Category Archives: Letters from America

Letter from America 6:Time is up as leaves come down!

Autumn leaves. As the autumn nears its end and the leaves fall fast and furiously, the mechanisms for dealing with the countless tons of leaves swing into action. You can either deal with the problem yourself by raking the leaves and bagging them for the special ‘leaf collection truck’, or by blowing them to the side of the road for the leaf garbage truck to suck them up. Or there are countless little enterprises that will call around and clear your gutters, rake up the leaves, cut and treat your lawns, close down your automatic watering systems, clean out and prepare your swimming pool for its winter rest. In fact, there is nothing that can’t be handled by some eager odd-jobber, and the dedicated DIY person (ie. Don’t Involve Yourself) can sit back and have all his domestic needs covered.

Christmas in style. I was astonished to find out that many Americans of ‘certain economic means’ will pay an expert to decorate their homes for Christmas. And I don’t mean put up a tree, a few lights and streamers. We are talking about a full-scale designer makeover that costs $1000s. All the customer has to do is decide on the year’s theme, discuss a few generalities about colours and so on, then leave the rest to the experts. When the festivities are over, the same experts will ‘expertly de-decorate’ your house and dispose of everything. Generally the customer will keep nothing because, next year, he will choose a completely different theme that will require going back to the drawing board! Only in America……………..!

George W. Bush. I nearly fell off my chair laughing at the hairdressers the other day. After my haircut, at the hands of a former Texan cowboy called Howard, I had a few minutes to read an item from the Detroit Free Press about using search engines on the Internet. Apparently (and please don’t try this at home without a safety net!) if you type into Google the key words “miserable failure”, the first website to come up will be George W. Bush’s biography! Some hacker has done an effective job of discrediting the most powerful man in the world. Everywhere I go, I bump into people who have few kind words to say about their President. Many have expressed their admiration at how Tony Blair not only faces up to regular public criticism and debate in our House of Parliament, but also at the way he seems to handle it. George W. is only ever heard in public (I am told) when he has 4-5 lines carefully rehearsed, and he delivers them without interruption. Confrontational scenes that we are well used to in our House of Commons, would be held behind closed doors here, well away from public scrutiny.

My birthday. To celebrate my birthday, we went out to an Ethiopian restaurant

Ethiopian dish

called the Blue Nile. This was a ‘life-first’ for me, and I did not know what to expect. The food was served in an “eat all you can” feast in the form of small portions of several different meats and vegetables on a large circular platter. Most diners did not sit at table, but around an elevated round font into which the platter was placed and provided a communal source of food for everyone. The food was then scooped up using thinly sliced doughy bread, and the portions were continuously replenished until you called a halt. Both before and after the meal, we were offered hot scented hand towels. The service was impeccable and the food was delicious. I would recommend it to anyone.

Henry Ford Museum. On my last weekend in Michigan I took advantage of a fine day to cycle over to the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn (an area which, incidentally, has the largest Arabic community outside the Middle East). I expected to view the whole history of the automotive industry, and I did not

Ten man bike

anticipate meandering through the entire history of invention and engineering, from the sewing machine to advanced forms of aviation.  All this was housed under one massive roofed 8 acre site, in which they had assembled whole aeroplanes, including the one flown by the Wright brothers over 100 years ago. It is amazing to think that, within 65 years of that historic moment, man would be walking on the moon! As you step outside the museum, you enter Greenfield Village, a 28 acre development that brings together samples of housing, factories, shops and restaurants from the last 200 years of American history. It was a real historic adventure to walk through the family homes of the Fords, Edisons, Wrights and Heinz, and then by contrast to step inside a slave dwelling from a local plantation. Henry Ford’s vision of what was good about America rose well above the mere assemblage of the Model T.

The highlight for me, however, was not only to see the famous bus in which Rosa Parks had staged her sit-down protest, but also to sit in the very same seat. Unfortunately there was no elderly San Diego lady in sight waiting to receive her lesson on race relations!

In my last few days, I have had the pleasure of dining out with the Principal, Steve Archibald, and his family, and with several colleagues in the World Languages Department. I have been overwhelmed by kindness from all directions. Everybody has been so warm and welcoming that it is going to be hard to say goodbye.

Time to depart. My time at Stevenson High School is drawing to a close. Six weeks have been too short, but my time here has given me a privileged insight into the mechanisms and dynamics of a very good American High School. A school is a complex organism, and one the size of Stevenson is more complex than most, but my immersion in the life here has been uplifting, and has underlined  a certainty in my life that, no matter how long I have been in teaching, the summit of the mountain of knowledge still remains obscured in the distance. Engaging the minds of teenagers and empowering them to learn is a never-ending quest for all teachers. Doing an exchange is one way of exploring some of the myriad possibilities of succeeding in that quest.

With that, I sign off and say “cheerio” for the final time.

Letter from America 5: At the heart of America

My host family. Let me tell you about my host family here in Michigan. Their name is Roberge, a family name that

Ed

Libby

originates in French-speaking Canada. Ed and Libby have three children. Alex their eldest, who was born in Korea and is currently at College in Kalamazoo, was adopted soon after birth. Vince, also at College in Dearborn, is training hard in the world of competitive cycling, and works in Starbucks in his spare hours. The youngest is Jacqueline, a sophomore at High School, and currently training hard at her ice hockey. Ed is a counsellor at a prominent private High School nearby, whereas Libby, a former attorney, is now teaching Global Education at Stevenson High School itself. They are a remarkable family, and have given me the warmest welcome any human being could hope for. Through them I have been able to learn so much about the less visible aspects of the American way of life, and it is so much more appealing than the stereotypical images that we receive through the media. Their sincere and unpretentious approach to life has been an inspiration.

Social times. Since the novelty of my presence at Stevenson hasn’t yet worn off,

John Brown

Sojourner Truth

the flow of invitations has made life exciting for all of us. And I am pleased to say that Ed and Libby have frequently been included, and the social timetable has all too often extended into routine sleep time. Amongst the highlights have been several at home dinners, a meal at a Jewish Deli (matzoh ball soup, blintz and potato latkes), a meal in Mexican Village in down town Detroit followed by a couple of fascinating one-act (two character) plays in a small 50 seat theatre. Both plays had been written and directed by a couple who, in the daytime, teach High School. Their pieces not only introduced us to some prominent personalities in the anti-slavery movement of the 19th century (John Brown, Sojourner Truth and Mother Jones), but also challenged our perceptions of what the reality of slavery and servitude was really like. I was deeply moved. During the interval, they served an Irish cabbage soup and soda bread, and afterwards we repaired to an Irish pub just down the road.

School drama. In the drama department at Stevenson, the director Mike Corliss took on an ambitious project. Not only did they stage a production of Neil Simon’s Odd Couple, but they also staged two separate versions, one with a female cast, and the other with a male cast. I had the opportunity to see the female cast, which included two male characters playing the roles of Spaniards from Barcelona. Their imitations of the Spanish linguistic and physical mannerisms were so good that I thought they were senior students of Spanish. But I was wrong. I discovered later that they had used a special home tutoring course (with CDs and videos) that coaches budding actors in these areas. I later met one of the girls featuring in the boys’ performance coaching herself in English mannerisms of speech. She was walking the corridors plugged into headphones and audibly repeating lines!

Caught in the press. The American press has prominently featured the visit of our beloved Prince Charles and Camilla recently to the US. Their life story has been billed as the “longest running British show since ‘Upstairs Downstairs’!. By their quoted manners of speech you will recognise British royalty. Of the British Memorial Gardens at Ground Zero, Camilla was heard to say: “It was terribly, terribly moving”. The Americans wanted to know if her image had improved from the “ungainly frump” they were familiar with. I’m not sure they have drawn a conclusion on that. The most closely guarded secret, however, was the menu of the dinner at the White House. The NY Times must have had an insider because they revealed that the main course included buffalo tenderloin and chanterelles. To be compared to roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, perhaps?

Did you know? Yesterday, I discovered a truth of world-shattering importance. This will be of special interest to chocoholics out there who have a taste for Mars Bars or Milky Ways. I picked up a Milky Way from the Halloween candy basket yesterday, and when I bit into it I was shocked to discover it was really a Mars Bar in disguise! Well, I happen to be a Mars Bar fan anyway, so I was pleased with my find, but if you really want a Milky Way you must look out for Musketeers! Did the war over the 13 colonies really develop such an aversion amongst Americans to names so importantly British?

School attire. Dress code for both students and staff is quite different at Stevenson. All students wear their own comfortable casuals, and there is a great deal of flexibility for the staff as well. Fridays, however, are subject to an interesting tradition. Staff, not only dress down, but many wear something white and blue (school colours), which bears the school logo and name. To observe this tradition is a demonstration of spirit and loyalty, and it is also interesting to see how many of the students are proud to wear their own personalised kit that announces their membership of a team or club in the school.

Ah to be in England….! Last Sunday I was invited by the Buckley family to share a quintessentially English meal of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Not too surprising, perhaps, since they are English (from Cheshire) and have been living in Michigan for two years, now with permanent residence. It was so good to see the whole family so obviously well established and thoroughly enjoying the American way of life. Their two daughters, Stephanie and Charlotte, are extremely happy with their schooling here, and it was interesting to hear them draw comparisons between the British and American systems.

A night at the movies. Monday saw many of the Stevenson staff and student Senate take advantage of free cinema tickets at the Emagine Theatre out in Novi. I was fascinated by the name “Emagine”, but also the name “Novi” was originally “no 6” in roman lettering. With almost 20 screens, people chose a wide variety of different movies. My choice was “Good night and good luck”, the signature farewell of the CBS broadcaster Edward Murrow in the 1950s. The film recounted, in black and white version, the Macarthy persecution of the communists in the post-war period, and gave a singular insight into the deep rifts and tensions of that period. At the conclusion of the screening the small audience broke out in applause, obviously experiencing some kind of catharsis when the tragedy was over. Other colleagues, looking for emotional hype, came out of movies called “A History of Violence”, “Jarhead” and “Saw II”, many visibly shaking from their experiences! My second choice would have been “North Country” which touched on the challenges that women faced establishing themselves in male dominated work environments like the mining industry.

Curriculum Day. Today has been a Curriculum Day for the staff. This has meant another day off for the students (they are so happy!), but we have engaged in a series of meetings both at school and district level. To help everyone into listening and participation mode, we were served a bagel and doughnut breakfast from 7am. Oh the joys of rising early! When I get back to the UK, I shall forever think that a normal workday provides me with the opportunity for a lie-in!

Letter from America 4: Two nations divided by the same language

I can’t believe that I am now past the halfway mark of my time here in Michigan. Almost time to be summing up, but not quite.

Divided by the same language? We are two nations divided by the same language. Is it true? Well you judge for

Another of my classes

yourself. In the classroom, we refer to erasers (not rubbers!), checking (not marking or ticking), “turning in” homework (not handing in), “reviewing” (not revising) and behaviour is called “citizenship”. If you are “tardy” you are late, if you are a “junior” you are 16-17 years of age, and you go to the football “game” not match. When you have left “school” you then continue with “school” (college) where you start as a “freshman” all over again. During the school day each “student” (not pupil) will have a “homeroom” (not tutor room) where, at the beginning of the 3rd hour, they will listen to announcements via the PA system (on the school’s 40th birthday, we had a rendering of ‘Happy birthday’ by the school choir!). The school year is divided into “quarters” and “semesters”, holidays are usually referred to as “vacation”, and I will leave you to work out why Wednesdays are “hump” day!

My classroom

Outside the school, your bum-bag is your “fanny pack’(!) and a “fag” is definitely not a cigarette! A Californian PE teacher who had just spent a year teaching in Scotland discovered she couldn’t tell the children “go shag the ball” (fetch the ball) nor could she tell them to “put their fannies on the bench” (sit down)! If you are a car owner, you put “gas” in the tank, and you must know your “trunk” from your “hood” from your “fender” from your “shifter”. As a cyclist, I am frequently obliged to ride on the “sidewalk”, and I have yet to meet a walker sharing the same space! And I love the many and varied observations on life such as “they are as busy as a West Virginia tooth-fairy”!

During one of my classes last week, one of my students popped her head through the door and gave me a little decorated brown paper bag. Guess what was inside? Yes, more candy for the teacher and a note that said:

Thanks for all that you do “The task of the educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts” (C.S.Lewis)

Staff appreciation day I discovered later that it was staff appreciation day, and the student Senate had put together

School trophy cabinet

little appreciation bags for all the staff. Since coming to Michigan, my sugar intake has tripled!

Later that day I discovered the appreciation of the staff had extended to free cinema tickets for November 7th. All we do is take identification to the cinema to qualify, and we can take a guest. I believe some colleagues will start the session at 4pm and try to fit in at least two movies.

We had further visitations to my classroom yesterday by young ladies carrying red buttonhole roses (no, not for the teacher this time!). I noticed some of the boys were wearing ties, and correctly assumed they were performing in some competition that evening. It turned out they were cross-country runners, and the red roses were a token of the school’s appreciation of their efforts, and they would be recognised along the corridors as being special that day. The same happened to the girls swimming team later that week.

“Card marking” The last few days have been a little frenetic for all the staff. We have entered the “card-marking”

Corridor mural

period that effectively concludes the first assessment period for all the students. Many were working overtime to log all their data onto the school system before the deadline. As I battled through the unfamiliar systems for the first time, I couldn’t help remarking on the huge and varied range of surnames amongst my 165 students. There is an Atiyeh, a Correlissen, a Costa and a Depowski, followed by an Dostal, an Eideh, an Elghoul and a Ghannam. And they are just eight names of one of my groups! The colonial and immigrant past of this country has me enthralled. I am such a sad person that I’ve begun reading a sophomore text on the history of the USA, but it’s easy reading with lots of pictures and photos!

Sephardic Jews Talking of immigrants, my attention was caught by an article in today’s copy of the New York Times. Several Hispanic families and communities in the south have recently discovered (some through DNA testing) that they are descendants of Spanish Sephardic Jews that escaped the Inquisition in Spain more than 400 years ago. Some had their suspicions raised because they remember their parents and grandparents observing certain religious rites that did not fit with their espoused Catholicism, but they never talked about it. The impact of the discovery has been so great with some that they have converted (or, as one said, “reverted”) to the Jewish religion and way of life.

Sweet smell of success? In the same edition, they reported a strange, sweet smell (of fudge or caramel) that pervaded the whole of down town Manhattan the other day. Forces were out to investigate its origin and nature, but they eventually decided it was harmless. At first they put the blame on a local chocolatier (sic) but he announced that chocolate in the making has a bitter, not sweet smell. The Mayor of Manhattan, who is currently riding high in the election polls, was asked if this was the “sweet smell of success”, to which he replied enigmatically “Nature should be allowed to take care of its own”.

Halloween has been arriving for several weeks. Gardens have been decorated with all sorts of evil, but friendly looking, ghosts and ghoulies. Children are encouraged to get into the spirit early and choose their costumes for the “trick or treating”. Parents and grandparents wear suitable Halloween colours and buy in the mountains of candy that will inevitably be distributed. I had the opportunity to join a family with young children, dressed like little princesses, and we went out to call on all the neighbours and shout “trick or treat”! The candy changed hands by the kilo and the dentists will be doing good business in a couple of weeks!

A royal coffee. As I was having breakfast this morning, I noticed a small parcel with bags of coffee from New Mexico. I was intrigued by the product description on the packet. The beans are roasted in a Royal#5 replica of an 1890 version of a roaster which “returns to the days when a less hurried pace produced a higher quality product”. This is called “romancing the beans”! I took a flask of it with me to school to find out what it would do to the hustle and bustle of my working day. Would it increase the length of my breaks, I asked myself?

Traffic etiquette. As we were returning from school this afternoon, a school bus stopped in front of us to let children off. What surprised me was that all the traffic, both behind the bus and on the opposite side of the road, stopped until the bus moved away. Apparently it is law that all traffic must stop when children are getting on or off buses. I was immediately struck by the intelligence of such a safety measure.

Positive vibes. I mentioned in an earlier letter the positive visual messaging around the school corridors and classrooms. Every Monday, staff receive in their mailboxes their message of the week, which is to be posted somewhere prominently in the classroom for the students to see. Here are some samples:

You always pass failure on the way to success(Mickey Rooney)

People show their character by what they laugh at(German proverb)

A man should never be ashamed to admit he has been wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday (J.Swift)

Letter from America 3: Stevenson celebrates 40 years!

Staff Meeting

Modern Language staff

The agenda for the Thursday Staff Meeting came through to us on the internal email. Curiously, none of the points to be discussed bore the Principal’s initials. When we arrived in the LMC (Library Media Centre) we were served cakes and cookies (again), and on the tables there were little baskets filled with a variety of little offerings. I was intrigued.

Apart from a few minutes of announcements by the Principal, all the major items were presentations made by members of staff or education administrators, ranging from classroom assessment to a video communication by the Education Superintendent of the local authority. The item that caught my attention was given the title of “Peer Conflict Mediation”, led by a member of staff, and followed by some twelve students. These students had been hand picked from the top two year groups to serve as official go-betweens in solving conflicts amongst students, and might be the first port of call in such instances before the school administration were called in. The little baskets on the staff tables contained little offerings by each of them that reflected something of their personality and talents. These ranged from little bags of candy, to post-it notes, and one even left his calling card! They each gave a mini-presentation via a microphone (Stevenson has a large number of staff!) and explained who they were, described their own talents, and said why they chose their offering to the staff. I was impressed at their self-confidence. They all came across as well-rounded human beings who would conscientiously fulfil their duties as mediators.

Teacher’s Union

That morning, during my 4th hour, a visitor called on my classroom. She turned out to be a representative of the

One of my classes

Teachers’ Union, and she came to bid me welcome to Livonia and brought with her a bag of gifts. As I was in the middle of a class, I left opening it until after school. When I did open it, I found it was not only full of all those little items that you find useful in life (key-rings, torches, pens and writing pads), but also chocolate, caramel toppings and the naughty things that pick you up after a tiring day in the classroom.  When I get back to the UK, I will have to contact ATL to find out why my 25 years of membership has never even merited a pencil sharpener.

The 40th Anniversary

The Principal announced at the staff meeting that Stevenson would be celebrating the 40th anniversary of its foundation on October 21st. To commemorate the event, all students would receive an engraved pencil, and all staff were given a specially designed T-shirt bearing the school crest and a creative re-wording of the school motto: “Striving for XL-ence; learning for life”. It only occurred to the most savvy that XL was also chosen for its numerical value! I now find my Stevenson wardrobe expanding exponentially!  Furthermore, 2,500 cup-cakes had been ordered so that students and staff could enhance their mid-morning lunch break (and their midriffs)!

A trip to San Diego

The natural flow of my teaching engagement at Stevenson was interrupted for five days by a trip down to San Diego, California, to attend a Fulbright Fall Workshop. These workshops are deliberately organised in highly desirable locations and in smart hotels so that exchangees can mix business with pleasure, and return to their schools feeling uplifted.  This workshop, however, was intended principally for teachers serving in California. My arrival from Michigan caused more than a ripple of surprise when they learned I had taken two flights and my journey via Phoenix, Arizona had been over 2000 miles and had crossed three time zones (so big is America!). San Diego, only 10 miles from the Mexican border, is one of those sunshine venues that enjoy an annual average temperature of 70 degrees, a place to which many Americans in the north hope to retire. Amongst many enthralling aspects, the highlight of the visit for me was to climb aboard the USS Midway and discover a little of what life was like on the biggest aircraft carrier in the world. This carrier was built in only 23 months, and was completed in 1945, just before the end of WW2, but went on to serve in many later world conflicts. It can only be described as a floating city, accommodating nearly 5000 personnel and hundreds of aircraft, and boasting the full services of a post office branch to safeguard the letters and parcels that were the human lifeline between servicemen and their families. The sick-bay, too, was a busy place, the most frequent injuries being to the head, caused by sharp edges and cramped conditions.

When I returned to Stevenson High School, all my students wanted to hear about San Diego. I thought at first this was a cute way of keeping me from the purpose of my lessons, but I quickly found out that southern California holds eternal fascination for them. “Did ya have a great vacation, Mr Burns? Did ya go swimmin’ ‘n surfin’? Bet the Mexican food was cool!” What I found truly amazing, and being so close to Mexico, was how little Spanish was spoken by the white community. Perhaps a clear indication of the social and political status of a language that is associated with poverty and the source of much of the rampant drug industry that is claiming hundreds of lives south of the border.

Segregation lives on?

Rosa Parks' Bus, Ford Museum

As I was sitting on a bus to the airport in San Diego, an elderly lady sitting next to me leaned over in a posture of conspiracy, and quietly announced to me that we were the only two white Caucasians on the bus! I pretended to follow up on her observation and answered her as kindly as I could with a “well, isn’t that amazing!” which seemed to keep her satisfied. She then complained excessively about the speed of the bus, until I realised it was being driven by an African-American. When I arrived at the airport, a headline in USA Today caught my attention, revealing that Rosa Parks had just died at the age of 92. This lady became a powerful symbol of the black liberation movement in the 1950s when she refused to obey a law in Montgomery which stated that a black person always had to give up their seat on a bus if there was a white person standing. Rosa Parks refused to obey the law and was fined $14. This action heralded the beginning of a yearlong boycott of the public transportation system by the black community in Montgomery, and saw the rise of Martin Luther King whose influence, and tragic death, brought about major changes in modern American society. I thought again about the lady on the San Diego bus and wondered if she had read the same headlines.

Rosa Parks

When I got back to Michigan, I discovered that Rosa Parks had eventually moved to Michigan and, in fact, had been

Sitting on Rosa Parks' seat

living in Detroit, just a few miles down the road from Stevenson High. Not only that, but the very bus on which she had staged that famous protest, number 2857, is now an exhibit in the Henry Ford museum of motoring in Dearborn. Perhaps I’ll sit on her seat and turn to an elderly San Diego lady next to me and say conspiratorially (in the words of Jesse Jackson): “D’you realise that Rosa Parks sat down so that black people throughout America could stand tall?”

Letter from America 2: “Only in America……”

The Football Game

Supporters!

Only in America …………………….. will you see a crowd of 6000 turn up to see a school football game! Only in America will the entertainment off the pitch be as engrossing as the events on the pitch. Only in America will the passion for sport, even in the face of defeat, be lifted to new levels by the encouragement of cheerleaders, acrobats, musicians and lottery competitions, all designed to fill every vacant moment during the game’s schedule. Only in America will the crowd’s departure from a school football game be monitored by the local police and require helicopter surveillance. Stevenson High lost against their close rivals Franklin High School, but the event (especially for a novice such as me) bombarded the senses from every direction. Replete with hot dogs, soda pop and coffee, we slid out of the grounds 5 minutes before the end to beat the mass exodus.

My host family

Alex, Vince & Jacq

The Roberge family, my hosts during my stay, are a delight. Their relaxed style and warm hospitality is all that I could have hoped for. To boot, their son Vince is a competition cyclist, following in the footsteps of his compatriot, Lance Armstrong. This, of course, means there are several bicycles in the house, and from the bunch, I’ve picked out his cyclo-cross bike to borrow for the next few weeks. As I get to know the best routes in the area, cycling through

A ride out with Vince

neighbourhoods that stretch for miles upon miles, I begin to see the early preparations for Halloween. Front gardens are filled with inflatable ghosts and evil cartoon characters, all (strangely) appearing to have smiley, kindly faces that wouldn’t scare anyone. In downtown Plymouth, the central green is being decorated with fantasy figures created by different families and associations in the town.

Down town Detroit

A visit to downtown Detroit took us to Greek Town, teeming with restaurants and casinos. The atmosphere is lively, the food authentic and many of the dishes unpronounceable, and we witness several times the ignition of a dish called “sagenaki” that frequently caught us by surprise by its blast of heat and light. The journey home included a tour of the once grandiose sectors of Detroit that have now fallen into a state of neglect. I learn that, many years ago, Detroit had once been the number one city in the world for private house ownership, and this had been due, in large part, to the generous wages paid to employees by car manufacturers like Henry Ford. We tour neighbourhoods and peer through the dark at buildings that had been mansions in their time, betraying the wealth and high living once enjoyed by former residents. Detroit, of course, is still home to the car industry, the headquarters of companies such as Ford and General Motors housed in magnificent tower blocks that suggest power and success. That power and success, however, is now threatened by global economic concerns, high pension commitments and soaring health benefits for employees.

On one of my cycle rides over the weekend, I pulled up at one of the many sets of traffic lights, and a driver in a big gas-guzzling SUV lowered his window and shouted “So what gas miles d’you get on that thing”. To humour him I said 3000 to the gallon. “Oh, hey, why don’t we do a swap?”. Before I could clinch the deal, the lights had changed and he was gone.

When I entered by first class this morning, I noticed that four of the boys were wearing smart shirts and ties, and not their usual casual kit. I thought at first it was either a joke, or I was developing a fan club. It rapidly came to light that there is a big soccer game tonight (not football, which is American) and their coach demands that they dress smartly during the day to raise the collective spirit of the players, and to advertise the game with the other students. Of course, many of them are expecting to see me there, so it looks like a hasty taco and nacho meal on the run to the game tonight!

End of the day

After classes this afternoon, I took an hour out just to tour the school campus. The after hours are filled with training sessions in all the major sports, and practice sessions for marching bands and cheerleaders take place on the lawns in front of the school.  Also at the front of the school is a flashing neon sign advertising everything from the sporting events in the calendar to the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the school.

The education system in the USA is founded on the belief that student progress and behaviour can be significantly influenced by reiterative and visual reminders of positive and uplifting messages. Corridors and classrooms are adorned with colourful visuals bearing quotes from wise people like Einstein and Picasso. The motto of the school itself is not only visible on walls around the school, but is beamed to the general public via the neon sign:

“Striving for excellence; Learning for life”.

With that as my final thought, I bid you…….

Letter from America 1: A very rude awakening!

A Fulbright teacher exchange

In the autumn of 2005, I took a break from my teaching in a small rural private school in England, surrounded by

Olivia

Huntingdonshire countryside, and headed for the cavernous environment of a huge public High School in Michigan. For a period of six weeks, I swapped my post as a teacher of Spanish with a delightful, fun-loving lady from Michigan called Olivia Wylie, who also taught Spanish at Stevenson High School in Livonia. We were both to discover that the concept and practice of “education” can be fundamentally very different in two countries that share so many common cultural and linguistic roots. The following Letters from America offer some entertaining capsules of my experiences during that time. If you have read any of Frank McCourt’s books, especially those that describe his experiences as a High School teacher in the US (‘Tis and Teacher Man) you will  be familiar with much of what I describe. I was glad to have McCourt’s books at hand when I was ‘tripping and stumbling along’. They were imbued with fellow-feeling.

Stevenson High School, Livonia, Michigan: the first morning

As I entered my classroom for the first time on Monday morning 6.15am, less than 36 hours after my arrival at Detroit airport, my natural instinct was to ask myself “why?”. Still an hour before sunrise, even in October, and I am being guided into the cavernous corridors of Stevenson High School, hollow and echoing in the absence of nearly 2,500 students and staff, and waiting for that first wave to be bussed in by the characteristic yellow school buses, so familiar from the movies. That first wave will descend at 7am in preparation for a 7.25 start in the classroom.

As I frantically negotiate the geography of my new teaching space, find the books and technology to make my first lesson happen, new colleagues appear in my classroom to welcome their English visitor, and offer every assistance to make my transition from small rural independent school to massive American public high school a little easier. I am overwhelmed by their concern. But thankful that I can call on anyone and be assured they will be there in my time of need.

Viewing my seating plans, a quick calculation reveals that my groups number well over 30. The first ones appear and sleepily occupy their allotted places, some of them recovering from the Homecoming Dance at the weekend. Classes begin promptly, timed to the minute to finish and resume at 8.23 and 8.29 respectively. I discover that my last class finishes at 2.19 and wonder what happened to aesthetically pleasing round timings like 8.30 or 2.20.

The day progresses

The morning surges forward relentlessly and without a break, allowing 6 minutes between classes, until half way through my 4th hour (at 11.11am precisely) a bell rings and 35 students disappear like a flash of lightening for their 20 minute sandwich lunch. Staff, too, have only 20 minutes, and must be back in their classrooms to resume the lesson that was literally cut in mid-flight. To my surprise, all the students take up the curtailed activities automatically as if nothing had happened.

What strikes me forcefully about American students in these early lessons is how literally they abide by the timings and conventions of the school. Their promptness is startling, their attention at the start of a lesson is endearing, and a natural respect for the teacher seems embedded in their upbringing. In a class of 35 you might expect some need for crowd control from time to time, but at Stevenson High, that is not the case. Most seem concerned about their academic progress, the Parent/Teacher Conferences are imminent, they obviously want the teacher on their side, even though he is a “new kid on the block” and probably doesn’t have a clue what any of this is all about.

A pleasant surprise

In the thick of my second hour, I spot baskets around the room, full of tied up scrolls and bars of “candy”. I enquire about them and they tell me they are “wishing baskets” filled with their wishes for me, their new teacher, and the candy bars are ‘pick-me-ups’ for when I’m feeling low or lacking in energy. When I open some of the wishes, they are genuine expressions of welcome to both Michigan and to their school, and what shines through is how proud they are of their country, state and school. I am also showered with advice about where the best burgers and pizzas are in town, and that I must get a ticket for the football game (American) between Stevenson and their local arch-rivals Franklin High. This is going to be the big match of the season, and they are expecting over 6000 spectators (and this is just a school game!).

My Englishness

I discover that the English accent is major currency here in the mid-West. I’ve never thought of the way that I speak as being particularly remarkable. My accent may be reasonably ‘standard’ with just a trace of my northern origins, but here in Michigan people almost swoon at the sound of Britishness. They stop by and ask me to say something just so they can hear me speak! During my planning period of the morning (ie non-teaching) I pass an open classroom door and the teacher begs me to come in and just say something to her students who are dying to hear the accent. I’ve got to be careful here, I might find myself tuning the pitch and intonation just to give the Hugh Grant effect!

The trauma of a Parent/Teacher Conference

Then on Wednesday came the PTC! The first Parent/Teacher Conference of the semester, and FGB was landing himself in the firing line after only two days in the classroom. The great thing for the students is that it is a day’s holiday. The staff, however, are in school from 7.30am preparing for the big event. My whole morning is spent learning about grading systems, sorting out mark orders and assembling photos of the 160 students I teach, so that I wont sound totally dumb when parents start asking searching questions. The feverish preparations are interrupted by an invitation to a donut breakfast in the Dept of Global Education, where the discussion is deeply into the effects of emailing and SMS on the standards of essay writing.

The PTC started at 1pm with the first 3 hour session. I imagined that most parents would see me as a museum exhibit, and would come along to meet me out of courtesy and curiosity. It was heart-warming to be made to feel welcome by every parent that came, but they also wanted to talk serious business about their child’s progress, so I was very glad I had done my homework in the morning session!

The afternoon

After two hours break for dinner, it was back again for the evening session until 9pm. The great bonus on the horizon was something called the ‘compensatory’ half day on Friday whereby the students come in for half the timetable with all subjects being allocated just 25 minutes per class. This compensation for working late into the evening is an inheritance from the militant union days in Detroit.

After school today, the Principal invited all the staff to a cake and coffee reception in the main library, the principle objective being to introduce their English visitor more formally to the wider staff, many of whom I had not yet met along the corridors of this vast campus. Speeches completed, I was presented with a bag of Stevenson “goodies” that included a shirt, scarf and umbrella, so I can now stand on the terraces of the football game on Friday and shout out “Jolly-ho for Stevenson” and be indistinguishable from the crowd.

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