Name: Ashley

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    Review: Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother

    March 12th, 2014

    Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother
    Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother by Lauren Slater
    My rating: 2 of 5 stars

    In Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother, Lauren Slater tackles the tough stuff of life from deciding whether or not to have a kid – and then another kid – to dealing with depression to watching her husband catch fire. Her stories were entertaining and insightful while ringing true to anyone who has ever suffered from a mental illness, and anyone who has ever questioned whether or not “playing house” was the right choice for their lives.

    However, while I would consider this an interesting read, it was by no means what I expected, nor was it particularly well-crafted. From the title, I expected Slater’s stories to center around her home life, especially her children. I expected some ridiculous and quippy stories about her children and her relationship to those children. As with most “mother” books, I expected some sort of moral or message to come out of it all – probably that becoming a mother was the right choice for her, despite her misgivings.

    While some of that was present in the book, most of the chapters dealt with her depression and how she dealt with it. While I understand that her depression made her choice to be a mother, and her subsequent filling of her motherhood role, a difficult one, her domestic life did not grace even half of the pages of the book. I don’t think this is bad, per se, but I would want the book to be more aptly titled, then, so the reader could know what he or she was getting.

    Furthermore, I do not believe the book was particularly well-crafted. Her prose, at times, felt forced. Her metaphors were over-extended. In one breath, she says she despises cliches, yet they rear their ugly heads in almost every chapter of the book. It seems as if she is trying to take her reader on a journey with flowing, poetic writing, but that only serves to pull the reader out of her world and into a world of figurative language. Like most English teachers, I enjoy figurative language when tastefully done, but this seemed to be overkill.

    On top of that, Slater referenced much of her past life without giving her reader any back story. She mentions leaving her home for a foster home, several lawsuits brought against her, a friend who completely abandons her, and many other events that would be ripe for a good story, but then just leaves them there in lonely sentences, never to be explained or expanded. Because of this, I was always left wanting more, and left feeling as if I should have been reading other books of hers or her blog (if she has one) first. Or, I felt as if she felt she was famous enough that everyone should know all of her back stories. I have no idea who she is, so that assumption seemed egotistical at best, and bad form at worst. Furthermore, each chapter of this book read like a separate blog post, some occurring in real time, some in the past; some referencing “now,” and others referencing posts written earlier that we should have read. I’m a purist when it comes to books: Unless books exist in a clearly defined series (and even then, back story should be explained), each book an author writes should be able to stand on its own. I shouldn’t be expected to research or read outside of the book to get the whole picture of what the author is talking about. And if a book is based on someone’s blog, which this one appeared to be, it’s the duty of the author to edit those posts into book-worthy writing that is cohesive and understandable.

    All in all, I would probably not recommend this book to many people unless you’re looking for a quick memoir or you’re familiar with her writing.

    View all my reviews

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    Laughter, Love, and Losing Gracefully: Lessons Learned this Speech Season

    February 11th, 2014

    Last year, our school was slated to host the Conference speech tournament. It was the head coach’s first year in the position, and I was becoming known at our school for being insanely organized and really good at running tournaments. So, I volunteered to (read: was paid to) put on the tournament so the head coach could focus on growing the team and winning some medals.

    At the time, I thought I knew nothing about speech team, but as I started organizing the tournament, I realized I knew more than I thought I did. My freshman year of high school, I was on our speech team. My team was a state champion team for many, many years running, so winning was the only option. While I was happy to have that year under my belt and I believe it taught me a great deal about confidence and gave me lots of analytical skills, I left the team to pursue band, which I enjoyed far more. My sophomore year, one of the coaches and my freshman English teacher (and the reason I joined the team to begin with) passed away, and I just couldn’t go back to the team.

    While I don’t regret quitting, I wish I had had more opportunities to develop public speaking and analytical skills in high school. If only I knew then what I do now – that I would end up teaching high school English – I might have stuck with it just for the learning opportunities.

    At the end of the tournament last year, though, a new opportunity presented itself. Our head coach – a drama guy through and through – got it in his head that I’d be good at coaching the speech events, particularly the ones where students have to write their own speeches. (I can’t imagine where he got that idea. It’s not like I know how to write things….) Getting a taste of the fun from the tournament we hosted, I agreed to come on as the assistant coach this year.

    At first, I spent a lot of nights crying to Tim that I was over-stressed and over-worked and had too much going on to continue coaching speech. The plan was to make it through the year and quit and never try to coach anything ever again. However, as the year progressed, I saw my students learning and growing and enjoying the process. Speech must be something special for these kids – many of whom would rather have rather died than speak publicly at the start of the season – to make it to school, dressed in their suits and dresses, at 6:00 every Saturday morning and not come home until 6:00 PM Saturday night, exhausted after speaking all day for the entirety of November-February. And they actually enjoyed it. Many of them who didn’t advance to Regionals this year came anyway, just to support their friends or see a few new events they might want to try out next year, and I expect the same from Sectionals this weekend.

    Speech team is powerful. It was powerful for the students who showed up and gave it their all every week, and I know this because many of the kids I coached would sit in my room after a bad tournament and ask, “How can I get better?” or would burst into tears and hug me when they found out they advanced to a final round of a tournament, meaning they were in the top 8 of all the students competing that weekend.

    But it was equally powerful for me. I can speak to what I think the students learned this season, but I probably couldn’t even scratch the surface. For me, starting the season wanting to quit, this season was a roller-coaster ride that taught me more about teaching, patience, and what it means to be part of the fabric of a school than anything I’ve ever done. Now, I wouldn’t give up this position for the world, and I’m already starting to think about next year. What follows is a reflection on my lessons learned this season.

    Laughter

    Our head coach is a funny guy. I’m not sure, but I think he prides himself in this fact. He spends a lot of time telling funny stories, and the kids hang on every word. In the classroom, I do this, too. It’s part of what makes our students enjoy our classes and gives them a reminder every once in a while that we’re human, too. I used to think that these stories we tell are just fun and sort of self-indulgent, but now I look at them differently. Life is full of stories, and telling them to students offers an example of how it’s done. This might go without saying, but indulge me: So much of speech – and life, for that matter – is the ability to tell stories. Even for the events that require students to memorize and perform script, or write a purely informational or persuasive speech, they still have to find the story there and tell it. Stories are full of cadences, levels, and pregnant pauses that you can only teach by example, and the ability to mesmerize an audience with a tale is a skill that can be learned. In his memoir, Teacher Man, Frank McCourt writes:

    Instead of teaching, I told stories.
    Anything to keep them quiet and in their seats.
    They thought I was teaching.
    I thought I was teaching.
    I was learning.

    I’d argue that he was teaching, too. He was teaching them to enjoy language and how to tell stories, an art that is dying in our go-go-go Google society. Tell a story, mesmerize an audience, and you’ll be able to land that deal or hold a really important meeting. It’s that simple.

    Love

    I love my students. I really do. But speech team is something different. Yesterday was the first day I didn’t have Tuesday practice because all of my students are done for the year, and I actually sat in my classroom feeling sort of lost and sad. I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but I was disappointed not to have practice after school.

    You have so much downtime during those tournaments and so you spend a lot of your time coaching. When I say coaching, I don’t mean the typical yell-and-scream sports coaching we see on ESPN. I mean the build-you-up help-you-improve coaching that requires a bit more finesse and grace. One tournament, for example, I was sitting in the tab room so I knew what ranks my students got during their rounds. After first round, I found out one of my better students got a 6 in her event – 6 being the lowest you can get. It’s not impossible to advance to final round with a 6, but it’s darn hard, so I went out to find her and knock some sense into her. When I did find her, she was already crying her eyes out before I could say a word to her. My tactic had to immediately change. She was already beating herself up over her flubbed round one than I ever could, and so I spent a good deal of time helping her realize this was not the end of the world, and that she needed to regain her confidence, take the bull by the horns, and get back in there for her next two rounds. She didn’t advance to final round that tournament, but I think the lesson she learned was far more important: In life, you’ll fail. It’s inevitable. But you have to get up and move on. Which leads me to my next reflection…

    Losing Gracefully

    Regionals was last weekend. The top 3 in each event advance to Sectionals, which is coming up on Saturday. We didn’t expect to do super well at Regionals because our team is so young. You just can’t teach freshmen how to be confident seniors. However, 11 out of 12 of our students ended up advancing to final round, which is a win in and of itself. All of my students who advanced to final round were incredibly excited. I was excited for them. If, in my first year, I could have students I coached advance to Sectionals, this would be a majorly successful year.

    As you already know, none of the students I coached advanced to Sectionals. Our team has several kids going, but all of them were coached by the head coach.

    I didn’t understand it. I had a few kids who I thought really had a shot, but they didn’t do well in their final round. What was I doing wrong? How had I, as a coach, failed these kids?

    I asked these questions of the head coach on the bus on the way home. I’m sure he could tell I was near tears, so he spent a lot of time coaching me and giving me a pep talk. But when we all got off the bus, I looked around. None of the kids were upset. They were all extremely exited to have made it to final round, and were already talking about what they were planning on doing next year. They were all laughing and hugging each other and excited for those who were advancing. I’m sure there was some disappointment, but not enough to show. And that, I think, is the best lesson of them all: Win gracefully, lose gracefully, show excitement for those who succeed, and find a way to do better in the future.

    This is learning. This is winning.

    Featured Image Credit: Brad Barth

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    Elsewhere I’ve Been: Teaching Tolerance – Telling the Story of Privilege

    February 11th, 2014

    I’m over at the Teaching Tolerance blog today helping to publicize my magazine article, talking about privilege:

    Once they had the language to talk about privilege, I decided to take it a step further. I asked them what other kinds of privilege exist. They were able to quickly name the big ones: gender, religion and sexual orientation. But after some thought, they started coming up with other really interesting ways privilege manifested itself in the school. Kids in honors classes got special treatment in the hallways; they were trusted kids, so they were never asked for their hall passes. Thin girls were cited for dress code violations less often than curvier girls. Kids with good grades were given extensions on papers more often than kids with lower grades. The list went on and on.

    Read the whole post here!

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    #NotBuyingIt : Out of Print Clothing Advertising Fail

    February 8th, 2014

    Just to be clear, I LOVE Out of Print Clothing. Not only do they have awesome clothes and accessories that are well-made, reasonably priced, and fit well, each of their products features a unique book cover which helps spread the love of reading. Not only that, but for every product they sell, they donate a book to their partner, Books for Africa, doing their part to help increase literacy rates throughout the world. It truly is amazing.

    But, of course, not every company can be perfect. Check out their Valentine’s Day email advertising, with gifts “for him” and “for her”:

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    According to them, books that guys like include Moby Dick, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Call of the Wild, Slaughterhouse Five, 1984, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Great Gatsby. Books that girls like include Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Romeo and Juliet, and Tropic of Cancer.

    Gee. I guess I wasted a whole lot of time reading and enjoying books like Slaughterhouse Five, The Great Gatsby, and 1984 then, since us “little women” just want books about girls and marriage and star-crossed lovers, huh?

    The thing about Out of Print Clothing is that they actually offer a huge range of book covers in women’s t-shirt sizes. In fact, all of the covers featured on their “for him” guide are available in women’s sizes. Not only that, but their men’s sizes aren’t overly bulky and fit like normal t-shirts, too, and the men’s sizes include many of the “for her” book covers as well.

    I have no problem with Out of Print Clothing. I’m sporting one of their shirts right now, in fact, and I will continue to purchase items from them in the future. However, this Valentine’s Day gift guide is a fail. It reads like it was tailored for someone who wants to buy their significant other a gift and knows he or she likes books but doesn’t know a whole lot else about him or her. Books are personal, and if you’re going to wear one on your sleeve – or your chest, as it were – you want one you absolutely love (or, in my case, one you teach to your students so they can laugh at how much of a nerd you are to have a book t-shirt).

    Here’s a Valentine’s Day hint: In order to give a proper book-related gift, spend some time talking with your significant other and actually find out what books they like. That way, you’ll buy a great, gender-free gift that your significant other will cherish AND you’ll have some great books to talk about for the rest of your lives.

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    An Open Letter to Students Who Think They Are the Stars of Their Own Bildungsromans

    January 27th, 2014

    To the aforementioned students:

    You are, at this very moment, coming of age. It makes sense, then, why you would identify so much with the Holden Caulfields and Stephen Dedaluses of our literature class. You are mostly males between the ages of 16-18, and so identify with their confusion as they try to figure out how to be the type of men they want to be despite society’s rejection of the things they hold dear: innocence, art, beauty, love of all things pure. Society is too focused on mechanically pumping kids through school on an assembly line – add some physics here, a little grammar there, stick some math and physical education in there too, and top it off with a good dose of standardized testing. You are too creative and intelligent for this assembly-line mentality. Stephen and Holden were, too, which is what finally inspires them to break out on their own. At long last, you have a character who is just like you. At long last, you have a blueprint for how to come of age in this world.

    I get it. I really do.

    I, too, love Stephen Dedalus and Holden Caulfield. When I first read Catcher in the Rye in high school, I saw in him the malaise of my generation, even though he would have been born at least 40 years before my peers and I. When one of my favorite professors introduced me to Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in college, I devoured every word, underlining most of the final chapter, marking huge stars next to passages that poked fun at Stephen’s poetic nature because I “got it” – I understood what these young men were going through.

    I loved – and continue to love – these fictional men, to be sure. But I love them in a very different way than you do.

    You see, as a woman, I was encouraged to love Stephen and Holden – and any other maladjusted male I met in real life, for that matter – just as I was encouraged to try to change them. You see, women who read these books are forced to filter their consciousness in a way you’ve never had to. We aren’t like Stephen and Holden. We are like their love interests while we are young, and like their mothers when we are older. In school, I could have been their Emma, their Jane, their pure-hearted, ivory-handed, unattainable love interest. Except I would actually talk to them, and they would love me even more. And then they could put their maladjusted ways behind them and live happily ever after; this is the end of most female-centered tales, after all, so it was the end of my understanding of how men and women relate to each other. Now, I re-read these pages and find myself wanting to make these young men a hot cup of tea or a bowl of chicken soup, put it down on the table, and listen as they pour their hearts out to me. I want to be their teacher or their mother (Isn’t there a little bit of each in the other?), to council them and help them find their way.

    Because I had to filter my reading of these novels through my experience as a woman, I have some insight that you might never gain, and I think it’s important to share that insight with you before you meet the same end as these characters.

    To begin, bildungsromans – or coming-of-age-novels – are not to be confused with epic tales, though they sometimes are. A bildungsroman ends not when our protagonists have it all figured out, not at the very end of their quests, but just on the cusp of their new understanding of adulthood. The rest of their lives are ahead of them and, though we hope that they are able to continue growing and changing long into their adult years, we are left only with that hope, and not a definitive answer. Just like women have to learn that relationships are not all sunshine and roses after the kiss that ends the Disney movies and rom-coms we devour through our teenage years, so, too, do you have to realize that growing does not end upon leaving school. In fact, it’s only just starting. As much as we want to think that Holden has it all figured out when he declares, “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody,” (because, let’s face it, that is such a beautiful sentiment on which to base the entirety of the rest of our lives) he doesn’t. We forget, in fact, that he is in a mental institution at the end of the book, having traipsed all round New York City by himself, all because he couldn’t admit he wasn’t over his brother’s death. This isn’t being grown up; it’s growth. That’s an important distinction. And, if he doesn’t continue to grow, how is he ever going to figure out where those ducks go in the winter?

    Perhaps of equal importance is the fact that, though generations upon generations of people will easily declare their love for the Holdens and the Stephens of literature, even the most die-hard scholar/fan will tell you that, were these young men actual people, we wouldn’t like them very much. “How can you love someone but not like them?” you may very well ask. In literature, it’s easy. You love a character for his witticisms, his quotable lines, his grit, his honesty and integrity – or lack thereof – in the face of tough situations. You take inspiration from him or your heart goes out to him. He helps you understand some small part about life that you didn’t understand before. But, were you introduced to him, it would take you all of five seconds to roll your eyes and see right through his egotistical nature and decide he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want to be friends with.

    And, make no mistake about it, these young men are egotistical to the core. That’s part of what makes Salinger and Joyce so brilliant – something you probably can’t see yet because you are too close to it. They write self-centered post-pubescence with the mastery only granted to one who has gone through it himself. Stephen, come chapter 5, is the only person on that campus who understands beauty at all. He is, he thinks, even smarter than his professors as seen by the conversation he has with his dean of students. His dean could very well be egging him on by speaking literally while Stephen is speaking metaphorically but, since we see the episode through Stephen’s eyes, we can only assume Stephen is much smarter than his teacher. Holden, is similarly ego-centric, wanting to be the catcher in the rye and catch kids as they come through the rye, single-handedly saving them from going off the metaphorical cliff and thus preserving their innocence. He’s the only one who can do it, since he’s obviously the only one in the entire city who isn’t a phony, and who can identify phonies when he sees them. You, who are in the middle of the most self-centered point of your life, cannot see that in others. You can only see how much these characters relate to you, which is just a little bit self-centered in and of itself, don’t you think?

    “But wait!” you protest. “Didn’t you just say that you wanted to be their unattainable love interest when you were younger? And their mother or teacher now that you’re older? Don’t women in all of these roles sort of have to like these guys?” Ah, this just further proves my point about your ego-centrism. I said these were the roles through which I had to filter my consciousness, not that these were the roles I wanted.

    So what lesson is there here for you, if not the ones that the bildungsromans hold? The lesson, to my mind, is clear. See yourself in these characters, then grow past them. Understand that these characters are meant to represent a snapshot in time and, though you may be like them now, don’t strive for that as an end goal. Allow yourself a little bit of self-centeredness, as is natural for a teenager, and then use what you know from literature and from life to practice empathy. Don’t get so involved with yourself that you cannot see the bigger picture. Figure out how “to discover the mode of life or of art whereby your spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom.” Rub f-words off of public spaces and help kids keep their innocence for as long as they can. Then, grow further still. Learn from everyone and everything around you. Take it all in, and don’t be afraid to grow up. You have one great advantage that Holden and Stephen will never have: You are not stuck on the pages of a book. Your life doesn’t end when the chapter does. Your story is an epic journey, not a bildungsroman. Live accordingly.

    Sincerely,
    Your Literature Teacher

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    Book Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

    January 26th, 2014

    The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
    The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    Many of you have asked for my review of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so here it is. I hope to hear what you think in the comments!

    As is often the case with me these days, I haven’t had a lot of time to read what I really want to read. I’ve had to read books for my AP Literature class, and when I’m done with that, I want to do something that doesn’t involve reading words, so I tend not to pick up another book. Enter: library audiobooks. These have been the best things for me this year, since I can listen to them in my car on my way to and from work. Not only does this allow me to catch up with reading some of the books I’ve always wanted to read, but it makes my commute feel much shorter.

    So, a few weeks ago, I went on the library website and started browsing for audiobooks that were available. When I came upon The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, I jumped to download it. It had been on my to-read list for a long time, and almost every single one of my friends has given it rave reviews.

    I listened. And listened. And listened. I tried so hard to get into it, but I just couldn’t. However, with every status update Goodreads pushed from the site to Facebook or Twitter, another friend commented about how much they loved this book, so I kept going, even though I really didn’t want to.

    When I finally finished the book, I still wasn’t impressed, though I gave it a 4-star rating on Goodreads originally (which has sense been downgraded to 3 stars). I fully understand there were a few things going on with me that probably altered how I felt about it, so allow me to explain.

    First, I was listening to the book. This seemed to be the type of book that A) requires the reader’s full attention; and B) begs to be flipped back through to get all of the details as you are reading it. I could do neither. Flipping back through pages is impossible with an audiobook, and while I am listening, my mind inevitably wanders, whether to traffic or to my day ahead (or past), and I’ll always miss something without even realizing it. Furthermore, I was not a huge fan of the reader himself. The majority of the book was narrated by a man with Lola’s parts being narrated by a woman. The man spoke impeccable English, something you would expect from a professional reader. However, the book is written in the gritty, realistic dialect of a macho, Dominican man (Junior), complete with slang and many Spanish words. When the narrator used slang, I just didn’t believe it. It was like listening to myself try to connect with my teenage students by trying to use their language; every time, they laugh at me and tell me not to even try. On top of that, I don’t speak Spanish, so I had a great deal of difficulty following along. Normally, I wouldn’t anticipate this to be a problem; I’ve read many books with words that aren’t even real (Clockwork Orange, for example), and I’ve been able to pick up the meaning using root words and context clues. I do speak a bit of French, too, so if I were reading the text, I probably would have been able to get a handle on the language pretty well. While listening, however, this was difficult.

    Second, the machismo in the book – Oscar feeling pressured by pretty much everyone to be a man and sleep around, Junior not being able to keep it in his pants even though he clearly loved Lola (and everyone more or less accepting that because this is “just how Dominican men are”) really, really bothered me. I’m not an expert on Dominican culture, so I’ll have to take Diaz’s word for it and believe that this is a true representation of Dominican men. Diaz certainly didn’t glorify this characteristic – in fact, he spent a great deal of time showing how the effects of the machismo tore men down; however, true or not and glorified or not, it’s difficult to invest in a book where that is so much a central theme while it bothers you to the core. I do understand that this entire book was a commentary on machismo and its effect on Dominican men, and I appreciate that immensely, but if you are asking whether or not I enjoyed the book, the answer would be a resounding “no.”

    This leads me to my rating. Originally I gave it 4 stars. This was partly because I felt like if I didn’t “like” it, my friends would look down on me because they clearly enjoyed it so much. Never before have I been updating my progress on a book and had so many comments about how much people loved it. It’s a bit daunting to stare that in the face and say, “Yea… I really didn’t.” However, the majority of my original rating came from the fact that I realize beyond the shadow of a doubt that this book is Important (with a capital “I”). It has all of the fantastic qualities of an epic journey backwards in time through a family that has been wrought with peril and tragedy in the midst of Trujillo’s dictatorship coupled with the struggle of immigration and finding one’s way while navigating two separate cultures. It also, as stated earlier, has an important commentary on machismo that, as a feminist, I wish more people would be able to dissect and internalize.

    So why did I downgrade my rating upon writing this review? Well, this comes mostly from the fact that I use ratings to show whether or not I would recommend a book to others. 3 stars shows that I did not necessarily enjoy this book, even though others might, and also that I totally get why people really feel positively about the text as a whole. It is an Important text, and should be read, just maybe not for fun.

    View all my reviews

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    The Gentle Catalyst: Education About Privilege

    January 24th, 2014

    January has been a big month for me! I’m very excited to announce that my VERY FIRST print article has been officially published!

    The article is titled “The Gentle Catalyst” and it appears in the winter edition of Teaching Tolerance magazine. You can see a screen shot of the beautiful layout above, but if you want the read the entire article, click here or go to Tolerance.org to download a PDF version of the magazine.

    The piece profiles three amazing teachers who are tackling issues of privilege in their classrooms in very different and inspiring ways. If you are an educator, parent, or anyone who cares about privilege, this article is for you!

    I hope you enjoy it, because I am VERY VERY EXCITED about it!!

     

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    Elsewhere I’ve Been: Bullying and Gun Control

    January 23rd, 2014

    Exciting things are going on over here! I’ve been doing a lot more writing recently – just not so much on this particular site. But don’t worry; I have lots of ideas, and things at school are about to calm down significantly.

    In the meantime, I’m over at Teaching Tolerance talking about relational aggression, girl bullying, and ways to reduce that bullying in your classroom.

    I’m also at The Guardian talking about the 7 school shootings we’ve had in the 14 days since school started, and how Americans are becoming numb to gun violence, but how teachers don’t really have that luxury.

    Enjoy!

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    Ignorance Is Not Bliss; or What a Piece of Work is a Man

    December 18th, 2013

    I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire – why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me, no, nor women neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. (Hamlet, II.ii.318-334)

    Today, one of my students told me that, since starting my class, he cannot look at the world the same way anymore. He said he cannot look at life without analyzing it and questioning it. He said he envies other people for their ignorance, because ignorance is bliss. The class laughed.

    This student became an unwitting Hamlet in class today. “Man delights not me,” he was saying. Man, “noble in reason… infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable… and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” Man is great, and man is horrible, and knowing that, how can I ever be happy?

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    Had I been in a witty mood, I might have replied, “…’tis true; tis true ’tis pity,/And pity ’tis ’tis true” (II.ii.105-106), but I wasn’t in the mood to play at words, like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This was far too important to dismiss with the words of a wordy, old man.

    “Oh no,” I replied instead. “Ignorance is not bliss. Those who go through life ignorant to the despair of others, to the absolute worst of human experience, of human nature, can never truly know happiness. You, well, you know happiness. You know what true happiness means. You know how hard it is to obtain it, and how hard you have to work to keep it. And, for that, you will be happier than anyone ignorant to the highs and lows of existence. Just by trying to reach the ultimate happiness, you’ll be happier than those who are not even aware of what that happiness is. This earthly life is not Dante’s descent into Hell, through Puragory, and into Paradise. This life is a constant struggle for happiness, and only those who truly know what happiness is can obtain it. That is literature. That is life.”

    My class applauded this speech, and one remarked that it seemed I had been saving those words for quite some time. Maybe I have, though I’ve been unaware of it. More likely, this has been the affirmation of my existence that has been playing itself in my mind since I decided to devote my life to the teaching of literature. These students just happened to be in the right place at the right time to hear it – or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on your perspective.

    “To be or not to be?” (III.i.64); to exist or not to exist? This line is often taken as Hamlet’s noting of his own existential crisis. But I disagree. In that soliloquy, Hamlet decides to exist, and discovers why most people decide the same. He says we fear the afterlife, and he says we respect those who choose life but not those who choose death and, therefore, most people decide to stay on this Earth. This is not Hamlet’s existential crisis; it is once we make that decision to exist, despite the depths to which human nature can take us, that the true existential crisis begins. We ask ourselves, like Hamlet does, what is our purpose on this Earth? Knowing what we know, how can we ever truly be happy?

    For this, we turn to literature. Where else can one live outside of his or her life for a little while, living as someone else, experiencing someone else’s happiness and despair? Where else can one discover what true happiness and true despair are?

    Image Credit: Sebastian Dooris

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    I’d Rather Be Reading

    December 11th, 2013

    “Miss. You really need to lay off on all of these essays. Writing is hard!”

    Yes, a student actually said this to me the other day, and before we respond to the whining of this generation and how, when we were kids, we had to write essays uphill in the snow both ways, let’s take a second to admit that he was right.

    Writing is hard.

    Writing is so hard, in fact, that I haven’t done much of it this semester. I leave the house at 6:30 every morning (including Saturdays for speech tournaments – in fact, on Saturdays, I leave at 6:00) so I can get to school early to grade some papers. Every day after school I have something going on – speech practice, curriculum planning meetings, Fearless Females, yoga or Zumba, or various appointments I need to make on my only day off during the week. When I do have a few free moments, I either add another yoga class to try to re-center myself, or I read a book. Even with this busy schedule, I’ve read 5 books since September. That may not sound like a lot to you, but check out the list of all the things I’ve been doing. Keep in mind, also, that I teach three books at a time between my three different classes, so I’m skimming those along with the kids, too. What I haven’t been doing is writing.

    When I agreed to be the assistant coach of the speech team this year, I knew exactly how busy I’d be. I made myself a strict schedule for which nights I could cook dinner and which I’d need to use the slow cooker or order in. I scheduled my workouts accordingly, too, vowing not to let myself fall asleep on the couch every night like I did last year. As you can see, between food and working out, health has been a top priority for me this year, and it has paid off. I have more energy, I’m happier, I’m less anxious, and my skin has cleared. I’ve also made sure to schedule time for mental health breaks. I’ve gotten really good at telling myself I’ve worked enough, and I put away the papers I’m grading or the assignment I’m working on and read or watch television or go to bed. Another top priority this year has been to make some new female friendships. I’m in two book clubs and a Meetup group just for that purpose alone (plus, to read some really good books!). My female friendships rejuvenate me in ways my relationship with Tim can’t, and I find it important to cultivate those relationships as well as to form new ones.

    Even with all of this going on, I have a lot of time on my hands. It’s a necessity for me to keep a tight schedule, so I actually plan my entire day down to the minute. Sure, things happen and nothing goes as planned, but I know exactly when I will have time to grade, read, work out, and spend time with people. I easily could have scheduled some time for writing in there, but I didn’t.

    Of course, I have been writing for Care2 every week – sometimes more. You just saw, too, that I’ve written something for Role/Reboot very recently. So, it’s not that I haven’t been writing. It’s that I haven’t been writing here. I haven’t made the time to make the kind of personal inquisitions into my life, relationship, and job that I have been so fond of doing in the past. I’ve had the time; I just haven’t made myself do it.

    Now, I’m not trying to get all Maria Kang here by saying that, if you don’t find the time to write, you’re just making excuses. I’m talking purely personally; I have the time, but I haven’t been doing it. No excuses, just no writing. Yes, I’m busy, and yes I have a lot on my plate, but I could find the time to write. I just don’t want to.

    You see, I haven’t really missed writing until now. I feel about writing this year the way I felt about working out last year. I just didn’t want to do it. So I didn’t. It wasn’t until much later that I noticed the deleterious effects of my workout slump. I’m sure the effects of my writing slump are about to rear their ugly heads, too.

    But I just haven’t wanted to write. Writing is hard. Writing is like a workout for my brain. It’s loud and angry. It’s painfully slow and takes a great deal of effort. It’s putting myself out there in a way I haven’t practiced in a while. You don’t see the results right away, which can be frustrating at times. And, once you stop doing it and realize your world isn’t going to fall apart because you missed a session, you start missing more and more until getting back in the game is the hardest part of all.

    I’d rather be reading. Reading is quiet and solitary. It gives me a sense of accomplishment with each page, chapter, or book I finish. My eyes gloss over pages, easily understanding everything I’ve read. It’s not only a turning into myself, but an escape; instead of worrying about my life, I can worry about this character’s for a while. When you spend your life being an extrovert – teaching, coaching, meeting new people – being an introvert for an hour a day feels like a really good idea.

    I cannot, however, ignore my calling for too long. Writing keeps me grounded. It allows me to process the ideas I’m presented with and reflect on events that aren’t so clear-cut. It’s an important part of me, and I can’t stay away for too long. The hardest part has just been getting back in the game after being out for so long.

    This is my attempt to do so. It’s shaky, but I’m here.

    Featured Image Credit: Sami Keinänen

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    Role/Reboot: Teens Today No Longer Ask Each Other Out In Person… So What?

    December 10th, 2013

    I’m over at Role/Reboot this week talking about kids, social media, and dating practices. Basically, I think it’s nothing to worry about; kids are just finding new ways to rewrite an old story:

    Teenagers have always found ways to distance themselves from the object of their affection. The tale is as old as time: Even Romeo hid under Juliet’s balcony to talk about her profound beauty and didn’t come out until she caught him there. And Cyrano de Bergerac pretends to write as the handsome Christian in order to gauge Roxane’s love for him. The game hasn’t changed in dramatic ways. Teens have just found new tools to rewrite an old story.

    Technology is changing the world for today’s teenagers in many ways. Cyberbullying is on the rise, directly causing a suicide epidemic among today’s youth. Obesity rates are climbing, as well, as kids would rather sit on their computers than go outside and play. However, when it comes to dating, figuring out how to distance yourself from love so you can learn how to gracefully get your heart broken and get back out there has always been part of the game.

    Read the rest of the post here!

    In other news, I promise I will be back here soon. I have so many great ideas for posts that are tumbling around in my head; I just have to find the time to actually write them!

    Image Credit: Role/Reboot

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    October = Disillusionment

    November 11th, 2013

    Ever year, like clockwork, the end of September hits. Its cool breezes and shorter days are welcomed after a hot, long summer like a literal breath of fresh air. Feeling exhausted after a long day spent teaching, disciplining, grading, mothering, coaching feels exhilarating compared to the summer days that end with a simple question: What the hell did I even do today? It’s almost fun to transition from boredom to survival mode in the span of one short month.

    This, in a nutshell, is why I love fall. A new school year, a new crop of students (and, if you’re lucky, a few of the old ones stop by, too), a new personae, new lessons, new books, a renewed sense of purpose. Things aren’t dying in the fall; they are becoming new again with each crisp breeze, with each fire-red leaf. It’s why I became a teacher, why I got married in the fall, why I pack every fall weekend full of something amazing and wonderful.

    And then, the end of October follows the end of September. The air gets colder, the days get shorter, the teacher gets more and more exhausted. What used to feel like a sense of purpose now feels like an unsustainable amount of work, and there are never enough hours in the day. This is what we, in the world of education, call “Disillusionment.”

    When I was first shown the first year teacher’s roller coaster pictured above (albeit unfortunately sans freaked-out roller coaster rider), I was a first year teacher in mid-October. I believe I was crying in the English department office with my mentor consoling me, but also knowingly smirking because she’d been there. They’d all been there. It’d eventually get better.

    It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that this roller coaster – taking teachers from anticipation, through survival,  down to disillusionment, then up through rejuvenation, reflection, and back to anticipation – applied to all of the years of teaching. Or, at least to the first eight so far as I can tell. But we keep coming back; the power of anticipation is strong, and the pain of disillusionment eventually wears off. At some point in November, you crawl out of the hole you dug for yourself, dust yourself off, and remember what it is like to have a life, to really teach, and to enjoy whatever it is you’re doing.

    This year, I’ve been stuck firmly in disillusionment. Right on schedule. And all of this is a way of explaining to you why I haven’t been keeping up here. In fact, I almost never write much in October. A few years ago, I even quit blogging in October. This is just the life of a teacher. Cyclical and eerily predictable, though almost comfortingly so.

    As I looked outside today and it was snowing, I realized it has been almost two months since I’ve posted here, which is unacceptable in a way, but necessary in many others. I’ve missed it terribly. I’ve had so many things to say, but never enough time to say them. This is me trying to start carving out some time again. It’ll be a while before I really start to rejuvenate, provided I stay on schedule, but I hope to be back at it regularly before too long.

    Featured Image Credit: Pinterest

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    Creating Safe Spaces in the Classroom

    September 20th, 2013

    Creating a safe space in your classroom is vital for class discussions. If students don’t feel as if they are accepted in the classroom, they probably won’t want to share their views and opinions with the class, either. After all, why would they want to share a moving and personal insight if they were risking ridicule from other students in the class or, worse, from the teacher herself? Without a safe space in the classroom, students miss out on valuable learning experiences; they miss the opportunity to share important insights and the others miss the opportunity to learn from their classmates.

    Similarly, creating this same safe space in your classroom can have hugely positive effects on classroom management. When students act out, it is often because they feel threatened, not because they are bad kids. I’ve often seen students verbally lash out at teachers because they felt the teacher was attacking them or wasn’t listening to what they had to say. Of course, once a student does lash out, it is important to follow your school’s discipline procedures if you feel that is necessary. However, in a perfect world, we could all create safe spaces within our classrooms that prevent this from happening in the first place. Furthermore, creating a safe space in your classroom will make students more likely to report instances of bullying or threatening behavior to you because they will feel that you are a trusted adult. This can improve the overall culture of the school and your class by making it safe for everyone.

    To begin creating a safe space in my classroom, the first thing I do every year is hang up posters around the room that espouse my beliefs of tolerance and equality. Some of the posters have to do with women’s rights, others have to do with racial equality. My favorite poster is one that has alternative words for “gay” when students say, “That’s so gay” to mean something is ridiculous or undesirable. I don’t often draw attention to these posters because I don’t have to. Within the first few days of class each year, students will ask me about these posters and what they mean. I’ll always take a minute or two to explain their importance and how they line up with my beliefs. More often than not, students appreciate this and begin to see me as someone they can talk to about matters of equality. I find that it also reduces bullying in my classroom because students know that I will not tolerate it.

    Along with hanging these posters and talking about them, though, comes the really hard part: You have to be willing to discuss these sensitive topics with students. As the nation saw with the Tennessee legislation’s failed “don’t say gay” bill that was trying to make it illegal for anyone to say the word “gay” in schools, not talking about an issue doesn’t make it better; it makes it worse. It can be difficult to discuss these issues with students, especially if you fear pushback from your community. If that is the case, tread lightly but try to find some other way to set yourself up as an ally in your classroom. It will go a long way toward letting students know that they can trust you, which will improve your classroom management.

    Talking to students can happen as a class, but it can also happen individually, as well. My school has a policy that teachers end class a few minutes before the bell rings. That gives the teacher a few minutes to talk to students who came in late or who missed the previous day. It also gives the teacher time to talk to students individually. My former mentor suggested to me that I take one student each day to speak with during this time. It doesn’t have to be an in-depth or long conversation, just enough to start to get to know the students and show you care. I tried it and it made a huge difference. My classroom management improved immensely because students no longer saw me as a threat, but as someone who was truly invested in their education.

    Creating a safe space and fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect can go a long way toward improving classroom management, and it doesn’t take much work. Simply talking to students and sharing your views can establish trust and help students feel safe in your classroom. For many students, your classroom might be the only place they feel safe all day, so I believe this is definitely worth a try.

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    Elsewhere I’ve Been: Questioning My Classroom Management

    September 18th, 2013

    I’m over at Teaching Tolerance today talking about my own classroom management practices:

    When Teaching Tolerance hit my desk in the spring of last year, then, I was looking for something—anything—to help me get back on track. The information on the school-to-prison pipeline was exactly the catalyst I needed to begin to step back and question my classroom management policies: Was I doing everything I could to keep students in my classroom? Was I dealing with discipline in my room rather than involving authorities and putting kids in the system? Was I fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect and recognition for my students? Was I offering positive reinforcement rather than negative feedback?

    I had to be honest with myself: The answer to all of these questions most of the time was no.

    This was a rude awakening for me. I’ve always prided myself on being a good teacher. I love teaching and I want my students to succeed. I’m genuinely interested in my students’ lives, and I want my classroom to be a positive place for my students rather than a negative one. Most importantly, I want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem when it comes to issues of school push-out. Once I began reading about the school-to-prison pipeline, I realized I was becoming more a part of the problem.

    Read the whole article here!

    Featured Image Credit: knittymarie

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    They’re All Staring at Me: Teaching and Body Image

    September 16th, 2013

    Being a teacher isn’t easy. All of the early mornings, the outside-of-school prep work, the grading, the stressful meetings, the extracurricular practices and group meetings, plus the day-to-day dealing with kids can all take a toll. Then, if you’re me, you have a blog (or two), Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram to update, plus a second job as a freelance writer, AND a workout schedule. Not to mention I cook, clean, and just generally take care of business every day.

    During the school year, I get stressed out. When I get stressed out, I break out, I start to get bags under my eyes, my hair looks frizzy and dry, and I just generally start to feel old.

    When I look at myself in the mirror and I see a million zits, I get even more stressed out. Which causes even more zits. Then, I spend a lot of time trying to cover up said imperfections in the morning before I go to school, which probably irritates them even more but makes me feel better about myself and my skin. Then, after a long and stressful day, I come home and look at myself in the mirror again and want to cry.

    Objectively, I understand that I don’t look noticably better or worse at the end of the day versus the beginning of the day. Objectively, I also understand that 2-4 localized zits does not an acne problem make. Objectively, I know that, even if these zits are red, inflamed, and painful, no one is going to notice them but me, makeup or no makeup.

    But it’s awfully hard to be objective about these things when you have 150 students staring at you all day.

    Even worse than having 150 students stare at you all day is the fact that at least a few of those students are brutally honest without provocation. While this seems like a good trait, their honesty is often just plain mean. “Oh hey, Miss. I guess you still break out too, huh,” says a student while looking at my face. In the middle of my lesson. Introducing a book. A book that has nothing to do with acne or my face. Without raising his hand.

    You laugh, but if you have ever had an interaction with a 15-year-old, you know it’s true.

    People often ask me what the most difficult thing about my job is and, though I don’t usually admit it, the hardest part for me is knowing that my students are staring at me, and that I don’t have the flawless skin I used to. I also have unfounded fears about skirts tucked into pantyhose, open flies, and spinach between my teeth. Last year, when my acne was the worst it has ever been in my entire life, I often daydreamed about taking the plunge and working from home, not because I didn’t like teaching anymore, but because I wanted to be somewhere no one could see me all day.

    Of course, no one is staring at me all day in the summer. When I’m tan, fit, happy, relaxed, and my skin is glowing. No. Only in the winter when everything is dry, itchy, flakey, red, and I haven’t gotten enough sleep since… well… school started.

    For teachers, or for anyone else whose career involves them being the center of attention, body image is a very real issue. I used to have a dance teacher who had a pretty severe case of body dysmorphia because she spent all day every day in front of the full-length mirrors at the studio. She told us there was only one mirror in her house because she couldn’t stand to go home and see herself anymore. I tell my students – especially my Fearless Females – all the time that they should embrace their inner beauty and not worry what other people think about them, but high schools truly are a cesspool of negative opinions and judgement – even for the teachers.

    I’ve been doing my best this year to reduce my stress, but I’ve also been trying my hardest just to care less about my appearance. I give myself 30 minutes in front of the mirror in the morning and whatever comes of that is how I face the day. I realize that no one is coming up to my face and poking at the imperfections; in fact, with makeup on, they probably can’t even see what I can from where they sit. I also realize that, aside from the few honest ones, the rest are probably too concerned about their own appearance to worry about mine.

    Body image is a constant struggle for women, and for teachers. I do think mine tends to get worse when I am teaching, but I also think I’m on the right track toward fixing that problem.

    If you are a teacher, do you find yourself having worse body image issues when you’re in front of the students? If so, how do you cope with it? Leave your ideas in the comments!

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    Elsewhere I’ve Been: Guns and Common Core

    September 4th, 2013

    I’ve been on The Guardian twice in the past few weeks!

    First, I was talking about keeping guns out of my classroom:

    We don’t need more guns in schools. We need more empathy and compassion. We need to make dealing with mental health and keeping guns out of the hands of would-be criminals our main priorities in order to prevent these tragedies in the first place. Our first reaction shouldn’t be to meet violence with violence. Antoinette Tuff showed us it can be done another way, and we need to follow her lead.

    Read the whole article here.

    I also wrote about the new Common Core national education standards:

    My concern about the Common Core is that the pendulum will swing too far the other way; about 10 years ago when I started teaching, we were so hung up on creativity with CRISS strategies and constant, colorful poster projects that we forgot to teach them about good, old reading, writing and arithmetic. Now, with the focus the Common Core puts on nonfiction texts, technology utilization and career skills, it’s very possible that educators zero in on that and forget about the creativity.

    Read the whole article here.

    Featured Image Credit: The Guardian

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    Teacher Gets 30 Days for Raping a Student – Not Okay

    September 1st, 2013

    Trigger warning for discussions of statutory rape.

    Labor Day weekend. For some, it is the last weekend before school starts up again, filled with one last BBQ and pool party before hitting the books. For others like Tim and me, it is a chance to rest and relax after our first week or two back at school, and it’s a time for reflection and preparation as we now feel we know our students well enough to be able to plan for what lies ahead. For the Moralez family in Billings, Montana, it is a time for deeper mourning and protest over the tragic loss of their daughter by suicide due to her rape by her teacher, and the teacher’s utterly ridiculous 30-day sentence for the crime.

    As a teacher, there are few things I hate more than hearing stories about students raped at the hands of their teachers. This is true for a few reasons: First, it just disgusts me that any teacher who has pledged to spend his or her life helping students reach their full potential could ever see a student in a sexual way and, even if they did, could ever act on it. The idea is as repulsive to me as a parent who sexually abuses their child. Second, the media – and the courts, as it were – almost never get these stories right. Because these rapes are almost never violent crimes, it is disgustingly easy for the news media – and the judge in this case – to blame the young victim. Somehow, somewhere, they forget that minors cannot ever legally consent to sexual relationships with adults. Ever. There is no exception to that law. Third, and this is perhaps the point that makes me the most uncomfortable, is that stories like this just further give teachers a bad name. This is a case of a handful of teachers ruining it for the rest of the profession. People end up thinking that teachers can flip at the drop of the hat and all of us are just sexual predators-in-waiting. Newsflash: We are not. On the flip side of that coin, it makes me extremely uncomfortable when people say to me, upon learning that I teach high school English for a living: “Oh, wow. I wish I had a teacher who looked like you when I was in high school. I might have paid attention,” further perpetuating the myth of a sexy high school teacher preying on young boys. I think the only profession that is sexualized more than teachers by Halloween costumes and urban legend are nurses, which is equally revolting.

    However, this sort of thing keeps happening and, though it is sensationalized by the media, it happens more often than you would think. And most of the time, it never makes national news, so the world never even hears about it.

    Judge Baugh, in delivering Rambold’s ridiculous sentence this week, participated in the ultimate form of victim blaming by stating that, not only could he not connect Moralez’s suicide to the rape, but that the “relationship” (I put that word in quotes here to denote that there could not be ever legally be a romantic relationship between the two, and so that word should have never been used.) was understandable because Moralez seemed cognitively older than 14. Since she committed suicide and could not be present in court to testify, this decision was made based on viewing two videotaped interviews.

    The fact that determining someone’s mental age based on two videotaped interviews is utterly mind-boggling aside, mental age has nothing to do with it. No matter how old someone seems, it doesn’t matter compared to how old she is. Mature 14-year-old or not, she was still 14 at the time. He was her teacher, and he was 49. I don’t care how you slice it; this is not okay.

    Though I was not raped, I was involved in a similar situation when I was in high school. I had a teacher who put me in a position to be his counselor and confidant, telling me he thought often about committing suicide. At 17 years old, I wanted to be that for him. But I couldn’t. Because I was 17 and his student. It was an inappropriate request on his part, and never should have happened. He was fired from his position because of that and other indiscretions, but he appealed the decision and I was asked to testify against him. I did, but his lawyers ensued in what I now understand was a victim-blaming line of questioning, trying to establish that I was mentally older than I actually was. Which never should have mattered. Because I was 17. And, regardless of that, I was his student. Those lines shouldn’t be blurry.

    While my situation was not nearly as extreme as Moralez’s, I share the two in conjunction with one another because the same attitude prevailed. This is victim-blaming blurring the lines that should, legally, be very clear. Students and teachers are not friends. They are not romantic partners. They are not counselors. And, since teachers are the adults in these situations, it is up to them to recognize that, not the student.

    I despise teachers who engage with their students in these ways. Now, I despise this judge for making it OK for teachers to do it. There is no way to spin this to make it okay, and my heart goes out to Moralez’s family. Judge Baugh has been asked to resign, and there is a petition at Moveon.org asking for as much. I hope he does, and I hope the family is able to appeal his ruling and obtain some justice for their daughter.

    Featured Image Credit: DailyMail

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    Is the Literary Canon Still Racist and Sexist?

    August 26th, 2013

    This blog post was originally written for the Teaching Tolerance blog, but, as a mutual decision, we decided not to publish it. They were concerned that I was calling out the AP and College Board without sufficient evidence. My intention is not to call out anyone, only to bring to light some issues I was thinking about as I was attending the AP conference and planning my syllabus this summer. This was the information we got at the AP conference, but may or may not be accurate throughout the country. Furthermore, the list we received – linked within the post – is from 2006. Much may have changed since then. Regardless, the issue of which writers are included in the canon is still a valid one worth thinking about as we start this school year, and the canon is still very much decided by college professors and the writers of exams that test knowledge of literature, such as the AP Exam.

    I’ve been asked to teach an Advanced Placement English literature class this coming school year, and I’m incredibly excited about it. This is a wonderful opportunity for me to flex my teacher-muscles and work with some of the best students in the school while preparing them to earn college credit for my class. As an added bonus, I get to choose what books to teach and how to teach them. Because of the AP Exam in May, I am limited to canonical – or classic – literature and texts of similar literary merit since that is what appears on the test but, from there, I can choose what I want.

    You can imagine my excitement, then, as I sat down in front of my bookshelves and started pulling down books that were suggested AP texts. There I sat, surrounded by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Kurt Vonnegut, and William Shakespeare. I eagerly dove into these books, trying to group them by themes and genres, but I stopped short. Something was missing. Where were the writers of color? Where were the women?

    It’s no secret that the “dead white guys” – as my students like to call them – have dominated canonical literature since the beginning of the canon itself. Part of the problem was that those white guys were the only ones able to get published. Racism kept people of color out of schools and publishing houses since the beginning. Even once the tides started turning, authors of color did not find many places among the classics. Part of privilege is power, and those “literature experts” who decided such things as what will be taught in schools and, even, what literature can be deemed classic were mostly white men, and wanted to keep representing themselves in classic literature.

    Even in the past decade, if you look at the list of texts most often used on the AP Exam, the top three books are by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, and Joseph Conrad – each having been used seven times in the past ten years. Two books by Toni Morrison and one by Ralph Ellison, both African-American authors, have been used five times in the past decade, and Rudolfo Anaya, a Mexican-American author, and Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American author, have been cited four times. While this might show a nod towards racial and gender diversity, the list is still crowded with white, male authors. To make matters worse, many of these books are racist in and of themselves; Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for example, includes some of the most racist depictions of colonial Africa in literature, and it is one of the most-cited books on the exam.

    This made me pause, but did not make me give up hope. As their teacher, I not only owe it to my AP students to prepare them for the exam and life after high school, but it is also my duty to give them a plethora of voices and experiences in the literature I present them. I decided to not only include books by many of the authors of color on that list, but to go off of the list to select texts like The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini about a young boy coming of age in Afghanistan and feminist texts like The Awakening by Kate Chopin. On that portion of the exam, it is possible for students to use books that are not included on the list, and when enough of them do, the exam writers pay attention and start including other, more diverse books. Furthermore, I plan on teaching these books with accompanying critical essays that talk about issues such as racism and sexism within these classic novels.

    It is possible to change the canon and, in the meantime, it is possible to change the way students look at the canon. Slowly but surely, teachers and students are chipping away at it and adding books that better represent the diversity of our nation and our classrooms. We just need to keep teaching books from all different perspectives and making our students aware of the struggle.

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    “Tuff”-ening Up to Start the Year

    August 22nd, 2013

    This morning, I contacted the editor I’ve been working with at The GuardianI accepted an assignment from her earlier in the week to write a piece about the Common Core. I’m over the moon that she thinks of me when education-related topics come up, and I hope it continues. My hope for this is so grand that, when I heard about Antoinette Tuff, the school clerk who stopped Tuesday’s would-be grade school shooting in Georgia using just her words, that they would be interested in a piece from me about this topic as a follow up to my no armed guards in school article.

    They were interested. So interested, in fact, that they want an article from me on the topic by tomorrow morning.

    HORRAY, right? So I came home from work and sat down to my computer. And wrote nothing. I called some friends, read some articles, and still wrote nothing. That was 4:00 PM. It is now 6:47. I still have nothing.

    Here’s the thing, though. This isn’t plain old writer’s block. This isn’t even back to school exhaustion. This is a downright reaction to some serious stuff.

    I haven’t written about this at all (even though I probably should have), but last year during our first Fearless Females meeting, we had a legit lockdown because a kid brought a gun to school. He shot at someone in the parking lot and missed, hitting the building. The bullet hole was still there when I walked into the building the next day. It was a classroom’s distance away from my room, where I was sitting with my girls.

    That’s how I started last year. Then, in October, Tim had a lockdown as well. There was no shooter in his situation, but it was still incredibly stressful. Then, Sandy Hook. Then, the Boston Marathon.

    It’s really  no wonder my stress level last year was higher than it ever has been. It was tough to leave my house, let alone go to school and then come home and watch Tim run.

    So I sat down to write about Antoinette Tuff and I couldn’t. And the more I thought about it, the sadder I got until I started sniffling and crying over my keyboard. It was a mix of relief that no one in that Georgia school was hurt, fear that it could easily have gone the other way, and painful remembrance of how terrifying it was to sit, huddled under my desk, knowing only that this wasn’t a drill.

    This year will be a better one than last. Tim and I joked during the last weeks of summer that if neither of us have a legitimate lockdown this year, the school year will already be leaps and bounds better than the last. I have to keep showing up and doing my job, and I’m so glad to be able to do so. I love my job, and my students this year are already hilariously brilliant.

    That, in and of itself, should be enough, and for many teachers out there, it is. For me, I need more. I need to be able to write about these events, bringing to light some valuable insights about what it means to – quite literally, it seems – be in the trenches of the education system, both in curriculum development and in policy as it relates to safety and security. I will write about Antoinette Tuff, and I will get out of bed and go to school tomorrow. Both are equally important to me, even if they may be difficult to do.

    Featured Image Credit: NPR – “Laterrica Luther holds the hand of her 6-year-old nephew, Jaden Culpepper, as students from the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy arrive on buses to waiting loved ones in a Walmart parking lot in Decatur, Ga., on Tuesday. A gunman had entered the students’ school earlier in the day. No one was hurt.”

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    Bak 2 Skool

    August 15th, 2013

    It was the first day back at school today. Usually, I’m an exhausted mess by the end of the first day back. Getting up at 5:30 after three months of sleeping until whenever I want is difficult to say the least. Today, however, I bounded out of bed and was ready to leave for school right on time. I was excited about my new plan for eating a good breakfast and lunch, staying hydrated during the day, and blogging regularly. I was also excited to get into my classroom and get ready to go.

    I’m not sure why I wasn’t dragging myself out of the house today like I have in years past. Maybe I’ve finally hit a groove after 8 years of teaching. Maybe this new diet I’m no really does have me feeling more energetic. Maybe I spent so much time working and preparing for school this summer – something I don’t normally do – that I was just ready to implement some of the stuff I’ve been working so hard to plan. Maybe I was craving the routine. Maybe I was so burnt out on the writing that I was excited for a change of pace. Maybe Tim and I were home so often together this summer that I was ready for a few uninterrupted hours without him. Maybe I was ready to see some old friends and hear some summer gossip.

    Maybe a little bit of all of it.

    I was so full of energy today that I was able to set up my entire classroom, make all of my copies for the first day of school, then come home and write 3 – count ‘em, 3 – blog posts. And catch up on all of my emails. Not. Too. Shabby.

    Don’t let this vision of preparedness fool you. I have nothing planned past going over my syllabus and telling my kids all of my pet peeves on the first day. Since their first day is Monday, I have an entire week to fill. Next week is going to be a long week. However, I’m feeling really ready to start this school year. I hope that’s a sign of things to come, because I need a good year this year. In talking to a lot of other teachers at the end of last year, I think we all do.

    That said, bring it 2013-2014. I’m ready.

    For those of you sitting through institute days in the coming weeks, or those of you having done it in the recent past, check out this hilarious post: If Teachers Planned Inservice Training. Mine wasn’t anything like this today, but I’ve had some doozies in the past, and I’m sure you have, too.

    Featured Image Credit: It’s So Sunny!

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