Search

postmodernfamilyblog

Multigenerational Mom Muses on Twin Toddlers & Twenty-Something Daughters

Category

teaching teens

Why Teachers Shouldn’t Wait Until Christmas to Smile

A lot of things have changed in my seventeen years of teaching.

Back when I first began, I was told, “Don’t smile until Christmas,” by almost everybody around me: education professors, veteran teachers, administrators. Everybody.

Thankfully, that has changed. Now teachers are encouraged to build relationships of trust and respect with our students. And that is a very positive change.

Not all of the changes have been for the better, though.

Some things, once rare, have become commonplace: like social media bullying and the threat of school shootings. Some things are nearly brand new: like vape juuls and dab pens. And some things are the new normal: like lockdown drills and smart phone distractions.

School shootings are a profoundly American tragedy, and one I’ve addressed before. In my years of teaching, they’ve become so ubiquitous that society seems to be jaded about them. This breaks my heart.

Smart phones didn’t exist seventeen years ago, but they’re everywhere now — along with rapidly multiplying smart watches. And with them, social media is a near-constant source of distraction (and contention) in the classroom. This likewise makes me super sad.

Kids would much rather check the stories on Snapchat than read the stories in English class. Instagram features and filters are much more compelling to them than mathematical fractals and fractions. Even in athletics, they’d sometimes rather tweet than compete.

Teachers get paid to teach… but very often, we feel like we do anything and everything BUT teach. Our classrooms have become lessons in covert operations.

Juuls and dab pens are everywhere — but kids are experts at hiding them. Hoodies and rubber bands have become suspect. Kids wear rubber bands around their wrist sleeves so they can hide juuls and take hits. They wear hoodies tight round their faces so they can exhale into their shirts.

I’ve seen vapor clouds disappear above students’ heads, but been unable to locate the source. I’ve seen discarded cartridges magically appear in my corners.

We play detective every day, trying to figure out which kid was the source of the sickeningly sweet odor infiltrating our room; which kid has red eyes from allergies, which kid has red eyes from THC; which kid is staring at his crotch because he’s texting, and which kid is staring at his crotch because he’s bored. (We get it all, almost every day.)

And you might think juuls and dab pens are more dangerous than smart phones, but experts argue they are all equally hazardous. I would agree.

Adolescent drug use, depression, and suicide is on the rise — and a huge contributing factor is social media and the pressures that come with it. Kids buy what social media is selling, which is almost always half-truths and lies.

Teens see the highlight reels of celebrities and idols and believe the image portrayed is reality. And then there’s also the bullies and predators out there, pressuring kids into sexting and nude pics — and the ensuing threats and belittling if they don’t… and the degrading and shame if they do.

Almost every aspect of social media leaves our kids feeling like they are not rich enough or smart enough or pretty enough or blond enough or athletic enough or cool enough… that they quite simply are not, nor will ever be, ENOUGH.

There’s been more than one occasion where I’ve found suicidal thoughts embedded in student essays. Social media is feeding insecurity and depression and kids are seeking escape through drugs and suicide.

Yes, teaching has gotten noticeably harder in the last seventeen years.

Before, I was told not to smile until Christmas. Now I’m told to smile and greet my students outside the classroom every day. To give high fives and side hugs. To genuinely care about my students and make sure they know I do.

These days, our district (and district all over our nation) are encouraging teachers to build relationships with students.

Because in a world full of school shootings and school bullying, teen depression, smart phone distractions, vape pens, and drug abuse, kids are not getting a whole lot of positive messages or interactions with anyone anymore — peers or adults. 

Because for some of our students, the smiles and greetings and side hugs we give are the only real human connection they make on any given day.

Sometimes our classroom is the only place where kids’ voices are used and actually heard. The only place where kids are given attention and affirmation. The only place where kids feel safe and secure and at home.

Some kids get nurtured at home. Some don’t. Some kids have the tools they need to navigate this increasingly treacherous world. Some don’t. Our job is to make sure all kids do. Teachers don’t just teach the Three R’s anymore.

The most important job we have as teachers now is to demonstrate love, compassion, and positive interaction. To teach community. To model the best of what humanity can be.

I’ve never been a teacher who didn’t smile till Christmas. Never. It wasn’t in my nature.

And while I’m glad that particular rule is no longer the norm, it makes me sad that changing times are what finally made the institution that is education see that students really do need and deserve smiles… long before Christmas.

Yes, there have been many changes over my seventeen years of teaching, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is that I still love teaching students. I really do. I still find it the most rewarding thing I can do with my life, besides motherhood.

But for me, teaching and motherhood are the perfect pairing. They go together like tacos and Tuesdays, cookies and milk, bacon and anything.

… like smiles in the classroom.

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.

The end of school is not always a happy occasion…

We are six weeks away from the end of the school year. Six weeks away from summer. Six weeks away from unlimited sunshine and freedom. A week ago, I could hardly wait.

But then, my principal said something in a faculty meeting that really hit me. Hard.

She reminded us that graduation is approaching. And while graduation generally means the culmination of over a decade of hard work, it also generally means the culmination of childhood.

And some students are not ready for adulthood.

And some students have already had far too much adulthood. And they long for a return to their schooldays. And to innocence lost.

And believe me, there has been so much innocence lost.

I’ve taught a lot of students in my eighteen years as an educator. All teenagers, but ultimately, all still children. Children who deal with standard kid things. Like puppy love and shoe-envy and math allergies.

And, sadly, children who deal with standard adult things. Like work and money-troubles and death and pregnancy.

And tragically, children who deal with things no child OR adult should ever deal with. Things like rape and sex trafficking and addiction and suicide.

Teach for a year. Teach for a month. Teach for a day — And you will start to understand the obstacles and downright darkness surrounding some of our most vulnerable and precious of resources: our children. And the numbers are far greater than you can imagine.

I’ve taught students — children — who have been raped.

Children raped by strangers. Children raped by friends. Children raped at parties. Children raped at home. Children raped by fathers.

Children whose mothers sold their child’s virginity for a $100 meth fix.

Children coping with the trauma and shame of rape, plus the trauma and shame of family serving time for avenging that rape.

I’ve taught students — children — engaged to be married to high school sweethearts. And insanely happy about it. At sixteen. Seventeen. And I’ve taught students betrothed to men they didn’t know back in a home country they scarcely remembered. And insanely hopeless about it. At sixteen. Seventeen.

I’ve had students addicted to smart phones, to video games, to porn, to substances.

I’ve had students high in my classroom. Glassy-eyed and giggly. Or cracked out and twitchy, picking endlessly at arms, at scalps, at cheeks, at skin rupturing, crusting, rupturing again.

I’ve had students who are pregnant. I’ve had students who’ve had abortions.

I’ve had students who sleep around. Students who sleep on mattresses in kitchens, who sleep on blankets in closets, who sleep on sofas, on floorboards, in backseats

I’ve had students sleep straight through my classroom because they work all night in a factory to put food on the table for siblings.

I’ve had students sleep straight through my classroom because they stay up all night playing Fortnite to escape the reality of abuse.

I’ve had students sleep straight through my classroom because they stay up all night playing Fortnite because there is no one home to tell them to go to bed.

I’ve taught homeless students. Homeless students living with friends. Homeless students living in shelters. Homeless students living in cars.

I’ve taught hungry students. Hungry students with nothing at home to eat. Hungry students on free-and-reduced breakfast and lunch service. Hungry students who go home on Friday afternoons with backpacks full of ready-serve dinners and snacks. Full backpacks; far-from-enough.

And I’ve taught hungry students whose parents won’t fill out the paperwork. Hungry children who go home on Friday afternoons with nothing at home to sustain them at all. Not food. Not love.

I’ve taught children who’ve eaten friends’ leftover pizza and bread crusts, proffered snacks from my emergency stash, restaurant refuse, their parents’ prescription pills.

I’ve had students have meltdowns, have seizures, have medical emergencies. I’ve had students who’ve overdosed.

I’ve had students who made it. And I’ve had students who didn’t.

I’ve had students who’ve died in car accidents. I’ve had students who’ve died by suicide.

I’ve had students lose parents to cancer, to violence, to addictions.

I’ve had students whose moms are in prison for child endangerment. I’ve had students whose fathers are regularly subpoenaed for child support.

I’ve had students whose grandparents are raising them. Whose foster families are raising them. Whose siblings are raising them. Who are raising themselves.

I’ve taught students who dropped out. I’ve taught students who stayed in — but failed grades repeatedly. Not because they were incapable, but because they were in chaos.

Because school is their sanctuary. Because the classroom is their cocoon. Because at school there are adults who care. There are classmates. There is structure. There is connection.

And outside there is only darkness.

There is so much darkness in this world. So much heartache. My students’ hearts have broken a hundred-thousand times.

My own heart has broken a hundred-thousand times.

Yes, summer is coming. Graduation is coming.

But as you and your loved ones celebrate accomplishments and rites of passages and bright, shiny futures, please remember that the same cannot be said of everyone.

Because for some, the end of school means no more breakfast or lunch. No more smiles and assurances. No more illusions of normalcy.

No more safety net.

No, the end of school is not always a happy occasion.

***

Please research how you can best help young people in need in your community, your church, your neighborhood. Volunteer. Be connected. Stay connected.

A Case of the Vapers (and other contagions sweeping teachers’ classrooms)

It’s a tough time to be a teacher.

We’re expected to captivate, motivate and differentiate, to remediate or accelerate, to teach students to calculate and communicate, to participate and cooperate, to formulate and postulate, to stay celibate and not procreate, and to ensure that every last one of them will graduate.

When it comes to “ates” we have a belly-full — including the hate thrown at us from seemingly every direction.

Legislators fight over whether or not we’re worth the most meager of pay raises. The Secretary of Education wants to cut billions from public school funding. The sons of world leaders call us losers. Parents bully and badger and question and condemn us.

Teachers are blamed if students fail at math, at manners, at life.

And for the most part, most of us can weather the demands piled upon us while still teaching with skill, enthusiasm, and grace.

But all of us still wonder, at times, if we have what it takes to meet the rapidly accelerating expectations.

And now, this year, a new challenge has emerged. One I’m not quite sure I know how to handle.

These days, teachers have a major case of The Vapers. Not to be confused with The Vapors (with an O), which was some crazy, female, hormone-fueled hysteria and hocus-pocus of the Victorian age, the current Vapers (with an E) is a crazy, female AND male, nicotine-fueled hysteria and smokus-pocus of the modern age.

The Vapers: teens who are vaping. And I’m sad to say we have ourselves an epidemic.

I’ve been a professional educator for the last 18 years, but until this year, I’d never had a case of The Vapers. This year, though, vaping is one of middle and high school’s major discipline and health concerns, and we teachers have had emails, training videos, and faculty meetings devoted to the topic. That’s how quickly the epidemic has grown.

Before those trainings, I had no idea that the sickeningly sweet smell that followed in the wake of students in stairwells and bathrooms and classrooms was the lingering scent from vape pens and juuls. I just knew I was getting lots of headaches from what I thought was bad teenage perfume. That is, until a student stopped me in the hall.

“You do know kids are vaping in your classroom, right?”

Wait. What?

Then she told me all the tricks. She explained that kids keep their hoodies pulled up over their mouths and around their ears, not because they’re cold from the drizzly, wettest season on record, but because they are taking hits of nicotine (or sometimes THC) bathed in sweet, glycerin-based liquids and then exhaling into their jackets.

And the cartridges are disguised as flash drives or writing utensils — making The Vapers really, really hard to catch. Despite the irony of them multiplying like cancer cells.

Here’s how hard they are to catch…

I personally witnessed a misty cloud dissipating above the head of a student at the back of my classroom. And I smelled the sickeningly-sweet odor I now knew was not bad teenage perfume.

So I promptly called an administrator.

But when the proper authorities searched the student, nothing was found. The Vaper either passed it off to somebody else or hid it in places admin wasn’t comfortable searching for fear of lawsuit.

Since then, I’ve found vape pens in my classroom, have had students caught vaping in bathrooms, and have had friends’ children serve detention for vaping.

I definitely feel out of my league on this one… I fear I’m about to succumb to a massive plague that may deplete the ranks of teachers everywhere. And it’s not just The Vapers. It’s the pressure from all angles that is getting to us: the legislators, the policies, the public, the parents, the drug paraphernalia. It’s all the demands. All of them.

But every morning I put on my game face… and I put on three bracelets. Three bracelets bearing messages to remind me of why I do this difficult and thankless job.

One says “Blessed” in braille.

One says, “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”

And one says, “I am not a Teacher, but an Awakener.”

They are my spiritual chain mail, girding my soul in positivity and light.

I say the phrases as I head out the door, ready to captivate, motivate and differentiate, to remediate or accelerate, to teach students to calculate and communicate, to participate and cooperate, to formulate and postulate, to stay celibate and not procreate, and do my absolute best to see every last one of them graduate.


Leaving Woodland: A Love Story

Here we are in the middle-most parts of May in the middle-most parts of spring. It is a full, sticky, sweet time of year.

And all is ripe with the world.

The air gets juicier by the day. Skin slicks with it and hair clumps in it. Honeybees swim through it, On the back deck, wasps suck its dampness from the floor joists. Dollops of Queen Anne’s Lace float at the roadside. A foamy fog fills the deepest morning fields.

For teachers and students, this time of year is even fuller, stickier, and sweeter. School is ending — and with that end comes exam marathons and grading marathons and all sorts of end-of-year obligations. But it also means that in just a few short days, all the challenges and hurdles of the past year can be put away. In just a few short days, the pool-sides and vacays will soon be underway.

But as I give my last two days’ worth of exams for this school year, the sweet milk of concord is tinged just a tad with bittersweet.

Because in four days’ time, I will walk out the front doors of Woodland and leave behind the school I have called home from the beginnings to the middle-most part of my teaching career. And that makes my heart trip just a beat.

I have loved Woodland High School. And oh, how I love it still!

I love the building – the red-bricked, columned, porticoed beauty of its structure. It is a beautiful and storied institution. And the view from its hilltop — Lord, have mercy! I remember the first day I walked into Woodland as a teacher.

I came in through the back doors of D-Hall at sunrise and turned back to take in the view. And what I saw… well, I’m pretty sure the mouths of angels dropped open to belt out some heavenly chords in my ear.

The football stadium is there in the back, and the home stands are carved into the rocky clay hillside. Gazing onto that field, with Ladd’s Mountain jutting to the north and the Etowah River snaking off toward the east — it was magical.

And I love the student body – the tough and tender teenaged population. I’ve taught so many beautiful students with so many powerful stories.

And as a teacher of students and stories, these sixteen years have been all about the stories. Not the stories I’ve shown them — the literature of canon and curriculum, but the stories they’ve shown me — the literature of their hearts. Their stories will never leave me.

There’s the rapper who mixed beats in his basement and hid battle-scars in his bravado. And the cowboy who wrote poetry, rode bulls and broke bones.

There’s the brooding brunette who pierced her tongue with a paper clip while I was absent one day so her parents would see all her pain. And the energetic junior who sang gospel music every seventh period — and one Friday brought a frozen snake to school in his backpack.

There’s the baller who crushed statistics and opponents on the field while the world had its way with him back home. And the crooner too shy to speak up in class, but who belted it out on the stage like a boss.

There’s the bruised, uncertain sophomore who slipped me a note at the end of class to tell me that what had happened in the book we were reading had happened to her in her uncle’s back room. And the brilliant, confident valedictorian with the bird feathers in her hair and the big dreams in her head.

There’s the ukulele-playing philosopher. And the soft-spoken thespian. And the bright, bubbly philanthropist.  And the legally-blind visionary.

And so very many, many more…

And they’ve all had a story to teach me. And I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned how to laugh, how to cry, how to absorb, how to digest, how to digress, how to hold in, and hold on, and let go.

They’ve given and shown me so much. About them, about myself, and what teaching is all about. And it’s all about them. Always.

And in showing me who they are, they have shown me who I am.

And now, in this middle-most part of May in the middle-most part of spring, in the middle-most part of my career, I’m leaving Woodland And it is hard. And the closer I get to next Wednesday, the more frightened I become.

But I feel the pull of a new season – a swirling purple hurricane season. A season of new students and new family members and new stories all hang on the cusp of the solstice of summer. And all is ripe with the world.

I will always love Woodland. I met my husband here. My best friends all teach here. My favorite students in the world all went to school here. And so did my daughters.

It is truly full and sticky and a tad bit bittersweet here in the middle-most parts of this May.

IMG_8835

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.

 

A Little Allegory of a Parent’s Soul

To introduce the concept of allegory to high school students, I use Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” It is the first book I ever remember receiving as a gift. I still have that original copy. It’s inscribed with a birthday wish and a life blessing. Its edges are tattered and curl softly from use, and its insides are  tatted up from Crayola abuse.

I loved “The Giving Tree” from the beginning, although I didn’t understand its complexity back then. Instead, I loved it for its simplicity and purity — the modest black and white sketches, and the story of the tree who loved a boy – loved a boy from every depth and breadth and height her soul could reach.

A boy and his tree. I loved it. But I didn’t get it. I didn’t.

And then I became a mom.

And KA-POW! – deeper understanding hit me like a felled oak straight to the noggin. This wasn’t merely the story of a boy and his tree. I mean it was, but darn, it was so much more, too! It was a little allegory of a parent’s soul. And for the first time ever reading that story, I cried. And ever since, every single time I read that story… I cry. I can’t even read the last line, I get so choked up.

The truth and power of its message gets to me: the unhesitating willingness of a mama to hew off whole parts of herself to raise up her young with the necessities and tools to survive in this world.

Like I said, I introduce the concept of allegory to my high school juniors – and they can see it, the multiple meanings hidden in its seemingly simplistic lines. They see the sacrifices the tree makes to keep her boy happy. They see her wide-open love through the gifts of her leaves and her apples; they see the unflinching sacrifice of her limbs and her trunk; and they think they understand the final grand gesture in the giving of her shriveled, old stump. Yes, they can definitely see it. And they think they get it. They interpret the allegory in one of two ways…

Some of my students connect it to parental love – those blessed enough to have parents who have shown them true, unconditional love.

But sadly, some don’t get it at all because some of my students haven’t felt that sort of love from their moms and dads. The stories I hear — the stories I see – students whose parents have left them surfing couches in friends’ houses, students whose parents are locked away in jail or whose love is locked away in addiction, students who are parenting siblings — students mere saplings themselves — playing the role of the Giving Tree.

It’s an impossible task for them. They lack the depth and breadth and height of maturity: their leaves are too tender, their fruit is too green, their roots are too shallow to support and sustain another soul, much less themselves. Their stories are enough to crack open a planet-full of hearts and send them weeping.

And speaking of planets… some of my students see another allegorical interpretation: humanity’s blatant misuse of Mother Earth and her resources. In this version, the boy takes and takes and takes with no regard for the Giving Tree’s sacrifice – the more he needs, the more he takes until there’s nothing left but a shriveled-up stump – and even that gets used.

And yes, the depletion of our planet’s resources is a valid and compelling argument — easily seen and scientifically supported, regardless of those who might say otherwise. And in this political climate – when the Environmental Protection Agency is being run by a fossil fuel magnate and the current POTUS is playing a nuclear-annihilation game of chicken with his Asian doppelganger, it is an interpretation with grave importance.

But I prefer the little allegory of a parent’s soul. And I really do believe it was Silverstein’s intent. Because after each sacrifice, after each leaf and apple and branch and trunk that is taken, his prose simply reads: And the Tree was happy.

And the earth cannot be happy being plundered and pillaged. That just cannot prove true.

But as a parent, that happiness statement rings true every single time. When my girls need me. When my boys need me. When my small and humble breasts sustained them all as infants. When my wide and ample hips carried them all as toddlers. When my long and lanky arms surround them as both youngsters and adults. When my eager, willing heart beats for all four of them always and forever with joyful abandon… I am happy.

For them, I would give all. Willingly. And happily.

That’s how I know “The Giving Tree” is a little allegory of a parent’s soul.

This past week, I introduced my boys to Silverstein’s masterpiece – my original, 45-year-old birthday book, its edges all tattered and curled from use, its insides all tatted with Crayola abuse. My boys were mesmerized. They loved it: the simplicity and purity of its prose, the modest black and white of its sketches.

This story of a tree who loved a boy is timeless. This story of a tree that readily hands out huge chunks of herself never gets old. The tree herself may get old. She may lose apples and branches, and her tattoos — if she had any — may wrinkle like that ME + T heart scratched into the core of her being, but no matter what, if her kid finds happiness, that tree finds happiness.  No matter the hardship, the struggle, the pain…

Yes, my boys loved the book.

And this tree was happy.

giving tree

 

My Experience with Undocumented Students: Why I Love our Dreamers

I’ll never forget my student who explained to me how he came to America for an education.  He raised his hand politely when we were discussing the negativity in our hallways following Trump’s election. He had overheard students chanting “Build that Wall.” He overheard students telling other students to go back where they came from. He overheard one student boldly hold up her head and explain that she wasn’t Mexican and she wasn’t illegal. My student walked quickly past. He was both.

Back in my classroom, he felt safer. He felt braver. He explained to me and to his classmates that he had come from Mexico ten years prior with his father and his uncle while the rest of his family had stayed behind. He missed them all terribly, but the entire reason for coming to this country was so he could get a quality education. Back home, he explained, that was not possible. There were classrooms without electricity. There were schools without running water. If you wanted math skills beyond a fourth-grade level, he explained, you had to pay for private school. His family didn’t have that kind of money.

So he and his father and uncle came to America. He studied and he learned. He struggled – sometimes with the material, but most times with the hate. He just wanted people to understand.

He is one of the kindest-hearted, hardest-working students I’ve ever taught. He is exceptional, but he is not an exception. I’ve taught many students like him. Students who know and understand the value of education. Students who come to America to come to school, to sit quietly, to do their work, and to soak up any and all knowledge they possibly can. I wish I had more students like them. I would gladly fill my classroom with dozens of these young men and women. They know and understand what the world looks like without access to education.

It looks like poverty. It looks like violence. It looks like drug cartels and narcotic trafficking. It looks like where they came from. And they want change. For themselves, for their families, for their country.

So they work. Hard. They learn. Well. They are respectful and teachable, and tough. They don’t whine when they don’t get an A. They work harder. They come for tutoring. They ask for remediation. They never ask for a grade. They work for one.

The same can’t be said for perhaps seventy percent of my natural-born students. There has been a drastic shift in the mentality of parents and students in the United States in the seventeen years I’ve been a teacher. Parents call and email regularly these days with complaints. They aren’t happy with little Johnny or Jill’s grade They gripe and complain and bellyache that we aren’t fair, we’re too tough, we’re on power trips, we aren’t accommodating enough. Their children gripe and complain and bellyache, as well. Parental attitudes passed down like genetics, multiplying like a cancer.

Somewhere along the way, the idea of the American Dream has gotten soft and fuzzy. We used to have a Puritan work ethic, a nose-to-the-grindstone mentality that built our nation into the powerhouse it used to be. These days, our work ethic is pitiful, not Puritan.  Folks seem to believe they can sleep walk through their lives and simply reap the benefits of being American: good education, good jobs, good pay, good living conditions.

I see it in my classroom every day. Kids who want everything handed to them: the notes, the answers, the grades.

And this lazy philosophy, this twisted version of the American Dream, is currently on display in our oval office: a spoiled rotten and ranting adult-sized child who’s never worked an honest day in his life and who finds fault in anyone and everyone but himself.

Our American Dream has mutated into an American Nightmare.

Yesterday, Trump destroyed the authentic dreams of thousands of young adults like my student, individuals who understand and embody the true nature and characteristics of the American Dream — hard work and sacrifice — better than most of their American counterparts. Their only fault is they aren’t American.

Then again, didn’t our forefathers house the exact same fault? Didn’t they arrive on America’s shores searching for a better life as strangers in a strange land?

The decision to end DACA has tremendous repercussions on honest, hard-working, deeply committed individuals who have the potential to improve the world in immeasurable quantities if only they are allowed access to the ways and means to do so: education.  Individuals like my precious student.

Which brings me back to those parental complaints a few paragraphs back, I tend to agree with them. We aren’t fair; we are on power trips; we are not nearly accommodating enough — to those who are willing to work for the American Dream and understand its potential the most: our young, undocumented immigrant students.

Contact your representatives. Let them know you stand with DACA and our undocumented immigrant students. Please.

Teaching English Composition: The Delicate and Demanding Job of a Voice Midwife

On dark days, I wonder why I blog.  Why I put myself through the peeling back of layer after layer of tender, hidden embryonic self-truths, exposing the fresh new bits to a cold, fickle world…

And no matter how much I tell myself it doesn’t matter whether my musings are acknowledged and well-received, it does. It matters a lot. Because everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to feel valued and validated. And when it doesn’t happen, it brings on floods of insecurities and self-doubt. Especially after the painful process of self-revelation.

It makes me question why I blog about my life at all? What do I have of value to offer up to the world? I’m not young and good looking. I’m not rich and famous. I’m no makeup expert or flashy fashionista. And I’m certainly not a ninety-something grandma in tie dye lingerie smoking weed and dancing the Charleston to gangsta rap. So why do I even think I can compete in this world of crazy gimmicks and material world wisdom? What the hell do I think I’m doing, blogging about my stuff — my boring, middle-aged mother stuff, the stomach bugs and family vacays and potty-training-woe-is-me stuff.

And hitting these dark, despondent days of doubt – these total eclipses of confidence, if you will — makes me consider my students. Because my paying job is teaching high schoolers to find and use their voices through literature and composition – and I take my job very seriously. And they despise me for it – particularly the composition part. They act like I’m tearing out their fingernails with a pair of needle-nose pliers, followed by a chaser of hydrochloric acid.

If you want to know what the shrieks belched out from the bowels of hell sound like, step into my classroom the morning I announce an essay assignment. Lord, the bellyaching.

And I get it. I honestly do. If it’s done right, writing’s a painful process. I’ve felt the needle-nose pliers and hydrochloric acid many times. But it’s also enlightening (which is precisely why it’s so painful) for both the writer and the reader. The more you write, the more you know – not about the world (though that happens too) – but about yourself. Who you are. What makes you tick and why. All sorts of unacknowledged truths claw their way to the surface when you write. It’s like you’re giving birth to yourself. So of course, that’s gonna hurt. Like, a lot.

But pain is this generation’s enemy. They run from it. They prefer high GPAs with minimal effort and zero pain. And I’ve discovered that quite often, that’s what gets served up. They hold out their tray, they get their perfect little A.

(I once had an AP student brag to me that in an honors English class she never once turned in a weekly journal assignment — what should have totaled 16 zeros on her report card — yet she still walked away with a 100 in the class. And naturally she adored that teacher. Why wouldn’t she? An easy A equals a happy student, happy parents, and therein, happy teacher.)

And this scenario is not that uncommon, folks. Teachers are not making their students write. Why? No pain — and pain-free seems to be the way of the world right now. Consider all the scheduled C-sections with full makeup and perfectly coiffed hair. (I know, I know… there are necessary c sections, I’m not saying there aren’t – I had one with the boys this last time around, but so many are simply the easy way out…)

But I’m here to tell you there are no scheduled c sections in my English class. My students are going to birth their ideas one painful quote incorporation at a time. But I promise you, when it’s over and done, it will be worth it. Birthing a voice is a beautiful thing. A beautiful, gut-wrenching thing.

But when we as teachers don’t require our students to go through that painful birthing process – or if we do, but then we don’t acknowledge that fledgling voice with commentary, both critical and complimentary — then we are teaching them that their voices don’t matter.

And we are teaching them that they can do absolutely nothing and succeed at life.

And neither of these is true. And I honestly don’t know which lie is worse, but as a person who’s been denied a voice when I was exactly their age, I tend to think it’s the first. Voice matters, people.

Like I said, I know what it feels like to believe my voice doesn’t matter — to feel pointless and small and ready to quit. To feel powerless.

But I don’t quit when I start feeling small and weak and ineffective because I have enough willpower and confidence, and I have enough love of self and craft to overcome the doubt. I have age and wisdom on my side, brought about by teachers and loved ones who believed in me.

But our students seemingly have none of these.

Our job as educators is to empower. By not having students write — or by requiring they do and then not grading their work — we teachers are failing our students. If the essays aren’t being evaluated and validated – if they are not receiving written commentary, if the students themselves are not getting the time and attention and INSTRUCTION they so deserve (and so many are NOT), then what exactly are we teachers teaching them?

We are teaching our students that they are not worthy of confidence and self-respect and a future. And the saddest part about this situation to me is that our students are okay with that. Because it is easier.

Writing papers is hard work. Grading papers is hard work. Taking a student from point A to point Z in a semester is hard work. But guess what? Education and educating SHOULD both be hard work. It’s a job. So we need to do the hard thing to the best of our abilities. All of us. Teachers and students alike.

This year, due to unique and unavoidable circumstances, I face a teaching schedule unlike any I’ve ever held before. I am teaching two separate courses (nothing new there), with two high stakes exams tied to each course at semester end (that’s the big stressor, here).

I am a bit overwhelmed, to say the least. It would be really easy for me to say that there is just way too much grading involved and way too many students to accommodate. That this is only a temporary schedule, so I’m simply going to coast my way through it all. I’m just going to give it a lick and a promise, keep the parents off my back, keep the kids happy with completion grades, and chalk it all up to doing the best I can under the circumstances.

But I would be doing myself and my students a disservice. And I’m not ok with that.

Because while these kids would be happy with their easy As — and all the accolades and scholarships and privileges that come along with them — that sort of teaching philosophy also gives them little to no true skill sets, no true self-respect, and no true future. And I refuse to do that. To them or to me.

I have an incredibly tough year ahead of me. And so do my students. Because they will write. And I will grade that writing. That’s my job as an educator: I am a voice midwife. I coax, cajole, demand, deliver. They are birthing their voices, their identities. It’s not easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is. And they and their voices are worthwhile.

So pardon me while I pick myself up by my ballpoints and crank out some commentary on the pile of newborn essays just screaming for some attention.

 

 

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑