Congrats, Grads!

My younger brother graduated from high school yesterday. Before the part where they called each graduate’s name and had them walk across the stage to receive their diploma, they did their annual reminder for families to hold their applause until the end. The reason, they state, is that the graduates want it to be a formal occasion and that singling out a graduate with cheering and clapping is embarrassing to the graduate.

I call BS.

It was, word for word, the exact same reminder that was read at my high school graduation thirteen years ago. They never surveyed my class of graduates as to how we felt about cheering. Over half a dozen of my siblings have graduated since then, and I don’t believe their classes were ever polled either. And that’s fine — the graduates only graduate once, so they aren’t the best positioned to set the norms of the graduation ritual. But then it doesn’t hold water to say that it’s the graduates who call for the solemnity.

Which brings me to the graduation speaker. Though it was kept a secret until the day of, the address given was written and delivered by a teacher of the school for the past forty-two years, who is finally taking her well-deserved retirement. It may have been one of the best graduation speeches I have ever heard, even though I understood only parts of it. The entire first segment was only for the graduating class. It was in-jokes, references, and name-dropping, and the graduates loved it. Even as the speech continued, it was clearly tailored to the specific audience of 2016 graduates, though it still applied to the audience at large. This teacher could have made it about her, about her years of teaching, or about the school itself. Indeed, most graduation speeches I have heard are less about the audience and more about the speaker. And goodness knows forty-two years of teaching likely provided copious material to mine for bits of wisdom. But she focused on the students in front of her, and the time she spent with them — just the last ten percent of her career. And I think that was exceptionally meaningful.

4moreyearsLike any ritual with significant cultural importance, a graduation can be tricky. A balance must be struck between all the parties who are invested in it. A graduation is the graduating class; it is important to the families and friends of the graduates, as well as alumni and future graduates; and it matters to the educators and administrators who repeat this ceremony year after year, for every single student. Not only that, but there’s often overlap between these groups — younger family members who are future graduates; teachers who are also parents; administrators who are also alumni. And even then, individuals within the groups will have conflicting values and ways to demonstrate their values. Despite the reminder, there were still some families who cheered for their graduates, and I don’t begrudge them one bit. Even my brother asked our family to transgress slightly: he asked us to bring signs. There’s nothing in the ritual reminder about signs, but to some they likely undercut the intended gravity of the ceremony. Especially considering that we mostly recreated signs that he brought to football games. (I brought a dry erase board so I could continually renew my slogans, though it proclaimed “Congration You Done It” longer than anything else.)

The point is, we exist alongside one another anyway in our day to day. Coming together for rituals reminds us that we may have different values and different ways of living out our values. And though it might not be completely comfortable, we compromise and make room for others — out of wanting to be inclusive; or just because we want to survive yet another graduation.

 

My Thoughts on Bathrooms (That Nobody Asked For)

When I feel fear about using a public restroom, it’s fear that the last person didn’t flush. Or fear that others may hear embarrassing sounds come out of my stall. Fear that the line is longer than I can deal with. Fear that there’s germs everywhere. The only time I have ever been afraid in a public restroom, and that fear was of other people, it was because it was crowded and it occurred to me how easily someone could snag my purse if I wasn’t careful.

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That’s largely because I’m privileged. I’m a cis woman who looks like a woman, so nobody blinks an eye when I go into the women’s restroom. (A “cis” or “cisgender” person is someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned with at birth.) It’s interesting to me that this privilege is afforded to me based on how I look and not how I behave, act, or otherwise exist in the world, but that’s a thought I’ll expound on another time.

Anyway. I don’t know how it feels to be truly afraid of others in the bathroom — afraid of being harassed, afraid of being assaulted. I can only imagine how that feels. And I imagine that it is quite scary.

Here’s the thing, though: I do not believe I have anything to fear from transgender people in the restroom with me. I know this because I have shared restrooms with transgender people, knowingly and probably unknowingly too. We were all just in there to do our business. So I have a hard time understanding why anyone might be afraid of a using the same restroom as a transgender person (unless you’re afraid of people in the restroom in general). I think someone who is transgender — or appears to be transgender — probably has more to fear from others in the restroom than the other way around.

As an elementary school teacher, I have had to deal with bathroom issues before. Sometimes you have kids who, it turns out, skip the part where you’re supposed to wash your hands. Sometimes you get huge puddles or piles of paper towels. One time I saw a sink become separated from the wall. I won’t get into “Tales of the Mad Pooper,” but the epithet “Mad Pooper” has been used in my school career over multiple years and in multiple buildings.

Sharing restrooms is not the biggest bathroom issue facing the grade levels I teach. Everyone at this age is learning about respecting privacy, and establishing and enforcing personal boundaries. The biggest difference between elementary school restrooms is the urinals, which I don’t think are necessary. (They also attract other issues, like Mad Poopers.) (Then again, as a woman, I might not be aware of the full pros/cons of urinals.) I think we could probably switch to unisex restrooms for the most part — maintain some that are for one user at a time, for people who require more privacy.

I can understand why people might need to revisit their guidelines for older students, especially once adolescence becomes a bigger part of school life, and if students change in a locker room on school premises. But I think people are forgetting what bathrooms are actually for. They’re places for us to poop and pee and change out used menstrual products. We can wash our hands in there! Mirrors are a bonus if we want to check something about our appearances. Why can’t we just let people peacefully use the bathroom they are comfortable using? There’s always a chance that someone could take advantage of restrooms, sure, but being transgender does not make a person more likely to be an attacker. Harassment and assault are already illegal anyway, regardless of where they occur. I suspect we only worry more about bathrooms because we already feel vulnerable in them. If anything, bathroom bills seem to seek to protect members of the majority from experiencing discomfort rather than experiencing harassment or assault. And they do so at the expense of people who do not appear to be clearly one gender or another (some transgender people “pass,” and some cis or androgynous people may not). Ultimately, I do not believe my comfort is above anyone else’s safety and dignity.

Additionally, I do not understand how a bathroom bill can be consistently enforced. We never even caught the Mad Pooper, after all.

Virtual Endangered Zoo

I’ve been working with one of our second grade teachers (she of the superior graphic organizers) on a project with her reading/social studies class.

We have now reached the culmination of our project, and the Virtual Endangered Zoo is now open for business! Each child researched an endangered species of their choice, and built a website about them. Their teacher, Mrs. Pancake, created a hub website where you can easily access all their sites.

This was a fun project that also turned out to be easier than I thought it would be. Firstly, students did research projects earlier this school year, so they already knew research methods basics. Secondly, Weebly For Education was very easy to use once we played around with it. We discussed other ideas such as publishing an eBook, but I thought more parents would be able to see a website than would be able to download an eBook. Plus, Weebly uses responsive web design by default. This means that their sites adjust accordingly when viewed on a smartphone or tablet. My guess is that means even more of our families will be able to see our sites, since not every family has a computer hooked up to the Internet at home, but many may still have smartphones.

In addition to research methods we used in the past, we added a social media element for kids who were up for it. When a student got stuck with one particular detail, we sought out a zoo or aquarium we thought might know the answer. Then, we tweeted them. Students wrote their question on a dry erase slate and I took a photo of them and tweeted at the zoo or aquarium. This got us around Twitter’s 140 character limit, and I think it also displayed to others that these were real kids asking questions.

How long does it take to tweet a zoo? Minutes, fellow educators. Mere minutes, even if you include a photo or a video. (I’m trying to convince more of my coworkers to sign up for Twitter, can you tell?)

On Weebly, we could even embed the responses to our tweets thanks to the “embed code” widget!

(Another thing I really liked about Weebly for Education was its image search. It has its own search engine for images, and if you include a free-to-use image, Weebly automatically appends the site with a Creative Commons attribution. Digital citizenship win!)

I would like to thank the following zoos (particular whoever runs their social media accounts) for their help:

The students who did not use my Twitter account still may have used social media in the form of Youtube. We used specific search terms and checked that videos we put on our websites were from sources we trusted, like the Oregon Zoo or National Geographic.

Students who finished early also entered the Akron Zoo’s snow leopard naming contest that we discovered from looking at their website. So if anyone at the Akron Zoo peeps this, sorry for the sudden influx of multiple entries from my and Mrs. Pancake’s email accounts!

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Thank you again to the zoos and aquarium that reached back out to us over social media. I got excited simply because I’m a giant nerd, but our students were excited because they felt like someone out there was listening to their questions and taking the time to answer thoughtfully. It’s hard to put into words how respected that makes a kid feel, to be taken seriously by an adult they don’t already know. So thank you for taking the time to teach us about animals, as is surely your mission, but also thank you for making the effort to reach out to a kid hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

Mother’s Day Struggle

Happy Mother’s Day.

You know, if it applies to you.

Not everyone feels the same way about Mother’s Day, the way it’s portrayed in commercials — uniformly euphoric and feely-goody. Even its founder flip-flopped on it. Many people face this holiday with a heavy heart, for whatever reason.

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I feel like rebelling against the one-size-fits-all Mother’s Day. It’s one reason I’m relieved to be a “specials” teacher and not a homeroom teacher — I am under less pressure to observe holidays. On the other hand, we work with kids, so generally we are teaching them to appreciate their mothers or other female figures in their lives. Goodness knows that those who do invisible work deserve to be acknowledged and appreciated, and that in the “traditional” nuclear family, much of that falls on Mom’s shoulders.

So, Happy Mother’s Day, to those who have children, who raise children, who protect children, who nurture children. Happy Mother’s Day to those who have good memories of and with their mothers, even if they mingle with bad ones. Happy Mother’s Day.

And for those of us that struggle on this and other “special” days, let’s take care of ourselves. Let’s make room for our grief and encourage one another and remember that tomorrow is another day.

Yesterday Was a Good Day

Yesterday was a good day. And I wanted to write about it, because last week I was feeling pretty down about teaching. (I find it a little demoralizing to give standardized tests.)

But yesterday was fun. It was many of the things that make this career feel like a good and worthwhile choice.

First, it was May the 4th – “Star Wars Day.” I came in wearing leggings emblazoned with the Star Wars logo down the leg — they were XL child size, because I am an XL child. They were surprisingly comfortable. I also wore a Darth Vader mask and cape and played the Imperial March from my phone. Even the kids who didn’t understand why I was acting this way really got a kick out of it.

My morning announcements crew also ran with the theme.

And it’s entirely possible that I repeated this joke a few dozen times.

Then, I submitted a flyer for approval to distribute through the schools. I’m trying to start a 4-H club in my city. There are 4-H clubs in the rural areas that surround our city, but not one within the city itself. I am hoping to do this because I was in 4-H as a kid. I didn’t do any livestock or stereotypically “country” projects. I did mostly sewing and creative arts. These days 4-H also has a lot of STEM projects students could try. My point is, 4-H is not just for country kids. It’s a way for students to extend learning throughout the summer through projects that involve choice and self-determination. There are also scholarships and other opportunities open to students who do 4-H, and I want the kids in my school district to have access to that.

Anyway, my point is, my flyer got approved so I’ll hopefully get that out to the schools late this week or by next Monday. It feels like a really concrete step forward. (It is too late to sign up for competitive judging with 4-H projects, but I actually find this a relief – some of the pressure is off and we can focus on building the club itself.) It feels good to feel like I’ve accomplished something, even though it means there is much more work to be done still.

Yesterday I also had students working on an endangered animals research project, but that took some interesting turns that I think merits its own post. Stay tuned!

Does Learning Not Happen If We Have Nothing to Show for It?

“Pics or it didn’t happen.”

This phrase was common Internet parlance when I was an adolescent. It was usually used to challenge an implausible claim, indicating that the audience would only accept the claim if provided with photographic evidence.

I don’t know whether “pics or it didn’t happen” is still common, but on social media, pics are provided regardless of whether or not anyone challenges anyone else. We post photos of delicious homemade dinners, glamorous vacations, and exciting events. And much of what we post is… picture perfect.

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Not my mother’s baked beans, though. Still not sure what happened here. This is what the kids would call a “fail.”

There feels like tremendous pressure — not just in my job, not just in my building, not just in my career, but in our culture — to be really good, really great, practically perfect. But not just to be perfect, but to have something to show for it, to prove how we’ve been spending our time. And this attitude permeates the classroom.

Does learning not happen if we have nothing to show for it?

Did learning happen if our test scores didn’t go up?

Did learning happen if we have nothing to display in the hall?

Did learning happen if we don’t have something to send home to parents?

Did learning happen if we couldn’t grade it on a rubric or put it in a portfolio?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have things to post on walls and fridges. We should, we absolutely should. It feels good to accomplish something tangible and to have something to show for our hard work.

I just want to be careful not to devalue the learning that happens in ways that are difficult to measure. The learning that takes place over spans of time longer than a single school year. The learning that is hard to see when you compare yourself with your peers instead of with your own previous level of proficiency. The learning that doesn’t come out when you bubble in answers on a page; the learning that comes out when you manage to move through and thrive in the world we all share.