Monday, May 14, 2018

Long and Rambling is Sometimes the Only Way Through

Content warning: abuse

A reckoning is coming in the publishing world, and it has been on the horizon for a long time. How to deal with it is another story entirely.

And it breaks my heart. In so many ways and on so many levels.  It is specifically difficult because of the way it intersects with libraries and their most vulnerable patrons. 

By way of background. I grew up reading the traditional canon of dead white guys.  It is just the way things were.

But I was very fortunate not to be trapped in that.  I read everything Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote and loved her dearly (Yes, I had long braids and a sleeping cap like Laura.  Yes, I lobbied my parents to change my middle name to "Elizabeth."  They refused) Then, at some point, I stumbled across A Wrinkle in Time and saw that girls could write and break boundaries. 

I also had a vast collection of Tasha Tudor books and even met her once. I would spend hours reading the poems and tales, staring at the detailed drawings, trying to drink in every last detail.

I was lucky. I could read stories by women. I could read stories about girls. I could read books where girls were traditional and ones where girls broke boundaries.  I could see the wider world with myself as a part of it. 

But this is because I was not only a girl but a middle-class white girl.  

I honestly don't remember the first time I read a book with a character who was a person of color and was not a criminal, poor, a slave, or an object of pity.  

So when I came to reading young adult books, especially ones with diverse characters, it was new and different. How would I  have felt if I had never ever read a book about a character that looked like me?

But I did have that experience, in a sense.  I am not just a middle-class white woman, but a middle-class fat white woman. (I was a fat kid too.) And that really does change everything.  

When was the last time you read a book and there was a female character who was fat?  Let's say there is one (which is rare).  There is a very good chance that this character is one or more of the following: pathetic, stupid, lovelorn, lazy, abused, dirty, the butt of jokes, self-deprecatingly funny, ugly, unwanted. Oh, and she is always dieting. Her entire existence is defined by her desire to be less

Go ahead, give it a thought. Think of one who isn't. 

Not just books, but TV.  Everyone loses their mind about how amazing This is Us is, but what in the world goes on in the one fat lady's life other than dieting?  Everything centers around it. Same with Mike & Molly. And Roseanne.  Heck, Empire broke ground because its fat female character actually had a love life.

And just like that, we have run out of shows with fat female main characters. And TV is just a mirror of books.  The lessons are the same.  

When Eleanor & Park came out, it was hailed as a groundbreaking take on teen life, at least in part, because Eleanor is fat. She is strong and powerful in her own way, and she finds the most beautiful young love that is so raw and real. And her fatness doesn't prevent that. Yet while she is a wonderful character who is beautifully written, without getting into spoilers, she fits into several of the above categories.  But she is pretty much the best option.

If I as a fat woman were to watch TV or read books, then use those to form ideas about myself, what would I believe?  Nothing good, that's for sure.  

So it is a powerful thing to see someone who could be you doing great things, being amazing and strong and smart and successful.  For kids, it is hard to push back against an unending wave of negative messages to see the possibility of something better in the future, that you can be more than what the world tells you that you are doomed to be. 

Several years ago, I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  It is a work of art.  It really is breathtaking in its scope. The story. The words. The characters.  Everything about it.  In it, the author Junot Diaz says, “[I]f you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”  

Let that sink in. 

It is dead on. 

Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer for Oscar Wao and has been a celebrity writer ever since. His books are astonishing.  They are fierce in their portrayal of the truth. They have strong, powerful, diverse characters and speak so much truth it is hard to comprehend at times.  

He has a newly released children's book, Islandborn. What a beautiful book! And with a Dominican girl as the central character, talking about her heritage, showing the strength of immigrants, and filled with richly written and drawn diverse characters.  What a treasure for a young child to open a book like this and see images of herself!   

Full disclosure, if it were not clear already, I adore Dias.  I love what he writes, what he says, the way he says it. His unapologetic support for those things that are important to him.  

That's what makes this so difficult.  

In mid-April, Diaz wrote a piece for the New Yorker detailing his childhood abuse at the hands of a trusted adult.  The essay is excruciating.  The trauma.  The residual damage to Daiz.  The ways his life has been warped and shaped.  It is painful and powerful and horrible. 

I grieved for Diaz.  I still do. Even now, writing this, my heart hurts, and I have to struggle not to cry. Thinking of how many people have a story like Diaz's.  How many kids have faced similar abuse and not survived?  The horror is too great sometimes.  

Then, just a few days ago, allegations surfaced of Diaz's abuse of women.  

And there it is.  

Now, in the last 24 hours, MIT has started an investigation into allegations against Daiz.  He has resigned from the Pulitzer committee and faces investigation there. 

Diaz, to his credit, acknowledges the voices and testimony of the accusers. He says that he accepts responsibility for his actions. What that means, in the long run, is anyone's guess. 

The fall of Junot Diaz, really, is just one rock in an avalanche of those who stand accused. When these powerful men fall, with them go the written works they have created, many of which are, quite frankly irreplaceable.  They fill a hole in the literary world.  With writers of color being marginalized and overlooked for so long, each and every work by one who did make it onto the shelves is essential.  

But when those writers have done despicable things, what happens to their works? 

  • Bill Cosby's Little Bill series is groundbreaking for young kids, especially young African American boys.   
  • Sherman Alexie's works are canon now.  What library worth its salt doesn't have The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  • Jay Asher of 13 Reasons Why  brought important attention to mental health issues
  • James Dashner's The Maze Runner books are important texts for boys who often find reading inaccessible or uninteresting.
  • Heck, the Nobel committee announced that in the face of sexual abuse allegations there would be no 2018 Nobel in Literature. For the first time since 1949.      

And it is only May. 

Yes, these allegations and crimes are horrific. Not just Diaz but many many men in the writing and publishing world.  And for many of them, the situation has been whispered about and ignored.  It is a good thing that these are being brought to light. It is the only way to bring healing.  At a minimum, it is the first step. 

But then what in the world do we do with the books?

When Sherman Alexie's books are the best, most accessible, beloved representation of Native American characters?

When Bill Cosby's Little Bill books are beloved, beautifully illustrated, wonderfully written, and representative of positively written young black boys?

What about Junot Diaz's books?

Far better people than me have thought about this and written about it. 

Kara Yorio writing for School Library Journal 
Aya de Leon's blog post Reconciling Rage and Compassion
is the best I have read regarding Diaz and what happens next. (full disclosure: it has some strong language).

Watching the media circus around the #MeToo movement is, in many ways an abstraction. But when it comes to the shelves of my library, what happens?

Junot Diaz's words still hover over the entire discussion: “[I]f you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” How much damage would it cause to remove all the books by all the authors who turn out to be despicable or those who have done despicable things?

And for that reason, I can't look at a book without considering those kids who would benefit from reading it. Or those who will get a glimpse into a life and world they don't know and grow from it.

I am not pulling a book simply because the author is despicable.

This is especially true when those are influential texts or ones that are representative of diverse characters.

I can't justify taking down a book that can play an important role in allowing a student to see themselves and their world in a broader, deeper way with a true depiction of themselves. I can't. And I won't.

I strongly believe in access and the power of self-censorship. If you don't like a book, don't read it. If an author is reprehensible to you, don't read it. I follow this in my own life (Woody Allen, I'm looking directly at you), so I am going to give my students that same courtesy.

These long and rambling thoughts, while a glimpse of the chaotic pathways my mind takes, are really the only way for me to tackle a mess like this. Nothing happens in isolation. No single issue is without connection to a dozen others.

It is hard to separate the art from the artist.

And it is impossible for me to separate the art from those who will benefit from it.

Books are essential as mirrors and windows and doorways. Who am I to close them?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Stacks and Basements and the River Styx

When I was rather young, I would go to my public library (having been dropped off) and wander through the stacks; that's the term for the shelves upon shelves of books, typically not on the main floor or main area. No displays. Just very functional shelving. Shelves and shelves of books. There was rarely anyone there, certainly never any other kids. 

I liked to wander up and down the aisles, running my hand across the cool spines and gold-embossed letters. I rarely checked-out a book from that section. In fact, I don't recall ever doing so since this was basically overstock of adult fiction and non-fiction. But every trip to the library, I always climbed the stairs to the stacks.  It is amazing how being the only person amidst thousands of books is actually not lonely, but comforting.  The solitude and quiet, surrounded by this cloud of stories. Unknown. Unread. But still present.    

When I was a teenager, I used to go to that same public library (having driven myself there), check out books, and sneak down to the basement. There were large, typically unused meeting rooms where I would lie on the floor for hours in the cool and dark, and read. I doubt this could happen today with security alarms and cameras and such. But at that time, all one had to do was know which door led that way and open the door with purpose. 

Those were days when I had no place to be, no people to be with, and a desperate need to exist somewhere safe. I could have gone to the park, I suppose (full disclosure: I am not a big fan of nature), but when seeking a sanctuary, the public library was my go-to place.  

Yes, libraries are often rooms full of books, but they are a lot more than that for a lot of people. 

It is National Library Week, and that always makes me a bit maudlin.  I can't really fathom where I would be without the libraries that have dotted my path.  

At those several crucial times in my life, they have been essential as places of sanctuary.  

When I think of libraries, it is always with a sense of reverence.  
A sacredness.  
These places that serve the public good. 
Storehouses of knowledge.  
Places of refuge. 

I think back to my much younger selves and doubt that either of those versions of me could know how long-lasting the impact would be. It is as if I was being dipped repeatedly in the River Styx, strengthened, readied, prepared for life and the larger world. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

May I brag?

May I brag for a moment?  

This year, I got valentines. 

Now, this might not seem like much, but part of the bargain that is choosing secondary education is the tacit agreement that you will likely never receive a Valentine, Christmas gift, or birthday gift.  I am not saying it never happens.  I am sure it does.  But I have been in education for 20 years and can count on one hand the number of times I have gotten a holiday gift.  

Until this year!

And I got Valentines!

Let me be clear: this is not a complaint.  It is just the way of things. Little kiddos give teachers gifts while older ones do not.  

But what makes this even more amazing is that I got these cards from students on a day I was not even in their building.  I am at this particular school on Tuesdays, and Valentines Day was Wednesday.  

But a handful of kids remembered me, remembered my name, made me a valentine, and dropped it off for me to get on the following Tuesday. 

And that is something.  

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Mirrors and Windows, Opening Eyes, and a Long Way to Go Part 2

Transcript of conversation from a class on Thursday

(Having just finished reading Trombone Shorty

Me: Now, this picture of Trombone Shorty and Bo Diddly is in black and white, so it might look like this story took place a long time ago, but it didn't!  Trombone Shorty is actually a young


Student A: He's still alive? 

Me: Oh, definitely! He is still alive. He is only 30 years old.  Just a few years ago he played at the White House for President Obama. 

(turned the page)

Me: Here is what he looks like today.

Student B: (gasps) He...he looks like me!

Me: You think he does? 

Student B: Yeah! He's brown and I'm brown! (points to his own arm)

Me: You are right! And you know what, Trombone Shorty travels all over the world playing his music.

Student B: Yeah! (continues smiling)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Mirrors and Windows, Opening Eyes, and a Long Way to Go

I am always acutely aware of the fact that I have an important role in shaping the way the young people in my district see the world.  I am constantly reminded of the need for diverse books. Books are mirrors and windows.  We see the world, but we also see ourselves. 

Recently, Junot Diaz was talking about his new book, his first children's book, and it spoke to this idea of books as windows and mirrors. This idea of writing about heritage and family, of seeing diverse people shown in books and talking about the wider experiences of the world.  

How powerful it is to see someone in a book who looks just like you and has the same experiences or the same hopes or a great life filled with possibility. 

The thing about both windows and mirrors is that we can see others in them too. 

I recently read The Last Stop on Market Street, in which a little boy rides with his grandmother on the bus to serve in a soup kitchen.  My students loved the story and the illustrations.  One drawing shows the poepl on the bus.  

"I'm the guy with the tattoos!"
"Why does that guy have a stick?"
"Look at the dog!"
"Why does that guy have tattoos!"
"Look, the tattoo guy is on his phone!"
"That guy has sunglasses!"
"I think that man is blind!"

On and on, students made observations about the people in the book. This that were new (including the blind man) or familiar (going somewhere with a grandparent), and many expressed surprise at things that were familiar to them but not typically in books, namely the tattoos on the man.  Every class noticed the tattoos.  When asked, every class knew people who had tattoos.  Their surprise, then, was not that he had tattoos, but that the book included a man with tattoos. And that man wasn't threatening or scary. He was on his phone. "I'll bet he is playing Minecraft!" Indeed. 

Later, the boy and his grandmother arrive at the soup kitchen to serve.  I talked with the kids about what a soup kitchen is and why someone might go. They were curious and respectful. Then one girl proudly said, "I have gone to a soup kitchen before! And I go to the food pantry all the time too!"  She was proud to share her experience--no shame, no stigma--this was just like what was happening in the book.

It is moments like those that make me so proud of what I do and see the power in a book.  The power of opening a book and seeing a character who looks familiar. Or approachable.  A story that could easily be one's own life.  Worthy of being put in on a page. 

Today, I read Trombone Shorty, and we all marveled at the young boy's skill, persistence, and bravery.
"I would be too scared!" 
"How did he do that?" 
"Does he have his own hot air balloon?" 
"That's a once in a lifetime chance!"
"He did all of that with a broken trombone?"

They peered interestedly at the photo of Trombone Shorty and Bo Diddly. They asked and wondered and marveled.
Then I turned to the photo of him today, and most of the comments were about how grown up he was, how strong, even how handsome. 
"He has big muscles!?"
"He must work out!"
"He's still alive!" (The earlier black and white photos surely made him seem ancient.)
"Wow, he's young!"

And then, there it was: "He's in jail?"

The photo was just of Trombone Shorty, a young African American man in an undershirt and jeans, smiling for the camera.  Nothing about the photo in any way indicated that he was in jail. 

Unless it was his race. 
If all the media images you saw of young African American men involved their being in jail. Or in a gang and soon headed to jail. 

My heart broke when I heard it.  I smiled and said, "No, he's the leader of a band. He plays his music all over the world. He even played at the White House!" The child thought, then nodded, and that was that. 

But that isn't that.  We have so very far to go.  

And a big part of that responsibility rests on my shoulders.  I need to be sure that my students have the chance to see positive images of traditionally underrepresented or marginalized groups. I need to be sure that we have plenty of books to counter all of the racism coming out of Hollywood today.  

In a larger sense, it is also about, in my personal life, voting with my dollars to say that yes, I want to buy books with diverse character. And I want to pay to see movies with diverse casts. And I won't tolerate books, movies, and TV shows using tired tropes of young black men as criminals or any other stereotype. 

I think it is also just being conscious in a very deep sense to the ways the messages I send help shape foundational ideas.  

And it is easy for me to say that there is no way I can fight a tide of negative, biases, harmful messages kids see, hear, ingest, and absorb. But, really, I can. The primary source of pleasure reading material for students under the age of 17 is the school library.  And that means that the books they check out are helping to form foundational ideas or countering negative messages. 

And that is on me.  

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Belated Thoughts on Representation

As I was going back through this blog, I found a post I had written in May, 2017 but, for some reason, never posted.  As I read through it, I am not sure why I didn't post it, but I see that my thoughs were incomplete and very me-centered. But they are still my rambling reflections, so I am going to go ahead and post them, flawed though they may be. 

When I was about 6, I had to have surgery to have tubes in my ears. I very clearly recall not being the least bit afraid because I knew a secret: I had a pair of plastic sunglasses I had popped the lenses out of so they were just frames, and when I wore those, I was Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. I had a different voice I used. I had different skills. I had a different personality. And as long as I went into surgery as Diana Prince, I would be fine.  Right before they put me under, the nurse tried to take off the glasses, but I grabbed her hand and asked her not to, and she relented. Then I woke up.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I had two role models: Princes Leia and Wonder Woman.  Princess Leia was so abstract and distant, what I would be in my dreams and my imagination.  Starships and blasters (who needs a light saber?). Ordering Chewbacca around! Standing up to Darth Vadar! Mouthing off to Governor Tarkin! Taking no nonsense from Luke or Han! I wore my scraggely hair in side buns, then brdes roped across my head. In some distant reality, she was what I could be. But she was distant (far, far away and whatnot)

But Diana Prince, she was real.  She worked in an office. She had real clothes. She was forever being overlooked yet still continually saving Steve Trevor's sorry self.  (Top soldier, indeed. He was always being captured! What would he have done without Diana??)  She had skills nobody knew about and dreams nobody could comprehend. She had a vision for the future that far surpassed what those around her thought of her and knew her role in all of it.

To a shy, smart, oft-overlooked girl in the Midwest, Diana Prince was Wonder Woman, and she was the great hope.  She was possibility.

And she was Wonder Woman. I had Wonder Woman Underoos, and accessories. A Wonder Woman puzzle and a posable cardboard cutout that hung on my wall. Wonder Woman was what I dreamed to be, what I hoped to be. Just a fraction of that.

I talk a lot about representation in literature and how important it is.  Kids need to see themselves in books and stories, to know that they fit into the larger world.  In many ways, Wonder Woman was my first introduction to that idea.  I read books about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and while I loved  Little House, Laura was not who I wanted to be.  The books I read had girls in them who were meek and obedient and followed along, and that wasn't me, not in my heart.

Not until a Wrinkle in Time did I really come across a female protagonist in a book who was bold and smart and capable and relied on nobody.  That gap in books was filled, for me in visions of Princess Leia and Diana Prince.

Diana didn't need Steve Trevor to get things done (often he was a hindrance). She was capable, independent, and fierce.  And in books, for girls, there was nobody else like her.

She was a lifeline to a girl who wanted to be more than Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I have loved Wonder Woman for most of my life.

When I heard they were making a movie about her, I felt physically ill.  So many of the things I love have been ruined by Hollywood (I'm looking directlyat you, live-action Last Airbender movie), so it is with trembling hope that I anticipate the release of the Wonder Woman movie.

And I see a generation of girls for whom Wonder Woman is amazing but she is not alone. Girls have so many heroes, so many role models, but, let's be honest, we need to do better.

Half of the world is female. Half of the heroes need to be female. Half of the books need to be about girls. Where are the great heroes of color who are female? Where are the stories of world leaders who are female?

Representation matters.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Text rigor, and other nonsense

When I hear the word "rigor" these days, it makes me twitchy.

Teachers are often told to focus on making sure they are using rigorous texts.  Students are forced to pick out books based on Lexile level.  For some reason, we have come to believe that complicated = rigorous = better. 

I was talking to a student recently who has high aspirations for college.  I asked her what she was reading for fun. As I Lay Dying, by Faulkner.  (Yes, I am serious.) Why would any 17-year-old choose that book for pleasure reading?  Because she has been fed the lie that complicated = rigorous = better. 

And that is what it is: a lie.  

You can do a close reading of anything.  There is some really amazing YA lit that can be picked apart and examined a dozen different ways.  Look at what the vast Harry Potter fanbase has done with that series?  One need only step foot into a deep discussion with fans of The Kingkiller Chronicles to realize that such a book can be read for fun, and also analyzed, digested, ruminated upon, discussed, and torn apart with each reading revealing new and more complex ideas. 

Case in point:

I went into over a dozen classrooms K-5 and read Red, a Crayon's Story. The premise is that there is a blue crayon with a red wrapper.  

He tries to color in red, but can't. 

The narrator is a pencil. 

All of the characters are art supplies. 

And the discussions these classes had would knock your socks off. 

Kindergarteners didn't understand why nobody could tell he wasn't blue. It was obvious. 

One fifth-grader asked for the author's name and the publisher (HarperCollins) because she wanted to share some of her thoughts with the author. 

Many kids were hyper-aware of the cruelty of the other crayons who called Red lazy, implied he wasn't very smart or trying hard enough, or were critical of him when he was sitting right there. 

Several kids were horrified at the suggestion--made by the pencil--that Red needed to be sharpened.  How painful!

A lot of kids appreciated how helpful the teacher was, even if the problem clearly couldn't be solved with effort and coaching. 

In every single class, (and I do mean every one. Kindergarten through fifth) the students gasped aloud when a new crayon asks Red to draw a blue ocean. The startling revelation that this one simple question from a friend could show Red his purpose and help him find his worth. All of that from a kind word from a friend. 

One teacher, when I closed the book, whispered, "What a wonderful book! There are so many levels to it."

It is a 40-page book with a Lexile level of 380 (late kindergarten). 
The narrator is a pencil. 
The main character is a crayon. 

And the discussions that flowed from it naturally were rigorous. 

Text complexity is made up of thee parts: qualitative, quantitative, and reader/task.  We spend all of our time talking about the quantitative: Lexile. AR points. How many pages? How many chapters?  How many syllables in the longest words? 

In that, we miss out on the qualitative aspect. And, more importantly, the reader and task aspect.  

This short picture book had those latter two in spades. Depth and breadth. Symbolism. A great illustration of metaphor.  The idea of a third-person-limited narrator. Anthropomorphic characters. The idea that the shorter crayons are the older ones and why that is. Looking at the differences in attitudes between the crayons that are rounded nubs and those that are sharp and precise. 

And beyond that, how did they treat each other?  What was Red's problem?  As the kids kept pointing out, it was absurd to presume he should ever have been able to do anything in red; he was blue. Why did all the other crayons ask that of him??  And this almost always led to a great discussion of societal expectations. One student even said, "I look like my dad, but I am much more like my mom. Nobody realizes that." 

The richness and beauty in the observations of an 8-year-old who has spent her life being told, "Oh! I know your sister!" and all the implications that come along with that, for better or much much worse. 

I have read many books to many kids, and I have never had a student ask for the information to contact the author. Ever. 

That is rigor. That is the idea of engaging the reader and allowing their background knowledge to be used and expanded upon.  

Kids understand failure. 
Students understand the expectations people have of you. 
Many kids know what it is to feel like they can't do anything right. 
Far too many kids feel like no matter how hard they try, it is never good. 
Entirely too many kids have heard people whisper that they are lazy or dumb or difficult.  

This is a book that speaks to the experience of students and allows them to examine those complicated ideas of societal expectations and failure.  They can see the difference of an intervening authority who is compassionate, and kind. They can know that some problems really can only be made better by the intervention of a peer. 

That is rigor. 

That is beautiful

One need not read Faulkner to find text complexity and rigor.  

One need only look at this story with a Lexile of 380 told by a pencil. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

A Good Cry

When people ask for a book recommendation, I always start with the same question: How do you want to feel?  Are you looking for something that will make you laugh? Cry? Be scared? Learn? 

For me, that answer is never "cry". I liked to be moved by a book, but I rarely seek out a book hoping to cry, though I know a lot of my student do. I often hear "I want a sad book", but that is never my thought. 

When I read the Kite Runner years ago, I recall crying so deeply that I had to set aside the book for a bit.  I was a mess.  After I finished it, it was days before I could read anything else, and even months later, though of the haunting sadness and devastation came back to me. These were in ways that made me think about larger issues, not just the suffering of individual characters, but the sorrow lingered.  

The Kite Runner is a beautiful book, and I do not regret reading it at all. But I  rarely go looking for a cry. 

That's the great thing about serendipity: that
time you randomly pick up a book you know nothing about and it ends up changing your life.  That has happened many times for me.  American Gods was that way.  When it was written, Neil Gaiman was less well known than he now is.  Wth the TV show based on the books reviving his fame, I have many times thought of how odd it was that I picked up American Gods, not really something I would typically read, and was blown away. 

Serendipity is beautiful, 

But it takes a measure of trust.  Trust in the process. And trust in ourselves. 

And I know my limits. I can't read books where kids have cancer (Sorry, John Green).  If I realize that's what I am reading, I will actually set a book aside. I know my limits. I have previously mentioned my issues with Challenger Deep. I wanted to finish it, but couldn't. 

Which makes it odd to me that I recently read
(in one day, staying up far too late) A List of Cages. 

I wept through that like a baby. 

But I kept going. 

And I am glad I did. With a warning of a mildly spoiler-ish nature, one of the characters has had a difficult life.  And faces struggles that are unimaginable during the course of the book. 

There is also something beautiful and triumphant about seeing someone deal with difficulties, find personal strength, find allies and such. 

But this is a hard book to read. Not difficult in terms of Lexile level, but hard. Heartbreakingly, rips-your-guts-out hard.  The suffering of others is difficult. And some is downright unbearable. For me, the thing, I think, that made this so difficult, is that it was so real, so possible. And so devastating in its possibility. 

So I kept reading it, and I am glad I did.  

My eyes hurt. My heart hurt. My soul hurt. But I am glad I read it. 

I didn't want to cry, rarely do, and certainly wasn't looking to. But I guess that is the great thing about books. It isn't just living vicariously through others, but really grasping the difficulties of others, that humanizes us.  It softens our heart to know man's inhumanity toward man and seeing that each of us has the possibility of being a balm to another facing that inhumanity. 

I suppose, whether we know it or not, sometimes we can all use a good cry. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

High Stakes Testing and the Human Heart

I loathe high-stakes testing. 

I really do.  

As an educator, I loathe it because it takes away from instruction time.  It is used to judge teachers, even though the test often doesn't really show how a teacher does or what a student has learned in class. It is used to judge students, even though there are far better ways to assess student ability, achievement, and progress. 

As a citizen, I loathe it as a waste of money. Testing companies and publishing empires (cough *Pearson* cough) are making millions of dollars off of a run-schools-like-businesses model that is harmful and foolish. Once for-profit corporations are involved, nothing is objective, nothing can be trusted in the same way.  

But as a human, a mom, a person with a heart, I despise high-stakes testing. 

Have you ever seen a child cry because they were given a math problem that they have never even seen before?
I have. 

Have you seen a child's spirit broken because they feel like they should know how to do a question that is beyond their ability simply because it is on their test that is based on grade level, not ability level? 
I have. 

Have you seen a child totally overwhelmed by a question that is needlessly complicated or wordy?
I have.

Have you seen a child fumble through a test because they have difficulty operating a mouse or mouse pad or some other technological device that has nothing to do with reading or math ability?
I have. 

Have you seen a student question themselves, their intelligence, their ability, their future, because of a test question that they have been told is crucial to their education but is really not?
I have.

Have you ever seen a child burst into tears because they didn't understand part A of a math problem so they, by default, couldn't do part B (graph part A) or part C (explain your answer), leading one mistake to feel like three, a cascade of failure?
I have.

Why do we do this to our children? 

The answer is because we don't trust teachers. 

Children's teachers know how they are doing. They know who understands and who doesn't. They teach, assess, reteach, reassess all year long.  

That should be enough. 

But it isn't. 

So, instead, we are harming our kids, taking away instructional time, adding needless worry and stress, and crushing fragile self-confidence. And for what? 

A test that does one of the following: 
A) Gives results nobody cares about
B) Gives results that are useless or invalid
C) Gives corporations data that they can use to gain greater influence in the money pool of education while not enhancing education at all. 
D) All of the above. And more. None of it good or valuable. 

The answer, of course, is D. 

A heartbreaking, soul-sucking D.  And it should infuriate everyone. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Silence and Cowardice

I am a coward. 

It has been a rather difficult couple of months, with a lot going on for me at work.  Not difficult in terms of library stuff, but in terms of knowing how to handle impossible situations.  My technique for dealing with them has been to vacillate between quiet avoidance and quiet outrage, always tinged with a note of fear. Notice the theme of quiet.   

I have written about it, then squirreled my thoughts away, not wanting to rock any boats nor attract any attention. 

Like I said: I am a coward. 

Then, through the natural way of things, I picked up the book All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan
Kiely. And I was hit squarely between the eyes with the realization that I am a coward. My silence is cowardice.  I don't want to spoil an absolutely amazing book, but there is a theme of action vs. quietly sitting aside, and it kept confronting me. Again and again. 

My silence is cowardice. 

So, with that in mind, I am going to publish here what I wrote.  I am not going to edit it except to make it current and accurate, and also to add pictures.  


My office door is covered in stickers, signs, and photos of things are important to me as a person, as an educator. Some are funny (a comic about a boy getting his first dog and needing to name it wisely because that name would serve as a password reminder for the rest of the boy’s life). Some are motivational (A “She persisted” sticker).  Some are nerdy humor (a funny punctuation joke about the Oxford comma) (I actually have two of those). Some are educational (A printout of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s statement on what Feminism is and why it is important) Some are promotional: the covers of books I am reading or have read so students know.

And some are statements of who I am, what I stand for, and what students can expect from me.  I have a rainbow ally logo, so that student know that the library is a safe place for LGBT students, I will protect them, and I will not tolerate slurs or hate speech.

I also have a Black Lives Matter logo up, again, so students know that the library is a safe place for minority students, I will protect them, and I will not tolerate hate speech or slurs.

I have had the BLM sticker up all year. Then, on Tuesday, February 7, I noticed that someone had vandalized my door.  They had taken down my BLM logo, physically cut out the word “black”, written “white” on my door in permanent marker, then hung the sign back up so it said, “white lives matter.”  

I was really upset about it.  Upset that someone had vandalized school property.  Upset that someone had thought it was OK to cut out the word black.  Dismayed that whoever did it didn't come to me to talk about what is on my door and instead thought this was an appropriate way to handle it.

The next day I replaced the Black Lives Matter logo.

Since that time, in addition to continued vandalism and theft, I know there has been a lot of discussion about my door, about Black Lives Matter.  

One comment I often hear is, “What about white lives? Do they matter?” Of course they do.  

When someone wears a pink ribbon in support of breast cancer patients and research, nobody follows them around shouting “All cancers matter!” The pink ribbon doesn’t mean they think other cancers don’t matter or that we should fund breast cancer research more than any other.  They are just bringing attention to an issue that is important to them--breast cancer research--and making sure it isn’t overlooked, as it was historically.

When the constitution was written, white lives mattered. Slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person. Constitutionally. Black people could be owned, bought, and sold.  Black lives irrefutably did not matter, on a systemic national level.

When the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments were passed, white lives mattered. But Jim Crow legislation passed, and black people were prevented from voting.  Black students had separate schoolhouses, black Americans had separate water fountains and entrances to buildings. Colleges and clubs and businesses could reject black people.  Black lives irrefutably on a national scale did not matter.

In 1954, white lives mattered.  But it took a supreme court ruling in Brown v. BoE to desegregate schools, and even enforcing that required the National Guard. Educationally, black lives didn’t matter.

In 1986, white lives mattered, but it took a supreme court case (Batson v. Kentucky) to say that prosecutors could not use peremptory challenges to dismiss jurors based on their race. That was in 1986. In my lifetime, people were getting kicked off juries based solely on race. At that time, in my lifetime, black lives didn’t matter equally to white lives.

In February of this year (2/22), the supreme court ruled that a black death row inmate in Texas could have a new trial because his own lawyers had stated at his trial that he was more likely to be dangerous because he is black. Chief Justice Roberts stated, "Our holding on prejudice makes clear that Buck may have been sentenced to death in part because of his race.”  That was just last week. At least in part, in the justice system, black lives do not universally matter.

Black lives have not always mattered. That is irrefutable and supported by centuries of evidence. That is not my opinion. It is measurable fact supported by data. Lots of data. So, it is important to me that students, all students, know that, to me, black lives do matter.

Now, this doesn’t mean white people don’t suffer.  They certainly do.  White people experience poverty and unemployment and difficulties in life.  But institutionally, universally, systemically, white lives have always mattered in a way that black lives either did not at all or did not to the same extent as white lives.  That is not my opinion.  That is objective, measurable fact supported by data and history.

I have heard that some are upset because they say that BLM is a terrorist organization.  This is untrue. If you go to the BLM homepage under their Guiding Principles here are a few:

  • Diversity: We are committed to acknowledging, respecting and celebrating difference(s) and commonalities.
  • Restorative Justice: We are committed to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension all people….
  • Loving engagement: We are committed to embodying and practicing justice, liberation, and peace in our engagements with one another.

These are not the principles of a terrorist organization.

Do people come to BLM rallies and do things other than this?  Sure.  But that is not what the organization stands for.  There is so much tension in the country today, virtually every rally of any sort attracts people who are intent simply upon causing unrest and destruction.  But that is not what the Black Lives Matter organization stands for.  

Have individual members said things that were hateful or egregious? Sure.  But that is an individual member, not the organization.

I appreciate when people do not judge me, as a Christian, based on some extremist who blew up an abortion clinic. That extremist doesn’t speak for all Christians or for Christianity, just as rogue BLM members do not speak for the BLM organization.  

So, I have a Black Lives Matter logo on my door to let students--all students--know that to me, black lives matter. I will support them.  I will protect them.  They matter.

My students matter to me.  Deeply. All of them.  And I recognize, as any teacher does, that sometimes, for some students, you have to go out of your way to let them know they matter. There are some students who are lonely, have been excluded, have been abused, have few friends, or who are suffering from some situation.  Educators go out of our way to let those students know that we understand, we care, we are here to support them. For me, in a high school setting, that includes adding to my door signs of support for students and student populations.  Because they matter.

When the vandalism first happened, I put the BLM logo back up, then added another that said “Check privilege here,” although I left the graffiti visible, so it appears to say “check white privilege here.” This is a reference to the landmark 1989 article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh.

This article talks about ways in which people who are not minorities may benefit without even trying. These benefits come because of the systems in this country, the centuries old systems that have, as I mentioned before, always valued white lives, but not always valued other lives.  The article includes a list of 50 questions the author asked herself about her daily life and brings attention to things she never has to deal with or even think about, simply because she is white. Years ago, when I first read the article I was struck by all the things that I had never thought of before,  the ways my life has silently been shaped by race.  

  • I have never been pulled over just for being white.  
  • I have never been called a “credit to my race.”
  • I don’t have to worry about my race working against me when I get a mortgage (though that is well-documented for members of minorities).
  • It is not difficult to find my race portrayed well on TV or movies or in books.  
  • Nobody ever asks me to speak on behalf of my race. “How do you feel about this as a white librarian?”  
  • I can be pretty sure that when I am in a business, school, or restaurant, if I ask to speak to the person in charge, that person will be the same race as me.

This doesn’t mean I or anyone else should apologize for being white.  This doesn’t mean I or anyone else should be ashamed of being white. This doesn’t  mean I haven’t had hardships. This doesn’t diminish my own hard work or achievements or those of any other white person.  

White privilege isn’t my fault or the fault of any other white person. It is just the way the system works. And I benefit from it. I benefit from it in a way that many other people don’t. And I want to be aware of these factors, these inequalities.

This doesn’t mean my life is easy or the life of any other white person is easy.  Of course, many many white people suffer from terrible circumstances and horrible problems.  But they typically don’t suffer from things because they are white.  

That is white privilege.

Since the original incident, my door (which is school property) and my personal property have been vandalized or stolen 7 times (2/7, 2/9, 2/15, 2/16, 2/22, 2/24, 2/24) Late last week, my door was again vandalized. After putting the stickers back up, again, I sat in my office and briefly thought of how easy it would be to just walk away.  How easy it would be to just leave the signs down and leave the conversation on race be.   And I was struck by the fact that this is the perfect example of my enveloping myself in white privilege.  I have the choice to walk away from a discussion on race. I, as a white person, can say, “You know what, I don’t want to deal with the issue of race today,” and that will happen.  A black or Hispanic person can’t say, “You know what, today I don’t want race to be an issue in my life.”  

So I hung the stickers back up, including the one referencing privilege. And I did that because someone thought is was completely appropriate to destroy someone else’s property and vandalize school property in order to remove the word “black” and replace it with white. Then that person thought it was completely appropriate to steal items they disagreed with from my door.  

I eventually had to put both images on the inside of my office window because the student continued to vandalize and steal my property, even saying that no matter the consequence the actions would continue.

As long as these are the actions anyone thinks is appropriate, then there is still a discussion that needs to be had. And I don’t want to shy away from difficult discussions.  I want to engage in them: ask, talk, listen, think, and grow.  These are the very conversations we need to be having, and I hope that they are ones that we can have with respect and dignity.