Saturday, October 30, 2010

Notes on Teaching: Waiting for Superman or Waiting for What?

I should be taking some time to digest what I just viewed, but I can't help but have an immediate reaction to the documentary Waiting for Superman. I was extremely excited to see this film, not because I thought it was going to enlighten or further inform me about the depressing state of education in America, but because I was hoping for an optimistic view for the future of education--whether that be from the film makers themselves, the families that were followed, the superintendents, the individual teachers, or the lawmakers. Now, I'm angry. I'm angered by all the problems this film presented, and even more angered by all the problems Waiting for Superman skimmed over, or completely neglected.

The first thing that came to mind as I watched the hard-to-swallow statistics pop out from the screen is that--yes, only somewhere between 10-30% of kids in America can read at their respective grade levels, and yes, only 10-30% of kids in America don't know which side of the periodic table precious metals are on--it seems that these startling percentages come from a United States geography that has left out two very important states: Alaska and Hawaii.

I'm can't say I'm surprised. If I didn't have the opportunity to live and teach on Oahu I might have neglected to think about these two states as well. But I do live in Honolulu, and am currently working with the Writers in the Schools program (Pacific Writers Connection) at Halau Ku Mana, a Hawaiian charter school in town, which gives me a narrow glimpse into the much larger local education system here on this island. I don't have enough experience with the K-12 system in Hawaii to give you a profoundly informed opinion on the state of education for those kids at Halau Ku Mana, let alone anywhere else on the islands. What I do know though, is that I have taught English Composition to a number of local high school graduates and non-local high school graduates at the University of Hawaii.

The students in my current and past classes come to UH with a variety of skills and abilities. Some students can't tell me where to put a conjunction in a sentence with two distinct independent clauses. Some students can teach me a thing or two about dangling modifiers. Some students have trouble analyzing a PETA advertisement. Some students nail the rhetorical analysis paper. Some students can think critically about global issues, but others don't know what I mean when I say "global".

These are just some of the kids that Waiting for Superman forgot to mention. While the movie makes nods to the economic crisis in education, the total focus seems to hone in on individual stories as a way to tell the collective narrative. What is that narrative? Well, from what I understand, it's that yes there are problems with education, and a lot of that has to do with luck, and geography. The story goes that if you live in a "good" area, you will attend a "good" public school, but it won't be good enough. And if you live in a "bad" area, you have to be extremely lucky to get a decent public education.

You have to be lucky to live in the suburbs. You have to be lucky to live in a district that had magnet schools. You have to be lucky to win a scholarship. You have to be lucky to win a spot in the "better" school via the lottery. You have to be lucky to have a KIPP school in your neighborhood. You have to be lucky to have good teachers. You have to be lucky to have a principal that cares about his or her students. You have to be lucky to be rich. You have to be lucky that your parents didn't do drugs and die. You have to be lucky that your parents want you to have a better life than you had.

Yes, it clearly all boils down to luck. Not economics. Not race. Not class. Not ethnicity. Not power. Not any of this. I think it's very telling that out of the all the individual stories that this movie told, the only "lucky" kid was a white girl from the 'burbs who got into the school she wanted (via the lottery), while the two African American kids and the Hispanic girl were either "NOT ACCEPTED" or "WAIT LISTED". One of the wait listed kids did have a happy ending by getting a spot in a boarding school--but unfortunately not every child is lucky enough to be a number on a list. And what's going to happen to the kids that just didn't get into a better school? The undesirable school in the 'burbs is still better than where the other kids will end up.

Today in ENG273, Poetry and Drama, a class I apprentice for with Jonathan Morse, the instructor, we wrapped up a discussion on the play Another Antigone, by A. R. Gurney. I asked the students to answer the following question:

At the end of the play, pages 57-59, Henry tells the class what tragedy is not and why tragedy is a difficult concept for Americans to understand. Explain what tragedy is, and what it is that Henry thought he knew about tragedy, but didn't understand until the present moment.

The explanation is that tragedy, as the character Henry (a character parallel to Sophocles' Creon) states, is that "Tragedy occurs when you cannot choose, when you have no choice at all. This is hard for Americans to understand. Because most of us are free, or think we are. Nowhere else in the world, and never before in history, have so many people been so free to choose so many destinies. Perhaps, because of this freedom, it is impossible for us to sense what the Greeks called tragedy" (58).

But I would argue that our freedoms are contradictory; we cannot measure our successes without our failures. When one individual wins, someone else loses. This is what Waiting for Superman has left me with--a feeling that education in the United States is in a tragic state. Our destinies are sometimes products of choices, but this isn't the case for everyone. There is an oracle here in America. That oracle will tell us who will attend a drop-out factory and who will go to college.

I think what the movie does bring up, successfully, is that there are problems across geographical borders. Most times suburban schools provide better education than urban schools, but those suburban schools are still passing kids through who can't read at the level they should. Yes, tenure is a problem. Yes, money is an issue. Yes, tracking is unfair. And so on. But what I think the movie is really telling us is that we can't fix anything until we first define, collectively as a nation, what the standard of education should be. How do we define success in America? How is that the United States falls behind more than 20 countries in education?  How do we raise our standards, reevaluate our priorities? How do we make it so that Furlough Fridays never happen again? How do we make all children see college not only as a privilege, but also a right? Waiting for Superman mentions that education is seen as a way out, but what if education wasn't something you had to fight for? And that it really meant something.

What tragic heroes do, according to Henry in Another Antigone is, "even in the teeth of disaster, is accept responsibility, assert their own destiny, and mete out their own punishments" (58). Well education is in a state of disaster. It isn't just the humanities. And it isn't just in higher education. We need to assert our own destiny--figure out what education in this country means, set new goals, and get on track to get there. We need educators to step up and say listen, I need help or step down and say listen, I need help. Whatever it is we need to do, it all starts by being responsible for teaching our children, really teaching them, so that they all can choose their own destinies.


Susan M. Schultz said...

Great post, Jaimie, and I like hearing the sound of Hawai`i in your voice, too. The movie is one I'm too scared to see, at least now. But the problem is cultural--the notion of "luck" seems to be something Americans trust more than they trust government these days. I'd like to talk more later!

Jaimie Gusman said...

Thanks for your comment Susan--I have MUCH to say about this...probably too much!