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Play ball!

30 Apr
soccer player

Photo: Nike

Last night, one of my first graders looked up at me with his huge warm eyes and said, “Miss Janice, I was tricked today.”

“Oh,” I said, “How were you tricked?”

“Some other boys were talking about balls and they were telling me to talk about balls, too.  And so I told them that I like balls and they laughed.”

He hesitated. I thought he might cry.

“And then I found out they weren’t talking about soccer balls. They were talking about private balls.”


My students say funny stuff, too

13 Nov


I provide enrichment in Math and English to students from preK through 6th grade. Recently, I was helping a kindergartener learn how to do two digit addition. The problem causing a problem was 16 + 7.

Him: Sixteen plus seven is twenty one.

Me: No. Let’s try again.

Him: Seventeen?

Me: I don’t think so.

Him: Twenty?

Me: No. Let’s try it this way. Sixteen is the same as a ten and a six, right?

Him: Yes. I know.

Me: Well, let’s take the ten part away for a minute. What’s six plus seven?

Him: (long pause, lays his head on the desk, sighing) I don’t need to know.


Righting Writing: Stories from Developmental Writing

19 Jul

Karin Evans, Dr. Evans to her students, is a professor of English and long-time friend. She wrote today’s post, about teaching writing at the college level to students who don’t pass the placement exam for the college’s freshman-level English class. She’s doing such difficult and important work. Need persuading? Try to teach someone to write. Enjoy!

I teach writing at a two-year college with open enrollment, where many students are placed in “developmental” classes to help them catch up to college level in reading, writing, and and/or math. When I tell people what I teach, they often ask me why students who have graduated high school need to take these extra classes. Here are four stories about why.

Matt, who writes like he talks. Matt sits in the back, in the corner, a skinny young guy in a baseball cap. Matt is having a hard time reconciling his own style with how I want him to write his essay. Matt writes extremely casual prose. He writes “alot,” a lot. He never bothers to capitalize the pronoun I. In his concluding paragraph, he uses the phrase “i mean yeah” to create emphasis in the middle of an important run-on sentence. The niceties of Standard English are completely absent from his work. However, he clearly understands the assignment, and the ideas in his draft are completely relevant – it’s a diamond in the rough.

At the end of the semester, Matt does not pass the exit exam. I am not surprised. I meet with him and we discuss some options, decide that he will take a one-credit class to keep working on his writing style before he tries the placement exam again. I pray that he will meet a creative and flexible instructor for that one-credit class, and that he will have courses in other subjects with manageable writing assignments. Matt’s understanding of what college will ask of him is growing – I hope he can catch on fast enough, that his good attitude and intelligence will be enough to carry him through.

Jonie, who doesn’t have 100% to give. Jonie is pretty, nicely dressed, and quiet. She is often absent, and often does not submit homework. When she attends, she does well in class – but she does not progress as well as she should be able to. She is elusive; she does not seek help or respond to my comments on her work. After failing the exit exam, she comes to her scheduled conference.

Sitting in my private office, Jonie confides that she was in a serious car accident the previous year and experiences back pain and neurological problems, including uncontrollable facial and body tics. She has frequent medical appointments. These conditions cause her a great deal of stress, and some days she is simply unable to make herself come to school. Compounding these more unusual problems, she does not have good study habits, struggles to manage her school assignments and deadlines. Jonie tells me candidly that she does not feel she has earned her way into English 1101; she believes she would benefit from repeating the developmental class. I am both impressed and relieved that she has drawn this conclusion for herself. But will she persist, and enroll in the class again? Then will she find the support and motivation she needs to do better the second time?

Jeremy, a little older and wiser. Jeremy has been a forklift driver, a security guard, a warehouse shift supervisor. Now about 30, he is a husband and a father. His wife has more education – I have a hunch that she latched onto him because she could see how smart he is, how engaged and determined. Jeremy is opinionated and verbose in class discussion. Somehow I am able to help him channel and structure all his ideas and energy in his writing. In one semester, his writing transforms from halting and underdeveloped paragraphs to fairly articulate and detailed essays.

Jeremy passes the exit exam, as he deserves. The following semester, he stops by to let me know how his English 1101 class is going and to show me a picture of his new daughter. Last week, he emailed me to ask about the required textbook for my online English 1102 class – he’s enrolled.

Austen, who is really ready to learn. Like many developmental students, Austen attempts the placement test more than once before giving in and enrolling in the course. She writes in an early assignment that she has never done well in English and figures that she’ll be better off if she takes the class. Austen is a teacher’s dream come true – she follows instructions, works really hard on her assignments, takes feedback well, and sets an excellent example for other students.

Nervous about the placement test, Austen asks me what will happen if she fails. I say we’ll drive off that bridge when we come to it – but I know I am already committed to walking her through an appeal process if it comes to that. Sometimes really good students freeze under pressure. I tell her that as long as she remembers to take her confidence with her, she’ll do fine – and she does.

You might be asking, did Austen really need that extra class? Maybe, maybe not – but according to her own self-report, she was glad to have the chance to build her confidence before taking English 1101. I’m not worried about whether she will pass English 1101 now, and I hope she’s not either.

Why do we offer developmental education for students like these in the college setting – why don’t the high schools finish the job? High school is for children, who are subject to their parents and the state. Developmental education belongs in the college setting because the students are adults, and college is where we educate adults. Adults choose and prioritize their own goals, and they figure out how to reach them, or they figure out how to change them. Frequently, people who did not sense any real purpose for their high school education, or whose experience was compromised by abuse, poverty, mental illness, or any number of frightening factors, find themselves ready, in some ways, to approach college. They may be socially and emotionally mature enough, and they may be perfectly intelligent, but their academic skills may be lacking.

There is no format in the high school setting where adult students can be served. However, colleges – especially community colleges – are well suited to meet the transitional needs of adult students. Our developmental classes are tied into the college curriculum; most faculty also teach college-level courses. Our classrooms are college classrooms. For many students, we offer an essential bridge to the path that leads to a significant goal – a nursing degree, a program in video game development, a certificate in construction management, transferring to a four-year university to study computer science. When we invest in these students, we invest in ourselves. We educate citizens and professionals who will make a difference in the lives of many. In the long run, these are the best investments we can make.

This Is My Country, Part 1: Americans are Ignoramuses

5 Jul

My husband and I were doing something we frequently do together at home, fretting over the economy and trying not to spiral down into the deepest pit of depression where we decide it’s better to curse the darkness than light a single candle. The kids were around but I figured they were oblivious. They ignore us when we are talking to them, why wouldn’t they ignore us when we aren’t?

I realized that my daughter wasn’t just occupying the same space when I asked my husband, only half rhetorically, “How did we get here? How did the country get so screwed up so quickly?”

And my daughter said, “Obama.”

My brain did a whiplash U-turn from “Poor us! We’re going to hell in a hand basket” to “Who the hell told you it’s all Obama’s fault?”

“Who told you it’s all Obama’s fault?” I asked.

“Oh,” she giggled nervously, “he’s just the only one in government that I know.”

Skipping over the part where the federal government is completely responsible for everything wrong in my country presently, I said, “That’s the only person in government you know? What about your governor? Didn’t they teach you who’s Governor of Illinois?”

She avoided my gaze, shrugged her shoulders and asked, “Sarah Palin?”

“What!?” I asked? “Why would you think that Sarah Palin is Governor of Illinois?”

“That’s the only other name I know,” she said, laughing. I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved that Sarah Palin isn’t our Governor or appalled that my daughter doesn’t know anything other than Barack Obama is our president and therefore responsible for all that is wrong in it. This, after just completing fourth grade where the civics units covered the United States government.

Thinking my son might be a little more knowledgeable about his country’s government, I asked him who the Governor of Illinois is.

“Blagojevich?” I gave him points for naming someone who actually held the office, then probed his knowledge of our judicial system. I thought he might be able to name a Supreme Court justice or two since we’re on the heels of a significant and widely reported decision.

“Name a Justice of the Supreme Court,” I said.

“The Justice League?” he suggested.

I knew my country was filled with civic ignoramuses, but I didn’t know I was raising some. Our dinner table conversations aren’t always politically tinged, but my husband and I talk about all of the day’s news, not just how Katie Holmes should have seen it coming. That means Supreme Court decisions, drone bombings, Finnish family leave policies and the presidential election are hanging out there with who wants to see Brave and whether or not our son can go bowling that night.

American ignorance is legendary. I don’t need to recite the figures. You can read them here. We are the country, after all, that went to war in Iraq, looking for weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.

We are the people who demand more and more cheaper and cheaper stuff, then complain when the manufacturing jobs dry up and move where people will work for less than we will.

We are the people who are willing to send our sons and daughters to pay in blood for freedom around the world, but won’t pay an extra penny in taxes to pay for their deployment.

My vexation sloshes over onto Facebook, where I regularly correct people who post memes declaring that kids can’t pray in school or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m tired of explaining that it’s perfectly ok to cross yourself before a test and pray you get a good grade, but it’s not ok for the teacher to cross herself before a test and lead the class in prayer. I’m tired of explaining this to people who would be first in line at the principal’s office if a student did her private prayer on her knees and wearing a hijab. I’m tired of explaining this to people who wouldn’t want their child taught by a teacher who doesn’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance because of the “under God” part.

Yes, I realize I sound tremendously judgmental and arrogant. I can’t help myself, though, because I love my country and the principles on which it was founded. I love our get-it-done approach and our generosity. I even love our naïveté, the way so many of us think that if you can dream it, you can be it. We’re the Nike country, ignoring the subtleties and attacking every problem with a “Just do it” bravado. But we’re youngsters, isolated for so long, and now more than ever immersed in world of interrelated complexities.

We went to the fireworks this year with our daughter. In our town, one of the local radio stations puts together a soundtrack to play along with the display. Lots of people watching the fireworks with us had tuned to that station, so we were all listening to the medley of America-themed songs, from Born in the USA to David Bowie’s Young American. When they got to The Guess Who’s American Woman, I leaned over to my husband and said, “Do they know this is an anti-America song?”

What’s in YOUR Beach Bag?

29 May

I’ve been challenged–in public–by my local library, based on my column this week in The Patch. Here’s the link: four books

The challenge? To publicly sign up for the library’s summer reading program for adults. Promised inducements are coupons and the satisfaction of beating my son at something. No small inducement, that. Haven’t signed up yet, but I’m working on two novels,  Graceling by Kristin Cashore and Tricked by Kevin Hearne. Then there is a stack of non-fiction to wade through covering bipolar disorder and running, two of the governing factors in my life.

What’s in your beach bag? Or, if you’re like me and hanging at home all summer, what’s on the night stand?

What Do Gloria Steinem, Beyonce, The Avengers and I Have In Common?

14 May

They are all mentioned in my column this morning. I wrote it after a truly astounding event in one of my third grade classes: boys laughing at girls who like The Avengers. Kind of patting myself on the back for mashing history, feminism, pop music and superheros into one 500-word opinion piece. Superman and Green Lantern ain’t got nothin’ on me!

Say you want some evolution?

2 Apr

I thought the idea of evolution was pretty much established as the way species work in our world. But, that’s not what I found when I looked into the subject. Here in the United States, you just can’t tell if your kids are getting the proper foundation in this foundational concept in modern science.

Here’s the link to my Naperville Patch column on the subject.

I Am That Mom; Hear Me Roar

28 Feb

Today, I was going to write about needing a third breast, but I’ve always said that the greatest challenge in parenting is the uncertainty of every moment. One minute you’re thinking you’ll write about needing a third breast and the next you’re writing about being “That Mom.”

I try, on the whole, to be amusing in my musings. But today that just doesn’t seem to want to happen. Call it a confluence of events, but the stars have aligned in such a manner that I find myself royally pissed off. I guess I should have ended that last sentence with the word “angry” so that I wouldn’t end it with a preposition, but “angry” doesn’t have the explosive “P” (pun intended) in it that makes “pissed off” such a satisfying description of how I feel at this moment.

For the first time since she was three years old, my daughter said, “I don’t want to go to school.” Actually, she sobbed, “I don’t want to go to school.” Now, my daughter dawdles. I routinely tell her to go to the car at least 10 minutes before we need to leave. In her world, re-reading the latest issue of American Girl magazine is a vital part of getting from kitchen to car. As is training the dog to stay. Brushing the teeth can be easily forgotten. Playing with mom’s eyelash curler cannot. But today’s tears were not about dawdling.

When my son was in grade school, “I don’t want to go to school” invariably meant that he was being tormented by one of the other boys in class. Now that he’s in high school, “I don’t want to go to school” is a static state. I’m sure he enjoys the hormone-charged cacophonous chaos that is his school, but if he ever said, “Man, I can’t wait to get to school, today,” we would have to up his meds.

My daughter is a good student. Her parent-teacher conferences are a pleasure. I don’t bring a list of questions or stacks of research, as I may have done for another child who lives in our home. Hell, I don’t even bring my husband most of the time. I walk in and sit down. The teacher says, “Your daughter is doing great. Do you have any questions?” I don’t. My daughter likes school. She does well in school. She has friends. No one is bullying her. So, why would she tell me, “I don’t want to go to school.”?

My daughter doesn’t want to go to school because it is ISAT week. For those not in Illinois, ISAT stands for Illinois Standards Achievement Test. The ISATs are the tests used to judge the effectiveness of Illinois’ schools. ISAT scores dip too low and schools “fail to meet adequate yearly progress,” as determined by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Fail to meet AYP enough times and seriously bad things happen at the school, including the possibility that administration and all of the teachers might be fired. The ISAT is what they call a “high-stakes test.”

For weeks now, my daughter has been inundated with messages about how important it is for her to do well on the ISATs. There have been pep rallies. There have been practice sessions. Her class made “Rock ISATs” shirts with their names stenciled across the back, as if they are so many gridiron warriors out to defeat the terrible test monster. They’ve been playing “Minute to Win It” games to sharpen their test-taking skills. Last week, she brought home a “Be Like Bud” checklist. Check off the good test-taking strategies and she’ll be just like “Bud.” Don’t make the right choices and she’ll be a test-taking “Dud.”

Well, who do you think my daughter wants to be? She’s a girl, for crying out loud. And, though millions of bras were burned before she was even born, she still has an overwhelming desire to please others. Compound that with the “I was adopted so I need to make you happy” issues. Of course, my daughter wants to be like Bud.

What does all this have to do with being “That Mom”? (Let’s forget for a few moments the completely sexist use of the name “Bud” for the “good test taker.” There are only so many things that can yank my crank on any given day.) I’m sure I’m not the only mom who had to cope with ISAT meltdown this morning. But I am one of the moms that is going to get her shorts in a bunch and write a bunch of letters to the people responsible for my daughter’s anxiety. I’m going to be “That Mom,” the one who gets in your face when you mess with her kid.

I am going to get in the face of whoever’s brilliant idea it was to put so much pressure on an eight-year-old girl that she can’t stop crying. I’m going to do it not because I can’t stand to see my child cry. I can stand that. I stand it all the time. I stand it over chores, I stand it over candy, I stand it over every little thing I’ve done that she thinks isn’t fair. But I’m not going to stand it over something that really isn’t fair.

It isn’t fair that my daughter is being forced to bear the burden of a society that has gone insane over its educational system. My son took the very same test when he was in third grade. His school made just enough of a deal of it. His teachers prepared him for it by explaining what was expected and having the students practice. He did great; his teachers were pleased. That was six years ago.

A lot has changed in six years. The issues involved are many and complicated. Our country, ever desirous of being first and best, is not the best at educating children. I think it’s Finland this year overall and I’m pretty sure Singapore is doing a bang-up job in math. We look for an easy answer: the teachers and principals must suck. We threaten them with their jobs. They feel the pressure. The pressure gets pushed off on our children. In grade school, it makes our children cry. In high school, it can drive them to suicide.

I am That Mom. I am going to write letters. I am going to do it for my child. I’m going to do it for her best friend who will be in third grade soon. I’m going to do it for the boys I’m tutoring right now who are getting my services for free because their school can’t meet AYP. Five weeks ago, they couldn’t read English. Last week, they could. I feel good knowing my NCLB tax dollars can go for more than driving a child to tears.

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