21 March 2007

Notes from 1994

I just got the best envelope EVER. Oh my gosh.

Okay, some back story: fourteen years after middle school, I'm still in touch with my seventh grade science teacher, Debe VanSteenderen (then simply "Ms. Dankel"). She is perhaps my greatest influence as a teacher -- she was weird and wacky and strict and hilarious and encouraged us to be as weird as we possibly could -- and we ran with it. And we learned a TON. I can still recite the path of the blood through the heart (and I can do it REALLY FAST). Most importantly, she taught me -- in middle school, when conformity is at its absolute height -- that it's okay to think outside the box, that you get credit just for being weird and funny. As a teacher, I often measure myself by her example, and ask myself what Debe would do. When I feel really discouraged and uninspired, I call her for advice. When I'm in Wisconsin, if at all possible, I visit her class and admire the projects her students have done (she makes them do reports on animals and then they have to make hats to wear while reporting on those animals -- some of them are quite elaborate!!).

Anyway, apparently Debe has a folder of stuff I made for her (or just gave her) in middle school. Today, I got a big envelope full of relics from Middle School Molly. Sometimes I wish I could know myself as a kid -- know what I was like, from an adult perspective -- but then I think I might have been the kind of kid that you secretly want to punch in the face all the time. Hard to say, really. This envelope was like a secret message from a long-ago-me, calling into the future (and saying, I guess, "Don't forget what a FREAK you were, Backes!!") Inside the envelope -- there's a copy of this Christmas book I made for Debe, a parody of The Night Before Christmas, adapted to include lots of 7th grade science inside jokes and strange little illustrations and general middle school weirdness. (Sample verses: The panties were hung /by the ceiling with care, / In hopes that Ms Dankelclaus / soon would be there ... And Ann in her jammies / a pillow over my head, /About to go to sleep / (We sleep in seperate beds).

So weird! So stupid and funny!

And THEN, there's a copy of this story I wrote in 8th grade, called "The Evil One," which is a 6 page long single spaced EPIC about how the evil ghost of a taxidermied squirrel put a curse on me and followed me through the school. My 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Hoffman, gave me an A++++!! That's the best grade I EVER got in my life. At the end of my stupid little story, he wrote: Molly, A++++, You amaze me -- this is wonderful - so well-developed and your choice of words is great! You could rival S.King in some of his chapters. You are a writer! I am so glad to read what you write! Mr. H

Looking back, I am astonished by the degree and depth of support and encouragement I had as a kid -- no wonder I came back to teach middle school! What a powerful statement that was: "You are a writer!" And the fact that Debe keeps a folder of stuff 13-year-old Molly made her, a hundred years ago? Amazing. And in the card she sent, she says: I stopped by Nate Mahr [8th grade science teacher]'s & Sandy Owens [7th grade geography teacher]'s rooms and relayed your greetings. Nate started talking about some fish drawing he has from you. You have really touched the lives of those who taught you.

You might be thinking, what kind of person still gets validation from her middle school teachers? Oh man, I tell you, only an extremely lucky one. I feel like I've come full circle here -- now I'm the crazy middle school teacher -- but I'm SO lucky to still have my old teachers and mentors to lean on a little. And really? The fact that I have had this person in my life keeping my stories and projects, watching over me and encouraging me, teaching me, for fourteen years now? I'm absolutely blessed. I only hope I can give as much to my students someday.


07 March 2007

Things, Terrible and Terrific

State testing is extremely stressful. Trying to keep a bunch of overly-tested kids in check (and the principal insists we "teach" them in the couple of hours of class after testing. SO fun.) is extremely stressful. Parent conferences are (can be) extremely stressful. Doing all three in one day makes me want to drive off a cliff. AND we have to stay until 6 on Friday? AND come back on Saturday morning?? Screw you, district!

BUT! Yesterday a herd (seriously, like 11 kids) of 9th grade boys who I'd taught in 7th and/or 8th grade appeared in my classroom door. First of all, so cute, since I spent two years nagging and yelling at these kids for being naughty, and I'm still their favorite teacher. Second of all, I asked them -- as I always do -- "What can I teach my 8th graders to help them be more successful in 9th grade English? What do you wish I had taught you guys?" And the boys looked at each other, shrugged, and said, "Nothing, Ms. B. Compared to your class, 9th grade is EASY."


04 March 2007

The Middle School Manifesto

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.
X: …
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?
Mina: Yeah!
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!

Me: Raw?

Harriet: Yeah, fresher than fresh!

Me: (laughing) So fresh, we just pulled it out of the ocean!

Ana: Exactly!

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.