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Multigenerational Mom Muses on Twin Toddlers & Twenty-Something Daughters

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teaching teens

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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