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Desert Blues, Film Noir, and Margaritaville, Elementary Style

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Teacher Magazine's take on education news from around the Web, Sept. 20-Oct. 1.

Once upon a time, when poor districts didn't have the cash to invest in technology, their students were victims of the "digital divide." But that's history; federal funding has helped put computers in every classroom in the U.S. of A. There's just one problem—those same resource-strapped districts, desperately trying to meet NCLB requirements, now buy drill-and-kill software programs by the bucketload, thanks to persuasive vendors. Welcome, then, to the new digital divide, where inner city kids click mice for hours as teachers twiddle their thumbs. "I enjoy it," one educator says. "It gives us a break during the day." Little does she know that some vendors envision an even more technology-friendly future. "As a school continues to grow, they don't have to add teachers at the same rate of growth," says one software company CEO, "because technology shares the load." But folks at the U.S. ed department insist that "there's no substitute for quality teaching," and schools using computers as a supplement to, not a replacement for, lessons heartily concur. When drill-and-kill vendors knock on their doors, they're told to hit the road.

Pavement is what the 78 students in the Death Valley Unified School District see a lot of as they go to and from school on the bus. That's because the district is bigger than neighboring Los Angeles and Orange counties combined, forcing some kids to travel 60 miles each way. With that in mind, Governor Schwarzenegger recently signed a law allowing Death Valley's three schools to have four-day weeks. Why? Well, imagine this: riding in a bus as hot as 104 degrees inside—even when it's air-conditioned! And because cell phones don't work well in the mountain-ringed desert and radio technology in said environment is too costly, drivers of broken-down buses must hitch their way to the nearest town for help. So school officials figure one day less of travel is a good idea. But the kids, many of whom live in trailers in the middle of nowhere, disagree—school is their social life. In the desert, says one 14-year-old, "there's nothing to do."

One locale that's never been short on visitors is RateMyTeachers.com, where students anonymously do what the Web site's name suggests—to the tune of 887,000 educators in four countries thus far. This past year alone, visitors posted 5 million ratings, a fivefold increase for the site, started in 2001 by 20-something computer whiz Michael Hussey and his partners. As you can imagine, the reviews have been mixed. Eric Piotrowski, a high school English teacher in Wisconsin, says the site is "fundamentally a good way for us to keep tabs on what the people we work with have to say." Yeah, well, that's easy to say if you've received a 4.1 rating (out of 5), complete with a smiley face. But what about those who rate 1 or 2 and are sometimes inappropriately critiqued on their appearance? These kinds of comments, according to Hussey, are few and far between, as the site is monitored for derogatory language. Otherwise, claims one 9th grader from Ohio, the ratings are "pretty accurate."

A teacher who used to get high marks was Georges Lopez, star of the critically acclaimed French documentary Etre et Avoir, or To Be and To Have. Released in 2002, it was shot inside a one-room rural schoolhouse, where the charismatic 58-year-old educator teaches elementary-age kids. It became an unexpected hit, earning $2.5 million in profits, which got Lopez thinking he should be paid. He was offered about $47,000 as a settlement, but he sued instead, demanding more than $300,000. This week, the court ruled in favor of the filmmakers, saying, in effect, that documentary subjects are not actors, so they shouldn't be remunerated. Lopez, who plans to appeal, is no longer the media darling he once was. Just read this French newspaper headline: "To Be and To Have: The Teacher Would Rather Have."

There's a kitchen crew in Virginia that would rather forget one meal ever took place. Seems that a greenish liquid found in a refrigerator was poured into paper cups and served to 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders at Alexandria Country Day School during lunch. But the refreshment, assumed to be limeade, smelled awful to some kids; others, who took a few sips, declared it gross. And rightly so; they'd unwittingly been served margaritas—and not the "virgin" kind. Amends were quickly made by the school's headmaster, who in an upfront letter to parents explained that the pitcher was left over from a staff party. All liquor is now banned, and future staff parties will take place off campus, he declared. And because no child was harmed, parents haven't complained. One even said of the school's actions, "They handled it in a textbook way."

—Rich Shea

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