“This is what democracy looks like…”

To my best friend,

We heard that above quote chanted a lot today.

It seems to be easiest to address these posts as if I am writing directly to someone, so in this case, as in most cases, I’m writing to you.

I participated in the Women’s March on Washington today. In the flagship city. I and about 1.1 million of my closest friends streamed into the National Mall area of Washington, DC starting early this morning — 21 January 2017.

I am noting the date because it’s important. It’ll go down in history. It already has.wmw-3
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Adulting Is Hard: One Year On

The great Jonathan Larson wrote in “Seasons of Love” (from the musical Rent):

How do you measure – measure a year?
In daylights – in sunsets
In midnights – in cups of coffee
In inches – in miles
In laughter – in strife
…How do you measure a year in the life?

I’ve measured the last year in all of these.

It’s been exactly a year since I graduated from Durham University…it’s been bittersweet to see the pictures pop up on that “On This Day” thing on Facebook. Read More »

This One’s For the Boys

My family moved house to a new place around the corner from my elementary school when I was about 11. The surrounding neighbourhood is definitely a bit dodgy, but our street in particular has always been friendly and relatively safe. My pre-teen and teenage years were spent with three other families, all of whom had children around my and my sisters’ ages. We were — and remain, in some ways, despite most of the kids scattered around the country and indeed the world at times — closer and more tightly-knit than many blood-related families. It’s hard to describe all the benefits and value this environment brought to my life and continues to do so.

Last night we continued our decade-old tradition of Christmas tree hunting and dinner. After we found our trees and took the obligatory group pictures, we went to our favourite NY-style pizza place in our hometown and just…sat there for two hours, chatting and eating and laughing. I ended up sitting next to and across from three of my male “cousins” (all of whom are around my age) and was struck by how lucky I was to have these men in my life. Not just these specific three, but all of the boys and men from my family.

Of course it hasn’t always been a picnic, growing up with these guys. Middle and high school were fraught with petty fights and competitive arguments and emotional upheavals and ridiculous drama. Like all families, we didn’t get along all the time. (Us girls had our issues too. But that’s not the point of this post.)

But oh, these guys.

I hold up the men I befriend or date to the standards that my cousins have set. Can you hold your own in a debate with me? Do you like at least one sport? Do you care a bit about your appearance? Are you respectful and open-minded? Can you make me laugh until my sides hurt? Are you kind to your family? Are you supportive of your friends, as much as you are able? Do you give good hugs?

All my closest male friends meet these standards. They have to, otherwise I wouldn’t be friends with them. Unfortunately, none of the men I have dated in the last couple of years — dated very infrequently, admittedly — have measured up. Which is a big reason none of them have lasted beyond a couple of dates or a hookup.

I realised I’ve been doing this just in the last couple of years. I’m not sorry for it.

Frankly, my standards keep me sane. I don’t have time to deal with bullshit that immature men — or women — are prone to throwing around. You want to be in my life? Fine. Meet these basic expectations. I promise I give as good as I get.

Phillip, Robert, Isaiah, Jared, Elijah, and Ben…

Thank you for being the boys you were and the men you’ve become. Thank you for setting the bar so high. I will always be better for having you.

 

Small Ways to Say ‘I Love You’

In light of the recent seismic event that has gripped my country — one whose aftershocks will be felt for at least four years, if not more — I started thinking about this post. Because I (and a lot of other people around the world) need to remember that, ultimately, we control our reactions to what happens to us. And we can choose to respond with hate or with love.

Tonight, I’m choosing love. So here are some small ways to say ‘I love you’.Read More »

The People v Standardised Testing

Let me start by saying that you can take the girl out of Waldorf, but you cannot take the Waldorf fully out of the girl.

My elementary school teachers would, undoubtedly, be thrilled to hear this.

For my readers who are unfamiliar with the term ‘Waldorf’, you’re not alone. It’s an educational philosophy developed by Rudolf Steiner and focuses on the ‘whole’ child — a holistic, creative, interactive approach to education. Waldorf education at the early childhood level involves a lot of free play, circle time, singing, outdoor exploration, and practical tasks, like simple cooking and gardening. At the elementary level, there is a ‘main lesson’, which can be on a range of subjects from language arts to physics to mythology. Often there is daily singing, poetry recitals, special activities like foreign languages, visual and dramatic arts, music, and movement lessons. Of course, Waldorf education is not without controversy. (You can find out more about the lawsuits and other issues that schools in the US face, in particular, if you do a simple Google search.) I myself had — and still do — my doubts about certain practices.

There are quite a few Waldorf-inspired public (meaning state-funded) magnet or charter schools, especially across California…one of which I attended for elementary school (grades 1-6). Because my elementary school was public, there was a mandate that students take and maintain average scores on state standardised tests to continue receiving their funding. But more on that later. At school, I learned to cook, assemble a full-size wooden toolbox, take care of a garden, paint with watercolours, sing in a choir, perform on stage, speak Spanish, write basic Japanese calligraphy, how to do eurythmy (a sort of cross between dancing, yoga, and Tai Chi, I guess?), play two instruments…you name it, my sisters, our classmates, and I probably did it.

While this is unnecessary to understand the point of this post, I want to mention that I was a teacher’s pet, goodie-two-shoes all through elementary and middle school. Because I was, I memorised all my own and everyone’s else lines for the class plays. My portrayals include Loki the Norse God (that was particularly fun, I had a good ‘Trickster’ laugh); Isis (to my best friend’s Osiris, he spent a lot of the play in a ‘coffin’); a main character from the 1001 Arabian Nights; and my personal favourite performance, as Moses (I wore a white sheet tied like a robe and sandals, so they could be easily taken off when I walked up the ‘mountain’. ‘LET MY PEOPLE GOOOOO’…. yes, third-grade-me actually sang that on stage in front of 75 parents, teachers, friends, and relatives. It was glorious).

Homework, textbooks, and tests, as a rule, were not introduced until at least 3rd grade. And even then they were used minimally. We were never taught to the test. Honestly, I didn’t even realise we were learning a lot of the concepts on the tests until it came time to take them. Learning about photosynthesis? Done outside in the garden. Learning about China? Done through engaged storytelling. Reading? Well…this is a tricky one and brings me to the main point of this post.

I didn’t learn to read until the third grade. That would have made me…8? Nine years old? Of course, I knew my alphabet and what sounds the letters made. I just wasn’t pressured to read until I was ready to do so. Once I got the hang of the concept, i jumped two grade-levels in reading and never looked back. It just clicked. I read Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Hobbit by 5th grade. Pride and Prejudice became my favourite book in 8th grade. My advantage — and to my everlasting gratefulness — was that I was read to a lot at home and at school. When I got grounded, my reading-for-fun privileges were taken away. Even when money was tight (and it was, I just didn’t know it) there was always money for books. My dad read us a bedtime story every single night without fail; if we had messed up epically that day, that was the punishment for me and my sisters. We went from picture books to chapter books as we got older. My dad actually read the first four Harry Potter novels out loud to us. (By the time Goblet of Fire came out, we were old enough to read by ourselves, but didn’t want to. So Dad continued. Order of the Phoenix we were on our own for.) When my parents divorced and my youngest sister wanted to read them, I read them out loud to her, sitting on the bathroom counter while she brushed her teeth or in her bed before she fell asleep. It took us about two years to get through them all and those few minutes every night are some of my favourite memories with her.

But because I wasn’t pushed, I didn’t read a word until I was nine, which in today’s terms, is incredibly, worryingly late. I would be far below basic in literacy skills if I was a typical, non-Waldorf elementary school student today. If I was lucky, there would be interventions and tutoring and any number of parent-teacher conferences where my teachers and tutors would emphasise the need to read with me every day and practice site words, etc.

If I was lucky. If I was lucky. 

Most of my students, so far, have not been lucky. They certainly do not have the advantages I did, either as a Waldorf student or as a child in general. That is due to a number of factors — socioeconomic circumstances sum up most of them. They have pretty much everything working against them…except teachers who want them to learn and be successful. Teachers and tutors who work every single day to give them a solid foundation so they do not become part of the approximately 80% of students in the DC metro area who read below grade level.

That is my job and will continue to be for the next 8 months. And I have had to make my peace with the way I think education should unfold versus the way my students’ education is taking shape.

My kids don’t have the advantage of an alternative educational philosophy. They have the neighbourhood school that is probably underfunded and uses Tools of the Mind and Common Core. This is the system I am working in. It’s about early predictors and benchmarking and meeting targets.Standardised testing reduces a student to quantifiable numbers and nothing more. It does not gauge their artistic skills or their capacity for empathy or their hatred of science but love of music. That is damaging on levels even I don’t know about. And while it is proven through research that the students who are on track to read at grade level by the time they are eight years old will graduate from high school, that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to educate them to get them to be happy, productive members of society.

I can rant about having to give my kids standardised benchmarking assessments three times a year all I want but that won’t change the fact that they need the skills I teach them based on their results. As I have reflected on the personal conflict I have come across in this area, I have realised that, for me, it’s not about changing the system right now. It’s about helping my 20 students get the literacy foundation they deserve — that they have a right to — to help them survive in the educational and economic system they live in.

The bigger picture — my rant against standardised testing and curriculum and how to get a whole generation of kids to read because they love it, not just because it’s a vital skill to have — can wait. It can stay in the back of my mind as I give hugs and high-fives and stickers after another completed rhyming assessment.

It can wait. But just for now.

 

 

Just A Soppy Little Thing

After years of shared meals and rambling stories and hours-long Skype calls and living in each other’s pockets and good-natured arguments and “just one more drink” at 3am.

When you know what their deodorant smells like and what they look like when they are trying not to cry and how they take their coffee and if they leave their dishes in the sink or have to do them right away and how many alarms they have to set to get up in the morning and the one thing they hate on their pizza and who their first kiss was and what it feels like when they hug you so tight your feet leave the ground and and what they order for breakfast at your favourite cafe and what they call their grandma and their greatest fear and biggest ambition and weirdest sexual experience and their most annoying pet peeve and how their eyes light up when life couldn’t get any better than it is in that moment.

Even when you think there is nothing left to learn about someone, there is always something new to discover. There is never a moment where you’re bored with the other person.

I am so grateful that I have been able to develop close friendships like these in the last five years or so.

I will probably delete this later. Until next time, internet.

Sticky Kisses, Messy Hands, and Loud Voices

Just another day in a PreK classroom.

In case you were wondering (and given that my last post was four months ago, I doubt you are), I took the AmeriCorps job that I mentioned in June. I moved to Washington, DC in August — technically, I live in Maryland — where I am hoping to stay for a while. A couple of years, at least. But more on that transition later. I have five or six drafts waiting for updating and polishing, but life has gotten in the way of this blog.

So after a week of intensive training on everything from positive behaviour management to reading interventions to songs about alliteration, I got tossed off the deep-end into a classroom of 20 four-year-olds in Southeast DC. It is not as bad as it sounds…there are two other adults in my classroom (a lead teacher and a paraprofessional aide). But still, being an early-childhood literacy tutor in a room full of energetic kids is certainly never, ever boring.

I am a specialised tutor, not a general TA. I work with all the kids on certain things each day — a small group read aloud and they practice writing their names every day — and now that I am done with my initial assessments, I will have a caseload of about seven students to work with more closely. This will include anything from vocabulary to forming written letters. My caseload of students are the ones who are deemed furthest behind on grade-level literacy skills. I embed songs into our every day routines to teach rhyming and alliteration. I also help out around the classroom with lunch, nap time, clean-up, play time, and the lead-teacher’s literacy and math lessons.

I regularly come home with marker on my hands and arms. My uniform shirts have seen anything from syrup to snot. (See what I did there with the alliteration? I cannot help it now.) My trousers and jeans need to be washed more than normal. I ask “What’s the magic word?” five times a day.  I tie shoes and zip jackets and open milk cartons ten times a day. I give out hugs and high-fives and thumbs-ups and “I love you’s” 20 times a day. I am “Ms Adcock” from 8am to 5:30pm.

(As a side note: I would really prefer to be “Ms Jen”, since I am still caught up in the weird adult-i-ness of being “Ms” anything at all, much less “Ms Adcock”, which is my mother. But even the teachers call each other by their last names, so “Ms Adcock” I will remain.)

I had forgotten how exhausting it is to work with young children for eight-plus hours every day. You have to be mentally and physically present every single second, ready to react to any situation you could possibly think of (and then some you did not) and still somehow teach them what you need them to learn.

Sometimes it is really hard to get up in the morning. The stress is high and the pay is low. But then one of my students writes their name all by themselves and it is crooked and it is messy and it is perfect and it is worth it.

My goal for every day — my silent promise to myself and to my kiddos — is to never raise my voice in anger or frustration and to teach them at least one new thing every day, no matter how small.

So far I think I have succeeded.

Everything is a lesson. For them, for me.

“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”

If that is all I teach them this year, I will call it a win.