Category Archives: problems with society

Teaching Tuesday: The open house blues

I’m a parent who always goes to open house. Even when open house falls on the first teacher work day and I’ve spent 8 hours at my own school, rushed to meet my husband for a quick dinner and then had to come all the way back to the elementary school my kids go to (which is next door to my school and 45 minutes from our house) and we don’t even make it home until nearly 8 pm, I go.

This year the teachers hadn’t even met my kids and I went to open house so I could meet them and see their classrooms. I wanted to hear about their teaching philosophies and learn what the year has in store for my kiddos, one of whom was a little more excited to go back to school than the other.

My enthusiasm for open house at my school, however, is not nearly as strong. It’s not because I don’t love my job. I truly do. I cannot really imagine being anything other than a teacher (well, except rock star, famous author or movie star, but I’m not sure my real-life self will be as good at these jobs as my dream life self is).

The reason I dread open house night at my school is because of the 120 students I currently have enrolled in all of my classes, I met parents of about 30 of my students. Unlike the classrooms at the elementary school where each room was packed so full many parents were standing, my classroom  had a sea of open desks.

When I asked my students why their parents didn’t show up, the reply I got most was something along the lines of, “I’m almost out of school and my parents don’t think they need to come.” Basically, since my students are juniors and seniors, most of their parents don’t feel the need to come and meet their teachers, find out what their kids will be learning or get involved beyond signing a course expectation sheet and maybe (and this is a BIG maybe) dropping me an email if their kid’s grade dips down below a C.

What floors me is that the majority of my students are Advanced Placement English kids, who are all college bound. I would think these would be some of the most supportive and enthusiastic parents. My guess is that many of the parents feel like they don’t need to come to open house because their kids are advanced and probably will not struggle much in school.

But really, what kind of a message does this send to the kids? School is very important at the elementary level. Or at least important enough for their parents to give up an evening to come and meet their teachers. Even in middle school open house attendance rates are pretty high in my district. But for each birthday kids celebrate, fewer parents show up to school events like open house.

To me it sends a message that school isn’t a priority anymore. Their kids are almost out, so they don’t need to care as much. This may not be entirely harmful to the parents, but the kids see this message and that’s where I think the real issue lies. If kids don’t see their parents interested enough to go to the school and meet their teachers and hear about their classes, are they as likely to be interested?

I really feel that as parents, we need to make it clear to our kids that their education, no matter what level they are at, is important. It is important enough for us to give up our free time and come in to learn about what they will be learning. Even at 18, most children still really care what their parents think and they pick up on the messages, even the subtle ones, they send out.

I know that when my kids are in high school, I am going to make my husband come to open house. He will go around and meet all of their teachers (they’ll be going to my high school, so I’ll already know them). I want my kids to know that their education is important to both their parents, not just their geeky ol’ school lovin’ mom.

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Free Reading Friday: Prayers for the Stolen

prayers for the stolenAlthough I’ve already posted reviews of several other Eliot Rosewater book nominees for the 2017-2018 year, Prayers for the Stolen was actually one of the first ones I read this summer. When I borrowed it from the school library at the end of May, I didn’t realize I actually already owned a copy.

I’d read about the book as part of an offer one of the publishing companies makes to teachers: preview copies for only $3 each. The idea is to see if the book is one you might want to teach in class and then order an entire class set or two. I often take advantage of this deal as I’m always looking for new books that might be interesting to teach. Plus, cheap books…who can pass that up?

The blurb in the catalog was enticing to me. A story about a young girl in a rural Mexican village where all the men leave in order to seek their fortunes. A town where girls disappear with such regularity that mothers purposely make their daughters look ugly and dig holes in their yards in order to hide girls so the cartels won’t kidnap them. A town where girls are educated, but only when there is a teacher willing to come to the village. A town where it is not uncommon for a best friend to disappear, but is unheard for her to ever return.

Except, of course, in this book she does.

Jennifer Clement offers up a beautifully disturbing book. While targeted at a YA audience, I think adults will find equal merit in this book. I find it hard to type the word “enjoy” as the book deals with very serious issues including child slavery, kidnapping, murder, drug cartels, alcoholism, adultery and abandonment and has so much tragedy in it. Still, I found the book captivating and could not put it down. Clement’s prose is poetic and haunting.

Ladydi, the main character (named because her mother was obsessed with Princess Diana), is a young woman in one of the most vulnerable situations imaginable. And yet, she rises through each horrific event and becomes stronger. She is powerful and empathetic and will open reader’s eyes to a world they’ve probably never even thought about before. It’s so easy to turn our backs on problems we cannot see, especially when they exist far from our doors, if not far from our borders.


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Teaching Tuesday: Teaching is not a “calling”

I don’t know how many times in my life I’ve heard that teaching is a “calling.” Usually this phrase is invoked to criticize teachers who want pesky things like raises, better benefits or better working conditions. After all, teachers shouldn’t be in it for the money, right? It’s a “calling.” People should only go in to teaching because they want to help others, regardless of whether or not they can actually live off of the salary provided.

Once, at a school board meeting when members of our community were remonstrating against a desperately needed referendum, a member of the community actually stood up and suggested that locals should be able to pay us in fruits and vegetables rather than a standard salary, because, after all, teaching is a calling and we shouldn’t be in it for the money.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can’t pay my mortgage with turnips.

Despite what many people want the general public to believe, teaching is not a “calling.” Teaching is a profession, just like any other. There are teachers who excel in the profession. They go above and beyond what is needed to ensure they make education as enjoyable and as meaningful as possible. This does not happen simply through some sort of divine intervention or some inborn talent they have. It happens because they work very hard, sacrificing countless hours of their own time with friends and family in order to work on lesson plans, grading, training, etc.

Teachers are not religious leaders. They do not live off the charity of their parishioners. They do not take vows of poverty. They do not have the ability to ex-communicate any member of their flock. Sure, administrators can expel students, but it is a whole lot easier for a pastor to tell someone not to come back to the church than it is to kick a student out of a school. There are no laws telling pastors how to run their churches, who they have to serve within the community, or how long they have to allow people to stay in their congregations. Anyone who wants to can become a pastor. Although many pastors do go to seminary or have religious training, there is no mandate that they do. Thanks to the internet, anyone who wants to can get ordained. Anyone who wants to can recruit followers and set up their own church. Teachers cannot do this.

Teachers, like people in a great many other professions, have to have college degrees. They have to pass state and national exams. They have to be licensed by the state. They are employees of a school corporation. Teachers, are doing a JOB. And like members of every other profession, they deserve to be properly compensated. Yes, believe it or not, teachers become teachers because they want to be paid for their knowledge and their skills. It is our lively hood, not a “calling.” While I love my job and work very hard at it, I go to work every day, not because of some divine “calling,” but because I have a family to support. And my children deserve a good life, just like the children I teach, whose parents are doctors, lawyers, accountants, mechanics, etc.

Indiana is currently experiencing a rather large teacher shortage. While “experts” speculate on why this is, any teacher can tell you why: teachers in Indiana are not well compensated, are being vilified in the media and are being forced to jump through ridiculous hoops to prove they are “qualified.” The state keeps rolling out new tests to measure students, slashing education budges and adding more to the already overworked shoulders of teachers. Is it a wonder that articles like this one in the Indianapolis Star are popping up in newspapers around the state?

While I appreciate the Star trying to shed light onto a very real problem, I found myself getting so annoyed when they referred to those who are still willing to become teachers as people who have a “calling.” This myth needs to be put to bed. People who become teachers may be following their passions. They are hopefully going into a profession where they feel their skills will be put to good use. But they are not on some divine mission, nor should they be treated as they are.

Teachers are professionals who want to do their jobs. They want to give their students the best educations they can. They deserve respect and compensation, not sainthood and poverty.


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Free Reading Friday: Fresh Off the Boat

Frest off the boatOnce again, I really had very little idea what I was getting into with this book. I vaguely remember hearing that Fresh off the Boat was the name of a TV series, but as I haven’t had any sort of cable in a few years, I’d never seen it. I actually just saw part of it at the gym earlier this week. I always bring music or a book to listen to while working out, but when I glanced up at the TV hanging over the Arc Trainer, I saw the intro for the show and found myself glancing up at it several times during my workout.

Before picking up this book I’d never heard of Eddie Huang or Baohaus. I actually bought the book after reading a short synopsis of it in a catalog I get a few times a year which previews books teachers might want to use in their classroom. As I am always looking for new, interesting works of non-fiction for my AP Language kids and I have only a handful of non-fiction books in my classroom by Asian writers, I bought a copy and added this one to my summer reading list.

At times I struggled reading it. It’s not that the book is hard to read, bu there is a lot of slang in it, and even when I was young, I was never extremely fluent in slang. Well, I did 80’s Valley Girl ok, but that’s because I actually grew up in Southern California in the 1980’s and mostly just picked it up from friends. East Coast street slang is an entirely different world to me. I also know next to nothing about sneakers and my hip-hop/rap knowledge could definitely stand to be better.

What I really enjoyed about this book was that I feel like Huang’s voice is authentically his in this book. He starts off as a young man, searching for himself, trapped in world where the only faces he sees that look like his are members of his family. As he grows up, he is caught between cultures and trying very hard not to become the “stereotypical Asian” he sees so many people around him becoming. His identification with hip hop and rap artists felt so real to him because like them, he felt like an outsider, looking into a world that didn’t really want him.

I think it’s great that Eddie is unapologetically himself in his memoir. He doesn’t try to turn himself into some sort of flawless hero. He shows the world who he is and was, warts and all, so to speak. He admits to mistakes. He talks about what he’s learned. He shares his frustrations and anger with his readers.

He also shares his very real disdain for a number of people in this book. While I do think he goes overboard with the way he airs his disdain, I haven’t lived his life. I am white and have never felt out of place in America. Disappointed in my country, sure, but never like I don’t belong here, which he has clearly felt, and been made to feel, countless times in his life. I think his anger is justified. I can’t imagine what it is like to grow up in a world where I barely see myself reflected in the media or where I feel pushed toward a minuscule number of professions.

I’m glad Huang wrote this book. I’m glad he started a business that truly reflects who he is as a person and gives others the chance to do the same. I’m glad I read this book and I hope several of my students read it as well. I think it may give some of them a perspective they’ve never thought of before. I love the line he has near the end of the book, “My main objective with Baohaus was to become a voice for Asian Americans,*” which he follows up with this footnote: *”Note that I say ‘a voice’ not ‘the voice.’ I don’t speak for all Asian Americans, I speak for a few rotten bananas like me.”

I think more voices like Huang’s need to be heard in our country.

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Teaching Tuesday: School supplies

school supply close upRecently one of my best friends and I got into a bit of a debate about school supply shopping. I’d just come back from supply shopping and I was feeling some rather serious sticker shock. Aside from buying each of my kids two notebooks with designs on them (which cost $2.50 each), everything else I bought my kids was the cheapest version of the supply available. For two kids going into grades 2 and 5, that came to $100 and some changes.┬áThree items on my son’s list (a Trapper Keeper that zips, a set of ultra fine color Sharpie’s and a white t-shirt) totaled $31, nearly a third of the total cost.

This $100 didn’t cover backpacks, lunchboxes, headphones, styluses, or scissors (we are reusing from last year). It also didn’t cover pencils or pocket folders for my son since he already has the required amount at home. That $100 also does not cover the fees I have to pay the school to cover their iPads/books, which will be an additional $150 each.

Target bagsSo, in order to send my kids back to school next week, I will spend about $400. Of course that $400 doesn’t include the money I am also going to have to spend on school supplies…for my own classroom.

I teach high school and for a variety of different reasons, we don’t send out classroom supply lists.* I can give students a list of materials they will need for my classroom, and hope that they get them, but one thing I’ve learned is that both student and parental concern for these issues greatly wane as students get older. Need proof? Go to any open house. Last year when I walked into my son’s 4th grade classroom during open house, it was packed, with many adults standing. At our open house I am lucky to get 5 or 6 parents per class section. I also know that even when I do require them to have materials, since I have no storage for them, my kids will not remember them, so it is just easier for me to keep class sets of markers, pencils, rulers, scissors, Post-Its, etc.

While my administration will provide some of these materials, like all teachers I have to purchase additional supplies on my own. Last year I spent over $300 of my own money on classroom supplies. I’m sure this year will be no different.

Now, before anyone gets ready to fly off the handle, I know that even with the supplies I am sending my kids to school with, elementary teachers will also be spending their hard earned money on additional classroom supplies. I also know that elementary students go through a LOT more supplies than high school kids do. I know that some of the supplies I send in will no doubt be put into a classroom “pot” for all kids to use and I am 100% fine with that. I do not begrudge any student or elementary teacher these supplies. I want both the teachers and the students to have these supplies.

I recently read some really good articles/posts about the importance of buying school supplies. The first one I read was here. The other one, which I can’t find at the moment was written by a teacher who heard one parent railing about the cost of school supplies and how it was wrong and unfair, etc. while another parent gave her a gift card to buy supplies because he wanted to make sure his daughter understood the value of education. I agree completely with both of the ideas/sentiments in both of these articles. As a teacher and a parent, however, I’m getting hit with the double whammy here. I am paying for supplies twice and it’s a little hard to swallow.

Luckily, because both my husband and I have jobs, we are able to pay for these supplies, even if it means some cutting back for the next few weeks. However, my kids go to a school where over 1/3 of the students are eligible for free/reduced meals because they fall below community poverty standards. So, while these fees are a small hardship for my family, they are HUGE bills to many other families in our district who I know cannot afford to shell out $31 for three items on the list.

I am a teacher because I value education. I think an educated society is one of the most important things in the world. I know that it is impossible to provide that education without the proper supplies. I know that those supplies vary based on age and experience.

It’s hard to explain my anger over paying for school supplies. It’s not really the cost that angers me. It’s the fact that we live in a society that thinks providing supplies to teachers is NOT important. I am angry that I live in a society that is constantly demonizing teachers and railing about how we make too much money, but also thinks it is perfectly acceptable to expect us to pay for our own supplies. People want us to do our jobs, but they don’t want to give us the supplies and materials we need to do our jobs.

Although I’ve been a teacher for 20 years, I’ve also worked outside of education for 8 years. In those years, I was never once expected to provide my own supplies. My husband works for a publishing company and he is not expected to provide his own supplies. I have friends who are reporters, lobbyists, non-profit organizers, lawyers, doctors…and they are not expected to provide their own supplies.

I don’t think parents should have to pay for school supplies any more than I think teachers should have to pay for them. If we want an educated society, we need to make education a priority. We send a very big message to kids when we make educational cut after educational cut: Education is not important. It is not worth spending money on. And whether we realize it or not, that message is also interpreted as: Kids are not important. Their futures are not important. And what that really means is: Our future is not important.

Those are ridiculous and short-sighted messages to send.

*There are several reasons we don’t do this, the biggest is that unlike elementary teachers who have 20-30 kids in one year, this year I will have about 125 students who will only be in my classroom for 1/4 of their day (we are on block scheduling). My classroom has no built in student storage, so there would be no place to store their supplies other than their lockers, which not all students have/use and even if they did, they would then have to go back to their lockers to get supplies, which would waste valuable class time.

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Free Reading Friday: be-liev-a-rex-ic

BelieverexicOne of my summer goals, aside from reading at least 20 books, is to read as many of this year’s Rosie nominated books as possible. For those of you who don’t know what that means, “Rosie” is the nickname for the Eliot Rosewater Indiana High School Book Award. The award is named after a character created by Kurt Vonnegut, probably Indiana’s most famous author. Rosewater not only shows up in several of his novels, but also has one directly named after him, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

Each year Indiana high school students rate the books they read off of the Rosie list. The book that receives the best rating wins the award. The books that come in second and third receive Rosie honors. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven won the 2016-2017 award and if you haven’t read it, you really should. It was breathtaking and heartbreaking and everything an amazing YA book should be.

Each year there are 20 books nominated and my wonderful school librarian not only has copies of each nominated books, but also highly promotes the books, both to the students and to the staff. Not only did she give each English teacher a great poster of the Rosie nominees, but she also gave us bookmarks and let several of us truly dedicated readers on staff bring home books for the summer. As a result, I have read 12 of the 2017-2018 nominees (7 of them this summer).

The most recent book I checked off my list (the bookmarks actually have check boxes on the back next to each title) was be-liev-a-rex-ic by J.J. Johnson. The author refers to her book as an “autobiographical novel” because she was admitted to an inpatient program for bulimarexia when she was 15. According to Johnson, the admission and discharge dates are real as is the information about the therapy sessions, rules, groups and policies Jennifer goes through in the novel. She does, however, change some of the situations, add fictional details, consolidate characters and change the internal time line to make the story function better. That being said, the book is incredibly real and definitely coincides with other memoirs I’ve read from girls who have been hospitalized for eating disorders.

I think this is a great book for teenagers, especially girls. Unlike several books I’ve read about eating disorders, this one centers on the recovery process. There is no glorification of the disorder nor is there anything that could really constitute a “how to” guide that many books dealing with disorders are accused of containing. The author deals very little with the behavior that lands Jennifer in the hospital and more with the issues that lead her to the hospital. The book is about the road to recovery and the slips along the way.

Considering that according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 30 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder, it is critical that books like be-liev-a-rex-ic get into the hands of young adults to let them know not only the seriousness of eating disorders, but also that there is hope and help. The statistics on eating disorders are pretty darn scary. Every 62 minutes, one person dies as a direct result of an eating disorder. Eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

As a teacher, this is an issue close to my heart. Over the years far too many of my female students have told me about their struggles with eating disorders. Some have been hospitalized. Many have been in counseling. Some have tried to fight it on their own. It breaks my heart even more because I know their struggle. It was my struggle too. Thankfully mine never got to desperate levels, but much like Jennifer, no one around me noticed. I was good at hiding what I was eating…or more specifically, what I wasn’t. When I got to college, I had a wonderful boyfriend who noticed my shaking hands, my fogginess, and the fact that I would go an entire day and only eat a single Kit Kat bar. It took a lot of work, a lot of tears and a lot of self-examination, but I changed my habits. However, food has always been and will always be a life long struggle for me.

While be-liev-a-rexi-ic may not be my favorite book on this year’s Rosie list (right now that honor goes to Salt to the Sea by Rita Sepetys), I think it is an important book teens should read.

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Wild Card Wednesday: Handicapped parking spaces

About an hour ago I ran to CVS to pick up some Gatorade for my husband who is in the midst of a rather violent migraine. He was cursed at a very early age with not just head-splitting pain, but also the inability to keep anything down, including his own saliva, whenever one of these demonic fits hits him.

The store was pretty empty and as I approached the counter, the two employees behind it were finishing up a conversation. I caught the tail end of it. Apparently one of the regular customers had been in earlier in the day and had gotten rather irate with another patron for parking in a handicapped space, even though the person he’d yelled at had had the required parking tag. According to the irate patron, who uses a wheelchair, anyone who can walk and doesn’t have the official license plate doesn’t deserve to park in a designated handicapped spot.

I interjected myself into their conversation when she waved me forward to ring up my purchases.

“I hate when people get judgmental about who deserves a handicap space and who doesn’t,” I said.

She agreed and went on to tell me that the same customer yelled at her a few weeks ago when she stopped by CVS with her daughter. Her daughter, she told me, has brain cancer, and while she can walk, she can only do it in short bursts. She tires very easily and every little bit she doesn’t have to walk really helps her. The cashier was clearly still very upset about the way the customer had acted.

I sympathized with her. My step-mom had a handicap tag on her car for about a decade and we used to get nasty looks and muttered comments all the time. Sometimes the comments weren’t even muttered. I heard more than one person comment on how being fat must be a disability now. Because yes, my step-mom was overweight.

Even my ex, who is a very sensitive and compassionate human being, did not think she was sick enough to have the parking tag. My ex initially thought my step-mom was being lazy and actually using my grandmother’s parking tag (my grandmother had died of cancer earlier in the year).

But neither laziness nor fat were the reasons she had the tag. My step-mom developed pretty crippling arthritis in her late 20’s/early 30’s. In order to combat the pain she was in, she took some pretty strong medications that made the pain easier to deal with, but damaged her lungs and weakened her heart in the process. Before she hit 40, she had both a portable oxygen tank and one at home. The one at home she used like she was supposed to. She was not always great about bringing the portable one though. Even with it, the trip from the parking lot into any store was taxing on her. But as long as she could push a cart at her pace (or later ride in a scooter), she loved going shopping, so we’d park the car in a handicap space, one of us would run and get her a cart or a scooter and then we’d head into the store. She was a bit of a menace with a scooter, but she was out and she was happy.

Many years later, after my dad had one of his kidneys removed during his first bout with cancer, he also got a handicap tag. He was more reluctant to use it because he didn’t want to give in to how much the cancer was taking out of him. But, after the second surgery when he was without his adrenal glands and down to only 40% of one kidney, he too gave in and took the parking space he needed. Although, if you hadn’t known my dad before the cancer hit, you probably would have looked at him and thought he didn’t need that space either. I could see the drastic change in him. He’d once been this sort of colossus, reaching 6’3 and weighing in at about 270. He was a firefighter and a former football player. He was a HUGE guy. While he still had the height, after the cancer he was down to about 175 pounds and his clothes hung off of him. Since he’d refused chemo or radiation though, he still had all of his hair and didn’t have the frailty that so many cancer patients have. If I hadn’t known his prognosis, I’m not sure I would have realized he was really sick either. If I hadn’t seen how hard it was for him to get down on the floor and play with his grand kids, or seen how just walking out to get the mail winded him or seen him fall asleep right in the middle of a conversation because just visiting with family wiped him out, I may not have known he was sick either.

Looking in from the outside, it’s easy to see someone with a handicap tag and think they don’t really need it. Or maybe they don’t need it as much as someone else, but to quote the amazingly wise Atticus Finch, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Before my parents got sick, I have no doubt that I was every bit as judgmental, but I have learned the hard way that sometimes those with the greatest need are the least likely to show it. I’ve also believe that as a society we need to stop trying to fit everyone on some sort of suffering scale. We don’t just have to help, or empathize with or support those who are in the absolute greatest amount of pain or have the most suffering. Just because someone may suffer more does not diminish others who are suffering. I know handicap parking is sometimes limited, but everyone who needs it deserves to have access to it and should not be shamed, and especially not yelled at for using it. Just because you may not be able to immediately see their disability does not mean it is not there.

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