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My Experience with Undocumented Students: Why I Love our Dreamers

I’ll never forget my student who explained to me how he came to America for an education.  He raised his hand politely when we were discussing the negativity in our hallways following Trump’s election. He had overheard students chanting “Build that Wall.” He overheard students telling other students to go back where they came from. He overheard one student boldly hold up her head and explain that she wasn’t Mexican and she wasn’t illegal. My student walked quickly past. He was both.

Back in my classroom, he felt safer. He felt braver. He explained to me and to his classmates that he had come from Mexico ten years prior with his father and his uncle while the rest of his family had stayed behind. He missed them all terribly, but the entire reason for coming to this country was so he could get a quality education. Back home, he explained, that was not possible. There were classrooms without electricity. There were schools without running water. If you wanted math skills beyond a fourth-grade level, he explained, you had to pay for private school. His family didn’t have that kind of money.

So he and his father and uncle came to America. He studied and he learned. He struggled – sometimes with the material, but most times with the hate. He just wanted people to understand.

He is one of the kindest-hearted, hardest-working students I’ve ever taught. He is exceptional, but he is not an exception. I’ve taught many students like him. Students who know and understand the value of education. Students who come to America to come to school, to sit quietly, to do their work, and to soak up any and all knowledge they possibly can. I wish I had more students like them. I would gladly fill my classroom with dozens of these young men and women. They know and understand what the world looks like without access to education.

It looks like poverty. It looks like violence. It looks like drug cartels and narcotic trafficking. It looks like where they came from. And they want change. For themselves, for their families, for their country.

So they work. Hard. They learn. Well. They are respectful and teachable, and tough. They don’t whine when they don’t get an A. They work harder. They come for tutoring. They ask for remediation. They never ask for a grade. They work for one.

The same can’t be said for perhaps seventy percent of my natural-born students. There has been a drastic shift in the mentality of parents and students in the United States in the seventeen years I’ve been a teacher. Parents call and email regularly these days with complaints. They aren’t happy with little Johnny or Jill’s grade They gripe and complain and bellyache that we aren’t fair, we’re too tough, we’re on power trips, we aren’t accommodating enough. Their children gripe and complain and bellyache, as well. Parental attitudes passed down like genetics, multiplying like a cancer.

Somewhere along the way, the idea of the American Dream has gotten soft and fuzzy. We used to have a Puritan work ethic, a nose-to-the-grindstone mentality that built our nation into the powerhouse it used to be. These days, our work ethic is pitiful, not Puritan.  Folks seem to believe they can sleep walk through their lives and simply reap the benefits of being American: good education, good jobs, good pay, good living conditions.

I see it in my classroom every day. Kids who want everything handed to them: the notes, the answers, the grades.

And this lazy philosophy, this twisted version of the American Dream, is currently on display in our oval office: a spoiled rotten and ranting adult-sized child who’s never worked an honest day in his life and who finds fault in anyone and everyone but himself.

Our American Dream has mutated into an American Nightmare.

Yesterday, Trump destroyed the authentic dreams of thousands of young adults like my student, individuals who understand and embody the true nature and characteristics of the American Dream — hard work and sacrifice — better than most of their American counterparts. Their only fault is they aren’t American.

Then again, didn’t our forefathers house the exact same fault? Didn’t they arrive on America’s shores searching for a better life as strangers in a strange land?

The decision to end DACA has tremendous repercussions on honest, hard-working, deeply committed individuals who have the potential to improve the world in immeasurable quantities if only they are allowed access to the ways and means to do so: education.  Individuals like my precious student.

Which brings me back to those parental complaints a few paragraphs back, I tend to agree with them. We aren’t fair; we are on power trips; we are not nearly accommodating enough — to those who are willing to work for the American Dream and understand its potential the most: our young, undocumented immigrant students.

Contact your representatives. Let them know you stand with DACA and our undocumented immigrant students. Please.

Choice Cuts in Education: Discrimination is Alive and Well in the State of Georgia

In the state of Georgia, discrimination is alive and well and driving our school systems. And it’s not what you think.  Schools don’t discriminate against students based upon race, creed, color, economic status, or national origin. But they do, however, quite openly discriminate based upon course load.

You see, Friday afternoon, I opened an email from the State Department of Education and what I read blew my mind and hurt my Humanities heart. I am outraged and appalled.

The email states, and I quote, “In the past, funding has been provided by the legislature Tfor one AP exam for all low-income students enrolled in Georgia public schools.  Recent legislation redirected this funding to support only STEM related AP exams for all students regardless of economic status.  Hopefully, this notice will provide time for you and your administrators to explore other funding sources to support your non-STEM, low-income AP student exams.”

Wait, what?  “Recent legislation redirected […] funding to support only STEM related AP exams[…] regardless of economic status?” Excuse me?

I had to read the email twice. And then I had to seek confirmation from my principal to make sure I was indeed seeing what I was pretty damn certain I was seeing? Because it seemed impossible. Impossible to believe that our state would take away funding from our worthiest and neediest students. Students who have been diligently bettering themselves, year after year, through education. Students who have been climbing their way out of the darkness of poverty by taking challenging AP classes (and yes, many of these students take STEM classes, but not all) just to have the final rung on their ladder toward success removed: the ability to test, receive college credit, and get out of the vicious cycle.

And just what is so special about STEM anyway, that it supersedes all other course work? STEM — that educational juggernaut that harnesses the four horsemen of accomplishment: Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics. Those subject areas that in recent years equate to the Holy Grail of education, warranting such teacher and student incentives as signing bonuses, higher salaries, excess funding, partnerships, scholarships and now, apparently, AP exam exemption status.

Believe it or not, high levels of rigor exist outside STEM classrooms, ladies and gentlemen: critical thinking skills, advanced problem solving, the ability to gather and evaluate evidence, interpret and apply that evidence. These skills occur in other subject areas, too.

Yes, STEM is vital. I get it. It drives innovation and industry and helps keep the United States at the top of the global leaders. But STEM is not the only thing that keeps us there.

The Humanities and the Arts teach us what it means to be global citizens. Courses in history, literature, music, philosophy, language, rhetoric, and art provide instruction in civility, altruism, ethics, reflection, adaptability, etc. They strengthen our ability to communicate – with ourselves and with other nations. They keep us balanced. Without these valuable tools, we quite likely would become a nation fueled by xenophobia and driven entirely by rationality.

And what could possibly be wrong with a nation that looks out for its own best interest, driven entirely by the bottom line, you ask? A lot.

Read Jonathan Swift and you’ll find some answers. He warned us over and over of the harm that can befall mankind if we only use the rational parts of our brains.  Read “A Modest Proposal,” where he pens a brilliant, satiric remedy for an over-populated Ireland by suggesting the Irish Catholics breed children (something they are already so naturally good at) for the soup pot and barbecue joint and monetary gain. Completely rational and cost-effective, mind you.

Read Gulliver’s Travels. Within its pages, there are multiple accounts of societies driven by — and completely destroyed by – the pursuit of science and technology and ice-cold rationality.

Read: it’s fundamental — and as a humanities course, it’s a dying skill.

Not all of us are STEM people, nor should we be.

And I’m not a STEM hater. Far from it. Some of my best friends are STEM people. So is my daddy. Hell, so is my daughter. But I’m here to tell you we need balance. Humanities and the Arts deserve a place at the table too, folks.

And, to bring it all back to Advanced Placement, where my argument began, our state legislature and DOE have taken Humanities and the Arts off the table for our economically disadvantaged students. They will be force-fed STEM or they will not eat. And that is wrong.

These exams are not cheap ($93 each), and while there are reduced costs in place for students who qualify through the Free and Reduced Lunch program, the biggest incentive – one free exam for each economically disadvantaged student testing – is no longer available thanks to our state’s new STEM reallocation.

I’m sorry, but STEM is not the Be-All and End-All of education. It should not be funded at the expense of other disciplines. Nor at the expense of our economically disadvantaged students.

 

 

 

 

A Cost/Benefit Analysis of Human Lives: Woodland High School vs GDOT

Woodland High School is located on a thoroughfare that is in the process of being widened into a four-lane bypass, complete with 44-foot median and 55 mph speed limit.  We have 1500 students at our school: young adults full of hope and promise. They are our future. They are our present. They are their parents’ everything. Every year 1/3 of these students will be driving to and from school. 100% of these students are young and inexperienced drivers. Science tells us their frontal lobes will not fully mature until they are 25. They do not necessarily understand their own mortality. Young people are risk takers. They have been so since time immemorial.

Driving this bypass will be tractor trailers – 80,000 pounds of engine and steel barreling toward society’s most vulnerable drivers. Drivers notorious for making errors in calculation and errors in judgment. One need only check insurance rates and accident statistics to understand the risks that are anticipated and documented amongst this demographic. An average of nine teens (ages 16-20) are killed in automobile accidents  daily. Yet the Georgia DOT refuses to acknowledge the elevated risk of serious injury or death for our Woodland students.

For two years – ever since our Central Office learned of the plans to widen Old Alabama Road – we have requested a traffic signal be installed at our school out of concern for our young students. For two years, they have denied us. They argue that traffic lights are expensive and that the traffic and accident studies do not warrant such an expense.

Are you telling me that the lives of young sixteen and seventeen-year old adolescents are not worth $120,000 – the estimated cost of said light? According to internet sources, that would equate to .007% of the 2017 GA DOT budget. Now, I’m certainly no math teacher, I’m one of those English types, but I did consult one, and I’m here to tell you, that’s nothing more than a drop in the ocean for them. If you ripped a sheet of paper into 1000 pieces, it would be seven of those tiny bits. But it’s a mega big deal for us. It’s life and death.

I teach approximately 180 high school students every school year. And I’m here to tell you that every single one of these students is irreplaceable. Every single one of them enriches my life. Every single one of them will impact the world. Their value is impossible to calculate. I will tell you this: $120,000 doesn’t come close.

As teachers, we have been chosen. We are following our calling – to save the lives of children through education. We have vowed to give them the tools they need to secure their futures, to fulfill their destinies. We become teachers because we believe in the value and potential of every child. We are passionate about saving students from all sorts of situations detrimental to their lives: self doubt, self harm, harsh environments, poverty cycles, apathy, violence, etc. Rest assured, as teachers we will fight to save our students from this danger as well.  Educators do not give up.

Every year, each of us takes students under our wings, students whom we adopt as our “special projects.” Oftentimes, these are children whom others around them have deemed lost causes, who need more of our time and attention because they just don’t understand the good they can accomplish in the world, the value that they possess.

This traffic light has now become the “special project” of every educator at Woodland High School. Others may see it as a lost cause. Others may have written it off as unwarranted or argue (under all sorts of semantics and statistical mumbo jumbo) that the benefit of saving one human life is not worth the cost. As educators, however, we are not giving up. Our students matter. We invest blood, sweat, tears and love into these children so they can have a bright future. We refuse to see that future snuffed out in the blink of an eye because the Georgia Department of Transportation refuses to invest $120,000 in the lives of Bartow County’s children.

Please help us in our fight. Contact gwaldrop@dot.ga.gov and voice your concerns. Please.

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