Here's a conversation I have a lot:
Person X: What do you do?
Me: I'm a teacher.
X: Oh! What do you teach?
Me: Middle school.
Me: 7th and 8th grade.
X: …………………….um, WHY??
I have this conversation with lots of people, including, sometimes, my own students (though then it's more along the lines of, "Ms. Backes, I feel sorry for you! Why do you teach middle school, anyway??"). I have a million answers to these questions: depending on the time of year, time of day, person asking, and how I'm feeling at that particular moment, I change my answer. When I'm feeling glib, I say, "Well, most of my friends were joining the Peace Corps, so…." When I'm feeling honest but brief, I tell people, "I wanted to see if I could make Middle School suck slightly less for some kids." (Which is to say that middle school is going to suck for everyone. It's the Trial by Fire everyone must go through to emerge as adults in this culture. You're ugly and uncertain and everyone seems to hate you, even [especially!] your best friends. You suspect that whole groups of people gather just to make fun of you behind your back – and more often than not, you're right.) (We don't trust the people who say they liked middle school. We find them to be a little too aggressive for our tastes.)
Sometimes I think about the purpose of teaching at all. Lately, I've been extremely proud of how well I've been teaching to the test – a fact which, if I ever meet 2002 Molly in a dark alley, will cause her to punch me in the face and leave me to die in a dumpster. Of course, most people who are at all thoughtful about standardized testing realize what a false and unfair measure it is of any child and any school. I justify my test-teaching by telling myself that I have to work within this system, and this system tells the community at large that my wonderfully backwards little school is a "failure" every time we miss making Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind. Wouldn't it be great, for once, if we could just make AYP?
Then again, it's more important for me to get my students ready for high school. I hold them to extremely high standards, and make sure that they're getting an education equal to that of the other middle school in our district (the school on the wealthier side of the district, which is generally recognized as the "better" school). Whenever I see former students, now high schoolers, I ask them what I can teach – or teach better – to help my current students get ready for high school. If I had to choose between teaching to the test and teaching to high school, I would choose the latter. When my principal suggests I spend less time focusing on teaching writing, I smile and nod and ignore her. I know from personal experience that being a good writer will get you far – farther, perhaps, than any other individual skill. It's important to be a good reader and it's important to have the kind of good problem solving skills you can learn in math, but writing is a skill you'll need across the curriculum, through high school and college, and for the rest of your life. My ninth graders come back and tell me that all the writing I made them do got them ready for high school, and so I'll keep teaching writing, even when the standardized tests say they need to know more about antecedents and less about how to write a good thesis. (I'll only teach to the parts of tests I agree with!)
Last spring, a bunch of my friends and I got into this amazing discussion about the purpose of school. We were on Doug's front porch, sprawled out across the steps, and roughly divided between the homeschoolers and the regular schoolers. The people who'd gone all the way through public school generally seemed to believe that the purpose of school was to learn a set number of facts, things that everyone needed to know in order to be considered not-a-dumbass in our culture. The American Canon of Cultural Knowledge, you might say. Or, as E.D. Hirsch calls it, Cultural Literacy – those things you need to know in order to be a literate member of our culture. Those of us who went through traditional school argued for the importance of this kind of knowledge (mainly, I suspect, because it's the way we were taught ourselves and the values we learned to believe in). However, the homeschoolers argued that they don't need to know this information – why should they, when they could just as easily Google it? Dan kept gesturing to the phone on his hip. "It's all right here," he'd say, and though we argued that a broader base of knowledge helps you better to judge what information is valid and what's crap, I think he has a good point. Is any of that information really necessary? Do we really need to know facts?
Ultimately, I think the point of public schooling is acclimation to this culture – people often say that education is the great equalizer, and in the sense that public schools teach us how to be a part of this culture – how to be Americans – that's true. And so, in my teaching, I have a number of goals: 1) to make middle school suck less for kids (by being a decent and understanding adult, someone trustworthy, non-judgmental, and smart that kids can talk to; by being an adult who cares about kids and who will work hard to do what's best for them; by teaching kids that it's okay – even awesome – to be different in a time when conformity is king; by helping them to think more about the ways their words and actions affect the people around them; by constantly nagging the other adults around me not to accept language like "fag" and "wetback" and "cracker" in their classrooms); 2) to teach to the test (by teaching all the state standards before March; by teaching the kids test-taking skills – skills which will come in handy again and again, when they take the SAT and the ACT and the LSAT and the GRE etc etc); 3) to teach kids how to be good readers, good critical thinkers, and great writers; and 4) to teach kids how to be a part of this culture, a culture which grows more diverse every day, a culture which demands a certain degree of tolerance and acceptance for difference. Melting pot, tossed salad, whatever the dominant metaphor, the United States was founded on principles of diversity and tolerance, and I'll do my best to teach in the spirit of the Constitution as long as I can.
And when all that becomes too abstract, I'll write down little stories that will help me to leave laughing, and remind me of why I got into this in the first place. Why do I teach middle school? All of these reasons, yes, and more. But when tempers are high and patience is short, the most important reason still remains: I teach because I love these kids.
Dakota: Ms. Backes, is it racism if a black guy calls another black guy "nigger"?
Me: Well... yes. I think so. Some people might not agree.
Dakota: What about when my friends call me "wetback"?
Me: Yes. What you have to understand is that you can't take the connotations away from these words. Even if *you* don't mean it, they're still hurtful words. Even if you mean it as a joke, it might still hurt.
Dakota: Like when we call Mina a dumb blonde.
Me: Exactly. You have to know that when a person hears something often enough, they start to believe it.
Dakota: Like.... Mina might start thinking she's dumb?
Me: She might. If she hears it enough. If you guys tell her every day.
Mina: I'm not. I'm NOT! I'm actually very smart!
Me: You ARE, Mina.
Dakota: Wait -- Mina, how does it feel when we say you're a dumb blonde?
Mina: It feels CRAPPY!
Dakota: It DOES?
Me: See? Even if it's a joke -- when you hear the same thing over and over, it's hard not to internalize it. It's hard not to feel like it's true. If a little girl grows up and gets told every day that she's ugly, even if she grows up to look like Beyonce, what is she going to think when she looks in the mirror?
Class: She's ugly! She'll think she's ugly!
Me: So when we talk about internalized racism, we're talking about the kind of racism that's so deep inside you maybe can't even see it, but it comes from hearing words like this about yourself a million times, even just jokes.
Dakota: I'm sorry for calling you a dumb blonde, Mina.
Mina: Thank you.
*and yes, I do actually use words like "connotation" with my 7th graders, because they're quickly turning into the race of super-enlightened geniuses I've been raising them up to be.
Actual note from nurse:
Please admit Darien to class. He is okay physically! Not mentally! HA HA!
Ana: Ms. Backes, we love your jacket! It's raw!
Harriet: Yeah, fresher than fresh!
Me: (laughing) So fresh, we just pulled it out of the ocean!
Me: Well.... thanks, I guess!
The last story I will tell about Roots:
So we're watching the final episode of Roots (we've watched the entire miniseries, now, spread out across almost 6 months), and in the very end, there's a scene where Chicken George is holding a gun, pointed at a white man, and says, "Mr. Brant, we just want to leave this county peaceably," only he pronounces it like "peaceable-ly." After this line, in every class, every single class I watched it with, the whole class would murmur, "peaceable-ly." For some reason, that just killed me, that quiet, spontaneous repetition of that word. For one moment, in one word, my room full of disparate elements and wildly different personalities became one creature, one community, enchanted with and lulled by one oddly-pronounced word. It felt like that moment where you look around at all the relatives you've been fighting with and loving over the years and realize you're all part of one family. It felt like being in church. Peaceable-ly.