Schooled by Malala

(Crossposted from my School Blog, Oct. 18, 2012)

My thoughts on Malala Yousafzai and Education

By now, everyone in the West must know about Malala Yousefzai, the incredibly brave and well-spoken teenage girl from the Swat Valley in Pakistan–a region that’s become, in recent years, a terrorists’ playground for the Taliban–who was shot in a barbaric attempt to silence her outspoken support for girls’ education. By now, everyone’s shed tears looking into those eyes of hers, seeing that smile of hers shine from the documentary made when she was but 11 years old. Her courage. Her father’s love, and dreams, for her.

And by now, we’ve all been schooled in what it means to be brave and resolute. By a girl.

By a girl. Yes.

My students are reading some news stories about Malala (in more than once class), and here in English we’re all blogging about her and our reactions, thoughts, hopes, and fears. But I want to write about how I’ve just been schooled by a little girl.

Like most other people, I suspect, I like to complain about things. My health isn’t great. My parents’ health is worse, and I’m currently dealing with a ton of stress about their care. Bills mount up. Machines break down. I don’t have time to get the laundry done. We all have dozens of these things, of varying degrees of severity.

But you know what I do have?

I have a place to live that isn’t under daily attack from mortar, military, and Taliban thugs. I, as a woman in American society, can not only leave my home and shop, go to school, go to football games, go for a walk along the river, just go, without being arrested. I can speak out against what my political leaders are doing (or speak out in support of them).

And, mostly, I have an education. A free and public education for 12 years, in a good building, with many resources. Then, beyond that, two more degrees (and a third half-finished) in public Universities. Not free, but accessible, as long as I was willing to work at it. All of that–the entire world’s knowledge and access to it–at my fingertips.

And I had the audacity to complain at times about it. “Stupid alarm…I don’t want to get out of bed.” “I haven’t prepared well enough for that quiz; I don’t want to go.” “I *hate* chemistry–I wish I didn’t have to take it.” “That teacher drives me crazy.”

I’ve said all these things, and more, and repeatedly. As I bet you have, most of you. And yet, all of this was at my fingertips, easy to attain, while an adolescent girl in Pakistan is willing to stand up to grown men in masked faces and carrying guns, to demand she get an education.

She’s willing to die to get an education.

I’ve been schooled. And I thank her for it.

I Gotcher Irony Right Here…

It’s long been an idiosyncracy of my nature that while I love art (and started college as an art major, even) and literature, I just can’t get into graphic novels or comic books, no matter how hard I try.  And I have tried. (You’ve met my husband and most of my friends, perhaps?  Geek squared. Love ’em.) I can’t even get into Neil Gaiman graphic novels, which is saying something as I’m a huge fan of his fiction, and I do find the artwork brilliant. Something in my brain just…doesn’t…compute.

The same sort of thing happens with Musical Theatre.  I love plays.  I love music.  I dislike them together.

I recently compared myself to the King of Swamp Castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in that every time Herbert starts wanting to sing the drama around me, I turn it off.  Just the way I am.

And, of course, just as most of my friends love comics, I, too, am surrounded by people who love musicals.  I mean, my husband and half my friends direct and/or act in them.  And I love these people.

Here’s the funny part (you knew it was coming).  I’m now the new artistic director of the school musical at my new job.

I’ll pause a minute to give everyone who knows me a few moments to giggle, snort, and thank the gods for the gift of irony.

Done yet?  No. Okay, I’ll wait.

Okay. Yeah. So, I like a challenge.  And, as I also recently said, trying to bolster myself, at least it’s not Prom Advisor (an activity for which I have so much venom and nausea that were I Queen of the Universe, I’d eliminate entirely from schools everywhere). So, it’s not all bad. And I’m not alone–the school’s new Music teacher will be my partner in crime, and our correspondence thus far has been a lot of fun, and I look forward to working with her.

The problems remain, however.  I, a person whose only musical theatre “likes” are Jesus Christ Superstar (how can you NOT like that, and I’m not even religious), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Tim Curry in a merry widow trumps all musical qualms), Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “Once More With Feeling,” and Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along  Blog (these last two are Joss Whedon, and if he were holding *prom* I’d love it, no matter what) has to find something workable for high school students–students I’ve yet to meet in a school I’ve yet to work in–and put on a production before Thanksgiving.

Frank n Furter

Frank n Furter

I’m suddenly finding myself in my husband’s bailiwick, saying things like “perusal scripts” and “performance rights” and “blocking.” I never wanted to be in my husband’s bailiwick, and it feels very strange.  HE SHOULD BE DOING THIS, is what I’m thinking.  HE’S THE DIRECTOR, not I.  I teach plays and occasionally act in Shakespeare. I don’t know from choreography and cheating out and periaktoi*.

On the other hand, I like learning new things, and like I often do, I’ve jumped into this with both feet. I’m scouring online for titles and terms; I’ve bookmarked “how to produce a musical” websites.  I’ve posted to facebook and watched the hilarity ensue. And, of course, there’s the fact that on long drives, my husband and I like to sing select musicals, a capella, together. (I cannot sing. I can read music, and I did have eleven years of piano lessons and short stints of clarinet and guitar lessons.)

But all of that prep work is a cakewalk to actually facing a group of kids, night after night, to put on an actual show. I’m terrified. And excited.  And laughing my butt off about the whole thing.



* I call these things pterodactyls; far easier.  🙂


You know how “educational” trends come and go every few years, sparking massive levels of devotion, construction, and deconstruction? If you’re in Minnesota, the latest one down the pike is “Q-Comp“–Quality Compensation–one of Governor Pawlenty’s babies.

The basic idea is that if teachers will only work harder to raise test scores, the State will pay them a little bit extra and everyone’s happy.

Yeah, so that’s the idea.

My lack of enthusiasm would explain why, when it was first tossed out to districts, my own voted to not even look into it because it sounded like a bunch of hooey.  However, now it’s nearly necessary, and it will soon be mandatory, so this year we’re starting.  Perhaps you can feel my joy; or perhaps that’s only snark

I shouldn’t be so cynical; part of it makes sense. It does, indeed, promote more staff development time (mandates an hour a week, actually), that could be a great thing and exactly what’s needed for overworked, flying-solo teachers existing in little separate boxes. Of course, in our district that means showing up an hour early every Tuesday, but that’s okay. We need this time.  (The great news about these meetings is that it’s not, thank God, some touchy-feely encounter group, even if having to work on process more than outcomes right now is annoying. The only thing Dr. Laura and I have in common is that I, too, don’t want anyone to ask me how I feel about a topic–who truly cares, ugh–but I do like to be asked what I think about it. Relational, I’m NOT.)

However, what turns me off (and doesn’t surprise me in the least, as it’s coming from Minnesota’s Department of Education, which like in most states seems to be run mainly by people who’ve never taught, never met a spreadsheet they didn’t like, and who haven’t spoken to a child in fifty years) is the bureaucracy and nitpicking micromanaging. Ugh. I don’t want to work in the corporate world. I don’t want to be controlled by data. I don’t want to have meeting minutes taken and sent in to prove I’m freaking worthy of that extra $300 (or whatever it is–I honestly don’t know and don’t care) so they’re willing to pay for 36 hours of meetings outside my already long day.

Pretty soon, we’ll have to file a department form in triplicate to bring up a topic of discussion at any random faculty meeting.  Bullshit.

Our–and by this I mean our PLC (don’t even ask me, I couldn’t tell you the acronym) which is the group that meets every week, and will be observing each other and whatnot–current problem is that it seems MDE (see above re: bureaucratic idiocy) doesn’t think anything that happens in a school outside of reading, math, and science counts for diddly squat. We’re supposed to come up with SMART (no, I’m not kidding, and yes, laugh with me, please–stands for something else that boils down to measurable*) goals, but the only ones the state seems to want to approve are those based on raising test scores in the above three subjects.

Which is fine, if public schools didn’t have Phys Ed teachers.  And guidance counselors. And teachers of health, shop, and FACS.

My PLC has a Health/Phys Ed teacher and a guidance counselor; the latter doesn’t teach classes, and it’s as if her education, her bona fides, her contribution to the school’s climate and the growth of *people* (you know, the kids) is worthless in the eyes of the boneheads who came up with Q-Comp (T-Paw, you listening yet?!?).

Are we managing figures in Excel, or are we forming well-educated, capable human beings that can contribute to the world?

Yeah, I know.  Silly me and my John Dewey, Diane Ravitch sensibilities of education.  They’re not kids…they’re scores.

Color me terribly unimpressed.  I’d much rather the State keep their paltry 30 pieces of silver and let us actually do things that matter and include all of us.

Addendum (later same date): Just got this in the news.  Only one study, true, but it also reflects many other things I’ve been reading.  Sigh.  Will they ever learn?!?

* Anyone else notice that in the world, acronyms seem to usually start with a cute word and have the elements match that, instead of the other way around?  Annoys me to no end. Waaaay too cutesy.

Clay Burell Leading the Battle Against Schooliness

Here’s your chance, students and teachers and friends of students and teachers.  All four of you who occasionally read here, that is.

Here’s your chance to sound off about “schooliness,” that hated, soul-sucking abyss that we teachers and students often (too often) find ourselves falling into, myself included.

What is “schooliness,” you ask?  Good question.  Burell provides a few roadmaps to find answers, but the rest is up to you.

And he’s put in a call for you to provide your own examples.  You should have plenty.

Even students in my classes, I’m sorry to say, will have plenty.

Link to Burell’s Change.Org “Evils of Schooliness” blog, with open request.

I’m *not* breaking Godwin’s Law, but…

…something happened today that is making think about it.

My tenth graders just finished reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, and they’re now working on culminating projects.   One of the groups is doing a “Who was Hitler, really” kind of thing, researching his life and trying to figure out how someone like him happened.

We were all in the lab today, and one of the girls in the group–obviously reading some informative site–asked me, “Ms O, what’s ‘mein kampf”?”

As I always remind my students, it’s not my job to provide answers but to help guide them to arriving at their own answers–which is much harder, usually, than the former.  For both of us.  So, I said, “I think you should research that.  Go see what you can find, and we’ll talk in a few minutes.”

About twenty seconds later–I hadn’t even rounded to the other side of the lab, yet–the same girl, after doing a search, said, “Ms O?  The filter blocked it.  Says it’s ‘hate speech’.”

Well, of *course* it’s hate speech…Hitler freaking wrote it! For the love of all that’s educational!


Two years ago, I had a senior girl unable to do most of her research for a paper at school because she was researching breast cancer research.  God forbid a student accidentally stumble on a picture or description of a human body part, even in the interests of healthy research.  This same student had family members personally touched by this terrible disease, and really wanted to write this paper and learn more about it herself…so, she did so from home.

Because the filter wouldn’t let her type in “breast” and get any results.

A year or so before that, I had a student writing about the ravages of meth–something that definitely touches many here in the rural backwater.  Meth is quite a prominent, and deadly, drug in these parts.

What happened?  He couldn’t look up figures from NIDA–the National Institute on Drug Abuse–because–yep, you guessed it–it was blocked.  He couldn’t look at any site that included “drug”, just as my other student couldn’t look at any site including the word “breast.”  (No looking up chicken recipes!)

It’s enough to make any educator, anyone who cares about quality education, anyone who’s not tied into a veritable knot about “safety of children!!!!!!!” with a dozen exclamation points.

Our children will, most certainly, NOT be safe if we don’t teach them responsible internet use, don’t allow them to use the word “breast” or look up drug use statistics, or learn about a crazy, paranoid, dangerously-charismatic wingnut mass murderer.  We’ll send them off without any tools, without the ability to *educate themselves*.

All in the misguided ruse of “protecting” them.

So, today, when my student said she wasn’t allowed to look up Hitler’s book in a public school in supposedly the world’s “most free” country, even with a teacher’s blessing, I very nearly had a conniption.  (My students know how I feel about filters, and I had twenty-five pairs of eyes on me immediately–I’m proud to say that I did keep my cool, although I explained why I was angered by the filter.)

I said, “Well, the term means ‘my struggle,’ but I wanted you to find that out on your own, and it’s the title of a book Hitler wrote.”

And, so, I’m not going to break Godwin’s Law. I’m not going to compare a totalitarian, Big Brother-esque mandatory internet filter to…

…um, nope.  I think you can connect the dots just fine.

Edit:  1/16/09, to add italics to book title

Mr. Rolle, Jolly Good

A few weeks ago, I wrote about one of my new heroes, Myron Rolle, and it’s with great pleasure that I find I’m respecting him still further.  Paraphrasing Rachel Maddow this evening, the young man was given the choice between going to Oxford and studying very, very hard for a while or going off to be a big star in the NFL and makes lots of money.

He chose the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford.  He’s pre-med.

I don’t mean to say that playing for the NFL is for slackers, or that it doesn’t require discipline.  It most certainly does, and I do have great respect for athletes who do it for the right reasons, have fun with it, and play fair while working hard.

I only mean that many of us, especially today, think fame and fortune is everything.  “If only I could be in People magazine/ SI, and make millions of dollars, and be beautiful and athletic, my life would be perfect!”  I hear variations on that theme from a great many students.

Heck, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that once or twice in my life, I’d entertained daydreams of writing the Great American Novel and seeing my work in bookshop windows.

I’m impressed with Mr. Rolle for a great many reasons, as I delineated earlier; I’m further impressed that he chose to change the world and improve his brain, his long-range future, and work out others of his talents.

I hope he also manages to find fame and fortune on the grid, if that’s what he chooses later (as he believes he will).  I suspect he’ll manage to be a success–however he measures it–in whatever he chooses to do.  My hat’s again off to him, and he inspires me.

As Good as a Nap; Okay, BETTER.

Back before I started my teaching degree, I, like so many others, had grandiose plans for the cool projects I’d have my kids do…great authentic learning, exhuberant participation, impressive end results.

Somewhere along the line, reality–cleverly disguised as complacence in the face of standardized testing and too-little-time and pressure from a hundred different sources–sets in, and some of us, myself included, wind up with yet another stack of five-paragraph essays and monotonous worksheets.

There are interludes that snap us out of this jaded burden-bearing of too-many-restraints: excellent workshops and conferences, the occasional inspirational book, world-changing events…

…a good nap or Christmas vacation.

And, in the modern age, there are wondrous things like blogs and twitter and facebook and listservs, all managing to keep the complacence in check.  They don’t eradicate it, at least with me, but they do manage to give it a good run.

One of these teacherly-mood-lifters arrived this week with yet another one of Clay Burell’s “get up and make it real” blog postings, this one on his brand-new blog over at Change-dot-org.  It’s this one, and it even contains a cool informative video.

Today, I shared the blog and video by posting it to the faculty ning I set up (and which is not being used hardly at all, but I’m patient and will keep harassing people to share ideas and collaborate until they either do or I’m fired).  I sent out a little in-school e-mail alerting folks to it, and asked that they view the video before next week’s faculty meeting where I’m presenting some of the cool things I learned at TIES (see a previous blog, and this one, too.)

I got a phone call from my Principal–he loved it and was excited, too.  He was forwarding my e-mail on to other educators in other places.  And he stopped by the lab today when my tenth-graders were signing into the class wiki I set up.

We’re a small place in the middle of nowhere.  Very, very small place.  Very far from any sizeable place.  The nearest Kinko’s is about 85 miles away or more, for crying out loud.   You don’t have to lock your doors here, and there’s a “lake of poo” for (supposed) sewage treatment. 

Connections are important.   These tools–the ones Burell talks about in the video–make us count, and connect us to the larger world. 

And that’s exciting—and the perfect antidote to jaded complacence and fill-in-the-oval-asinine-testing as the most important facet of assessment.

New Year’s Resolutions–for *Teaching*

Yeah, the health-related and personal ones will go elsewhere.  🙂

Educators have a natural “refreshment” break before each new school year, or term, to revisit goals and make adjustments.  New Year isn’t exactly the natural point for such endeavors, but since I haven’t been doing so well with the objectives I set for myself back in August–plus I have some new ones–I may as well start fresh here.

Ah, the sweet smell of optimistic good intentions!

So, first of all, the “I’ve-had-these-on-my-list-and-I-still-need-to-do-better” resolutions:

Grading. I’m still absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of grading and the hours and hours it takes.  I need to not only vow to decrease the time between getting the papers and handing them back with feedback, but find efficient means of doing so.  Perhaps I need to try some different methods–online commenting, peer review, etc.–because I something needs to change.  In 2009, I will try to grade more quickly and also find ways to do it *better*.

Family Contact.  My Principal makes this a priority, and we’re reminded to make contact with parents more often–and I have not done this as well as I could be.  I need to make more contact for the good things, the “wow” moments, the “You won’t believe the cool thing your kid did today!” moments.  I think part of it for me is that I’m far more comfortable with e-mail than telephone; I have a near pathological aversion for telephones and I would be quite happy not even having one, actually, especially in my classroom (I loathe the interruptions).  I know for sure that I would make more contact via e-mail than with phone, so my resolution here is twofold: to face up to my aversion to phones much more often and to make more e-mail contact, as well.

Fewer Stranded Lessons.  There isn’t enough time each day to get through all the lesson, practice, application I want, and there certainly isn’t enough time each school year to do justice to all the strands expected on the state standards.  I know I’m guilty of introducing a concept–usually something grammatical, the next step in making writing more fluent, etc.–and, because of lack of time, realizing days later that the followup for the lesson got lost in the shuffle.  When I come back to it then, it’s nearly like starting over.  I need to find ways of making sure this happens less often–I think I’m doing better this year already, but I haven’t reached my goal just yet.

And, a few new ones that I want to incorporate into my teaching:

Web2.0 Advancement. Ah, yes…I can hear the echo of this one reverberating off thousands of teachers’ walls across the country as we speak.  The big catch-phrase of 2008-2009 (at least where I’m from–we may be a bit behind the trends, being where we are, which isn’t always a bad thing as at least the trends have to take substantial hold before we get to them).  And yes, I am wholeheartedly signing on.  Not because I think the tools are ends in and of themselves, but because I think they’re great tools.  If the tools open up the world, if the tools help kids connect–both with text and with others, if the tools allow different perspectives, if the tools bring delight and efficiency to learning, then I want to use them.  I want to spice up old plans, I want to shift and expand and view lessons through different lenses.  Kids up out of their desks more often.  I want to see the love of discovery–something I’ve decried the lack of for years–and if these tools can help with that, I want ’em.

Irony 2

A week ago, I attended the TIES (technology information education services) Technology conference in Minneapolis.  It was extremely worthwhile, and not just because I got to stay at the Hyatt Regency and splurge on room service breakfasts (I have medication I need to take with food in the mornings–that’s my rationalization and I’m sticking to it even if I have to cut back further on Christmas shopping).

I got to network with other teachers, as well as media specialists, librarians, administrators, and various folks who have interest both in educating kids and using technology to helps us do that.

During my two days (I was not there the entire four), I took workshops in podcasting, using Twitter in Language Arts, Web 2.0 tools, legal issues surrounding Web 2.0 use, and a lunchtime presentation on many websites that I may or may not be aware of (I was both aware of many and unaware of many, just as I predicted).

I got to play with audacity and artrage, record sound and learn many new ways to create images to team with podcasts and presentations. I got some new contacts, and several more sages to follow on Twitter and link to on this blog.  🙂

And, best of all, all the presentations were uploaded to the TIES 2008 Wiki so I could re-view them on my own time, at work, and help share them with the faculty and staff at my school!  How cool is that?

Ah…here’s where the irony comes into it.  I cannot share this with my faculty, because my school has a severe paranoid streak when it comes to technology.  All the presentations from the TIES Wiki are…


As are the majority of blogs (including most of what I have highlighted right here) in the blogosphere, Twitter, YouTube, any image- or slide-sharing website, and, of course, facebook and MySpace (not that I have problems with these last two being blocked, I suppose).

As are–I kid you not–any site that is listed as “personal” or “discussion“, so all message boards are blocked, as well.  (I use a message board in my AP class–somehow, that’s managed to work for three years now, flying in under some sort of radar, and it’s not even a school-friendly server but I have it locked down pretty tightly.)

So, I get to go to a technology conference, but I can only view the materials from…home.

And I cannot share most of what I learned with…my fellow teachers.

And I cannot use most of what I learned with…my students.

I teach at a great school.  I really do.  I love my coworkers and administration and students, and I have great respect for the school board (that’s hard to find in education circles, boy).  But…this is a travesty.  This fear of technology is doing a disservice to our kids.  In this area, we are not sending them off to work and college and tech school with the skills they should have to succeed there.

I’ve had seniors ask the difference between a URL and an e-mail address; request assistance in attaching documents to e-mail (I require this for formal writings); not know what “html” refers to–or even be able to name one computer language.

And this is the majority of seniors, mind you.

It’s not that I don’t understand the reasoning behind blocking things; it’s a scary world, open for all as it never has been before, and there is ugliness out there.  Predators, grotesquerie, and just plain crap.  I wouldn’t want my kids accessing this without guidance or preparation, either.

So, we need to provide the guidance and preparation, because that’s what parents and teachers are supposed to do.  The idea behind “education” is not to play ostrich until the student is off to college and thrown into a new world without any tools, but to provide those very tools that she will need.

It’s impossible to teach my AP Language course’s requirement for analyzing blog arguments when the kids aren’t allowed to follow blogs or discussion sites.  It’s difficult to teach web responsibility when the vast majority of decision-making is removed from them.

And it’s beyond frustrating to be a teacher in a school that doesn’t even allow me access to some very useful, very needful, technological tools.  All of these things are blocked on my computer, too.

There are ways around some of these things.  I can encode YouTube videos in a different format and bring in on my jumpdrive; but my teaching style is based, most often, on discussion, and that cannot be planned.  So often the classroom conversation enters into a realm where I need a resource there and then.  Example:  Last week, the discussion in my LA 12 (Brit Lit based) veered to the Battle of Agincourt.  I wanted to show the St. Cripin’s Day Speech from Henry V, Branagh’s version, and leaped to my computer for this educational moment. But of course, I could not; blocked, as I remembered just as my hands hit the keyboard.

I could go home, reformat, and bring in the next day–sure, no problem–but it loses the immediacy, it loses the discussion forum aspect that I believe is so important in authentic education.

Teaching is a multi-sided conversation, not a one-way, or even a two-way, ball toss.

So, I’m working on this.  I’m not alone in the faculty in being frustrated with the constraints put on technology use.  I’m certainly not the only one who believes teaching responsibility is far preferable to avoiding the subject altogether.

We are teachers.  We should teach.