When I taught personal narrative to middle school students, we'd write our way in using different narrative openings. Starting with a visual or line of dialogue--practicing different ways of grabbing our readers before we started the story. My favorite was sound because it was frustrating for all of us. I'd always remind my students that silence counts as a sound, too. As a writer, I found my way into a few of my most powerful narratives through the sound of silence. Now I find myself facing the role of silence from a practitioner-scholar standpoint.
I've only been an Ed.D. student for a month, and I'm already on the emotional roller coaster that comes with a high volume of continual research and reflection. And while I miss being immersed in a middle school writing community, I know my adjustment to scholarship is supported by some distance from full-time teaching. I've experienced the relief of feeling justified, knowing my concerns about education and school systems and policies aren't unique to me or my experiences and that I haven't spent all these years wrestling against an enemy that doesn't exist. The flip side is the dread of facing off against how deep and far these problems go, how long they've existed, and how little teachers are prepared for or made aware of them. Through it all, I keep coming back to the insidiousness of silence and how it is weaponized in schools throughout the US.
I used to think a lot about the conversations I did participate in as a teacher that were troubling to me--how certain students and families were labeled and talked about, how certain topics were glossed over in favor of more positive discussions, how policies were introduced or dismissed. These conversations drove me away, knowing that I couldn't engage in them if I kept saying the same things, but also not being content if silence was the only other option.
Now I'm thinking about the things we never talked about, the things I never said, and the way we all allow silence to shape school culture and policy just as much as our words. If I had spoken up and told people the real reason I stopped eating lunch in the teacher's lounge was because I couldn't listen to how educators used that space to talk about kids and their families, would something have changed? If I told them that when they delved into the typical small town topics of who's getting divorced and whose parents drank too much it reminded me that they were talking shit about families like mine, would it have made a difference? Maybe. I should have told them that no school can call itself a safe place for students with trauma when adults are using those traumas as lunchroom gossip topics, but I was silent. Sometimes it's easier to avoid the conversation when you know it won't change anything. My silence was rooted in self-preservation but it was still cowardice. How could I have used my words to make that environment more safe for kids from homes like mine? How did my silence in that moment ensure that it wasn't? There were other times when I did speak up, but my silence when it mattered still haunts me.
I think about school conversations around test scores and disparities between white students and students of color, conversations about behavior and the disparities between middle-upper middle class students and their lower socioeconomic peers, and how never once in those conversations did we talk about equitable practices or critical discussion of where we were failing. I think about consultants and "edu-experts" on Twitter who refuse to engage when questioned about equity and trauma-informed practices, and build brands that make them rich off the distorted notion that a smile and high five in the hallway will somehow fix this broken system instead of just maintaining the status quo behind the guise of positivity.
These types of silence do more damage than heated argument ever could. The kids never have a chance if the adults can't engage with conflict on the path toward progress.
Teachers get so bogged down under the strain of things we do talk about in schools that we rarely have time to reflect on what isn't being discussed at all. In paranoid moments, I wonder how much of this is intentional on the part of the system, keeping teachers endlessly busy and stressed and overwhelmed so that they never have the energy left to question what we aren't talking about.
Silence keeps educators complacent when they might be willing to change if they knew better. Silence maintains the status quo of ineffective leadership when we could otherwise use critical feedback to grow. Silence allows educational malpractice to continue on a large scale while schools keep a myopic focus on symptoms instead attempting to cure the diseases. Silence prevails in the wide chasm between educational scholars and practitioners and how much we could learn from each other if our areas of expertise weren't so often kept separate.
I have not yet witnessed courageous leadership in practice. I have not yet seen courageous leadership in myself because I kept my mouth shut when I should have spoken up and I often mistook my silence for protest when really it was capitulation.
The more I learn about this profession, its historical roots, policies, and fundamental issues, the more I realize how much of an ignorant participant I've been. I didn't know enough to even know what we weren't talking about. I could have spent a 30 year career not realizing my own contributions to systemic issues.
I can appreciate the beauty of silence when I'm learning and processing and reflecting.
I can call out the malevolence of silence when it is weaponized to maintain the inequitable status quo of educational systems.
I hope to meet more educational leaders with the courage to speak up, even when it means engaging in conflict. Those are the ones doing the real work to move us forward.
Three weeks in to community college adjunct life, and things are...different. I've spent quite a few moments during these weeks thinking something along the lines of This is what happens when... Those thoughts might not be fair or good or kind, but they won't stop creeping into my brain.
This is what happens when K-12 schools follow scripted curriculum that teaches to the test without ever actually engaging in authentic learning experiences.
This is what happens when the strategies to help do the thing become more important than actually doing the thing.
This is what happens when we sacrifice young people's futures at the feet of the standardized testing gods.
I came home yesterday frustrated by my students, which is always a wake up call. A solid 99% of the time when I'm frustrated with the kids it's because of something much larger at play. As a young teacher, it was easy not to see that. Thankfully, I grew out of it, but I've certainly known teachers with much more experience than me who turn to deficit thinking about students when things don't go well in the classroom. It starts with statements like These kids can't or These kids won't and slides into rants on student motivation, responsibility, and lack of ability.
Teachers aren't necessarily wrong when we say our students can't or won't do something, but we're wrong to place that frustration on our pupils. If students can't do something, or are so unequipped that they won't even attempt it, then something has broken down in the system that's supposed to nurture their ability and desire to learn. Teachers may not be responsible for creating the systemic problem, but as parts of the system we can't ignore our complicity. (Well, we can, but we shouldn't.)
Here I am, three weeks into a new job and already complicit.
My students are developmental readers and writers. I was told a few weeks ago by a grad school peer that community college developmental English classes are increasing at an alarming rate. These students desperately need to be doing as much reading, writing, and reflecting as possible to develop their literacy muscles. But as so often happens in educational systems, we throw our most vulnerable students to the wolves in the guise of "extra support." Instead of reading and writing, my course is supposed to follow an online textbook where they read about reading strategies and then answer multiple choice questions about hypothetical use of these strategies in order to make them...better at taking tests about reading.
This might eventually make them better at reading questions carefully to look for tricks. (The book is full of them. On any given chapter quiz, I'd score in the 60th percentile.)
It might make them more practiced test takers.
It sure as hell doesn't make them better readers.
I've been trying to balance the first few weeks between the bare minimum of required textbook and the things I know to be good about the teaching of reading, but yesterday's frustration was a wake up call. After having to introduce my students to yet another reading strategy with yet another acronym that boiled down to doing exactly the same things (albeit with different synonyms in place to make each acronym creator feel justified in their revolutionary "new" strategy), I knew the thing that needed to change was not my students, the book, or the eventual test.
My students are not the problem. They've been made to feel that way for the past 13 years, but they aren't. I have two English degrees, and while that might not be impressive from a financial standpoint, it does say something that a "basic" reading quiz is still designed to make someone who knows as much about reading as I do feel like a failure.
The book isn't the problem. It's a symptom, and it will continue to exist as long schools can get by with saying We taught them how to read. They learned the strategies. We did what the curriculum told us to do. They're not trying.
The test is a problem, but even that is a symptom of a much larger issue. Standardized tests will continue to ruin lives and weaken learning opportunities as long as politicians are willing to sacrifice the intelligence of our collective society so that testmakers and publishers can keep turning a profit. The teachers aren't following the right curriculum--here, buy OUR curriculum that's perfectly aligned to the test so the kids can pass the test and the scores will be great and it will never matter that we have stopped actually teaching kids to read because don't these scores look nice?
I will stop the cycle that brought my students to this class in the first place. They deserve better for pursuing higher education despite all of the other factors that have stood in their way. I might be required to use the text as a diagnostic tool, but that doesn't mean it gets to dictate what is best for my students. Instead of learning three different versions of trademarked strategies and answering questions about them (without actually using them), we will do the work that creates literate, critical thinkers.
We will read a variety of texts.
We will annotate and put our thoughts on paper before and during our reading.
We will ask questions.
We will write after we've read to reflect and make judgments and explore what we've learned and what we still don't know.
We will talk about all of it.
We will do the work of reading instead of investing our time and energy into the work of test preparation.
We will develop into readers.
I spent most of my summer steeling myself for change.
This fall was supposed to be the first time in 13 years I wouldn't be a teacher. I wouldn't stand in front of a room, or sit next to student writers, or share my writing in a classroom full of other writers.
Maybe I'd use all that free time and lack of responsibility to finally write a book. Maybe I'd make up for lack of employment by transforming into the best housewife ever. I'd finally learn to play my grandmother's old guitar and send out submissions for publication.
I didn't do any of that.
I downloaded Scrivener and outlined a book that I might someday write. (Close enough?)
I made fresh-from-my-husband's-garden zucchini bread for the first time ever, and did all the dishes during the baking aftermath, and Tyler and I both agreed that for those solid few hours I was the best housewife ever. (Or at least the best version of a housewife I've ever been.)
I didn't touch the guitar and I didn't write anything worth sharing, not even on here.
Mostly, I thought a lot about how much I still wanted to teach.
Something part-time. Something different from what I'd known.
But still me, in a room, talking about writing and reading and doing reading and writing with young people.
And then I got a call. A local community college needed an adjunct developmental reading and writing instructor. Just a couple of classes. A new town. Older students. New colleagues. Time to write. The best of both worlds?
I have no delusions that adjuncting will be glamorous or the grand answer to all of the questions I have about this profession and where I belong in it. But I know the flutter I felt in my chest as I started planning out my syllabus and the first day's lesson plans, pulling me back to the role I've loved and questioned and loved again so many times.
My brain knows I need to find solutions to the systemic issues that drove me away from the traditional classroom. I start grad school this week, and I hope I'll find some there.
My heart knows I need to read and write with reluctant readers and writers, pulling back the curtain to show them that literacy shouldn't be held by gatekeepers who demand strict adherence to checklists and forms and arbitrary rules.
After 13 years of the same schedule, school, and structures, I'm ready for a change.
I have no idea what tomorrow will bring.
I've learned something new every year of my career so far.
Year 14 might prove to be the most educational yet.
For the past 13 years, whenever I told people that I was a middle school English teacher, their reaction cringe started with the corners of the mouth pulling down, extending the strain down into the neck. The heavy exhale quickly followed. Then the statement, spoken with a scoff or an awkward chuckle, usually something along the lines of...
There is not enough money in the world to make me do that.
That is one age I would never want to experience again.
or (usually from other teachers)
It takes a different breed to teach middle school.
For the record: I always got it, really I did. Middle school sucked for me, too. If I had to point to the three absolute worst years of my academic progress, mental health, and social life, it would be sixth through eighth grade.
Everyone knows middle school teachers are stone cold weirdos.
And I have been so damn proud to be one of the people who loved teaching middle school. How could anything else compare to the beauty of just a few moments of my time in this career?
The magical intersection of hundreds of early-teenage emotional rollercoasters combined with adult forgiveness that relishes in plenty of opportunities for fresh starts.
Letters, emails, and post it notes from kids because they had a crisis they wanted advice on or just wanted to share something that happened or check in. No gift of words from a teenager has ever been too big or too small to matter.
The thick air hovering in the corridors outside a middle school dance, humidity pressing down on any adult who enters while the kids barely notice. I've tried to explain the middle school smell over the years, but most people mistakenly think I'm talking about B.O. Yeah, there's plenty of that. But the air of a middle school dance is different; it's not just body odor. It's hormones and laughter and heartbreak and embarrassment so raw they mix together and become palpable.
The time on a random Friday, as we all sat down to free write in silence, and a kid coughed. Then someone else said, “Bless you.” I knew something was up because people don’t bless someone for a cough. Before I could say anything, every member of the class jumped out of their seats, faced me, and a song started blasting from cough-kid’s iPad. They spent the next three minutes doing a choreographed group flash mob while I sat paralyzed in my back counter writing spot. When they finished without a word, they all sat down and started typing like nothing had happened. I said, “Are we really not going to talk about this?!” and they shushed me for interrupting free write. At the end of class, they told me all about how they had secretly rehearsed for weeks to surprise me. It was glorious.
The 7th grade boy who taught himself to fart on command and also developed his skill of when to fart to make the greatest impact. He didn't just let them fly with abandon like he was for the better part of the first month; he developed comedic timing.
The year I had countless 8th grade girls going through their major crush phase all at the same time, and they created so many code names to identify their crushes in free writes that I would have had to create a highly specific and creepy character map in order to keep track of all of them.
The times I had to teach myself to know the difference between when I should just hold kids and cry alongside them versus when to give them a hand and pull them up off the floor and give advice.
The girls I saw my younger myself reflected in, the ones who I admired because they were stronger at 14 than I am at 36, and the ones I can't wait to see grow up and kick so much ass.
The boys I loved who allowed me to keep my 13-year-old sense of humor, ponder things from perspectives I'd never considered, and the ones who fill me with hope that their generation will get it right.
Tomorrow is the last day of school.
It might be my last day of teaching, ever.
It might just be the last day before a break.
And there is not one single thing I am more proud of in my life than the thirteen years I spent learning and loving and laughing and growing alongside middle school students.
I avoided writing poetry for 28 years.
While I explored every other creative writing outlet without judgment or background knowledge, I purposely and purposefully steered clear of poetry.
I couldn’t write it.
I knew I was bad at it, even before my self-awareness was capable of realizing anything else about myself.
Seeing even the few attempted lines in occasional notebook scribblings pushed it even further out of reach.
My poetry was terrible. I didn’t understand how it worked. I knew that any audience would find it laughable and self-indulgent.
Instead of reckoning with any of those uncomfortable truths, I stayed away.
Now I sit in my favorite spot, on my favorite couch, and write terrible poetry on Saturday mornings.
The poems are never good (or maybe they are brilliant),
but I wouldn’t know for sure because even though I have learned to love poetry, it is no less terrifying for my writer-self to confront something she is so indescribably bad at doing.
Writing bad poetry is cathartic, and I wonder if knowing I’m so terrible at something I have grown to enjoy so much is more satisfying for me than being good at it. With age, I've discovered the pleasure in doing things despite my success.
I love to run, but I’m slow and have sloppy form.
I crave miles on my bike, but I don’t use my leg muscles to the potential they so clearly have.
I am the single worst dancer I have ever seen, and I still dance around the house and in public with reckless abandon.
Writing poetry, running long distance, biking, dancing: these are the things I continue to pursue with obsessive pleasure.
I hope I never feel like I’ve mastered any of them, so I can continue to delight in the frustration of eternally-limited proficiency.
I have always been most successful in my life when I have a plan.
I like to know what time I'm expected to be somewhere, even if it's just a casual, drop-by event.
I like to know what I can expect from any situation and environment, in order to better manage my anxiety.
And I like to be in control because it makes me feel safe.
But since I've decided to make 2019 an official Growing Year™for myself, I am giving up control. I don't know what I'm doing next year. I actually don't know what I'm doing after June 6th. I am learning how to be okay with that, and in that process, learning how to be okay with not knowing.
One thing I didn't expect was how much this learning and growing experience for me would bother other people.
It might be rooted in fear. People are uncomfortable when they see others making choices that seem risky.
It might be rooted in gossip. Small towns want to know what's going on with everyone.
It might be genuine concern. I'm sure many people who care about me are worried that quitting my job with no clear plan in place is dangerous.
And all of these reactions remind me why kids are the best.
My students are on this emotional journey with me.
Many are worried and frustrated that I won't be here next year, but they are also, one hundred percent supportive and loving.
They haven't learned the adult mistake of placing our own fears and expectations on others yet, so they don't try to adopt my narrative as their own. They know my need for change isn't personal or a reflection on them, and they respect it even if they don't understand.
I've started to find little notes around my room, written in different styles, jotted on post-its and placed on my desk or in my writing conference corner. They are pep talks and affirmations from middle school students, the very best gift in the world. They have determined that I am leaving so that I can take over the world, and I am not going to deny that.
Kids have always been smarter than adults in so many ways.
This week, I am not teaching (or at least not teaching much). Instead, my talents are being wasted as I watch helplessly, monitoring my students as they struggle through a test I am morally opposed to.
There are plenty of reasons to be anti-standardized testing, especially as someone who cares about student learning. Standardized tests can increase student anxiety. They measure socioeconomic, disability, and racial inequalities more than achievement. Their presence in education has done little to increase achievement and everything to promote cookie cutter curriculums that prepare students for...more testing. And the money. Let's not even get started on the money.
These are important reasons and reason enough for any educator to despise testing, but the thing that always worms into my head is how much this is an adult game that uses children as pawns. And I am so very sick of this profession treating children as part of a game.
As middle schoolers, the scores my students will receive on these tests won't mean much. It will provide data, but that information is not nearly as important as what students know and can do in their actual learning environments. The results won't mean much to them, and the statistics will be nearly indecipherable and unusable for their parents and teachers, too.
The most use anyone will get out of these tests is that schools will be able to rank each other and either puff their chests or hang their heads in shame, politicians can use them for condemnation and support for more crippling education policies and funding, and for-profit "education" companies can manipulate more schools into drinking their Kool-Aid as an elixir.
Who benefits? Adults with power.
Who loses? Every child who is ever brainwashed into thinking these things have actual significance in their lives.
I say this as someone who was a phenomenal test taker throughout school. Of course I was: I loved to read and write, and I did both for fun as often as I could. I'm white. I had college educated parents, and while we did not have money, I had grandparents who helped buy a house in a middle class neighborhood where I could attend mostly upper-middle class schools. I was competitive and enjoyed trying to do my best. And I graduated in 2001, just as No Child Left Behind was starting its reign of testing terror.
As an adult who has spent my entire life in schools and education settings, I have never once been asked what my scores were on any standardized test. They have never mattered, except as gatekeepers to entering college (ACTs) and entering a teacher-ed program (PRAXIS), both of which you can retake for a higher score (unlike the yearly state standardized tests we force upon our students). I have never known or cared what any other person I've met earned on their standardized tests. I have never met a teacher who talks about their own testing prowess, but I have encountered many who obsess over their students'.
And yet, we expect our students to care. Hypocrisy is rampant in many parts of education, but standardized testing is when I see it the most. (Probably because I have too much time on my hands while I watch the clock and try to absolve myself from my complicity in this whole charade.)
I know I'm lucky. I don't live in a state that's stupid enough (yet) to tie teacher salaries or school funding to standardized test performance. That's a privilege many in this profession no longer enjoy.
So I'll sit here, and continue to remind my students that they are worth more than any test could ever measure, and remind them to not forget about this when they grow older. That they can take the stress and frustration of all of this and use it as motivation to become active political citizens who will someday turn this mess around before it gets even worse.
A new boy stopped at the end of class today.
I don't think he knows my name yet. It's only his second day.
He stayed after to ask if he could have a copy of the story we've been reading.
"The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury. A favorite that I haven't taught in years, but brought back for one last hurrah.
He wanted to take it home and share it with his mom. "She loves this kind of stuff," he said. "I told her all about it yesterday."
Who could say no to that? He was excited enough to talk about my class on his first day of school.
People move to rural communities, more than I ever would have imagined before I lived here.
Some plant roots that last for generations, become as much a part of the town as the brick buildings along Main Street.
Some float in and out, birds on the wind that nest for a time when the conditions are right, flying away when they feel the need.
Some are phantoms, leaving behind an impression, but never staying long enough.
We have a transient population, more so as the years go by.
We've gained more new students throughout this year than ever before. And already lost some of the ones we've gained.
It's a good thing. New students are what keep rural districts alive in the age of consolidations and closings. They add new life. My students need new people and perspectives to enter their world as much as possible. We all do.
It's my last year of teaching (for now).
Only two months to get to know and try to grow with this new person. I'm not sure how much I can influence how he feels about writing, reading, speaking, or listening during that short amount of time, but I know I'll try my best.
And I know we're off to a good start.
I have never given parents enough attention.
It's one of my greatest failures as an educator over the years: parent contact and relationships.
I have excuses for this, of course.
I have a bad (nonexistent) relationship with my own parents. My fight or flight goes into overdrive when parents are involved. It's childish and I need to get over it.
I am childfree by choice. Being a parent is out of my realm of experience and comfort. I don't know how to relate.
I've received cruel and hurtful attacks from parents throughout my career. It's a defense mechanism.
All true. All still terrible excuses.
Today is the third day of my last round of parent-teacher conferences.
I've always maintained a certainly level of hypersensitive anxiety during conferences, so I thought tonight would be a relief.
And then a funny thing started happening.
Parents started stopping in my room to tell me how much I made a difference in their kids' lives.
They thanked me for what what I'd done for their families.
Some even sat in my room and shared hugs and tears.
I have always thought about my work in terms of the young people I spend my days with. They're the most important part of this gig, the reason I'm here, after all.
But tonight I am thinking of all the amazing, wonderful, sometimes-enraged, thoughtful, and varied parents I've had the chance to meet over the years. I am grateful that they've allowed me a small space in their children's lives all this time. I am honored that I earn a space in some of their lives, too.
I started writing a million things this week because it's been a while, and I know myself enough as a writer to know that the longer I go without putting words on the page, the more I'll keep pushing it away.
The trimester ended. I wrote feedback letters to all of my students. It was a lot of writing, but it's just for them.
Parent-teacher conferences are next week. I wrote individualized (narrative) conference comments for all of my students. That was a medium-amount of writing (due to character limits), but it's just for kids and their parents.
It was the first peek of spring this week. The sun came out, the weather was finally nice enough that I could wear my favorite faux-leather blue jacket, and I reintroduced myself to running on gravel after an extended winter break up. I ignored my journal, so that was an almost-nothing amount of writing, but it's just for me, and I'm okay with ignoring myself sometimes.
I started writing three things for the blog this week, and I didn't finish any of them. They are sitting in a doc, unfinished and keeping each other company. One is about contradictions in the teaching world and it's too raw. One is about the fine line between passion and exploitation and it's too messy. The last one is a barely-started list of things I will miss about teaching, and it's too insignificant to capture the reality of what it means to me. Those writings might end up being just for me, too, or they might evolve into something worth sharing. Or I might forget about them until I find a better way to write them.
I started ten poems with 7th graders this week. They are mostly terrible, though not for lack of trying. My live audience failures are always the best teaching tool I've ever found.
With 8th graders, I wrote three narratives inspired by quotes from "The Fog Horn" by Ray Bradbury. One is okay. The others are forgettable, already lost in the mist.
We had our first Free Write Friday in ages, and I started an application and a journal submission, and didn't come close to finishing either. The only thing I completed was a friend-fiction (fan fiction about people I know) trying to manifest a meet-cute grocery store date for a teacher friend. It was an instant classic among students and my friend, but I realized after I finished that I wrote "rending" instead of "rendition" and I'll probably have obsessive anxiety thoughts about that for the next six years.
I wrote a lot this week, most of it not very good, and almost none of it finished. It's okay. I still wrote this week.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.