“To fight aloud, is very brave”

30 05 2009

There is nothing more irresistible to me than a bookstore on Saturday morning. I spent the better part of an hour at Books A Million this morning, roving the shelves, armed with a cup of coffee. I get lost in the titles and the covers and the sheer number of books. Getting lost is something I’ve been very keen on this past year. I can’t ever quite tell what will make me lose myself until I’m doing it. I positively swam through the store, hanging on as many words (that were not mine) as I could. It was a relief, to read and not to write or to think of writing. For the past year, I’ve thought of nothing but writing, but I have written virtually nothing. Meandering through that space crowded with words meant to incite, capture, invoke me, the reader, I could feel my shoulders loosen and my stance shift. My knees grew bendier and I rested on my joints. My face became open, and I began to craft some writing in my mind. While I would normally rush somewhere to put it on the paper before the words left me, I tried to relax into the words, repeating them over and over. And then I came across the Dickinson poem that is the title of this post, and the words became cemented in my mind. I left with six books and the resolve to write. Something. Today.

I came home, put on some music, then decided against it and opened the windows, and began reading my earlier posts. I didn’t realize I began this venture two years ago, when Ruthie was only 18 months old. My third or fourth post (Taking the Long Way) speaks to the way I feel now. And it occurred to me that my life is terribly, wonderfully recursive. I keep coming back to the same places, and each time I revisit them, I am a little stronger, a little braver, a little older. I am trying now, even as I type this, to be okay with the possibility of coming off as a complete fool. I am also trying not to write what might be considered a bit of an over-share without compromising any of the truth of what has led me to the key board today. The truth is that I am exactly where I was two years ago, only less afraid and more alone. Scared and alone are two of the shittiest aspects of the human condition, if you ask me. And I am always both. But today, as I sifted through those titles and browsed the books I had selected, it occurred to me that everyone is scared and everyone feels alone (which, of course, is why it’s a part of the human condition and not the Whitney condition). All of my favorite things–- books, films, music, art –-capture those two features of what it means to be human. It is a painful condition, the human one. Which is why I found myself in the bookstore today, seeking a connection, through language, to humanity. Which is why I am writing today, seeking to establish my own connection, in my own words, to humanity. 

I’m finally reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, as per Emma Bolden’s recommendation. At the very beginning, Anna, the person who keeps the notebooks that she (unsuccessfully) divides herself into, has an insight that I can’t stop thinking about. It is during a conversation with her best friend that Anna has this sort of epiphany:

But now, sitting with Molly talking, as they had so many hundreds of times before, Anna was saying to herself: Why do I always have this awful need to make other people see things as I do? It’s childish, why should they? What it amounts to is that I’m scared of being alone in what I feel. (Lessing, 10)

It is this thought that has kept me from writing through the past year. When I write, my thoughts are permanent and vulnerable, pulsing under the lens of my readers’ discerning eyes. If I simply think my thoughts, then they are mine, and mine alone, and I have no way of knowing whether or not I am alone in those thoughts. When I put my ideas and experiences into writing, then I risk knowing that I am alone in my thinking. But with that risk comes the possibility of being affirmed and understood. It is with hope and trepidation that I continue to write, even now, when there is so much at stake (namely, myself).





Pause and Shift

21 01 2009

I am out today on sick leave. I should be writing the paper that was due last semester. I should be getting some laundry started. I should be drinking water instead of coffee. I should be reading about web development for my class tonight, or addressing invitations to Ruthie’s birthday party at the very least. I am in my last semester of grad school. Three years I have been in grad school and it has officially rendered me brainless. I am too serious. I am too intentional, too resentful. Everything is personal. I wake up gritting my teeth. Every question is an interrogation, every request an imposition. And here I am sitting at my computer: paralyzed by the desire to write, and overcome by the dull conviction that I don’t have anything interesting to say. 

So I reread Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” which was, to me, inspiring. I can’t imagine writing anything under such pressure. In the past few weeks, I’ve been reading as much about her as I could find on the internet. I’ve found that I like her– she’s honest, thoughtful, and insightful. In an interview with Jeffrey Brown, she talked about the task of composing the inaugural poem:

JEFFREY BROWN: So — so, have you made a start? How do you — how do you go about this? What is it that you want to accomplish? 

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: What I want to do in the composition of the poem is to be very quiet and very humble before the forces that make me able to write poems.

It’s a very, very big challenge. It’s a very extraordinary moment. And I think the fact that Barack Obama has decided that he wants to have a poem as part of the inaugural is tremendously significant, to say that here is a time when we can listen to language that shifts us a little bit, that allows us to pause for a moment and contemplate what’s ahead of us, to think about how we can contribute to the challenges ahead of us, all of those things can be possible in the moment of pause and shift that — that a poem makes possible.

So, I’m just trying to be very serious and very quiet and very humble as I — as I try to — try to write something.

I am neither a quiet nor a humble person, but I can reside for a small time in the moment of  pause and shift

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.

 

(These lines were clipped from the New York Times transcript of Elizabeth Alexander’s reading of “Praise Song for the Day.” Sadly, the transcript does not reflect line breaks.)





Something Missing

6 12 2008

"Schoolhouse on the Hill" by Diana Dignonis

 

Lately, I have felt ambushed. As a public educator, I am unesteemed in the world of the Academie, I am held hostage by standards that do not measure understanding, I am stretched across achievement gaps, I am passionate, I am outraged, I am desperate for social justice in my classroom, in the communities where I work and live. I am longing for a rhetoric about education that is not caustic, accusing, and defensive. I am frustrated, but not hopeless. 

A few months ago, I attended a cocktail party at the University. A Research Fellow, who had helped himself to a few drinks by the time of my arrival, had some suggestions for me as a public educator. “If you could just get these kids to write a sent-ence,” he spat. “You know, a subject, a verb, and a DOT on the end. I mean, a simple sentence. I mean, how hard could it be?” I was the only teacher at this gathering, and this sneering (supposed) intellectual’s remarks did not make me feel any less alien. Unfortunately, this is only one example of my instances where I have been on the receiving end of feedback like this about my professional field all the time. Teachers are criticized by everyone: parents, students, administrators, politicians, mechanics, engineers, researchers, doctors, lawyers, husbands and wives. The quality these critiques share is the smug arrogance of their delivery. I suppose that since nearly everyone has been a student at some time or another, the general public feels as though they have enough knowledge of the field to believe that they are themselves experts. 

And we are teaching their children. John Taylor Gatto, New York’s Teacher of the Year, says that we (schools) “adopt” students, we are “entrusted” to take on a parenting role for other people’s children. Passion does often override reason, especially when it comes to parenting. When parents argue with me about the way that my classroom operates, I try to remember the many occasions when I have (tentatively) argued with my child’s doctor over a diagnosis, informed by my feverish midnight reading of Web M.D. 

Despite my (attempted) understanding, I can’t help but yearn for a time when educators might be treated as professional experts in their field. The mountains of meaningless paperwork alone is insulting, but the even worse are the public’s unsolicited knee-jerk reactions to the educational system and the complex dilemmas, issues, problems it faces. Everyone thinks s/he’s got the answer. Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. There is a wide range of possibilities for improving the complex and diverse set of problems with education. 

So where to begin?

Last week, I stumbled across this reading for the Composition class I’ve been taking this fall. In 1996, Mike Rose wrote “What We Talk about When We Talk about School.” You can find this article in the September 25, 1996 edition of Education Week. After a heated “conversation” about education around the Thanksgiving dinner table that left me reeling, I was relieved to read Rose’s perspectives on the issue(s) facing public education and the rhetoric we use to discuss them. 

For three years in the early  90s, Mike Rose travelled across the country, visiting successful public school classrooms in an attempt to “fashion a response to the national discussion about public schools, a discussion that, [Rose] believed, had gone terribly wrong.” He analyzes the rhetoric of the conversation about public education, which he describes as being “flooded… with alarms and bad news, with crisis talk and prescriptions for remedy.” 

When asked about standardized test scores and school failures, he admits the problems with public education, but he also recognizes “the problem with assessing our schools through a few reductive or inaccurate measures.” Ultimately, he claims that “we need to think in richer ways about what we want from our schools.” Of course, he was received with “vehemence,” a response that he describes as “angry, disbelieving, assured and articulate, and terribly upset.”

What follows is his vision of “what’s missing” in our thinking about schools, schooling, and what we can expect from public education:

It is, of course, legitimate to worry about the relation between education and teh economy, and national and state goals, frameworks, and standards can play a role in improving the quality of schooling. But there is something missing here.

As I sat in those good classrooms in Los Angeles and Chicago, Missoula and Tucson, Wheelwright, Ky., and Indianola, Miss., a richer vocabulary of schooling began to shape itself. To be sure, there was concern about the economy and attempts to prepare students for it. But I also heard talk of safety and respect. A commitment to create sage public space and a respectful regard for the backgrounds and capabilities of the people in it. I saw the effect of high expectations: teachers taking students seriously as intellectual and social beings. I saw what happens when teachers distribute responsibility through a classroom, create opportunities for students to venture opinion, follow a hunch, make something new. I saw the power of bringing students together around common problems and projects – the intellectual and social energy that resulted, creating vital public space. And I saw what happens to young people, 1st graders through 12th, when they come to feel that those who represent an institution have their best interests at heart.

Safety, respect, expectation, opportunity, vitality, the intersection of heart and mind, the creation of civic space – this should be our public vocabulary of schooling – for that fact, of a number of our public institutions. By virtue of our citizenship in an democratic state, we are more than economic and corporate beings. 

If we are a nation divided, we are also a nation yearning for new ways to frame old issues, for a fresh language of civic life. The last year [spent “documenting excellence” in American classrooms for his book Possible Lives] has deepened my belief in the strength of this yearning. To generate this language for public education, we need to move a bit from the boardroom and the athletic field and closer to the good classroom – that miniature civic space – to find a more compelling language of school reform and of public education in a democracy.

I can’t imagine that many people would disagree with Rose’s depiction of public education in a democracy. I can’t imagine a parent who wouldn’t want her child in a classroom like the ones Rose documented. What is perhaps the most frustrating piece to this puzzling puzzle is that we all, everyone–rich, poor, White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, American– we all want this for our children. And we want it so badly, and so desperately, that we have to cling to oversimplified solutions in order to believe the possibility of “the good classroom.” Unfortunately, the solution is not singular and it is not simple. 

Frustrated with public education in America? Your name is Legion. For God’s sake, please have a bit of compassion on those of us who are sweating it out on the front lines. Just like our students, we need patience, understanding, open-mindedness, and support. 

If you’re interested in reading more of Mike Rose’s stuff, check out his blog

Antique School House Room Box & Antique Bisque Dolls, circa 1900





Punctuality: Thief of Time

27 08 2008

He was always late on principle, his principle being that punctuality is the thief of time.” (Oscar Wilde)

Those of you who know me best know that I am habitually late. Despite my best intentions to be on time, to be timely, to be timely and one time, I am not ever timely. Nor am I apt to be on time. Once, as I was passing through the living room from the front door on the way to the kitchen, I caught a Dr. Phil show in which a young woman was being confronted by her friends for her gross disregard for all things time and timeliness. She barely made it to the show on time as a result of her missing the flight to the-city-whose-name-escapes-me-where-Dr. Phil’s-show-is-taped-in-front-of-a-live-studio-audience. Dr. Phil, in his notoriously didactic preacher-man style, used this young woman to illustrate the act of “running late” as one that is purely selfish. The young women laughed it off as a petty crime (as I have done many times myself). But Dr. Phil was insistent: You are selfish! According to Dr. Phil, If you are chronically late then you have no consideration for others, especially those who are waiting, waiting, checking their watches, expecting you to show up, hoping against hope, waiting––on you. Er, me. 

I would argue that I am no more selfish than any punctual specimen. However, I will admit to being ish-y  when it comes to all things time. I have yet to find a way to see my commitments as exact points in time. I am an –ish person. I may not be at work by 7:30, but you can be sure that I will make it by 7:30ish. 

This ishness is experienced as an insurmountable wall separating me from society. I cannot pretend to an a priori knowledge of time. If I were to posit myself within the spacetime continuum, I might be found near the edge of the speed of light with my fingernails dug into the lip of the black hole. If I could just swing my other arm up and out against the strain of the laws of physics, the Kate Spade calendar chirping  of appointments and to-do lists aligned neatly beside crisp depictions of watering cans and galoshes. If I could just claw my way out from under the unopened bills, the receipts, the bank statements, the ungraded papers, the graded papers to be filed, the files to be discarded, the phone numbers scribbled on the back of the Starbucks sleeve found in the backseat of my car. If I could just, if I could only, then I might be able to meet you for coffee this afternoon around 3:00. Let’s call it 3-ish.





And now for something completely different…

15 04 2008

On this, my second day of Spring Break, I found myself in a situation that made me remember the very best version of myself in college. I was driving down Dean Ave with the windows down––it’s in the 50’s today in Auburn–and Jack Johnson blaring on my stereo (tracks 8 and 13 on his new album). I called one of my dearies from college who used to copilot with me on such outings that generally led to country drives way out Moore’s Mill Rd. and at least a half a pack of cigarettes on my end. Jack Johnson will always be the musical score to my Springtime.

As a result of my finally springing into Spring, I have begun my Spring shopping. For you, my friends, I have developed the Spring Enjoyment List––it might be better than the O List, but sadly, as I am an educator with a two year old, I cannot afford to give any freebies away. Instead, I will direct you to the websites where you might purchase them for yourself if you so choose.

10. Gardening gear

9. Timeless tumblers for a toddy or a sweet tea on the front porch

8. Pajama pants that you can be seen wearing in public

7. New place mats to brighten up our kitchen/dining room

6. A Corona with lime

5. A Springy wallet that doubles as a purse in Wasabi.

4. Jack Johnson: Sleep Through the Static

3. Nanette Lepore sling backs (These are still on my wish list, but they are oh-so beautiful!)

2. Votivo candle in Honeysuckle

1. New nail polish (and a pedicure to boot!)

Add to this list a brilliant novel that you’ve been putting off until you have “more time” (mine: The Amber Spyglass and The Year of Magical Thinking), a new handbag (preferably the one by Marc Jacobs that I was eyeing last weekend), and some fresh fruit, and you’re set to go.





testing, testing: 1, 2, 3

18 03 2008

It’s that time of year–– again. The time when teaching becomes a bore, the students become hostile, and my life has lost any semblance of fruitful creativity. I spend the day trying to get my students to care about a test that is meaningless to them. These tests that the state designs and employs to hold everyone “accountable” are arbitrary enough as it is. Expecting a bunch of 8th graders to be responsible about taking a test that carries no consequences or incentives for their performance is ridiculous to say the very least. To use those test scores (which couldn’t possibly be accurate measures of the child’s knowledge if he/she isn’t even trying) to justify my ability as a teacher is just disgusting. I don’t believe that the answer is to raise the stakes; rather, we should be using alternative modes of assessing that are not forced-choice tests to determine whether or not a student is learning. A student’s ability to “pick the best answer” is limited by the answers that they are choosing from. How can you ask a student to choose a tone of a poem from four answer choices? To be honest, there are questions on the practice tests that I’ve been giving my students that I have to really stretch to find evidence for, and I have a graduate degree!!

A sample sentence from one of the passages: “Snow is fluffy when it falls, but when it accumulates without melting, it becomes granular and eventually compacts into solid ice.”This is a test for eighth graders. Accumulates? Becomes granular? Eventually compacts? I think this test designer thought that perhaps if the sentence started with something really dumbed down like “snow is fluffy,” ending the sentence with scientific terminology would be somehow justifiable. It’s not that these words are too hard for the kids. It’s that these kinds of technical terms are embedded in every sentence of a two-column page-long writing sample about something random… like glaciers.

Some context: It took me the entire first semester to get my students to read something, anything. I allowed them to pick out their own books and told them to get rid of the book if they didn’t find it interesting any longer. These kids are smart, but they are not prepared for the kind of testing that the state imposes on them. Their academic background is spotty when it comes to reading. Our culture is becoming markedly less textual: we simply don’t read anymore. Most of us get out news online (I get mine from the radio). We expect our kids to enjoy reading, but how many teachers are reading with their kids? How many classrooms are stocked with fun books? Kids become better readers by reading more. Period. It doesn’t matter what they read––they just need to read.Here’s what I know about the kids who perform well on these kinds of tests:

  1. They come from homes that have books in them.
  2. They will do an assignment “because the teacher said so.”
  3. They usually do their best work even when you don’t ask them to, no matter how meaningless it is to them.

I was not one of these students. When we took the writing assessment, I just wrote something down. When I took my AP exams, I half-assed them because I knew I was going to retake the class in college for an easy A. Now, the ACT? I took that one 3 times and studied for it. I didn’t sleep through that one. I was wide awake and rested for it. Same with the GRE. Why? Because I cared about the results because I knew that they would have a dramatic effect on my own personal interests (which happened to be going to college).

Bottom line: Testing is stupid. I wish I could articulate it in a more profound way, but when it comes down to it, everyone’s pissed off about the testing because it’s stupid. Today I happen to be pissed off about the testing because I’m working my ass off to get my kids to care about something that I don’t care about. The students’ scores are more mine than theirs. At the end of the year, those scores will come back to me. Being evaluated by something you don’t believe in makes about as much sense as an atheist giving all of his money to a church in hopes that he will be let into a Heaven that doesn’t exist.

Margaret Spellings makes about as much sense as Brenda Dickson.





No Child Left Behind?

31 01 2008

As this legislation goes up for renewal, politicians are heating up on both sides of the fence. What really kills me is the blame that is placed on teachers and schools for the status of our educational system today. There is a desperate desire to improve education, but this act is unfortunately headed by people who have not been in the classroom long enough or with enough wits about them to see that this legislation is RIDICULOUS! I’m thinking that the Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, may have been left behind during her own academic career. The notion of equality as sameness that is perpetuated by NCLB stems from the same branch of thinking that has brought us the educational assembly line that is the public (state-funded) educational system. Everyone, no matter what their social background, their talents, their interests, their beliefs, is expected to perform in the same way under the same circumstances as if that would be any where near an adequate (or accurate) measure of a person’s intelligence.

This report from NPR sheds some light on the discussion surrounding the law and the actual progress that has been made in education since its implementation. We should all be educated about this legislation because we are all directly effected by it. Here’s the link to the piece entitled, ‘No Child’ Law Picked Apart as Renewal Fight Looms. It aired yesterday on Morning Edition.