Definitions and Deviations

We’ve used the phrase, “It’s what’s best for kids,” in education for as long as I’ve been in the field.  It’s been the measure for all that we, as educators, do at work both in and out of the classroom.  What should I focus on for today’s lesson?  What’s best for kids? How should I phrase this? What’s best for kids? Should I move on or spend more time on this subject? What’s best for kids?  Should I give them the answer or let them struggle with the question a bit longer? What’s best for kids?  Should we use traditional grading or Standard’s based grading?  Should standards drive the instruction at all, for that matter, or should we differentiate goals based on the strengths of each kid?  If we assign a grade, will it stifle the student’s creativity?  If we don’t assign a grade, what will that teach the student about responsibility and reward/consequence?  Should we use this curriculum or that curriculum?  Should we provide breakfast in the classroom?  Allow students to snack?  Allow or deny the presence of cell phones?  Backwards plan?  Pull small groups or teach whole-class?  Teach whole-language or phonics?  There are so many questions we ask as people who truly care about the outcomes of our labors with these children.  And it all falls back to the phrase.  “I do what’s best for kids.”

Our district is in the process of adopting new English curriculum for middle schools.  At the forefront of my mind (of everyone’s minds) when taking on the responsibility of a selection that will have results that are widespread and years-long, that phrase HAS to be the primary consideration.  After piloting one of the three curricula selected as options by the district and loving the results I saw in the kids in my classroom, I promoted it heavily at the district level.  I had already tried one of the three other curricula and, while it was okay, I found it to be less of a curriculum and more of an instruction on how to teach- so, cool, but not what we were looking for.  I had no interest in the other curriculum because it had teachers teaching whole units on bugs and ecosystems, which is fine if you’re a science teacher, but as an English teacher… well, there’s already so much to teach without taking on another content.

So, I chose the one I chose, and as previously mentioned, the kids flourished.  I was ecstatic when the district powers-that-be agreed with me, and decided to adopt it.  They also adopted the one that was okay, giving individual buildings in the district the opportunity to choose which one would be picked up locally.  No worries there.  We knew which we would choose in my building.  Hands down.

Then came the day the decision was made to choose which units within the curriculum would be taught at each grade level.  I was devastated when the selections hit my email inbox.  Half of the year at each grade level would be spent teaching history with a focus on argument and informational writing all but one quarter of the year.  At 6th grade, teachers would teach Ancient Civilizations, 7th would get to teach Asia, and 8th would get to learn about Westward Expansion.  With classes only an hour long, and students who despise reading and writing already due to the large numbers who are so far behind in these skills, and knowing that these students have a history class all its own (we are not humanities), I had to fall back on that question: Is this what’s best for kids?

That is the question I had to ask when I requested to meet with one of those who selected the units for use in the classroom.  I pointed at the list of drab and asked him, “How is this best for kids?”  I was told that this is the question they explored most deeply as they chose.  The test, he explained (speaking about the yearly state-wide and Nationally mandated standardized test) emphasized argument and informational writing.  These units hit those requirements strong.  Therefore, they are what would be best for kids.  “Our kids need to do more than literary analysis and writing about books,” I was told.  And I agreed.  However, it became very clear as he spoke that the question in their minds was not really, “What is best for kids?”  It was actually, “What is best for helping kids pass the test?”

And the two are NOT synonymous.

Over the past twenty years, the tide has turned in the world of education- toward product and “results”- toward students as numbers and data points.  And the content of English has probably taken the largest hit aside from the Arts and Trade classes (wood shop, auto shop, metal working, home economics, etc.).  As English teachers, we have seen our content stripped away from us and our kids in the attempt to support the learning in other contents.  Namely, we have swapped reading literature for reading science and social studies articles, changed out poetry and plays for lab reports.  I’m not saying that students shouldn’t be reading these things.  I am saying that the majority of the responsibility for reading these things should fall on the teachers of those contents.  My content has value for kids apart from those other things.  And that value goes far beyond that which has been placed on it by some test (which has large sections of narrative and literary analysis, by the way).

Students as cogs in the factory of education may need to focus solely on informative texts and argument.  Students as people have greater needs than those.  Students as people need to learn how to empathize, sympathize, discover who they are and what they believe, decide what is good and right vs. what is destructive.  They need to learn to talk with each other and explore those big meaning-of-life ideas that will turn them into the people who can take on their lives to come and do so with the confidence that only comes from thinking deeply about the world as it is and as it could be.  Where do kids find an entry-point into these kinds of thought?  Through fiction.  Through narrative.  Through literary non-fiction and poetry.  These are the genres we’ve abandoned so that English teachers can double up on teaching the Spanish American War.  These are schools of thought we have denied students by teaching to the test.  And this is NOT what’s best for kids.

I don’t know how much longer I can stay in Education if it continues down this destructive path.  My heart breaks for what these past few generations have lost.  They are becoming more and more illiterate, and the powers-that-be are not allowing them the chance to meet books where they are and learn to love reading.  They are stifling the creativity of the young mind that does not “think like a mathematician” or “think like a scientist.”  And they are doing so in the name of competition for higher test scores, for bragging rights that our country is smarter.  But guess what?  The scores haven’t grown any.  The results stay the same.  They keep spinning their wheels and robbing kids of reading.  They forget that the most important and effective method of making someone a stronger reader, is to simply have that someone read, and read a lot.  I can tell you, 99% of the students I have ever taught in my 18 years are more likely to read if I hand them a novel than if I hand them an article on Westward Expansion.

I love teaching.  I love kids.  I love the content I’ve chosen to teach because through it I get to see kids flourish in thought.  I get to see them discover themselves as people.  That is the most exciting part of my job.  I don’t ever want to lose sight of children as children.  Of children as dreamers.  Of children as readers, writers, and learners of that which makes humanity unique.  Our school decided to adopt the curriculum that was “okay.”  It’s not a true curriculum, but it allows kids to read texts that will matter to them, texts that are relevant to today and the issues they face all the time.  It allows them to write in ways that they will be able to explore themselves and others.  It provides opportunities for children to read and write narratives, poetry, literary non-fiction, as well as argument and informative texts.  But it will also let them learn to love words and sentences and paragraphs, perhaps find a favorite story or character, and learn from the lives of those they read about how to be better people.  This is what I believe is best for kids.

At Least I’m Climbing

A year ago my husband left me for another woman.  I still remember the moment I popped home at lunchtime to grab something I’d forgotten for work to discover that he’d moved all of his things out of the house that morning after I’d left.  The night before had been business as usual- dinner at the table followed by our regular game of Skip-Bo with his daughter, who’d been living with us since the previous December.  We’d gone to bed with a tired kiss and, “I love you.”  That morning, he’d come out to help scrape the snow off my windshield, and we’d laughed together as he’d tripped over the trash barrel trying to round the front of the car.  Looking back, the only warning I’d had was that when I’d mouthed, “I love you,” to him from inside the car, he’d just smiled at me and gone back into the house, the sentiment left unanswered.  At the time, though, I simply pulled out of the driveway and went to work, completely unaware that he’d been plotting to leave me and go back to his ex-wife for at least the past month.

Our marriage, like all marriages, had its problems.  I’m the mother of a child with autism, and I always knew that any man who settled down with me would have to deal with the challenges that come with that.  My husband didn’t always understand the disability and what it meant for my son.  He didn’t understand why I would let some behaviors go without punishment, or why I chose to discipline the way that I did.  My son is constant noise, and to someone not used to that, it can be a challenge, too.  Then there’s the messiness, the fear of the dark, the inattention to things we would consider to be basic life-skills… I can’t go into all the little things that piled up that come with parenting someone with special needs, but all of them went to creating stress in our marriage.  My weight had also become an issue.  I’d gained 30 pounds since I met him, and I didn’t feel very attractive, though he always said that my weight didn’t matter to him.  My lowered self-esteem told me he had to be lying, though.  How could he not care that I’d gone up three sizes, and now sat above the national weight average?   How could he not look at my increasingly round face and newly formed double chin and not cringe?  I hated myself.  How could he possibly love me?

I’d been feeling him grow distant for a while- he’d spend more time across the road drinking with the neighbor guys in the garage, playing endlessly on Minecraft, whispering complaints under his breath.  I chalked it up as a phase.  I’d ask him if everything was okay, and he’d tell me things were fine.  I trusted that he was being truthful.  Money was on our minds as we struggled to exist on my income and his disability payment (the result of a car accident he had before I met him that had left him in a coma for 18 months and with permanent limitations once he woke up).  Stresses piled up sometimes while we adulted, I decided.  This was just one of those phases of marriage where we had a little more distance.  I figured he just needed a bit of space.

Of course, I asked myself if there was possibly someone else.  My ex-husband had strayed regularly in our marriage.  But I kept telling myself that I couldn’t bring fears from the past into my present marriage.  My husband, after all, was not my ex, and it wasn’t fair to distrust him for the actions of someone else.   I convinced myself that all of the signs weren’t there.  He was just bored.  He was frustrated that he couldn’t provide more financially for the family.  There wasn’t anyone else.  And if there were serious issues between us, surely, he’d talk with me about them.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he talked to her.

When he left, I fell into the deepest black hole I’ve ever experienced.  It seemed as if my life had stilled, but the world around me kept going.  I was apart from it.  Nothing mattered.  I stopped.  I think that’s the only way to describe what happened to me.  I stopped caring.  I stopped dreaming.  I stopped sleeping.  I stopped eating.  I stopped smiling and laughing.  There were two things I couldn’t stop, though:  crying and drinking.  I drowned myself in wine and tears.  I lived under my covers listening to life going on outside my window, and only surfacing to go to work and take care of my son.  I thought of death all the time.  Considered welcoming it.  Planned it out.  When I found that I was seriously considering following through, I decided it was time to get some help.  I started seeing a therapist, where I was told that I was a good person.  That I was beautiful.  That I had value.  And I believed none of it.  Both men I’d married had cheated.  Both men had told those lies.  Both men had decided my value was less-than.  Neither had found me worth holding on to.  I must be a bad person.  I must be ugly as sin.  I must be worthless.  I told myself all of those things I’d always feared were true- but now, I embraced them.  I knew without a doubt that I was that person.  I broke.

He was with her for about a month, and it took him another few of weeks to find his way back home.  It started with phone calls, then a visit or two.  Then a weekend.  He’d made a huge mistake, he said.  He missed me.  He loved me.  He wanted to come home.  I lost friends when I took him back.  Others just sat back and judged.  Some welcomed him back into our lives with open arms.  Many told me that all they wanted was for me to be happy, and if him coming home was what I wanted, then that was what was important.  And that was what I wanted.  I know people reading this will judge, too.  But the heart wants what it wants, and my heart wanted him.

The woman he came back to is not the same woman he left.  We went right into therapy together, talked through the things that were bothering him that made him stray.  Learned to communicate better.  The therapist posited that part of his flight was due to PTSD.  I don’t know if that’s true, but all I cared about was that he’d come home.  I know that statistics and my own experiences with my ex-husband say that he will stray again.  I know that the chances of us staying together are not good.  I know that if we are to save this marriage, it will be a fight.  I know that if we hadn’t been married, I wouldn’t have taken him back.  I also know that if he ever cheats on me again, he won’t be welcomed home.  My forgiveness can only reach so far.

The past year has been hard.  He didn’t come home without his own baggage filled up during that time apart, and I have had to work to fight the depression that hasn’t let go of me since the day I walked into the house to find him gone.  And the struggles that life brings haven’t stopped just because we needed to work on fixing a broken relationship.  Trust takes time to rebuild, and it’s a slow process.  I still feel I have no worth.  I feel unattractive.  I feel ugly.  I still feel like maybe, for some reason, I deserve to be left.  And I’ve gained another 15 pounds.  He’s had to work through his guilt for what he did to me.  I see the pain in his face when he’s confronted with the pain in mine- knowing that he caused it.  And I’ve had to give myself permission to take the time I need to heal.  I can’t do it on his time or anyone else’s.

True healing at this point has nothing to do with him or our relationship.  True healing will only come when I find that spark inside of me that I once had.  That fire that used to tell me that I was worth something.  That I was pretty.  That I was desirable.  I want so much to find that woman inside of me who had the strength to raise my son on my own, to go to college and work full-time as a the single mother of a special-needs child, to build a life where he would want for nothing, to create a career that I love and that satisfies daily.  Healing will happen when I finally climb my way out of the black hole and find joy in the things that used to satisfy.  True happiness is found not in a relationship, not in other people.  It’s found inside.  I’m just not quite sure how to reach that again.  Someday I will, I hope.  They say time heals all wounds.  I don’t know if that’s true, but a year later, I do feel like maybe I’m starting to look for those first handholds in the darkness.  I’m starting to look up at the sky above and think that maybe I can one day haul my now portly ass up and out.  I see this blog as the first step.  Writing was a passion once upon a time.  I’m rusty.  I know.  But this is a start.  This blog is for me.  If others read it and see something of value, then cool.  If not, at least I’m climbing.



Get the Ball Rolling

I created this blog a couple of weeks ago, and there it has sat- completely blank.  I have felt the impulse to write for a while now, but am not quite sure where to start.  Opening the blog and staring at the blank screen has grown incredibly frustrating, so I guess it’s just time to write… SOMETHING.  My intentions for this page are simply to create a space where I can deflate my day.  Beyond that, who knows what it may morph into?  I imagine it will become a hodgepodge collection of ramblings I’ve wanted to talk to someone about, but couldn’t.  See, I don’t feel free to be honest- truly honest- with anyone in my life.  I imagine we’re all in that place, too, that I’m not alone in that, but I feel alone most of the time.  I have to sensor.  My thoughts. My feelings.  My ideas.  My opinions.  And quite frankly, I grow weary of holding back these things.  I am not inviting a single person that I know to this blog because I wish to remain anonymous.  Only in this way can I be who I really am with no need to apologize to my conservative family, my liberal friends, my educator peers, my extremely opinionated bosses, my husband, my son, or anyone else who feels the need to force me into their molds of belief or disbelief.  I imagine I will write things here that are extremely un-PC.  They may anger, irritate, inflame, or offend.  But I’m hoping that I can also find like-minded people with whom I can share some common ground.  Finally.  Perhaps I can also once again find people who feel that not everyone need believe the same things to get along.  Perhaps I can have my faith in respectful discourse renewed.  Perhaps I can find others who celebrate the same beauty I find in diversity, and rather than trying to change one another, we can instead love the ways in which we are different.  Perhaps I can lift the jaded veil from my eyes and once again see the wealth and worth of people- of others and of myself.  Perhaps…