Tell Me About the Good Old Days

It seems like at least once a day I hear a teacher or other adult say something that amounts to, or implies, “School was a lot better (or kids were a lot better) in the 60s/70s/80s/90s.”

We all know that we have a tendency to idealize the past. I was a student in the 80s and 90s, and I know schools had problems then. I know teachers worked hard, put in long hours, and were underpaid. Classes were large–there were 29 in my 5th grade class. Many kids had serious behavior and learning issues, even in my wealthy, high-performing suburban school system. School 20 years ago was NOT paradise.

But American public schools in 2011 are widely deemed to be failing. According to a lot of people I hear from, kids today aren’t ready for college or the job market. They can’t speak properly or write well. They have no self-contol, no sense of responsibility. All they care about is video games (or rap, or drugs, or gangs, or whatever). To hear many adults talk, most of America’s children are far inferior to the children of decades past, and the problem keeps getting worse.

Here’s my question, for people who have been around longer than I have: what is the cause of this decline? Assuming for the sake of argument that schools and kids were better “back in the day,” what changed? Is it NCLB? The recession? Budget cuts? Teacher or parent laziness? The internet? Cell phones? Divorce/single parent families? Alien force fields?

I sound sarcastic but I’m actually serious. If our schools really are in large part abject failures, more so than before–and many people think this is the case–what is the primary problem here?

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Need some creative ideas!

I need some ideas of what would be the most cost-effective and practical way to deal with the fact that the majority of the things I own are currently 1000+ miles from my home.

Most of my worldly belongings are currently in a storage unit in Georgia.  I have a 5×10 foot space packed to the ceiling.  There is furniture (mostly inexpensive stuff), kitchen items like dishes, small appliances, pots and pans, and utensils; a lot of classroom stuff such as books, bins and boxes, pocket charts, games, puzzles, and so forth; my personal books; linens like towels and sheets; clothes and shoes that were too warm or otherwise not worth bringing to Abu Dhabi, and various photos, yearbooks, and other sentimental items like that.

These things have been there for almost 2 years now.  The storage place charges $53 per month.  I need to figure out the most economical way to a) get the sentimental, irreplaceable items to my place here in Massachusetts and b) either get the other things here or sell them.

Here’s what’s frustrating: most (but not all) of these things are not going to make me a lot of money if I sell them, but shipping them would not be especially cost-effective either.  Also, if I do not ship them here so that I can actually use them, we will at some point have to spend money to replace them, because they’re things we want or need.

For instance, I have a decent vacuum cleaner in storage.  It was used for about 2 years and I could maybe sell it for about $30, but buying the same one or one of similar quality new would be about $150-200, and shipping it would be a good $30-40 at least (if I were to just put it in a box and mail it).  Storing it isn’t free either.

Here are the options I have considered so far for dealing with this situation:

  1. Get full-service movers to go there, pack whatever needs packing, and drive the things to Massachusetts.  Based on quotes I’ve gotten from a couple of companies, this would cost $1500-2000.  It will take us a long time to save up that much money, and meanwhile we would still be paying $53 a month for storage.
  2. Drive the things in a Uhaul or some other rented truck.  Thing is, while more economical at first  glance, the costs add up quick.  There’s the rental itself, mileage, gas, airfare for me to get down there, at least two nights’ motel cost while packing it up and driving it, food, and my own time and effort to do all that moving and driving, including carrying everything up to our 3rd floor apartment when I got here.  Ben could possibly come with me but he doesn’t have a driver’s license yet, and that would be an extra airfare too.
  3. A variation on the Uhaul idea that I have thought of would be renting a minivan, SUV or pickup truck from a regular car rental company instead of a Uhaul and driving that with as much stuff in it as I could fit.  In that case though I wouldn’t be able to fit everything in the unit into the vehicle and would therefore have to figure out what to do with the stuff that didn’t fit, and the rental fees for one-way drives aren’t too reasonable (at least not the ones I’ve been able to find).
  4. Services where you pack a container yourself and they ship it (such as Pods): same problem.  When you add up the airfare, motel, and shipping charge, it gets to be almost as much as the full-service movers would charge. Plus the inconvenience of going down there, packing the thing up, and unpacking it when it arrives.  There’s also no space to put the container if they were to drop it off at our current apartment.
  5. I could go down there, spend a few days boxing up the stuff I really want that is shippable (i.e. not the furniture or anything else big) and send it MA via UPS or some other shipping service.  Then I would have to find some way to sell or otherwise get rid of the furniture and other things that are either too big or not worth shipping.  Here again there are a lot of costs to consider.  Airfare and car rental (or gas and motel if I drove down), a place to stay while I was there, boxes and packing materials since a lot of what is in the unit isn’t really ready to ship as it is, and of course the shipping cost. I have no idea how much it would be without going through the stuff first.
  6. Similar to #5: Drive our Honda Civic down, pack in as much as I can, and drive it back.  Somehow get rid of the other things–sell or donate or whatever.  A big issue with all of the ideas wherein I go there is time; I’d need between 3 and 7 days off to do that.  To save up the money and have the free days to do this it couldn’t be until late summer 2011 at the earliest.

Those are the only ways I can think of to handle this.  Does anyone have an obvious suggestion that I may have missed?  Like I said, there are certain things in there (yearbooks, photo albums, that kind of stuff) that I very much want to have back at some point, although it’s not urgent.  If it weren’t for those things, I would try to just sell or get rid of everything without even going down there.  That’s not an option though, so I have to deal with the situation as it is.

Please give me some ideas.  There must be something I haven’t thought of!

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

The average container ship can carry about 4,500 containers. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2010. If each view were a shipping container, your blog would have filled about 3 fully loaded ships.

 

In 2010, there were 8 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 28 posts. There were 19 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 3mb. That’s about 2 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was July 11th with 308 views. The most popular post that day was Big News.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were community.thenest.com, facebook.com, twitter.com, search.conduit.com, and live.feedjit.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for teaching in abu dhabi, teaching in abu dhabi blog, teach in abu dhabi, teaching abu dhabi, and abu dhabi teaching.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Big News May 2010
7 comments

2

FAQ March 2010
8 comments

3

My Most Recent Adventure March 2010
6 comments

4

It’s winter in the UAE January 2010
6 comments

5

My First Week of School September 2009
7 comments

Just a Quick Update

Nothing major to report, but I wanted to update and let everyone know that all is well here in the good old US of A.  We had a frustrating setback with our immigration process for Ben; the USCIS (formerly INS) actually lost his green card application, and we had to resubmit everything.  We lost 5 weeks in the process.  He won’t be able to work until at least February at this rate.  The good news is that our immigration attorney was able to help us get the papers re-filed right away.  It could be worse, but it’s still kind of defeating.  I’m starting to think this will never be settled!  Hopefully, in a year or two we’ll be able to look back and say “Wow, that sucked, glad it’s over.”

For anyone who’s wondering, we do plan on having kids!  I wish we could just have them now, but it would really be wise to wait until Ben has a job so that we can have two steady incomes.  We both love kids.  We’ve talked about names.  In Ethiopia, children have their father’s first name as their last name, meaning my last name would be “Lawrence.”  In fact, our last name is Ben’s grandfather’s first name!  Legally (on his passport) that’s his “family name” so that has become both of our last name here in the USA.  It’s all very confusing.  But we might give our kids Ben’s first name as their middle name, to keep with Ethiopian tradition.  To him, the idea of just making up/choosing a first AND middle name for our kids seems very strange.  Welcome to the ambiguities and confusions of an intercultural marriage 🙂  At least it keeps things interesting!

My work is fine, but always stressful.  I’ve come to terms with the fact that the work will never end, no matter how much I do.  That doesn’t mean I’m not going to work hard–I am determined to make my students as successful as possible, this is their once chance at 4th grade, after all!  However, when I was in Georgia I felt like work was my entire life.  I didn’t have friends (outside of work anyway) and I didn’t have family nearby.  I would stay late, go in early, and spend all of my time doing either schoolwork or housework.  Being married and being geographically closer to my friends and family, I’ve had to make a lot more choices and it’s a struggle to find a balance between work and my personal life.  At the end of the day, though, I feel a lot more fulfilled.  I know I’m doing my best for my students, and I have someone to come home to at the end of the day who I love, and who loves me.  Also, sometimes he helps me grade papers, and that’s a nice plus 🙂

What about parent accountability?

Teacher accountability has been a big theme in the news lately–how to make teachers take ownership of their students’ achievements and work harder to improve test scores.  There are a lot of issues branching off from that, but in my current school, one of the main ones I see is that while most critics are quick to point out the faults of teachers, no one is really talking about the ownership that parents, guardians, and families should be taking for student success (or lack thereof).

Obviously, teachers and parents do not have the same role in children’s academic development.  Teachers have all chosen to work in our field.  We have taken college courses in education, attended workshops, been evaluated and observed, and earn a paycheck for our service.  Parents do not always explicitly choose to become parents, and rarely take courses or read many books about parenting prior to starting their work.  Furthermore, many parents do not consider being a mom or a dad to be their primary occupation.

Procreating is, arguably, a human right.  If consenting adults decide they’re going to have a baby together, there aren’t really any other requirements.  No one can stand in your way.  Once the baby is born, the standards for keeping custody of it, at least in the US, are usually pretty minimal.  Food, water, shelter, clothing, some form of supervision and attention to the child’s safety and medical needs–that’s basically it.

What happens when a child is coming to school from a home where only those very most basic needs are being met?  Academically, the results aren’t good.  I’ve had students come to school in dirty, stained clothes; with unwashed and unbrushed hair; head lice or bed bugs; falling asleep at their desks because they share a bed with their baby brother who was up crying all night.  I have more than one student who has at some point missed at least a month of school straight because their parents chose to take them to their home country while school was in session.  Are these things illegal?  In most cases, no, but they can all be very detrimental to students’ ability to focus and learn.

Students whose families are financially qualified receive free lunch and breakfast at school.  Children (and often the parents as well) get free health care from the state.  Although free vision and dental care are also usually available, children who need glasses and dental attention frequently don’t get it because their parents are unwilling or unable to take them to appointments.  In an effort to solve these problems, an eye doctor and dentist occasionally visit each school to provide these services for free.  Vaccinations are also sometimes given at school.  All school supplies are provided for the children and we cannot require them to bring any materials from home.

On the one hand, it makes sense to provide these things for children.  They need food, medical care, and supplies in order to learn.  The kids should not be punished for their parents’ poverty or inattention to their needs.  On the other hand, if a family can’t manage to feed their children, clothe them properly, and provide them with minimal health care–if Medicaid, Food Stamps, welfare, subsidized housing, and other forms of government assistance aren’t enough–should the children remain in that family’s care?

That’s a complicated question, because public schools are, in a sense, a form of government assistance.  Since all kids are required to attend school, it makes sense for schools to be places that provide these services to children.  However, given the high expectations now being placed on teachers and students alike, I believe it’s time to raise the bar for parents as well.  Minimal standards have been deemed unacceptable in schools; they should also be unacceptable in homes.

I’m not saying any child from a less-than-perfect home should be immediately put into foster care, of course–but I am saying that if a child whose family gets food stamps AND free school meals is still coming to school hungry every day, something is wrong and it should be investigated and addressed promptly.  If every effort has been made to get the parent to take the child to get glasses so he/she can see the board in class, and after months it still hasn’t happened, we can’t just shrug and say “Too bad the mom is so irresponsible.”  To me, these are examples of neglect, and I would support the child being removed from the home in both situations, not as a punishment for the parent but as a natural consequence of failing to care for the child that is their responsibility.

Yet, this is not what is happening.  I know of multiple cases where children are remaining in unhealthy or dangerous home environments, despite having been reported and investigated by authorities.  This impacts heavily on their schoolwork in ways that even the best teaching cannot realistically overcome.  If teachers’ jobs are going to depend on raising their students’ test scores, there must be an element of parental responsibility for their kids’ basic (and not-so-basic but essential for school) needs as well.

How does this work in other countries?  What does the government provide for needy families, what do public schools provide, and in what situations (if any) are children removed from the home?

Well, this is different!

Today was the first day with students at my new job!  (At some point I’m going to figure out how to change the title of my blog, but for now, just be aware that we have returned to the good old US of A and I have a job teaching 4th grade at a public school in the Boston area.)  It was, overall, a fine first day, but boy was it different from the other schools I’ve worked in.

Despite being located only about 30 miles or so from the Boston suburb where I grew up, this school is very different from the schools I attended and from the schools I’ve worked in.  I think a big part of that is that I’ve never taught in a truly “urban” context before.  This is a small school, under 300 students K-5.  There are only two classes in each grade level.  The size of the school alone makes a big difference in how the staff interacts with one another and with the students.  It’s only my 2nd official day on the job and I have already met everyone on the staff–not to say that I know all of their names, but we’ve been introduced and I would recognize them if I saw them on the street.  Many of the teachers know almost every student by name, especially the younger grade teachers.  Compare this to Abu Dhabi (where each grade level had around 100 students and the teachers generally only stayed 2 or 3 years–not to mention being a K-12 school there were many, many more kids around) and to Georgia (where the school had about 1200 students K-5, ten classes per grade level, and two children could attend the same school at the same grade level for 6 years and never meet each other).  This smaller school feels a lot more personal and less institutional.  I like that.

Another big difference is the location of the school.  My new school is on a main drag in a very busy, urban neighborhood not too far from Boston.  The building has been there since the early 1900’s and was apparently built at a time when having space for the children to play was not a concern.  The only area for recess is a fenced-in piece of pavement behind the school, maybe 50 by 100 feet (that’s just a guess, I’m not good at estimating distances, but it’s small).  No monkey bars, no swings, not even balls or jump ropes.  It seems awfully boring to me but the kids appear to be used to it and find ways to run around and have fun regardless.

Going along with being in an urban setting is the fact that the majority of my students walk to and from school, many of them alone or with younger siblings.  In Abu Dhabi it was usually much too hot to walk anywhere, and the city wasn’t really set up for walking, not to mention many of our kids lived very far away.  In Georgia many of the kids lived within a mile or so of the school but in a suburban, subdivision-heavy setting with few sidewalks, most of them took the bus or were driven to school.  I felt very strange about sending my kids out to the sidewalk at the end of the day and seeing them just walk off without an adult, but I guess they’re used to it.

As I mentioned earlier, the building I’m working in is quite old.  The exterior is a very traditional-looking red brick, two-story schoolhouse.  Most of the classrooms have the original wood floors, and on some of them you can see where the old-style desks were bolted into the floors.  There’s only one set of student restrooms, in the basement (who knows if they even had indoor plumbing in the school when it was first built? Weird to think about!) and a small teacher restroom on each floor.  There is no gym.  The cafeteria, such as it is, is also in the basement.  There are no cooking facilities; the food is brought over from a kitchen at another school, I guess.  There also is no computer lab–and really, I’m not sure where they’d put one or if the electrical wiring could handle that many computers!

The biggest, and most fun, difference to me is being surrounded by teachers and students who have almost all been born and raised in the Boston area.  It’s hard to explain why that makes me so happy, but hearing their accents (have you ever heard a Boston accent on a nine-year-old? ADORABLE) and seeing the kids in Red Sox gear, telling me about going to Water Country and Canobie Lake Park over the summer…it’s somehow comforting.  The school I’m at may be very different from what I’m used to, but oddly, it feels like home.

Big News

Ben and I will be moving back to the US permanently in June.

There are a lot of factors that went into this decision, and I have mixed feelings about it, but overall I’m happy to be going back “home.”  The main problems are 1) Ben hasn’t been able to find any suitable work here and his visa has almost run out, and 2) My school isn’t willing to provide housing where both of us can live together, even once we’re married.

So, he’s heading back in a few weeks to the US (well not exactly “back” since he’s never been there before!) to stay with friends/relatives; where exactly we are not entirely sure, but he knows people in Ohio, California, NC, and Texas, plus of course my family in the Boston area.  I’ll be back to Boston on June 19th and am going to be looking for a job like crazy.  I just hope I can find something, because there are very few jobs for elementary teachers in general right now.  We could live pretty much anywhere in the US as long as I can find a job, so if you know of any places that are hiring, let me know!

Meanwhile Ben will be taking the CPA exam in California (the preferred state for this situation for various reasons) and we’re going to have to apply for a green card for him as soon as we get married so that he will be allowed to work, at which point he’ll be seeking a job as well.

So that’s basically what’s going on right now.  I’ll keep you posted on what happens next, and I’m serious abou