Tuesday, May 27, 2008


On Friday I drove up to Kadoka to vote early for the South Dakota democratic primary (I'm flying down to Houston on Sunday, so I'll miss the excitement). The county auditor was on lunch break; I decided to walk up to the Jackson County Library to peruse some magazines, but it seemed that the librarian was on lunch break, too. I ended up having to sit around for twenty minutes in the County Courthouse. Just before 1 pm, various county officers paraded back into their various offices from lunch break.

About two weeks ago I took off from school early--I was only going to have three students that afternoon, anyway--to drive down to Pine Ridge to see Bill Clinton speak. He spoke in Mission yesterday; I've heard rumors that Hillary will be speaking in Kyle later this week. Meanwhile, Obama hasn't made it out of the "big cities" in the east of the state.

Bill had a series of talking points tailor made for the reservations: health care (Indian Health Services per patient funds are half of those for federal prisoners); diabetes; education; alternative energy sources. People who caught him in Mission confirmed that he spoke about the same issues there. Clinton did well by Indian County when he was in office. I've lost my notes from his speech, so I can't confirm any of positive policies he put in place, but I do remember him stating that when he visited the same high school gymnasium a decade earlier, he was the first President to visit a reservation since FDR.

Obama seems like the frontrunner for June 3 here in South Dakota; in an April 3 poll, he led Clinton 46% to 34% and NPR recently reported that he is easily out fund raising Clinton here. But a strong turnout of Native American voters could make fund raising numbers irrelevant. I was recently told that Native Americans are the country's most Democratic demographic; given that South Dakota is far from the most Democratic place in the country, if the Clintons can successfully galvanize the Native populations it could be a closer race than people anticipate.

Will the Clinton's strategy of campaigning on the reservations pan out? I mostly know the sympathies of youth here--of my own students, too young to vote, and of the twenty-somethings that are aides in my friends' classrooms--and, as seems true across the country, the youth seem excited about Obama. His "First Americans for Obama" seems to have met with success, too; I recently heard a radio story about how, upon becoming the first Presidential candidate to visit the Crow Nation in Montana, he was "adopted" into the tribe (complete with adoptive parents).

Which is why I'm disappointed that Obama has chosen not to visit us here in South Dakota, too. He may not need South Dakota to win the nomination--and he may not need the Rez vote to win South Dakota--but maybe he will. There is one more week. Are you coming, Barack?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Posting from school...

...where, twenty minutes ago, a bunch of students broke out into an impromptu water fight in the hallway, throwing water balloons and dumping water bottles on top of one another.

Our Principal's response: hey, that's okay. In fact, it's a good idea! Tomorrow we'll have a school-wide water fight, in which teachers are also fair game!

(If this is true, I will not be coming to school tomorrow, in protest.)

No matter that we're letting students wander the halls at will this afternoon. No matter that students came running into the English room, grabbed five water bottles for use in the fight, and said "F*** you" to the teacher when he tried to contain them. He wrote them up; the Principal told them they did nothing wrong.

We haven't really had discipline all year. But we've tried to look like a school. With four days left, we've stopped doing even that: every day I expect nothing but mayhem, with no attempt to control the kids at all.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Rant

Usually I mention all of the foibles of school in my running log, because somehow it seems more private and inaccessible. But I've gone this long without being discovered, it seems. With a week and a half of school left, I'm feeling more willing to speak openly. And I need to vent.

I gave my Algebra II final today and I was plugging numbers as a result. I will start out with what is the most important number: my students averaged 48% on the final exam. If I discount the one student who was not with us the entire year and the student who worked for only about five or six days, that number goes up to 60%. Which is not quite as heart-tearingly awful, but is pretty damn miserable itself. (Consider, too, that I lopped 40% off the end of my test because we just didn't manage to cover that material. Which means that is 36% mastery of the material I intended to teach.)

There are many things that can explain those numbers. My own performance as a teacher is obviously one of them. I think it's important for teachers to take responsibility for what happens in their classroom, so I hate to have this next paragraph sound like an excuse. But here goes:

I also ran numbers on attendance in the class. In the first semester, my individual attendance average was 75%. One student made it to 79% of the classes. (Noah, our English teacher, once mentioned that he noticed something somewhere online saying that attendance below 90% is legally considered some form of delinquency). This semester, when things started to go sour, we dropped to 54% attendance.

When running these numbers, I counted only days where I had a student in class: early outs, assemblies, cancellations--these did not count. Nor did the days where simply no one showed up. By this standard, we had 97 days of Algebra II this year (if you count this week and next that will probably go up to 104 days). Our school year is scheduled for 172 days.

Here is what I find most shocking: if I look at the raw number of days that students were actually in Algebra II this year, my student who was in the class the most attended 65 days of class. In the entire year.

What do we do about it: we don't punish students who skip class ("Just fail them," instructs the principal); if our secretary is on maternity leave, we don't even bother to check if absences are excused; our School Information Coordinator refuses to share his attendance data with our Truancy Officer; we cancel school at least once every two weeks, sending a wonderful message about how important school is.

My favorite story about how we encourage good attendance comes from just this week: on Tuesday, there were three elementary school field trips scheduled. We no longer had enough buses to get all the students to school. The solution: anyone on a bus route just doesn't have to come that day. Glad to know we have our priorities straight.

Attendance is only the first issue. Recently we learned we lack sufficient funds to pay all our employees for the rest of the year. Nonessential staff are being cut just so we can keep our doors open. It's unclear where all that money went.

Time to run off this frustration.