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Fighting Misogyny: What Can I Do?

Let me be clear. I’m not waving my hands helplessly in the air saying, “There’s nothing I can do, leave me alone!” This is a sincere request for ideas.

If you don’t follow news in the same circles I do, here’s a quick summary: In science-fiction particularly, female authors aren’t always treated as equals by their not-so-female peers. There have been similar “kerfuffles” in the gaming community. And if you check out @EverydaySexism on Twitter, you can see that it’s a dishearteningly widespread issue across all communities.

As an author, I have some ideas about how I can be pro-female (without being anti-male), how I can keep an eye out, how I can speak up. During the school year, though, I spend five days a week with teens between 13 and 15 years old. I feel like I should be doing something to address issues of sexism with those students, especially since the gaming-community issues often seem to be attributed to boys in that age group.

But how?

I’ve talked a few times about an individual who exhibited definite negative behavior. I pulled him aside, had talks with him, made it clear it wasn’t acceptable … and made some progress. But most students are smart enough to avoid super-overt displays of misogyny in my classroom.

One-time “serious” class discussions don’t always do very much. As a student, I know I tuned them out, waiting for the teacher to get back to the “real” lesson. Changing behavior and views takes time, right?

So does teaching math, and I clearly can’t throw that out the window. Honestly, when I get going on the math, it’s easy to get one-track about it, so it would be good to know what kind of concerted effort I should be making.

Is it a matter of modeling? Consistency in my own speech and behavior? Seizing on those teachable moments when they pop up and taking five minutes for them? (For instance, any time a boy uses a word like “girl” as though it’s an insult.)

I want to do what I can in my own little sphere of influence. It just feels so big, and I don’t know where to start.

Any ideas?

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Why Do We Do "Pointless" Things? (Hint: They’re Not)

The other day, an English teacher at my school emailed the faculty with the link to this piece in the New York Times about literacy (or lack thereof) in Mexico. It makes me want to yell at someone, hit someone, and just scream and cry at the same time.

Here’s part of what set me to tearing my hair out:

A few years back, I spoke with the education secretary of my home state, Nuevo León, about reading in schools. He looked at me, not understanding what I wanted. “In school, children are taught to read,” he said. “Yes,” I replied, “but they don’t read.” I explained the difference between knowing how to read and actually reading, between deciphering street signs and accessing the literary canon. He wondered what the point of the students’ reading “Don Quixote” was. He said we needed to teach them to read the newspaper.

Because if they read thought-provoking novels, they won’t be able to read the newspaper? We should limit them to only achieving the baseline?

Seriously?

And then this:

When my daughter was 15, her literature teacher banished all fiction from her classroom. “We’re going to read history and biology textbooks,” she said, “because that way you’ll read and learn at the same time.”

I’m all for using literacy in the content areas, but throwing out fiction in literature class in favor of textbooks?

There’s learning to read, which is generally what happens in elementary school. Then kids transition to reading to learn, which is what we’re doing when we read textbooks or essays. We take the knowledge someone else has and absorb it by reading.

Then there’s what I’d call reading to create knowledge. I’d say that’s what happens when we read fiction. We can make our own discoveries about human nature, about ourselves, our own understandings about the world. The job of a novelist—as I see it—is not to teach but to explore. The reader explores with us, yet may not discover the same things or arrive at the same destination. That’s why it’s amazing.

This idea that we should only learn things that we’ll definitely, absolutely use in a concrete, practical way mystifies me. As I mentioned a month ago, it’s certainly turned up in my classroom. While I don’t hear students ask what the point of reading novels is (maybe the English teachers get that from the kids who don’t like reading—I have to threaten to take books away from kids who’d rather read than do math), I get it about almost everything else we want them to learn.

My school just sent out a survey last week, and one of the items was to vote on whether we want to institute a mandatory free-reading time next year. Twenty minutes a day, three days a week. No matter the class, everyone will spend those twenty minutes reading, including the teachers, administrators, everyone.

I haven’t had a chance to ask the other math teachers what they think of it. Or the science, art, PE, music, history, and tech teachers.

My vote: Absolutely, yes, without question.

Because the only pointless thing is limiting ourselves to the concrete little nothings. What kind of life is that?

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Going Off-Topic Can Be On-Topic

When I was in junior high, there was this one English teacher. I never had him, but I heard stories. Stories about the stories. My classmates talked about how all they had to do was make one comment or ask one random question to get him going, and they could keep him talking through all of class. As in, never getting to the lesson. As in, no homework.

Not something I aspire to as a teacher.

At the same time, I find I can’t be totally rigid about sticking to the agenda and only the agenda. That likely comes from my years in deaf-ed, where kids often have gaps in their world knowledge, and if I don’t allow a tangent to fill them, who will? I have a curriculum to stick to, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time for other conversations.

Here’s what I’ve learned: Kids want to know things. Since my students have heard about my publishing deal, they want to know a lot of things.

How long did it take to write the book?

Why is it going to be so long before it’s published?

How did you get the book deal?

What’s an agent?

Will it be in bookstores or will we have to buy it from you?

Will there be a movie?

I get particularly in-depth questions from students who want to write and publish novels themselves, but some of the most intense curiosity comes from students who aren’t into writing at all. Often who aren’t even into reading all that much.

Indulging those questions gives them insight into something that certainly isn’t on the curriculum in any of their classes. It also reinforces one of my favorite points—don’t pigeonhole people. Yeah, I’m a math teacher. Yeah, I’m a novelist. Yeah, I know ASL.

Hopefully it gets through to them that they can be as multi-faceted as they want, too. Especially in the adolescent world of “What’s your label?”

And you know what? Sometimes tangents like that work in writing, too. It might seem like wandering off aimlessly, but if we do it right, it can actually play right into our point.

Of course, the trick is the “doing it right” part. But isn’t it always?

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Being Liked is Nice, But Not at Another’s Expense

When it comes to teaching, I know I have things to work on, but I also do some things pretty well. A lot of kids like my class and like me as a teacher.

That feels nice. It’s helpful, too, when a kid who doesn’t normally like math likes you as a teacher. They try a little harder, which often leads to doing a little better. I’ve even had a kid or two come away with a totally different opinion of math as a subject.

Like I said, it feels nice.

You know what doesn’t feel nice, though? Students convincing counselors to let them transfer into my class mid-year because they think I’m somehow better than the other teacher who teaches the course.

Flattering, but … wait a minute.

The two of us prep together and teach from exactly the same materials. We have essentially the same training. We see eye-to-eye on most mathematical topics and how to approach them. Sure, our personalities are a little different. But here’s what it really comes down to.

I don’t have a reputation yet.

The other teacher falls into the tough-but-fair category. That’s a good thing, but kids who don’t like the “tough” part spread the word that she’s “mean.” (Oh, please.)

Letting kids bail from one teacher to the other just because they feel like it isn’t fair to her—it undermines her. She’s been teaching for years and teaching well, and she deserves more credit than these kids are giving her.

It’s also not fair to me. It puts me in a position I don’t want to be in, playing me against my colleague. That sucks. On a more practical note, I don’t like it because it means my classes keep getting bigger. They’re all between 36 and 39 students now.

(My colleague could see it as great for her, because her classes are smaller, but she doesn’t. She’d rather we each have a fair, even class load.)

And you know what? Kids (and people in general, I’m sure) do this all the time. Playing favorites. Choosing sides. Trying to get everyone else to like/not like the same people they do. Often without much—if any—solid basis for that opinion.

I don’t like it.

Not sure what I can do about it.

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Kids, Don’t Apologize for Making Me Do My Job

The other day, my ninth graders were working on a review assignment. Mostly independent, or working through with friends, while I circulated to help out.

These were mostly things we’d learned between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so it was a little tricky to remember some of the concepts. Not a problem. That was the point of reviewing.

In more than one class, a student or two got to the fourth or fifth question they’d asked me and prefaced with this:

“Sorry.”

Sorry to bother me? Sorry I had to weave through rearranged desks to get to them? Sorry they had so many questions?

Well, at least one said it was the last one. “Sorry, I have a lot of questions.”

Mind-boggling, from my perspective.

I guess there are teachers who prefer that their students work in silence while the teacher sits at their desk and does their own thing. And okay, I admit, there are days when I’m exhausted and sitting down sounds really nice.

But like I said to my students … “What are you apologizing for? Why do you think I’m here?”

Helping students is what makes teaching fun. Seeing them piece things together until they understand. It’s certainly not about hearing myself lecture from the front of the room.

If you have kids, make sure they know they should never feel like they have to apologize for asking a teacher to do her job.

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Thoughts on the Common Core Standards: English Edition

There’s been a lot of chatter about the new Common Core Standards. We have a set for English and a set for mathematics. As a math teacher who writes novels, I have thoughts about both, but I’ll focus on the English standards for this post.

The big attention-getter for these new standards is that it calls for more reading of informational, non-fiction texts, going from 50% of reading material in elementary school and gradually increasing to 70% in high school.

That’s where the chatter comes in. Many are upset about the units on classic literature, beloved favorites, and poetry getting cut from the curriculum, as noted in articles here and here.

I have thoughts on both sides of this. I’ve seen personally that students are definitely lacking in their ability to read text for factual information, to reason through technical material. I agree that more focus on developing these types of reading skills is necessary.

I also agree that nurturing a love of reading for pleasure is important. Reading fiction has boundless benefits, especially for children and teenagers.

I’ve heard some say that technical reading is for science class. Basically, let the science teachers handle all that, along with the social studies teachers for historical documents. Leave the English teachers to focus exclusively on the fiction side.

On the other side, content area teachers say they don’t teach reading and writing—that’s the English teacher’s job.

Which side do I fall on? Both, or neither.

From my time working in a school for the deaf, I have it ingrained in me that all teachers are language arts teachers. We don’t all cover all aspects of language equally, but we all have parts we can build up, develop, and reinforce. I see no reason that shouldn’t carry over to non-deaf education.

At the same time, English teachers are in more of a position to focus deeply on the nuances of non-fiction, informational writing without splitting as much attention with the concepts and other skills to be mastered. They also have more training in the teaching of reading and writing.

So ideally, a balance between both. Teachers brainstorming about texts that fit within their curricula, including English class. Working together. Supporting each other.

As much as I love fiction, it’s not the be-all, end-all.

As much as I love math and science, they’re not the be-all, end-all.

So my first step? Try to open some dialogue with the English teachers at my school … because without Twitter, I wouldn’t have even known as much as I do about these new standards.

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