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Multigenerational Mom Muses on Twin Toddlers & Twenty-Something Daughters

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The Absence of Smiles

Do you ever feel like the celery in a hot wings basket? Or an ad on YouTube? Or the tootsie roll in the bottom of the Halloween pumpkin? Judged and found lacking? Or ignored altogether? Unable to connect?

I’ve been feeling that a lot lately. And I think it’s the isolation behind the mask. I find myself trying to connect by overcompensating — chattering aimlessly, using lots of hand gestures, smiling till my eyeballs vanish — trying to appear welcoming, to sound happy, to be happy. But I probably just seem crazy.

Teaching through a mask to 190-plus students also wearing masks is lonely business. And no matter how hard I try, they mostly stare silently back at me. Judging me. Or worse — not caring. Or even worse still — feeling as isolated as me.

Because I definitely feel lonely. And dejected. And detached. (And I fear that they do too.)

There’s a human connection we miss when we can’t see whole faces. Two-thirds of our features are currently hidden. And what’s hurting me most is the lack of smiles. I’m missing them something fierce.

And it’s breaking me.

Smiling’s my favorite. They’re so contagious — way more than COVID-19. And while the virus droplets aren’t getting shared and spread, neither are the smiles.

And I’m not just missing the smiles. I’m missing myself. It’s like my personality has been purloined by my PPE.

I never thought not seeing smiles could impact me so much.

But even without the masks, smiles are so few and far between right now. Everything and everyone is so angry and divided. Between the plague and the politics, I feel a social distance not solely attributable to the pandemic.

We’ve been losing our humanity for a long time now. And it’s what I need more of. More connections and grace. Not more exclusion and judgement.

Not more I’m better than you because I think like this. Or I’m better than you because I have accomplished this. Or I’ve been rewarded with this. Or I wear this. Or drive this. Or live here. Or work there. Or have this skin color. Or vote this color.

I want to belong, not to exclude. I want to be a part of something. Not to feel like the last one picked. But also not to be part of a click. And I definitely don’t want to be a dick. I just want to be included and to include others. To be a part of, not apart from.

Can’t we do better? Can’t we love better? and live better? and be better? Even behind masks? Because I am a believer in the safety and science of masks. But I’m also a big believer in smiles.

I miss sharing and spreading and basking in smiles.

The Most Critical of Workers are Reporting for Duty: Students in the Pandemic

As school starts back, we have a whole new essential workforce hitting the frontline in the pandemic. Teachers were labeled critical workers by the POTUS. And that is as it should be. We are willing and able to meet the challenges ahead — especially with a dedicated and conscientious school system supporting us. 

But I’m here to call attention to another group of critical workers out there — a group vital to the core function of society and the entire future of our great nation. A group of young, unsung heroes willing to do whatever it takes to succeed under strange and difficult demands. 

I’m talking about our students.

The changes these kids are facing — and embracing — are enough to rattle the steadiest of veterans. Our school has opened on a hybrid schedule, leaving us at half capacity inside our walls, with kids reporting both in person and virtually at different times throughout the week. The hallways and stairwells have one-way signs, there are hand sanitizer stations every fifty feet, lunches are eaten inside classrooms, masks are worn when social distancing isn’t possible, and desks face one direction and sit six feet apart.

But these kids of ours — these superhero Gen-Z go-getters — they are taking all these hurdles in stride just to be here and be educated in far-from-ideal and so-far-from- normal conditions.

And they’re doing it with smiles on their faces. Not that I can see their mouths, thanks to the masks they wear so willingly — but I can see those smiles in their eyes. And they can see mine. Or I truly hope so. Because I love being with them again, interacting, forging relationships, watching light bulbs click on, discussions unfold, learning ignite. 

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s far from easy peasy Lysol squeezy. Despite our school system creating one of the best re-opening plans I’ve seen out there, I’m not gonna lie, things feel weird. Because being socially distanced to keep us all together is messing with the normally exaggerated and wide-open personalities of my teen students.

I’m sure some of it has to do with the trauma of the past four months — the PTSD of losing classrooms and classmates and social lives literally overnight. And I’m sure a large part also has to do with the smaller class sizes and the masks we wear.

But y’all… I’m used to kids who like to talk. Who, if anything, talk too much most of the time. They’re teenagers. On the cusp of adulthood. It’s a confusing stage under normal circumstances. So they talk through their confusion in class A LOT… way more than they do at home. They feel freer to vocalize thoughts, feelings, dreams, and fears. And through their persistent chatter, formal class discussions, and best-friend heart-to-hearts, they learn who they are, what they know, what they believe, and where they stand in life. And I love that about teenagers. 

Like, really. I’m not lying. Some teachers love it when their students are silent. But me, I love it when they’re not. When they feel comfortable and safe enough to give voice to their rapidly-evolving thoughts and feelings. 

But this year, they are quiet. Eerily so — as if the masks are acting as mufflers. 

And not just for them. Me too. 

I teach because I love to make connections, to share literature and love and learning with young people so they know and understand their worth and potential. My goal is always to make a positive impact. 

But this year, my impact feels muffled, like my best efforts are falling on… not quite deaf ears, but more like mute mouths. Our kids, I think, feel vulnerable and isolated and self-conscious. 

But then, these kids are also brave. Brave and here. At school. In a brick and mortar building. Present and determined. They make me prouder than they’ll ever know. 

I wish I could put into words how much I love them. How far I am willing to go to help them succeed. How much they inspire me to be the best possible teacher — because they deserve only the very best. 

As our superintendent says, this school year should be seen not as a challenge, but as an opportunity. An opportunity to grow and become better at our craft. I want to be a better communicator and a better teacher — to bridge the social distancing distance and reach my students. And teach my students. And see them grow. 

I will rise to that opportunity, and I will seize it with both hands (well-sanitized, of course).

Because my students are willing to do the same. 

What it Takes to be a Teacher: The Real Three Rs of Education

Being a teacher is not what most people think it is. Heck, it’s not even what most teaching candidates think it is. You enter the profession wide-eyed and full of faith. You believe in your abilities; you believe in yourself. You will illuminate the beauty of literature, the power of mathematics, the wisdom of history, the magic of science. You imagine your students to be eager little vessels waiting patiently to be filled with your brilliance. You are ready to teach. They are ready to learn.

But here’s what you yourself learn — really, really quickly…

Only a select few of your students are eager little vessels thirsty for knowledge. They are the few and the far between. And when you actually get some of those few and far between students in your classroom, it feels amazing. They are driven and focused and quick little studies, and you find yourself thinking you are an amazing teacher.

But here’s the facts of the matter: you’re not amazing; they are. They are amazing. And it has nothing to do with you. Not really. Teaching a subject to eager students is not teaching. Nope. That’s merely taking a hungry kid to a buffet and watching her eat. You didn’t even make the food. You just led her to it. Deflate your Promethean ego and focus on the facts.

If you got into education to teach your subject and strut your stuff, you need to get out. Like yesterday. Most students are not impressed with YOU. They don’t give a darn about your subject or how many degrees or dogs or daughters you have. Many are only impressed with their friends, their text messages, their social media, their music, their video games, their sports, and their phones. (Oh, Lord how they love their phones.)

And for some of them, they focus on these things because they are fundamental to who they think they are: young and popular and primed for greatness. Their worlds are on fire with passion and drama and hunger and thirst. And you? You are merely a blip on their radar, keeping them from the joys that await them when they leave school. They love their lives, not class.

But for others, they focus on these things because they are distractions from who they think they are: ugly and empty and profoundly worthless. Their worlds are burning down from passion and drama and hunger and thirst. And you are merely a blip on their radar, keeping them from the jabs that await them when they leave school. They loathe their lives and they loathe class.

This last group is by far the hardest to teach. They lash out. They cuss you out. They cut their eyes at you. They cut your class. They sleep or snark or throw middle fingers in the air. They throw insults and elbows. They are hard to manage, hard to guide, hard to instruct, hard to teach, hard to love.

But they need you the most. They need you to teach them. Not your subject. Them.

And to do it right, you’ve got to get invested. Be invested. And stay invested. Know who they are. Know who you’re working with. And what they’re working with. I promise you, you’ll be shocked.

I’ve had students who were being abused, physically or sexually or both. I’ve had students riding the wreckage of dirty divorces. I’ve had students whose parents were in prison or in rehab or in coffins. I’ve had students who lived in children’s shelters, on friends’ sofas, on Adderall and antidepressants. I’ve had students whose mothers fed them cocaine and methamphetamines in utero. I’ve had students whose fathers fed them knuckle sandwiches and nightmares in their homes last night.

How can you expect these kids to give a damn about Shakespeare and sonnets? And honestly — they can’t. Not yet. Not without trust. Not without security. Not without understanding. Not without love. Not even if you make it all relevant to them, to their lives, to their situations, to their struggles. Not even then. Not yet.

So you have to show them trust and security and understanding and love. You have to show them these things and be these things for your students. All of them. Even the hard ones. Especially the hard ones.

That’s the fundamentals of teaching that I don’t think a college classroom can teach you. But your own classroom absolutely will – if you’re willing to learn. If you’re willing to let your students teach you what they need. Until you’re willing to learn that, you are no Teacher. Books don’t teach you how to do that. Teaching teaches you that. And you can’t Teach until you can Do.

There’s an old Stevie Smith poem called “Not Waving but Drowning.” The first stanza ends like this:

I was much further out than you thought,

And not waving but drowning.

I use these two lines as my reminder to never get jaded, to never forget that just because my feelings get hurt and my ego gets bruised when a student shuns me or shouts at me or skulks around the corner and skips my class, that it’s not all about me. My bruises are nothing like his. My battles are nothing like hers.

My job is to hear and see my students. Not the cussing, not the insults, not the disrespect —  I hear and see that just fine – but my students and their struggles. For while it’s all too easy to misinterpret their actions, most of those really, hard students (not all, but most) are not waving, but drowning. They aren’t being bad kids, they’re being lost kids — little, lost, overwhelmed, under-loved kids. That’s what I need to see and hear.

Drowning people panic and they can quickly pull you under, too. They don’t even understand what they’re doing. They just want out of the deep water and they’ll hurt anyone who comes close. They lash out as a defense. They writhe and flail and try to climb on top of you. They try to pull you down.

And there are some days your drowning students will get you down. You will feel underwater yourself. You will feel like you just can’t do it anymore. You just want to let go. To swim away. To let them fail. To let it be somebody else’s problem.

But don’t let go. Regroup and regrip and keep throwing out those life lines.

Show them they are worth saving from the flood of violence and hunger and abuse and pain and powerlessness that overwhelms them. Show them that they do not deserve to drown. They are not disposable.

They are valuable.

They matter more than the subject matter. More than Shakespeare and sonnets. More than state mandates and standardized tests. Teach them — not the subject, not the test — teach them.

When they learn that they matter, only then can they learn the subject matter. But be prepared to rinse and repeat — a lot. Like a whole, whole lot.

Don’t get frustrated when they don’t trust themselves enough yet. Don’t get frustrated when they don’t trust you enough yet. Remember who you’re working with. Remember what they’re working with. They will need lots of recognition, lots of reinforcement, lots of repetition. Until they absorb it. Until they understand that they are valuable and they matter.

Recognition. Reinforcement. Repetition. — The Real Three Rs of Education.

 

Choice Cuts in Education: Discrimination is Alive and Well in the State of Georgia

In the state of Georgia, discrimination is alive and well and driving our school systems. And it’s not what you think.  Schools don’t discriminate against students based upon race, creed, color, economic status, or national origin. But they do, however, quite openly discriminate based upon course load.

You see, Friday afternoon, I opened an email from the State Department of Education and what I read blew my mind and hurt my Humanities heart. I am outraged and appalled.

The email states, and I quote, “In the past, funding has been provided by the legislature Tfor one AP exam for all low-income students enrolled in Georgia public schools.  Recent legislation redirected this funding to support only STEM related AP exams for all students regardless of economic status.  Hopefully, this notice will provide time for you and your administrators to explore other funding sources to support your non-STEM, low-income AP student exams.”

Wait, what?  “Recent legislation redirected […] funding to support only STEM related AP exams[…] regardless of economic status?” Excuse me?

I had to read the email twice. And then I had to seek confirmation from my principal to make sure I was indeed seeing what I was pretty damn certain I was seeing? Because it seemed impossible. Impossible to believe that our state would take away funding from our worthiest and neediest students. Students who have been diligently bettering themselves, year after year, through education. Students who have been climbing their way out of the darkness of poverty by taking challenging AP classes (and yes, many of these students take STEM classes, but not all) just to have the final rung on their ladder toward success removed: the ability to test, receive college credit, and get out of the vicious cycle.

And just what is so special about STEM anyway, that it supersedes all other course work? STEM — that educational juggernaut that harnesses the four horsemen of accomplishment: Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics. Those subject areas that in recent years equate to the Holy Grail of education, warranting such teacher and student incentives as signing bonuses, higher salaries, excess funding, partnerships, scholarships and now, apparently, AP exam exemption status.

Believe it or not, high levels of rigor exist outside STEM classrooms, ladies and gentlemen: critical thinking skills, advanced problem solving, the ability to gather and evaluate evidence, interpret and apply that evidence. These skills occur in other subject areas, too.

Yes, STEM is vital. I get it. It drives innovation and industry and helps keep the United States at the top of the global leaders. But STEM is not the only thing that keeps us there.

The Humanities and the Arts teach us what it means to be global citizens. Courses in history, literature, music, philosophy, language, rhetoric, and art provide instruction in civility, altruism, ethics, reflection, adaptability, etc. They strengthen our ability to communicate – with ourselves and with other nations. They keep us balanced. Without these valuable tools, we quite likely would become a nation fueled by xenophobia and driven entirely by rationality.

And what could possibly be wrong with a nation that looks out for its own best interest, driven entirely by the bottom line, you ask? A lot.

Read Jonathan Swift and you’ll find some answers. He warned us over and over of the harm that can befall mankind if we only use the rational parts of our brains.  Read “A Modest Proposal,” where he pens a brilliant, satiric remedy for an over-populated Ireland by suggesting the Irish Catholics breed children (something they are already so naturally good at) for the soup pot and barbecue joint and monetary gain. Completely rational and cost-effective, mind you.

Read Gulliver’s Travels. Within its pages, there are multiple accounts of societies driven by — and completely destroyed by – the pursuit of science and technology and ice-cold rationality.

Read: it’s fundamental — and as a humanities course, it’s a dying skill.

Not all of us are STEM people, nor should we be.

And I’m not a STEM hater. Far from it. Some of my best friends are STEM people. So is my daddy. Hell, so is my daughter. But I’m here to tell you we need balance. Humanities and the Arts deserve a place at the table too, folks.

And, to bring it all back to Advanced Placement, where my argument began, our state legislature and DOE have taken Humanities and the Arts off the table for our economically disadvantaged students. They will be force-fed STEM or they will not eat. And that is wrong.

These exams are not cheap ($93 each), and while there are reduced costs in place for students who qualify through the Free and Reduced Lunch program, the biggest incentive – one free exam for each economically disadvantaged student testing – is no longer available thanks to our state’s new STEM reallocation.

I’m sorry, but STEM is not the Be-All and End-All of education. It should not be funded at the expense of other disciplines. Nor at the expense of our economically disadvantaged students.

 

 

 

 

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