Thursday, May 17, 2007

Not Just School Kids Need Notebooks

Our Town downtown
September 11, 2006

The school year is as clean now as a kid’s new notebook. Follow that notebook in your mind through fall and winter, through spring, all the way till June. What you imagine happening to it may mirror the year for the more than a million kids in the system.

Some kids will lose theirs the first week. Some kids will never get a notebook and they’ll have to ask the kid next to them to rip out a page of theirs and get asked by the teacher why they handed in a paper with those raggedy edges, and where’s your notebook? Others will doodle in theirs. Some will write little. Some will take obsessive notes and need another notebook by Thanksgiving. Some teachers will require notebooks and ask to see them. Others will require them but never ask the kids to do much with them.

Some things New York does great. Subways and places to eat. Newsstands. Broadway shows. Shoe stores. The critical mass is here for things like that to work. But critical mass doesn’t ensure good schools. It probably makes it all more difficult. The management of over a million kids is a monumental organizational effort. Each kid you can assume has at least one custodial parent. That’s way over a million parents to contend with. The number of teachers and buses and boilers and custodians and computers and banging lockers and lunch room chairs and wads of gum in the drinking fountains is staggering. The schools are close to the street with its menace. Cell phones in class are an issue.. Perverts might be across the street. Pervert teachers are in class in some cases. Union battles with the administration. This all adds up to failure. Remember that shockingly low number of kids who graduate in four years? 58.2 percent. The Giants expect back-up QB Jared Lorenzen to complete more passes than that out of a hundred, and that’s with vicious linemen coming at him.

Keep thinking about the notebook. It could get stolen or a kid could get whacked on the head with one. Or it could be a place where kids go when it’s boring or noisy or redundant in Math class to write a story or a song lyric. Some might draw a cartoon and show it to the friend next to them. Others might be too private to let anyone see what they’re up to. Some kids might not have a pen or a pencil with them to do anything.

Too many kids will put their heads on their notebooks like thin pillows and go to sleep. That happens. Way more than you know. Ask your kid. It has to be sleeping or no pens or lost notebooks that keeps so much failure happening.

Here would be a good use of a notebook. What if all of the daily papers here had a reporter in the schools all the time taking notes? The papers have reporters embedded in Baghdad, in Lebanon. There are writers in restaurants and theater seats every night. Why not in the schools? What if they each picked two or three representative schools and got access to everything in them. They could look through the libraries and see how current the books are and how often the kids can come in to use the place. They could go into classrooms and see what goes on. Ask to see the gym equipment. Ask to see homework. They could eat with the kids. They wouldn’t have to talk to parents or union officials or Joel Klein like they mostly do now when they write about education.

I’d read their columns or reports. I’d rather read about life in a real class than read about Snapple contracts and union negotiations. Who really cares if Snapple and the city cut a deal? Who cares about cell phones one way or another that much? The issue of loser assistant principals and what to do with them could be dealt with better by the papers if they had writers in the schools all the time. The reporters could tell us about noise and kids sleeping on their notebooks.

But it almost certainly won’t happen that schools are covered closely that way. Why that is so is one of those questions you could put up on the blackboard at the beginning of the year and still be discussing it come June. Is it sexist? Are schools still thought of by the press as places where mostly women work and the places where moms wait outside to pick the kids up? Of course. And would reporters rather write about a fight between the teachers’ union and the mayor? Of course they would. The editorial pages may routinely write about kids being the future, but the editors assign their writers to almost every other part of the city rather than to the schools where the future they claim lies.

Who’s going to use their notebooks well this year? That’s the question, for kids--and adults.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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