Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Spectacular Failures

This morning I submitted my students' grades. It's always very hard for me to dole out F's--and to my writing students, in particular. While I spend a lot of time over the course of the semester trying to explain to them that assessing writing is not the same thing as assessing effort (there are no "A's for effort"), I find the "F's" as ugly as my students do, when it comes right down to it.

So I send out encouraging emails to each of my students who has failed. I explain what they had failed to do in terms of producing effective essays. I offer advice for how they might approach the subject differently the second time around. I tell them that, yes, it is, in fact painful for me to give F's to students whom I've come to know, personally. I say things like, "Still, if you really wish to become a better writer--as I know you do--you will see this as a reflection of your work, not as a reflection of you."

Of course, many times those two things are inextricably linked. My most "spectacular failures" sometimes come from some of my students with the brightest minds. They have wonderful ideas--ideas over which they fret, ideas which sometimes appear to torture them and give them anxiety--but they lack discipline. I can relate to these kids. Fortunately, I've never been as challenged in the mechanics of writing as they are. I watched as one of my brightest students this semester thought himself repeatedly into writer's block. He'd tap and tap and tap his leg when an in-class essay came along. Then, when there were twenty or so minutes left, he'd throw up a mess that had at its heart one or two duper-smart ideas. This student was devastated to learn that he failed. But instead of blaming me (as my less-bright students do...), he attached a "letter of reflection" in which he explained to his "readers" that he had only himself to blame for having failed them.

The less-bright students have a different sort of spectacular failure. They go out kicking and screaming and finger-pointing. I had a few of them this semester. In every case I'd warned them at midterms that there was a better than even chance that they'd fail the course. And still they sent emails (with no salutation and ususally in IM text: "how could i flai when u said i ws doing btter?") implying that I was somehow to blame. I inevitably want to strangle these kids. Yesterday I sent a reply to one of them explaining how the "blame" was placed squarely on his shoulders--and reminding him that his hostile email illustrated an ongoing problem with his writing: a lack of audience awareness. HAHAHAHA!!!

It felt good to do that.

Now that I have submitted my grades, I am faced with summer. I know that I am supposed to be excited about this, but for a few reasons I'm not. For starters, I don't do well with unstructured time. There's a reason I can empathize with my bright students who lack self-discipline (and who take failure particularly hard). I sleep too late. I don't exercise. I look around at all of the things I need to do. I feel overwhelmed. I sleep again. It's not good. Maybe this summer I will try to do something self-helpy, like making a list of some sort. Oprah would approve.

Also, there is the heat. While we have The Most Amazing and Beautiful Winters here in New Orleans, we teachers work straight through them (yes--weekends are often included). So once summer hits and I'm free to enjoy the outdoors, it's too hot to enjoy them.

Finally, there's the whole living her post-K bit on top of it all. And it's remarkable (or not?) how little has changed since those first weeks of our return. Sure, the Red Cross truck is gone. The power outages have (finally) stopped (though I worry about articulating that in writing--I don't want to jinx it). The loss of friends to other cities is less hard, too (until you've had two margaritas and a beautiful song comes on).

What hasn't changed, though, is the landscape. It is still so scarred. There are still so many f-ing trucks rumbling around, driven by aggressive men. The pile of debris on the corner is cleared and then immediately replaced by another. The mayor promises change and none comes. Neighbors who want to return still can't. And even our own journey toward home-ownership has hit a roadblock in the form of exorbitant construction costs. Finally, there's the knowledge that even when we do move to our new home in Holy Cross, there will be no guarantee that we will not flood.

Today's NYTimes editorial covered aspects of this "Spectacular Failure":

May 15, 2007


In Divided New Orleans

When President Bush spoke to the nation soon after Hurricane Katrina, he was resolute that the city would be rebuilt. “We will do what it takes,” he said. We — the federal, state and city governments; elected officials and the citizens who hire them — have failed spectacularly.

Homes and schools remain empty or imaginary; evacuees and survivors wait in cramped trailers, unable to return or rebuild. A huge silence still hangs over the Lower Ninth Ward, a place every American should see, to witness firsthand how truckloads of promises have filled New Orleans’s vast devastation with nothing.

That the Lower Ninth is overwhelmingly black is not irrelevant. African-Americans were the predominant and poorest members of this city before the storm, they bore the worst of it and have the farthest journey back to stability. A study issued last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation, based on interviews last fall with residents of Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, maps the outlines of a sharp racial divide.

In Orleans Parish, twice as many African-Americans as whites said their lives were still “very” or “somewhat” disrupted. Seventy-two percent of blacks said they had problems getting health care, compared with 32 percent of whites. Blacks were more likely to say that their financial status, physical and mental health, and job security had worsened since the storm. And they expressed considerably more anxiety than whites about the sturdiness of the rebuilt levees, the danger from future Katrinas and the prospect of living without enough money or health care, or a decent, affordable home.

There was a consensus about broad categories of the recovery: solid majorities thought there had been at least some progress in restoring basic services, reopening schools and business and fixing levees. But in three vital areas — rebuilding neighborhoods, controlling crime and increasing the supply of affordable housing — most agreed that there had been no progress or “not too much.”

Even with the constant trickle of bad news, you can find minimal improvements. Thousands of building permits have been issued. A crisis was recently averted when the Bush administration extended temporary housing assistance for tens of thousands of displaced families. Some government housing subsidies that were to expire at the end of August will continue until March 2009.

It is also encouraging that administration of the housing program will shift from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has always been the logical choice, given its experience in housing needy families. Other positive signs include the halting progress toward a workable redevelopment plan, and a recent finding that the city’s population had grown to above half of its level before the storm.

The Kaiser survey even found signs of hope when it tested for resilience in a proud city. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they were optimistic about New Orleans’s future. And only 11 percent said they planned to leave.

Their faith must not be betrayed. Residents in the survey were keenly aware that their city’s fitful recovery would be devastated if the levees failed again. They put strong levees above all other priorities, including fighting crime and even basic services like electricity and water. And yet National Geographic has reported that an engineer has found signs that levees were poorly rebuilt and are already eroding. There is no room for error here.


This evening, I will feel the racial divide the NYTimes editorial mentions when I go back to John Dibert elementary to talk to a large group of African-American parents (mostly mothers) and children about books.

The racial divide has been hard for me within that setting.

The kids love me. They climb my legs. They play with my hair. They tell me I'm pretty and ask me if I'll come over and spend the night.

The mothers, however, seem wary of me. They rarely engage with me, and I find that I have to "win them over"--but carefully. Excessive kindness is transparent and can lead to just as much distrust as distance. I feel like I have to reinvent myself--prove that I'm not threatening (but can that even, ever, be true?)

Last week I was told by the site coordinator that some parents felt I'd talked down to them.

That broke my heart.

Granted, the site coordinator is sort of the Mama Bear of that school, and I think she sees me as some baby-faced "scholar" who lives and works in an Ivory Tower (if only she knew what teaching at UNO was really like!) I have to prove myself to her, too.

I am so tired of having to prove myself as a teacher.

Anyways, tonight we are reading a "Go West" story that focuses on a black family in what is typically portrayed as a white story of westward movement during the pioneers' era. The questions that the handbook suggests I ask focus on whether the journey would have been more or less possible for a white family, and on whether the story is more or less important as a uniquely African-American story. It's going to be a tough book for me to discuss without my feeling completely self-conscious. And yet I can't help thinking that this book may allow me to cross the divide between Them and Me. I hope so...

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