “shuffle”. Goodbye, concept album.

Worse than that, many songs are written not to stand alone (no shame in that) but to be even more fragmentary, as ring tones. Some of the most cynical science fiction authors predicted that our musical tastes would one day come to resemble advertising jingles. Tada.

While the music industry seems to have been generally negatively affected by the rise of the Internet, something far more interesting is happening with Television, Film, and Novels. To me, it seems all three of these media are bifurcating as their gatekeepers disappear. As a greater quantity gets through, we’re seeing a lot more bad, but also more good work. It’s too soon to tell the degree to which this will affect publishing. People love to sound the death knell, as they did for your local movie theater when the VCR became popular, but sales of novels are up. Are we seeing better books? Not yet (as a feminist, don’t get me started on the terrible message the Twilight series sends to teenage girls). But ask any agent and publisher, and they’ll tell you that social networking, viral marketing, and the sheer ease of email have sped up the business to a fever pitch. The effect: We can burn through the dreadful tail-ends of trends much faster (Don’t start writing that teen vampire novel now. Too late. Wait a decade.) and rush to brave new ideas more quickly. Also, I am hopeful that the explosion of YA Lit will rejuvenate a generation of readers who will want more from their books as adults, improving both YA (the best writing being done today) and “Literary Fiction” (which could use a shot in the arm).

When it comes to television, the bifurcation of quality is even more dramatic. On the one hand, TV fans like me are living in a Golden Age. Shows like The Sopranos and Lost have opened the doors to some of the highest quality TV ever, in terms of the writing (I know. I know. I need to watch The Wire.), the acting, the production values, and more. The stigma about working on the small screen has essentially vanished for big name actors, and rightfully so; good TV beats bad movies any day of the week (literally). On the other hand, the successes of so many cable shows has brought cable to the forefront, which has produced so many new slots in the schedule that need to be filled, and with diminished ad revenue thanks to TiVo, so networks have turned to Reality TV, arguably the worst art you’ve ever voluntarily let into your home. Maybe this shift has nothing to do with the Internet. Maybe the rise of the high quality pay channel series simply happened to coincide with the rise in Internet use. But I doubt it. The Internet may not magically get you HBO (though, with some tricky finagling, it can be done) but it does allow your “friends” on Facebook to turn you on to a new show, and then it allows Netflix to send you the DVDs right to your house (Confession: This makes Netflix a more important friend to me than a few of the people on my Facebook friend list).

Similarly, it seems movies are simultaneously getting better and worse. Thanks to vastly improved, inexpensive technology, many more people can make high quality Indie movies. And with the help of the Internet, you and I can find out about them without the massive marketing machines of the big studios, and can see them without the going to the local Cineplex (thanks again, Netflix!). The gatekeepers aren’t gone, but they are playing a very different role, capitalizing on directors and actors who’ve already shown their brilliance in the Indie scene rather than taking such big gambles while deciding who will get through the studio gate. Talented directors, actors, editors, light and costume designers, etc., will now get through. Movies that wouldn’t have made a good pitch will now get made. Imagine: “It’s about an old man and a young boy who go for a ride to South America in a house lifted by balloons. It’s animated, but adults will probably enjoy it more than kids. And it probably won’t sell many toys. And there’s not really any way to make a sequel. Can I have $175 million dollars?” Yes, I know Up was made by Pixar, which is now owned by Disney, a major studio, but Pixar began as a small firm making animated short films. Who watches animated shorts? Everybody. Thank you, Internet.

But are all movies getting better? Certainly not. Name your top ten favorite comedies, and if more than half come from the last decade, I'd bet good money you're under twenty years old. And in the horror genre, for all the buzz created by the viral marketing campaign, Paranormal ended up being a universal let-down, while The Shining and Jacob's Ladder will still freak you out twenty and thirty years later. Movies, like TV, are getting better and worse.

This leads me to Edward Scissorhands, not as an example of an Indie film, but as a metaphor. I teach Edward Scissorhands as part of the school adopted ninth grade language arts curriculum, which has a whole unit on reading film as text (I know! How cool!). If you missed it back in 1991, it really was a wonderfully made movie on many levels, and worthy of the kind of close reading my students give it each year. Spoiler: It’s a fairytale about an unfinished android with scissors for hands who comes down from a creepy mansion to an exaggerated, stylized suburb. There, he’s the subject of fascination, until the community turns on him for being too different, and he’s exiled back to the mansion.

Before Edward leaves, he changes the community. First, the changes are superficial. He trims the hedges. Then grooms the dogs. Then cuts the women’s hair. But the changes become more and more substantive. He humiliates the community’s vile cougar by rejecting her. He earns the love of Kim, the girl of his dreams. He turns Kim’s boyfriend from a small-time crook and consummate d-bag into a homicidal maniac. He turns everyone in town into a torch-wielding mob. And we know these changes leave a lasting impact, because the whole fairy-tale is presented as a bedtime story Kim tells to her grand-daughter generations later.

So, is the Internet like Edward? At first, our art changed, but only superficially. Now, it can never go back. Similarly, our politics have changed. As Paul Krugman pointed out, the regime in Iran could not hide their violent suppression of dissent from the Iranian people in the same way the Chinese government was able to hide the Tienanmen Square Massacre. Like Edward’s foray into the suburb, the Internet made Dean a candidate in 2004 (and sunk him, too), but made Obama a phenomenon, and, arguably, President, in 2008. It’s also unleashed some of the most despicable vitriol in the protection of the anonymity of message boards, and that level of anger contributes to a kind of partisanship we haven’t seen in the U.S. in over a hundred years. In fact, the “War on Terror”, in many ways resembles the battle between the old gatekeepers of war, nation states, and the Internet warrior, the “non-state actor”, and that’s no coincidence, as global jihadists use the Internet as one of their main tools. Like Edward’s story, the story of the Internet is one of ever deepening effects on our lives.

But Edward isn’t the Internet. Edward is us. As we watch the quality of our TV, our movies, and our politics bifurcate, we can’t blame the technology. The Internet is just Edward’s trip down the hill. We, the boring, controlled community of little houses made of ticky-tacky, are being confronted by ourselves, a screaming, whispering, beautiful, ugly humanity which is, like Edward, incomplete. The gatekeepers didn’t necessarily make our media better, but they kept the rabble out, and made the arts more palatable and digestible. Now we can see what our entire species really looks like through a screen, and it’s not too far from Tim Burton’s vision back in the early days of the Internet; a lonely teenager who can create beautiful things, who desperately wants to be loved and accepted, and who is very dangerous to himself and others.

EdwardScissorhands - Share on Ovi