Threats and Punishment: The Trouble with Michigan’s Mandatory Retention Bill

Not too many years into my career as a high school English teacher, I had reached my breaking point with run-on sentences.  I couldn’t stand to see another one, and frustrated with my seeming lack of effectiveness in teaching students what run-ons are and how they muddle their writing, I decided to take action.  I instituted a zero-tolerance  policy in my English classes for run-ons.  Use just one in your essay, and it’s a zero.  Certainly, this would motivate my students to pay attention to my lessons and to edit their papers.  I mean, no one wants a zero, right?  I was giddy with the brilliance of this idea and couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it sooner.

Of course it didn’t work.  Not one little bit.  In fact, not only did it do nothing to reduce the number of run-ons in my students’ writing, it actually made their writing worse. My students stopped taking risks, they stopped writing anything but the simplest of sentences, and they stopped liking to write.  I was also left with a gradebook full of failing grades for students who did not deserve to fail.  I hadn’t thought about that part:  I never imagined it would come to that.

So I understand Michigan state representative Amanda Price’s frustration with third grade reading scores in Michigan.  She’s read the studies and she knows that kids who are not reading proficiently by third grade are at greater risk for academic failure.  She’s tired of teachers and parents not doing their jobs, which in her mind are the most likely reasons for students not reading on grade level.  And so she has taken action.  The threat of retention will surely motivate those teachers and parents to teach the kids to read.

But what Price and other legislators fail to understand is that the majority of parents and teachers are already doing the best they can with what they have and what they know.  They don’t need threats of punishment to make them teach better and parent better.  They are already teaching and parenting the best that they can.  They are already motivated to see their kids succeed.  What they need are the resources and conditions to meet the diverse needs of the kids who struggle (and the ones who don’t).  Retention is not a resource, nor does it provide the conditions in which a struggling reader can get the help he or she needs.

Young readers struggle for a variety of reasons.  About 10-15% of them have dyslexia, which prevents them from learning to read in conventional ways.  These students, my child among them, need to be taught using a method such as Orton-Gillingham, a multi-sensory method that has been extremely successful with dyslexic students.   Others struggle because they lack the vocabulary and background knowledge to make sense of text.  They may have no trouble decoding the words on the page, but they have no way to make sense of them.  These students need experiences, exposure to a wide variety of words and texts, and teachers who can tap into their strengths and interests to make reading and learning new words exciting for them.  Others suffer from toxic stress, in many cases brought on by poverty,   (The Annie E. Casey  Foundation just reported in July of this year that 1 in 4 kids in Michigan lived in poverty in 2013.)  When kids are hungry, tired, worried, and scared, learning is almost impossible.  In these cases, economic relief in the form of steady jobs with livable wages for their parents is going to do a whole lot more for these kids than any threats of retention.

These are only some of the reasons that a third grader may not be reading at grade level.  There are myriad others, including the possibility that a child is just not developmentally ready to be reading at that level yet, or the test (in this case M-Step) may be designed so poorly that it is not be a good indicator of a child’s reading proficiency.  It is the job of educators and parents to identify if and why a child struggles in reading, and it is the job of the legislature is to provide schools and communities with the resources they need to take care of these most vulnerable kids so that appropriate, and in many cases individualized, interventions can be put in place.

Sadly, the legislature is not doing that.  Michigan’s schools are inadequately funded.  Class sizes are higher than ever.  More and more schools are eliminating their librarians, libraries, and library programs.  Necessary support services like social workers and psychologists are being cut.  Art, music, and field trips, which all provide experiences necessary to build background knowledge and vocabulary for reading, are being cut.  Money for books and supplies:  cut.

If the Michigan legislature was serious about helping third graders who struggle to read, they would consider passing legislation that provides them with the support they need without threat of punishment.  Yet threats and punishment are what this bill seems to be about because the proposal in the bill flies in the face of research that tells us that retention is not only ineffective, but it actually causes additional harm — just like my zero-tolerance run-on policy did.

I don’t think anyone in the legislature actually wants to harm kids by holding them back, and I don’t fault them for wanting to pass legislation that will help kids read better.  I’m a high school English teacher, so believe me, if I thought this plan would actually work, I’d be jumping for joy at the thought of all the proficient readers I’m going to inherit in about 6 years.  But I do fault them for failing to recognize the complexity of literacy, for failing to trust the professionals who have been hired to teach our children, and for failing to provide the actual resources that it takes to educate children.

I was part of a group of concerned parents and educators who recently met with representative Zemke, a co-sponsor of this bill.  Zemke pointed out all of the support that the law would provide for schools to help them get their third graders reading proficiently.  I naively asked why there can’t be a bill that just provides support and no punishment.  Why can’t we just have a law that mandates our schools be given adequate resources to educate all of our children?  My question was met with derisive laughter.  “It doesn’t work that way,” they told me, and then I thought, “how sad.”

I worry about the bureaucratic nightmare that this bill, if passed, will create for schools, and I worry about how many more bright, creative people will decide that teaching is just not worth it and either leave the profession or never enter it to begin with, but most of all, I worry about the kids who are going to go through the rest of their lives thinking that they are dumb because the adults in government are unwilling to do what it takes to actually help them.

Piano Practice: Thoughts on Letting go of the Ego

As I was getting ready for work Monday morning, I walked by the piano bench and saw that my nine-year-old daughter’s piano books were still in the bag that she brought them home in after last Monday’s lesson. Not in the bag because she put them there Sunday night in anticipation of her Monday afternoon lesson, but in the bag because she hadn’t even taken them all out all week to practice. Not one single time. Shoot, I thought. And just last week she had come home telling me that her teacher told her again that she needed to practice every day. Could it be Monday already? Had we let a whole week go by without me threatening, begging, or bribing her to practice? Had it really just totally slipped my mind?

On the drive to work, my neurotic self started composing the email in my head that I would send her teacher, apologizing, making excuses, and of course making promises of how it would be different this week. And I will follow through, I tell myself, on making piano practice a non-negotiable part of the weekly routine. But then I get to work and the more rational – and practical (I have work to do) part of me says to let it go. This is my daughter’s problem – not mine. My two selves continue their debate on sending the email on my lunch break, and in the end I don’t send it, but I still haven’t let it go. And I realize why: It’s not that I’m worried about Natalie being a bad piano player – or even progressing at a snail’s pace. It’s not that I’m worried that she’s not developing a strong work ethic. (She practices her sport – rock climbing – close to 15 hours a week, voluntarily).

It’s that I’m worried her piano teacher is going to think I’m a bad mother, and perhaps even more significantly, I’m worried that I am a bad mother.   And there it is, the – excuse the pun – mother of all worries.

My husband, who has recently started coaching rock climbing, came home and announced that he was frustrated that some of his older athletes weren’t doing the work he needed them to do to feel good about himself.   We got a good chuckle out of his honesty, but I keep coming back to this idea that for all of us who work with children, whether we are parenting them, teaching them, coaching them, or mentoring them, it is really difficult to separate their successes and failures from our own, and also to distinguish between the goals they have for themselves and the goals we have for them, the ones that, if accomplished, will make us feel accomplished.

In my husband’s case, the kids he is frustrated with are perfectly happy climbing for recreation, despite my husband’s desire for them to have competitive success. As for my daughter, I overheard her tell a friend that she loves her piano lessons because her teacher makes them so much fun, but she’s really not that into practicing because there are other things she would rather do. And then there’s the moment from my early years of teaching when I was nervous about a student in my class seeing the bad grade that was going on his report card, nervous that it was my fault, that I hadn’t done enough to help him, that he’d blame me and that his parents would blame me. I think the whole imaginary conversation played out in my mind before I realized that the kid was high-fiving his friends, thrilled to death that he had finally passed English.

I had a meeting today with the data coordinator at my school so he could show me how to properly use the scores of a computerized standardized test that the kids take three times a year in every grade from kindergarten to 10th grade. He told me how it was important for the kids to set their own goals and then he showed me what those goals were supposed to be. (ie. If your score is x, then your goal must be y) That happens a lot in education. Kids and teachers are asked to set personal goals and then are told what those goals should be.

I can’t help but wonder what we are doing to our kids. It’s not that I don’t think kids should be challenged, taught to work hard, to set goals,  and to compete; it’s just that I think we need to let them do more of it on their own terms. More than learning discipline, they need to learn self-discipline, something that they will be more likely to do if we can get our own egos out of the way.  I wonder if my generation of parents does so much micro-managing of our kids’ lives because “parent” has become more of a verb than a noun.  “Parent” is now something we do to our kids and not so much something we are for our kids, and it seems like we’d all be a lot happier and healthier if we could stop defining ourselves by their accomplishments and ask ourselves instead if we are providing an atmosphere that nurtures and supports the people they are and are striving to become.

Instruments of Joy

The 2003 open essay question for the Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition exam asked students to “select a novel or play in which a tragic figure functions as an instrument of the suffering of others and then write an essay in which you explain how the suffering brought upon others by that figure contributes to the tragic vision of the work as a whole.”

This is an essay question I’ve returned to again and again for practice after students in my AP class have read, Antigone, Hamlet, or The Great Gatsby, all of whose title characters fight hard to establish their places in the world, only to suffer and die early deaths in the final pages. While these characters are not without flaws, my students are mostly sympathetic. Their essays don’t ignore the suffering these tragic heroes have brought upon others, but they also acknowledge that the suffering that these characters inflicted was mostly unintentional.

I hope that they are as forgiving of their teachers, because we too have unintentionally brought suffering. We’ve done it by not doing enough to stand up to the ubiquitous standardized testing that has taken over their lives, thanks to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. We’ve done it by not doing enough to stand up to large corporations like Pearson that are making huge profits at their expense, and we’ve done it by not putting up a bigger fight against state governors like Michigan’s who is working to dismantle our whole system of public education – again for the sake of corporate profit, and at the expense of the students who need us the most.

But students should take heart and profiteers should take heed, because collectively we are waking up, and thanks to leaders like Mark Naisson, Diane Ravitch and Chicago Public Schools Principal Troy LaRaviere, we are speaking up and acting out so that all of our students get the education that they deserve. We are reclaiming our role as instruments of joy, and not suffering.

Citing the abysmal failures of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, Diane Ravitch recently asked us to “imagine an accountability system whose purpose is to encourage and recognize creativity, imagination, originality, and innovation.” She says “surely we can do better than this era of soul-crushing standardized testing.” She’s right – we can do better, because both teaching and learning are inherently creative and joyful acts, but we seem to have forgotten this in our bizarre quest to standardize education – to insist that every child learn the exact same thing at the exact same time (despite vastly different backgrounds, life experiences and income disparity), and then to demonize teachers and close schools when this doesn’t happen.

In this age of standardized instruction and assessment, we have dehumanized learning, which is ironic, as learning is a fundamental aspect of our humanity. It seems as though we want our schools to be like America’s major thoroughfares – lined with Starbucks, Walmart, McDonald’s, and Home Depot. Yes, there is a certain safety and comfort in traveling from Lexington to Phoenix and knowing that at every stop on the way, you can eat the same hamburger and drink the same cup of coffee, but where is the joy in that? Isn’t the experience much more satisfying when you find that out-of-the-way diner where you eat sandwiches named after the locals and pie baked right there on the premises?

Joy in learning resides in discovery, in creation, in hard work, in overcoming obstacles, in listening to stories and in creating our own. It resides in finding the beauty in language and in numbers. It resides in a single line of poetry, a note played on the violin, and a stroke of paint on a canvas. It resides in figuring out that we are capable of more than we ever imagined. It resides in learning about other cultures and understanding other viewpoints, and it resides in connecting to our fellow humans, in helping them and letting them help us.

Joy doesn’t reside in data. It doesn’t reside in standardized tests and standardized curriculum. It doesn’t reside in everyone doing the exact same thing at the exact same time. While data and standardized tests have a place in our schools, they do not belong at the center, and the sooner we as a nation can recognize that, the sooner we will be able to truly serve our children and their unique and varying needs.

My own children are incredibly lucky to attend a public school that values creativity, curiosity, imagination, and originality over standardized tests. Instead of spending thousands of dollars and weeks of instructional time giving students a computerized “nationally normed” test that tells us how our kids compare to other kids in other cities who are making similar clicks on their similar mouses to answer the same multiple choice questions, my kids have a poet-in-residence at their school who comes in and lets them experience first-hand the joy of language and its ability to make us laugh and cry and just sit in awe at the beauty of the world.

I volunteered to type some of these poems for a published anthology that the poet-in-residence is creating for the kids, and was just tickled with delight as I read poems about broken toilets, fortune cookies, trees with sibling rivalry issues, and what happens when you eat too much butter. The kids practiced the art of metaphor and simile, personification, and imagery. They made me laugh and they made me cry, and they reawakened my own love of poetry. (I went out that night and bought Billy Collins’s latest collection: Aimless Love.)

The next day, at my own school, Shar, one of my former students visited me. We reminisced about the time I had her read Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Lesson” out loud to the class because of how well she was able to give voice to the 10-year-old narrator who was full of sass and audacity, just like Shar was. We all clutched our stomachs in roll-on-the floor, tears-in-your-eyes laughter that day as Shar brought this character to life. (Shar is now studying theater and film and has worked both in front of the camera and behind it in several successful productions).

I spent the next few days with a heightened awareness of how teachers are instruments of joy in both my school and in my children’s school. This joy is everywhere. I see it in chemistry and biology labs, flag football games, choir practice, book discussions, writing conferences, and art displays. I stand in the hallway everyday with my teaching partner and see her chase down kids to give them hugs or high-fives, or just to say she’s proud of them – for finishing a paper, passing a tough math exam, or playing great defense in last night’s basketball game.

It’s nearly impossible to measure the value in this kind of work, and because our culture has a hard time valuing that which cannot be easily measured, we’ve convinced ourselves that the best way to measure a child’s value and his teacher’s value is by how well he can choose the best answer out of four choices on a standardized test whose results are best correlated with the test-taker’s zip code.

I recently gave an assignment in my AP class that asked students to choose a myth from any region of the world and re-tell that myth to the class in a creative way. They could make a film, write a children’s book, put the myth in the form of a comic, act it out in front the of the class – the possibilities were endless. I told them that they would be graded on creativity, professionalism, and accuracy, and that is about all the direction I gave them. While one of the goals of the AP course is for students to pass the AP exam, this particular assignment did very little, other than improving some general culture literacy, towards helping students achieve that particular goal, and if I were really hung up on only achieving that singular goal, I would have scrapped it and had them read another piece of literature from before 1800 or write another AP practice essay, but I’m glad I didn’t, because the level of engagement I got from this one assignment was higher than any other I had given up to that point, and the products just blew me away.

One group in particular chose to re-tell the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the form of a short film, but changing Orpheus’s gender to female and making her Eurydice’s sister. This group of three young women enlisted the help of a few friends and recent graduates of our school, one of whom is a film student at a local university. The result was a stunning portrayal of love and loss between sisters, grief’s debilitating effect on the surviving sibling, and the incredible power of music. The screenplay writing, acting, directing, editing, costume design, and set design were worthy of any short Hollywood film.

Needless to say, the girls got an “A” on their project, but at some point – likely from the get-go – this project was about much more than getting a good grade. The fact that they went beyond the requirements of an “A” within the first 30 seconds of the film showed me that they were in this to push the boundaries of their own creativity and skill. They had created a project worth engaging in, and that, to me, is worth more than any grade or score on an AP exam.

Ken Robinson, author and education advisor, gave a Ted Talk in the spring of 2013 titled “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley,” and told his audience that “there are three principles under which human life flourishes.” The first is that humans are diverse, the second is that we’re naturally curious, and the third is that we are naturally creative. But instead of developing these developing these powers, the system of education in America has created a culture of standardization and testing, which only serves to disengage students from learning. This has been the great tragedy of American education over the past 13 years, but fortunately for many American students, their teachers and schools are refusing to buy into that culture, and are instead creating, as Robinson calls them, “cultures of possibility.” Teachers: We are the instruments of joy. Let this joy be contagious, and let’s make our movement so strong that nobody named Walton or Gates or Duncan can stop us.

“What Exactly has Snyder Done to Public Schools that is So Bad?: A Response”

Last week, I blogged about Michigan’s gubernatorial election and my reaction to it as an educator. It resonated with many of my fellow teachers and parents of school children, enough that it got shared a few times, for which I’m flattered. I love that my readership has expanded beyond my number one fans: my mom and my cousin Tracy. I’m starting to feel like a real writer. I also love that I got challenged on some things that I wrote because it has inspired me to write more. The following is in response to a reader who said that he hears a lot of whining from teachers, but no one has clearly stated exactly how Snyder’s policies have hurt schools and children in Michigan. This post is in response to that.

Rick Snyder is a businessman, and like many Republican governors in the United States, he thinks that operating our public school systems like businesses is the best way to make them successful. Unfortunately, this model doesn’t work in education because business is driven by profit, but achieving success in education is much more complicated and has nothing to do with profit. Snyder also thinks that the idea of free-market economy with its emphasis on competition will improve schools, but in education, it is collaboration and not competition that makes schools great.

To illustrate, let me first explain how Snyder’s outright cuts and diversion of public money into charter schools have been harmful to our school children.

Budget Cuts

First, the cuts: Spending per child is down $615 since 2008, which is nearly 10% when adjusted for inflation. In addition to that, most school districts in Michigan, with the exception of the wealthiest ones, have lost students due to competition with charter schools, further eroding the districts’ budgets. I will address the problem with such competition after I address specifically how the budget cuts have affected students.

Budget cuts have increased class sizes. 75% of my classes at the high school where I teach have 35 students in them. My own children’s elementary school class sizes, which historically have not gone over 25, are sitting at 29 and 30, and that is small compared to the elementary class sizes in other districts. For anyone who suggests that class size doesn’t matter, ask a child in a classroom how it feels to be one of 35. Ask an elementary teacher how much attention he can give to each student, how he is able to build quality relationships with so many students. Ask a high school English teacher how long it takes to grade one set of essays, assuming that she spends a mere four-minutes per essay times 150 + students? Ask a parent how important it is for her child’s teachers to know and build a relationship with her child. Believe me, class size matters.

Budget cuts have devastated school library programs. When I spoke the dean of libraries at Wayne State University, she said that their library science program is suffering because schools are no longer hiring librarians. My school district has not employed a librarian in three years and in many districts, the librarians must split their time between several schools. Art, music, and physical education have suffered similarly.

Budget cuts have eliminated transportation for after school programs, athletics, tutoring, and field trips, which has in turn reduced participation in the very activities that keep so many of our students engaged in and connected to school.

Budget cuts have eliminated much-needed social workers, especially in poor districts where the services of social workers are necessary for some students to have any chance at academic success.

Budget cuts have taken a large slice out of teachers’ salaries and health benefits, and this has driven many of our most talented out of the profession, as their need to support their families and be fairly valued and compensated for their skills outweighs their love of teaching. This high rate of teacher-turnover is detrimental to our students, as children thrive on consistency and stability. It is also discouraging bright, talented people from pursuing education as a career since they don’t see how they will ever earn enough money to pay off their student loans, buy homes, and support families. In the United States, teachers earn less than 60% of the average pay for full-time college educated workers. This is in contrast to most other developed countries, including high performing South Korea and Finland, where teacher pay is commensurate with teachers’ skill and education level. Nobody enters the teaching profession to get rich, but we do expect to be fairly compensated.

The Problem With Competition

Rick Snyder and other proponents of charter schools argue that the competition that charter schools bring to public schools makes them better. This idea rests on the false assumption that public schools know what to do to improve, but are not doing so because they lack the motivation that competition provides. I can tell you right now, that nothing motivates me and my colleagues to be good teachers more than the 35 kids that sit in our classrooms day in and day out: not competition, not merit pay, not threats. And I will tell you also that if we are not doing such a great job, we need support, mentoring, and tools to improve, because there is no worse feeling than looking at the faces of those kids and knowing that you have somehow failed to be effective. We want to improve, and if we are unable to, we have no problem being shown the door.

One of the things that competition does is take away the resources that could be used to provide this kind of support (and librarians, music teachers, art supplies, and books) as public schools have been forced to spend their precious dollars on advertising and recruiting so that we can “compete” and keep our doors open.   We are no longer judged on how good we are, but how good we look.   And this can get really tricky, as illustrated by an experience I had just last year. I was tutoring a 9th grader at my school who was failing his English class. It became clear very early on in our sessions that his decoding, comprehension, and mathematical skills were rudimentary at best. He was unable to recognize or decode words like “machine” and “commercial” and did not know that $1,000,000 was less than $1,000,000,000. (We were reading an article about Warren Buffett’s Million Dollar Basketball Bracket Challenge). When I called his mother to suggest that we could do some testing to see if he qualifies for services to get him up to grade level, she immediately became angry and defensive and said that before he came to our school district in 8th grade, he was a straight A student, but now he was failing. When I asked her where he attended elementary and middle school, she gave me the name of a charter school that has since been shut down. Without any oversight and accountability, the charter schools in our state, 80% of which are for-profit, can collect state money and claim that they are educating students, when, as this case shows, they are simply mollifying parents by giving students good grades and not offering the services that a child like this needs.

And people are getting rich doing it. CEOs of charter operations make more than double the salaries of public school superintendents in large districts. I’m not sure how anyone can justify using public money to pay the executives of for-profit charters upwards of $400,000. Meanwhile, the teachers’ salaries remain low and stagnant, though most of them will jump at the first chance they get to move to a public school despite the often lower salaries, simply because of poor leadership, working conditions, and the focus on recruiting and not educating students.

At a charter school that neighbors and competes with my district, the teachers spent their first professional development day brainstorming ways that they could recruit students away from our public school and into their charter schools. Competition has not improved education; it has made it ugly. Charters have made our schools more racially segregated than they have been since the Brown Vs. Board of Education decision. They have also segregated schools based on disabilities, as many charters simply find ways to either not accept or not serve students with special needs, and the public schools are left to serve these students, services that are expensive. It troubles me to see that greed has reared her head in a place I foolishly thought was immune.

To be clear, I am not completely against charters.  There are charter schools such as the Washtenaw Technical Middle College which serve a need that (due to a one-size fits all mentality that is afflicting all our nation’s public schools – another blog post) the public schools don’t.  What I am against is the pitting of charter schools against public schools and the profiteering and segregation that happens as a result.

I read a statistic a few weeks ago that Michigan spends more money on prisons than on higher education, and this just shows what too many people fail to realize and what study after study has proven to be true: when we invest in children early, we save later. Once such example is the famous Perry Preschool Program, done right here in Ypsilanti, which yielded a “return on investment of 16%, with 80% percent of the benefits going to the general public.” That’s an $8 return on every $1 invested.

As citizens of this state, it is in our best interest that all of our students receive an outstanding education, and investment in the public schools is the best way to do that. We must stop being so short-sighted. The NY Times reviewer of Bob Herbert’s new book Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America, says that Herbert “wants us to take an active interest in our collective fate.” It is our moral imperative to do so. That is why I voted for a change in our state leadership, that is why I am so deeply disappointed that so many of my fellow Michigan voters did not do the same, and that is why I will not stop fighting for what’s best for Michigan’s children.

And Still I Teach: What Happens When the Bad Guy Wins

Last night was a rough one. In re-electing Rick Snyder as governor, the voters of Michigan flashed a giant middle finger not only to our state’s public school teachers, but to all of Michigan’s most disenfranchised: our children, our senior citizens, and our poor. And that was really hard to take, especially after spending a day listening to a mostly incoherent and contradictory lecture by my new principal, whose only previous school leadership experiences have been at charter and EAA schools where the modus operandi is essentially “you don’t have to be good; you just have to look good.” So as I dragged my defeated body into bed at 11:00 pm and set my alarm, I said to my husband that I just wasn’t sure how I was going to get up and go to work the next morning. And I really didn’t think I could do it.

But when the alarm went off at 5:20, I rose. And then I showered, dressed, ate, and got in the carpool. Once I arrived at school, I checked my email, did some last minute preparations for the classes I was teaching, and pretty soon it was the middle of second hour and I was doing a quick write with my 11th grade students about what we would change in our world if we had the power to do it, and I realized that I had risen. Despite the demoralizing staff meeting and despite the devastating election results, I had risen and gone to work.   At that moment, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my mother when my children reached the ages that my brother and I were when our father died. I told her that I just couldn’t imagine being left husbandless with a four-year-old and seven-year-old. I asked her how she did it, and she replied with a slight hint of annoyance, “I don’t know. I just did it. You guys needed me. I just got out of bed each morning and did what needed to be done.”

I have a dear friend who on occasion has suggested that I may be a bit prone to hyperbole and I have to admit that he is not incorrect. I may have said more than once – and even quite publicly – that the election of Rick Snyder will mean a certain death for public education, with civilization as we know it to fall shortly after, and I may have announced my family’s impending move to New Zealand if this election didn’t go the right way. And while there is a kernel of truth in both of these statements (as most exaggerations contain a fundamental truth), I see now that they may have been a bit rash. Because another fundamental truth is that I love to teach. And I love to teach the students at my particular school and in my particular classes.

I was fortunate this summer to be the recipient – through an amazing organization called the Book Love Foundation – of a 500-book classroom library of high-interest books geared toward high school students, which has supported in immeasurable ways my life’s mission of matching developing readers with the books that will turn them into life-long, engaged readers. Even with such an incredible library, some days are still a struggle, but not today. A first day of school self-proclaimed non-reader begged me for just ten more minutes of reading time because she was at such a good point in Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. Another student just finished the second book she’s ever read in her life, Sharon Flake’s collection of short stories Who Am I Without Him, and asked for another Sharon Flake book because she finally found an author who writes about people like her. A third student literally jumped when she saw that the second book in The Maze Runner series had finally arrived. I put The Bell Jar into the hands of another student who, after reading almost all of Ellen Hopkins’ books and John Green’s Looking for Alaska said she was ready for something more challenging. It was a good day for reading workshop in my classroom, and for that I was so happy to have risen.

The assault on public education (and the poor) in our country is very real, and while a part of me desperately wants to throw up my own middle finger at the folks working to dismantle it and say “I quit,” I’m not ready to do that yet. And so I’ll continue to speak and to write and to fight (sometimes with grand hyperbolic statements) to save the very ground that our democracy stands on. But most of all, I’ll rise every morning and continue to teach.

Nervous, or Travel Sports Part II

When I was in college, I dated a pole vaulter.  I dutifully sat with his mother at track meets, and while I cheered for Steve, she made deals with God.  Regular church attendance for two months if he cleared 14 feet.  Volunteer to be fellowship committee chairwoman for a 14’6”.  I flashed polite smiles when she told me about her bargains, but my eyes said, “I think you’re a raging lunatic.”

After four-days of watching my eleven-year old compete at the national rock climbing competition, I have two things to say to Jan Carr — wherever she is:

  1.  I’m sorry.
  2.  I get it.

Perhaps if I adopted a strategy like hers, I would actually have fingernails, and my fingertips wouldn’t look like they lost a tough battle with a piranha.  Perhaps with a strategy like hers, I wouldn’t sweat through my clothes while simultaneously shivering.  And probably most importantly, with a strategy like hers,  I wouldn’t feel so completely powerless when my kids compete.

I spent a lot of time at this competition trying to make sense of the nervousness that all of us parents were feeling.  There was so much nervousness in that gym that if you collected it all up in a ball, it would contain enough energy to power the whole city.

We sighed palpably in relief when our children finished climbing, even when the outcome was bad, even when little boys rushed into their mothers’ arms in tears after the all-mighty wall tossed them off.  Because at that point at least we could do something.  Until then, even for the Jan Carrs of the world, there really isn’t much we can do, but let go: watch and hope that we have provided them with models of humility so that when they succeed they are not assholes, and models of resilience so that when they fail, they do so with grace and determination to do the work it will take to achieve their goals next time.

I don’t suppose that knowledge will do anything to mitigate the nervousness next time or the time after that or the time after that.  We signed up for that when we signed them up to climb or run or dive or play.  We signed up for that when we signed up to raise them and help them develop the tools they need to make it through this world.

Why I Find No Fault in “The Fault in Our Stars”

Like many adult readers of young adult fiction, I let myself be chided by Ruth Graham’s recent Slate piece on John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars that tells us that we should embarrassed to be reading what is meant for children.  I imagine that Graham would give me a pass, given that I consider reading YA part of my job description as a high school English teacher zealous about finding pathways for my students into reading lives, but I still read her piece with my fists up, ready to argue.  I was surprised, then, to find myself conceding her points about adults reading YA, but I also found that she failed to consider how some books that may be labeled YA, such as The Fault in Our Stars, are as much about the complexities involved in being a parent of the teenagers who are the protagonists of these novels as being the teenagers themselves.

Graham’s argument is essentially two-fold.  Her first point is that if adults are reading young adult fiction, they are missing out on all the great adult literaryfiction that is out there, fiction that, unlike YA, delves into moral ambiguity, eschews neat simplistic endings, and offers fresh perspectives on big ideas.  She wants, it seems, for literature to help us grow as people, to challenge us, and to help us better understand our humanity.  YA may offer us pleasure, escapism, and satisfaction, but adult literature can do so much more.  It’s as if she’s telling us that while Little Debbie Snack cakes may be delightful, why waste the calories when a dark-chocolate flourless torte can offer so much more?  On this point, I have to say, I agree.

On her second point, I can also agree.  She says, “I want teenagers and ambitious pre-teens to have as many wonderful books to read as possible, including books about their own lives. But I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine.”  From my own adolescence, I remember friends’ parents who wanted to hang out with the high school kids, not to keep an eye on them, but to be part of their group, and I couldn’t help wondering why.  In my imagination, adult life was far more interesting than teenage life, and it was depressing to think that these adults would prefer our company to that of their peers.  As enjoyable as my teenage years were, I had to believe that adult life would offer so much more.  It does, and so does adult fiction.

So, what Graham says makes a lot of sense, and I can think of many YA titles from my youth — like the Madeliene L’Engle books — that were mind-bending for me at age 12, but pretty simplistic for me as an adult.  But Graham doesn’t have me entirely convinced that there isn’t room at a table filled with rich, complex, literary fiction for YA, which can also be rich, complex, and literary.

I read The Fault in Our Stars shortly after it came out, upon the recommendation of one of my teenage students.  I have an unspoken policy that I will read every book that my students recommend to me, even the ones I know will be utter garbage.  Connecting over books is one of the most important things I can do with my students.  If I can understand why they like A Child Called It (utter garbage), then maybe I can use that as a gateway to something I find more salubrious, and more importantly, I can use it to better understand them.  I suppose the same argument can be used to defend the reading choices of parents who read young adult fiction.

I read The Fault in Our Stars in one sitting.  I was nursing an embarrassing hangover the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since my 21st birthday, and my husband kindly took our children on an all-day outing, leaving me prostrate on the couch with a book and bucket.  I remember being struck by the maturity and intelligence of Hazel and Gus, not entirely convinced, based on my own experiences with teenagers, that those two were very representative of the adolescent species, but impressed by them none-the-less.  I appreciated Green’s craft, and found myself pausing and savoring sentences such as this much quoted one:  “I fell in love the way you fall asleep:  slowly and then all at once,” and I felt a welcome relief from not-very interesting prose of other YA favorites like Divergent and The Mortal Instruments series.  But what I connected most with were the parents.

While my own children are still a few years from adolescence, it is not much of a leap to imagine the life of Hazel and Gus’s parents.  I took the opportunity last night, while one of my children was at sleep-away camp, to see the movie version of Fault, and I wasn’t a bit embarrassed to be there.  Laura Dern’s portrayal of Hazel’s mom left me stunned.  Just the glimpse of the fear and pain that parents of sick children experience was overwhelming.  This story — and especially Dern’s performance — gave me rehearsal for what I hope I never have to experience and empathy for those who do — and that is a large part of what good literature does for us.

One of  Hazel’s biggest fears about dying is what will happen to her parents after she dies. (I still haven’t decided if I think that is incredibly mature or simply adolescent ego-centrism).  It’s why she is so desperate to find out what happens to the surviving characters in An Imperial Affliction.  In a flashback, she remembers the moment that her parents thought was the end for her, her mother giving her permission to let go, and then collapsing into Hazel’s father’s arms, weeping, “I’m not going to be a mother anymore.”  For me, that was the most heart-wrenching part of a film overflowing with heart-wrenching moments, and perhaps the most complex.  Later, when Hazel confesses to her mother that she remembers hearing her say that, her mother reassures her, telling her that she was wrong:  “I will always be your mother.”  This might be true in the abstract and I think she convinced Hazel, but I’m not sure that she convinced herself, and she certainly didn’t convince me.

Another one of my students — one of my best and most creative — told me that while he had read the book, he would not be seeing the movie, as he had no interest in such emotional manipulation.  There was plenty of that the book, he told me, and with dashing young actors and Vivaldi on the soundtrack, the movie was going to be even more syrupy.  I rather appreciate his youthful cynicism, which is not unlike my own at that age, but there was something for me, as a mother, in this story, that I wouldn’t expect and eighteen-year-old kid to understand.

I’m listening to Vivaldi myself, as I write, filling in the space that my vacant children — one at camp, one at a four-hour climbing practice — have left.  This is time that I long for during the busy school year, but now I find myself more than a little lost.  Despite intellectually knowing that there is purpose in my life beyond being mother to these children, despite being a feminist child of a feminist mother, I can’t help but wonder in this moment who I am when I’m not mothering them.

That Fault in Our Stars offers me a window into this feeling.  It delves into moral ambiguity, eschews a neat simplistic ending, and offers a fresh perspective on big ideas.  This doesn’t often happen for adults reading YA, nor should it, as these books were not meant for us, but every once in a while, there is something for us, and I don’t want to miss out.

The Sad Place

In between the kitchen and dining room of my quirky old house lies a peninsula with a concrete counter top that stands where a wall used to be.  The top of the counter attaches to a wall, but there is a small space in between the base of the peninsula and the wall, a little alcove just large enough to contain one small child or one big child all scrunched up.  This space has harbored many a child who has been left out, not gotten her way, or has been asked in a not-nice way to finish her dinner, clear her plate, or practice the piano.  My daughter calls it “The Sad Place,” and has erected a sign with that name and the instructions:  “go in here when you are sad.” There is one rule:  “only sad people allowed.”  The sign is illustrated with a sad boy face and a sad girl face and the signatures of a dozen or so sad children who have visited.  

Several feet away from the sad place hangs a whiteboard with grocery lists and reminders to take out the garbage, take the kids to soccer, and to have a good day.  The newest message, scribbled in a little girl’s hand, reads “All happy people report to the sad place,” and I wonder what has happened in the land of sad that has encouraged its citizens to not only open their borders to the happy people, but to practically demand that they visit.  And I wonder which group will benefit most from this cultural exchange between the happy and the sad.  

We live in a culture that is obsessed with being happy.  There is a whole industry centered around it:  books, Ted Talks, podcasts, and magazine articles on how to be happy are ubiquitous, and we reach for them, desperate to be as happy as all of our friends on Facebook.  But I wonder if we have it all backwards.  I wonder if my eight-year-old has it right.  Maybe we don’t need to learn how to be happy, because as I think I may have read somewhere, “trying to catch happiness is like trying to catch the wind:  much better to just let it blow all over you.”  Maybe what we really need to do is figure out how to be sad and how to be comfortable with being sad and how to be comfortable with others being sad, so that when the cancer comes back or we lose our jobs or he says he doesn’t love us anymore, we’ll have a place to go and people who have been there who can say, “welcome to the sad place.”

Travel Sports

When my husband Mike and I were young and beautiful — and childless, we made grand proclamations about the kinds of parents we would be and not be.  We scornfully chuckled as we watched our friends with children schlep them all over the country for soccer and hockey and swimming tournaments, thinking to ourselves how ridiculous it was to drive an eight-year-old all the way to Indiana to play soccer.  As if there aren’t enough soccer-playing eight-year-olds right here in Ann Arbor.  Come on.  Seriously?  Your kid is that good?  We would never do that.  Nope.  Not us.

So here I am more than a decade later sitting in the lobby of the Des Moines Ramada Tropics  Resort and Conference Center listening to Benny and the Jets and other greatest hits of the 70’s and 80’s, killing time before my 10-year-old kid heads back into the gym to compete in rock climbing.  Oh how the mighty have fallen.

This whole trip I’ve been struggling to justify my current parenting decisions to my younger self, building a card house of “logical” reasons for how beneficial to children travel sports are.  But the truth is, my younger self wasn’t all that off the mark.  For this three-day trip alone, we drove 9 hours each way and racked up over 1000 miles cramped in the Corolla, spent over $500 on the hotel room, entry fee, gas, and meals, missed a day of school and work, and consumed one too many Jimmy Johns #1s with no mayo.  And for what?  A grand total of 28 minutes of actual competition and the opportunity to spend even more time and more money to go to the next level where the kid will compete for an even smaller amount of time?  As if he couldn’t climb and compete right here in Ann Arbor.  Absurd.  Who does that?

We do, apparently.  And why?  Because of the joy, it turns out.  Because, to borrow a phrase Rachel Macy Stafford brought to our attention in a Huff Post piece called “6 Words You Should Say Today,” “We love to watch him climb.”  And we love to watch our son do everything he does that’s associated with climbing.  We love to watch his concentration as he maps out the route he’s about to climb, we love to watch him socialize with his competitors from Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and we love to watch him grin ear-to-ear as he stands in the third place spot on the podium — the spot he trained hard to reach. That’s the one thing I could never quite grasp when parenting was abstract:  the vicarious joy I would feel through my children.

As we embark on the Sochi Olympics, I’m sure there will be lots of talk of sports parents.  Many of us will pass judgment on the parents, especially of the younger athletes, wondering if the parents pushed too hard and sacrificed too much to get where they are, even as we marvel at their skating, skiing, and jumping.  Many of us will shed tears at the commercials — especially the Proctor and Gamble one that shows the parents being there each time their kid fell, helping her get up again.  We’ll have a lot of mixed feelings about these people who have brought these phenoms to us.  Some of us will accuse these parents of being selfish — forcing their kids to get on the ice at 4am and putting in hours upon hours of grueling practice just so the parents can experience some sort of vicarious thrill.  Maybe these there’s some truth to that, or maybe, these parents just love to see their kids play and are supporting the kids’ own drive.  I suspect there’s some both and everywhere in between, but for my part, I’ve decided that I am simply not qualified to judge:  we’re all just doing what we can to live and parent the best we can.

As for my own career as a traveling sports parent, I’ve decided to knock down my inner judge a few pegs.  Maybe schlepping the kids around the country for competitions isn’t the most practical or financially responsible thing to do, but it’s what we’ve chosen to do for now and it sure is a lot of fun.  Had we not taken this last trip, we would have missed out on Iowa 80 — the World’s Largest Truck Stop — where we eavesdropped on trucker drivers’ conversations, ate under-cooked onion rings and marveled at the merchandise:  air-brushed t-shirts displaying cuddly kittens, “cow-girl up” belt buckles, and gigantic confederate flags.  We would not have had a conversation with our daughter Natalie about how outside of downtown areas, most American towns look the same, with their Targets, Starbucks, and McDonalds.  And most notably, we would have seen our son reach a new level of maturity that allowed him to coolly examine video of the kids who beat him, and figure out what he needed to do to get to that next level, something I am still trying to figure out in many aspects of my life.  Of course travel sports are not the only way to have these experiences, but it seems to be our way for now, and I’m okay with that.

Slowing Down and Falling Down: Lessons from my Daughter

One spring day last year, my then seven-year-old daughter Natalie told me that the reason that she walks so slowly is that it allows her to appreciate the beauty of the sidewalk.  “There are so many little rocks that are all different colors and if you walk too fast, you miss it.” This may have been a follow-up to a conversation we had had six months previously.  I was making a new year’s resolution to slow down, to listen more, and to notice more.  My obsession with speed and efficiency is a handy trait when it comes to managing a busy household, trying to achieve a marathon goal, or just generally trying to get the most out of each and every day.  But this same trait can be especially frustrating when working with young people like my daughter — and many of the high school students I teach — who move at what I’d call a more leisurely pace.

I told Natalie about my resolution and suggested that she make an opposite resolution to speed up and then maybe we could begin operating at a similar pace.  I’ll never forget the next moment when she stared at me in pure wonder at my outlandish suggestion.  “But mom,” she answered in a bewildered tone.  “I don’t need to change.  I’m just fine the way I am.”  There was an innocence in her answer that told me that she was not merely being defensive or stubborn.  She simply saw no need to be other than the way she was.  The conversation ended there.  What else could I say to someone so clearly comfortable in her own skin?  I couldn’t help but wonder, though, if her statement six months later about looking at the sidewalk was somehow a follow-up to the earlier conversation.

This year, Natalie was the one who brought up resolutions.  We were riding the chairlift together on a little mother-daughter ski outing, when she asked me if I had made any this year.  “As a matter of fact, I have,” I told her.  “My resolution this year is to be brave.”  This answer palpably cheered her as she assumed that it could mean nothing other than that I would try snowboarding with her.  She seemed a little disappointed, but not discouraged, when I told her that what I meant by being brave was sharing my writing with others.  She didn’t see how the two need be exclusive.  “You could share your writing and learn to snowboard,” she cheerfully offered.  “True, I countered, but I’m happy skiing, and learning to snowboard would involve a lot of falling, which I’m just not interested in doing.”  Having just learned to ski and snowboard, Natalie was an expert at falling, and she let me in on her little secret:  “You don’t have to worry, mom, because when you fall in the snow, it doesn’t hurt.”

At that moment, I decided not to debate any further and chose not point out how much further my much taller self had to fall.  Instead, I decided to view Natalie’s insight as metaphor for those of us whose work involves helping children find their way in this world.  I thought about my son, who struggles with reading, and I thought about so many of my high school students who have struggled for so long with anything academic that it seems as though they have just stopped trying.  The trick, I figure, is to frame what they perceive as their failures as just a little fall in the snow.

Both of my children readily accept that in physical challenges, failure is part of growth.  They know that they will take big falls as they improve their rock climbing skills and that large scale wipeouts will precede landing a jump on a skateboard or a snowboard.  But when it comes to academic tasks, they seem to think that they must get it right the first time.  I’ve seen them give up on writing tasks when I wasn’t readily available to spell a difficult word for them, or rip up a sheet of long-division when they made a simple error in subtraction.   I suppose I’m not much different.  I berate myself all the time when my students don’t master something as quickly as I’d like them to.  And just yesterday, I officially declared myself a non-writer when I struggled all day to complete an essay about joy until I temporarily abandoned it, labeling it just a fall in the snow, and wrote this one instead.

My call to action then, as a teacher and a parent, is to find ways to show kids how taking academic risks — and falling — is part of the natural process we call learning and growing.  This is increasingly difficult in the current educational climate that values testing over learning and sees children as data points and not people, but for that reason makes it all the more necessary.