Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My "S-Word" Childhood Home #SOL18

Abandoned Superfund site, Pitcher, Oklahoma
When I was five years old, my mother moved my sister and me to Pitcher, Oklahoma. We lived in two separate houses during that time. Both were shacks. One had a front room, a bedroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom. 

The second house had two rooms arranged in shotgun style. The front room occupied half the house. We used it as a bedroom. A bare bedspring peaked out from under the mattress that was too small. I have a scar on my leg from the time I got my knee stuck in the spring. To prevent infection, my mother poured a bottle of rubbing alcohol on the open wound. I howled in pain. 

The kitchen occupied the back part of the house. It had an ice box and a stove. We had no bathroom in the house, so my mom set up a metal tub in the middle of the room for us to bathe in. We used an outhouse down the alley because the house had no toilet. My sister and I often ran the streets in our underwear. 

That shack was a real "S-Word", so was the town.

Even in the 1960s when I lived there, Pitcher was in decline. After the lead and zinc mines peaked in the 1920s, leaving behind the tailings that polluted the town's land and groundwater, Pitcher was designated a superfund site and officially died in 2009 when the city government disbanded. In fact, the Tarheel Mining District, of which Pitcher is a part, is the largest superfund site in the country.

Betty's Drive-In, a place I remember from my childhood.
Over time the process of mining lead and zinc resulted in "mountains" of chat bordering the towns of Pitcher , Oklahoma and Treece, Kansas. I played on these toxic hills. When the mines closed, the abandoned shafts filled with water, contaminating nearby Tar Creek, creating swimming holes that became popular recreational sites for local children. More than a third of the homes were built over mine shafts, and eventually the threat of sink holes drove competing sports teams to refuse to compete with the Pitcher Gorillas, forcing more families to move.

I didn't live in Pitcher long, but I did live there long enough to experience abject poverty and to form memories of life in one of America's most undesirable places. Even though the EPA offered several rounds of buyouts, some remained in Pitcher, knowing each breath consisted of toxins poisoning their bodies. A 2010 expose in Wired chronicles some of their stories, their love of home, a home constructed of fond memories, a home literally labeled a dump by the EPA.

I've come to think of Pitcher, Oklahoma and the "chat-rats" that stayed as a metaphor for life in the Trump era. Many willingly breath in the toxic rhetoric leaching from the White House, refusing to clean up the growing superfund site in Washington D.C. As Senator Lindsay Graham explains, we must send children from the room when the news comes on if we don't want them hearing naughty words.
Chat pile in the  Pitcher, Oklahoma Tarheel Superfund site.
President Trump's recent use of that "S-Word" adjective made headlines and changed the rules for publishing and reporting heretofore taboo words. I thought about Pitcher, Oklahoma when Trump disparaged Haiti and Africa.  I wonder if Pitcher's famous sons Joe Don Rooney of Rascal Flatts and Tim Spencer of Sons of the Pioneers thought of their hometown.

There are places in our own backyards more deserving of a vulgar label than the countries and the continent Trump disparaged. Should Pitcher, Oklahoma be labeled one of them? The town did not create the toxicity that poisoned its children and swallowed its geography. The lead and zinc mining companies did that. Those who called Pitcher home and who stayed with her until they were driven from their homes deserve love and respect, just as Africans and Haitians deserve better than to have their homes denigrated by politicians. 

That is, Trump can't call other places shit-holes without applying the label to the parts of our country damaged by poverty and pollution, places Trump would not think to spend the night in let alone call home. That should tell us all something about what he thinks of poor people in America.

Where, then, does Trump's rhetoric leave us? 

It leaves us mired in the excrement Trump spews. Buried in his racist words and deeds rolling down on us like a river of toxic waste from an abandoned mine.

Tuesday is Slice of Life Story Challenge sponsored by
the team at Two Writing Teachers.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Something's Happening to Our Students: Opening a Dialogue about Sexual Harassment #SOL18

During the 1985-86 school year I taught half-time in the Urbana Community School District, a small hamlet in central Iowa with a student population of approximately 500 students K-12. I was pregnant with my second son and had moved to Iowa from Yuma, Arizona where I taught at Kofa High School, which had over 2,600 students when I left. 

Memories of my time in Iowa flooded back Monday as I met with the juniors in my student advisory and showed them two short videos I and my colleagues had been asked to share and discuss. The subject of these videos is Sexual Harassment. 

"Something is happening to our kids," a counselor wrote in an email accompanying the videos Friday afternoon. We're seeing an increase in sexual harassment among our students. 

Our counselors sent the videos and a copy of our district's Sexual Harassment policy, as well as copies of Idaho Code dealing with the distribution of Child Pornography and asked us to have a conversation with our students. Sexting is distribution of child pornography, according to Idaho Code.

I read the policy and the legal code first. 

Then I showed the videos. 

When the young woman in the second video hit "send," I heard a gasp in the room. 

At that moment memories from over thirty years ago flooded my mind, for that's the year several seventh and eighth grade students shared a story about abuse they had experienced from a school counselor in our building.

In 1986 Iowa reporting laws mandated reporting to the "building supervisor." I did not trust this authority figure to pass the information on to law enforcement; therefore, I reported the abuse to the Grant Wood Area Education Association school psychologist who was in the building at the time. She, in turn, reported the incidents to law enforcement. 

One of the investigators on the case was married to a colleague, so when Ross Lamansky, the counselor, was arrested, the investigator called me. I lay in bed and sobbed for my students and for the perpetrator, whom I learned had been passed from school district to school district to spare each employer the embarrassment of having a sexual predator on their staff. 

I learned that Mr. Lamansky, whom I'd judge to be a man in his fifties or sixties at the time, had a reputation in both Iowa City and Kirksville, Missouri, where he was known as "the hooded grabber" because he'd stand on street corners with a hoodie covering his head and grab women by various body parts as they passed on the street. 

The Lamansky incident divided the school, with older students remaining loyal to the counselor and junior high students loyal to the abused. High school students wore black arm bands to school one day as a show of solidarity for Lamansky. But I knew he was guilty. My investigator friend shared information with me throughout the investigation, and I traveled through a blizzard from Cedar Rapids to Vinton for the depositions. 

The day of Lamansky's trial, I was walking out the front door when the phone rang. I paused and answered. Lamansky had accepted a plea deal. He admitted guilt to "two counts of indecent contact with a minor." He went to jail. He lost his teaching credentials. Most importantly, Iowa changed its reporting laws. No longer would teachers report to the building supervisor; now they would report to law enforcement. 

I shared my memory with students. I told them, "often we don't realize we have a problem in our schools if it doesn't involve us or if we don't hear about it." I encouraged students to talk to one another and teachers, to support friends in making wise decisions when confronted with inappropriate behavior. 

Our kids are not alright. They each have a digital dossier They each face ongoing pressure to use technology in harmful ways. We all do. But our building administration wants us as a staff to have open discussions with students about what's happening to them and ways they can protect themselves. Even though some of my colleagues see this discussion as an extension of the "nanny state," teachers in my department understand the power of stories and sharing those stories, so we're making guiding students through these struggles a priority because we don't like what's happening to our students, and we'll do what we can to restore them to a place of safety.
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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Hygge: Finding Comfort, Giving Comfort #SOL18 #OLW18

Puck, cozied up on the couch as
he shares my fuzzy blanket.
Danes have the reputation for being the world's happiest people. The secret to the Danish people's happiness is hygge (hoo-guh), a word with no literal translation in English but a concept that has gained popularity in the past two years. Hygge, loosely translated, means comfort, "a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being," states a 2016 New Yorker article.  

Following a tough 2016 that almost daily threatened my comfort level, primarily on a national level, the idea of finding comfort appeals to me, even though I know I can't get too comfortable given the many political battles that lie ahead.

Comfort, however, works as both a noun and verb, making it a unique ONE LITTLE WORD that allows me to focus on myself and others. The etymology of hygee comes from a 16th Century Norwegian word, hugga, which means "to comfort" or "to console."

Books on hygge have become hugely popular in the past year, and I'm considering buying one to help me on my hygge journey. I want to be a hyggelige person, finding comfort in simple things and offering comfort to others., those I know and strangers I encounter. 

In our homes we can create an atmosphere of comfort with fuzzy socks, fluffy throws, warm cider, scented candles, cozy fires, and any other little thing that wraps us in warmth and coziness. For me that includes decluttering. Although I've never been a pack-rat in the sense of a tchotchke collector, I still have too much stuff, so part of my husband's retirement duties will be to declutter his office and garage. My collections tend to be those related to my profession: books and professional publications, as well as crates of student work samples. My comfort increases when I don't see a pile of stuff cluttering my view.
Created w/ Bitmoji

I like the idea of "a practical way of creating sanctuary in the middle of a very real life," as Louisa Thompsen Brits describes hygge. Home should be a sanctuary, but social networking and cable news often seep into my life in ways that disrupt the natural hygge I should experience when curled up on the couch in my fuzzy socks. 

The Danish emphasis on quality of life over possessions echos the teaching of Thoreau: 

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Still, Thoreau deemed leaving the woods a necessity, too, so to simply focus on my own comfort and coziness as embodied in hygge, would miss the mark of what I like about comfort as a OLW. In my classroom I strive to create a comfortable environment, including "flexible seating" long before the term became the classroom setup du jour. I have a couch, love seat, ottoman, and chair in addition to desks for student use in my small room, and I burn a candle melt daily when I don't have students with scent allergies. However, as an ELA teacher, making students feel comfortable also means making them feel safe to experiment in their speaking and writing. It means amplifying their voices and agency, too. 

Hygge embodies contentment, comfort, and connection to the people and things that make the quality of both personal and professional life better, so this year for the first time I'm choosing a OLW and wrapping myself in hygge as I find and offer comfort.
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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Transitions #SOL17

December 15 marked a significant transition in my husband’s life—Retirement. Officially, Ken’s retirement begins on January 2, 2018, but he’s using his final vacation days these last two weeks of December. 

Ken has been working since he was 15. He turned 70 in September. Fifty-five years is a long time, and Ken has spent these years working in the agricultural industry, first managing a fertilizer plant and the last thirteen years working for the Idaho Department if Agriculture as an enforcement agent. 

As the current administration rails against all regulation, Ken and I have had long conversations about the ways regulation of agriculture benefits growers and citizens. For growers regulation protects them from unsupported accusations. Ken has investigated many of these and has fascinating stories about the ways farmers’ beighbors lay blame when a tree, for example, dies. 

Similarly, regulation offers a way to mitigate disputes between growers, such as accusations of overspraying from aerial application. And regulation protects consumers from unscrupulous business practices, such as the improper application of herbicides and chemicals.

Last trimester one of my students interviewed Ken about banning chlorpyrophos. Despite the recommendation of the scientific community, Dow Chemical has successfully lobbied the EPA, under the head of Scott Pruitt, to continue allowing this harmful chemical’s use on food-based plants. Chlorpyrophos is particularly dangerous for children.  Ken supports banning chlorpyrophos. 

While we were out shopping a couple weeks ago Ken was approached by a lawn care specialist who thanked Ken for helping and teaching him over the years. 

It’s this service mandate with an emphasis on  teaching rather than punishing that Ken is most proud of during his time with the IDA. 

For both of us Ken’s transition into retirement scares us a little, but he has a long honey-do list that will keep him busy. Yet retirement is also a tangible reminder that life is fleeting and temporal. 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Photo Journey: Reading "Obama: An Intimate Portrait" by Pete Souza

Reading Obama: An Intimate Portrait by Pete Souza I am able to gather round myself the iconic presidency of Barrack Obama through the photographer's perspective, and if there's a theme to this intimate look at President Obama's tenure in the White House its about the power of perspective, and Barrack Obama's view of America, a view defined by hope and dreams. 

"Dream big dreams," Obama advises children and young men he mentors. Souza reminds his readers of these tenants that defined Obama's presidency both through his lens and through his words accompanying each photo. This idealism tempered with realism permeates this photo journey. Even the glossies of Obama in the Situation Room during the attack on Osama bin Laden's compound and those with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Medical Center embody a haunting beauty that contrasts with the serious and gory reality they represent. 

Organized into two parts, President Obama's first and second terms, Souza begins each chapter with a short essay offering both context and observation, about himself as White House photographer and Barrack Obama as president. These essays serve to build trust in the story we read through the photos. Part of the narrative Souza constructs tells the story of Barrack Obama looking in on America and the world. We see this in several images, one in which Obama holds Souza's camera and peers through the viewfinder. Another tells the story of Obama as a reflective individual as we see him gazing in a mirror. These images tell an everyman story of Obama's presidency. 
Souza's narrative encompasses the e pluribus unum theme of American life in its inclusivity of people from all walks of life. Thus, the collection's subplot is one of our story, too. Souza juxtaposes the story of 44's time in service with the multitudes through images of young and old, men and women, civilians and service members, and the myriad races who still embrace this president and his quiet, cerebral, polite demeanor. Ownership of Souza's book gives the reader a way of owning pieces of the past that was President Obama's Presidency. "To collect photographs is to collect the world," says Susan Sontag, author of On Photography.

Such is the intimacy of Obama: An Intimate Portrait, that my eyes welled with tears as I ended my journey thorough the collection and read President Obama's last words as Souza snapped an aerial photo of the White House on their final flight out of Washington D. C. "I used to live there." In a sense, so did I; so did all who miss the presidency of Barrack Obama.

*Follow Pete Souza on Instagram for more glimpses into the presidency of Barrack Obama. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Use Your Words--All Seven #SOL17

Silence is the residue of fear. It is feeling your flaws gut-wrench guillotine your tongue. It is the air retreating from your chest because it doesn't feel safe in your lungs. --Clint Smith

I spend my days guiding students to find their voices, both in their writing and in their speaking. 

Today, students in my junior English classes shared personal narratives in peer evaluation sessions. Some wrote about school days using Sherman Alexie's "Indian Education" from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven as a mentor text. Others modeled their narratives on The Declaration of Independence as they declared their freedom from strictures in their lives. Still others shared stories of their personal struggles with "The First in the Family to be Supresized," a personal essay from Newsweek published in 2006, as a mentor text. The essay is as relevant today as over a decade ago.

In my Communication 1101, Introduction to Speech, students paired up to discuss the differences among propositions of fact, value, and policy as we gear up for argumentative speeches. 
During out previous class students began discovering their dissenting voices in a group discussion activity in which they were asked to choose a $5,000 scholarship recipient. I set this discussion up to illicit push back against each group's choice since this ability to dissent is inherent in argument. 

Meanwhile, AP Lit and Comp students sat in circle toady and shared their formal analysis of a universal idea in The Tragedy of King Lear. After each student's reading, we voiced our ideas about how the writers can improve their analysis. Student essays were at various levels of completeness and sophistication, but together we converge to support one another through difficult writing tasks. At these times students observe my struggles to find the right words of critique and validation. 

During each class, we use our words. We use words to support and critique and encourage  and validate and question. We use words to experience literary worlds and to find meaning in our own. 

The value students place on words grows as they explore syntactical structures, as they experiment with organizational patterns, as they experience the power of diction and rhetorical strategies. 

During peer evaluating I overheard a student reading a part of her personal narrative in which she describes a personal struggle as not being as big a deal as other cultural issues. This presented an opportunity for me to explain litotes to her in an informal way. 

I think about these worded worlds in which I live with students. I want my students to expand their personal lexicons, not shrink them.

Thus, the idea of banning words prompts me to shout


To all who value words, use them. Use words responsibly and appropriately. Choose words appropriate to the audience, the purpose, the occasion, the subject, the speaker, and the tone of the rhetoric. 

Thus, I implore the CDC to push back against the administration's ban on seven words. These words are your words. Use fetus, diversity, evidence-based, transgender, entitlement, vulnerable, science-based and any other words the professionals at the CDC deem necessary and appropriate in their  discourse. Do not capitulate to the silencers. Do not give in to those who would steal your words. 

My students, some of whom may be transgender, were once fetuses who entered the world as diverse sentient beings who now live lives vulnerable to those who deny the legitimacy of science-based policy positions, who prefer conspiracy theories and empty rhetoric to evidence-based decision-making, and who question the entitlement of all but the top economic tier of society to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Now we must contend with those who want to take our words. Such is the danger and the importance of words. 

We need the CDC to challenge the word ban, whether it's an implied ban as in a wink and a nod, or a policy position as reported in the Washington Post. When the guardians of our public institutions succumb to censorship and political pressure, when misguided and ignorant politicians steal our words, how am I and other teachers to empower our students with words? 

At the end of his empowering 2014 TED Talk, poet Clint Smith makes a promise to use his voice: 

I will live every day as though it were a microphone tucked under my tongue, a stage on the underside of my inhibition. Because who has to have a soap box when all you ever needed is your voice.

Yes, all we ever need is our voices, our voices and our words, so let's use them. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Homeschooling #SOL17

Sunday one of those "genius" quizzes popped up on my Facebook feed. This one baited vulnerable members of the FB community by saying, "No American Has Ever Scored A 20/20 On This Quiz Without Cheating." A former student challenged this claim and indicated she learned the facts from the quiz her senior year in government, for which she thanked her teacher.

Curious, I opened the quiz and soon realized the questions posed represented basic information about American history; the quiz even included a question about Mike Pence, our vice president, and one about what we call the first ten amendments to the constitution--The Bill of Rights. A question about Abraham Lincoln claimed he "had great taste in hats." 

Clearly, this quiz is one of those click-bait things, but the responses of former students to it as well as the questions themselves prompted me to think about how and when I learned this basic factual information. Except for the question about Vice President Pence, I learned the history necessary for answering the questions long before my senior year in high school, which is when my former students take government. Indeed, much of what I know about U.S. History and our government I learned in my eighth grade U. S. History class. 

The rest, particularly the history of each state, I learned at home. But my "homeschooling" did not exist within the confines of a designated "classroom" in our house. Homeschooling as we think about it these days did not exist during my childhood. My homeschool classroom occupied a small area of the dining room floor beside an old bookshelf. That shelf housed several sets of specialized encyclopedias purchased by my father. 

We had a set of medical encyclopedias designed for home use. I imagine they function the way Web MD does now. I sat for hours reading them to see if I had an undiagnosed illness. Driven by middle-child-syndrome, I learned about the skeletal, circulatory, and muscular systems in my quest for a disease to match my symptoms. 

We also had a set of state encyclopedias. That's how I learned Hawaii was the last state admitted to the union, a question on the FB quiz. But I also studied the state flags, each state's journey to statehood, their manufacturing and agricultural makeup, and the state flowers, birds, and mottos by reading those colorful books. 

Similarly, I read the Bible Story Books, another set of encyclopedias on the shelf, and they helped me understand the KJV version of the bible, which has informed my reading of Shakespeare over the years. They also cemented my understanding of faith

Sometimes I read things my conservative father preferred I not know. Such is the case with an article in Life Magazine about tribes in South America or Africa. I fixated on the pictures of painted and naked bodies. I didn't try to hide my curiosity as I read my way through a cultural awakening, but my father became angry when he caught me with the magazine. 

One of the biggest struggles I face as an educator is the absence of homeschooling among my students, particularly those in my Communication 1101 and speech classes, both of which require knowledge of current events and government policies for successful completion of the class. Sadly, most students have little prior knowledge about issues that impact their lives. Simply, most don't read the world. They only read what school mandates. 

They lack the homeschooling experiences I had as a child. Homeschooling lays the foundation for knowledge acquisition. Without homeschooling, the kind that promotes curiosity reading, most students are adrift.  

I filled my homeschooling time reading, and I had a particular lust for historical and scientific knowledge during my elementary years. Moreover, my father insisted I listen to the news, so I knew about the Vietnam War while it was happening, which doesn't mean I understood all the political and cultural implications of it, only that I had a foundation of knowledge. These days parents shield their children form bad news in a misguided attempt to protect them. Consequently, many students lack sufficient coping skills for dealing with complicated personal and world problems.

It's this knowledge foundation that a recent article in The New York Times extols as vital to students' reading progress. Reading well extends beyond the mere decoding of words. Students' "factual knowledge" informs their reading comprehension. Surface knowledge is one thing, but filling in the gaps when reading complex information necessitates knowledge of subtext. As Daniel T. Willingham explains, we can't expect writers to include ALL information necessary for understanding a text: "That would make prose long and tedious for readers who know the information." 

We expect to struggle when reading obscure texts, such as some of Shakespeare's plays and his archaic allusions. This is why glossing matters. But we can't expect every news report or essay to include glosses. As a nation we need some cultural narratives that unite us. At one time our founding documents offered this glue, but many students have little knowledge of these until they take government their senior year, which explains why my former students thanked their government teacher for lessons about the basic knowledge they acquired their senior year.

My takeaway from both the NYT article and the FB quiz is this: What we learn at home, our homeschooling, either establishes a foundation of knowledge on which we build additional knowledge and understanding or puts us at a life-long disadvantage that effects our reading comprehension, and by extension, our ability to think critically, for much of our lives. 

Daniel T. Willingham claims we should "blame ignorance" for poor reading habits and says, "turning the tide will require profound changes in how reading is taught, in standardized testing, and in school curriculums." 

I contend the real change must occur in the home because even when parents aren't teaching their kids in a designated room with a canned curriculum offered through a homeschool consortium, each child gets homeschooled, and passing a Facebook quiz designed to bait those naive enough to think only geniuses score 20/20 won't stem the tide of ignorance or improve reading habits. Only the homeschooling filled with curiosity and books will do that.
It's Tuesday, and that means Slice of Life
Story Challenge w/ the team at Two Writing Teachers.