Wonk Wednesday: Schools as Vehicles of Legitimacy

An interesting trend in schools is this adoration of charter schools that are just one drill sergeant shy of being military institutions, at least as far as discipline goes. We read Teach Like a Champion in my teacher preparation program and talked a lot about the profound importance of instilling discipline in the younglings. In teacher prep programs and our broader culture, there is a lot of celebration of discipline as a key part of a successful school. In low-income communities, charters are celebrated for their “zero tolerance” discipline and rigidity; they are seen as bringing the savior of discipline to their students.

In the school where I taught, discipline was a constant topic. I was scolded for not writing enough referrals/being strict enough with my kids. At the time, I didn’t really have a specific reason why I didn’t believe in sending kids to the office constantly; I spoke mostly about the fact that I trusted them and wanted to work with them on their behavior and actions, rather than outsourcing it to the office (my students were 15 and 16 years old, so I stand by my belief in treating them like adults who are worthy of respectful discourse rather than ignorant children who need to be given time out). Looking back, though, I think part of it was that I felt that top-down authoritarian discipline wasn’t a value that I wanted to teach my students to love.

Granted, I was basically trying to lead a revolution in my classroom, so my methods may seem strange to others. But bear with me here.

My kids are not in an equal world. Most of them were students of color, most of them were coming from poor families (some were even homeless), and most of them were far behind where they “should be,” academically. Those who didn’t fall into all, or even one, of those categories, will still carry the stigma of being from Oakland until they can get far enough in life to shrug it off (if they so choose). “Oakland” carries associations, the majority of which are not favorable.

My kids have enough of disadvantages. I do not want to train them to be blind followers who rely on external authorities and rigid structures in order to make their way in life. My kids might have been academically behind, but it wasn’t because they aren’t smart. They are brilliant, in a wonderful diversity of ways. They are full of talents, ideas, and righteous anger. But I heard from so many of them so constantly that they were bad at school. That they were never going anywhere in life. That they were bad kids.

It’s possible that an absurdly rigid discipline system might’ve brought up some test scores. Possible (a lot of these vaunted zero-tolerance charters don’t actually score any better than their counterparts; it’s almost as if discipline isn’t actually the problem and that poverty and systemic inequality might be). However, I will feel like I am more of a successful teacher if I can send my students out into the world armed with a sense of self and intrinsic value than if I beat that out of them in exchange for discipline and test scores.

Strict discipline means you get to be someone’s lackey. I do not wish that life on my students.

Self-discipline does not necessarily spring out of externally enforced, top-down authoritarian discipline. Self-discipline is what leads people to be able to thrive through their talents and creativity and values. That is what I tried to give my students (though I’m not arrogant enough to believe I succeeded).

Social legitimacy means that your voice is heard and valued. Schools promise to grant young people social legitimacy through a credential. To get that credential, you must adhere to structures and discipline.*

So what is the value of legitimacy if it comes at the cost of having your voice silenced to get it?

This week’s essay, as you may gather, is about schools as legitimacy-granting institutions and vehicles of social mobility. It’s framed around the foundation put in place by the common school movement, which happened during a really fascinating time in history (the market revolution and the second Great Awakening–good times). The common school movement had the noble goal of bringing education to the masses and providing equality of education for all–huzzah! On the flip side, they also had a not really veiled at all goal of social control. Regrettably, even though our society has shifted away from the context in which we needed schools as places to socialize and discipline, the way that we assign value to schools hasn’t shifted away from that structure because we have to internalized this narrative of what school is and what schools look like. Thus, despite the noble goal of legitimizing marginalized communities, what happens instead is that communities are smothered and neutered in senseless discipline and empty “education.”

I am just really angry about all the ways in which our culture demands that “non-dominant narrative” people have to justify themselves and prove their worthiness before their voices will be heard. From heavy issues such as race down to the lighter issues like the fake geek girl hubbub, I am sick of people being made “less than” based on whether or not they meet arbitrary standards. Truly, one’s worth cannot be measured by a high school diploma, and although I personally think having high school diplomas is great and I want my students to have them, I think it’s a shit way to determine whether or not someone has merit as a person. And yet we can’t seem to stop.

The Common School’s Legacy: Legitimacy and Social Control – PDF

Texts for this week:

  • Cuban, Larry. (2013) Inside the Black Box of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Cuban, Larry & Tyack, David. (1995) Tinkering Toward Utopia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Labaree, David. (2010) Someone Has to Fail. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Apparently, Harvard University Press is getting a lot of damn money from me.

*I know that I mentioned that I would write about why I left teaching. I will, I promise. But this is a little window into one of the reasons–while I came to teaching because of my drive to help people and change lives for the better, I am partially pushed away from teaching because in many ways my values reject the way we do schooling in America. I do not truly believe in the system, so while I tried hard to give my students the best that I could, I felt like a fraud and a hypocrite. That gets exhausting.


10/08/2014. Tags: , , , , , , . Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

Wonk Wednesday: Teacher Vulnerability

Wonk Wednesday is going to be my new weekly post, in which I will reflect on whatever I am currently doing in school, and most weeks I will post the reflection essay (identifying information removed) for my History of School Reform seminar, based on my readings and reflections for the week.

This week, I’m thinking about teacher vulnerability.

There’s a lot of dialogue around why teachers are so hesitant/resistant to change their classroom practice, despite the never-ending attempts of policymakers to force this to happen.

Teacher vulnerability is my number one explanation for why this doesn’t happen.

1) Teachers are primarily in it for their students. Changing up “how to do school” is risky for students, running the chance that they will become overwhelmed, scared, or angry about the changes. Students can suffer damage to their confidence, as well as to their learning. When the entire foundation of your purpose is helping students grow and learn, that is one hell of a risk to be taking without any guarantee of payoff!

1b) Teachers are strongly emotionally invested in their students and their work. While many professions take pride in their work, there are few professions that involve such an intimate intertwining of practice and personality. When a teacher engages with students, the teacher is making him or herself vulnerable and putting themselves at risk along with the student. Teaching is an act of emotional giving, and how we teach is deeply personal. Thus, not only are we being pushed to change something that is fundamentally who we are, but we are running the risk of ruining whatever rapport, trust, or relationships we have built. Teachers, particularly in extra-demanding districts and classrooms, are profoundly emotionally vulnerable, so our defenses are up a lot.

2) Parents say they want reform, but what they actually want is for their kid to get good grades, go to a great college, and get an absurdly high-paying job. They do not actually two figs about whether or not Junior is having a deeply inspiring classroom experience–that would be dandy, but if it comes at the cost of Junior’s SAT scores, no matter how meaningful and motivating the experience was, almost all parents will consider that a bad pedagogical decision. Curiosity and inspiration is encouraged, but RESULTS are valued. This means teachers are in jeopardy of disciplinary action, up to and including losing their jobs.

3) Admin. See above.

4) Policy trends move so goddamn fast, and often in this ridiculously cyclical fashion. It is entirely plausible that by the time a teacher has rewritten an entire curriculum, completely revamped how they structure their classroom, and managed to promote the deep change within themselves needed to really get into this new “adventurous” teaching, there’s a very good chance that we’ll be back to the old way. Seriously. It’s ridiculous. Because policy is so closely intertwined with elections, things tend to change a lot. Teachers become like rocks, washed in the rain of policy–sure, things might change, but it’s gonna take centuries, so I hope you’re prepared to wait. Because by the time teachers have subscribed to this current trend, they’ll have to switch around and go on to something else if they want to keep their jobs. It’s easier to protect yourself by only adhering in a very cursory fashion.

Ultimately, teachers want to be the best teachers they can be. They want to try new things and they want to learn and grow. However, the opportunities are seldom presented, and they are very rarely presented with the kind of support, resources, and time that are needed. Teachers do work that is so demanding that adding additional vulnerability into their already challenging positions will automatically be met with resistance.

essay1 <–the ugliest ever PDF imbed of my reflection essay on this topic for my reform class

Texts for this week:

  • Cuban, Larry. (2013) Inside the Black Box of Education. Cambridge, CA: Harvard University Press.
  • Cohen, David K. (1988), Teaching practice: Plus que ├ža change. In Phillip W. Jackson (ed.), Contributing to Educational change (pp. 27-84). Berkeley: McCutchan.
  • Elmore, Richard F., & McLaughlin, Milbrey W. (1988). Steady work. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

09/24/2014. Tags: , , , . Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

On Teacher Burnout

It is the third week of the school year, and I am already contemplating the fact that I might not make it through my first year of teaching.

There’s a lot of factors at play here–the stress and difficulty of my cross country move being a large one; not only do I feel lonely, but the majority of my time outside of school is spent in trying to do things like procure groceries, unpack my luggage, buy a lamp, or find the UPS depot to pick up a package (and end up losing over three hours of my night to their disorganization; thanks UPS!). Many of the factors that are burning me out are not school-specific ones.

However, there are several issues that are issues many schools face.

For one, I suffer a significant lack of materials. My curriculum–which was assigned to me by my school–is based entirely around handouts and reading packets. However, I am denied photocopy paper and the machine is rarely stocked with paper. Somehow, I need to make a minimum of ten pages of copies per student per day, but I am not provided with the materials. Without the copies, however, I can’t teach the content.

When I DO manage to make copies, I have to stick to the bare minimum. With ninth graders, you need to give them a lot. They need graphic organizers, note-taking guides, vocabulary lists, hard copies of all assignments and the requirements (right now I have to settle for writing everything on the board), worksheets, etc. I can give them none of these things because I can barely even give them the work the school expects them to do.

So, at best, I can give my students the absolute bare minimum of materials, with absolutely nothing to help them utilize what we give them.

In addition, I have no technology in my classroom. I have a very old over head projector (the kind with which you use transparencies, not the kind that hooks up to a computer) that doesn’t focus the entire page at once. I also don’t have a screen onto which I can project with said projector, so I have to use either the whiteboard (which doesn’t erase fully so whiteboard marker barely even shows up) or the wall above the whiteboard, which is so high up that most of the students have difficulty making out the words of the poorly focused projector. And yes, I know how to focus it–I get it to the best possible setting and then hope for the best. I can’t give my students projects based on technology–such as presentations using Powerpoint or other media–because there is no guarantee that they have access to such things at home, and even if they stayed after school to work in the library, we would be unable to access their efforts in class. Likewise, I cannot use Powerpoint, videos, audio, etc in class. I teach a double-period block class, but I have no way to break up the monotony of the class. Media makes an enormous difference, and it’s yet another resource I cannot utilize.

I’m teaching my students about California geography, but I have no map of California and no way to access such a thing. I’m teaching short stories, but often without knowing if I will be able to hand out the stories or not.

My class has no textbook, and the novel we’re supposed to start next week… won’t be available for another two weeks or so. So I have been told to “fill time.”

Meanwhile, I’m a new teacher, and teaching out of my subject area, so filling time is hard for me. I dislike giving busy work, and I dislike giving work that I cannot collect and grade, and I’m already in over my head. I try to put writing prompts and assignments on the overhead, but that’s ineffectual and difficult. I can’t give the students handouts because I can’t make copies. I can’t have them work in their books because they have no books. Meanwhile, I’m struggling with classroom management, so I end my days drained and empty despite having gotten next to nothing done over the course of the day.

Finally, my classroom is not my classroom. The previous teacher has yet to move out her belongings and materials, so my social studies classroom is full of science and physiology posters and books, and I keep being told “it’ll be cleaned out soon.” I don’t have enough seating for my students, and instead of desks, like every other teacher, I have long tables, which makes arranging the classroom near impossible. It is difficult to create a classroom culture in a classroom that is not yours, regardless of whether or not you are the only one teaching in it.

I have phenomenal colleagues who are working hard to support me and help me, but without materials and resources, I feel powerless and lost. By the end of the day, I want to cry. When I get home, I want so badly to work on getting ahead on my curriculum, creating new materials, improving my systems, but I am generally so crushed and overwhelmed that it’s all I can do to cook dinner and sit on the couch, let alone deal with any of the mess of my personal life or professional mess.

This is where new teacher burnout comes from. People talk about classroom management overwhelming and demoralizing new teachers, and it does, but the thing is that we already have the odds stacked against us before we even have to deal with student problems. There are already so many bureaucratic and infrastructure problems that by the time we enter the room, we already feel like we’ve lost the battle, so of course classroom management is just the icing on the cake. It’s not hard to break something that’s already barely holding together.

Hmm. And I swore I was going to be more positive.

09/14/2011. Tags: . Uncategorized. 2 comments.

Fielding a Curve Ball

Here I am, in the third week of my first year of full time teaching.

I am teaching a class in which I am not certified (California Studies, when my certification is in English) and I got hired only days before the school year started. I did not start till days after. My classroom is still full of the belongings and decor of the previous teacher. I’m adapting lesson plans and curriculum from another teacher, who has been teaching Cal Studies for almost a decade. On the plus side, he knows his stuff. On the downside, he knows his stuff–most of the materials are little reminders to himself, rather than detailed information. I’m learning the materials only slightly before my students.

I just got an apartment, and I am still moving in. My belongings arrived from Boston only two days ago. Life is getting easier, mind you, now that I have my belongings.

I’m still finishing all my paperwork with HR. My curriculum is almost entire handouts and the photocopier is always broken. I have a severe shortage of materials. I have zero technology in my classroom (I thought Boston was bad, but I was wrong!). My students have major discipline issues and do not do work reliably at all.

All that said, I am fortunate to have a job, and fortunate to have this job. My administration is wonderful, and my colleagues are fantastic. I feel very supported, and the environment is overall positive. While I am often frustrated by my students, there are great moments as well, and there are several students that stand out as particularly delightful. I already have a Doctor Who action figure at my desk that a student brought in for me. That’s a warm fuzzy.

I am trying to learn to better manage my classes–a problem I had overcome in Boston, but must start from scratch here. I am trying to learn California history. I am trying to learn the particular nature of my school. I am trying to learn to write better lessons for really long classes (in Boston, I had about 45 minutes, here I have two hour blocks!). I am trying to learn a new school-wide discipline system, and how to best use it.

Plus, I’m learning a whole new city. That part is mostly exciting, but sometimes stressful. I’m establishing my adorable new apartment, which is mostly exciting, but sometimes stressful. I’ve downgraded from a fairly spacious one bedroom to a studio, so it’s been a challenge. My books are moved in, though, which is always a wonderful thing to see.

Today, I’m just pushing myself to write in this blog again. Starting tomorrow, I hope, I will begin talking more about what I’m teaching and what’s going on in my classes. I want to talk about how I’m creating my materials and what I’m learning about education.

Urban education is a challenge. Being a first year teacher is a challenge. This year is a huge challenge, but one with which I look forward to grappling. I will overcome it, I will do my job well, and I will come out a better teacher.

09/13/2011. Tags: , . Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

Divided We Fall

This morning, I sat with my clutch of rising high school seniors, all low-income, minority students, and tried to get them to discuss the Ralph Ellison short story “Battle Royal,” an excerpt from his novel Invisible Man.

I have never felt more acutely aware of how white I am in my life.

In the story (go out, find it, and read it now if you have somehow made it this far in your life without reading Ellison; I think he is where white liberal guilt comes from, and he is an amazing writer) a group of young black men are brought to a rich white men’s social gathering to fight, blindfolded, for their entertainment. The white men are in tuxedos, drinking, “wolfing down buffet food,” and yelling obscenities as the young men duke it out for supremacy. Afterward, the black men are given “the opportunity” to fight each other for money that is strewn on a rug. The rug is electrified (and, unknown to them, the cash is fake), but at the urging of the laughing crowd, they keep fighting each other.

I was trying to steer my students toward seeing the fight as an extended metaphor for society. It wasn’t just an isolated incident, and the rich white men weren’t just pitting young black men against each other for entertainment at a club, they were doing it in a very real way out in life. I wanted them to feel the power of the story. They were absolutely feeling strongly about it and seeing a lot of the imagery, but I wanted them to go further (what teacher doesn’t?).

But damn, I am white as hell. I can only do so much.

It got me thinking about the violence in low-income areas of Boston. Today marks the second day in a row that someone has been murdered in broad daylight in Dorchester. Yet it barely makes the news outside of Universal Hub–it’s just a little tidbit in the deep inside pages, rather than a headline. This kind of intra-community violence is simply accepted and normalized. This is “part of Dorchester.” Part of “what it means” to live in Dorchester, to be poor, and, ultimately, to be non-white. Self-destruction from the inside.

Anyways, all I could think about was how much that resonated with me as a female. I can’t relate to the racial issues going on, but I can extrapolate those same feelings to issues of gender. I look at the way women are pitted against each other, the way we’re constantly dragging each other down–“oh, she’s such a stupid slut!” “She is so ugly!” “She’s such a gold-digger!”–and so on, that instead of having a powerful force of women, we have a bunch of squabbling girls.

I’m not saying we should like each other just because we share common reproductive organs–that’s stupid. I don’t get along with most of the world, let alone most other women. But it would behoove us to give each other the benefit of the doubt now and again. To stop seeing one another as the enemy. It’s so easy to keep us squashed down to being simply trophies when we judge each other just as harshly.

I mean, c’mon, patriarchy doesn’t even have to really do much if we keep destroying ourselves from the inside out.

08/18/2010. Tags: , , . Uncategorized. 2 comments.

All Your Books Are Belong To Us

So, you guys sick of hearing me wax poetic about how much I love sci-fi/fantasy and all things nerdly yet? NO? Well good, cause I am not shutting up.

First off, I am halfway through my summer class and it’s enough to make a girl cry with happiness. I spent literally my entire weekend highlighting articles, writing outlines, and creating concept maps (with the exclusion of going out for a rockin’ brunch yesterday, at which I ate so much that I think I am still digesting). My brain has been wrung out to dry, and when I get home, I stare mournfully at my bookshelf and dream of reading for pleasure.

Because books, guys. Books are goddamn awesome. Writing is incredible. I have poetry everywhere in my apartment, and post-it notes scattered around with favorite lines of novels. Books are probably the best thing that ever happened to me.

As someone who is only nine months away from being a high school English teacher, that’s not a bad attitude for me to have. What I am about to say is probably a bad thing to say, but hey, screw it.

Our kids are incredibly disinterested in books and reading because there is much more intriguing stuff out there to consume.

Author Blake Charlton writes that boys aren’t as into sci-fi/fantasy anymore, and while I have some disagreements with some of his points, I can’t aggressively disagree.

Bear with me for a second while I go on a tangent. Remember a while back when I ranted about passivity and gender? How boys are generally steered toward “active” entertainment while girls are encouraged to be passive? Little boys are subjects, while little girls are often objects (please accept my blatant over-simplifying and sweeping generalizations; I’m trying to be brief).

So here’s the thing–it is acceptable for girls to read, within reason. Books that are marketed to girls are essentially chickflicks on the page.

The things that are more “boyish” are still not marketed to girls. However, they are not marketed to boys, either. There was a time when my love of sci-fi made me tomboyish. However, the fact that I giggle gleefully at Stephenson’s humor when reading Cryptonomicon no longer makes me tomboyish–it makes me a really big geek. Hard sci-fi and, well, I guess “hard” fantasy (I’m thinking stuff like Dune, Foundation, LOTR, and other classics, as well as newer stuff like George R. R. Martin, if the dude would throw me a bone and publish another book) are seen as dense books for the truly nerdy amongst us.

When we have Cameron throwing out intense 3-D experiences like Avatar (yes, I hated it, but I will not deny what a visually phenomenal experience that movie was) why would people who want to experience other worlds turn to a book? You gotta, like, SQUINT and KNOW WORDS and shit.

Dictionaries: they are pretty damn rad. I wish I could get my students to get that, because getting them to use the dictionary or thesaurus on their assignments is an uphill battle.

Anyways, so we have this triple-edged sword: books are passive things that girls engage with (books are for sissies!), books that aren’t sissy girly books are only for super smart people, and there is other media that doesn’t ask anything of you to take you away to another world.

If boys want to imagine a fantasy world, they can pop in a videogame and not only be IN that world, but interact with it and shape it. They are a character that they control. It’s full-submersion escapism. When we as a culture are progressively more interested in instant gratification, what can compare with being able to push a button and have the world you’re experiencing immediately respond to that? You can interact with the characters, not just watch from the sidelines.

I will confess to occasionally wanting to reach into my books and shake/yell at main characters (*cough* Robert Jordan *cough*).

On top of being “non-interactive,” books make demands of their readers. You have to keep track of characters, plot arcs, politics, fictional worlds, and more, let alone having the vocabulary and grasp on the language to keep up with the author’s writing. Sometimes it can be very challenging to keep up with an author who enjoys complex styles or words. Sometimes you don’t get all the information simply laid out in front of you and you have to–*gasp!*–draw conclusions from inferences and subtleties in the text. Never mind if we get into any sort of math or science or technology; that’s yet another layer of intellectual demands.

I, personally, find all of these things rewarding. I love stumbling upon a word I don’t know, and I have reread individual sentences over and over and over simply to delight in how they were constructed. (Well-crafted writing is just so amazing. I… Uh, is it getting hot here? Anyone?) I love when authors show and don’t tell and let me draw my own conclusions or form my own image of something (would Beowulf has been as powerful if Grendel had been explicitly described?). And if I come out of a reading experience feeling like I’ve learned something neat, well so much the better! The more my brain does somersaults while I read, the more rewarding I find the experience to be.

The keyword there, of course, is “rewarding.”

We engage in behaviors that we find rewarding. Most of my students will get more sense of reward–that is to say, more affirmation from peers and family–through success as an athlete, or even a musician, than they will as a student.

Someone please issue me a cane, a lawn, and some whippersnappers so that I can wave my cane at said whippersnappers to get off my lawn, because I am about to sound really old:

Guys, we really don’t value reading anymore.

Honestly, in many ways, we don’t value education in general. Outside of us teachers, kids are not getting any sort of reward for reading. While there is a degree of personal reward for being a bookworm, the social pressure to NOT be one far outweighs it. The lonely friendless types will turn to books because hey, what else have we got? However, that’s not the case anymore–now there are videogames, that allow kids to interact with others and not feel isolated.

But we’ve already been over girls and gaming and… and…

I am exhausted. I wish I had the faintest notion how to encourage girls to read better books (Twilight, I wish I could fight you. I’d punch you in the face so hard), how to encourage boys to want to read again, and how to make our parents encourage our kids to read instead of sitting around with videogames and shitty movies like Avatar.

But no, I do not have answers.

What I have is a midterm on Friday, and I still have a lot of charts to make.

Instead, after reading Charlton’s post, all I want to do is head to my local bookshop and curl up on the floor of the sci-fi/fantasy section and read for a week straight.

So help me, I will teach a class on sci-fi/fantasy and comics as literature. It’ll be one of my little contributions to saving the world.

07/19/2010. Tags: , , , , . Uncategorized. 5 comments.

On The Value of Education

Into week two of summer school teaching assistantship. I’m in a local high school, working with an “essay writing workshop” group, which is to say a hodgepodge of kids ranging in age from rising freshman to rising seniors, all with a variety of writing levels and even English levels. The teacher was explaining to me that some of the kids are there for enrichment (there’s some very talented students), while some are there as “babysitting,” essentially, and others are there to try to keep them on track (one of the girls clearly has a gift for writing and self-expression, but struggles with English, as it’s her second language, so she’s here to work on developing her language skills).

Today, we were talking about description. The teacher brought in an exercise for us to think about metaphor and personifying concepts and things. The exercise was taking an adjective and deciding which of the two things it better described. (Examples: “Which is wiser, a pen or a pencil?” “Which is braver, an hour or a year?”) One of the questions, “Which costs more, a home or a house?” brought up some interesting responses from the students.

One of the boys vehemently argued with everyone that a house costs more than a home, because a home can be anywhere. He explained that just because you live at an address, that doesn’t mean it’s your home. For a lot of kids his age, this school is their home and that if we asked a lot of his contemporaries where home is, they’d say the school. Not just because that’s where their friends are, but because that’s where they feel safe and supported.

This is one of those boys who often projects a “too cool for school” air and is hesitant to participate in group activities or express himself.

To say that I, as a student teacher, found that stirring is an understatement. This boy, much like the girl in his class I mentioned above, is clearly a very bright kid. He, too, struggles with English as a non-native speaker, but also seems to worry about his image as projected to his peers. He wants to be cool, and it seems like he worries about stumbling when participating or class, or revealing himself as too vulnerable.

So, as an aside, I’d like to mention how fantastic the teacher I’m working with is. She is very smart and well-read, but has such a great way of getting down to earth and interacting comfortably with the students, making everyone laugh and feel a little more at ease. She is absolutely the kind of teacher I want to be, and I attribute her excellent class leadership to this boy’s willingness to speak out about his feelings on the house vs. the home.

It was such a jolt to me to hear a student say that school can be a home. I’ve known for a while that for many of our urban students, school is in fact the safest place (I’ve heard stories from colleagues of students who come to them after experiencing sexual assault, abuse in the home, dealing with friends in trouble; the students see good teachers are sources of strength and safety, and the school building itself is a bastion of safety from the messy streets outside). It had just never dawned on me that students–even students who are hostile to the idea of schooling, regardless of whether or not they are smart (smart kids don’t always love school!)–would actually see school as a place that they identify as a home.

When we consider education budget and support, when we think about closing schools and libraries or cutting after school activities, when we shrug off the importance of providing teachers with sufficient support… we’re denying the importance of our students having homes.

I don’t mean teacher support in the sense of “gimme gimme gimme I want a big salary” (though it would be nice), I mean providing teachers with adequate sick days and sub coverage, providing access to materials, letting them have some freedom with their curriculum, and so on. I’m not being selfish here; I’m speaking from a fact–a teacher without sufficient support, especially in a tough school with the students with the greatest needs, will burn out, and a burnt out teacher cannot provide the environment students need to feel at home. A school without after school activities denies students the opportunity to find their strengths and then cultivate them. Slashing funding to the arts and music might be justified by the fact that they aren’t “job skills,” but are we making cogs in a machine or are we helping to grow human beings?

A student may barely pass high school and graduate by the skin of his or her teeth (hell, that was pretty much me). Yes, I’ll be sad about that–I want to see all my students thrive academically! I’m a big nerd who loves school, so of course I want everyone else to share in that view. But students need not be valedictorians to be citizens. We lead by example in providing students with a home outside of the house; they will build these environments in their communities when they leave school. One of the things I find so beautiful about community activism is the potential that people see in their communities that outsiders write off (which references back to my post about how the rest of Boston seems to write off violence in Dorchester/Roxbury/Mattapan/etc). I think schools are a place where that feeling of potential and community identity can begin. Not to say that other community sources are irrelevant–for many communities, strength can come from religious groups, social groups, sports groups, etc–but schools are a shared experience for the youth of a community and it’s an opportunity for them to build an identity. It made me feel good to know that we have students who feel such a strong identity with their school.

I just hope that such feelings can continue, that our students will get the best education, in all respects, that they can get, and that there are other schools out there serving the same purpose. The school I’m currently in has a reputation for its strong community and atmosphere; not every school is so fortunate.

I’m not necessarily driving at a point here; I’m not really saying anything revolutionary. It’s all been said before. I guess it’s just a little more powerful when you have the experience yourself, and it never hurt to let these thoughts bubble back up to the surface.

Education: it’s important. Please stop voting down education budgets.

07/13/2010. Tags: , . Uncategorized. Leave a comment.

What Girls Think, I Guess.

This was linked on Twitter the other day and I couldn’t help but laugh:

I mean, seriously. It’s hilarious because it’s TRUE. (Obviously not all the time, so on, so forth, all the disclaimers I always make.) I just know way too many ladies who think like that, and way too many dudes who think like that. (I also know way too many ladies who think that by faking that they are insatiable whores, they will get their prince charming. And, uh, yeah. I have gripes with that.)

Of course, now it’s going to be porn movies and Twilight. But that’s beside the point.

Anyways, I think we’ve all ranted Disney to death. I can spare you that. I just thought the image was great, because it takes a ton of ranting and condenses it into a nice, accessible, succinct little image.

The idea of accessibility and succinctness has been pretty heavily on my mind as of late, actually. I’ve been thinking a lot about the accessibility of learning, for the most part–how do people learn, how do we teach, etc. There’s just so many examples of how traditional educational paradigms fall short, or where they could easily be improved upon. A friend of mine is pursuing a PhD in education, studying the creation of educational videogames, games, and classroom-based role playing games and practomimes. Twenty years ago, educational videogames weren’t nearly as viable or relevant as they are now, but now they’re not only a very real potential, but they could easily involve multiple different subjects within one game. It’s a fascinating field.

But anyways, my obsession, as we all know, is literature and literacy. I can’t stress enough how much I think literature and literacy matters and can make or break a student’s future (though I do think math is incredibly important–trust me, guys, when the person with a BA in literature and foreign language says math is important, it’s because it is). Do I think that it’s essential that every student ever be able to read the exact text of Macbeth or Moby Dick? No. In an ideal world, yes, they will read it and analyze it and love it. But the exact words on the page are only a fraction of what students are learning in language arts classes (note: it’s called “English and language arts” not just “book readin'”).

Students are learning how to analyze characters, how to read between the lines, how to notice and respond to themes and imagery, and they’re learning about the cultural and historical context that the texts are situated in, but also how that relates to their contemporary world. In writing my lesson plan for The Sun Also Rises, I made the emphasis not just on the context of when Hemingway wrote, but how that applies to now. The study of literature should always be relevant to the now.

So bundle up all those ideas, and I posit that comic books should be much more heavily used in English classes (hell, in history classes! in all kinds of classes!). They allow students to interact with different texts that may be much more compelling, they provide greater accessibility to students with difficulty with reading, and they tend to engage students more easily. Plus, there’s an entire world of really awesome literature going on out there that is being ignored–literature that builds on other classics (such as Sandman or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), literature that builds on history (Maus), or fantastic social commentary that has sparked all kinds of reactions in our culture (Watchmen). There’s so much potential that’s going unnoticed.

So with this in mind, I’ve been researching comics history more in depth. I took a couple of courses in college (The International Graphic Novel, and Comic Art in North America, which were both broad survey courses) and did an internship with DC Comics, so I’ve got a reasonable foundation of comics. But I want more. I want to really dig in, and I want to dig in from the academic side, not just the “whee, I am reading comics!” side (though I am reading comics. And usually I exclaim, “Whee!” right before I do so. You should too!).

One of the books I’ve picked up (from the amazing and fabulous Hub Comics in Somerville, for you Boston-area folk) is The Great Women Cartoonists, by Trina Robbins. Ms. Robbins was part of the indie comics movement in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 60s/70s and was a huge contributor to a lot of women’s comics zines and really bringing women comics creators into their own. I think she is a deeply fantastic person.

What bothered me, though, was her coverage of women in the big companies (DC and Marvel). She talked about how the women weren’t having high rates of success because they didn’t like having to draw superheroes and violence. They were unhappy with having to make things that they didn’t like.

First off, I think it’s safe to say that many of us spend our days doing things we don’t like. I highly doubt that the secretary sitting at the front desk of DC or Marvel was thinking, “Oh golly, I am so glad I’m a secretary and not an artist because it is SO MUCH MORE FUN AND SATISFYING to be filing documents and answering phones and smiling at jerky delivery guys! This job really speaks to my talents!” Now, mind you, I’m hardly saying that they don’t deserve sympathy, as they do. But still.

Anyways, she goes on to continually talk about how women don’t like violent comics, women don’t like the aggression, the fighting, etc. She goes on to quote a female artist who said something along the lines of “I like to draw ballet and dancers, things that are more like reality.”

I will grant you that ballet and dancers are more like reality than Superman and Bizarro engaged in some vaguely homoerotic wrestle-punch-fest thingie, but this is where we are looping back to that graphic at the beginning of this post.

Why do girls have to like fluffy delicate things and boys like violence?

One of the coolest things about Hub Comics is their giant shelf of local artists’ self-published work. There you will see plenty of men lamenting love, and girls writing about poop and kicking things. I know plenty of women who enjoy dark, violent comics (hell, I’m one of them!), and would rather strangle ourselves with our shoelaces than read a pink happy comic about ballet dancers.

Maybe, like, cyborg ballet dancers with lasers in their eyes sent from outerspace to destroy the evil NutcrackerBot 9000…

Anyways, I don’t doubt that for that particular female artist, ballet and dancers was preferable to violence and superheroes. That’s fine. But Ms. Robbins, for all her feminist asskickery, paints female artists with a broad brush, making it sound like ruffly dancers and sparkly romance comics were all that appealed to girls reading comics and to women artists drawing them. That bums me the hell out.

Ms. Robbins is entirely accurate when she talks about how it was such a shame that there weren’t comics for girls–that’s true! It IS a shame! Even now we’re underrepresented (though I’d like to mention that the editor I interned under at DC was a woman and still one of the most bad ass, amazing women I’ve met in my life; I will be so fucking jazzed if I turn out like her), but it’s not because we need more romance comics. GIRL SUPERHEROES! I want more asskicking girls (with or without spandex; I could go either way)!

I’m pretty excited to check out Frenemy of the State, after reading a blurb about it on Jezebel recently, as it’s a comic by a woman, targeted toward a female readership. On the other hand, I already love titles like Empowered, starring mostly women, and Fables, which has a pretty heavily-female cast. Both those titles are written by men, and Empowered is even a superhero comic. However, I don’t think either title was meant to be aimed specifically at women (in fact, the inspiration for Empowered came from a pornographic drawing commission–go figure!), but they have the appeal. They have strong female characters, engaged in exciting plots. Sometimes there’s romance, but there’s also action, intellect, and compelling relationships with friends, colleagues, and enemies. They’re fully fleshed-out worlds with engaging characters; it just so happens that some of them are women who rock.

I am all about getting more female voices in comics. I want to see more women artists and writers and editorial staff (dear DC Comics, if you are reading this, that internship was the best experience of my life; please hire me!). However, I’m also all about getting more awesome female characters in comics. Having an equal split of women, or even a majority of women, in comics isn’t really progress, in my mind, until the books that are being created are depicting awesome women doing more than swooning over boys and buying shoes. Just because a woman made it doesn’t mean it’s pro-woman (I mean jeez, just look at everything that comes out of Sarah Palin’s mouth!).

Anyways, I want to end this with a link to one of my favorite lady cartoonists right now: Katie Cook! Katie is an incredibly talented artist with a very distinct style (dare I say it even seems feminine? :P) who draws for all kinds of awesome properties, like Star Wars. She has even drawn troopers being dismembered. Take that, girls don’t draw violence! Also, she draws the webcomic Gronk, which is pretty much my new favorite part of Fridays.

So in short, don’t go for gender-assigny bullshit. Don’t wait for your prince charming or insatiable whore, instead go to your local comic shop and read some bad ass comic books!

06/10/2010. Tags: , , , , . Uncategorized. 4 comments.


Oh man. I think I almost peed myself a little watching this:

I haven’t read Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights really aggravated me (Heathcliff is a violent, unhinged man, and Catherine has some abusiveness issues) but I dig the Brontes for what they represent in the great literary world. My personal favorite trailblazing lady author is Virginia Woolf, though. Orlando is a brilliant subversion of traditional gender roles and sexuality, and no matter how you look at it, Mrs. Dalloway is beautifully written.

Anyways, I hope when I get my master’s degree, part of the process is learning how to turn into a giant dinosaur to smash the boys only literary clubhouse. I’m probably going to need that when I start teaching.

05/07/2010. Tags: , , . Uncategorized. 2 comments.

Education: We Can Build It Better, Stronger; We Have the Technology!

To me, feminism is about empowerment–empowerment for everyone, regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, race, class, nationality, etc. My grounding point, the center from which all of my equality-focused mentality springs from, is admittedly women’s issues, but I see that as the Archimedian solid place to stand from which I will move the world. I approach things from a feminist frame, but ultimately, I am focused on empowerment and equality as a universal experience (it’s all tied together, anyways).

I am a graduate student of education. In May of 2011, I will receive my masters degree and be thrust out into the world to teach high schoolers English (and hopefully sex ed). In my mind, education is power. I am not horribly concerned about whether or not my students get chills down their spines when I have them read Virginia Woolf or if Langston Hughes makes them want to cry. That would be the icing on the cake. Ultimately, I am concerned with giving my students literacy–the ability to make themselves heard, to have a voice.

Margaret Atwood wrote, “a word after a word / after a word is power.”

Countless studies have traced violent behavior to a sense of powerlessness–people will fight to feel that they aren’t powerless, and I can’t blame them. Who hasn’t wanted to scream or shake someone when you felt they weren’t paying proper attention to you? Infants cry to exert power over their parents. We move past crying, but not necessarily as a move for the better.

The ability to express yourself, to make your voice heard, is power in a most elemental form. We do not elect presidents because they come to our neighborhoods and punch us; we elect them because they communicate with us. Musicians stir us because their songs resonate with us. Books and films have incited social change. The internet carries words, whether written or in a YouTube video or any other format. Speech–communication of ideas and experiences–is a fundamental piece of humanity. Communication is power. English education, in its most basic form, is education in obtaining agency.

I’ve been told by many people that I am “wasting my talents” by pursuing a career in teaching high school, that I could be doing far more important things, like social research. I say piss off to that–isn’t it time we started giving people a voice, instead of speaking for them? Damn skippy we should!

The education system we have in place right now is failing us. Aggressively. Students are dropping out, and even those who are graduating aren’t necessarily coming away with skills or competencies. They don’t necessarily have confidence in themselves or any heightened sense of power and agency. School, to most students, is a waste.

How do we change that?

I don’t know. I’m scared. I’m absolutely terrified of what awaits me in September of 2011. If I’m lucky, the world WILL end in 2012 and I won’t have to face more than a year and a half of crippling failure as a teacher. But since I really just don’t think that’s going to happen, I’m trying to learn how to help others learn.

I also think a lot about how I can be a good teacher in the Boston Public School system–I’m a white girl from southwestern Connecticut. I’m coming at this from a wildly different background. As was discussed on the BARCC blog, how do I empower groups that I am not a part of without being patronizing? How do I remain aware of my privilege and still affect positive change?

I want to build up my students to think of themselves as talented, capable individuals. I don’t want to spend my time policing grammar worksheets or drilling vocabulary. I know there will be some of that, but what else can I do?

For my first project in my Graduate Research Methods course this semester, I considered the potential of utilizing NaNoWriMo in the classroom. NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month, is an unofficial program that challenges participants to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. As a eight time participant (oh god), I can assure you, that is a lot of writing. It’s a HUGE challenge. Three of those years, I didn’t finish. Some of my finishes are really just exceptional crap. But it’s a skill-building and self-esteem bolstering experience–even though I wrote a whole lot of truly shitty prose, I did it! Do you have any idea the kind of high you get? The way the confidence in your writing ability shoots through the roof? (And, as one participant I surveyed for my study pointed out, after writing 50k words in a month, a 5 page paper for school doesn’t really seem daunting at all anymore.) Plus you have to practice time management, self-discipline, and goal setting. You learn planning and outlining and how to think on the fly while you write. It stretches your creativity. You don’t have to love writing fiction to get an incredibly useful experience out of NaNoWriMo.

Strikingly, during my survey, one of the questions I asked was what the negatives of the experience are. I interviewed 13 people, of whom 3 said that they could see no negatives, and well over half of the remaining participants included vehement mitigating defense of the drawbacks that they saw. 100% of respondents said that they will do NaNoWriMo again, and several included extra notes on how they feel that it is an important, valuable experience, and that everyone should try it at least once.

Am I onto something here? I don’t know. NaNoWriMo has launched the “Young Writers Program,” which provides classroom resources to help teachers implement the program in their classroom, opens up discussion forums for students, and provides resources for the students participating. I think it’s a great idea. I think it’s innovative, unique, and infinitely more pro-student than a battery of tests and papers.

Will every student come out of November feeling empowered and with a greater sense of their own potential? I don’t know. Should the fact that “it’s barely been done before” stop me? Oh fuck no. Our education system isn’t working. I’m excited to try something new, to shake things up a little and see what else we can do for our students to bring their voices to the forefront of the classroom experience. Education should be about empowerment and encouragement, not regurgitation of information. Can I help my students feel more confident, more capable? Can I use my lessons to impart ideas of power that don’t center around violence? Can I use literature to challenge traditional notions of violence and gender? What if I could help my students see power as communication, not force? Is it possible that I could help turn the tide of domestic violence and sexual violence?

I know it sounds like I’m holding myself to exceptionally high standards, and I can assure you, I have a very cynical view of how much of an impact I’m really going to have, especially in the first year or two while I’m still learning. But if we don’t go into education with a bit of ridiculous pie-in-the-sky dreams, what will keep us going? It’s certainly not the respect we get (why yes, Man With A PhD Who Told Me On Our Date That I Am Pursuing A Pointless Career, that actually didn’t thrill me) or the admiration of our society, and it certainly isn’t the appreciation of our students. I’m not even going to touch on the salary issue. No, going into education is like throwing yourself against a cement wall repeatedly. We can know that we’re probably only going to make small cracks on it. But I’ll be damned if there isn’t part of me that refuses to give up the belief that if enough of us throw ourselves against it together that we’ll break through and it will be awesome.

It has been shown again and again that education leads to all kinds of great things. Open minds, higher salaries, better living conditions, lower crime rates… Education should absolutely be viewed as a feminist issue, a gay rights issue, a racial equality issue, and ultimately, a human rights issue.

The power of education is not in question. The question is how to unlock that power.

Alright class, that’s the bell. You can put away your notebooks and proceed to your next class. But for homework, please review this New York Times article on improving teaching, and for extra credit, look into this book on better pedagogical methods. I’ll see you all tomorrow for our next lesson.

03/08/2010. Tags: , , . Uncategorized. 2 comments.