Yes, More on White Privilege

I have vacillated between “there is enough blathering about race from people who haven’t really given it any thought, so there’s no need for me to add to the cacophony,” to “there is enough thoughtful commentary about race from thoughtful people, so there’s no need for me to add to the discussion,” to “maybe I have a different perspective than anything I’ve seen so far, so maybe I have something of value to add.”

Guess which won?

This is long, because the issue is complicated, but here’s the key idea: I teach at-risk students in a predominately White school, and this gives me a different perspective on things like privilege and “compliance” and things of that nature. I hope you’ll stick with me.

The alternative class I teach has support groups, and in those groups, kids talk about the issues they face in and out of school. Marijuana possession, alcohol possession, minor skirmishes with the law are not uncommon. Most of my students, regardless of race, are respectful to cops, but more of them are disrespectful than you might imagine. These students are, without exception, White. They frame their disrespect with “that cop had no right to…” Heck, it’s not even just the kids in the alternative class. I had a high-achieving White debater pull a pocket Constitution out of his pocket (I love debaters!) and lecture a cop about what he did and did not have the right to do.

My students of color think these White kids are crazy. When you’ve watched your father gunned down in front of you by cops (as two of my Latino students did) or your friends or siblings cuffed and thrown on the ground by police, you comply. Like one Black student said to his White peers in one of these conversations, “It doesn’t matter what a cop has the right to do. If he shoots you, you’re dead.” I should also mention, this conversation was years before Ferguson.

I know someone’s going to ask, were the cops justified in shooting the Latino kids’ father? I have no idea. They were very young at the time, so they don’t remember the particulars. They remember the trauma. He was a drug dealer, so it’s possible. I had a White kid who lived the first years of his life on the run from the cops with his parents who were criminals. His parents were apprehended in front of him in such a way that they both lived and it didn’t seem to stop him from being disrespectful of authority figures. These are anecdotes, not statistics, but I’m just sayin’.

It never occurs to my White students that a cop will shoot them. Never. Occurs. To. Them. Even the White kids who are respectful are just scared of getting in trouble. They’re not scared of getting beaten up or killed. My Black and Latino kids are afraid for their physical safety. I can’t seem to get a grip on trends for Asians. I’ve heard both points of view, and if the trend is identifiable at all, it comes from where they live—predominately White suburbs, no fear of cops; predominately mixed urban areas, fear. As far as I can tell, for Blacks and Latinos, it doesn’t matter where they live. Cops can beat you or kill you, so do what they say.

And that’s just a reflection of race in police interaction.

In my senior class, we read a graphic novel called American Born Chinese. It’s about how race and racism affect Asian students in predominately White America. Before we start, I have the kids talk about racial stereotypes. It’s Columbine, so my classes are mostly White, but they are more mixed than many other classes at the school. (The proportion of students of color being identified as “at-risk” in schools is its own piece of institutional racism.)

We list different races on the board and brainstorm. White jobs: doctor, lawyer, businessman, teacher etc. (This list is always, by far, the longest list. These are just a few of many similar jobs.) Black jobs: Cop, drug dealer, hair stylist, maybe a couple of other low-paying or criminal jobs. Latino jobs: Housekeeper, lawn maintenance, Mexican restaurant owner/worker. Asian jobs: Scientist, computer jobs, nail salon worker, Chinese restaurant owner. (The Mexican and Chinese assumption is part of the stereotype, despite the many Latino and Asian ethnicities that exist.) One year I had a Native American student point out that I hadn’t listed Native American. I put it on the board and kids had one answer: Casino owner/worker.

Keep in mind, kids of all races create these lists. The kids do tend to contribute mostly to stereotypes for their own groups, not others, for fear of “looking racist,” but in the end they all agree these are the stereotypes.

There is a lot of talking and joking during this activity. We list other kinds of stereotypes, not just jobs, but the next piece focuses there. I follow up by asking, “What if every Black child grew up in a world where it was assumed that he or she would be a doctor or a lawyer? What if every Latina or Latino was expected to be a scientist or corporate CEO? What if White kids grew up in a world where people assumed they would clean houses or mow lawns? No one would explicitly tell them they couldn’t do any of these other things. It would just be a world where that’s what you saw around you on TV or when you were out and about, that kind of thing.”

And the room gets really quiet for a while. There’s just a long moment of cognitive dissonance while they wrap their heads around it. The discussion picks up again, but that moment is profound, I think. This is institutional racism. This is White privilege, so ingrained that even children of color often buy into it.

From my perspective, it is counter-productive to talk about White privilege and institutional racism only from the perspective of two or three or four high-profile cases of police shootings. These things are so much more complicated, so deeply embedded in our culture that they cannot be reduced to sound bites from a few news stories. I mean, even I have had to reduce 30 years of teaching into a handful of examples (though they are examples of many similar experiences throughout those years) from one school. And I am only one teacher.

So yeah, I’m okay with all the perspectives getting posted on Facebook, and I hope this was worth contributing. I hope all these contributions add up to no longer denying the existence and significance of White privilege and institutional racism so that we can solve the problems they cause.

Posted in Columbine, Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 3 Comments

How High School Debate Can Save America

I am taking a break from the book I’m working on to write this. Yes, after a two-year hiatus defending public schools in Jeffco, I’m actually back to the book project I was working on with a former student. (Sorry, Danielle—I’ll have to get those markups to you Monday.)

These are potentially divisive times. Well, they are just plain divisive within our country, but I’m writing this in hopes that they need not be as divisive among each other.

There is this form of debate in the world of high school forensics known as Lincoln-Douglas (LD) debate, and it draws upon ideas and skills that would serve us all well. The other term for this kind of debate is “values debate.” You’ll see why as I explain.

Let’s say the resolution (topic) of today’s debate is: The United States should place stronger restrictions upon the Second Amendment.

A student who competes in this area will have to debate both sides. There are usually three preliminary rounds, so they will go affirmative (agree with the resolution) once or twice and negative (disagree with the resolution) once or twice in a combination equaling three—his or her actual opinions notwithstanding. Sides are assigned in the tab room; debaters do not choose. To advance to the fourth round, the debater will most likely have to have won all three rounds, depending upon the number of competitors.

Both debaters must build their cases upon a core value. Common core values in LD include such things as justice, security, freedom, utility (the greatest good for the greatest number), etc. They must defend the supremacy of their value using philosophers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill, as well as reason and logic.

“But these are such vague values!” I hear you cry. Part of their task is to define the value and defend the definition. Another part of their task is to offer a criterion, a way of measuring whether or not the value is achieved. This is done with a combination of philosophy and real world evidence.

Going back to the resolution, it might play out like this: The affirmative offers the core value of safety with the criterion of reasonable protection from accidental or malicious injury or loss of life. After explaining why safety is the ultimate value in this debate and why his criterion is the best measurement, he is going to explain how stronger restrictions on the Second Amendment provide reasonable protection from accidental or malicious injury or loss of life. He’s going to cite gun-related accidents, suicides, and murders using statistics from credible sources, like the FBI, the CDC, etc.

The negative might then offer a different core value, such as freedom. She may use the Bill of Rights as her criterion. After she defends these, she will explain how the entire Bill of Rights is the foundation of freedom in America, and how any encroachment upon it risks all of the freedoms we hold dear. She may go more deeply into the topic by explaining how the right to bear arms prevents the rise of a despotic government.

The debate, which is highly structured and lasts about 45 minutes, will usually involve a clash of core values, where each tries to prove his or her value is of greater importance than the other’s. They will attack each other’s reasoning and evidence, trying to show contradictions in each other’s cases or show evidence from other credible sources that mitigates or negates altogether the other’s sources.

It doesn’t always go exactly like that. Sometimes both debaters offer the same core value. They might even have the same criterion. At that point, the debate will be about which side best protects safety—reasonable protection from accidental or malicious injury or loss of life. Is it gun restrictions that save people from gun-toting murderers, and gun-free homes with lower gun accident, suicide, and fatal domestic-violence rates? Or is it gun freedoms, which allow homeowners to protect their loved ones from intruders and despotic leaders?

You see, a difference in views on a particular issue does not necessarily mean a difference in values. And where there is a difference in values, this does not necessarily indicate a lack of values on the part of one side or the other.

In debate, neither debater is trying to convince the other. They are trying to convince an impartial judge (or three or five judges in an advanced round). That is to say, they are convincing a judge who is not invested in one debater or the other and who has been trained to base the decision solely upon the arguments and evidence presented in the round and the skills of the debaters—the judge’s own opinion on the topic notwithstanding. On the ballot, judges explain the rationale behind the decision. Most judges do a pretty good job of keeping their own views out of the decision.

Ethics are important in debate and are part of the judge’s consideration. It does not behoove a debater to get nasty. There is no reason to get nasty about one’s opponent’s side of the debate because neither debater chose their side. They may or may not actually hold the position they are defending, and each one may never learn what the other actually believes. It doesn’t matter.

Besides, if one’s opponent is cute and funny and smart, one may be wanting to get the other debater’s phone number for when the tournament is over…

Does this sound hard? It is. And remember, the kids doing it are between the ages of 14 and 18, and many of them are AMAZING!

I hope you’ll think about all of this in the weeks and months ahead. Have the hard discussions. Question your own and each other’s positions. Just don’t assume that people who disagree with you have no values or even that their values are different from yours. You might even try stating the values upon which you base your position, and ask other’s for their values. Find the common ground, the humanity in each other. Then we might find truth.

 

 

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 2 Comments

In Which America Did You Grow Up?

On my way to church this morning, I pulled up behind a car with a bumper sticker that said, “I miss the America I grew up in,” and I found myself nodding and thinking, “Amen to that.”

Then I wondered…did I grow up in the same America as the person in front of me? Do our nostalgic wanderings take us to the same place? If we all want to make America great again, do we all want the same thing?

Through the wide eyes of children, their country is their family and their immediate community. Children seldom realize the diversity of America; they know only that their corner is home. It is what, when they are adults, they will most likely believe America was when they were young.

I grew up singing Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary protest songs in two-part harmony with my mother. My family boycotted orange juice for a time because of Anita Bryant’s anti-gay sentiments. I grew up believing that Roe vs. Wade was an important victory for women and hoped the Equal Rights Amendment would further advance that cause. In fact, I met one of my closest, oldest friends defending the ERA to my 9th grade classmates. I was raised to believe that racism was real and an impediment that would one day be removed so that all could share in the prosperity of America, but it would take work. I was raised to believe the world had much work in it for my growing hands.

The America of my youth was my family, my Unitarian church, and my school, which for a time was Open Living School (or “the hippy school,” as I recalled it to my own children). In my childhood, it was understood that “war is not healthy for children and other living things.” Like most people, my parents chose friends who held similar values to theirs, and these adults defined my world. They believed in social justice. They were mostly white, but they adopted Black children, Latino children, and child refugees from Vietnam, and we all played together. Yes, I recall the America in which I grew up with great fondness.

I miss unapologetic feminism. I miss the open acknowledgement of racial inequality coupled with the passionate desire to abolish it. I miss righteous indignation in the face of unjust war (though I don’t miss the draft or the hostility our troops faced when they returned home).

Is that what the person in the car ahead of me longs for?

In a recent Facebook post, I suggested that the phrase “politically correct” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Likewise, I think perhaps we should ask what making America great again means to each of us. Only when we truly understand what others mean when they speak, only when we acknowledge that we have different roots, but all those roots—seen through the eyes of children—hold home, can we build the bridges our nation so desperately needs.

Posted in Family, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 2 Comments

Vacation, Visions, and Visits

It’s summer again, and I almost don’t know what to do with myself. For the last two summers, I poured my heart and soul into preserving Jeffco’s public schools. Last fall I spent nearly every weekend fighting the good fight. I told John Ford a month ago that it wouldn’t feel like summer unless I knocked on some doors. Good news, it really is summer, so there are doors in my future.

Back in the fall of 2013 a couple of women from JCEA knocked on my door to ask me to vote for three pro-public school candidates. I felt a moment of guilt. My building association rep had asked us to knock on doors that day, but I was answering my door, so clearly I hadn’t answered that call. The idea of three such extreme candidates as Witt, Newkirk, and Williams winning that election was just inconceivable.

I kept using that word. Turned out it did not mean what I thought it meant.

I will not make that mistake again. JCEA has worked with other Jeffco stakeholders to create a powerful vision for schools our students deserve. I feel really good about it. I would love a district where all voices matter, where all schools are safe and welcoming and where high quality teachers are respected and supported. I hope for a district where students learn more and test less. I want strong public schools as public institutions and strong communities. I want them badly enough to knock on doors a couple of days this summer to talk to my colleagues about how to ensure all of these things.

I never again want to spend day after day going door to door to alert people to a nearly successful assault on our public schools. I want us all to be on the same page, pulling for the same things, alert and aware and able to avert a crisis before it happens because we’ve been talking to each other and our neighbors all along.

The Independence Institute and Americans for Prosperity are not through with Jefferson County. There are millions of dollars going into classrooms instead of the pockets of these institutions and their members, and as long as that is the case, we cannot afford to be complacent. They are quietly publishing their strategies, hoping to correct past mistakes. They know that Jeffco loves its educators, so they are cautioning their members against directly attacking us in their messaging. They still think our kids are pawns, but they caution their members against openly saying so. They are really angry about the alliance that was built between teachers, parents, and other community members. The basic message: Make nice to teachers’ faces, but continue to undermine their ability to act collectively with each other and the community to protect their kids and the integrity of their profession.

JCEA has asked its members to give one day this summer to staying in shape, staying strong for our kids, sharing our vision, refining and more deeply defining it. These are the conversations we love to have with each other anyway—how we can make Jeffco the best place to teach and the best place to learn. These are not going to be the worried conversations of the two years before, but rather hopeful, visionary conversations. Won’t you join in?

First, please welcome those of us knocking on your doors. Second, please give one day of your summer. I really think you’ll find it rejuvenating and exciting. That’s why I signed up for two days! Follow this link to choose a day.

 

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | Leave a comment

April

I have said in various ways at various times that one of the things I remember most right after the shootings was an intense desire to talk to someone else who’d been through it—someone from Jonesboro or West Paducah, one of those places no one remembers now because somehow we became the synonym for a school shooting, and those that came before got lost to those not in the club. I wanted to talk to someone ahead of me on the path in the hopes that they could help me believe that I would live, smile, go two minutes without thinking about what happened.

Less than a week after the shootings, I did talk to some folks from Jonesboro on a T.V. show, but they didn’t seem to have any answers. It had been a year for them. I know now how silly it was to think they would have answers yet. I know now how little healing happens in a year.

This is where I am, 17 years later, for what it’s worth. I have since met, face-to-face and online, many others forced on this journey, and I know they appreciate the occasional look at what’s up ahead.

I am always acutely aware of April, from the first to the thirtieth. I am grateful that April is one of those months that hath only thirty days. I don’t dread it anymore. I don’t even remember the last time I did dread it. I don’t feel each day peel away toward the 20th like layers of skin, hardly noticeable at first until spring air starts to scald like acid. That, too, is a long time gone. I just wake up every day knowing it’s April.

I notice when the weather is like that day. It doesn’t hurt. I feel no anxiety. If I go for a walk around the outside of the school during my planning period (which I do all year when the weather’s nice), I walk out the doors I walked out of that day, past the park where we climbed the fence to get away, and I remember all of these things the way one remembers anything, really. Like “Yeah, those are things that happened.” I never walk out in April without remembering them, though.

I’m an avoider. It’s been years since I have been in the building on the anniversary. I take the 20th off. I might be able to teach again, but I cannot sit in that building so quiet waiting for 11:20 to come and go, listening to Frank read the names over the intercom or even just knowing he’s in the library reading them. I think of Rachel, Dan, and Isaiah every single day—not just in April—every day. I’m not necessarily sad; that’s not it. I just remember them. I remember them alive and smiling. I choose not to sit at school and remember how they died. I’m OK with my choice, just as I’m OK with people choosing to be there. You gotta do what you gotta do.

Tomorrow’s a bit of a crap shoot. Some anniversaries are harder than others, but if I keep busy, I do just fine. Really, I do. I get together with people or take on a big cleaning project. I did both last year. Tomorrow I’m having lunch with my stepmom; timed it so I’d be on the highway at 11:20. I’ll be thinking about traffic, not watching the clock.

It’s a long, long way from the first anniversary, when I just wanted to sleep through it—drug myself senseless, go to sleep on April 19 and wake up on the 21st. A long way from the fifth anniversary when I was drunk by 11:30 in the morning. A long way even from the 10th anniversary, when we invited the kids who’d been at school that day to come back: I braced myself for tears and trauma and reopened wounds only to find a commons area full of babies—babies—and smiles and laughter and catching up with “kids” well into their 20’s with careers and families and beautiful beloved faces.

Oh, yes, companions on this path, there can be joy even on that most dreaded day.

You may already be figuring it out. If you’re not there yet, if the anniversary of whatever you went through still devastates you, well, go back at look at the introductory phrase at the beginning of this sentence. You’re just not there yet. You’ll get there.

You’ll get here. It’s not a bad place to be. Ask me again in another 17 years.

Posted in Columbine, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 4 Comments

Resistance is: A) futile B) necessary C) too much effort D) all of the above

I’ve been thinking lately about the shades of gray along the spectrum from answering only to conscience to blind obedience to authority. Sometimes one can obey authority and conscience at the same time, when those in authority are moral, but it seems very often conscience demands more than obedience.

On Netflix the other night, I watched a documentary called Experimenter about Stanley Milgram’s famous Yale experiment where he told experimental subjects they were delivering electrical shocks to a man in a separate room. With each shock, they listened to a fake recording (unbeknownst to them) of the man crying out in pain, begging them to stop because he had a heart condition. Participants did as they were told by the researcher, ignoring the man’s cries and upping the volts; 65 percent of them increased to a point marked “dangerous” on the fake control board. The study has been recreated since with the same results.

I am also reading All But My Life, a memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein of her persecution and imprisonment in a concentration camp by the Nazis.

And I gave the PARCC test to high school freshmen.

I’m not comparing the acts. Obviously nothing short of genocide is as bad as genocide. I am, however, comparing the process—the manner in which we make our way across the ever-darkening spectrum, leaving conscience behind and venturing into blind obedience at the cost of our own morality.

The state of Colorado and its local school districts spend around $78 million on testing students. In the meantime, the state has short-funded schools around a billion dollars due to something called the “negative factor” (basically paying schools in IOUs). We freeze teacher salaries and create a teacher shortage. I eye my budget and wonder whether I can afford busses for field trips. I put off ordering new books for next year.

The students I have tested are losing two full days of instructional time to the PARCC, and that doesn’t even include all the other tests we give throughout the year. And for what?

The test started at 7:30 a.m.—a time that studies show adolescents are not awake and functioning in top form. Right there, if the test is to show what they can do, we know we won’t be getting accurate results. First, I administered a 110-minute reading/writing test. Next, I gave the kids a 5-minute break, and then quieted them down for another 110-minute test. Until every kid has finished (and some take very close to the whole time), the room must be absolutely silent. The next break was a luxurious 8 minutes, complete with a granola bar because the students would not be eating lunch until after noon.

The whole process is just so unnatural and uncomfortable. Can you imagine a room with 26 tired, hungry 14- to 15-year-olds sitting at desks not designed for computer work, silently staring at tiny Chromebook screens, reading online and clicking boxes or typing for hours on end? If they finish early they try to put their heads on the desk and sleep or maybe read a bit, though they’ve already been reading and clicking interminably. Cell phones have to be surrendered, and homework involving writing—which is pretty much all homework—is forbidden. Around it all is this aura of judgment. “If you don’t do well at this weird task, someone will pay, be it your teachers or your school—someone!” One girl said she knows colleges don’t look at these scores now, “But they’re always changing everything,” she said. “I worry that this will end up hurting me somehow.” Great.

Last year, during the math test, students were required to use an online calculator included with the test. After each question, the mode of the calculator shifted to a default function not aligned to the task in the test. One of our teachers noticed this and brought it to the students’ attention, explaining that they had to reset the function after every question. This innocuous, even sensible instruction ended up invalidating the entire room’s test scores. She wasn’t supposed to help them at all, even though this had no effect other than to counter a flaw in the test design. How many math scores across the state or even the country should have been invalidated by the flaw itself? How many schools looked like their students knew less math than they actually knew, all because of poor design?

And yet, I gave the test. In fact, I volunteered to give the test because I co-teach, so it’s easier for me to miss class than is for most other English teachers. See, not only are the kids being tested losing instructional time, so are the students in all the other classes taught by the teachers proctoring.

What am I complicit in? I know that old argument: Well, someone’s going to have to do it, so it may as well be me. Like Krupps said, “Well, somebody’s going to make those ovens, so it might as well be us.”

The magnitude is not the same, of course, but the process? The logic? How are they different?

I don’t believe in all this testing. I think it is bad for kids, bad for schools, and now that I really reflect upon it, deleterious to my own moral foundation. It’s probably still a fairly light shade of gray on the spectrum, but I don’t know that I find this all that comforting. This complacency is not like me. I mean, just look at how much passive voice is in this blog entry and compare it to my usual writing. That alone says a lot.

Will I refuse to give the test next year? Should I? Should parents take responsibility and opt their kids out? Is this the hill to die on, or do we wait for the powers that be to come to their senses?

How far do we travel across the spectrum before we say, “Stop! No higher voltage. No more damaging tests. Never again will we stand by and watch innocents marched to a place of no return.” Where, exactly, is the line between “not worth the fight” and “fight the good fight”? Do you know?

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 3 Comments

A Low-Down Double-Cross

So interesting afternoon at the capital building here in Colorado:

As in much of the rest of the country, Colorado students, parents, and teachers have had more than enough pointless testing. Organizations from all over have been trying to cut back, including trying to take high school testing down to the one test in four years mandated by the federal government. Today, I went to the capital to testify in favor of a bill that, initially, promised to help do just that.

Senate Bill 5 was written to eliminate 9th grade testing. I spoke first (the speech is included below). Several other people, including teachers, spoke about how vital state test results were, for them, to placing students and developing curriculum. I would argue that if you can’t come up with a decent formative assessment for this purpose, you might be somewhat challenged in many other aspects of your career, but that’s neither here nor there right now.

You may recall that 365 days ago (adjusting for Leap Year), I wrote about meeting Senator Tim Neville on lobby day. I said, “He seemed very genuine.” HA!

Here I was, naively waltzing into the capital thinking, “How refreshing, a Democrat (me) and a Republican (him) on the same side. Boy, Washington could learn a thing or two from us.” HA!

Let me take a moment to break away and tell you about two other events colliding. Yesterday was a huge blizzard, which delayed UPS deliveries. Tomorrow, I am hosting a Chicago-themed party as part of a church auction donation. Hang with me—this all comes together. I was supposed to get a shipment of genuine Chicago Italian beef and cheesecake today for tomorrow’s party. I thought the blizzard had delayed the shipments, but then I saw that they had both been checked in, in Commerce City a few miles from Denver, at 2:00 this afternoon, so I made my excuses to my CEA colleagues at the capital in order to get home in case the packages showed up. Beef and cheesecake are quite perishable. They are also, as of typing this at 7:10 p.m., not here.

Apparently soon after I left, after Senator Neville and his colleagues said all kinds of lovely things about me, they amended the freaking bill to give rural districts the option of hiring non-licensed teachers and never allowing them to move beyond probationary status where they would receive due process protection.

What does that have to do with testing? NOTHING! God forbid Neville and his Republican colleagues work with teachers to benefit students. Did I mention that Neville is related by marriage to one of our old board’s nightmare “reformers”?

So now the Colorado Education Association has gone from supporting SB5 to opposing it, and the chance for bipartisan support of kids is out the window.

And I still don’t have most of tomorrow’s dinner for the party.

Speech:

Greetings members of the Senate Education Committee:

My name is Paula Reed. I have been an English teacher at Columbine High School for nearly 30 years, and for most of those years, I have taught 9th or 10th grade English.

I’d like to tell you about some of my more recent writing instruction. I’d been teaching kids to make arguments following a point-evidence-analysis structure.

They began by researching their topic, then outlined paragraphs. I looked these outlines over after school that day and could see they were struggling with the difference between points, evidence, and analysis. I created a mini-lesson for the next day, outlining a paragraph like a meal. Each course was a “point,” the specific dishes were the “evidence,” and the explanation of why each dish was the best choice was the “analysis.” This helped them understand the distinctions.

Next, they used the outlines to write paragraphs and highlighted each part in different colors: point in one color, evidence in another, analysis in a third. They turned these colorful rough drafts in, and that afternoon, as I read them, I could see exactly what each individual student was thinking as he constructed his argument.

They are ninth graders; sometimes it’s hard for them to keep their focus, and many were combining multiple pieces of evidence, muddying their claim. The very next day, I gave them back their papers and had them draw circles around each of what they intended to be a single, fully developed idea. They wrote to the side one unifying word. Those who could not do this quickly realized they had wandered off the topic. They made corrections, then handed the paragraphs back in.

Again, that very afternoon, I checked their progress. Almost every student was on track. The handful who were struggling got one-on-one instruction the next day while their on-track peers began the next paragraph in what would eventually become a five-paragraph essay.

This kind of instruction, not unlike sports, is comparable to a coach addressing the team at halftime, assessing the team’s progress, dispensing advice, maybe even adjusting strategy. This is what good coaches and teachers do: Deliver exactly the instruction needed so that progress continues uninterrupted.

I have heard it said that not testing students in ninth grade is “like turning the score board off in the 4th quarter.” Actually, pulling students out of class for hours of testing (which we will be doing the week after we get back from spring break) is more like stopping the game in the 4th quarter to have tryouts again. The game is in progress. It is from the players’ actual performance in the game itself that teachers and students get the feedback they need to win.

It’s not as though there is never an endgame. Federal law requires one test in high school, and the ACT this year and SAT next ultimately provide adequate measurements of Colorado’s students. Colleges have trusted these tests for decades. Please, don’t stop the game needlessly. Allow teachers like me to use every minute on the clock to students’ benefit.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 1 Comment

Spring Cleaning

Here we are, smack-dab in the middle of spring break and in the midst of a blizzard that would have unquestionably resulted in a snow day if school were in session. I don’t feel too bad about that. If we’d had to call a snow day, we’re at the point where we’d have to add a day at the end of the year. It’s also not surprising, given that March is usually among the snowiest months in Colorado.

The snow is wet and heavy, clinging to trees just budding, weighing them down, and we look anxiously out the windows, hoping the branches, now touching the ground, will hold. I think at least one branch on our neighbor’s tree has cracked. My lilac bushes against the back fence are just low-to-the ground mounds of snow at the moment.

On such a day, cookie-baking is de rigueur. It’s a fairly mindless activity, measuring ingredients I nearly know by heart, checking the recipe just to be sure. I was spooning dough onto a cookie sheet in a kitchen nearly spotless. Monday and Tuesday the temperature was in the seventies, so I threw open the windows and rented a carpet scrubber. I’ve dusted baseboards, shaken out curtains, cleaned nooks and crannies. Today, even as I was mixing, I automatically put each utensil in the dishwasher as soon as it had measured its last ingredient, and I wiped up all the bits of flour before I started scooping out cookies. Suddenly I remembered all the times I baked with my mom, and her admonishment that baking was much more enjoyable if you cleaned as you went. I can feel her body in mine as I tidy and wipe. I know we move much the same.

My mom died just a little over a year ago. I was very exacting with myself. I gave myself one year of unrestricted complicated grieving. Guilt, relief, all the less noble emotions that often accompany the death of a parent—not for all, but for many of us—all were allowed. I could berate myself for not always having been the daughter my mother wanted me to be. I could be angry with her for not allowing me to be the daughter I could be. I could wish and wish that our relationship had been simpler, less painful for us both.

When the year was up, it was time to move on. To fully accept that both of us had done our best, that the pain was a shame, but couldn’t be undone, and to remember the simplest, best of times. Like baking together. Like our last luncheon and shopping trip, just three weeks before her death.

I suppose I should add here that today I learned that a friend, the woman who has cut my hair for nearly 30 years and in whose chair I went into labor with my now 25-year-old son, died last night of the same illness that took my mom.

The sun will come out tomorrow. (Stop singing; that really is the weather prediction.) As is the wont of Colorado spring snows, this will have melted away by Easter Sunday. I’m not a Christian, but spring is archetypically a time of resurrection. It seems to me that when we are ready, we can recreate relationships with people who are gone. It’s not about denying the past or trying to forget it. It’s about coming to the place where we choose what to bring to mind. Where nature and we focus on all the good that lies under the snow on the trees and the dust in the house. The promise of summer awaits.

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Knick-knacks, Tchotchkes, and Curios, Oh, My!

First, let me assert that I am speaking only for myself. I am aware that there are folks out there for whom these items create a home. Some people can gaze upon figurines, stuffed animals, snow globes, and decorative plates and feel a rush of aesthetic wonder or a flood of lovely memories or even a combination of the two, amounting in pure bliss. God bless you. Collect to your heart’s content. I promise, I’m not judging.

I am not one of these people, though. In a culture of things, this is a little tricky. For one thing, on those occasions when it is proper to give a token—a hostess gift or a holiday trinket at a gathering—I am at a loss. (If I need to give you a hostess gift, I hope you like wine. Or cut flowers.) Everything I look at tends to make me wonder what the recipient will do with it. During the holidays even food can be thorny, since at that time of year you most likely have more than you know what to do with, and I loathe giving anything useless. Third world problems.

As I gathered things together for the garage sale, I felt these odd twinges of guilt for laying out plaques that said lovely things about teachers and figurines that had once belonged to grandparents—ceramic ladies in flowing dresses and flowered hats. I set out a glass square my mother gave me for my birthday one year. She knew how I felt about tchotchkes. “You won’t like this, but I did,” she told me as she handed me the wrapped package. She was right. Still, I felt guilty putting a price sticker on it last weekend.

At long last, I am letting my husband put my grandmother’s prodigious Hummel collection on Ebay. I have not kept them for almost twenty years for sentimental reasons. I just felt horrible for selling them. Grandmother willed them to me because she thought I’d love them. I don’t think she intended them to sit in my crawl space so the boxes could get mold damage from a rainstorm years ago. Two pieces do have an honored place on a shelf in my study: the Goose Girl (Grandmother’s favorite) and a little boy forever waving good-bye.

There are some other things I have kept. My mom gave me this totally funky little book-lady sculpture when I sold my first book. I love it. It’s different, and it was for a very special occasion. My mother-in-law (a gewgaw collector of the very highest order) gave me two little cottage sculptures. She felt I “ought” to collect something. Then she realized that, while I thought they were pretty, I really didn’t want anymore, so she rather disgustedly gave up. I still have them and would never sell them. They are so emblematic of her good intentions–of our relationship, really–and they make me smile. In my dining room are several pieces of my grandmother’s best cut glass, handed down to her by her mother. They don’t go at all with our rather Asian tone in that room, but I don’t care. They are beautiful, and they bring to mind all the women I come from. So does the picture of my great-grandmother that hangs nearby, in which she wears a pearl necklace (it is in my jewelry box) worn by four generations of brides and that will one day go to my daughter. I have photos in frames, though not a ton, and a few other select items.

I feel overwhelmed by shelves peopled by tons of things, especially things that don’t fit into niches. Ask anyone who knows me well; I am compulsively concrete-sequential. My husband gives me tiny painted mice for holidays, and I love them. For one thing, he paints them just for me, and they are a genuine labor of love. For another, I swap them out on my kitchen windowsill for the given season, which is an easy way to decorate and keeps them always a little new. Something to be admired again, rather than quickly dusted and forgotten. Finally, they have a category all their own: Tory’s Teeny-tiny Mice.

If you look around our house, though, you will see that most of the trinkets are my husband’s. He’s more along the lines of the people I mentioned at the beginning of this. Between us, we have a home that is interesting without overwhelming me.

I think the curio business is upheld purely by the notion that there are times when one must give a gift. My mother-in-law gave both of my children a stuffed animal every Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter. That doesn’t seem like much, until you realize that over the span of merely 10 years, that’s 60 stuffed animals. And trust me, she wasn’t the only source of the furry creatures—other grandparents, friends, God help me, even my husband and me! My daughter had a friend who liked pigs. Well, of course, that meant that whenever anyone who knew her saw a cute pig thing, or a silly pig thing, a pig thing of any stripe or variety, they gave it to her. Two hundred plus pigs later she cried uncle. “NO MORE PIGS, PLEEEASE!”

I, for one, never feel the need for anyone to give me tokens. If it’s my birthday, I would love to go to lunch or have a good friend join me for a walk in the park. Contribute to a charity in my name. I like to read, but I will most likely not keep a book given to me. I keep very few books. Shocking, I know, given that I am an author and an English teacher, but there ya go. If I don’t give trinkets to you, it’s not because I don’t appreciate you. It’s because I never want to make you sell it with a twinge in your heart. That’s why what I give you will be experienced, eaten, or will die (flowers, not critters). I may throw caution to the wind and give you a scarf.

I’m posting this on Facebook, and you can comment there, but comments left here are easier to find later, and you never know who will appreciate something you write. What do you like to give people, and what do you like to receive?

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The “We’re Not Dead Yet Estate Sale”

In a six-year period, my family has been faced with the task of clearing out three homes after someone’s death and liquidating the things therein. Two of those homes belonged to hoarders—piles of papers and magazines, 40 years of receipts, clothes, and shoes, new things still in boxes, enough socks for an army, toiletries and food long expired. My mom was very different. She purged stuff regularly and was very neat and tidy. Still, just the furnishings, clothes, and other everyday items were overwhelming, and under the surface were bottles and bottles of lotion, an absurd number of scissors, several broken curling irons, things like that.

It’s enough to make one take a long, hard look at one’s own home.

On top of this, a lot of my life has felt out of control. My son got engaged (yay!) and he and his fiancée are looking at buying a business in Sequim, WA, a plane flight and 3-hour drive from the closest airport (boo for the distance, yay for the opportunity, emotional clutter galore for the mom). My husband’s business closed, and we still haven’t figured out what that means for us. Aspects of my job are changing without my say-so; our contract is back up for negotiation; much about next year is up in the air. Stuff.

It’s enough to make one try to figure out what she can actually control, and once again, she looks at her home. The one she has lived in for 21 years.

It started with the master bathroom vanity. Suddenly I found myself looking at it all through the eyes of someone cleaning it out after I’m dead. (I had a lot of scissors, too, BTW. What’s with scissors? And curling irons?) I imagined the kids looking at each other and saying, “Another one of these?” Then I figured it couldn’t hurt to go through the study. I could hear one of the kids asking the other, “Why did she keep this? What is it, even?” I started to gather up things to give away.

Tory noticed it all, and we realized that, with a number of the people who would look askance at us giving away old things gone, we could actually divest ourselves of a lot, like the oversized and prodigious dining room set we inherited from his grandmother. Why, we could create a dining room that allowed the person in the farthest seat to actually get up and leave the table if necessary—a feat that could not previously be accomplished because of the huge table, buffet, and china cabinet.

And while we were at it, we attacked the basement and even (insert horror movie scream) THE CRAWL SPACE!!!

All of which leads to next weekend and the “We’re Not Dead Yet Estate Sale.” Yes, I’m taking a sick day. No, I guess I’m technically not supposed to, but I’m genuinely considering it mental health. After all the stress of the last year—the chronic acid reflux, the hair falling out (for which I strongly recommend Mediceuticals for Thinning Hair, BTW; great stuff!), the weird and inexplicable meltdowns—I’m calling it a legit mental health activity to clear this stuff out and regain control over some aspect of my life.

To my children: You’re welcome. You have no idea what your father and I are saving you from someday, though hopefully not soon.

Looking for dining room furniture? A queen-sized brass bed? Cedar chest? Ginormous bean bag? Christmas tree? CDs? DVDs? China? Linens? Silver-plated trays? Lord knows what else? I’ll be creating an event and putting it on Facebook. Come, buy, chat. Oh, and if you’re looking for Hummel, let me know. It was my grandmother’s, and while I kept a few sentimental pieces, you’ll never believe how much is left.

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