Sunday, February 19, 2006

Professional development again

I attended stage two of professional development, and the event reminded me of my thoughts from the first professional development, outlined here.

As I sat among the 500 plus PSS teachers gathered at the Marianas High School this most recent Thursday and Friday for staff development seminars primarily focused on how to best deal with PSS's numerous educational goals and objectives, I couldn’t help but recall the monkeys I saw in Bali last Christmas, and envision the elephant in the gymnasium being left largely unacknowledged. For those who were not there, let me explain.

The contrast between two island administrations, the one leading PSS versus the one leading the island, is stark.

PSS Commissioner Rita Hocog Inos was an impressive presence in knowledge, enthusiasm and personality in leading this dialogue on improving student performance. She did so in the face of what is amounting to near criminal inaction and neglect among the governor and both legislative houses, who together have failed to pass a budget since 1999. In that time, hundreds of new students have entered the system, new schools have been built, and facilities have not received proper maintenance, all resulting in yearly decreases in per pupil spending. Yet these people, far less cynically than me, are out there planning for the future, and dealing with the mess of a hand they’ve been dealt.

In light of all this, the elephant in the room is how PSS continues to function and progress with education funding six years out of date and not even sufficient back then. This is the problem that PSS administrators have to put a happy face on.

Right now, teachers and administrators in this district tend to find a way to get things done. Somehow, someway, sports teams compete, classrooms get cleaned and painted, plays, class trips and proms get put on, learning materials get downloaded and distributed and teachers ultimately find a way to do their best.

Reflecting on the key questions on one level was annoying because we teachers know deep down the government, as evidenced by its non-action on the budget, and the people, in
electing these representatives, are making a blaring statement about their priorities -- or lack thereof. They are telling teachers that we are on our own, and it is our job alone to figure it all out, as the legislature has bureaucracies to pad in order to improve their re-election chances.

One of the chief jobs of an administrator, and the primary reason I never want to be an administrator, is to tidy up and put a happy face on an unreasonable and sometimes unfair state of affairs. George Bush, basically the world’s chief executive, says things, with a straight face, like the Iraq war was the right move and things there are going well. Clearly, administration is not the province of people with a low tolerance level for BS.

Over the past two years, I have watched, read and spoken with the PSS hierarchy from Dr. Inos, to Board Chairman Roman Benavente, to Dr. David Borja and Rita Sablan, all impressive, learned people with sharp minds, good personalities, and academic credentials, and I have seen them try to make the most out of a bad situation. I have seen and read about them diplomatically trying to convince the people who control the purse strings to show them the money; yet, little happens. I can sense a frustration, though it was never articulated directly to me, about having to make excuses for PSS’s meager budget, never once highlighting, though they probably should, the dereliction of duty of lawmakers here on island in enacting a budget. When classrooms are overcrowded, books in short supply, teachers upset with the lack of any upward movement in salary, they, as the top dogs, have to hear the complaints. And yet, these affairs are not the fault of the PSS administration at all, and in fact, Ibelieve if these same people were running the legislative end, the CNMI would be way better off.

Later on in the session, teachers broke up into small group sessions aimed at cultivating essential questions on how to address the key issue of improving the education of island youth.
I was in no mood to sugarcoat anything as usual, and I offered this key question to the CNMI’s big educational goals: How can teachers’ alone solve and attain the CNMI’s educational goals when the head PSS accountant states, or must state given the financing available, that I’m ineligible for a raise in my third year because I “was hired in the wrong year,” when the number of students I have from last spring doubled, the number of classes increased from three to four without any additional preparation time or pay, when I have two Praxis tests to pass this year, teaching classes and seminars to pay and attend, the power is unreliable, I see an average of two parents a year in at parent teacher conferences, and our school budget wasn’t even designed in this century?

It is human nature to place blame, and I am no exception. However, to sit around and place blame on this island’s everyday, ordinary, numerous lawmakers, seems rather foolish. In fact, getting angry at politicians for making selfish, short sighted and absurd decisions seems to make as much sense as getting angry at a monkey that touches himself inappropriately: it’s a monkey’s nature to do that, so don’t be surprised. So my real anger here is at the voters, and the choices they make. When you see the masses around you essentially choosing a pimply 13-year-old who just hit puberty to be the monkey trainer, you can’t really blame the kid, you blame those who voted to make that kid a monkey trainer. The voters are ultimately in control here, and the choices they make, and continue to make, are horrible.

This island is full of signs with pictures of island folks wearing island regalia soliciting votes based on, I guess, having the most colorful and ubiquitous political signs. I see crowds of people line up near the Oleai beach path to wave to motorists and hold up traffic, often with enthusiastic return horn-honking, but rarely do I see a serious, specific discussion of what any of these “candidates” stand for. On a public debate level, it rarely rises to the not so staggering heights I might find in the student council election at my high school.

The people who hold these positions are paid to make the tough decisions and establish priorities, and they can’t seem to do that. I’ve spoken to some of this people, and none are stupid, and all seem to realize what should be done. However, no one seems to have the political chops or will to get anything done -- except get re-elected. Given the power of incumbency, I’m sure the vast majority will be re-elected when probably none who have presided over this inaction should. If a person hired a plumber, or a mechanic, or a manager, and they didn’t do the job in six years, you probably wouldn’t hire them back. Well, a child’s education is infinitely more important than an oil change, or water leak, so maybe voters ought to hire their leaders by a standard at least as high as they hire their plumbers or mechanics.

Like the U.S. and its trend of electing flag waving phonies, war mongering morons and invasive religious fanatics, all with the primary aim of steering public money to private corporations, I’m really not sure if things can improve until rock bottom is hit. Now that we have a dreadful power crisis and mass unemployment, all we need is to push the teetering school system over the precipice, and we can get there. (And all the U.S. needs is President Jeb Bush in 2008.)

Perhaps when voters demand that elections be about issues and platforms, and voters won’t accept a lawn sign as a basis to vote, the CNMI will have an electoral process that serious minded people who can work with others will participate in. Perhaps then, a Dr. Inos, who amazingly wasn’t elected in her last run, can somehow help the CNMI get out of this dire situation.

Closing remarks at graduation 2005

I can feel the energy and the anticipation of celebration both here on the stage and throughout the school, so I promise to be brief. Plus, this is Saipan and I don’t want any of you to melt in this June heat.

Many of you graduates have taken my class, so you know I am straight up, so expect no variation from that now.
High school graduation is the greatest day of your young lives. College graduation day pales in comparison to this day. Today you have taken your biggest step into adulthood, a status that holds far greater responsibility. There are values and traits that will carry you far in this next stage of life: hard work, compassion, honesty, intellectual curiosity and active community involvement – these are values that will never go out of style and can never be downsized.
History has told us that one man, or woman, can make a huge difference on the world. You need not look far from the examples set by Martin Luther King, former President Franklin Roosevelt, who got his country through WWII and the Great Depression in a wheelchair, or even someone active in the music and political world today: Bono, the lead singer of U2, who does the right thing with his fame and power by speaking out and working for the weak and the poor.

From our determination to work together, we have built not just a good school, but a great school with a fair and compassionate leader in your principal, Mr. Le’au, who deserves a round of applause.

I think I speak for all the teachers in saying we are all proud to see how you have grown, and we look forward to seeing your future accomplishments. You have set a standard for character and caring, and you inspire us as teachers.

I have had the pleasure of enjoying your company over the years, and several of you made a strong impression on me, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at least some of you specifically, but please forgive me if I still possibly butcher the pronunciation of your names. So to: Anthony Taitingfong, Mismar Misaro, Francisco Blas, Tonya Pangelinan and of course, Mr. Saipan, the one and only Triple B, Magellan Borja. You five, along with many others, have inspired me to be a better teacher.

It is my sincere hope you will always remember and cherish your experiences from these past four years. I am confident you have the knowledge and skills to thrive in your post-high school life, and that leaves me to my final piece of advice: Don’t just “go,” but go and “excel” in college. I have always tried to give you practical motivation, so let me speak only to the guys for a moment: There are a lot of gorgeous girls on college campuses, even an “old guy” like me knows that, and you guys won’t be dating those girls getting D’s, so if books and learning don’t motivate you, for the love of God, let the beauty of those college girls motivate you. Please guys, trust me on this one.

Having said that, let me speak to the young ladies for a moment. These same guys will grow-up some day, I promise you. Don’t lower your standards, and don’t date the slackers. Their attraction to you is my best motivational tool to get them to perform academically.

On top of the romantic motivation for going to college, let me offer a second motivation: more money in your pockets. I’ve told you guys repeatedly, and the facts back me up here, your chances of being broke increase dramatically without a college degree, and beyond that a graduate school degree, which is practically required these days.

I don’t want to see you working in the 99 cents store as a clerk, I want to see you guys in law offices and hospitals and science laboratories, and while it is a bit too late to give you guys extra credit, to all you future scientists, I promise a whole lot of extra credit to your kids down the line if any of you can come up with the cure for baldness.

I know you all have the heart, self-confidence, and courage to face life’s challenges as you build your world, brighten the lives of those around you and give back to your communities.

In closing, I have but one request: We are not finished with each other today. This is not good-bye. Heck, I’ll probably bump into some of you at the post office tomorrow, this is still Saipan after all. And remember you never saw me in any establishment my new wife Cynthia wouldn’t want me to be in – you only saw me in the library preparing lessons. It was some other short, stocky, yet handsome, bald white guy you saw in the Garapan clubs.
You are about to become Saipan Southern alumni, and you are all invited to visit us during your college vacations – unless you want to borrow money, in that case go directly to the office of Mr. Le’au or Dr. Inos, your commissioner. They are higher up the salary scale than us teachers. But seriously, email us, continue to be involved in the success of the school you helped create. Advise your younger friends and siblings about the importance of learning and school, and remember, you are always a member of the Manta Ray family. Thank you for your time, and congratulations to you all, and let me bellow out the words many of you have been dying to hear:
Nothing, homework, neh!!

Car repair in Saipan

In a surrender to the standards, demands and practicalities of getting married and getting older, I decided to finally upgrade my hyper-rusted, though nearly indestructible Keith Richards of a car, an ‘89 Toyota Corolla. This car is basically like a 45 year old pinch hitter now. I drive it one mile to and from work, and that is about it. Naturally my wife drives the far less embarassing car.

I made the move for a much newer and ubiquitous car: the Toyota Echo. I'm pretty much a confirmed Toyota guy at this point. Naturally since the Echo wasn’t brand new, there were some issues with it, so I visited several repair shops in an attempt to make it right. I got about five different opinions on what was wrong with the car, but never the same answer. The one thing all five shops had in common was that it would be a complicated job and it would cost between $400 and $500. Remaining unimpressed with the shops I had visited, I consulted teaching colleagues for advice on a reputable car repair shop, and fortunately I was sent in the right direction.

A colleague recommended Manny Vitug from ELS Auto Shop on Texas Road beyond the Nauru Building and DPS. The $500 drop the engine, rebuild the car solution turned out to be four loose bolts, and that was it. Mr. Vitug runs that rare thing in Saipan, an honest and effective shop, and I can’t recommend a place for car repairs more highly than Manny and ELS Auto Shop.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A brief biography

I am a New Jersey native, but I have been overseas for almost five years. While my departure was right around the time of the fall of the American Empire, aka the non-election of George W. Bush in 2000, that wasn't the main reason I left. I never found much joy working in the United States -- in fact I don't think I ever had a the combination of doing something I liked at a living wage in the states. I've always had both overseas.

The American working scene and its neon, cubicle cell, phoney enthusiasm credo, never made much sense to me. Having to beg and plead to do a lousy job beneath my intelligence and dignity never felt sensible, and overseas I never had to do any of that. No "boss" ever gave me much shit, and I enjoy being slightly removed from the mainstream of society.

There are things I miss about the states: going to a major league game, the selection of first rate restaurants, the summer concert season, but there are other things I would have to give up to get that back like easy access to cheap, cool, fun places like Koh Tao, Thailand, Boracay in the Philippines, Gili Trawangan, Indonesia, and others.

These days I am teaching Languge Arts at Saipan Southern High School, and I have been teaching for five years overall. Before joining SSHS, I taught English as a Second Language in Seoul, Korea, as well as Incheon, Korea.

In my life I have also been an editor and writer for various newspapers and book publishers in New Jersey, as well as a baseball umpire. My Bachelor’s Degree is in newspaper journalism from the University of South Carolina, and in June
I will complete a Master’s Degree in Education from Framingham State College in Framingham, Massachusetts.

My hobbies include bass guitar, scuba diving, writing and travel. I have visited twelve different countries on three
different continents.

Last year I married Cynthia Ravalo Turbitt, and I have two children via marriage, as well as a well-traveled dog.

To be continued.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Spanking the Donkey

Matt Taibbi is about the best political writer to come along in a long while. He is funny, honest and most importantly, devoid of kneepads. No one captures the phoniness and spinelessness of the political media, and the politicians they cover, better than this guy. I've heard the Hunter Thompson comparisons, but I tend to think of Taibbi as more of a modern Mencken type without the snobbery, racism and ethnocentrism. Maybe the scariest part of what I see in these reviews here on Amazon, and society at large, is the fact that people feel obligated to label Taibbi a "liberal" -- as if that were some type of disease to be avoided at all costs. Liberal basically means free thinking, and looking to change things. Who wouldn’t want to think freely and change this sham system of ours? If liberal is so bad, then please stop reading and go buy another new Ipod, watch more TV, eat more McDonalds and go practice your cheerleading stunts before your brain accidentally shifts into second gear.

It is also amazing to me that so few people are unable to see through the charade of the media and the political process. Taibbi is part of the literate minority that seems to wonder, and try to understand, why so many people are so easily duped into ideological agreement, and vehement support of, a system that mostly serves a connected, corporate elite that rapes the average person’s pocket and exploits their patriotism. He shows how the media, far from being an honest broker, lets this happen in the cases of the shamefully dishonest reporting on the pre-Iraq invasion protests and the candidacy, and utter dismissal of, a sensible, serious guy like Dennis Kucinich. Taibbi's book cuts through all that nonsense, and even tries to understand the uncritical, sycophantic majority that make up my estranged fellow Americans. As long as these shifty candidates continue to get elected by offering enough platitudes on God, guns and gays, expect more of this Bush style parade and rule of the mediocre. I would urge the educated, bewildered, free-thinking minority to take a few hours of refuge in a book like Spanking the Donkey