Sunday, December 27, 2009
Friday, December 18, 2009
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Ironically, 90% of the school is on government food stamps, I have never personally witnessed a student pay for food. Ever.
Which only makes sense, because while you can live without food, but you can't live without a phone. Take away a kid's phone and you are taking away their baby, its like amputating a limb. Some of them would rather be suspended, or even expelled, before giving up their phone.
Despite this, many students still correspond by using one of the more delicate and sensible forms of communication.
Its more cumbersome, but using notes is much safer then texting, especially in class where a phone can be snatched away. A note is much more egalitarian, it can be passed from person to person and no phone is required to participate.
I'm making the rounds in 2nd block when a student hands me a slip of paper. "Hey Mister? Could you pass this over to Crystal?"
I stare at the student, then look at the paper, which has been folded over in half. For a second I am momentarily stunned. Did a student actually ask me to pass a note? Isn't the idea of notes to whisper secrets across a room away from the prying eyes of the teacher?
Did this really just happen? Did a student actually hand me a note to pass across the room?
I open it, it's a garble of misspelled words written in a combination of street slang, text abbreviations, and broken English. The grammar police would burn it on site.
I stride up to the board and begin copying the first sentence.
"What are you doing, Mister?"
"Correcting your note."
I write the following on the board:
OMG for reals
is he is into yew
Wassup is he hot
I shake my head, clucking my tongue as I rewrite the first sentence.
"Oh my god, for real?"
"It's real ladies and gentleman. Not reals. The only "reels" I know of are film "reels".
The class starts to laugh.
"Second, "yew" is spelled Y-O-U. It's a vowel blend, a diphthong. "Yew" is a kind of tree, not a pronoun." I point at the misspelled words with a marker. "Finally, there is no such word as wassup. It's "what's up". Understand?"
"But that's how we say it."
"How you say it and how you speak it are two different things."
I look the rest of the note over. There's more garble, but it's too much of a mess to correct. I pass the note over to Crystal, whose face has turned bright red.
"Next time, proof read your notes. Don't make me correct this again."
"Okay, Mister. Sorry, Mister."
"Hey, Mister Leiken," another student asks, holding up a sheet of paper.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
I wanted a Kodak moment, not a Hallmark moment!
Lasagna don't care if you got cancer.
But you can't, Dad, you can't absorb the cancer, you can't wish it away.
All you can do is play the odds.
Chemotherapy. It's what Spock would do.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
"If you had to ask 100 random people to name a film based off a famous quote from that film, what quote would you use?"
I glance over at Phil. It's late at night on Hollywood Boulevard, we've exited the Roosevelt hotel as we journey back to my car. Most people pay for valet, but you can always find free street parking, provided you are willing to hike three blocks and brave the acme of humanity that washes up on Hollywood Boulevard.
I ponder Phil's question. We are forever asking each other such questions. Would you let the United States military torture you for 24 hours in return for 1 million dollars? Which would you rather have: be super strong but mentally retarded or be able to fly but have no arms or no legs? If you could convince any one person once a year to do what you want, who would you convince and why?
We're writers. We can't help it.
I think about it, eyebrows creased in thought. What movie quote would 100 people know? This is a game we both love to play, asking hypothetical questions.
"What do I get if I win?" I ask, ignoring the homeless kid who is hawking $1 dollar T-shirts to obstensibly pay for his friends funeral.
"Five thousand bucks." Phil pauses to look at the kid. "How can you hope to make a profit on a $1 T-shirt?"
"Beats me." I shrug. "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!" Who doesn't know the Wicked Witch of the West?
Phil smirks. "There's no place like home."
Oh, that is a good one.
We pass by 25 degrees, a hot new burger restaurant named for said difference between a burger cooked medium rare and a burger cooked well done. I salivate through the window. The burger's look amazing. Phil tells me people on Yelp constantly debate who has the best burger in LA, and it's an ongoing battle between 25 degrees and Father's Office.
"That certainly looks like one of the best burgers in the city."
Phil shakes his head. "You think every new burger place we try has the best burger in the city. You're a burger whore."
I don't argue. I am a burger whore.
"I've got a quote even more iconic," Phil continues, "May the Force be with you."
Try as I might, I can't think of a more well known movie quote on the planet. Star Wars was not only a mega smash hit that revolutionized the movie industry, it revolutionized movie merchandising. Star Wars toys, Star Wars games, the Star Wars defense system (SDI), the endless Family Guy and Simpson parodies. Even John McCain used Star Wars as a metaphor when he was running against George Bush in the 2000 primaries, comparing himself to Luke Skywalker fighting the evil empire, and McCain is older then dirt.
You don't have to have ever seen Star Wars to know "May the Force be with you."
Phil's got me.
The next day towards the end of class I take an impromptu poll of thirty 11th graders. It's a good class. Time to put Phil's theory to the test.
"Ladies and Gentleman," I begin, "I'm going to state several movie quotes. If you don't know the quote, don't raise your hand."
I decide to start with Wizard of Oz. "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!"
The students stare at me with unblinking, brown eyes. A half dozen of them nod knowingly. "Wizard of Oz!" someone calls out.
One of the A students looks completely stupefied. "I've never seen it."
It's my turn to be shocked. "There's no place like home?" I ask. "Surely you've heard that phrase?"
She looks embarrassed. "Should I know it? I'm sorry."
"Does anyone else here not know this movie?" I ask.
Ten hands go up. If any of these kids had been picked, Phil would be out five thousand bucks.
"How about this one? May the Force be with you."
This time most of the class nods. Most. There are still about half a dozen kids, mostly girls, who don't know the quote. "Haven't any of you ever heard of an Ewok?"
"Those are those little teddy bear things," one of the kids shouts out. "They were kind of cute and kind of stupid."
"Yes," I blurt, "they were stupid! That's not the point!"
"So why do we got to know about Ewoks?" a kid in the back answers.
"Because they saved the rebels collective hides from the evil empire!" I cry, pacing back and forth across the room. "That and the yub nub, e cha yub nub!"
My eyes have turned into wide maniacal saucers. Un-freakin-believable! I know these are first and second generation immigrants, but still...how can you not know Star Wars!
Calm down, know your audience. I've got one that they'll all know. "Say hello to my little friends!"
Only about half of them know that's from Scarface.
"I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse."
"Here's looking at you kid."
"Go ahead. Make my day."
"You talkin' to me?"
"I'm the king of the world!"
I pull quotes out like a magician desperately seeking a trick that will completely floor his audience. No matter what I try, some of the kids know it, but there is always at least a handful that don't. Here I am living in the city built on movies and yet I can't find a film that all the kids know or have seen.
I throw up my hands. "I give up! I'll be back."
The class lights up. Aiiiiee! Mister! We know that one! Hasta La Vista, Baby! I'll be back. That's that robot movie, starts with a T...Terminator.
"Hasta La Vista, baby!" a student cries out. "I say that one all the time!"
How can they all know "I'll be back" but not "May the Force be with you?" Is it because Schwarzengger uses it in all his movies, or is it because he's the governator? Maybe they remember "Hasta La Vista, baby" because it's Spanish?
"I've got one!" a kid volunteers. "E.T. phone home!"
They know this one too. Of course, the quote is in the title. Perhaps main stream culture is not yet completely dead. I try out the poll in other classes, a rowdy group of 9th graders taking biology, a special ed class of 10th graders, an English class of 12th graders. No matter where I go, the only one they all know is "I'll be back".
That and "E.T. phone home."
Leiken, phone home. Film culture is dead. The modern world is in a semi-permanent ADD state, if your film didn't come out in the past five years, to the young it might not as well exist.
If it isn't a place you can buy a snack, isn't a commercial on TV, and doesn't involve a pop star flashing her private parts for the paparazzi, who cares?
Five minutes ago might as well be fifty years ago.
Because frankly my dear, modern culture just doesn't give a damn.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Every man has three faces...
One he shows the world.
One he shows his family.
And one only he himself knows.
As a teacher I have many different faces, persona's I adopt to cajole and persuade, educate and sway, discipline or embarrass. Persona's are my instruments, my tools, mechanisms of behavioral engineering. Each persona is tailor made for a specific job, a character invented to create a desired reaction.
Sometimes I am the Joker, the comedian, part stand up humorist, part clown. The joker is used to bring levity, to make light of a bad situation or to deflect potential embarrassment.
"Mr. Leiken," one of the girls flirts, eyes fluttering, "have I told you I love you?"
The class leans in, tongues lapping.
Out pops the Joker.
"I know," I respond cooly, checking my nails. "No need to state the obvious."
The class laughs, the situation is defused. I love the joker.
Other times I'm the Performer. Unlike the joker, he's mostly flash, eager to make an impact and put on a show. I pull out a banana, peeling off strips as I eat it. I explain that in the old days hogs traditionally cleaned the streets, eating all the refuse dropped by people.
I toss bits of banana peel down the central aisle of the classroom.
The class gasps. A second later they start giggling.
I ask rhetorically would would happen if no one picked the bananas up?
"The hogs won't eat them!" someone shouts. "People would slip on them!"
"So how would you solve the problem?" I ask.
The class debates this, finally one brave soul calls out, "Have people throw them in trash cans?"
I nod, picking up a waste basket as I toss in the banana peels. "Correct. The banana was the reason we have laws against littering, and public trash cans."
The class applauds. Ta da! The performer takes a bow.
Other times I am the Fixer, solving the unsolvable with workable solutions. He is a faciliator, a negotiater, resolving conflicts through the art of diplomacy and mediation. The Fixer is calm, cool, and manipulative; the proverbial velvet glove surrounding a fist of steel.
Failing a class? Being bullied? Need to change an elective?
The fixer takes care of it. He doesn't take no, he just finds a new solution.
Occassionally I am the Tyrant. The tyrant can't be bargained with. He can't be reasoned with. He doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until he has removed or disciplined his target. The tyrant is a robot dictator, a cold emotionless being with chilly eyes and an icy demeanor.
I don't like him much. The tyrant is a bit of a prick.
At least once a day, I'm the Coach. The coach is part counselor, part motivational speaker, all cheerleader. The coach never gives up, he constantly encourages and pushes his students to succeed. The coach is optimistic, upbeat, and relentlessly positive.
It's not a role I'm used to playing.
"Mister Leiken, I failed English and Math last semester!"
"But you passed Health and P.E! That's a 50% improvement!"
"But I'm not going to graduate on time!"
"That's what summer school is for!"
"But I don't know how to do my multiplication tables."
I pause. I got nothing. I duck the complaint. When you can't massage the truth, you ignore it completely.
"Try harder!" I grin. "You can do it!"
Rarely, I'm the Critic. The critic is the fault finder, the muck racker, the smug narrator that writes the blogs you are reading now. He used to appear often, but he gets in so much trouble that in recent years his cries have been largely silenced. The critic speaks only in truth, and there is nothing more poisonous than truth in the LAUSD school system.
The critic is a mean SOB. He's the one that makes kids cry.
Truth tends to do that.
Finally, I am the Father. He crosses the line between teacher and parent, possesses unshakable integrity, is eternally patient and just. The father promotes all that is good in others, he protects his charges and provides the emotional safety net the students desperately crave.
I have never adopted the personality of the father.
It's a persona that's been projected upon me.
It doesn't matter. Because the Father is the Joker, the Performer, the Fixer, the Tyrant, the Coach and the Critic. The father encompasses them all. Sometimes you choose your faces, but sometimes the faces are chosen for you.
So it goes.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Friday, October 16, 2009
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Taught in 9th and 10th grade, science classes are packed with fresh faced freshman and moronic sophmores. Biology is full of unresponsive, immature students conditioned like Pavlovian dogs by years of learned helplessness.
Earth science, a relic of the eighties, has been cut - it no longer fulfills the A-G college core requirements, so our school doesn't offer it.
Who needs to look at rock samples anyway?
Six of my special ed students have been programmed into a biology class full of unruly freshman.
We test the classes reading level: it comes back an average of 3.5. Somewhere between third and fourth grade.
My kids fit right in. I'm scheduled to be in Biology every day.This is going to suck.
From the start the students can barely remain seated, their heads dart around the room, diverted by the smallest sound. Many stare ahead into space, dead to the world, unwilling to even crack open their books. Other kids hit each other, punching each other in the shoulder or back of the head, throwing pieces of paper as they duck tossed pens and pencils.
Half the class isn't even willing to bring a book.
"I'm sorry, I forgot it."
"I left it in my friend's locker."
"I left it here. It was right here."
"It's heavy, why do I have to carry it?"
"I didn't think we would need it today."
I smile and shake my head. "I'm sorry ladies and gentleman, no excuses."
I make them write letters home and have the letters signed by their parents about why they couldn't bring their books to school. If they forget the book a second time, I call home. Hope no one forged a signature....
Although there are two of us in the room, myself and a seasoned science teacher, we are outnumbered 22 to 1. I must use every trick I've ever used to maintain control and to teach this class. My voice oscillates like a roller coaster, my face becomes a canvas of emotion - I'm a marine in Afghanistan surrounded by a sea of potential terrorists.
The first experiment involves jello:
1. Pour 5 tablespoons of jello, mix into a beaker of water.
2. Pour 2 tea spoons of 8 different concentrates (orange juice, kiwi, lemonade, ect) into 8 differerent vials.
3. Mix 10 ml of jello mix into the 8 different vials.
4. Observe. Hypothesize which substances will mix and dissolve best into the jello mix. Write observations down.
This simple experiment falls apart from the moment the students are handed the jello. "Mister, how much do we put in again? He spashed me with water! How long are we suppossed to mix it? How much do we put in again? What spoon should we use? I'm confused mister, where does the jello go?"
One group doesn't even correctly perform the first step - they pour 10 tablespoons of jello into the beaker. I know this because after a few minutes they haven't made jello mix...
....they've made jello.
"Mister, how come it won't pour into the test tube?"
"Because you've made jello."
"What, but how are we supposed to do this?"
"You can't, you made jello."
"What about if we pour more water in, will that mix it up?"
"Dilute it? No, it's too late." I shake my head. "You've failed the experiment."
"But we just started!"
"You didn't follow instructions. Clean up. It's over."
The students stare at me in sullen silence. One of them pours more water into the beaker in an attempt to dilute the jello.
This turns the jello into wet jello. It's glued to the sides of both the beaker and the test tubes. It's going to be a bitch to clean it out.
One of them looks at the jello longingly. "Can I eat it?" he asks.
"No. Clean it up." I stare at the clock longingly.
Sixty days and fifteen minutes until the end of the semester. In prison this would be considered short time.
But there is no such thing as short time with an unruly class of barely literate students.