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Multigenerational Mom Muses on Twin Toddlers & Twenty-Something Daughters

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reading and literature

Kids Hate Language Arts. Can Reading and Writing be Resuscitated?

I have a passion for teaching English to high schoolers. A passion for seeing kids learn, seeing kids’ faces light up with understanding and excitement. Sadly, I see that light diminishing more with each passing year.

This week begins my 18th year of teaching English to secondary students. And every year, fewer and fewer students love to read. Heck, let’s get rid of the phrase “love to” and state the facts: Every year, fewer and fewer students read. Anything.

Or I guess I should qualify that statement — kids do read a little. And by a little, I mean memes. They’ll read something if it’s shorter than a sentence. And is paired with an image.

And they write that way too. Sentences are overrated. They want fragments, abbreviations, and emojis. That’s how kids communicate these days.

Which means my subject matter — literature and composition — is rapidly dying. It’s very nearly dead — and almost universally despised by my students. So I have a hard task in front of me, trying to save something most kids would love to see buried and gone.

On the first day of school, they are always so happy to brag to me about how much they hate English class. How they don’t read and they don’t want to. They once read a book in 7th grade, they’ll tell me when pressed, about some boy and a plane that crashed. “Hatchet?” I ask. “Yeah, that’s it,” they say. It’s the only book they’ve ever read. “Nothing since?” I whimper. They laugh. “Nope.” And my heart sinks. Every time.

How can I resuscitate a skill that far gone? Something that breathed — once — three years back and then flatlined, never to even be mourned?

We are in the era of smart phones and laptops. Kids don’t even watch television anymore. They watch their portable screens. And mostly quick, entertaining segments on YouTube. If it’s not quick, they won’t usually give it their time. And if it doesn’t grab their attention in the first 30 seconds, they’re hitting the search bar looking for something else.

Kids’ attention spans are jaded and fading. They want new, new, new and fast, fast, fast. And reading meets none of those requirements; writing, even less.

How do I, as an educator, compete in this fast and furious climate and culture?

Sometimes I worry that it’s just too late. That I simply don’t have the ability to raise Literacy from the dead. Indeed, the prognosis is bleak.

Case in point: my students from last year. I love them dearly, and I really believed that together, we’d made all sorts of progress. Now, I knew they weren’t out randomly picking up books instead of their iPhones, but I still thought I’d made some sort of impact. I thought they’d at least enjoyed the literature we read together.

But then I had a group of kids tell me a couple weeks back how much they hated To Kill a Mockingbird. Hated it.

And I wanted to cry. I failed them miserably. And I deceived myself in the process.

How can I remedy my failure? How can I bring the joy of reading and the art of writing back from the brink of death? Or is it already too late?

I know for a fact I can’t do it on my own. It’s impossible. Trauma surgeons have whole teams working in conjunction to keep their patients alive. From paramedics to ER docs to nurses to lab techs to anesthetists to surgical residents and attendings, everybody does their part, separately and together, to keep the patient from multiple system failure. Resuscitating literacy can’t all ride on me.

And it can’t all wait till it gets to me either. Fifteen years without a heart for reading is probably too late. Sure, I might find a feeble pulse in a couple of kids and nurture it back into a steady beat, but saving 2 kids out of 185 is not enough.

Nope, it’s got to be more and it’s got to begin sooner. It needs to begin at home. With parents and their babies.

Parents, read to your children. Read to them early — as newborns, even. It’s never too soon, I promise. Read them Goodnight, Moon. Read them The Grouchy Ladybug. Read them Green Eggs and Ham. And sing to them, too. Sing nursery rhymes. Sing The Itsy Bitsy Spider, sing The Wheels on the Bus. Heck, sing Baby Shark, if you dare.

But read to them, and sing to them, and foster in them the love of language.

Then, we teachers will keep it going — from preschool all the way through senior year and beyond. Together, we can foster lifelong readers and writers… and excellent communicators. This world needs these skills. Desperately.

It’s never too soon, but it can be too late.

Call Me Crazy, Just Don’t Call me a Crazy Bitch: Why I Teach Feminism

A dear friend of mine just brought to my attention a scholarly article called, Hysteria, Witches, and The Wandering Uterus: A Brief History: or, Why I Teach ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ by Terri Kapsalis, a professor at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. Among other things, Kapsalis discusses the Victorian diagnosis of hysteria – or the belief in a “wandering uterus” being the cause for basically any, and all, female physical ailments. If a patient was full of phlegm, or suffering from depression, or had a migraine — no matter what the issue — it was surmised that her wild and wanton womb had been creeping around where it didn’t belong again. Not kidding here.

And what, pray tell, was the reason it wandered? Why, it was hankering for a heaping helping of man juice, of course.

Of course. The God-designed purpose of the uterus. To receive man-seed and bring forth life. The only sure way to cure a “hysterical” woman was to keep her barefoot and pregnant. Jizz a day keeps the doctor away.

Such beliefs and diagnoses invalidated legitimate medical complaints of women from Ancient Egypt all the way up to the modern era. Everything was chalked up to hormones. And while diagnostic medicine has moved away from such ridiculous notions, public opinions about the psychological state of womanhood has not.

When we women get too big for our proverbial britches, when we become too intellectual, too political, too competitive, too driven, when we dare to do something beyond the roles society has deemed appropriate for our “kind” – you know, wives, mothers, maybe teachers or nurses – then we are seen as a threat. We are dangerous. So we are called deranged, out of control, hysterical.

And we are slammed right back into that whole wandering womb pigeon hole again. Obviously, we need to sip some more from that whole cult of domesticity Kool Aid again to get us back to our proper place – back on the path of the straight and narrow.

Look at Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, even Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Palin. They’ve all been called crazy bitches. Hysterical females. Because, as the article so wisely notes, “hysteria is a bipartisan weapon.” A powerful woman is a dangerous woman, no matter the party. I, myself, have been guilty of labeling a couple of these women with the same blasphemous insults that have been used against my favorites. It’s an easy trap to fall into. And every time I trip up, I empower the status quo.

And the status quo is white and male and always eager to see women fail. Sexism is a bullshit topic, according to them. Made up. And feminism is a dirty word.That’s definitely the mentality in certain branches of my family. And in certain corners of my classroom.

Not with AP students, at least not most of them. Most of them love to explore social and political movements. They find counter culture stimulating. They yearn for wider understanding than simply their daddy’s dictums, their pastor’s politics or their Uncle Johns’ world views. They long to balance and counterbalance their minds. To glean understanding from all walks of life. To broaden their understanding and to embrace empathy. They want to absorb, not only with their minds, but with their hearts and souls, too.

But in my general education classrooms, feminism receives eye-rolls. Books with female heroines get groans and barely touched assignments. We don’t want to read a book about a girl, they say. Sexism is imagined, they say. Glass ceilings are made up. Rape statistics are exaggerated. Sexual discrimination is the hashtag of the moment.

And as a teacher, I ask myself how in the world can I change such mindsets? Such opinions? Such blatant denials and refusals? Is it even possible to help someone overcome a prejudice they don’t believe exists? How do you help someone see when they refuse to open their eyes?

Now usually it is the white males in my classroom who refuse to explore the possibilities of inequality — of any kind, but especially sexism. But sometimes it’s the females, too. And that blows my mind even more.

But then, it also gives me hope. Hope that maybe these young women don’t understand that discrimination exists because maybe for them, it hasn’t. Because their fathers and grandfathers and churches haven’t preached weakness in women the way I had it preached to me. They didn’t grow up the way I did. And that gives me so much hope. Hope that the times, they are a changing.

But most of the young women in my classroom, they get it. They know the discrimination. Because they’ve seen it with their own eyes and they’ve felt it in their own skin – not necessarily in terms of business and politics, not yet. They are still young. But when we talk about their bodies, about body shaming and slut shaming and the shame that comes with sexual assault – the floodgates are opened. These girls have seen this. They know this.

And I know without a doubt that every single time I bring up that infamous 1-in-4 statistic, that someone in my class has been there. Odds are more than one someone in my class. These numbers, sadly, don’t lie. And as teenage girls soon to go off to college or careers or military service, my students are squarely in the demographic most at risk. They could become – or already have been – part of that statistic.

I know because I have received private notes from students who were victimized by family members, or by neighbors, or by so-called friends, or even by teachers. I have had students stay after class to say it aloud for the very first time. I have had students bravely tell their stories in class to everyone present. As a teacher, I have read about incidents of sexual abuse. I have heard about incidents of sexual abuse. And I have reported incidents of sexual abuse.

So, yes, even though the topic of feminism gets eye rolls and zeros in the grade book from students who refuse to learn about or acknowledge that sexism exists, I will continue to broach the subject. I will continue to present and discuss literature like “The Yellow Wallpaper” and The Handmaid’s Tale. I will continue to wander off the path of the straight and white and narrow-minded. I do it because of those students who have been touched by sexism. And for those students who deny it exists. I do it for them, too. Call me crazy, but I believe I am helping empower women and eradicate sexism one book, one student, one semester at a time.

So go ahead, call me crazy. But don’t you dare call me a crazy bitch.

 

Surely Some Revelation is at Hand: Why We Should Read Dark & Twisty Literature

“Reading is stupid!…I never read books!…Nobody reads books anymore… I haven’t read a book since first grade.”

Kids say these hurtful things in English class every semester. It breaks my heart. And it’s hard for me to convince my students that reading really is a worthy pursuit. They are a generation of movies and music, not books and poetry. They watch and listen; they do not read and write They don’t believe in the power of the written word  – unless the word is in a text or tweet. Then it can be powerful. But by golly, it better be quick — 140 characters or less. Our kids take pride in being fast and ignorant.

And so does the president of these not-so-United States (less than half of our population elected him, after all). He once bragged in an interview with Meghan Kelly that he doesn’t read, he only scans “passages… areas, chapters, [because he doesn’t] have the time” to read an entire book or article.

And to be perfectly fair, our fearsome (not to be confused with fearless) leader may be averse to reading, but he is not averse to words in general. He says about himself, “I’m highly educated. I know words. I have the best words. I have the best, but there is no better word than stupid. Right?” And when he’s talking about himself, I tend to agree.

Now some of you would argue that the president wouldn’t have time to read – that he is telling the truth, for once. That as the world’s arguably most powerful tantrum-thrower (could be North Korea’s Kim Jong Un), he very likely doesn’t have time to read. Hell, with all that tweeting, he doesn’t even have time for intelligence briefings. And, the presidency is a big job. Huge. Tremendous (to use a couple of his favorite words). And that is true. But both President Obama and President George W Bush held the exact same job and were still avid readers. Obama used to publish his summer reading list and W. would participate in friendly, annual reading competitions.

It infuriates me that Trump’s got legions of impressionable young minds idolizing his idiocy and his twitter rants. I know this is so because I hear them sing his praises in my tenth lit classroom every day.  (In my AP classroom, however, I’m proud to report the exact opposite :))

So how do I counter that kind of attitude? Because, honestly, why SHOULD we read? What’s the point? How do I put into words the importance of putting words into stories or poems? Why does reading – particularly literature — matter at all?

Now some of us read for escape. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes a beach read or a rom-com can be so-very-good for the weary soul. But that’s not the type of literature I teach, nor the type of answer I need to give my students. Because the books I teach aren’t designed for vacations or hammocks. They’re not page-turners or bodice-rippers. They’re temporal, occipital, and parietal lobe-slappers. They rattle you to the core and shake things up a bit. A lot, even. These books demand attention. They demand a lifestyle audit, a reevaluation of tenet and truth. It is literature designed to promote participation in life. It is literature written to educate, to motivate, to activate. It doesn’t form readers’ opinions, it informs their opinions. No, the literature I teach is not escapism. It is activism.

Good literature models life – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Most often, the ugly. My AP Lit kids – and my kid sister, too — always ask me why we read such dark and twisty stuff. Why all the hearts of darkness and the second comings and killings of mockingbirds, all the Conrads and Yeats and Lees of the literary world?  And I say because they model all the dark, twisty turns that hopefully (with wise choices and some divine intervention) they won’t have to go through. But if they do meet the dark and twisty side of life, that they can better ride out the storm — or even battle and defeat it.

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That’s why we read Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Because after reading Macbeth, we are far better able to recognize a tyrant when we see and hear one. Perhaps if enough Americans had read the Scottish Play in high school, we wouldn’t now have MacTrump in the White House. And those of us who have read Shakespeare’s most unappealing tragic hero, are now confidently and not-so-patiently waiting for the rest of his thanes to fly from him (they’ve dropping like flies this week), and we’re waiting for the Woods to come to Dunsinane, (or should I say DUNCEinane), and we’re waiting for a Man not of Woman Born (translation, C-section babe) to purge our nation of this tyrant and restore it to sound and pristine health. (And there are certainly a whole lot more likely candidates than merely MacDuff these days, as C-sections have been on the rise in recent centuries.)

And that’s also why we read Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — a cautionary tale against what can happen if faith becomes entangled with politics. If morality dictates law. If women’s rights are threatened and then eradicated. And while it may feel like our nation is a far cry from the control and manipulation of women and their identities and bodies (and a world undone by environmental degradation and pollution) that we see in HT, I am here to say we are not. Since Trump has been in office, the widespread access to contraception, legalization of abortion, and growing female political influence have all fallen under attack. As has the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Parks Service. If these attacks are successful, if our rights begin to topple, then the return to traditional gender roles and subjugation of women cannot be far behind. Nor can widespread environmental disaster. Atwood’s prophetic work reflects the ugly truths of our time. By its very nature, it’s designed to frighten, to warn, and to demand action. It reflects social and political tendencies and demonstrates the horrors that could – let’s say WILL — occur if Trump’s power is allowed to reign unchecked.

And that’s also why we read The Kite Runner – a coming-of-age story about two young boys struggling to belong and to be strong amid crumbling relationships and a crumbling homeland. And it just so happens the story revolves around two Muslim schoolboys in Kabul. But it could just as easily be between two white boys is Atlanta, or two Asian girls in Singapore, or two Latinas in Los Angeles, or two German frauleins in Dieseldorff.  The point is, we read this novel to know that we are all fundamentally the same. We all need love and understanding, connection and communion, forgiveness and redemption.  This book demonstrates the universality of the human experience. And right now, more than ever, we need to remember humanity.

Yes, the literature I teach is tough. And it’s tender. And it’s smart and searing and aggressive and wise and passionate and compassionate. It’s all of those things. It has to be. It needs to be. And so do our citizens. Not just America’s, but the world’s. We all have to be tougher and smarter than what we’ve been thus far. Because there’s a rough beast in our White House and he’s got a cold, corrupt soul and a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun. And twenty centuries of stony sleep have birthed our worst nightmare.

If Yeats were alive today, the beast slouching toward Bethlehem would be orange and have a comb-over.

(I borrowed heavily from the prophetic poem of the masterful W.B. Yeats this week. Read him. He tingles your spine and torments your soul.)

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