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Series: Elements of Structure Part 5: Radio and Podcasts

I need to interrupt this regularly scheduled blog post to talk about something…odd.

Call it a coincidence, call it fate, call it noticing patterns and ‘close reading’ of the minutiae of my life.

Two days ago I chose to catch up on some podcasts, and Stuff You Missed in History Class came on featuring a teacher named Jerry Hancock. His expertise is the history of Sears in American culture, economics, etc. And while that was fascinating, what struck me was his introduction about his teaching life. He clearly says because his school is doing academically well “they” leave him alone, and he’s happiest when he can shut his door and teach. He’s a high school history teacher in Georgia, was a teacher of the year.

“As long as my door’s closed and it’s just me and my students I’m happiest.”


Working at a high-poverty school Title I school has far more benefits and rewards than drawbacks, no question about it. Over the years I’ve had the illusion at least that I have academic freedom, and because of my personal values, background, and integrity, with a hefty dose of life experience and creativity, each day I’m reminded of the gift of having a profession where I can put my talents to actual, purposeful use. And isn’t that what everyone wants? Purpose? Self-actualization? The ability to use the bathroom once in awhile? (Yes, every day is a trip up and down Maslow’s pyramid. Every. Damn. Day.)

But there is a HUGE drawback, and I’m not sure what to do about it, and quite possibly, there is nothing to be done about it.

Because as long as there is racism, sexism, poverty and standardized testing where the money to teach our students draws from its well, there will always be meetings and reflective practices about what teachers, and teachers alone, can do better. I know it’s a team effort, I know everyone has skin in the game, I know…I know…but sometimes the conversation is ambushed by ‘teacher-centered’ ideas and not student-centered, and since the two are interconnected things disconnect. The serenity prayer rocks off the rails: trying to decide what we have control over or not feels disingenuous right about now.

But I do have control over myself (to a greater or lesser degree). I do not have control how others perceive me, and that is my Achille’s Heel because I keep making the mistake of thinking I do.

The biggest cause of despair amongst myself and colleagues is the microscopic, pseudo-psychology cabal of discussing what we teachers are doing wrong because our scores are low.

We don’t want them to be. We are not trying to sabotage or destroy the process. For the most part, we are desperately seeking to support all of our students, and meet or exceed their expectations. One of my personal joys is that I am paid by their parents, by the community: I work for them, for their future. My efforts will directly affect their futures.

However when the adults are choosing, discussing, mandating, reflecting, whatever gerund you want to use, decisions must be made with surgical precision. I am wondering if there is something more insidious at stake: the gambler’s fallacy. And I wouldn’t say it’s doing the same things over again, but not recognizing when we’re trying to do something different. From my time spent getting my masters, the research-based drive is the gold standard. So we’re caught in a fixed space that’s moving, like a car or an airplane: we’re moving at hundreds of miles per hour, but stuck in our seats. The seat is the research, the will is the speed.

What if we flip the script? Instead of looking at boxes by race, gender, and special needs, what if we ask students what they think? How powerful to have a cohort of students asking and questioning what they see as the issues they face? I did such a thing a few years ago when I showed students that their data was being tracked by race and gender. Quite frankly, they were appalled. It infuriated them that their lives and education were reduced to check boxes. I think it’s time to bring back that question to my 8th graders.

It must be noted that race and gender are fixed, as least race is. With the growing awareness of transgender and gender identity gender is perhaps more fluid.

And if you’re confronting issues of racism, sexism, and poverty, how brave will you be? Will you change anyone’s mind?
Well, I have no answers. More questions…more and more. It’s the first day of winter break, or rather the first weekend day, and my eyes are puffy from crying the night before, (TL:DR: the adults. Always the adults.) The house is quiet, and two weeks of my sons, my dogs, and my creative drive is spread out before me.
And time to listen to more podcasts.
Here are some mentioned in this article, and more of my favorites:
Ones on my “to listen” list:
I have others on feeds, too, such as Nerdist, etc. but tend not to click on those as much.
To me, the essence and exquisite simplicity of a podcast are the big questions the writers ask at the beginning, the overarching themes they will explore: if this isn’t what we want all students to do — question, reflect, critically think — then I’m out of ideas.
After the break I plan on using podcasts for thinking and creating. How have you used podcasts in your classroom?
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Numbers game.

Cassandra based on Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys, 1904.
Cassandra based on Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys, 1904.

None of this is new news.

We are hurting.

Our economy, our growth, our creativity: we see it, we call it out, and we try, desperately, to avert the tsunami. And it feels as if the invisible force of money drowns us, like a force of nature, pressure systems, and earthquakes shaking us little humans and dumping us on our heads.

I constantly think about…

coal miners.

People who’ve worked in the ground for centuries and what they dig from the earth no longer matters. And everyone knew it. So they equate the people who dig as the ones who don’t matter.

I’ve thought this since I was in second grade: why don’t the big companies shift and switch and do research into energy and food that’s sustainable and gives people the jobs they need?


Don’t they want to stay in business?

Don’t they want to make a profit and have people buy their stuff?

Seemed to me the best way to prevent revolutions and bloodshed is to be real, mature, and functional about the realities of how the world works.

But now I don’t know how the world works anymore.

My childhood questions echo back.

I need to know where good is. Where growth and prosperity are.

I don’t need America to be #1. This is not a zero sum game. I want all of us to get what we need.


Things may get worse, again, before they get better. We can’t seem to move forward without burning it all down.

PBS produced a show about childhood poverty in the U.S. six years ago. Here are some of the highlights:

More than 16 million children, or roughly one in five, were living in poverty in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s official poverty measure (pdf). That is higher than any other age group. Among 18– to 64-year-olds, the poverty rate was 13.7percent, while among seniors the rate was 8.7 percent. (Nov 20, 2012)


Only three other countries in the developed world have a higher child poverty rate (pdf) than the U.S., according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Mexico leads all nations with a rate of 25.79, followed by Chile (23.95), Turkey (23.46), and the U.S. (21.63).

Financial experts have been writing about education and income for years, too, along with research and data:

Eduardo Porter wrote an article for the New York Times, ‘A Simple Equation: More Education  = More Income.’

But in the American education system, inequality is winning, gumming up the mobility that broad-based prosperity requires. On Tuesday, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released its annual collection of education statistics from around the industrialized world showing that the United States trails nearly all other industrialized nations when it comes to educational equality.


Nate Silver, love or hate, is a statistician. Here are his latest numbers about education and voting trends:

Education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump.

But since education and income are so closely connected, I’m not sure if his thesis is whole. Yet.

And now we have this horror show.

So money, education, and politics. Oh, my.

But: I have to keep hope alive.

Who gives me hope?

To be clear,  I never think one man or woman is a savior. Humans are all flawed. With those flaws, come some genius moves.

Who inspires me now?

Elon Musk

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Malala Yousafzai

Malcolm Gladwell

Steven Colbert

John Oliver

Jon Stewart

Samantha Bee

….still thinking.

And recently I described our nation has millions of tiny little needles. Guess I wasn’t the only one seeing it.

Postscript: Thanks, Kid.


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Remember that fairy tale/fable, “Stone Soup?” A peddler goes to a town, and tricks the villagers that he has a magic soup stone, and all the villagers contribute to the pot until they have a delicious, shared meal. 

We need a magic stone.

My school seems to be the new norm — children living in poverty. 

Hold that thought.

As many writers do, or at least I think we do, our ideas and mental drafts arrive in the wee hours of the morning, or right before we lose consciousness to sleep. This was one such morning for me. Should I take a risk and write a Medium post, and spill everything that is my current situation? A wiser woman would just drink her coffee, write it up in Scrivener, and never, ever let it see the light of day. But hey, I’m not that smart sometimes. The truth is our current situation has been an odd struggle –I’ve touched on this from time to time, and perhaps I will write that Medium post. For the time being, I’ll share what happened when my husband and I went to the bank the other day to talk about home equity loans:

He’s been laid off multiple times over the ten years I’ve been teaching: his expertise in mobile and UX design, and the capriciousness of the computer industry, combined with the monstrous egos and hubris of many of its executives, makes our home look like an uncool scene from Silicon Valley. He finds new work relatively easily, but this is the age of disposable human resources, and aforementioned hubris, and those looking for the ‘next big thing’ shifts human resources around like so many pixels in a photoshopped model photo.  I, on the other hand, have worked steadily for ten years, and though my salary wouldn’t support myself and my sons in a lower-middle class lifestyle, it has been steady. Guess who had the better credit rating? 

Yup. (If you guessed me, you’d be wrong: but this is the story for Medium.)

Why share this personal story? We’ll get through it, we always do, but right now, when reminded about how my students came back from break tired, hungry, and ready for routines again, how am I supposed to fix all this when my personal resources are depleted? Austerity measures happen in local economies, too. (And I had to bite my tongue when a student told me the other day we needed ‘smaller government.’ I’m sure that comes from his parents’ values, and that’s fine, but I am not sure if they understand smaller government means their child doesn’t get lunch.)

So: what to do when your students need your money, too?

Now students don’t directly ask for money, well–not often. I’ve been hit up for bus fare, water bottles from the vending machine, etc. And if I bring snacks to one of my clubs, the swarm of fingers in the bags and wake of wrappers and sticky-ended candy remains leave no doubt that the middle schoolers want snacks. Many students go without lunch, too, and not because they don’t have free and reduced, but because it’s gross. The pizza is plastic, the teriyaki dippers gamey and cornstarch-covered in weird gravy, and the salads have multiple packaging traps and obstacles. The serving sizes are strictly Federally mandated minuscule; no wonder students consider the cheap, fructose-laden ginormous cans of Arizona teas and huge bags of Hot Cheetos to be a much better dietary choice.

A colleague and I talked discussed how working at my school takes an emotional toll out of teachers, too. There is a fatigue factor when trying to gut-up for staying on top of best practices, and then working with children you know are hungry, exhausted, and emotionally drained. To remind oneself you are the adult, you are responsible, and you are perhaps their only safe quarter proves to be a tough pep-talk some days.

I propose –something. Something, anything. Maybe ask local grocery stores to do what France does for edible food instead of throwing it away. Maybe start a co-op with the staff — look at what staff members do already. I don’t need another coffee mug or other tchotchke. Perhaps our Sunshine Dues money could be halved and an account for club snacks? Currently the ASB rules forbid ASB dollars from buying consumable goods, such as food. Perhaps it’s time to look at that rule and change it. I just get the sense there is so much donated/charitable money out “there” somewhere, but the red-tape may be keeping it tied up. Are there organizations out there that can be called upon to help? Heck, all I want is some healthy, fresh water, milk, and juice and some fresh fruit, muffins, bagels/cream cheese, etc. for my two clubs.

And a living wage for teachers, because if I can’t put on my oxygen mask, I can’t help anyone else, either.

Oh, and books. We need books.

...and this Thermos.
…and this Thermos.

Here’s the thing: time and again, I have learned that education has saved me and my family. When we view that education as a guarantee to a middle-class quality of life, then we feel cheated, because that’s how the bootstraps are sewn, but no promises that the boots will fit. I know our job is vital, and deserves my dedication.

I advocate the we (teachers) work together to find all the resources we can to support students and ourselves.

Any ideas?