The daily musings of a substitute teacher in East Central Illinois.

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Summer Reading IV: Red Rabbit

Hopefully I won’t be boring anyone with my summer reading but, then, my main purpose in blogging is for personal reflection and recording, not for gaining an audience. (That being said, I certainly appreciate those who come and read my musings and those who comment, as well.)

As previously noted, I am working my way through Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan/John Clark universe” collection. I just finished reading Red Rabbit, which is a later book (in terms of when it was written), but takes place early on. Over all, I enjoyed the book. It gives some interesting insights into life in Soviet Socialist Russia in the early 1980s, albeit from a very Western perspective.

It is fun to see how Tom Clancy places his characters in key places in history, or, rather, in the alternate universe that parallels our own. The American president in clearly Ronald Reagan, but his name is never given. Likewise with the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher or the Polish Pope, John Paul II. This is an idiosyncratic thing that Clancy does in nearly all of his books. The players in the various government bureaus all have names, like Emil Jacobs, head of the FBI, Arthur Moore, Director of Central Intelligence, and his two deputies, James Greer and Bob Ritter. But the Heads of State are always referred to by title, not name. Even the Royal Family in England is never named.

The story focuses on Clancy’s fictionalised account of one of the many theories surrounding the assassination attempt on Pope John Pual II in the early 1980s. Not knowing much about the actual historical account beforehand, other than the fact that it had happened and that it was the primary reason for the Popemobile being more secure with bullet-proof glass. (Interesting side-note: apparently “Popemobile” is an acceptable informal term for the vehicle that has no formal moniker. Go figure.) The “Red Rabbit” is a Soviet defector (“rabbit” being used as an espionage terms to describe a defector) who has learned of the assassination plot on the Pope and wishes to alert the Americans so as to protect the life of an innocent man.

While enjoyable, it was not the most suspenseful of Clancy’s novels, and it certainly didn’t have the usual plots, sub-plots, and sub-sub-plots that are typical of his works. I get the feeling that this story was more of an attempt to flesh out the Ryan biography (and earn some more money) than to really present a gripping tale of suspense and intrigue. Next up is The Hunt for Red October, which was actually the first Clancy novel I ever read.

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Interview IV

Today I had an interview at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Champaign. I was interviewing for a 2nd grade (gifted) position that is, in many ways, a new position.

In past years, the gifted program at BT Washington has been two classrooms: 2/3 and 4/5. This year, there will be three: 2, 3, and 4/5. Another change is in the school itself. BT Washington has long been the only bilingual school in the district. Many kindergarten students come in speaking only Spanish and learn English as they go through the grades. There are also English-speaking students who learn Spanish every other day. The district is moving (or just closing–I’m not clear which) the bilingual program, and turning the building into a STEM magnet school – Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

All of this means that they are really looking for a candidate who has expertise in gifted education, science, technology, engineering, and math. (Although they would be okay with someone whose expertise is gifted and one of the four STEM classes). Alas, I have none of the above.

As a substitute teacher, my expertise is a mile wide and a fathom deep. It is deep, but it covers a vast array of topics. I am a generalist educator, first and foremost. I am very pleased with my broad knowledge base, and actually consider it to be a strong selling point for my qualifications for a full-time teaching position. It is a rare day when a student asks me a question and I don’t know the answer. Even rarer is when I can’t find the answer. So, honestly, I don’t know if this position really is the best one for me.

But we shall see. I have another job interview tomorrow morning for a 4th grade position in Richton Park (a Chicago suburb) and will hopefully have an interview in Urbana soon for another 4th grade position. Lots of interviews this summer. Gretch and I have already decided that, since I am only applying for jobs that I would actually accept if offered, I should take the first offer made. So it’ll be an exciting week!

Update: I apparently never blogged about my third job interview, which was for a 3rd grade position at Thomasboro Elementary just north of the Champaign-Urbana area. Thomasboro has a nice school and a great teaching staff. The principal and superintendent were both very supportive and I could tell that they work hard to work with their teachers to improve their school. I had the interview on June 21, not quite a week after my interview at Woodland. I sent the superintendent an email the following morning with a question and an additional letter of reference and got a reply back that, while they were very impressed, they selected someone else. Sorry about forgetting about it!

Brief Statement

An anonymous commenter on the blog that I linked to a few days ago left the following response on that blog:

And, yes, I have heard teachers and administrators say, “Given the population we teach, we can’t possibly be expected to meet the NCLB benchmarks.” That is code for, “the students in this school are too dumb to learn.”

That, my friends, is one completely ridiculous and asinine statement. So I responded, and wanted to share my response here, too:

Actually, it is code for, “our politicians who know nothing about education have set artificial boundaries to determine whether or not a student has learned when in reality we, as the professionals, know that learning happens in different ways for each child, and you can’t possibly determine if it has occurred simply by setting a numerical value and telling teachers that if students don’t achieve the value then they, the teachers, have failed.”

My life is about to get busier, what with me training for my summer job (finally! huzzah!) this coming week, in between an interview on Monday and a summer school sub assignment on Tuesday, then leaving for the Illinois Teen Institute for a week, and then starting said job when I return, but I am more and more wanting to get involved with the political aspects of my profession. My state representative has indicated that he is sincere about wanting input, and I want to see what I can do to help. Comments like this anonymous person’s are strengthening this resolve. I want to be a part of the process that puts us all back on the same team, rather than allow the status quo to continue with slanderous comments like this.


					

Interlude

It has been a busy summer yet, at the same time, it has also been a not-busy summer. I think I understand how Charles Dickens could write a story about times that were both the best and the worst.

I spend my days applying for jobs, scanning old photographs and posting them on Facebook, watching The X-Files, applying for jobs, reading, listening to music, doing housework, applying for jobs, being lazy, doing work around the yard, applying for jobs, and reading blogs. Nearly all of these activities take place in the office my wife and I have set up in the second bedroom of our house, which means I spend most of my days sitting at the computer, probably developing some terrible spinal disorder as a result. I try to get up and move around, too, but it only helps so much.

I wish that more educators updated their blogs in the summer, but most of them are like me. There’s not much education-y type stuff going on, and the stuff that is going on is often so frustrating that I hate to write about it lest I go off on a rant about the lack of justice in the world.

Things really aren’t all that bad. But it is awfully frustrating to read news articles about how lazy, greedy, unmotivated, unprofessional, and unwilling to change my colleagues and I are. One of the education blogs I follow is written by a semi-anonymous special education teacher in Washington, D.C. I have her blog linked on the side, and I highly recommend it. She has recently written a fabulous piece about the problems of the education reform debate. I hope that you will read it and comment on it there, here, or in both places. We need more people talking about education but, more importantly, we need people talking about education in productive tones.

My favourite part of her message is this:

I think my biggest problem with the debate is the assumption that teachers are against reform. We absolutely want the best for our kids. Do we want more testing? No, but not because we are lazy, we are scared for our jobs, or because we have low expectations for our kids. We don’t believe testing, as it has been implemented, improves the students’ education. In fact, in many ways, when working in the trenches, we watch how it is a determinate to actual student learning. We watch how children lose out on essential instructional time because of the amount of classroom time dedicated to test prep. We struggle knowing what best practices are and knowing they are out of our reach as we drill and kill for the test.

We want reform, but we’d like to have a straightforward conversation about how that is best done. Yet anytime one of us opens our mouth we’re immediately told that we have low expectations for our students- after that our arguments are cut off at the knees. We mention what we know are best practices- research-based practices that will give success but no one wants to hear it. We’re told that where we learned those best practices and theories- in graduate school- was a waste of time. The general public tells us that we only went back to school to get a raise in pay, that our masters degrees are worthless, and that we are simply working the system…

Too many reformers do not have a background in education, do not understand how children learn, and do not have a grasp on recent break throughs in best practices.  When someone comes to us with a true, improved teaching idea we celebrate. We sit through afternoon workshops we don’t get paid for in order to learn how to improve our teaching. We are always seeking how to improve our teaching. Yet what is brought to us by “reformers” is not helping our teaching.  We’d love it if it was different.

A friend has suggested that I apply to join my local state representative’s education advisory committee. I am interested, but first I want to know what Rep. Barickman will do with my advice. Will he listen to educators? Will our input make a difference? Or are we going to be treated like the problem, like so many others do?

I find myself repeatedly turning to what is probably my all-time favourite political movie: The American President. I don’t think I’ve linked it here before, but even if I have, I am going to again:

The relevant portion is this:

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character…

Insert “education reformers” for “Bob Rumson” and you pretty much have the same thing going on. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It is time we stop blaming and starting working.

Summer Reading III: Patriot Games

I recently finished the second book (chronologically) of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan/John Clark Universe, Patriot Games.

I quite enjoyed this story, even though some of the characters were a little stiff. I could tell that this was an earlier writing endeavour by Mr. Clancy, which probably explains a lot. However, it was a very well-written story, despite its flaws. It was fun and quick to read and, as with most of his stories, it makes the reader ask important questions about right and wrong and how we respond to fuzzy boundaries, as my one-time social and cultural geography instructor liked to call them.

Far too often, we try to paint the world in terms of black and white. But the reality of our world is that we don’t even live in shades of grey; our world is full of vibrant colours that blend and contrast and clash and mix. Sometimes things are very pretty. Other times they are quite ugly. And then there are the things that are either mostly ugly with a secret treasure of beauty in the middle or the exact opposite. This is what I think of when I read Tom Clancy’s books. He is showing that, for all of our desire to determine right and wrong, there is an awful lot of confusing mish-mash that we have to deal with, too.

I think my favourite line from the book is when Jack Ryan’s friend Robby Jackson tells him, “I am the voice of reason in a chaotic world.” That, to me, kind of sums up the whole of what Tom Clancy is trying to help us find.

And yeah, I am probably reading far too much into the author’s purpose. For what it’s worth, I would never expect anyone else to identify the same reason, nor do I think that you even need to know the purpose when you read. One of these days I am going to finish reading this book on balanced literacy that I’ve been working through for several months. In the meantime, I will share this: the book discusses the idea that we tend to read for one of two purposes: for pleasure (aesthetically) or for information (efferently). Maybe it is just me, but I tend to read for both reasons simultaneously. Scratch that. I know it isn’t just me because I am 99% certain I got this habit from my mother. So there are at least two of us.

Anyway, I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Red Rabbit. This is one of those that I don’t own, though, so I am waiting for the library to get it. While I wait, I am finally going to read the Jared Diamond book that has been sitting on my nightstand for more months that I care to count.

Safe Driving, Cell Phones, and the Law

A friend of mine recently posted an op-ed piece she had written to her newspaper in Texas. It was about Gov. Rick Perry vetoing a Texas law that would make it illegal to text while driving. Illinois passed a similar law about a year or so ago. My response then was the same as it is now. I shared this with Sarah, and thought I’d share it here, because it touches on issues of driver education and general safety issues that need to be taught at an early age, anyway. (Nice justification for posting this on an education blog, eh?)

While I understand the rationale behind the driving-while-texting laws, the small government part of me keeps saying, “But it is already illegal! It is called reckless driving!” If you are driving an automobile and an accident occurs because you were distracted, whether by talking on a cell phone, texting, changing a radio station, reading the newspaper, putting on make-up, changing your clothes, fiddling with an mp3 player, or anything else, you will be faulted for the accident. You can also get ticketed for reckless driving if you are swerving all over the road, even if you don’t cause an accident.

Illinois passed DWT legislation about a year ago and, honestly, I haven’t heard anything to indicate there have been fewer accidents. And I still see people texting and doing other ridiculous things. (All of the examples I listed above are things I have seen people do while driving.)

So, on the one hand, I agree that driving while texting (or anything else that distracts you from driving) is a bad idea but, on the other hand, I don’t think the people who do it will be swayed by the laws. After all, how does an officer even prove someone was texting? Look at their phone to see if there is a message in drafts or just sent? The motions required to write a text are nearly identical to those needed to dial a number, but it isn’t against the law to make phone calls (at least not here). I guess that, at the end, these laws are much more symbolic than anything, but I still have my doubts about whether or not they are effective.

I’ll ask the same thing that Sarah asked: Do you agree or disagree? Please explain but remember to play nice!

Summer Reading II: Without Remorse

It probably seems like quite a jump in genres, but that’s because it is. That’s just how I read. After finishing Tuck Everlasting, I decided to make good on my decision to read Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse.

This book is kind of a prequel of sorts, when it comes to the not-quite-a-series-but-so-close-it-may-as-well-be-one stories that Tom Clancy has written in what I guess it called the Jack Ryan/John Clark Universe. I haven’t read the entire series, although I have read most of it. I suppose I should get around to reading all of them. In terms of chronology, this story comes first, giving us the story of where John Clark came from.

I really enjoyed this book! The last Tom Clancy book I read was, in my opinion, his worst: The Teeth of the Tiger. That one is just not what I would have wanted it to be. So I glad that this one restored my pleasure in Clancy’s books. It had everything I have generally loved about  Clancy’s other books: it is full of plot twists, intrigue, military technicalities, espionage, and challenges of how we determine what is and is not moral behaviour. We also got introduced to various figures in the other stories, which was fun.

I was shocked that it took me so long to connect some of the characters in this book to those in others. Like I said, I need to read the whole series. Maybe now that I’ve just read the first (in chronology if not publication) I will continue through. After all, I do own nine of the thirteen books and I can easily acquire the others. Other than that, I am not going to give any spoilers about it, though. I just thought I’d make a short post to keep up with the books I am reading this summer. Let’s see how many of them I can read before I need to take a break!

And, dang it, one of these days I will finish reading this book about balanced literacy so I can write about that, too!