Random Thoughts from a Much Better Thursday

  • Very little has changed in the material reality of my life. Trump is still an atrocious empty suit; I still have mountains of papers to grade; many students are still paralyzed by fragility or lack of confidence. Yet I feel much much better today.
  • Mac Barnett is awesome.
  • Thanks again to friends and family that were willing to help or just put up with me as I dealt yesterday with my occasional swing into depressive terrain. As promised, the pendulum has swung back into the manic.
  • It can be healthy for me to have these occasional episodes, because it gives me a glimpse into the lives of people who suffer from actual depression. It’s not a choice, it’s not a moral failure, it’s not a light switch. Things change, but sometimes they don’t change much or very quickly. At those times we’ve got to be careful that we don’t say or do things that will make the person feel even worse.
  • Granola bars are tasty.
  • I’m tired of being chastised and gaslit by Trump apologists. I work really hard to be open-minded, compassionate, and intellectually honest. People who try to convince me that I’m not — well, haters gonna hate.
  • I’m working on Part Two of my Resisting Oversimplification thing. Maybe I’ll put in some work on it this weekend.
  • Soon I’ll get to do a thing I’ve wanted to do for a while. Yay!
  • I still don’t know if that horrible rumor is true or not and I still have no way to find out. That still sucks.
  • Some students write some really awesome stuff.
  • Today a student asked to read Nelson Algren’s Nonconformity, my favorite book about writing ever. This was the first time a student ever asked to borrow the book, so I’m very happy. I hope they like it.
  • There’s nothing like a slightly-too-small pair of pants to remind you that you should do more sit-ups and eat less stuffed-crust pizza.
  • It’s tough to teach a text you really love. If students don’t love it (or don’t love it enough) then you might take it personally. And it’s not personal.
  • A student just asked to see my copy of The New Jim Crow after I mentioned it in class. There is no better way for a school day to end. We’re done here.

The Didactic Interview: Sofia Ali-Khan

To confront the existential horror of President Trump, I’m joined by my longtime activist friend Sofia Ali-Khan. We discuss our lives as progressive rabble-rousers, educators, and Americans. We sort through the problems we face and some concrete steps for action. Let’s get to work, everybody!

Links to things we discussed:

Here’s the song at the end, “Simply Are” by Arto Lindsay:

Blueberries, Batman, and Special Education

A former student of mine is now working on an education degree, and asked me to respond to some questions about students with disabilities and special education. With typical egoism, I thought perhaps my response would be of interest to others, so here it is. (A PDF version is also available.)

“Special education” classification is a tool. Like any tool, it is not inherently positive or negative — the moral value comes from how it’s used. (Some tools, like land mines, are almost never positive, while others, like breath mints, are almost never negative.)

I put special education in quote marks because it is, in some ways, an arbitrary distinction based on highly subjective factors. To wit: Its definition from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: “specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.” If we removed the last three words here, no parent in the world would refuse the same for their own child. Every person is unique, and every child has unique needs. Unfortunately, the incredible demands on our school systems require less individual attention than students really need. Therefore not all children can receive “specially designed instruction [...] to meet [their] unique needs”. (Imagine if doctors had to help patients 30 at a time, the way teachers have to help students.)

As a result, our society believes that the best way to maximize the potential of our limited resources is to provide special attention (smaller classes, more one-on-one time, different facilities) for those students with disabilities. This makes sense, although — again — I wish to insist that such adjustments to the “standard” educational structure, in an ideal world, would be considered for every student in the building.

With regard to physical disabilities, there is little to discuss. Obviously a student who is unable to walk should have an altered physical education curriculum. Cognitive disabilities are more tricky. In part this is due to the labyrinthian nature of the human brain. Only in the last 50 years have we begun to scratch the surface of understanding this infinite organism inside our heads. Consequently, educational policy has constantly reinvented itself to match our understanding of developmental research.

The biggest challenge I see is the schism between short-term and long-term assistance for the disabled child. Leaving aside for the moment the question of diagnosis (to which I shall return, fear you not), we have to understand that what’s helpful for a student in the short term is often diametrically opposed to that student’s best interests in the long term. This is a paradox at the very heart of compulsory education itself: The kid is tired, the kid wants to sleep. But we have to force them into school so they’ll have more opportunities in life, get better jobs, and not be so exhausted later in life. (This presents unique challenges for those educators among us who are anarchists, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

The implementation of special ed classifications and modifications compound this schism profoundly. Let’s take a (relatively) simple case like anxiety. (I have no idea where that problem lies on the chart of disability classification, but we’re seeing it all over the place these days, so it’s a common example to interrogate.) When a student suffers from anxiety, the impulse for a compassionate educator is to excuse them from situations where that anxiety is aggravated — speaking in front of the class, for example. On the other hand, a long-term focus must recognize that the student must at some point overcome this anxiety, and find ways to fight through it, to avoid being defined and limited by it forever.

A callous, insensitive teacher will say: “I don’t care about your anxiety. You need to get over it. Everyone has to give a speech, and if you don’t, you get an F.” But an equally harmful educator on the other end of the continuum will say: “Your anxiety makes it impossible to do the speech. You get an A even if you don’t speak in front of the class.” This second teacher is enabling a total evasion of the problem, and ordering the student to surrender to anxiety. Therefore a balance must be struck.

I cannot recommend enough an episode of the NPR podcast Invisibilia called “How To Become Batman” (23 January 2015). The show explores the remarkable case of Daniel Kish, a blind man who taught himself as a child to “echolocate” (like a bat) in order to make sense of the world around him. He became so skilled at this practice that he can now ride a bike. Even more remarkably, brain scientists have discovered that echolocation allows blind people to form neural structures similar to those created by the eyes in people who can see. (This leads the hosts to literally climb on a rooftop in order to shout: “You might not need eyes to see!”) It’s a remarkable program, and I really do urge you to listen right now. (I also just found his TED Talk.)

Kish’s biggest point, which he stresses at every opportunity, is that his biggest obstacle in life has not been the blindness itself, but the limitations people place on him because of it. He explains that most blind children begin echolocating at a young age, but teachers and adults immediately order them to stop. They worry about social stigma and the kid’s self-esteem.

This goes into another dimension when it comes to safety. Parents obviously want to protect their children from harm, but Kish says parents of blind children need to trust their kids more to explore and learn for themselves where the boundaries of safety and harm reside. The podcast features Kish’s mother, who explains that she let him roam around by himself, even though it was dangerous. Being a child is inherently dangerous anyway, she explains. This independence and self-reliance has obviously served Kish well throughout his life. Now he teaches other blind children how to echolocate and move around on their own.

This is not to say that we should remove all restrictions and supports for children with disabilities. But Kish’s story is a powerful reminder about how urgent it is for all adults — and especially educators — to check ourselves. Our desire to help children in the short-term can easily hamper their ability to become strong and self-sufficient in the long term. I’ve seen plenty of students diagnosed with ADHD use their diagnosis as a crutch to enable unhealthy behavior. I’ve seen plenty of parents and counselors assume that kids cannot perform a task because of a disability classification. This is unkind and dangerous.

Ideally, a new paradigm of mental health and cognitive classification would recognize the perils of “deficit” thinking against some imaginary ideal/normal brain. Instead we could recognize that every person has some varying levels of difficulty when it comes to, say, paying attention. (It’s hard for all of us, especially in our postmodern hyper-accelerated culture.) This could help reduce stigma while also recognizing that such difficulties are not inevitable limitations, but obstacles that can be overcome — or at least ameliorated.

That’s a radical and far-off notion, however, so I’ll return to the here and now, and (as I begin my third page of this long-winded diatribe) touch on some things I haven’t mentioned yet.

Yes, I think all children can benefit from disability testing. But I hasten to add that any such testing (and construction of “special education” accommodation/curriculum) must put the student at the center of the process. So often I see young people in IEP meetings as distant observers, only tangentially involved in the process. I always speak directly to the student, but in most cases I’m the only one.

I did my undergraduate study at New College of Florida, which features no grades and an intensely student-centered pedagogical philosophy. (The motto of New College is: “In the final analysis, the student is responsible for his or her own education.”) Spending four years in this rigorous environment of academic freedom and intellectual responsibility made me into the erudite and indefatigable scholar that I am today. Ten years of standard schooling had mostly trained me to regurgitate answers on tests and then forget the information immediately afterward.

I wish I had some specific ideas of how to make “special education” more student-centered, but I can say for sure that all students must become familiar with the concept of metacognition at an early age, and return to it on a regular basis throughout their schooling. They must start figuring out (much earlier than I did) what they need to get from school, and go after it. Our models of education rely heavily on passive students and rote “learning”, for many reasons. Transforming this mindset will benefit not only those students with disabilities, but all other students as well.

I must close with an emphasis on resources. Everybody talks about “how important education is” and “how valuable teachers are”, but our public policies and budget decisions as a society reflect a very different view. Helping kids individually takes time and money. (Again, consider the chaos that would result from a doctor having to help patients 30 at a time.) Most initiatives aimed at helping students are not accompanied by money for more staff or resources. (Jamie Vollmer’s 2010 book Schools Cannot Do It Alone explores this phenomenon in great depth. He is also the author of “The Blueberry Story”, which is a quick but essential read for anyone interested in education.)

Go to any public school in the United States and talk with the special education teachers about how busy they are. In most cases they are twice as exhausted as the regular teachers — who are plenty exhausted themselves, believe you me. (As I’ve said elsewhere: We call it special education because the teachers are special.)

We like to think of teachers as being capable of magic, so it doesn’t matter if they have 10 kids or 20 or 30. (Well-funded press releases from education-reform organizations like The Gates Foundation declare with great volume the irrelevance of class size. Meanwhile, the private Lakeside School — which Bill Gates loved so much — brags on its website about an average class size of 17 students.)

If we’re serious about helping kids with disabilities, we must pay for that help. It’s not cheap, and doing it right requires great effort from all of us — especially the students. But each of us would want the best, most individualized care for our own children, with conscious emphasis on approaches that will best help kids in the long term. Therefore anything less is an affront to our shared humanity.

Remembering Antonio

My friend and coworker Antonio Turrubiartes died on Sunday after fighting cancer for many months. He was an academic, a watch-repair specialist, an ESL teacher, and — most recently — the receptionist at our school’s front office.

I bowled with Antonio. If Bowling Alone is a sign of community dissolution, then my time with Antonio on the lanes is a good example of something more than friendship. Like Walter and Donny to The Dude, I got to know this man on the planks. We shot the breeze, discussed current events, and cracked jokes. I met his lovely wife Kathy and got to hang out with his sons outside of school.

Recently I started making a half-hearted attempt to learn Spanish. A native speaker, Antonio used every opportunity to help me — he spit immersive questions at me and waited for a proper rejoinder. He corrected my sentences in a way that no website or textbook can. He was always friendly and positive.

One of my favorite things about Antonio was making a joke that took a moment to sink in, and then watching his face erupt in laughter when he realized what I was getting at. He had a sharp wit that not everyone got to see. I’m lucky for that reason among others.

I taught his son Manny for a few semesters. He has his father’s joyful smile and positive attitude. It’s always interesting to befriend multiple generations of the same family, and it was great to add this layer to my friendship with Antonio. Manny is creative and fun to be around. (I’ve met, but never worked with, his other son Tony. I can tell he shares his father’s best qualities.)

Antonio had an operation this spring, which supposedly removed all the bad stuff. He came back to school for the final days of the semester and I was delighted to hear his voice on the intercom once more. Then, all of a sudden, last week we got an email explaining that his condition had declined rapidly and he was in hospice. He wasn’t accepting visitors, but cards were appreciated.

I was at a coffee shop on State Street when I got the news. I closed my laptop and raced to Room of One’s Own to buy a card. Nothing seemed right; what kind of card is appropriate for that moment? Nothing is right or appropriate about a moment like that. The universe lied to me, dammit. He was beating the disease that took my father when I was in high school. Then it all went wrong.

I spent an hour in the public library, crying into a handkerchief and trying to find words to balance my pain and sadness with the warmth and gratitude I wanted Antonio to feel in this insane moment. Nothing I wrote felt adequate, but it would have to do. I sent it off and I knew that would be the last thing I would ever say to him.

Well, the last thing he’ll hear. For a while. In her essay “Women Like Us”, the Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat says: “Death is a path we take to meet on the other side.” I’m not a religious person, but I really want to believe there’s some kind of afterlife. I want to see my father again. I want to see my college buddy Evan. I want to talk to my Wikipedia friend Awadewit some more. I want to bowl again with Antonio.

You can’t work at a school for 13 years without saying goodbye to lots of people. People retire, students graduate, and things fall apart. Usually when tragedy strikes, it’s someone I don’t know very well. There’s a bond of collegiality and human connectivity of course, but there’s a distance too. You contribute to the memorial fund and sign the card and life goes on.

It’s different when you know the person well. Now I know who ought to be in that chair. I can tell that the voice on the intercom is different, and it’s wrong. I’m sure the new receptionist is — or will be — a lovely person, but it won’t be Antonio’s smile greeting me en español when I check my mail in the morning.

On the flip side, one of the greatest joys of working in a school is watching a person’s impact ripple out among the young people. This week I got to see hundreds of students declare their fondness for Antonio and their condolences for his family. He lives in their lives, and exists within his family.

He lives in me.

Goodbye, Antonio.

(If you can, please donate to his memorial fund. Thank you.)

Eulogy for an Educator

Note: I wrote this a few weeks ago, after we lost an amazing educator. I wasn’t sure if I would post it, but I had a discussion today that convinced me to share it. Thanks for reading.

There is a spirit of compassion in every educator that transcends infinity. What we do in those classrooms every day — We can tell you what it takes, but that doesn’t really tell you what it takes. It’s not just blood, sweat, and tears; we give our souls, our hearts, our memories. Our nightmares and our dreams, our minds and our fingernails. Every student who won’t listen, every book left unread, every lost opportunity — they weigh on us like rocks upon Giles Corey. “More weight,” we cry. Sylvia Ashton-Warner said: “Not just part of us becomes a teacher. It engages the whole self — the woman or man, wife or husband, mother or father, the lover, scholar or artist in you as well as the teacher earning money.”

I knew Jane Skalitsky, but (as with so many of the amazing women and men at Sun Prairie High School) not nearly as well as I should have known her. That distance is not a salve in this hour of pain, however — it is a burden of grief. What might I have learned from her, about compassion? About reaching young people? About holding on?

Some days, it’s really hard to hold on. I don’t mean sanity or hope — I mean holding on to the vision that drives us. Holding on to the people around us. It’s so easy to let those things slip and retreat into something else, something easier. Something that requires less energy. Lots of people do that; they stop holding on. Pablo Neruda said: “Between lips and voice, something went off to die; something with bird’s wings, something of anguish and forgetting. Like nets which can’t hold water.” I can’t speak with personal certainty, but I assume others will correct me if I am wrong: Jane held on.

Utah Phillips told a story once about a guy named Eddie Belchowski, who had lost a hand in the Spanish Civil War. He said Eddie taught him powerful things about holding on. When he heard that Eddie died, he wrote a death song for his friend. Then he got a call from Eddie. (He asked him: “Hey Eddie, where ya calling from?” He said Chicago, and Utah said: “Well, dead or in Chicago, it’s all the same to me.”) Utah sang Eddie his death song, and he was amused. Then, a few months later, Eddie died. And Utah Phillips sang his death song at the funeral.

That story is the last track on the album he made with Ani DiFranco, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, and it’s a perfect finish.

For teachers, the past doesn’t go anywhere. Our lives only expand with every new student; we absorb what the universe throws at us, like some kind of mutant pedagogical sponge. Our students don’t go anywhere; they live inside our minds beside our favorite teachers. And somewhere in the cluster of galaxies beyond our consciousness, our favorite teachers work with every student we’ve known.

Because as Chief Seattle said, there is no death. There’s only a changing of worlds. The Vietnamese zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains that we look at a cloud and think of it as a distinct entity. But when it is time for that cloud to become rain, we can still love the rain that it becomes, and take solace in the continued existence of the cloud-now-rain as a vital continuity of our world. I will add: This is especially true for teachers, because teachers imbue themselves into everything they touch. Teaching is an act of transfusion, a daily transfer of precious intellectual fluids. (Also mental, psychological, spiritual, emotional, and sociopolitical fluids.)

This teaching stuff is confusing. I’ve been teaching for 15 years, but I feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing. I wrote a book about teaching this summer, but I can’t help feeling like a fraudulent “expert”. I think we all feel this way from time to time. There’s no way to describe it, and if you’ve never done it, then you have no idea. Anne Sexton once said: “I am teaching … It’s kind of like having a love affair with a rhinoceros.”

But never is this more true than when we discuss special education. That name doesn’t fit because the students are special — although they are. But all students are special. They are all unique and beautiful snowflakes, to ironically appropriate the words of Tyler Durden. We call it special education because the teachers are special. Most of us can’t do what they do; I know I can’t.

The more I hear about Jane Skalitsky, the more she reminds me of my mother. My mom was the first teacher I ever met, and she devoted her entire life to special education kids. Her students came from backgrounds of every stripe and flavor. Abuse, illness, neglect, suffering, boredom, poverty, confusion, chaos, distance — these are the worlds from which her students came. (Plenty of students in “regular ed” deal with less acute versions of these experiences, of course.) Ordinary people like me can’t confront these worlds like special ed teachers do. When I was subbing in the Madison area, I always felt bad when I hit the “no thanks” button when the SubFinder robot called at 4:00 AM asking if I would fill in for a special ed absence. But I never felt confident that I could give the kids what they need. I watched my mom do it for years, and I was never as capable or talented as that.

Jane Skalitsky didn’t run from the challenges that came toward her. She poured herself into the students like we all try to do. I feel weird talking about her like this, since I didn’t know her very well. But — again — I trust those with the personal connections will stop me if I need to be corrected.

No one teaches who isn’t ready to sacrifice. Some of us give more than others, and that’s all there is to it. We’re all afraid that we’ll give too much, but we don’t let that stop us. Our love for the young people is stronger than our fear. I didn’t know Jane very well, but I know somehow from something deep inside me that her love always overpowered whatever fears she may have had.

My mother was afraid of what the chemotherapy would do to my father, but she loved him enough to endure it with him. And when he finally died, she was afraid that she might endure the same pain if she ever married again. But she did. And then she did. (My father died from multiple myeloma. My stepfather died from lung cancer.) And despite this pain and the fear that it might come back to haunt her again, she has never grown cold. She knows that her love is stronger than her fear, and she refuses to let the fear win.

You can’t grow cold, if you’re a teacher. Maybe some can — my 11th grade math teacher seemed pretty cold. But maybe I just felt that way because I never got the hang of pre-calculus. I don’t know any cold teachers at Sun Prairie High School, and I can’t imagine anyone with a cold heart lasting two days in special ed. Peter, Lance, Lori, Patty, Amy, Latrina — these people teach me every day about what it means to conquer fear with love. Because for all the talk of SLOs and PPGs and PBIS and RTI and IEPs and 504s and ELL and ESL and 21st century learning and differentiation and scaffolding and personalized curriculum and bundled classes and flexible scheduling and all the rest of it is one simple question: Can you love the students enough — and get them to love themselves — to conquer their fear of failure? Can you teach them how to be more human?

Ralph Ellison said: “If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and I will help to make the desert bear fruit.”

We’re in a desert of loss right now, maybe even feeling a drought of hope. But the cloud has become a rainfall, and as we sing Jane’s praises, her enduring presence is helping the desert to bear fruit.