Here come a few more book suggestions from the @rileyandjohannareadstuff Instagram account. We've covered poetry, some nonfiction, and a few serious 80s throwback covers. My big rec right now is actually a movie--the Netflix movie of Jenny Han's book TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE, which just came out this past weekend. Lana Condor is amazing in it, and if you are also a rom-com lover you cannot possibly be disappointed by this film. You're welcome in advance.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of pieces from parents expressing how frustrated they are with being “judged” by other parents and the parenting community at large. You know the essays: please just let me parent in the way that works best for me is usually the general gist. I find myself oddly drawn to these pieces. I nod a lot as I read them…which is slightly strange because I have no children. Just the one cat, and the only time I ever feel judged in my pet ownership is when he doesn’t behave himself at the vet. And even then they’re usually fairly understanding. So I’ve been trying to figure this out: why do I feel this kinship with parents who’ve decided to boycott the blogosphere?
Then I spent the past week watching teachers have arguments on Twitter and Facebook about whether or not Accelerated Reader is the best thing ever invented or the Destruction of Childhood Reading as we know it. The conversation has frequently gone something like this:
All teachers who use AR are doing terrible things to students. and it must be DESTROYED!
He/she is right! AR once attacked my dog and then peed in my Cheerios! Everyone who uses it should be judged on social media IMMEDIATELY.
Wait, I sort of like AR and my students tell me they love it and want me to keep using it…
GASP! How dare you like a teaching tool I have deemed unworthy! You are ruining children!
All of the sudden, it became quite clear why I find myself nodding along with those “don’t judge my parenting” articles.
I should note here that I actually have no super strong feelings for or against Accelerated Reader. I find AR to be like most teaching tools out there on the market: either incredibly useful or incredibly damaging depending on how it’s used and the context in which it’s used. As we teachers know best, no classroom and no two students are the same. One size rarely fits all, and what works well in one context can actually be a very poor teaching tool in another context.
Which brings up an important question: why are teachers jumping on the internet and telling each other all the things we’ve decided everyone else is during wrong? And full disclosure, I’m sure I’ve done this too. Probably somewhere on this blog, in fact. We teachers tend to be incredibly protective of our teaching practices. While this is often a good thing, it also can make us far more likely to vilely detest things we’ve had bad experiences with and to also be extremely protective of those tools we love.
But there’s danger in that type of thinking. Sometimes at night when I'm feeling particularly self-destructive I try to imagine what my first year of teaching would have been like if social media had been around in a big way back then. I usually come to one conclusion: thank goodness it wasn’t. Your first year of teaching is dangerous and scary and filled with self-doubt. Now imagine having several million voices screaming you’re doing this wrong every day and adding onto that self-doubt. These days I’m secure enough in my own teaching practice (mostly) to agree or disagree when someone tells me I’m doing something I shouldn’t be, but back then? I probably would have just been in tears every single night. Even more than I already was.
I appreciate that the teaching community is a place where people want to teach others and mentor and share ideas. That’s what makes our community strong. And we certainly shouldn’t be shy about expressing what’s worked and not worked for our students in the context of our classrooms. But when we start shouting down ideas, tools, and practices with the level of judgement I’ve seen this week? All we end up doing is sounding like those horrifying mom blogs everyone seems to have run away from.
Maybe we could just curb our language a bit. Rather than using 140 characters to say “AR is the worst thing ever and we all need to back away from it” we could say something like “I’ve found AR doesn’t build a love of reading; others with diff experiences?” Or instead of “Remember what a terrible teacher I was when I gave timed math tests” we could say “Here’s some research on neg effects of timed tests.” Or whatever fits into 140 characters that won’t terrify the brand-new teacher who is trying their darned best and has a lot of other people telling them why timed math tests are important.
If there’s one thing most teachers I know hate, it’s the idea that “research proven” is a real thing in education. Because we all know that what research shows in a public middle school in Woodland Park, CO is likely not the same thing research will show in a private middle school in New York City, New York. We generally dislike when companies and politicians shove “this is research proven” down our throats. So why do we do the same thing to each other? Just because it’s our own research doesn’t make context any less important.
To the parents out there: I applaud you for ignoring the judgement. I could never do what you do; I like sleep way too much. To the teachers out there who promote conversation and mentorship: I applaud and appreciate you. Let’s just try to tone down the judgement a notch. I’ll try to do my part.
What follows is a letter I recently wrote to my senators, Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, regarding the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. I'm sharing it because I've heard from other teachers that they also have concerns about this appointment. I hope all of us make our voices heard and ensure our senators know where we stand on this apopintment.
I'll also add here that I've been in touch with both Senator Bennet and Senator Gardner's offices OFTEN lately, and both staffs deserve some serious shout-outs. Everyone I've talked to has been nothing but respectful, kind, and open to my thoughts. For all the staffers who've answers my calls: thanks for respecting my voice whether you agree with me or not.
Dear Mr. Bennet and Mr. Gardner:
I hope you are both well. I am a teacher in southern Colorado, and I am writing to ask that you oppose the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.
I have worked as a teacher and administrator in various charter and traditional public schools for over a decade. I’ve watched as politician after politician has attempted to create a “one size fits all” solution which would magically correct all the failings of America’s public school system. I have watched while corporations and individuals have made billions of dollars on the back of various educational reforms. And now I watch as a woman with no experience in teaching, school administration, or educational policy—a woman who herself attended private schools—is gifted the job of Secretary of Education.
Sirs, if there is one thing teachers in this state and country are tired of, it’s being told what to do by individuals who have never spent a day in front of a classroom. Everyone in America seems to have an opinion as to how our schools should be fixed, and most of those people will never actually teach a lesson. Thats fine. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, and I enjoy hearing these opinions during workout classes and over holiday dinners. That does not mean I believe anyone with an opinion should be eligible to run the Department of Education. Please, put this appointment in any other context. Would you allow someone who has never been to medical school to become the Chief of Surgery in a hospital? Would you encourage someone who never attended law school or passed the bar to suddenly take a spot on the Supreme Court?
The appointment of Mrs. DeVos is an insult to every trained educator in this country. There is no nicer way to say it. For every single one of us who put time and effort into actually studying educational pedagogy or policy, for every single one of us who has spent years in front of classrooms perfecting our practices and continually improving them, this appointment is simply more proof that our time and expertise is not valued. Why bother to get an advanced degree in education? Why bother to do the work of actually teaching children? You can become the Secretary of Education of America just by being a billionaire with an opinion!
Our students deserve better. They deserve a Secretary of Education who has worked in schools and studied things such as the complexities of brain development and how poverty affects education. They deserve someone who has done more for American education than simply have opinions and put money behind them.
I ask that you both firmly oppose the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. I ask that you demand, for the students and teachers of Colorado, a candidate who is qualified to do this work and truly understands the myriad problems facing our public school system.
Thank you for your time,
I’m sure I’m not the first person writing to tell you that HB2 is a steaming pile of a horrible idea.
There are so many reasons why this bill steams with horribleness. There’s the fact that you’ve just removed local jurisdiction rights, or the fact that people in North Carolina can now easily be discriminated against based on sexual orientation or gender. Really, there’s no shortage of things to complain about here. So let’s concentrate on one specific aspect of this bill which many of us suspect will be the most dangerous: your requirement that people use public bathrooms based on their biological sex.
Let’s start with why such a law cannot ever be truly enacted—from a biological standpoint.
I get that you want the world to be black and white. You want everyone born with a penis to be declared a boy and everyone born with a vagina to be declared a girl. The world is so much simpler in binaries, isn’t it? Cleaner. Easier to manage. If everyone uses bathrooms based on those norms, the world looks a whole lot more back and white, and people who love binaries get to sleep much more soundly at night.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a binary world. Just ask athletes like female sprinter Dutee Chand, who was barred from competition when officials declared that her body produces levels of testosterone too high for a female. Or you could ask any of these ten intersex athletes who have had to deal with various levels of public scrutiny and dishonor as the world tried to determine exactly which biological box to push them into. And by the way, how will people born intersex fit into your bathroom laws? Will we soon see some arrested for using improper bathrooms when they don’t fall perfectly into the letter of this law, similar to how high jumper Heinrich Ratjen was arrested in Germany in 1936 when someone cried gender fraud?
Not only is our biology not as black and white as we’d like to think, our gender identity is even less simplistic. As this PBS report reminds us, gender identity isn’t something that fits nicely into binary boxes any more easily as human biology does. And by trying to squeeze gender identity into neat boxes, you are effectively telling the American public that you know who they are better than they do.
It’s precisely this human obsession with binaries that has created the serious danger to the trans community which this law will only perpetuate. I get it—you think you’re protecting Americans with this law. And in a world where biology was always simple and gender identity fit neatly into boxes alongside biology, perhaps you would be. But that isn’t the world we live in. In actuality? You’re putting a population that is already in grave danger in much, much deeper danger. As the PBS report mentioned above reminds us, “41 percent of transgender adults attempt suicide.” Just to make sure we’re clear on the math, that’s nearly half the population. In this country, the average life expectancy for a trans woman of color is 35 years. 35 YEARS. In other words: you have a better chance of surviving longer in some third world countries than you will as a trans woman of color in the United States.
Looking at these statistics makes it easy to see how the stigmatization of the trans community in America is making it impossible for many trans people to live happy and successful lives in this country. Laws such as this one only perpetuate stigmas and increase the vulnerability of an already vulnerable population. Whether or not you ever intend to actually enforce this law (and I have questions as to how you would, but I’ll leave those for others), the mere fact that this law is now on the books has sent a brutally important and disturbing message to the trans community: You do not fit into our binary boxes, so you are other. You are not normal. You will not be treated like everyone else and you will not be allowed to use the bathroom where you most feel comfortable.
As an educator, I can assure you that many of the people who will suffer most greatly at the hands of this law are the young people in this country. Imagine being a twelve-year-old transgender girl and suddenly being forced to change in a locker room full of boys. Imagine what that scenario would have done to your psyche at such an age.
I sincerely hope that by the time this letter sees the light of day, no one in North Carolina will need to read it. Perhaps by then you will have been so flooded with other letters, tweets, boycotts and messages that you will have begun to realize the utter absurdity and danger of this law. Perhaps you will have begun to understand that this world is not, and never will be, a black-and-white place. We all live between shades of gray--even you. Telling others what to call their shades of gray and how to live within them is the epitome of everything that is not American.
Me and Everyone Else Who Thinks This Law is a Steaming Pile of Horribleness
Right now school is starting up again all around the country, which basically means that teachers everywhere just bought out all the poster putty in Staples. This happened at approximately the same time we were handed our class rosters.
And you know what I do every year when I see those rosters? A double-take. And every year said double-take gets more and more dramatic. (This year I actually think I included a full-on eye roll.) Because every year, something about those lists gets crazier and crazier: the number of names on them.
These days, there is no shortage of educational debates miring the country. Debates over Common Core, No Child Left Behind, standardized testing…the list goes on. Yet there’s one debate that seems to fly under the radar of all the others, and it should be at the forefront of these discussions: the debate over class size.
For years educational gurus have discussed the efficacy of making classes smaller. Does it impact student achievement? Does it outweigh the costs? And while this debate has raged, so have class sizes. I started teaching over a decade ago, when 27 students constituted a large class. Now, in 2015, a class of 27 can feel like teacher mecca.
I work in an urban middle school in Denver. Our class sizes range as high as 33 and 34—some classes have climbed closer to 40 at times. For us, it’s obvious why reduced class sizes matter. Teachers can spend more time individually supporting students. Students get a more focused learning experience. A myriad of studies back the argument that reduced class sizes make students more successful, particularly minority and low-income students.
Still, there are plenty of people claiming that class size isn’t important. Proponents of the blended learning model suggest that bringing more computers into the classroom will effectively solve the problem. There's a movement of people arguing that we should lift class size requirements and pay stronger teachers more to take on larger classes.
Look, I’m all for bringing more technology into classrooms, and I’m certainly not going to argue against paying teachers more. But the class size debate shouldn’t just be about student achievement. It should be about how large class sizes are part of what's preventing equality in this country. Here’s why.
This past year I attended a conference where Cornelius Minor, a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, brought up something interesting: the difference between schools that encourage compliance and schools that encourage freedom, creativity, and choice. Minor referenced the 1991 article “The Pedagogy of Poverty,” a piece that once alerted the country to an alarming trend: high-poverty and urban schools are much more likely to encourage pure compliance rather than independent thought. Minor reminded us that these schools are far less likely to produce students who rise through social classes, because they become employees, not employers.
Later, sitting in a coffee shop and discussing the pedagogy of poverty with a colleague, I realized something: the pedagogy of poverty is directly related to the class size debate.
I’ve spent years working in and with multiple different schools that place a high emphasis on compliance. These schools don’t employ such methods because they want to create a generation of kids who can’t think. These schools encourage compliance because when you're teaching crowds of kids this big, compliance can become a must-have. If you don't have some kind of basic compliance in a class of 32 or 33, no learning is going to happen. For anyone. And you know what? The larger your class gets, the harder it is to manage.
Look at the best private schools in America today, where students often learn in classrooms of fifteen, twenty—often fewer. Administrators at these schools would never dream of telling parents that class size doesn’t matter, because they know it does. These schools encourage creativity and independent thought with reckless abandon; classrooms are much easier to manage when they only have fifteen kids in them. Rather than focusing on compliance and punitive consequences, teachers are able to focus on building real relationships with students and empowering those students to think for themselves.
Sure, there are other factors at play here. Class size isn’t the only thing that makes classroom management in certain schools difficult. But the bottom line is this: the bigger class sizes get in impoverished schools, the less likely those schools are to employ academic and behavioral systems that foster students’ creativity and independence. The more likely those schools are to produce employees rather than employers.
And the other bottom line is this: as I mentioned earlier, studies have shown that the students who need smaller class sizes the most are actually students growing up in highest-poverty situations. In my own classrooms, I've got an enormous percentage of students reading below grade level. All I want in the world is to be able to meet with each of them on a regular basis, coach them on their reading, and give them the individual attention they generally deserve to improve their reading quickly. But with classes this size? We'll be lucky if I get to meet with everyone once every two weeks.
We can keep arguing about whether or not class size affects student achievement, but that’s not the discussion we should be having. We should be talking about how large class sizes are part of what’s keeping our highest-poverty students from gaining power in society. We should be talking about how large class sizes are inadvertently propping up institutionalized racism and classism in this country.
It’s time to have the conversation about why large class sizes are not just an annoyance to teachers—they're an enormous part of a larger social injustice this country needs to face.
And this is not a conversation we can afford to keep ignoring.
If you've worked in or around the field of education anytime in the last decade, odds are you've seen or heard this mantra somewhere:
Originally born out of the high-achieving charter school movement, this mantra has quickly spread throughout the education world into traditional public schools and even private schools. On its face, it seems like a wonderful mantra for educators to follow. After all, every child should have a chance to live a successful life. We should message to students that they can overcome any obstacle if they work hard enough, and we as educators should work to overcome every obstacle in our students’ way.
The problem with the NO EXCUSES philosophy of education, however, is the same problem that has plagued the No Child Left Behind law, which recently celebrated its tenth birthday: sometimes "excuses" are actually the reasons students aren’t succeeding...and ignoring those reasons gets us nowhere.
For those of you who’ve already forgotten about NCLB, it included the following goals: all children would be proficient in reading and writing and graduate from high school by the 2013-2014 school year. Spoiler alert! That school year is long done and closed, and we weren’t even close.
So why weren’t we close to meeting the lofty goals of NCLB? Did we make too many excuses for ourselves and our students? Or is it just that there are many solid reasons for why 100% of students are not proficient on state standardized tests and graduating high school?
Here are a few possible reasons worth mentioning.
-The 30 million word gap. This is, essentially, the research study suggesting that children born into low-income households have heard 30 million fewer words than children born into middle and upper-class homes…by the age of 3. As you can likely imagine, this gap has a long-term impact on all aspects of a student’s literacy instruction.
-The so-called “third-grade slump.” This is the research that suggests a student who is not reading on grade level by third grade is unlikely to ever read with full proficiency.
-English Language Learners whose schools lack the programming needed for them to successfully receive instruction
-Students with learning disabilities which prevent them from meeting full proficiency on standardized state tests
This is where the NO EXCUSES policy in education gets dangerous. Like NCLB, it names a goal of surpassing obstacles rather than seeking out the reason those obstacles are being created—and fixing them. NCLB set out insurmountable and pragmatically impossible goals for elementary, middle, and high schools, but it never tackled some of the biggest root causes of the obstacles those schools are up against. What if the more of the time and energy that went into chastising schools under NCLB had gone into making early childhood education programs accessible to all children in this country? What kind of educational landscape would we now, ten years later, be looking at? Would the 30 million word gap no longer exist?
I’m not advocating that we rid schools of the “No Excuses” concept entirely. The fact is that millions of students who sit in front of us need a high-quality education now, regardless of anything else. What I am advocating for is something more akin to what my co-worker sometimes calls the “Some Excuses” policy. I myself like to call it “No Excuses. Just Some Reasons.”
Under this new policy, schools in America would be held to high expectations for student success--and at the same time we could finally have a dialogue about what creates those obstacles. Rather than being told that discussing these obstacles is making excuses for our students, we could find logical and meaningful ways to eradicate these obstacles wherever and whenever possible.
At the end of the day, telling our students we don’t care about the reasons they are failing is a misguided approach to education. Those reasons do matter, and we’ll only continue to do a disservice to students in the American education system if we don’t work to acknowledge them.
No excuses. Just some reasons.
Imagine a company where every employee who works part time is also paid half the amount per hour that the full-time employees are paid. (I.e. if the full-time employees make $12 an hour, the part-time employees make $6 an hour.)
Imagine that in this company, up to 70% of the workers are part-time and only 30% are full-time.
Imagine that these part-time workers have no benefits and no guarantee of continued employment.
Imagine that the part-time workers are docked pay if they are ill or need to miss a day. The full-time workers are not.
Imagine that the majority of the part-time workers have to maintain multiple other jobs just in order to earn a living wage, because what they do earn is so low. Many require government assistance just to survive.
What would you expect the quality of these part-time workers to be, on a scale of 1-10? (10 being high, 0 being low.) And therefore, what would you expect the quality of the company’s product to be?
I would have gone with 3. How about you?
Now, here’s the scary part: the employment situation I just described isn’t happening at a large corporation like Wal-Mart or Target. And it isn’t happening in a second or third-world country where employee rights are limited. This situation is happening right here in America.
And it’s happening in almost every college in this country—including, most likely, the college you attended. These employees? They’re called Adjunct Professors.
I spent years blissfully unaware that this kind of exploitation was occurring anywhere--least of all in the many universities and colleges I have spent time in and around. It wasn’t until my husband took a position teaching in a community college three years ago that I realized what employment really looks like for the many adjunct professors in most colleges and universities.
Basically, it looks like this: every semester, you get assigned some classes. If you’re lucky, you get a full course load. You’re paid by the course. So someone given a course load of 4 classes might only be making $8,000 for the whole semester. Meanwhile, a so-called “full-time” professor is making a full salary for their teaching load—which means they’re likely making at least $22,000 for that same semester. You don’t get benefits, which is tough, because if you’re carrying a full course load, any other jobs you’re going to have are probably also going to be part-time—which means you probably don’t have benefits at all. And let’s be honest: despite the fact that you’re called a “part-time” instructor, you’re still carrying a full course load. So if you’re teaching those courses with any kind of integrity, you shouldn’t have much time to devote to other part-time jobs. Except you have to find or make the time, because not one can live on $8,000 dollars a semester. Which means that you’re probably either living hand-to-mouth or not devoting enough time to your students.
As an educator myself, I’m disgusted by this system. It’s completely de-valuing to educators and, in my opinion, can only encourage sub-par teaching. It’s such a blatant way to save money at the expense of providing a high-quality education that I feel compelled to speak out about how much it disgusts me.
The worst part? Adjuncts in America’s college systems aren’t exactly encouraged to speak out about this situation. Especially not when they need to stay in strong favor with their supervisors, who are generally their only path toward escaping the exploitation of an adjunct role and earning a coveted spot as a “full-time” instructor. Especially not when full-time faculty members are writing editorials like this one calling adjuncts "whiners" if they DO say something. And while it is true that "full-time" faculty members have some additional responsibilities in their workload that adjuncts do do not have, we're not talking about enough responsibilities to justify this level of inequality. I also think the adjuncts would happily take on some extra hours attending meetings in exchange for making a living wage.
The exploitation I'm describing here is chronicled quite nicely in this Huffinton Post article. If this kind of exploitation were happening in Wal-Mart, or in another country, I know plenty of people would be up in arms about the situation. As they should be.
So today I’m standing up, arms at the ready, to do some shouting about the exploitation of adjunct professors in America. I hope others out there will do some shouting with me.
During my career in public education, I've been lucky to work in both traditional public schools and public charter schools. And yes, for those of you who have been trying to figure out what the heck a character school is (no shame--I've been there), charter schools ARE public schools. They’re funded on the public dollar, just like traditional public schools. The biggest difference between a public charter school and a traditional public school is that charter schools are founded by members of the community.
It's absolutely NOT true that all charter schools or all traditional public schools are created equal. All schools are different, and all should be judged on their own merits. And, with that said...there are some very unique experiences and challenges that come with working in a charter school. Sometimes a co-worker or a student of mine will say something, and all I can think is you just don’t hear that in traditional public schools.
And so, without further adieu...My TOP FIVE SIGNS YOU WORK IN A CHARTER SCHOOL. And yes, not all of these statements are true for every single charter school on the planet. But I'm willing to be that my fellow charter school employees all can identify with at least one of these statements.
5. Your students think the phrase “school library” means the three shelves of books at the back of your classroom.
See if you can guess what my favorite book in THIS classroom library is.
4. No one makes you sign in to use the copier. Or expects you to make it through the year with only one ream of copy paper.
Not that the copy machine in any school works for more than five hours at a time.
3. Students in your school think it’s totally normal to attend PE class in the local park.
"What's this 'gymnasium' I keep hearing about?"
2. You’re the oldest person on your staff. And you’re 33.
One of these things is not like the other....
1. People in your office idly say things like, “I think my teaching license expired last year. Do you suppose I should get that renewed?”
It's not THAT kind of license.
So, let’s talk about something no one else on the internet is talking about: bullying.
Psych. I am actually internet-savvy enough to realize what a hot topic of conversation of bullying has become in internet-land. Makes me really happy, actually. This was a subject that was not discussed often when I was in growing up, and one of the best parts of the social media explosion over the last twenty years is the awareness people have this issue. Now we have viral videos by people like Wil Wheaton on the topic (BTW, he said all that in Denver…all the best stuff happens in Colorado, you know), and the It Gets Better project, and blogs from authors like Cody Kennedy and his young reader, Timmy, on the subject. Cheers to talking about things rather than slipping them under the rug.
In fact, this subject is so much a part of internet-land these days that I wasn’t that surprised when The Onion got in on the act recently and published “Parents Surprised Cruel Daughter Hasn’t Pushed Classmate to Breaking Point Yet.”
Okay—I’m sure at least half a million people were disgusted by this article. I could practically hear the haughty response coming through my computer monitor as I read. How dare they satirize something as serious as bullying? I usually like The Onion, but they went waaay too far here. Wait, are they saying that parents aren’t responsible for their kids’ behavior? What are these writers trying to imply?
For me, though, the article highlighted something that’s become a concern for me lately: that with all this important discussion and awareness of bullying, our society is turning bullying into a single story. Or actually, a few single stories. The concept of the single story was first introduced by Chimamanda Adichie, who talks about it in a Ted Talk you can see here. Basically, the concept of the single story is this: when you assign only one vision to what something or someone can be, you simplify it or them down to parts that are so basic that you miss the important and nuanced pieces of it/them. Essentially, it’s stereotyping at its most dangerous.
The students I teach live in a version of the world where there is conversation around, strict rules against, and great thinking around the subject of bullying. And just to be clear, this is a VERY GOOD THING. But all this talk has, I think, left the public with a few dangerous “single stories” about what bullying is—single stories that I think The Onion was right and very forward-thinking to highlight.
SINGLE STORY #1: PARENTS AND TEACHERS NEED TO TAKE MORE RESPONSIBILITY AND HAVE BETTER AWARENESS. IF THEY DID, ALL BULLYING PROBLEMS WOULD DISAPPEAR.
Um. Said NO TEACHER OR PARENT EVER.
Which is, of course, what The Onion was trying to get at in this article. I have never met a parent who woke up in the morning and said, “Wow. I really hope my son goes out and intimidates people into liking him and calls people names when they don’t like him that much.” But I sure have met plenty of parents who want their kids to be self-confident, able to stand up for themselves, expressive, and true to themselves. Sometimes the line there can get a little gray. Relationships looks different in different places. The person I call a bully might be someone you consider to have inspiring self-confidence and leadership skills. Things are just not that simple, folks.
The problem is, I think, that lots of people still seem to be operating under another single story about bullying: that it’s simple to identify and therefore simple to stop. Since Mean Girls appeared on the scene years ago, kids and adults today seem much more aware of the many different versions of bullying that take place--the gossip, “power-rumoring” (as I like to call it), and verbal abuse that can all constitute acts of bullying. Social media itself has opened up a whole new conversation about what it means to bully on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Gchat, and we as a society have conversations about it regularly.
But I still read SO MANY books where acts of bullying are portrayed very simplistically: the big kid beats up the smaller kid, or the pretty girl tells the ugly girl she’s disgusting and will never get a prom date, or one person says nasty things about another on Facebook, etc. Obviously these acts do happen, and should be written about and filmed and talked about. But I’d really like to see more discussion about the other types of bullying we see in schools and communities, because those are often the hardest to define.
You ever try telling a parent that their kid is a bully because they won’t be friends with someone they don’t like? Yeah, good luck with that. But that’s actually a huge part of what is sometimes referred to as “mean girl” bullying: that power grid that locks into place when a bunch of teenagers ostracize another, leaving that person as an outcast. It might look and sound like bullying, but it’s not so easy to explain to parents. I mean, if you had a teacher telling you, “Look, Laurie’s refusing to hang out with Julia, and so her friends aren’t hanging out with Julia either,” is your first reaction going to be “OMG, my daughter is a bully?” Or would it be, “Huh. Maybe my daughter doesn’t like Julia.”
And while we’re on the subject of single stories? We should stop calling that “mean girl” bullying. Guys do it too, you know.
Obviously, the conversation is a lot bigger than which girls like/hate each other and why, but the single story problem remains the same: as long as people largely see bullying as something easy to define and identify, it gets harder and harder to have conversations about all the different nuanced ways bullies can behave.
Case in point. I consider myself to have been bullied in junior high. I was one of those naïve, nice, nerdy (the N trifecta) kids who got teased a LOT by the popular crowd—particularly by a group of boys who thought it was hilarious that I have hair on my arms—and I had a best friend who liked to show off how much more popular and important she was than me. Every now and then she’d stop speaking to me for a day or two, and she and all our other friends would hang out together without me, laughing and taking and generally ignoring me and whispering things while they looked in my direction. One day (and I remember this vividly) after this exact scene had played out for a 30 minute bus ride, she walked by me and said, “Have a nice ride today, Johanna?” The next day she was my best friend again, just as if the whole thing had never happened.
Sure, I realize now that this was a form of bullying. But I didn’t then. It just felt like my best friend was mad at me. And even if I had realized this exchange was all about power, what was I supposed to do? Go up to my teacher and tell them that Lisa should get in trouble because she didn’t want to be friends with me anymore? And as a teacher now, who does deal with nuanced situations of bullying like this, I can tell you that having power and control over someone does not necessarily constitute being outwardly cruel to that person. This makes proving bullying behavior, and explaining it to parents, incredibly difficult. If not impossible.
So let’s stop simplifying this problem down to “parents and teachers need to be more aware.” Well, yes, we do need to be more aware. But we need to be more aware of what constitutes bullying, how to talk about it, and how to really stop it. Because honesty? Some teacher suspending Lisa for not being my friend wasn’t going to do anything in that situation. That moment of bullying was so much more complicated than a simple response like that.
SINGLE STORY #2: ALL ACTS OF CRUELTY AND MEANNESS CONSTITUTE BULLYING
I’d really just like to put this single story to bed. Now, if possible. Lately EVERYTHING seems to constitute bullying in someone’s eyes. Authors who get bad reviews on Goodreads are bullied. (Wrote another blog about that topic recently, if you want to read it here.) If a student doesn’t get into a certain club or sport, he or she is probably being bullied by someone. I’ve had teachers tell me they thought there were being bullied by some of their students, and vice versa.
Look, in some of these cases, bullying might actually be happening—sometimes. But by attaching the title of bullying to ever single hurtful, painful, or confrontational act that ever takes place in our lives, we dilute what that word really means. According to my pal Merriam-Webster, bullying is defined as “to treat abusively” or “to affect by means of force or coercion.” Bullying is SERIOUS. Abuse is SERIOUS. Coercion is SERIOUS. These days, these acts come with serious consequences—as they should. We need to use these words carefully, and only attach them to actual situations of abuse, force, and coercion. I’m sorry, but that person who doesn’t like your book and says so respectfully and with their reasons why is not bullying you. That team captain who cut you because your serve isn’t that good is just being honest.
Let’s use this word carefully and keep the meaning behind it important. Otherwise it risks become a term that means nothing to any of us.
SINGLE STORY #3: ALL KIDS WHO IDENTIFY AS LGBTQ ARE BULLIED
A few years ago, when I first stated bringing more and more LGBTQ literature in my classroom and curriculum, a principal I was working with made the following plea to me: “Please don’t just bring in stories where the gay kids get beat up and bullied and commit suicide all the time. I feel like that’s all kids see these days. I want them to know that not everyone’s story is like that.”
I started to think about it, and I started to track the stories I was bringing into my classroom. I realized she was right. So much of the literature out there focused on how incredibly negative and violent schools and communities become when a teenager “comes out.”
I’m not saying these stories SHOULDN’T be there, and neither was my principal. These stories are vitally important to those students who need to see the worst possible consequence of this type of behavior. They are vitally important to those teenagers who have had such an experience and need to know they are not alone.
But they are not the only story. There are also plenty of teenagers out there who live every version of on the spectrum of coming out stories—from full acceptance and support of an entire school and community, to no acceptance and horrific violence and bullying as a result, to everything in between.
When I was writing Every Inferno (not that many days until it comes out! Wahoo!), I made a very conscious effort to create a high school that leans more towards the end of the spectrum of acceptance and inclusion. One of my main characters, McKinley, is a gay 16-year-old who enjoys huge popularity and would certainly never call himself a victim of bullying. I’ve worried at times that people will tell me that the school I created in Every Inferno is unrealistic. But you know what? It’s my prerogative, as an author, to write my own ideal vision for our world. And I know that McKinley’s school is not far from reality—plenty of teenagers live the story McKinley lives in that book. And their stories matter just as much as anybody else’s.
SINGLE STORY #4: IT GETS BETTER
Actually, this is an important single story. For most of us of who have experienced bullying of some kind (any kind), it has gotten better. But that part of this single story that seems to get left out a lot is that we had to make it better.
I am still a naïve, nice, and often nerdy person. No apologies. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to navigate the world so that my personality traits work for me rather than against me. I’ve learned how to identify those people who will appreciate me for who I am, and how to avoid people who won’t. I’ve learned how to be confrontational when it’s necessary.
It did get better for me, and some of that was situational. When I left my junior high of 40 8th graders (we have some really small towns in Vermont) and went to a high school with a freshman class of 200+ students, life opened up more opportunities for me to avoid the negativity that had surrounded me in earlier years. But I still had to learn how to navigate this new life and world. Freshman year was still a very lonely time for me, as I discovered how to seek out like-minded people and avoid those who wanted to have power over me. Things did get better. A lot better. But it wasn’t just something that happened to me—it was something I had to actively take part in.
Okay, a bazillion words later, it’s probably time to wrap this up. Final thoughts? Let’s keep talking about the subject of bullying. But let’s stop simplifying it into formulas and basic variables and definitions. Let’s have nuanced, deep, meaningful conversations about it. Let’s raise real awareness, not just feel-good talk. And mostly? Let’s all listen to each other a little more and a little better. I think most of the world’s problems, and especially the problem of bullying, could be solved if we just did that.
This week I achieved an odd milestone: my tenth year of administering state standardized tests.
It’s strange. I’ve often thought of this year as being a milestone because it’s my tenth year in education. But this week, as I was gathering number two pencils and gearing up to read directions in a robotic voice, it occurred to me that ten years in education means ten springs of number two pencils and robotic directions.
Next year, many states will abandon their current standardizing tests in favor of a new wave of tests: tests on computers, with questions and capabilities teachers have never seen before. There’s a lot about the future of standardized testing in America that remains uncertain--cloudy in the vision of teachers, students, and the education world in general.
And so, in honor of this kind-of-auspicious-but-not-really-I-guess-that-depends-how-you-look-at-it tenth anniversary, I’ve written a poem. Yeah. For real.
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: Nothing referenced in this poem is in ANY WAY referring to items seen on the 2014 standardized exams administered in any state. It is merely referring to general ideas about various standardized tests across the country. (And yes, I really had to legally say that.)
And now, without further adieu…
Verses on Standardized Testing
The number two pencils are worn down to half their size
Deformed by hours of scratching and grinding
Over matters such as what “L” equals
And which word is truly the preposition
(While the adults in the room pondered that same question, calling up
forgotten memories of Saturday morning grammar lessons)
And what the author’s purpose was when they penned that article about butterflies
(whether or not the author herself has the answer to that question)
The test booklets have been cataloged, alphabetized, and boxed
Sent off to strangers in a faraway land
Who will likely never know
That you, Student A, have a father who read to you every night before bed
Or that you, Student B, only learned English six years ago
That you, Student C, began this year without knowing your multiplication tables
And now can do long division successfully
(Because a test for ninth graders cannot measure such wonder)
That you, Student D, created a magnificent exhibit about the Pearl Harbor bombing
Or that you, Student E, finally came to understand mitosis last week
When a classmate made a comment during discussion
They will never see
The way your face lit up in that moment
They will likely learn
That you, Student F, prefer dogs to cats, and why you harbor such preferences
And why you, Student G, cannot successfully explain what butterflies eat
That you, Student H, have mastered the ability to find a square root
And that you, Student I, still struggle to correct comma splices
Across the country, now,
Teachers wait with baited breath
And in some months’ time
The strangers in a distant land will send out numbers
Numbers that will come to represent
Tears of agony
The end of one school
The beginning of another
A teacher’s paycheck
A student’s future choices
Meanwhile, the dust from destroyed erasers
Has settled into carpets
Teachers are back in the front of their classes
And learning goes on