Monday, August 30, 2010

Was I This Insightful in High School?

In high school, I worked my ass off all four school years to get into a good college. But that meant I rewarded myself by doing jack shit over the summer. My summer vacations usually consisted of sleeping, video games, sports, and during my junior and senior years, jamming with my band.
Yo Mista! Trivia: Can you guess what I played in my band? Hint: I sucked.
Anyway, I didn't read books during the summer nor did I engage in thoughtful debate during sleepovers. Who does that kind of shit anyway? I'd rather be shotgunning covenant soldiers in the face to show off how manly I am (not that I need to).  

A few days ago, two of my former Algebra students, Kareem and Havana, began e-mailing each other (and CC'ed me) in what it appeared to be a debate about religion and the existence of God.
FYI, it is still summer vacation for high schools in New York City. Therefore, my logic dictates these kids are either completely insane or incredibly intelligent. Thoughts?
For background purposes: Kareem is actually very clever and even more curious. Havana is also intelligent with incredible writing talent. Over the past year, they became friends and often discussed various issues. Obviously, for the sake of this blog, their names have been changed to protect their identities.
Note: In case the real Kareem and Havana should read this, please don't let the compliments above get to your head. Shouldn't you both be working on your damn college apps anyway? Stop updating your Facebook profiles about how crazy your night was and get some shit done for fuck's sake. God damn.
I'm not going to include all of what Kareem and Havana said, but I will include some snippets. Kareem started the online debate so I will begin first with a paraphrased quote from his e-mail to Havana:
Kareem: "I understand... I've been through the same personal dilemma; science vs. God, but I chose the complete opposite direction. Instead of not believing in God, I used to deny the facts of science. In 9th grade, there were times when I didn't wanna sit in my Living Environment class when they would talk about the Big Bang. It conflicted with my beliefs, and my beliefs were strong."
Kareem has an interesting story. Born and raised a Christian, he converted to Islam upon reading a translation of the Qur'an. He continues with the following:
Kareem: "I began reading the biology book I didn't give back in 9th grade and I gotta say, science is amazing. It explains so much... our knowledge comes from what we learn, and we learn a lot through science... So one day, I'm reading my Qur'an, a new one I bought with easier vocab... It said God doesn't speak to human beings directly, He uses allegory... I guess God didn't literally take things to make them, he used science. That let me safely learn science while still believing in what I believe in."
Wow, I really don't remember doing this kind of thinking on my own in high school with issues regarding my own personal beliefs. I mean, sure there was always the classroom debate, but who was I kidding: I was debating for the grade, who cares about what my beliefs are! Here, Kareem is voluntarily talking to Havana to figure out who he is and what he believes in. He concludes:
Kareem: "So after reading that, I had to stop taking religion up the ass. I can't live every second thinking God is going to send me to hell for X, Y and Z. And I can't sit here with a deaf ear to facts, facts that can be proven regardless of how I feel about God. God put us here to learn."
Well done, I would have to say. Now Havana's response:
Havana: "First of all, I love this essay. The contrast and comparison of science and religion combine beautifully for me. I wish that you would have sent this to me years ago when I threw God away into the "fiction" file...
When I was six, I first learned about God. When I was seven we moved abroad and I grew more religious there. I would pray to God everyday and thank him for everything. When I was 12, I learned about human evolution and that changed everything... It contradicted everything I knew. I began to think God left out details in the Bible.
Then I made friends with a Muslim and a Hindu, both of their religions made sense too. So at 13, I became an Athiest. I learned about it all: Big Bang, Crunch, Multiverse, etc..." 
Okay, when I read Havana's response thus far, I thought, this is turning out to be more interesting than I thought... and these guys are into it! I mean, I had to remind myself these kiddos are high schoolers. And yet, their passion and openness to talk about something so significant, personal and emotional seemed very collegiate to me. I continued to read her response, proud that they're both my students:
Havana: "...Then one day I stumbled into something new: determinism. I came across it when I was depressed, and I looked to the great minds of the past to see what they believed. From Galileo and Newton (physicist from mad long ago). But it wasn't till I learned about Einstein that I got new ideas.
Einstein was a theoretical physicist. Basically, they believe that everything in life could be explained through math. Mathematicians don't believe in coincidence. And nether did he. That's sort of what Determinism is about. It makes sense to me kind of...
...Everything has a source. That's true. But its hard for me to believe God has a personality of its own. If there is something bigger than me, then I don't think it is anything like me at all. All I know is that everything has an order. Everything happens for a reason. 
[Ultimately] my conclusion is that life is here for us to learn, and we each have a purpose. A story. I don't know if God is there, I suspect that there is something big. Whether it is Allah, Christ or nature. I am happy knowing that we have a purpose. Part of my conclusion is that I SIMPLY DON'T KNOW [everything] and after all the research and my tormenting curiosity, I am happy not knowing. I render myself clueless, but observant."
In the end, both Kareem and Havana made their points and will probably continue discussing this topic among many others in the upcoming school year.

As entertaining and enlightening as this discussion was, it also served as a helpful reminder that I have some very insightful and keen students, who somehow got sidetracked along the traditional path to graduation, but still have the capacity to make it through. Obviously, they've had some problems in the past with school, which is here: a transfer high school for over-age kids. This is their last shot, and they better make the most of it because it's quite clear these students would truly benefit from a rigorous curriculum in a liberal, open-minded setting. I don't want them to think "Shit, what if?" ten years later.

As a side note, I know I'm going to come back to this page in the upcoming year when I'm feeling overworked, fed up and completely worn out. Thanks in advance, Kareem and Havana.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Please Put All Crackberries on Silent

Hey kids (and some adults),

Stop fucking around on all those iPods, iPhones, Droids, Blackberries, Kindles (ha! if you have a kindle, please disregard all of this), Palms, and other smart phones/devices. Why?

Because according to this, you're getting dumber.

Please, be considerate. Stop it. Don't make my job any harder than it already is.

Thanks.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Small, Controlled Burst of Optimism

In the past few weeks, I've been back at my school off and on for the following reasons:
  • Planning curriculum with my department (which usually just means we're doing Beavis and Butthead impersonations all day)
  • Helping grade the August Algebra Regents (there were only 6)
  • Showing my younger brother where I work (he was here for a week!)
It's been weird, but every time I went back, I left the building with a small, controlled burst of optimism. Small because I'm now fully aware of the physical and emotional demands the school year will make and I'm a bit scared. Controlled because, well, I don't want to get too excited - last year my students started the year strong but by the end of the first trimester, a majority of them went back to their old ways. I suppose this year I will beat myself up less about it. Not.

At one point this week, my fellow math teachers (I have two colleagues now, as opposed to just one) and I were discussing the upcoming school year when a few students who were in the building (for summer school and other random reasons) saw us through the glass window in the door. They got super excited and rushed in to greet us and chat. One of them, who I can't help but admit is one of my star-studded students (let's call her M&M), said she was extremely excited to come back to school next year.
"Life is just boring now, I need to do something with myself. I miss everyone here too." - M&M
M&M is a senior now and will likely graduate early in January. Her comments made me smile and feel proud. Then, they made me worry: she's not the only one in this position. A lot of our students who truly changed and worked their asses off last year will soon enter their final trimester/half-year/year at my school. This means it's college application time.

I immediately stopped working on our curriculum and secretly started making a check list on what my kids need to know, do and accomplish in order to get into college. I had to make sure students like her would have all the tools necessary to get accepted. This is what I came up with in about a minute:
  1. Did they even take the SAT? (some haven't yet because they're scared...argh!)
  2. Stay in the city, in-state, out-of-state?
  3. Community, Liberal Arts, or National?
  4. Have they done their research on schools?
  5. What major? Or apply undecided?
  6. Financial constraints - Fill out the FAFSA
  7. Teacher recommendations - which teachers?
  8. Downloaded the common app?
  9. Essays???
  10. Are their grades good enough?
Ah, crap. I'm sure there's even more I can add.

I remember last year, my wife and I (yep, she did more work than me on this!) worked hard with JR to get him accepted into a community college (he's an undocumented student, which made it even more difficult - I wrote about it here). This year, I'm not sure how the hell I'm going to juggle the upcoming school year and read a bunch of students' essays. Essay editing blows: there's a lot of back and forth and quite frankly, people can start getting irritated when you are constantly criticizing their writing. I know I can get supremely irritated sometimes when I get criticized, but I try to keep it in check as best as I can. I'm not quite sure how my students will react. A thought came to mind:
Is Yo Mista going to have to choke a student?
Clearly, there's a lot of work to be done and quite frankly, I don't trust my school administration to lead superb workshops on the college application process. What's getting me worked up is the fear that I'll have to do a lot of the grunt work in helping my students with their applications. I just hope they're willing to put in as much as I am. Otherwise, I'll be pissed. And they will be too, in about five to ten years.

Even with all of this going on in the back of my mind, I can still relate to M&M's excitement and optimism for the upcoming new year. I never thought I would feel excited after seeing ads everywhere for back to school sales.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Please Help the Flood Victims of Pakistan

If you haven't watched TV or read the news lately, Pakistan has been suffering from extreme flooding. 1,500 people have died thus far and another 13.8 million people have been affected. The government is struggling to get aid to the victims due to heavy infrastructure damage. 

Please help by donating as much as you can. A mere $5 will go a long way. Here are some links:
UNICEF
Global Giving
The UN Refugee Agency