Wednesday, July 16, 2008

No Child by Nilaja Sun



Mathman's comment on my previous post got me thinking (yes, it happens from time to time) about one of the many disasterous programs of the Bush Administration, the No Child Left Behind Act that places testing above educating. The Act also requires that the schools distribute the name, home phone number and address of every student enrolled to military recruiters, unless the student (or the student's parent) specifically opts out. Train the kids to take tests, and then send them out to fuel the war machine.

In April, I saw Nilaja Sun perform her one-woman show, No Child, at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City. Sun's play takes place in the fictional Malcom X High School in the Bronx. It is based upon her experience as a "teaching artist", invited into the school to teach drama workshops. Make no mistake, these are not the kids from Fame. These kids can barely sit still, with learning disorders, and severe emotional and psychological challenges. This is the world that the very young Ms. Sun enters, to teach “Our Country’s Good,” Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play about a group of convicts putting on a Restoration comedy in an Australian penal colony. Her goal is for the students to learn, and perform, this play.

Today's teachers have it rough. I'm serious, this is not me being sarcastic. Teachers are underpaid, often in overcrowded classrooms, and thanks to Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, all they really get to do is prepare children for perpetual testing. Teachers are not able to find creative ways to teach, to open young minds to ideas. And those teachers who ARE able to do so are likely in affluent suburban schools with a highly priviledged set of students.

Our system has failed, and we are squandering our greatest resources: young minds.

When I went to see the play, I had no idea what it was about - it was simply part of my subscription series. When I left, I was stunned. Ms. Sun is an incredible actor. She played every character in the show - she was the only person on stage, yet it felt like a full cast, that is how good she was - and her energy was magnificent. Subtle changes in posture, vocal inflection and walk morphed her through each character. She gives voice to the cacophony of the class (she's told early on that it is normal to expect the kids to arrive anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes late for the 41 minute class) that addresses the real need for crowd control over instruction more often than not.

Her play addresses the flaw in the system, a system so patently unfair that it is absurd. How can we standardize what is in truth quite individual? The hype about the NCLB program is all about raising the standards - one more example of the NeoConservative ability to spin words of compassion into a lie, a contradiction - when in truth NCLB is all about numbers over ideas.

The students in her play are not angels. They are gang-bangers; they are from broken homes; young thugs and thuggets (is that a word?) who fall into racist and sexist name-calling and threaten each other on a daily basis. Still, she manages to find a way to open some of their minds, if only briefly, to the similarities of their lives to the prisoners in far off Australia, in another century.
“The theater is an expression of civilization,” one student, quoting from “Our Country’s Good,” announces to Ms. Sun, after she has given up on the school show in utter exasperation. “The convicts will be speaking a refined, literate language and expressing sentiments of a delicacy they are not used to. It will remind them that there is more to life than crime, punishment.”
To all the teachers of our nation, I applaud you. No child should be left behind. How many will be, though? How many?

20 comments:

Mary Ellen said...

My daughter is a teacher and she taught in one of the most gang infested areas in Chicago at one time. I can attest to everything you've said...the teachers have their hands tied when it comes to how they can teach and what they teach. She had become so fed up with it, she refused to be told what her lesson plan was to consist of by a person who hasn't even majored in her subject, History. She is now going for her Phd. and will teach college.

The trouble is, many of those teachers who actually have something to give to these students are being driven out by the system. The teachers unions are of no help, either.

Great post and video, thanks. :)

DivaJood said...

ME, I spent about a year as a substitute teacher in Chicago - it was the most challenging thing I've ever experienced. One day I went to a school on the West Side - Ida Flowers, I think it was - all black school, terrific principal, and I was literally one of only two white faces there. I got there late (late call) and went to my second-grade classroom. They were all lined up waiting for me, these little kids - 19 boys, 8 girls. I did not like the odds. The cutest little boy walked up to me, took my hand, and said "Are you our sub?" "Yes I am," I said. He gave me a squeeze and said "Oh, boy, LUNCH!" I had no skills for crowd control on this level. Eventually the principal came in and sent me away to the teachers lounge. I don't know what she said but those kids were perfect the last two hours. And the same little boy told me they did this to all their subs.

In another school, I had 7th & 8th graders - racially mixed school not too far from Wrigleyville. At one point, one of the 8th graders tried to force himself on a girl; two other boys opened a window and tried to hang a 7th grader out the window - and there were two subs in the classroom, me, and a man. We both had trouble.

In another school, while I was there, a recent graduate was gunned down and killed about a block from the school - this was around 110th and the Dan Ryan. Everyone had to go through metal detectors - except me. I was the white woman, and we got special treatment - which made no sense to me at all.

Your daughter is a hero. My son has a PhD. and he teaches Univeristy. He said he would never do "crowd control."

Randal Graves said...

I don't know how teachers do it. And I'm being serious.

Patience of Job for that gig.

DivaJood said...

Randal, yikes! Both you and I serious on the same day - alert the media, call out the National Guard!

Mathman6293 said...

Divajood thanks for the link.

Your post triggered many thoughts in my head, probably three posts over at my place.

As I have been thinking about NCLB as it relates to Mathman HS school I realize our school does more creative teaching than many of the money schools in my district. But that is because our Principal et all expect it. This month we'll be off the AYP list.

But at the money schools the teachers teach how they always have because there is not a need to change because most of the kids pass the test.

Either way NCLB pushes everyone toward a middle of the road education while not meeting the needs of most of the students.

As far as violence in the school. We have a fair amount of gang activity in our neighborhood. When our student was shot it caused tensions at several school in the area. But we have never had that level of violence during school. I am not sure that I could teach in some of those rougher schools in Atlanta or Chicago. Education doesn't meet the needs of the people living in those areas. I see some of that at Mathman HS. For example, when my dad was sick and in the hospital my mom made us go to school. Here when a relative is sick the family retreats and school takes a back seat. It is just a different culture that is incongruent with the design of our schools.

DCup said...

I view this as the spouse of a teacher who struggles to live with NCLB and as the parent of three students who have to learn under it. NCLB needs to be repealed or drastically altered.

DivaJood said...

Mathman, Either way NCLB pushes everyone toward a middle of the road education while not meeting the needs of most of the students. That is the travesty of the NCLB Act - go for bland, rather than creative. There is a British play, and film, called "The History Boys" which also addresses this sort of standardization. It's cruel, and it is a waste. And I believe that a portion of the violence in inner being managed rather than taught. What if classroom size was small in inner city schools, and teachers could give individualized attention to kids? I would bet that violence would drop.

DCup, my kids both went through school prior to NCLB. My son is 37, teaches University. My daughter is 35, and works. But my granddaughter, who is three and highly creative, will be crushed by boredom in this sort of system. I cannot imagine what your children must go through. And that you and Mathman have to approach it as both teacher (Mathman) and parents.

Agi said...

Today's teachers have it rough.

I should know. I'm married to one.

susan said...

More evidence of the insane nature of the theory behind funding war and not education. It's a very sad situation that has only been exacerbated by NCLB.

Fran said...

Good luck with trying to not get recruited by signing off on that official Do Not Recruit My Child paperwork.
We signed each year.... in fact one year, it was late & I was tired, wrapping up the school registration paperwork & writing checks for fees- when I handed my son the "Do Not Recruit my child" paperwork, & he said Mom! You underlined the Do Not part-- 3 times!
But damn it anyway if at age 15, the military recruitment flyers began to arrive in the mail.
The first one that came made me soooo mad.
I wanted to burn the damned full color, glossy advertisement to drag my child to war.
But I refrained & instead saved them in a file.
Every branch of the military sent things- including ROTC, Coast Guard, Ntl Guard, Marines, Air Force, Navy & the Army.
In no time at all, I was able to make a huge collage & submitted it to our local art show.... titled "Nightmares" the pricetag I put on it was the (then) cost of war. The gallery said it was the most expensive priced thing ever submitted. It had the price & in parenthesis (cost of war).

What a slick marketing machine the recruitment business has become.
"Turn your 4000 hours of video game time into a career". They offer free stuff-- gym bags, t shirts, dog tags-- and they include a *tell a friend* part to fill out your friends name & address so they can be in on this offer as well.
Thankfully my son was hip to their slick shit- he would get another flyer & say- Look ! Free body bag if you enlist!
Or I wonder if this one comes with a free toe tag offer?
OK we clearly banter with cutting edge sarcasm. But we found the Do Not Recruit forms to be useless. Still someone else said they got twice as much of it AND, they got live calls from recruiters. One Dad said *you do not have permission to speak with my minor child- do not call here again" to the recruiter.

One high school had a fully uniformed military officer collecting the Do Not Recuit forms!

Be forewarned-- the girls are not immune.
They get recruited now too as they are considered fair game.

Who knew no child left behind did not refer to education... it is for Recruiting!

Coffee Messiah said...

I have a few friends in Marin Co Ca who still teach and do so despite the system and the odds against them. Not to mention spending their own money on supplies and such.

And the government has done all it can to take away any sort of creative thinking or intellect.

The "dumbing down" of our country appears to almost be complete.

If this next election goes the way of the previous 2, we will know we are sunk.....big time! ; (

DivaJood said...

Interesting. Blogger signed me out and ate my response.

Agi, your wife is one of the heroes. I am in awe of teachers in today's climate.

Susan, I thought school was supposed to be about taking tests. That's what they tell us, now.

Fran, that is a chilling story - and that people who do not check the box get twice the recruiting material and actual calls - Army: Fun, Travel, Adventure. Not. How about Fuck The Army.

Coffee, we are really in danger of being so screwed - let's all sing the R.E.M. song, It's The End Of The World As We Know It...

Randal Graves said...

diva, let's not be simultaneously serious again. I'm not up for tearing a hole in the space-time continuum.

Oh, imagine if we spent every penny on Iraq on education. Smaller classes for the inner city, time to teach critical thinking AND make learning fun instead of wasting hours to get everyone ready for a test designed to box the next generation of cubicle jockeys.

Oh noes! A turrist!

DivaJood said...

Randal, I've decided to announce for Diva President officially, and you should announce the campaign strategy. This means we cannot be simultaneously serious due to, as you say, that pesky space-time doohickey. I'm running on a platform of protecting cemetaries.

okjimm said...

campaign strategy.... and don't forget Free Beer! A great post. I have several friends in Education...my sister just retired after 37 years..... mentioning 'No Child' either elicts gales of laughter of tears of rage...and often both.

*your word verification thingee gave me 'aodduts'---- I think that is short for "Adults On Dumbing Down Us Teens&shit" ;)

DivaJood said...

okjimm, would you like to be part of the campaign team? You can be in charge of free beer and cheese. Only I get free root beer, as I don't drink alcohol.

Your sister lasted 37 years? She saw it all, then. I applaud her.

Randal Graves said...

HA! Wait. Does this mean I have to come up with a post? I was thinking we all just head to okjimm's place for some beer, grainy or rooty.

DivaJood said...

Randal, well if okjimm agrees to be in charge of beer (grain and root) and cheese, then his place should be campaign headquarters. But he's not agreed yet.

okjimm said...

OK....I'll have refreshments for y'all tomorrow.... hope y'all like cheap donuts

DivaJood said...

okjimm, cheap donuts are fabulous. You rock!