On Finding My Way Again

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“Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.” – Rebecca Solnit

The past month has not been an easy one for me. I can’t blame it all on the election. A week after the results I received some devastating personal news and that didn’t help, and since that time, I’ve had a hard time recovering. I don’t think it’s the losing that did it. I think it’s the general tenor of things. It’s the angry, frustrated, fearful posts from my passionate friends on social media. It’s more than the fact that Trump is nominating unqualified, sometimes dangerous officials to his cabinet. It’s the principal of all of this. While the President-elect is ignoring democratic tradition, policy, and Constitutional policy, my own state government is considering legislation to limit freedom of speech, destroy public pensions, and cut funding for public education. You see, it’s not the details that are causing me so much turmoil, it’s the impact of all of it. It’s the doomsday predictions, the alarmist, depressing, over-simplified news stories. It’s the talking heads; it’s those who are passionate and those who are apathetic. It’s just so much emotion, from both sides, and the emotion is real and heavy and powerful and it felt like I was carrying it all around, like an anvil, on my back. And the feeling was real, visceral.

I’m a bit of a news junky and have been for years, so I am no stranger to bad news, corrupt politicians, jobs reports, and the like.  I couldn’t figure out what was so unusual this time around. Why was it that day after day this weight followed me? I woke up with it. It pressed upon me when I picked up my kids from school, when I sat at the Thanksgiving table. And it boiled over. There were several days of crying. Crying over stupid things, crying for no reason. I felt hopeless and despondent and I also felt like I was being ridiculous. I knew in my mind that our American system of government was built with more checks and balances than I even know about or understand. I know that countries have ups and downs and I know that we, as a human race, have clawed our way through slavery, world wars, the Holocaust, internments, attacks, and more. And yet, I could not get out from under that oppressive weight. And yet, my gut just never got the message.

Then two things happened, within two days of each other, that gave me just a enough wiggle room to shift that weight a bit. First, a friend sent me a text asking if I was ok.  As a person who hates to ask for help or appear vulnerable in any way, I found myself unable to keep up the charade any longer and I answered with “no.” And then she listened (or read, rather) my flood of texts about how I was feeling and how I couldn’t get out of this funk. I literally typed while sobbing, as if – to use the cliché – a floodgate had opened. And she didn’t have all the answers. Or any, really, because there are no answers. There are no answers when someone is hurting, but she was there, she listened, she sympathized and I, finally, put what I had been feeling and carrying around for weeks, into words.

The next day we had an unusually warm afternoon with sunshine (a rarity in Michigan in December). I left work and, before picking up the kids, went to a nature trail and just walked. Simply being out in the sunshine helped immensely and I actually remember thinking how I just felt freer all of a sudden. I swear, from that point on, I felt clearer. Still bummed about the state of things, but my willingness to fight was creeping back. Little by little I found that remnants of my former self returned. 

9781608465767-2f1e8dbafb4b3334d0db297eed405179I then happened upon a book list online and ended up downloading the book Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. The book, a small collection of essays, was written right after George W. Bush was elected to a second term. At the time, we were questioning the invasion of Iraq, anti-war protests were taking place, the country was still recovering from 9/11, and there was a great sense of despair and frustration for many. The book’s aim was to inspire and remind us that great moments of human industry, charity, and sacrifice can be found in the darkest of times. It aimed to inspire us to continue our work to make and keep this country great. It used history to remind us that there has been struggle in the past and there have been victories.

The book has recently been re-released with a new introduction from the author as she feels we are now in similar times of despair. There are many lessons from the book that have shaped my current mindset, but two are particularly striking.

One is an example Solnit recounts about Hurricane Katrina. She reminds the reader that after that tragedy, anyone who had a boat rushed to New Orleans to help search for and rescue survivors. She points out, no one said, “Well, we can’t rescue them all, so there’s no point in trying.” Instead the sentiment was, “If I can even help one person, I’ve done something.” And yet, in issues of politics and national strife we look at the enormity of the problem, shrug our shoulders and say, “it’s useless.” But if we just remember to work “one person at a time,” that is making change. Sure, that’s not large, sweeping reform, but it is still forward momentum.

Thus bringing me to a second major take-away. We can never know the long-term effect we may have on this world. Even large, organized movements don’t always see victory in their own lifetime. Women fought for the right to vote for 50 years! We sometimes don’t see the fruits of our labors for years and years and sometimes we don’t see them at all, yet what we are doing still is sending a ripple out into the world. As a teacher I have the privilege of meeting hundreds of young people a year and watching them grow and develop over their four years in high school. And I stay in touch with many of them and I get to see them go on to become wonderful parents, doctors, athletes, writers, students, engineers, social workers, activists, and more. I see them travel and learn and question. I take no credit for these accomplishments, but I do like to remind myself that I was able to play one teeny, tiny role in their development.

So this is life and this is what we can do. Certainly we can and should get involved in large movements about issues we feel passionately about, but we can also begin sending ripples right now. My family was able to sponsor a child in Uganda who is attending a school that a former student of mine built with his own hands and hard work. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the number of children in this world who do not have access to education I can, at least, ensure that ONE child receives an education. And sure, in the scheme of things, that’s a baby ripple, but you really never know where that ripple may lead and how strong it may become over time.

And now that is what I think about before I fall asleep at night.

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.” – Rebecca Solnit

How This Election Has Changed Me

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I’ve spent the week since the election in a limbo between shock and grief. I’m a pretty progressive democrat, so Tuesday night did not offer me a lot of good news, from a “winning” standpoint. Initially I was shocked that Trump was elected. But as the days passed and I read more, listened more, and spent more time thinking about it, I decided it really shouldn’t be that shocking. This nation has been moving towards change of some sort for a while now. Our national conversation about race has become emotionally-charged and explosive; our nation’s distrust in the “establishment” has taken center stage; we’ve become painfully aware of the rich-poor gap; the frequency with which we, as a people, have turned away from fact and science is overwhelming – yeah, in hindsight – this was coming. But none of that actually matters now, because, here we are.

I stayed away from social media for a few days because my liberal friends were posting about their own grief and disbelief as well as more anti-Trump articles and images. My republican friends were posting “get over it” type of things and both sides simply sent me into a deeper funk.

So here I am, one week later, still trying to decide how I feel. I still feel sad and down-trodden and can’t seem to figure out why I can’t shake it. Then I have a light bulb moment while teaching my freshman English class.  We are beginning A Raisin in the Sun. Before we begin the play, I have the students do some research about the time period, segregation in housing, red-lining and block-busting, Chicago’s “Black Belt” and the Fair Housing Act. As the kids share their research, I add on and find myself telling the kids that it can be hard to wrap our minds around legal discrimination. It can be hard to imagine the government passing outwardly racist legislation. In my mind I’m thinking, “And hopefully we won’t see this again with a Trump presidency”, but I don’t say that out loud, of course. Although, as I’m discussing the historical impact of segregation on the Black community, I find myself wondering if there are kids who are thinking to themselves “Blacks should be segregated.” I’m explaining that thanks to the Fair Housing Act you can’t be discriminated against based on race, ethnicity, religion, family status, disability, etc and I’m wondering if some kid is thinking “too bad.” I’m explaining how difficult it is for groups that have been subjected to discrimination to achieve or even reach for the American dream and I’m wondering if someone is thinking, “then they should go back to where they came from.”

This is how the election has changed me.

I don’t consider myself a Pollyanna. I consider myself informed and highly critical of the world and the systems that run it, yet I think I always assumed that when I was talking about segregation of the past, the kids were, for the most part, agreeing with me that it was wrong and that our country is better for having moved past it. Sure I knew there were a few narrow-minded students among each class, but I think I got complacent in my assumption that “those people” who are racist or bigoted are somewhere else (tho in hindsight, I don’t know where!).

Now I’m wondering if they represent the majority, not the minority. Were they always there, but just keeping their mouths shut? This election has made me second guess what the people around me are thinking. I keep telling myself that these students, my co-workers, friends, and neighbors are the same people they were a year ago, that this is all in my head, and yet, in the back of my mind I’ve become more suspicious of the true nature of those around me anyway.

And I’m white.

So I imagine what it might be like to be gay, or Black, or Hispanic, or Muslim. How might I feel about the people around me? Terrified, I imagine. As a white, U.S. citizen, I really have little to worry about. Sure legislation may be passed that I disagree with (as a woman, some of this may affect me), but even if the rhetoric of anger and hate continues, I feel fairly certain that I will not be a target. How must it feel to be a member of one of these groups that has been targeted though?

There has been much debate and discussion about whether or not these fears are justified, but that doesn’t really matter. When my 3-year-old is afraid of the dark, I don’t dismiss him simply because I know there is nothing to fear. I validate that fear. I comfort him. I offer support. The reality is, this fear, this paranoia, is real. It’s not about whether or not it should be here, it’s about the fact that it is.

And so, I challenge you to consider this viewpoint from a targeted group’s perspective. Whether or not this fear is justified, consider that members of the LGBTQ community may be feeling afraid, Blacks, Muslims, Jews, Hispanics, and women may be feeling afraid. You might not be afraid, but others are and, just as you’d comfort a child afraid of the dark, acknowledge this fear and bring compassion to the table, rather than judgement and hate.

As a warm-up activity, I asked my students to rank, the following in order of “most likely to hold people together” to “least likely”: family, shared interests, religion, race and/or ethnicity, and a student said, “You forgot to include Trump on this list. He brings people together.” Now I’ve been a teacher for 13 years, through other elections, and yet, this comment sent an emotional jolt through my body. I have a strong, personal opposition to the statement this student made and, while I’m used to this (I rarely agree with 15-year-olds) I rarely find it so difficult to respond in a neutral manner. Likewise another student in one of my classes has been an active Trump supporter all along and after the election he asked me, “Don’t you feel better now? You can breathe easy knowing that the country will finally be in good hands.” Generally I use humor to diffuse situations such as these, but this time around, I was speechless. I simply responded with, “I don’t know how I feel” and smiled. And that was the truth.

This is how the election has changed me.

I am a club adviser for my school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and the morning after the election a student was in my room sobbing, absolutely sobbing. She was terrified about what this means for the LGBTQ community. I tried to reassure her, our country has been through tough times before, right? And she said to me, through tears, “But this time it’s so personal.” I felt like crying myself; not just because my candidate lost, but because this whole process has left her sad, disheartened and afraid.

And I might be feeling the same way.

In the meantime, I will work to find that fire that once burned so strongly in my heart. That desire to fight, to be heard, and to make change. That flame is weak right now, nearly non-existent. But I do know that giving in to fear will cause me to pull back from life, to push people away.  I’m sure my passion will return, but figuring out my feelings seems to be a place to start and fear is currently the most prominent.

And so I will leave you with these words from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi,

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

 

Saving Humanity One Comment at a Time

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As a comment on how things have changed since I started teaching English 10 years ago, my freshman now have to complete a blogging unit. As a blogger myself, this is one of my favorite units. I show the kids different examples of well-written blogs. We read some writing advice articles about ways to appeal to readers and organize thoughts.  I let the kids choose any topic of their own interest. I teach them how to upload images, links, and embed videos. They get to play around with photo-editing apps and catchy titles. It’s a fun unit and this year the kids really got into it.

Then we come to the end of the week.

Students have written 3-5 posts and they all upload their blog’s URLs to a google doc. I share the document out and they are able to read and view each other’s posts. This is a day that causes me much anxiety. I remind them repeatedly that what they are writing is public and others will be able to read it and yet, I worry about their emotional safety. Will they treat each other with kindness? Acceptance? Will they respond to each other in an intelligent and thoughtful way? Will this assignment empower their young voices or crush their spirits? So far, things have gone pretty smoothly, however, I notice that they only click on and read the blogs of their friends and, despite giving them specific guidelines for commenting, they still write general, “Great blog. I agree” types of things.

This year, as “read and comment day” approached, I considered nixing it altogether. Was there any educational value? Was it worth the 2 class periods it usually takes?  Could I trust them to just read each other’s’ work without the requirement of commenting?

As a blogger, I love comments. Nothing makes me happier than to hear feedback on my thoughts and ideas. I feel validated when readers appreciate my thoughts and challenged to think deeper when readers disagree. I wondered if they kids would feel the same way.

I was still mulling this over when I found myself in a Facebook thread with someone with a vastly different opinion than myself. This person was making the “all Muslims are terrorists” argument and I was making the “you can’t judge an entire faith on the actions of a few” and he responded with “Andrea, you are a dumb idiot” and then proceeded to berate my intelligence (which he attributed to public education – gasp!) and that’s when I knew that the commenting lesson wasn’t optional. In fact, as I prepared for the lesson I spent a significant amount of time reading Facebook threads and comments on a variety of articles from a variety of websites. This only reinforced the notion that we needed to have a conversation about this small section of human society.

For example, I read a story about a school that had recently been vandalized. I assumed the comments there would be generic and it was a topic teenagers could relate to and hoped I could find some examples to screenshot and use in a lesson. I shocked to find how many posters seemed to find this a place to unload some really awful, racist thoughts. Comments ranged from “Gee it happened after a basketball game…and we all know what kind of people play basketball. Why is anyone surprised?” to things like, “A perfect example of why inner city schools should not receive extra funding or grants – they don’t know how to appreciate nice things.” These forced me to reread the article about 3 times. The article said NOTHING about race or type of neighborhood. Unless the commenters knew something I did not, they were simply MAKING this a commentary on race and class.

Originally my plan was to set aside 25-30 minutes to discuss the “art” of commenting. I found a great article that listed some concrete guidelines and planned to screenshot some'I've found that I can get away with posting nasty comments if I end them with a 'wink' emoticon.' good and bad examples. Unfortunately, I found that most of the comments were not only bad examples, but they were so offensive I didn’t dare use them in class.

Instead, I recounted my experience. I told the kids how hard it was to find examples of quality dialogue. I told them that I read articles ranging from politics, to education, to celebrity news, to local events and that in most places I was overwhelmed with name-calling, hate speech, and general ignorance.

Look, I’m not Pollyanna, I’m not under any illusion that we, as a population, have solved racism, sexism, or any -ism for that matter. I understand that anger, hate, ignorance, and fear exist are are running rampant, especially during this current election cycle. And yet, even I was shocked, not so much at the subject matter, but the sheer quantity of awfulness.

So I asked the kids, “How many of you have ever posted something on social media that you probably should not have and that you know you wouldn’t have dared say in person?” About 80% of the class sheepishly raised their hands. And I did too.  I have found myself feeling pretty confident sitting safely on my couch, behind a computer screen. I have justified to myself that the person on the other end isn’t a “real” person anyway – just a name on a Facebook thread.  I’ve had moments where I’ve forgotten that we are all the result of a collection of experiences and that these experiences are what shape who we are and what we believe. I had forgotten that we as individuals come to the table (or computer) in different points in our own lives and that we sometimes, unwittingly, apply these feelings of frustration, anger, depression, and fear to our social media threads.

And the kids had their own stories. Stories of comments they’d seen, or been on the receiving end of, regarding sexual orientation, physical appearance, race, and intelligence. And the lesson that begin with my intention to tell the kids about a trend online, turned more into a round table discussion about a problem in our contemporary society. At the end of the hour one student said laughingly, “I love how we just spend an entire hour discussion internet comments.”

How this all played out, was the kids ended up with a day or two to read through each other’s posts and comment. This yielded A LOT of conversation. Many of them took disagreements, even respectful ones, personally and wanted to fire off snarky responses. Some were disappointed when they didn’t receive any comments at all. I was surprised how much conversation the kids had about the comments they received.

In the end, I decided this whole comments activity was worthwhile. I told the kids that their generation was inheriting the internet next and that maybe they could be the ones to change the comments sections from “place where society’s sludge settles” to “place of valuable discourse.”

THAT may be wishful thinking, but at this rate, I’m willing to take the gamble.

Through Toddler Eyes: All the World’s a Game

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Things can get heavy when you’re the adult. There are always bills to pay, things to clean, errands to run, and there are never, ever enough minutes in the day. Today I overheard one of my students say, “I wish I was in preschool again: snacks, games, and nap time!” I kind of had to agree!

So I took a minute to consider why toddlers are having more fun than the rest of us. It’s simple. Whereas we see the world as full of tasks and obstacles that must be accomplished or overcome, they see the world as one giant game.  

Here are a few of the rules I was able to ascertain while carefully observing my 3-year-old.

Open space of any kind
Whether it be a strip of grass, a nature trail, the aisle of a grocery store, or a semi-empty parking lot, open ground means run. Run full speed. This game is simply a test of endurance: how fast can you run and how much ground can you cover before an adult catches you.

A neatly stacked pile of…anything
The game is simple: tip it over! In fact, when you see Mom and Dad creating the stack, this should signal you to stay close and wait until the stacking is completed. Some stacks require several pushes or even kicks. Others are a breeze. For bonus points, yell something like “Tiimmmbber” to ensure Mom sees you.

Water of any sort
A dripping faucet, a puddle, a cup of water, a hose… the sight of water should signal one instinct: play in it. Splash it, drink it, tip it, doesn’t matter, but try and get water on as many different things as you can. Bonus points for getting the dog or the couch wet.

Writing utensils
Once found use quietly and immediately. Let the world be your canvas and discover how many surfaces you can decorate: walls, cabinets, end tables, the couch, your parents will thank you later for your contribution to their decor. Bonus points if you can get your hands on a Sharpie.

Mail
Whether it’s already opened or not, mail can be the source of great delight. Mail can be ripped, thrown into the air, jumped on, crinkled, and folded. Bonus points if you can find crevices in which to stuff it. Ideas include (but are not limited to): under the couch, in a closet, in the bathroom or kitchen drawers, or under the refrigerator. Bonus points if you can combine with game with water in some way (think toilet).

Hot surfaces
While you can’t really be sure what they are or what they do, you do know one thing: if you go near one, Mom and Dad will flip out and this can provide you with great entertainment. See how many times to can illicit a response while mom cooks dinner.

Grocery carts
These. Things. Are. amazing. They can be climbed on – jungle-gym style- they can be ridden in, you can hang on the outside, climb underneath, hang on to the side. If you can dream it, you can do it! Bonus points if you execute any of these maneuvers while the cart is in motion.

Toy bins
Now this one seems obvious because toys are meant to be played with, but the real fun mostly lies in dumping the toy bins out. Sometimes, kicking the displaced toys around the roomroom can be a nice change of pace, but dumping as many toy bins as you can get your hands on is very therapeutic. Dumping is noisy, so challenge yourself and see how many bins you can dump before an adult stops you.

Getting out of bed
There are a lot of ways to get out of bed: sliding off the side, sliding off the end, jumping off, rolling off, dangling your legs until you just can’t balance anymore and ultimately fall off. Once you’ve exited the bed in some way, see how far down the hall you can get before Mom or Dad sees you. They’ll join in too and come after you, making for a really fun game of chase. (Bonus points: be sure to giggle loudly when Mom returns you to be for the 500th time so she knows you’re enjoying the game)

Big brother/sister’s stuff
This is like the holy grail of entertainment. Have you seen the kinds of things big kids have? Books with rip-able pages, knickknacks and toys with movable parts! There are containers to open, dump out and investigate, papers from school, and all sorts of trinkets. This, however, is a game of risk and skill. You must do it on the sly and get into as many things as quickly as possible because getting caught may mean certain death!

Random flailing
Sometimes you are forced to turn lemons into lemonade. When there is just nothing else to do, you can always resort to random flailing. This may mean sliding out of seats at restaurants or church. It may mean just flailing your arms wildly in the air. This game may also include (but it not limited to): jumping up and down, rolling around on the ground, wander around the room crashing into things, collapsing in the center of the room, and laying on your back while kicking your legs wildly into the air.

 

And, finally, always keep in mind that the key to good sportsmanship is a positive attitude as as you complete these games, be sure to fill the room with your cries of accomplishment. Pump your fist in the air, smile big, and let the whole world know what kind of toddler champion you truly are!

 

Remember the Boys

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The students in my freshman English class have been working on a poster the last two days in class. They could choose to work with a partner or by themselves. Things were going along fine. This year’s freshman are unusually polite and hardworking and I’ve really enjoyed the first four weeks of the school year.

Then, at the end of the hour on Friday, one young man approaches me. Let’s call him Cam. He’s flustered, talking fast, trying to explain to me that something happened with his partner and what I can make sense of is the phrase “not fair” as he rushes to vent about his partner over the chaos of the hour. So we step out into the hall, and there, he calms down a bit and tells me that he is not happy with his partner, but he’s worried that it’s too late in the process to change. As he tells me, his cheeks grow red and tears well in his eyes. Cam tells me that he processes slowly, that’s just a thing about him, and the partner he’s working with is faster and more confident. Cam is upset because he’s trying to contribute, but his partner is just kind of bulldozing past him. He didn’t agree with all of the answers, but his partner is treating him like he’s dumb and even made a comment that if he waited for Cam to catch up, he’d be waiting all day. His voice is shakey, he’s shifting his weight, his eyes dart around. “Look,” he says, “I’m not dumb, but things take me longer and I hate the way he’s treating me.”

I’ve had many of these moments with kids over the years. I’m going to generalize here and point out that this is only anecdotal, but generally when I’m in the hall with a student on the verge of tears, it’s a female. Males tend to bottle things up, or explode (in my classroom experience only). Seems like either I know something’s up, but can’t get them to tell me, or all of a sudden there’s a screaming match or some pushing. When I’m in the hall, one-on-one, with a female student, I try to put my hand on her shoulder reassuringly. Sometimes I offer a hug (not often, I’m not really a hugger).

As I stood in the hall with Cam I considered how this was different with a male. He’s 15, not 7, and hugging doesn’t seem appropriate. I feel obligated to clean the mess up quickly so he can compose himself and not risk embarrassment (for him) if someone walks by – something I never think about when comforting a female student.

I thank him for being honest with me and sharing his struggles. I encourage him to continue to do so so that I can help him be successful this year. I tell him it’s no problem to part ways with his partner and we come up with a modified assignment. We discuss the seating chart, does he need to move? Is this a symptom of a larger issue between the two boys or a one-time thing? The bell rings, students spill into the hall. He says thanks, he says he’s ok, and I tell him to try and let it go for now and enjoy his weekend.

 Then I drive home and think of my own boys. I wonder if teachers will treat them with compassion, or will they tell them not to be a wuss (either implicitly or explicitly)? Will the teacher, either consciously or unconsciously, devalue their concerns because they are male? I wonder how I would feel if one of them came home and recounted this story. Would I be happy with how the teacher ) handled it? And I think about how things are different for males and females in high school when it comes to emotion. And how stifled males must feel at times.

It may be 2016 and we may like to tell ourselves that we’ve become a modern society, but gender expectations run deep. I wonder if there are more boys who have these feelings, but keep them in because they feel like they can’t express such frustration or feeling of hurt in public. I imagine there are. Secondary teachers spend a lot of time attending to crying students and 95% of them, in my experience, are girls. As a result, we might assume the boys are handling things better. Are maybe less dramatic? Maybe less emotional? And in the meantime, bullying may go unchecked. Feelings of struggle, inadequacy, and fear may never be addressed.

I think of my seven-year-old who, currently, is very emotional. He’s very tuned in to the subtleties of interactions and conversations and I worry his feelings will be hurt, but he won’t feel free to talk about it.

When I look around my classroom the boys do seem to have an easy nature about them. They talk about sports, video games, and girls. They make gross jokes and they rib their friends. Maybe it’s because I’m a female, but the girls are much more likely to plop themselves near my desk and unload all their stressors for the day (or week). As a teacher, this makes me love the reprieve the boys offer: just jokes and silliness with them, but as a parent, this makes me wonder if we just aren’t seeing the whole picture. I hope I am able to create an environment at home where my boys feel comfortable at least talking to me about their stresses.

In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye on Cam. He came back from the weekend break still a little subdued. He was not his same self Monday morning, but he assured me he was fine.

I’ll keep an eye on him.

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Facebook and Our Emotionally-Charged Nation

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I named this blog “My Tangled String” because that image is representative of what’s going on inside my head. I use this space to unravel those thoughts. Lately, however, I haven’t been able to successfully find a lose end on which I can begin tugging. It’s cliche to say it’s this political climate. Sure I’m disturbed by it, but I feel like it’s more than that. It’s related, sure, but different. There have been changes in the way we communicate with and relate to each other, as people, and I’m not sure we can blame all of that one two individuals running for president.

Nowadays we are exposed to so much information – and so much bad information. There is a pervasive mantra that the mainstream media can’t be trusted, and yet, where do we find news? In this time in the the world we have access to more news and opinions than ever before, and yet, how do we weed through it? My fear is that, as a whole, we aren’t doing a very good job. We’re sharing things on social media without fact-checking and then, what’s worse, is we believe these faux news stories. This is the age of the headline. Write a catchy headline, and people will share it. We aren’t reading; we are trusting the headlines. We aren’t looking at the source or the dates; we just click “share”.

And I don’t mean to say we are all dummies. I feels like we’ve become a society that acts on our emotions, and this makes sense because we are inundated by headlines, videos, and posts that are designed purely to pull, no yank, at our heartstrings. Crime rates are down, way down, nation-wide. That’s a fact, and yet, the rhetoric of today has many Americans feeling afraid. In fact, I just heard a man being interviewed on NPR say, “you go to a movie theater; you’re likely to get shot. You visit a big city; you’re likely to get shot.” It’s no wonder a person might feel this way. Scroll your Facebook feed and it’s inundated with videos and news of horrible accidents, murders, robberies, and assaults. Now, statistically, these violent crimes are down; however, our exposure to tragedy, is way, way up.

Think back to when you were in high school (I’m assuming many of you are pre-Facebook age, ha!). Pre-facebook we knew what was on the local and nightly news. Notable crimes made newspapers and magazines, but not at the rate with which we are exposed to news stories today. The fodder of local news is now national news. A singular person’s bad experience at Target becomes the rallying call of shoppers everywhere. All of these things accumulate in our guts, this is why we feel emotionally-charged all of the time. Just in preparation for this post, I kept tabs on some of the stories that rolled through my news feed in the last day or two and by far the most disturbing, alarmist headline I read was, “With tears overflowing, this mother tries to re-attach her child’s decapitated head”. These are things I never click on, but I did, for the sake of this post. It led me to a short article written by an ambulance driver about an accident he was called to that had been caused by a drunk driver. In the accident, the two children in the backseat did not survive. The story was not graphic at all and the point of the piece was really to point out that there are innocent victims when you choose to drink and drive. The headline was obviously clickbait and, even though I agreed with the anti-drunk driving message, I wasn’t sure the whole thing was an effective strategy. Nonetheless, we scroll, day by day, through our feeds exposing our minds and our psyches to these devastating and disturbing messages. 

And then we get distracted. We remain subtly emotionally charged and then something comes up, and it causes an explosion. Colin Kaepernick takes a knee. Starbucks releases a new logo on their cup. A gorilla is killed to save a child’s life. And suddenly, we funnel our fear, anger, and frustration towards these symbols because it is easier to fight about the National Anthem or a gorilla than it is to ask the really tough questions. It’s easier to be angry at a Black Lives Matter crowd when they become destructive than it is to ask the real questions about race and equality in our country and why the group is so angry and frustrated. It’s easier to argue about what the National Anthem really means than it is to evaluate whether or not our country really does offer equal opportunity for all. Facebook threads have become a battleground, yet the opponents are our friends and family. Almost daily someone on my Facebook feed announces that he or she will be unfriending or unfollowing those with opposite and obnoxious opinions. Daily I read arguments that turn nasty in just two or three exchanges. And the thing is, if you’re connected on Facebook then you are friends, family, or acquaintances in some way.  If we are unable to be respectful of our own friends and family, then what hope does this nation have?7969003a49be87b104b5afcfbc5b4afb

And just as we had worked ourselves into a frenzy, along came this election cycle. We, as a nation, are questioning the business-as-usual democratic process, which is great, but we seem to have lost the ability to do so with any sort of intellectual capacity. I do believe Donald Trump has stirred up a lot of anger and fear, but he’s not the cause of it. He has simply coaxed to the surface that dark reality that our country still has a lot of work to do. In the few short months he has had access to microphones and the media, he has capitalized on these feelings we’re harboring of fear and anger and he’s made it okay for us to act on them.

Now I don’t have any answers and I also have a lot more to say. This is only a start. However, I don’t know how to say the rest. I don’t know what can be done and I don’t know who (if anyone) can do it. I do know that things will absolutely get worse if we cannot come together as a nation and own up to our flaws. We have a serious racism problem. We might have legalized gay marriage, but we have a long ways to go towards gender and sexual equality. We absolutely must address poverty. We must fund education. These are issues that we must come together on for the future of this country.

Maybe an elected official is not the answer. Maybe that answer is each one of us in our everyday lives, every day. Here are some simple places to start:

  • Fact check the articles you share on Facebook. Think that’s time consuming? Then post less.
  • READ. And I’m not just saying this because I’m an English teacher. READ the articles you post. READ the articles your friends post. Go out into the web and find some interesting news sites and then READ. A great place to start is Flipboard.com. You can set up your interests and you’ll get daily articles to peruse. Maybe if we all start reading more, journalists will stop using such ridiculous headlines!
  • Remember your manners. Sure your comment feels like a body-less entity, but it is attached to you and it is directed towards another human being. Engage in intellectual debate, rather than name-calling and insulting.
  • Ask questions. Recently I had drinks with a high school friend. She’s made a career in the military and I’m a shameless pacifist. However, I had the most enjoyable evening asking her thoughts about foreign policy and gun control. She has knowledge and experience in these areas. I can and should listen to her experience. She and I don’t have to agree, but we can absolutely share our experiences with each other.
  • Stop focusing on yourself. What if the point of Facebook was to connect and converse rather than a place to project your highlight reel? What if you spent less time declaring your own opinions and more time asking other people about theirs?

On the one hand, I feel at a loss for words and on the other hand, here I am 1300 words later. I have to go to work again tomorrow and look nearly 120 15-year-olds in the eyes and prepare them for their futures. All I can do, so that I can sleep at night, is try to encourage deep thinking, critical questioning, and compassionate behavior. Because maybe, just maybe, those things will help turn our country around.

Recording a Podcast!

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of heading to Southfield, Michigan to participate in the podcast Urban State of Mind. The hosts, Kharena and Akia, were so much fun to work with too! Even though I speak infront of humans all day long, I have to tell you, I was SO nervous about the whole thing. We scheduled it way in advance and I barely let myself think about it until the week of because of the insane butterflies.

img_2061They invited me on to talk about my post “Why Teaching Really is Difficult.” Kharena and Akia were pros, though, and had questions and topics ready to go, so all I had to do was talk about what I talk about best: education.

You can listen to the podcast at the link below. I encourage you to follow their page as well, so that you can get updates when they post new things. If you are in the world of education at all, as either an educator or a parent, I think you’ll really like what they have to say!img_2060

 
Listen to the podcast, “Close Your Door and Do What’s Best for Kids” here.

You can also follow them on facebook at Urban State of Mind.

The Things We Carry

things-we-carry

“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.”

I used to teach an excerpt of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, which recounts the author’s experiences in Vietnam. The excerpt we read was somewhat lack-luster – a nod to a contemporary American classic without actually delving into the parts with the gore of death or the profanity of serving. I read the book in its entirety in college, but not until later in my life, as a teacher and mother, did I re-read this excerpt and feel something different.

As outlined in the section, the men carried items necessary for survival: canteens, weapons, dry socks, and letters from home. And, as mentioned above, they carried intangibles such as fear, interrupted love stories, and regret. I read this passage as an adult and as a parent, and I understand, for the first time, how heavy and exhausting it is to carry intangibles. Quite often these are the things that truly weigh us down.

As a teacher my day is busy with attendance, managing lessons and behaviors, making copies and preparing for what’s next. As a mother my day is busy with meal planning, shoe-tying, boo boo-kissing, and discipline. These, however, are only the tangibles. And while they keep me busy from sun up to sun down, these are not the weights that keep me awake at night.

Those are the intangibles. Those things are heavy. And unlike a social invite that you can turn down or a dish you can simply refuse to wash, the intangibles can’t be set down as easily. Sometimes they can be moved over, sent to the back of the line, but they always resurface.

No matter the narrative I occupy myself with during my waking hours, the intangibles are always ready for a conversation just as my head hits the pillow. These include worries, fears, insecurities, and regrets. These ideas bounce back and forth across my brain in an ask-and-answer style as my logical self tries to reassure my emotional self that I am doing an ok job of parenting. My logical self tries to reassure my emotional self that my oldest son, who sometimes struggles emotionally, will turn out ok. And my brain tries to assure my heart that my children will grow to be happy, loving adults. My intelligence tries to reassure my emotions that there is good in the world, and my orderly self tries to temper my anger with injustice and uncertainty.

I abandon the tangibles early on in the evening and tell myself it’s because I have the ability to compartmentalize, to maintain control. And yet, hours after the tangibles have been laid to rest I am awake and questioning a co-worker’s comment, my own sense of self-worth, and my role in this world.

I turn off the television and announce that “enough is enough” when the coverage of this election cycle seems intolerable, but the stillness only makes room for my worries about the future of this world. I worry about what type of world my grandchildren will inherit. I worry that they will not breathe fresh air or know the quietness of peace.

And so I look back at that over-used passage from O’Brien’s work and understand, as an adult, how crucial this understanding is. The toll this service took on those men was greater than injury and exhaustion. It was psychological; it was traumatic. And I understand that the things we carry are both external and internal. We size up each other’s external baggage and assume we know what one another are carrying, but in reality we can never know.

And we lie to ourselves about our own things. We manage the tangibles, so that we can hide from the intangibles for another moment or so. However, in order to survive, we must find a way to set some of those intangibles down. Some of them we must honor, then bury and walk away. We need not forget them, but we must give them a final resting place. Because, after all, we can often only affect the tangibles and carrying it all is just too damn exhausting.

feaa1ae17f153a63bff1aa58a19e87bb

Hey Parents, Step Up

Parents

Years ago when my first child was around four, I was having a “where will he go to preschool?” conversation with some coworkers. This was back when I only had one child and had nothing better to do than to over-analyze my every parenting dilemma (and then consult the internet to evaluate my decision). I was bemoaning the fact that the elementary school he would be attending only went on one field trip a year and snobbishly suggesting I might drive him to a different district if it fit my fancy. One of my coworkers (with adult children) said, “Look, the school isn’t everything. YOU are the parent. If you want your kid to have certain experiences, then YOU need to provide them.” She pitched to me this novel idea that school was only supplemental to my parenting. She suggested that, wait for it, IT WAS MY JOB!

What’s ironic about this is that I am a teacher. I have found myself infuriated by memes such as these on social media

PicMonkey Collage

And I often comment, “I thought that’s what parents are for!” (I’d also like to point out that whoever made the meme in orange can add “use of commas” to the list of things he/she never learned in high school… but I digress). Once I saw a version of this that included “how to do laundry.” And yet, I sat in the lounge with my peers and  found myself, as a parent, expecting from the school, the very things I loathe as a teacher!

Never mind the fact that many social studies classes probably do explain taxes and the voting process and many schools do offer personal finance classes, but teenagers don’t want to take them, the reality is, little-by-little, we are expecting schools to raise our children.

I’m a teacher and even I am guilty of it when I have my parent hat on.

Here’s another fun one that’s floating around:

principal

Sure people forget things. We all make mistakes – this is how we learn.  All day long I have kids asking to call home because they forgot their lunch money, or their lunch, or their iPad, or their homework. Once a kid was furious because I wouldn’t let him call his mom so she could bring him Subway for lunch. You see, he didn’t want to eat cafeteria food that day. But I digress.

I see memes like this and I think, on the one hand, this is America and if you want to raise a lazy, spoiled brat, you have the right to do that. But on the other hand, my teaching experience tells me that this sense of entitlement is getting worse and could use a fair amount of tightening up.

Over the 12 years I’ve been teaching I am constantly being asked to implement more and more strategies and interventions that fall firmly in the “parents’ job” category. My grade book is entirely online and parents as well as students have access to it 24 hours a day, and yet, I am now asked to call or email parents of students who are missing assignments. Certainly this is part of my job, but a weekly call? When the parent can go right on the website and check on their own?

Additionally I am now able to upload nearly every assignment thanks to websites like Google classroom or Schoology and, even though I send out emails, I have yet to have a parent login to see what we are doing and rarely do students take advantage of such resources before tests or during absences.

On the flip side, my son will be entering 2nd grade in the fall and when the school has an event (big or small) I am bombarded with automated phone reminders the week of. In addition, the event is listed on the school website, it comes home in his weekly paperwork from the teacher, and sometimes I even get an email. Can adults not even remember a date without 25 reminders?

I hate arguments that suggest we need to get back to the “good old days,” but I certainly think our kids today could use a tad more personal responsibility. Increasingly parents are calling me to excuse missing homework, argue about lost textbooks, or accuse me of not making deadlines clear enough on projects we’ve worked on for a week or more.

It’s as if the more connected we become, the less connected we actually are.

So now, Mom and Dad, I’m looking at you.

You gotta step up, man.

I know weeknights are hard and crazy and made even more so when parents are parenting alone or working crazy hours, but we all have to start holding these kids accountable, and it doesn’t have to be all rules and discipline. It can start with conversation.

You can ask your kids how school was. You can create routines (car rides, dinners, evening walks) where you get one-on-one time with your child so that the conversation flows a bit more naturally. You can take advantage of online grade books and school websites.

And you can let them fail. Oh my gosh it’s hard. Like the meme above says, you can let them miss their show and tell day because they forgot to carry it in from the car. You can let them buy hot lunch because they forgot their own. I know it’s hard to do, especially if you have the time and the means to make things right. But sometimes, as parents, we have to let them fail. We must let our children learn the difficult lesson that actions have consequences when they are young because, if we don’t, life will teach it to them when they are older and the consequences may be much worse.

I often wonder how I’ll handle the high school years. I am frustrated when parents come to me at the end of the trimester, after ignoring my calls and emails, and now want to help their child pass. Or the week of the big game, they suddenly need their daughter to be eligible. It’s easy for me to say, as the teacher, let them suffer the consequences of their actions, but I know  as a parent that is SO hard to do. I hope I am strong enough to let my children fail. I challenge you to let your own children fail from time to time.

And when they do, talk about it, cry about it, yell about it, write an action plan – do whatever you have to do to help them take action so that it doesn’t happen again.

Finally, evaluate your own expectations of your child’s education. Be honest with yourself. Are the things that you label as lacking from your child’s teacher or education things that you can offer as a parent?

I continue to be infuriated over the lack of recess children in elementary schools get these days, however, in the meantime, I try to make sure that I plan for or allow a solid hour or more of good physical activity when we get home. Sure this doesn’t work out somedays, but as often as I can, I’m forcing that kid outside. Because, after all, I am the parent and complaining about the failings of schools or the shortcomings of teachers is not going to raise my children. Sharing a meme on social media is not going to change policy, but conversation and action might.

So step up, parents. Run for school board, or even write to your school board. Tell them you want more recess or more math or more art, or whatever it is that is academic that will benefit your child. Volunteer to come into the classroom, engage with your child after school and find out what’s going on in his or her world.

Because sending your child to school is hugely important, but it is only a supplement to the parenting YOU are required to do.

And if you find yourself offended by this or still angry that your high school experience didn’t teach you how to do laundry, then I suggest you get up right now, find your kids, and start with a lesson about sorting.

fold-clothes-drop-off-wash-and-fold-laundry-KSQRVe-clipart

Hey Parents, Step Up

Parents

Years ago when my first child was around four, I was having a “where will he go to preschool?” conversation with some coworkers. This was back when I only had one child and had nothing better to do than to over-analyze my every parenting dilemma (and then consult the internet to evaluate my decision). I was bemoaning the fact that the elementary school he would be attending only went on one field trip a year and snobbishly suggesting I might drive him to a different district if it fit my fancy. One of my coworkers (with adult children) said, “Look, the school isn’t everything. YOU are the parent. If you want your kid to have certain experiences, then YOU need to provide them.” She pitched to me this novel idea that school was only supplemental to my parenting. She suggested that, wait for it, IT WAS MY JOB!

What’s ironic about this is that I am a teacher. I have found myself infuriated by memes such as these on social media

PicMonkey Collage

And I often comment, “I thought that’s what parents are for!” (I’d also like to point out that whoever made the meme in orange can add “use of commas” to the list of things he/she never learned in high school… but I digress). Once I saw a version of this that included “how to do laundry.” And yet, I sat in the lounge with my peers and  found myself, as a parent, expecting from the school, the very things I loathe as a teacher!

Never mind the fact that many social studies classes probably do explain taxes and the voting process and many schools do offer personal finance classes, but teenagers don’t want to take them, the reality is, little-by-little, we are expecting schools to raise our children.

I’m a teacher and even I am guilty of it when I have my parent hat on.

Here’s another fun one that’s floating around:

principal

Sure people forget things. We all make mistakes – this is how we learn.  All day long I have kids asking to call home because they forgot their lunch money, or their lunch, or their iPad, or their homework. Once a kid was furious because I wouldn’t let him call his mom so she could bring him Subway for lunch. You see, he didn’t want to eat cafeteria food that day. But I digress.

I see memes like this and I think, on the one hand, this is America and if you want to raise a lazy, spoiled brat, you have the right to do that. But on the other hand, my teaching experience tells me that this sense of entitlement is getting worse and could use a fair amount of tightening up.

Over the 12 years I’ve been teaching I am constantly being asked to implement more and more strategies and interventions that fall firmly in the “parents’ job” category. My grade book is entirely online and parents as well as students have access to it 24 hours a day, and yet, I am now asked to call or email parents of students who are missing assignments. Certainly this is part of my job, but a weekly call? When the parent can go right on the website and check on their own?

Additionally I am now able to upload nearly every assignment thanks to websites like Google classroom or Schoology and, even though I send out emails, I have yet to have a parent login to see what we are doing and rarely do students take advantage of such resources before tests or during absences.

On the flip side, my son will be entering 2nd grade in the fall and when the school has an event (big or small) I am bombarded with automated phone reminders the week of. In addition, the event is listed on the school website, it comes home in his weekly paperwork from the teacher, and sometimes I even get an email. Can adults not even remember a date without 25 reminders?

I hate arguments that suggest we need to get back to the “good old days,” but I certainly think our kids today could use a tad more personal responsibility. Increasingly parents are calling me to excuse missing homework, argue about lost textbooks, or accuse me of not making deadlines clear enough on projects we’ve worked on for a week or more.

It’s as if the more connected we become, the less connected we actually are.

So now, Mom and Dad, I’m looking at you.

You gotta step up, man.

I know weeknights are hard and crazy and made even more so when parents are parenting alone or working crazy hours, but we all have to start holding these kids accountable, and it doesn’t have to be all rules and discipline. It can start with conversation.

You can ask your kids how school was. You can create routines (car rides, dinners, evening walks) where you get one-on-one time with your child so that the conversation flows a bit more naturally. You can take advantage of online grade books and school websites.

And you can let them fail. Oh my gosh it’s hard. Like the meme above says, you can let them miss their show and tell day because they forgot to carry it in from the car. You can let them buy hot lunch because they forgot their own. I know it’s hard to do, especially if you have the time and the means to make things right. But sometimes, as parents, we have to let them fail. We must let our children learn the difficult lesson that actions have consequences when they are young because, if we don’t, life will teach it to them when they are older and the consequences may be much worse.

I often wonder how I’ll handle the high school years. I am frustrated when parents come to me at the end of the trimester, after ignoring my calls and emails, and now want to help their child pass. Or the week of the big game, they suddenly need their daughter to be eligible. It’s easy for me to say, as the teacher, let them suffer the consequences of their actions, but I know  as a parent that is SO hard to do. I hope I am strong enough to let my children fail. I challenge you to let your own children fail from time to time.

And when they do, talk about it, cry about it, yell about it, write an action plan – do whatever you have to do to help them take action so that it doesn’t happen again.

Finally, evaluate your own expectations of your child’s education. Be honest with yourself. Are the things that you label as lacking from your child’s teacher or education things that you can offer as a parent?

I continue to be infuriated over the lack of recess children in elementary schools get these days, however, in the meantime, I try to make sure that I plan for or allow a solid hour or more of good physical activity when we get home. Sure this doesn’t work out somedays, but as often as I can, I’m forcing that kid outside. Because, after all, I am the parent and complaining about the failings of schools or the shortcomings of teachers is not going to raise my children. Sharing a meme on social media is not going to change policy, but conversation and action might.

So step up, parents. Run for school board, or even write to your school board. Tell them you want more recess or more math or more art, or whatever it is that is academic that will benefit your child. Volunteer to come into the classroom, engage with your child after school and find out what’s going on in his or her world.

Because sending your child to school is hugely important, but it is only a supplement to the parenting YOU are required to do.

 

 

And if you find yourself offended by this or still angry that your high school experience didn’t teach you how to do laundry, then I suggest you get up right now, find your kids, and start with a lesson about sorting.

fold-clothes-drop-off-wash-and-fold-laundry-KSQRVe-clipart