Saturday, March 28, 2015

Please don't drop AP Summer Academy in BCPSS

I've just finished one of the most strenuous weeks I've ever had teaching. There are a lot of reasons for that, most of which involved coaching until late every evening combined with a new grading system at our school which allows late work until the end of the quarter, which ended Wednesday with final grades due on Friday at 4pm (mine came in with 7 minutes to spare). So, not much blogging this week.

However, I did want to talk about this article. The BCPSS has a budget crisis (again), and is set to drop a bunch of programs, particularly summer programs. In the crosshairs to get cut is the AP Summer Academy, which, according to the article, cost $99,000 last year and served 206 students. I've taught the graduates of this program -- which serves students who are about to take AP courses the next year -- in the subsequent years (I don't teach AP; I teach IB, which most of our AP students take the next year), and I still see the fruits of this summer. These are academically curious kids, strong readers and writers. I think the AP Summer Academy has a lot to do with that.

I hope it doesn't get cut, but I was especially disappointed in the response by Dr. Thornton, that he's proposing the cuts because "he believes high-achieving students would rather have jobs than continue school" and would rather invest in (much cheaper) professional development for teachers. Yet, the article states that the AP Summer Academy has one of the highest attendance rates of summer programs.

I hope Dr. Thornton has a chance to see the AP Summer Academy in action this summer, because the enthusiasm of those students and teachers shouldn't be squelched just because the kids are advanced.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Recap of Two Brains Running 2015: Teaching August Wilson and William Shakespeare

Last Saturday (March 14, 2015), my colleague Amber Phelps and I were invited to present at an amazing event called "Two Brains Running: Teaching August Wilson and William Shakespeare" at the Folger Shakespeare Library. It was an event sponsored by PNC, WQED, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and The August Wilson Wilson Education Project, and featured scholars and teachers discussing August Wilson and William Shakespeare in the classroom. The event was free to any teachers in the area, and I'm hopeful it continues in the future.   
Dr. Sandra Shannon, leading Wilson scholar. Photo courtesy Deesha Philyaw, Director of the August Wilson Education Project.
The event started at 8:30 with a half-hour reception, but the event coincided with the Rock and Roll Marathon in DC, which closed roads and pushed traffic away from the Folger and made us later than we wanted to be. But we made it in time to hear Dr. Sandra Shannon, a leading scholar on August Wilson. She's the author of August Wilson's Fences: A Reference Guide, a book I've always been interested in purchasing, but it is $68 on Amazon and $52 on Kindle, and I've never ponied up for it. But I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Shannon speak in person, and she offered a wealth of information about August Wilson, as well as a couple of materials that seem like they will be great tools for teaching, including I Ain't Sorry for Nothin by Joan Herrington, which details Wilson's process for playwrighting, and Dr. Shannon mentioned that it details some specific descriptions of the process of writing Fences. I've ordered the book and can't wait for it to arrive.
Amber Phelps and I prepare to present on teaching Wilson and Shakespeare on the Folger stage. Photo courtesy Katie Moy-Santos.

Later, Dr. Shannon shed some light on Wilson's access to his writing process, which I found really interesting. I knew that Wilson was a constant drafter and tinkerer with his plays, revising as he saw actors read the words onstage. But I didn't quite know he was as open about his process as Dr. Shannon shared with us. I've always sort of imagined August Wilson as kind of cranky, extrapolating from his notable and interesting attacks on colorblind casting, but Dr. Shannon's talk described him as genial and open about his process, and lit a fire in me to seek out some of Wilson's interviews and description of his processes to share with students. 

Our 49-page packet to participants of Two Brains Running.
Ms. Phelps (Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2012) and I (TSI 2008) were up next. Fences has been an integral part of the 9th grade curriculum at our school since the late 1990s, before either of our times at the school, and we have a wealth of materials our 9th grade team at City College has created. Focusing mostly on recent years and assessments geared towards the Common Core and IB Middle Years Program, we shared many of the more recent resources. Our main assessment this year for the 9th graders was a short memorized scene, with a 2-minute rationale each individual student had to introduce the scene with, describing what his or her choices would be to capture the language, characterization, and themes of Wilson. I was able to show a few different versions of this assessment from my 9th graders -- just a few seconds of each -- and then moved on to what my seniors do with Shakespeare later, producing videos such as this. In addition, Ms. Phelps described many of our tools for preparing students for the Common Core, including text-dependent questions and comparing two complex texts, in an awesome lesson she developed which has students compare Aristotle's "On Tragedy" with Fences, and later a lesson that introduces The Merchant of Venice with watching two different versions of the same scene from Fences (one starring James Earl Jones and one starring Denzel Washington). Ms. Phelps uses the analysis of the performance as a bridge to analyze performance choices in Merchant of Venice, in preparation for the final assessments of her IB Literature and Performance class.

I think participants of the program enjoyed the presentation, and the Folger printed out a wonderful -- glossy finish and colorful -- version of our packet. Plus, we got live-tweeted by Folger Education Director Peggy O'Brien! 
Ms. Phelps and I presenting on Wilson. Photo courtesy Katie Moy-Santos.
Afterwards, we heard some reflections and perspectives on Wilson from Riley Temple, Lawyer and Activist, and then enjoyed lunch. One interesting conversation we had on the way to lunch was with a pre-service teacher who asked us about the frequent use of the n-word in Fences, and how we dealt with that in the classroom. It's interesting, because it forced me to reflect on something that I probably don't reflect on enough. I'm a proud liberal, but I'm pretty conservative on the n-word: I don't use it and have never used it. I've never read the word out loud, even in literature, and basically think that this is a word for Black people to decide on, not white people. So I take myself out of it. Some of my older African American colleagues agree with this. They don't want the word to be uttered out of white person's lips, and particularly don't want Black students to ever hear it out of their white teacher's mouth and think it's right. They will point to recent episodes like the racist fraternity song and say that incidents like this occur in part because we're too liberal with the word now, that it's too easy for all to say, and we should keep the word on lockdown. 
Lunch across the street in the Folger Education Building. Photo courtesy Corinne Viglietta, the Assistant Director of Education at the Folger.
But others, perhaps younger, have said that my decision not to say the word makes the word more powerful. So I'm not sure, and even less so now that I'm in an interracial relationship with someone in the latter camp, the camp who thinks it gives the word more power to not say it. Louis C.K. has a really interesting take on it, too (he believes that white people who say "n-word" are in the wrong because they make the listener think the word and the speaker gets away without getting baggage for saying it). My colleague, Ms. Phelps, says if a white student decides to say the word in a performance of August Wilson, she wants them to go all-out, to own the word, not act like it's forbidden. 
Deesha Philyaw, Director of the August Wilson Education Project, shows off the t-shirt all participants at the event received. Photo courtesy Deesha Philyaw.
So my answer to this pre-service teacher is that I tell my students I don't use the word, and that they can make the decision themselves. I've had white students in recent years say the n-word in performances of the play while reading Wilson's words, and they don't bat an eye, and neither do apparently my Black students. And maybe that's good, that the word is losing its power. But I'm not sure, and my views are constantly evolving. 

After lunch, Dr. Caleen Sinnette Jennings of American University, someone who has had a profound impact on my classroom practice (and that of Ms. Phelps) as a result of her being one of the theater professors at the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, presented a workshop called "Two Bards Ranting." Dr. Jennings, a renowned playwright, professor, and actor, began by having us embody words in groups, words we later learned were from a monologue from Wilson's King Hedley II, a play I don't know at all but would love to learn. 
Embodying words from King Hedley's and Hamlet's speeches at Two Brains Running. Photo courtesy of Corinne Viglietta, Assistant Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
The monologue Dr. Jennings selected was this one:
“They got everything stacked up against you as it is. Every time I try to do something they get in the way. It’s been that way my whole life. Every time I try to do something they get in the way. Especially if you try and get some money. They don’t want you to have none of that. They keep that away from you. They got fifty eleven way to get money and don’t want you to have none. They block you at every turn... I ain't gonna be poor all my life. I ain't gonna die a poor man... I saw 'Okay, but I got to wait.' What I'm waiting on? I don't know. I'm just waiting. I told myself I'm waiting on things to change. I go for a job and they say, 'What can you do.' I saw, 'I can do anything.' ... I ain't limited to nothing... I got to make it whatever way I can... I don't want much. Just a little bit. Why you got to have it all. Give me some. I ain't botherin' nobody. I got to feel right about myself. I look around and say, 'Where the barbed wire?' They got everything else. They got me blocked in every other way. 'Where the barbed wire?''”
King Hedley and Hamlet converse during Dr. Jennings' session. Powerful! Photo courtesy of Corinne Viglietta, Assistant Director of Education at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Dr. Jennings highlighted several words, and had us embody them with gestures and movements, and eventually this helped us feel the rhythms of the monologue through choral reading: the repeated "they" and "I," setting up the conflicts of the character, the metaphor of the "barbed wire," the frustration of "waiting" and encountering "block"s. Later, Dr. Jenning had us do something similar with Hamlet's "I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth..." speech.

This culminated in an actual dialogue between King Hedley and Hamlet, where Dr. Jennings broke apart the speech into single phrases and sentences, and had the two characters talk to each other. This activity was pretty mind-blowing, as it helped us see the universality of the frustration of these two characters, how they feel boxed in by their obstacles. Powerful stuff, and really helped us realize the symbolism, rhythm, images, poetry, and connections between the speeches.

After that amazing experience, we watched the 30-minute version of American Masters -- August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, presented by Deesha Philyaw, Manager of The August Wilson Education Project. The film was great and I look forward to watching the 90-minute version someday. Notable, it was cool to see Clarke Peters of The Wire performing Jitney in a video that looked like from the 1980s. The film is available here for free for the next four years, according to Ms. Philyaw (any Wire fans should go to the 18-minute mark to see Clarke Peters, but the whole thing is great).

Overall, we had a great time at the event, and I can only hope this will expand and continue to foster the teaching of August Wilson alongside that of William Shakespeare. At our school, at least in the 9th grade, we split up the teaching of Drama into semesters, with the same performance assessment with each, so even though some time separates the units, our philosophy is that this is how you study drama. The event gave me some ideas about how to begin Romeo and Juliet next week, through our previous study of Fences, and Dr. Jennings' activity in which King Hedley and Hamlet conversed made me think about how I can do that with, say, Cory Maxson and Juliet, for example. (Gosh, I wish we were teaching a different Shakespeare with more connections, but that's for a different year. But I'll continue to brainstorm! Can't be Hamlet, because that's taught in a different grade level.)

We left with our senses charged and hopeful that this will continue. Big thanks to Danielle Drakes, the Education Outreach Coordinator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, who was instrumental in putting together the event, and weathered our last-minute packet decisions, and to Peggy O'Brien for inviting us to present! 

The beautiful Folger stage. Photo courtesy Deesha Philyaw, Director of the August Wilson Education Project.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Review: Tim Winton's The Turning (and How We're Teaching It)

For the last several years, I've taught Tim Winton's stirring novel Cloudstreet, his 1991 classic which is full of wonderful characters and stirring themes. Students have mostly responded well to it, with the only drawback being its length (around 424 pages) in the time of the class I have to teach it (2nd semester, senior year). In our study of fiction for the IB program, we have to finish four works of fiction during that time (from a list of authors IB provides), and I find I really only have time for one long novel, and, the last couple of years, I've chosen Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

This year, however, I have a co-teacher for the class, and we decided on The Turning, a collection of short stories by Winton. Upon its release in 2005, the collection received excellent reviews, and our reading of the first few stories supported those reviews. Over the last few weeks, I've completed the reading of the collection, and I'm really happy with our choice. It's an accessible world literature text with quirky characters, some cool twist endings, and a everyman lyricism that is both simple and beautiful.

Plus, with our time constraints in the 2nd semester, the great thing about a short story collection is we don't have to teach every one of the short stories. Our February of mass interruptions have forced our schedule into teaching just 9 of the 17 short stories in a quick, tight 2-week unit; as of today, I have just 24 days of class left with my seniors.

Our first task in planning the unit was to know the book well, and then to decide what stories to teach. In our discussion of the book the other day as we planned our unit, my colleague and I decided to emphasize the interconnectedness of the stories. This caused us to cut a few great stories because they had only tangential connection to the other stories: the opening gritty "Big World"; the long-ish 33-page "Small Mercies," about a couple of damaged souls re-connecting after years apart; the awesome "Cockleshell," with its shocking ending; and "Aquifer," a story I liked, just not as much as some of the other ones. We also cut "Boner McPharlin's Moll," a story I loved and which has some connections to the Lang family that runs throughout the text, but at 42 pages, seemed too long. And while we have a close focus on Vic Lang and his escapades, we decided against "Immunity" (a strange trifle of a story looking at Vic through the voice of a distant high school connection) and "Defender" (the last story, it looks at what became of Vic, but we just thought the kids would like the other stories better. We also didn't much like "Reunion," which focuses on the Langs as well.

That left us with 9 stories, which we've divided into 3 separate readings:

Our first chunk features "Abbreviation," "Damaged Goods," and "On Her Knees," which all detail Vic Lang in three interesting ways. "Abbreviation" portrays a "not quite 13"-year old Vic who falls in love with a 16-year old girl with a missing ring finger while on vacation at the beach. It's told in 3rd person limited point of view, and is kind of a sexual awakening story. We listened to the audio of it yesterday (I wanted the kids to get used to an Australian accent running through their heads) and students enjoyed this strange, funny story of a boy's first kiss. "Damaged Goods" is a story I love; today, during a chunk of silent reading, a student at the end of class said out loud, "Oh my God. Who's reading this? Did you finish yet?" and another student answered,"What? Strawberry Allison is a lesbian?" and I said, "No, just wait. That's not the shocker." And then the wave of surprise passed over them as they got to the twisty ending. It was pretty cool, and so interestingly told: it's a story about Vic, but told by his middle-aged wife while their marriage is failing, and she's investigating and exploring this obsession Vic had while in high school with a girl who had a birthmark on her face. The last story of this trifecta, "On Her Knees," is told in the 1st person point of view, about Vic at the age of 17, after his father left, which is 2 years after the meningitis death of his infant sister. After the overt (but fairly innocent) sexuality of "Abbreviation," some of my students thought "On Her Knees" was going to be about sex, but I was happy to tell them it refers to Vic's mom working as a cleaning lady; the story is simple and sturdy and reminded me other short stories I've read; I could see 9th graders grasping it well.

The second chunk features "The Turning," "Sand," and "Family," which feature different characters, although we get the sense that they all went to the same high school. "The Turning" is an epic short story featuring Raelene, an abused wife who is the protagonist, who befriends a younger attractive couple, Dan and Sherry, and experiences a religious awakening of sorts; it culminates into a final disturbing epiphany during a near-rape scene at the end of the story. In my first reading, I thought Raelene had died by the end of the story, but a clue that comes later in "Family" makes me think she's still alive. In either case, it's a gut-wrenching story, and one I think the students will love. The paired story is "Family," which features Raelene's husband's brother, as an ex-football star on a bender, and his uneasy reunion with his brother in the shark-infested surfing waters off the coast of Angelos. A satisfying and slightly shocking ending is featured in this story, something I've come to expect of Winton's stories. Between those two stories is the 7-page "Sand," which sets up the two brothers' relationship with a disturbing and dangerous conflict they had as children.I think students will love the Raelene drama and the (spoiler alert!) the shark attack in these stories, which will be our window to study the tools Winton uses to craft the stories.

The preceding trio of Leaper stories then will lead to our last set of three stories at the end of the unit, each of which return us to the Lang family."Long, Clear View" is the first of these, featuring the youngest Vic Lang we get, because he just moved to Angelos (in "Abbreviation," he had just moved there, too, but we get a sense that one happens after since the family is reunited). It's an especially interesting story, because it's written in the rarest of points of view, 2nd person. (It's my second 2nd person point of view story I've taught this year, after Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "The Thing Around Your Neck" earlier to my 9th graders, after never teaching one my entire time of teaching, although if you think "The Tell-Tale Heart" is 2nd person, then I have.) Not a lot happens in the story -- it's mostly about Vic feeling threatened after his dad is stationed in a different town -- but it establishes a mood quite well, and you can't pass up teaching a 2nd person work of fiction when you get a chance. "Fog" (about Vic's father, Bob) is an exciting story within itself, describing the rescue of a hiker, but within the context of the entire collection, it's a tragic portrayal of Vic's father descending into alcoholism as he deals with the shady police force he's working on. Lastly, "Commission" takes place a couple of decades later when Vic, who hasn't seen his father in 27 years since he left his mother and him when Vic was just 16. Now, Vic goes into the Australian bush to seek him out at the request of his mother, who is dying of cancer. It's a compelling story; the tension between the characters is authentic and pained, and the descriptions of the countryside are stone beautiful.

So those are the nine stories we're assigning out of the 17-story collection. Next year, we may do more, but we are strapped for time and still need to finish Americanah and have some time for review before IB exams on May 4 and May 5. However, I'm quite happy with the selection so far; in the first week with this literature, students are enjoying the short stories, and discussions have been fruitful. Tim Winton's poetic yet approachable language as well as his interesting use of point of view makes it ideal for study, the Australian vernacular is fun, not daunting, and reminds students of the wideness of our world, and the stories' twisty, sometimes shocking endings, with moments of both violence, humor, and sex (though nothing too profane), make it an enjoyable read. The only drawback is the price -- $16.49 on Amazon for paperback, and stocks are low -- which hopefully will be corrected if it becomes more popular in the U.S.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

My Two Heart Tests Tomorrow

I have a big heart test tomorrow: my follow-up echocardiogram after 6 months on Carvedilol (a beast of a medicine that puts my heart in a protective cocoon and makes me really tired) as well as three other heart medications, with the hope that my ejection fraction has improved from the 35% (regular hearts are around 65%) revealed in October. My cardiologist hopes that the medicine have turned around my cardiomyopathy, a weakening of my heart, which is oversized by the thickening of the walls of my left ventricle. Tomorrow isn't necessarily a scary day, as the test is pretty easy (basically just an ultrasound of the heart) and I won't get the results for a couple of weeks, but this echocardiogram is still something I've had on my calendar for a long time, a day I feel somewhat hopeful for, although the symptoms (shortness of breath, occasional chest tightness and pain) haven't dissipated, so I am not as optimistic as I would have hoped. We will see what is in store for me and my (literally) big old heart after some follow-up appointments over spring break.

Another test of my heart also comes tomorrow: the day the students discover whether they were cut from the baseball team or not. This is a tough day, as I really hate cutting kids. Over my years of coaching, I've developed a reputation for keeping big teams, and I've embraced that reputation fully. I think being part of a team is important, and, even though it makes practices more challenging to run, I've been fine with having a bunch of kids on the team. Now, I've never not made cuts, but, some years, the cuts are shallow, and really just about removing players with so little experience that it was unsafe for them to be out on the field. I've sometimes done complicated lists of 'A' squad and 'B' squad, and sometimes that has worked well, and other times it has made for unwieldy practices.

Last year, though, the practices with 26 players were often extra challenging. When I don't have volunteer coaches and am all alone on the field, which happens sometimes, it's hard to give players the individual or small group attention they need. So I made the decision last year during one of those marathon practices that it would be better for most involved if I strived to keep a smaller team, capping it at around 20 instead of the loose 25+ I had become accustomed to keeping. This year, with the diagnosis of my heart condition, I have become even more cognizant of the fact that these big practices will become even tougher to coordinate. The cardiomyopathy makes me get tired more quickly, and I'm unsure how much I'll be able to engage in the activities I've done over the years: throwing batting practice for an hour or more, hitting ground balls and fly balls for a couple hours, etc. This is all harder with a big team, making sure every kid gets enough reps.

So I made the decision to keep a smaller team this year, but it's been tough to hold to that early on, because normally you like to end tryouts after two or three days, but snow days and poor weather have drawn it out a couple of weeks. However, I've finally had three consecutive days of decent weather to see players do enough on our muddy field to make my final decisions, including some really difficult ones. Without getting into any individual decisions I'm making, know that I have a bunch of great kids this year, kids with a lot of heart and earnestness, and they've made my decisions as hard as I asked them to during tryouts.

So over the last few nights I've made several drafts of lists. I've lost sleep, spending at least an hour tossing and turning in exhaustion over one particular decision last night. I've played conversations over and over in my mind. I've had flashbacks to the time I was cut from the baseball team in the 10th grade; I remember everything my coach said ("I've talked with all your teachers, and they say you're a nice guy, but I just can't keep you on the team this year" to which, I replied in my head, "well, I guess nice guys finish last"). I've thought about some of the conversations I've had with players I have cut over the years, especially the hard ones, the ones with tears. I've also had some flashbacks to good memories of the learning experiences kids sometimes get with getting cut, like the chubby 10th grader I cut almost 10 years ago who, after getting cut, lifted weights and exercised for the next year and eventually became my starting first baseman and cleanup hitter; I'm still in touch with him, and he's coming to a game this year. Sometimes, it works.

After I return from my heart test tomorrow, I will go to my classroom, print out a list, and post it next to my door. Then, throughout the day, or even over the next couple of days, I'll be having conversations with players who didn't make the team, telling them what I saw, and why I couldn't keep them on the team. And the 20 guys I keep will feel accomplished, and we'll work on getting them ready for the season while their fallen comrades prepare for next year instead. It will be a tough day, but a necessary day.

Wish me luck on both my heart tests.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Presenting "Two Brains Running: Teaching August Wilson and William Shakespeare"

An awesome FREE event about teaching August Wilson's plays alongside William Shakespeare's is being held this Saturday at the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC; Colleague Amber Phelps and I will be presenting together in a session about integrating both playwrights into curriculum. 

Other presenters include Dr. Sandra G. Shannon, Founder of the August Wilson Society and Professor at Howard University; Riley Temple, Lawyer and Activist; Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Playwright and Professor of Theatre at American University; and Deesha Philyaw, Manager of The August Wilson Education Projects. Included will be a screening of the new August Wilson film, August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand.

To register for free, e-mail or call Folger Education at 202-675-0395. Details below. I've also heard there's an awesome free t-shirt involved.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

8:30-9:00 a.m.          Coffee and breakfast snacks

9:00-9:15 a.m.          Welcome from the Folger Library
                                 Introductions all around
                                 Dr. Peggy O'Brien, Director of Education

9:15-10:00 a.m.        Building the Instructor's Library: Key References for Teaching August Wilson
                                 Dr. Sandra G. Shannon, Founder of the August Wilson Society and Professor, Department of English, Howard University

10:00-10:15 a.m.      Q+A and further discussion

10:30-11:30 a.m.      Wilson and Shakespeare in Your Classroom
                                 Mark Miazga and Amber Phelps, Teachers of English, Baltimore City College High School, Baltimore, MD

11:30-12:00 p.m.      Reflections and Perspectives on Wilson
                                 Riley Temple, Lawyer and Activist

12:00-12:45 p.m.      LUNCH AND CHAT

12:45-1:45 p.m.        Two Bards Ranting: A Workshop
                                  Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Playwright and Professor of Theatre, American University

2:00-3:30 p.m.          Screening the film: August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand
                                 Deesha Philyaw, Manager, The August Wilson Education Projects

3:30 p.m.                  Parting is such sweet sorrow...!

Friday, March 6, 2015

Today, Baltimore City Public Schools Got Less Safe

Today, the city delegation for Baltimore City at the state assembly voted unanimously to table HB101, which would have allowed Baltimore City School Police officers to carry guns in schools, something they've been doing all along as far as I can tell.

As a teacher, I'm disappointed in this move, because it makes our students, teachers, and police less safe. Baltimore City Public Schools is the only school district in the state in which officers cannot carry guns.

A few things: Baltimore School Police are real police. They go through the training that Baltimore City Police go through, and have jurisdiction throughout the city. So, throughout the city, these officers carry their weapons. However, as soon as they walk into a school, with the dropping of this legislation, they will have to stash their weapon somewhere (presumably, their guns will be kept unattended in their police cars, where it will be if an emergency occurs in the school while on patrol).

School board hearing
Photo courtesy of Algernia Perin, Baltimore Sun
In my 15 years in Baltimore City Schools, I've only see an officer use a firearm once, and it wasn't even taken out of the holster. When a group of angry family members arrived at the school in order to "bank" a rival student in the hallways, they tried to muscle past the lone police officer, even saying, "I don't care about no motherfucking police". The officer stood ground, ordered the leader of the group to stand down, and put a hand on the firearm to point out that it was there. An mostly incident-free arrest proceeded. If the officer did not have a weapon, who is to say what may have happened? A melee, or a barrage of gunfire from the crowd, could very well have occurred.

I was teaching when there was a news bulletin that the DC sniper was in the area, and I felt safe knowing an armed police officer was patrolling the grounds. There have been days in my career where schools in a general area aren't allowed to dismiss because there have been reports of violent gang activity in the area, and we hear helicopters above, looking for gang members outside. But these armed officers have stayed in the school, assuring safety of us in the school. These are not frequent events, but in a super violent city like Baltimore, conflicts can spill into school grounds or even into a school; it's important that armed police officers are here to safeguard students, teachers, and themselves. (In the article cited above, there were 78 similar lockdowns because of violence in the community over the last 5 years.)

Throughout my career, I have worked with many incredible school police officers, who would do anything for the students in the schools they patrol. All of them have been trained heavily and sworn to protect my students and me.  Now, the city delegates have taken away a very important tool in this safety. I don't like the message this sends to our students, that these police officers aren't to be trusted with guns when all other police officers are, or the vulnerability this creates in them.

I don't understand the logic, and it seems to be a continuation of anti-police sentiment in the country in the wake of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. These are tragic reminders of overzealous policing and prejudice, but these incidents do not represent the majority of police. Should police officers have weapons anywhere? This legislation seems to be saying they shouldn't, that a school and its students shouldn't get the protection afforded by an officer with a gun.  Why should schools get less protection that the general community?

This is one of those mistakes that hopefully will never, ever be felt. But it makes me nervous to take away a first line of defense from school police against a hyper-violent city, in which schools are located in communities where gunfire can run rampant. I've never seen an officer draw a weapon in a school, but the presence of the weapon matters. I'm disappointed in the city officials for fumbling this move and making Baltimore City Schools less safe, and hopeful that common sense and safety will prevail.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

TV Review: House of Cards, Season 3, is a Return to Form, and Robin Wright is Amazing

Spoilers throughout.

I took the opportunity this week, when weather and water main breaks allowed me to teach my students only once, to watch the 3rd season of the filmed-in-Baltimore Netflix drama House of Cards. I enjoyed Season 1 a whole lot -- with that amazing David Fincher-directed first episode, and the intrigue (often campy) throughout. I found Season 2 to be more of a mixed bag though (my review here); things were too easy for the Underwoods, and I found the murder of the beat reporter (RIP Zoe!) to be ludicrously staged, and overall just felt like things were far too easy for Frank Underwood in his path to the White House. It was still quality television (great performance, stylish production, intriguing supporting players and subplots), but wasn't as good.

Season 3, though, sees Frank squirming in the Oval Office, and the entire season felt much more realistic than the previous one. It gets off to a little bit of a slow start, though the early revelation that Doug Stamper has survived the beating that looked to be fatal at the end of Season 2 is an intriguing twist. But the action starts to rev up as Claire Underwood (played by the commanding Robin Wright, who is the heart of Season 3 and gives one of the best television performances you'll ever see) asks for the appointment to be the UN Ambassador.  The political machinations of the appointment resonate, partially because Underwood's conflicts with the Republican-led Congress feel so much like what we have seen between President Obama and the Republican-led Congress over the last several years. President Underwood doesn't care for compromise, though; after his wife's appointment is rejected by the Senate, he appoints her anyway as a recess appointment, and after Congress refuses to fund his America Works campaign, he breaks into FEMA to fund it after declaring the job shortage to be a national emergency.

All this is done pretty awesomely, and there are so many intriguing offshoots -- a Supreme Court Justice with Alzheimer's, an attorney general who is offered the job in order not to become Frank's future political opponent, deals with House leaders and upstart Congresswomen. I loved the focus on policy in this season.

Concurrently, there is a crisis with Russia, and a slow-ish Episode 3 ends with a bombshell: President Underwood sides with the three punk rockers from Pussy Riot and refuses to hold a joint press conference with President Petrov of Russia after Petrov (a thinly veiled stand-in for Putin) rejects his peacekeeping deal. It's a bold move in a season that I think was marked, and even propelled (especially its first half) by two surprise press conferences: that one at the end of Episode 3 and another towards the end of Episode 6, which saw Claire Underwood unloading on President Petrov (although her words, "Shame on you, Mr. President," make it seem like it could be against her husband, as well) after an American gay activist commits suicide rather than read a statement apologizing for his and others' deviant behavior. And that, for me, was the moment that sold me on the season, which up until that point felt a little too much like a guilty pleasure. Despite my enjoyment of moments of the program, there seemed to be too many excesses: there's actually a moment when Frank Underwood spits in the face of a crucifix of Jesus, then attempts to wipe it down only to have it come crashing down on the floor, shattering. But that moment in Moscow was what good television is made of, and the ensuing fight between Claire and Frank: "I should have never made you Ambassador!" followed by "I should have never made you President" was one of the season's best moments.

Later, we are given the plot device of a novelist who is hired by President Underwood to write a puff piece about him and American Works for the campaign. This never felt very realistic (the novel, Scorpio, is apparently about a male prostitute, at least in part -- a strange choice for a writer of a puff piece about a Presidential candidate) and felt like a device to get both Frank and Clare to talk about their marriage. But while the plot device was obvious, it does lead to some intriguing scenes, including another gay-ish scene (following Season 2's menage a trois with the Secret Service man and his wife) with the President and plenty of scenes with Kim Dickens, the great actress who deserved an Oscar nomination for Gone, Girl, and brings life to the role of a tenacious reporter bent on exposing the corrupt Underwood administration.
Wright commands in every scene.

While the puff piece book never felt that realistic, I did love seeing the depiction of the Iowa caucus campaign. Heather Dunbar, played by the fine actress Elizabeth Marvel, proves a formidable challenger for Frank Underwood, and even his deal with Congresswoman Jackie Sharp (played by Molly Parker) that she beat up on Dunbar in exchange for Underwood making her running mate doesn't put her away. The season ends with Underwood narrowly defeating Dunbar in Iowa, but we get the sense that the rest of the race will be tight. One of the best scenes in Season 3 is the Candidate Debate between Underwood, Dunbar, and Sharp in Episode 11, a riveting exchange that prompts Sharp to drop out of the race afterwards. This felt like the best television of its kind since The West Wing.

This season is Clare Underwood's, though, and it ends with her. The last couple of episodes see her reclaiming herself, and earlier conversations with the gay rights activist Corrigan gain more weight after a blood donation conversation with the novelist reveals the Underwoods' 7 year plan; namely, they will re-evaluate their relationship every 7 years, and this, their 28th year together, is one of those evaluation points. Clare's realization that the co-dependence on each other is unequal finally culminates in a wholly satisfying final moment: her leaving Frank just as the credits roll. 

Mind you, I don't think Season 3 was flawless. It started slow, and I feel like the season hit its stride around Episode 6, and still didn't have as many great scenes as probably Season 1 did. Plus, I found an entire major plot thread -- Doug Stamper being obsessed with Rachel -- mostly uninteresting, despite actor Michael Kelly's great performance. And it's weird that I wasn't intrigued by it: we see a multifaceted character make a full arc, and by the end of the season, we see Stamper back at Underwood's side, a heinous murder just committed, after moving scenes with his brother's family earlier in the season suggested he may be looking for more in life. So while I see what the writers' plan was, I guess I just never bought the obsession in the first place, so none of it felt authentic to me. Throughout his plot line, I just wanted to get back to the Underwoods and the political maneuverings of the White House.

But all in all, this was a good season, not marked by some of the silliness of Season 2. In the first few episodes, I felt disappointed, but eventually the methodical pacing and moments of excess gave way to a satisfying novelistic storyline with many levels. Robin Wright's performance is one of greatness (this year's Emmy Award for Best Actress, which should feature Viola Davis, Tajari P. Henson, and Claire Danes, will be very interesting), and her character's transition, from UN Ambassador to one willing to change her hair color because of focus groups, is moving.

I can't wait for Season 4, which is a lot more than I could say after Season 2 ended.