Author: eajepsen

Who’s to blame?

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Towards the end of the school year, I received an anonymous note from one of my students. However, the identity of the student was easily recognizable by the handwriting.

M, the student from whom the note was written, was one of my top students. She is not only naturally intelligent but hardworking, passionate and meticulously organized. If I missed a beat in my lesson, she was right there to help me fill in whatever sentence I was stumbling over. Which is why I was surprised by what she wrote.

In this note, M confided that she was feeling overwhelmed by the surmounting pressure concerning the upcoming end-of-year assessments. She expressed that she was not only nervous about taking the tests, but that she felt like she was going to let her family and teachers down if she did not do well.

I was troubled by this note for obvious reasons, but after careful deliberation I responded to M’s note. I told her that I was proud of her, that I was rooting for her, and to give it her best effort. My response seems trite.

I wanted to say more though; I wanted to reassure M and tell her not to worry. I couldn’t honestly say those things  because I was worried too.

Starting around the time we returned from winter break, I began to hear the terms “testing season” and “test prep” quite frequently. By February, we were discussing test preparation strategies that we could incorporate into our daily lessons.

In meetings, we would discuss such questions as, “How can we modify our lessons to prepare students for what we they will see on the test?”

In April, we set aside a whole two weeks strictly for remediation and test preparation. We analyzed our data for deficits and weak points and intentionally lesson planned to address these areas. We diligently worked to prepare our students, taking the time to painstakingly review prior tests and work through previously wrong answered questions.

Apparently, this wasn’t enough.

TNReady, part of Tennessee’s Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), released student test scores from the 2017-18 school year last Thursday, July 19, 2018. There were some areas of growth. Nevertheless, the overall results were not great—actually, far from it.

Elementary statewide proficiency in English/language arts went up to 35.7% from 33.9 in 2017; high school statewide proficiency in math went up to 22.5% from 21.5 percent in 2017. Across all other content areas and grade levels, scores either remained stagnant or went down.

It’s easy to attribute blame to large institutions; yet, if we indulge in a minute of introspection, we might be a little more hesitant to cast the first stone.

The school system is comprised of individuals—people like you and me. If we are not directly involved in the school system, we are involved indirectly—as parents, students, and at large—as members of our communities.

When I think of the challenges our school district and the public education system in general are facing, this quote by Walter Dyer from “The Richer Life” comes to mind:

“…and we endeavor to solve their problems en masse, by formulating a remedy for the ills of a group. The needs of an individual are lost sight of in contemplating the needs of society.”

We need to start being accountable in our individual roles as teachers, parents, students, policy makers, government representatives—heck, even Secretary of Education.

Rethinking School Discipline: Focusing on Student Needs

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On Monday, July 9, 2018, a group of Memphis parents, educators, and education advocates gathered with Stand for Children to discuss the need to rethink school discipline policies to focus on student needs. The driving question posed was, “What skills do students in Memphis need to access the lives they deserve?” The goal was to focus on identifying not only the skills students need to have, but the skills we, as adults, need to internalize that will allow us to be proactive about student discipline. The idea is to achieve this by focusing on assets rather than on punitive measures and behaviors.

With that in mind, fifteen states specifically allow schools to use corporal punishment, while eight other states have no laws or regulations against it.  Tennessee is one of the states that still allows corporal punishment as a form of discipline within its schools, according to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments.

Tennessee’s law 49-6-4103 explicitly states, “Any teacher or school principal may use corporal punishment in a reasonable manner against any pupil in order to maintain discipline and order within the public schools.” Let’s be clear; however, corporal punishment is not allowed in all schools in Tennessee, only some.

For example, the Shelby County school district in Memphis does not have policies in place that allow corporal punishment. Public charter schools in SCS, though they may operate in accordance with many SCS policies, still maintain autonomy under their charter to implement practices—whether they be academic or behavioral—that they deem best suit the needs of their students.

Therefore, even though the Shelby County School Board of Education voted 13-2 in 2013 to repeal the corporal punishment policy, corporal punishment does still take place within SCS.

As suggested by the title of this gathering, the people in attendance were there because of the recognition of the fact that there is a huge gap between what we expect and anticipate for our students and how we are helping them get there. Across SCS, discipline is an issue that varies greatly and in extreme measures from school to school.

Cathy Emerson, a school psychologist, and Shanieka Smith, a school counselor joined us for the evening, prefacing the discussion with the story of a student who had been failed by the school system. Sadly, the story of this particular student sounded all too familiar.

This student, called Quo* was significantly behind academically and although he had support from his family and school, he lacked the skills he needed to be successful without consistent guidance. Unfortunately, Quo became the status of the latter. While Quo was on the right track and progressing academically, he was still missing the fundamental skills to be able to cope with the rigor and various tensions of his environment. As a result, Quo found himself in a system far less (or maybe comparably) forgiving than the public-school system: the prison system.
During the meeting, an equity based protocol for rethinking school discipline was given:

Empathy and high expectations

Quality teaching

Understanding and personalization

Incident response

Team approach

Youth focused policy

Often, our schools focus heavily on what students lack and reinforce these deficits through punitive measures. How might our schools be different if we focused on working with students to help them develop healthy emotional, physical, and cognitive practices that enabled them to better self-direct?

*Name changed for protection

 

What about those kids?

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Activism.

Protesting about poverty. Policy for political change. Picket lines and signs.

Crowds of bitter faces chanting and demanding—not asking for—change.

How does this image of activism compare to the one your mind conjured up when you read that word? If the images look similar, keep reading.

I’m very conscious of words. I remember when I was a kid, watching a movie or listening to someone talk and hearing a new word. Almost immediately, my mind would become preoccupied by letter combinations as I tried to reason out how that word was spelled. Then, I’d try to figure out what it meant based on how it was used.

As I grew older, I began to notice that sometimes words could have a meaning different from their literal meaning, based on how they were used. For example, like when my older brother looked at me from across the breakfast table and said “Nice hair, Lizzie!”—emphasis on the word nice and subsequent laughter.

To state the obvious, my brother didn’t really think my hair looked nice. Instead, it was his way of making fun of me without deliberately saying “Your hair looks ugly,” which most definitely would have garnered more attention from my mom, if she had happened to hear. This way, he could get in his little jab and defend it, albeit weakly, if I decided to tell on him.

When I was younger, I recognized obvious connotations, such as the aforementioned example. Yet, as an adult, I’ve begun to notice that there are many more subtle connotations that are not so innocuous as sibling banter. Like when I was asked how “those” kids’ behavior compares to others. “Those” referring to the predominantly black and brown middle schoolers I teach. For a minute, I wasn’t sure why I instantly felt annoyed by this question. The person asking hadn’t blatantly said anything rude.

Later, as I was pondering this question and trying to understand why it had bothered me, I realized that it was the connotation of the word “those” when placed in front of the word kids. It was the tone and emphasis placed on the word “those.” It was the expectancy with which the person seemingly waited to hear something negative and the mild shock when I laughed and said, “They’re pretty normal 7th graders. Kind of hormonal and all over the place at times.”

Sometimes, the connotation of a word is more powerful than the word itself. It gives the speaker a cloak of innocence to quickly pull on when questioned because he or she didn’t “technically” say anything wrong.

Back to activism…

This word often seems to carry a negative connotation. However, I don’t think this connotation stems from how the word is used, but from how people see it portrayed. When we think of activism, the images that are most readily accessible are those that tend to triumph in the headlines of newspapers and on the covers of magazines – images that show hordes of people marching and shouting with picket signs and posters. Activism does exist elsewhere, though, and in different forms.

As a matter of fact, when I think about the social and political change that needs to happen on a large scale, I see that there is not just one way to make it happen. Consider social justice leaders Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—both were civil rights leaders and activists, but with vastly different approaches. Many say MLK was too passive and others say Malcolm X was too extreme. Nevertheless, both men undeniably had a profound impact on the previous and current generation of our society.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with the above described type of activism, there is more to it. You don’t have to possess a megaphone and rally large groups of people to be an activist. An activist is someone who fights against the status quo for political or social change—and there are many different ways to do that.

We can practice activism when we put aside our pride, prejudice, and biases and thoughtfully engage in a courageous conversation where we question what we have implicitly accepted to be the truth.

Or, in reference to the comment about “those” kids, instead of responding in annoyance for the connotation it carries, I humble myself and discard the air of righteous indignation when I remember that I, too, have made similar thoughtless comments based on ignorance—and then, after coming to this recognition, respond with kindness and the intent to build a bridge, not burn one.

A Metaphor For Metaphor

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My mind was preoccupied as I briskly cut to my classroom through the middle school cafeteria as 7th grade lunch was dismissing. Out of the corner of my eye, a quick movement caught my attention and I spun my head in the direction of the movement, which was now accompanied by squealing and yelling. At this point in the school year, my eyes and ears were trained to discern sounds abnormal from the regular din and activity that middle schoolers bring with them. My mind rapidly calculated that some sort of fight was breaking out and with lunch bag in tow, I sprinted to the huddle of students from where the noise was coming.

Surprised, I saw one of my female students—a generally quiet, conservative, and respectful girl—hitting another student who seemed to be cowering on the wall.

“Hey! Cut it out and get to class!” I yelled.

When the student doing the hitting disregarded my instruction, I was both annoyed and confused. This was not like her. I stepped closer, ready to intervene and much more loudly shouted,

“HEY! Get your hands off of her and get to class!”

This time, the student turned and looked at me, startled. She opened her mouth and began to attempt an explanation, which I abruptly cut off.

Once I saw that the fight was successfully dissipated, I hurried back to my class, where I now had students waiting. I was peeved, but honestly, stuff like this happened at my school all too frequently. I resumed my lesson and didn’t think much of it for the rest of the day.

With the final dismissal bell ringing at 3:30 p.m., I found myself sitting at my desk, exhaustion kicking in as my mind continued to reel with the many things that I still needed to accomplish before tomorrow. I snapped out of my tired stupor and began muddling my way through the eighty-something papers that I needed to grade before I left school.

My classroom door creaked open and I heard a soft voice.

“Hey, Ms. Jepsen!”

I looked up and saw Ciara, who frequently stopped by my classroom around this time to simultaneously pace around my room while playing on her tablet and chatter about her day. Generally, the topics of conversation ranged somewhere from what happened in math class, to how her younger sister annoyed her, to the list of boys she adamantly claimed she did NOT like.

Without fully entering my classroom, she hung close to the door and continued,

“I got yelled at by a teacher today!” I looked up again.

“What? You got yelled at? No, you didn’t.” Smiling, she nodded.

Curious, I prodded, “Who yelled at you?”

Ciara laughed, “You did! In the cafeteria!”

Understanding quickly dawned on me and I remembered the small debacle at lunch time.

“Oh yeah.” I had meant to follow up with her.

“What was that all about? You completely ignored me and none of that is like you at all.”

Ciara now stepped in the room and explained that the girl who she was playfully hitting was her friend, who had jokingly stolen something of hers. I came on the scene when Ciara had apparently figured out what had happened and was “getting her back.”

It made sense now. In retrospect, I pondered the situation and it made sense why nobody involved in this little altercation had been overly upset and why the girl being hit casually walked off when I broke it up.

From my vantage point, the now laughable lunch time incident, appeared to be a fight. From Ciara’s, it was nothing more than the delivering of a good-natured retribution. Because of our differing perspectives and involvement, the same incident appeared to be two completely different things. Not surprisingly, this is a common “phenomenon,” if you want to call it that. Look at the extremely disparate political, racial, and economic ideas and theories held by American citizens.

I know, this isn’t radical or new. I think most people have this very basic understanding of perspective:  it changes based on where we are standing, sitting, crouching. It changes based on who we are with or whether we are with someone at all. It changes based on our prior experience.

Now apply this concept of perspective to metaphors. The metaphors we choose to define our experiences and views are shaped by our personal piece of reality: our lives. Your reality is different than mine, because we are not same. Profound. Not really, but somehow at the age of 24, I am just now beginning to more completely understand how experience influences what we perceive.

I wished someone would have interrupted me and explained this to me when I was arrogantly spewing something about another something I knew nothing about. Or when I was applying my limited experience and knowledge to a situation so foreign to my own, that I shouldn’t and couldn’t possibly use my vocabulary to adequately define or explain. But that’s the whole point—not just the error of youth—but that our experiences or lack thereof, determine how we innately define the world around us.

Let me use this metaphor about metaphor to talk about metaphor. Now, we’re really getting “meta” as some liberal arts college major (like me) would say. Metaphor is lens shaped by perspective. A lens created not by fragmentations of plastic or glass, but by our experiences.

When we think about metaphor this way, we might understand why two students asked the same question of “What metaphor would you use to describe school?” could respond with such opposing answers as “prison” and “adventure.” One has a negative connotation and one has exciting, if not positive connotation.

Metaphors are an attempt to gain understanding by framing the unfamiliar in familiar terms. In this way, metaphors are tidy, because each new thing is then assigned to an attribute or object of something that is already understood. It’s convenient, which also means it is something to be wary of doing glibly.

The Problem With Teachers

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The problem with teachers.

Based on the teachers I have had throughout the course of my life and the many I have encountered thus far in my career, teachers seem to generally be people who care. When I say care, this is really an understatement. They worry, fret, plan, organize, teach, re-teach, and create. And for what?

Well, really, it’s for who. All this for the students they teach.

That’s the problem with teachers. This career attracts those types of people.

Ideally, this isn’t a problem, right? We want teachers who care about and love their students. However, throw in a severely struggling (to term it nicely) education system, inadequate or unequally distributed resources, uninformed policy makers, and an incomprehensible workload and it’s a different story.

Honestly, even thinking about trying to explain the daily responsibilities and tasks a teacher must complete, in addition to teaching, makes me tired. And that’s another problem. I don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to explain ourselves or why we are so perpetually exhausted, because that in itself is exhausting.

Do you see what I’m getting at? I know far too many teachers who have second jobs because their compensation is not adequate to meet their financial needs. I also know a good many teachers who are struggling with mental, emotional, and physical health. Myself included.

A while back, BBC wrote an article that states “One in 10 teachers say they have been prescribed anti-depressant drugs to cope with the pressure of their jobs.” What’s sad is that I am neither shocked nor surprised by this statistic. If I’m surprised by anything, it’s the fact that this statistic is not higher.

The problem with teachers is that we care.

This quality of caring is inextricable from what we do because it’s who we are—which both makes and breaks us as teachers. The reason we can’t let go or stop caring is the same reason that we became a teacher in the first place. It’s quite the conundrum.

In my short time as a teacher, I have sadly witnessed what happens when a teacher who used to care gets broken down. They become hardened or they just give up. I don’t even have a solution, but all of these thoughts have been weighing heavy on my heart and mind.

I’m not writing this in an attempt to procure sympathy or pity. I am writing this as a practice of catharsis.

A Fond Scar

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Written below is a letter I wrote to my Auntie a couple years after she passed away. At the time, my way of coping with her death was to write her letters. When I would wake up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, I would climb down from my bunk bed and sit on the floor and write her a letter.

Sometimes I was just sad. Other times I was angry and would write about how furious I was that she was gone. In hindsight, this sounds a little crazy; nevertheless, it was cathartic.

Up until recently, I had forgotten about writing these letters. However, as I was sifting through some old pictures, I noticed that the necklace she had given me was present and visible in almost every one.

It stirred my memory and I remembered writing those letters and the torrent of emotion that accompanied them. In viewing those pictures, I also became cognizant of the fact that it was then, after she passed away, that I began wearing that necklace daily.

The above mentioned and pictured necklace is a Claddagh necklace. My Auntie picked it out for me when she visited Ireland.  As this necklace is something I wear every day, I no longer recognize its weight or notice it as a piece of jewelry when I look in the mirror – it simply seems to be a part of me.

Yet, when I actually saw it in those pictures, I began to think about the necklace and how representative it is of my Auntie and our relationship.

For those of you who don’t know, the Claddagh is generally worn in the form of a ring. It is a traditional Irish ring, comprised of a set of hands holding a heart, on top of which is a crown. The hands represent friendship, the heart represents love, and the crown represents loyalty. Typically, the ring and how it is worn is indicative of marital status.

However, for me, it is a token of an enduring friendship – one that still inspires, encourages, and motivates me today.

While the below written letter is personal and of a different genre than the writing that I have shared up until this point, I think it is important to share experiences and insights in a variety of mediums. By doing so, we are able to empathize, relate, and understand. So, here it is.

Time may heal all wounds, but it certainly doesn’t take away the scar.

I remember that day clearly. After a night of fitful sleeping and wondering, I awoke and rolled over, only to be greeted by my mom’s tear streaked face. Before she even uttered the words, I knew something was terribly wrong. As my morning grogginess wore off, and the reality of the previous night took its place, I suddenly realized why my mom was so upset.

I don’t remember exactly how the words came out of her mouth, most likely due to the state of shock and disbelief I was in. Vaguely, I remember the words “life support”, but most of all, I remember the words “brain dead.”

For some reason, these words were and still are, the only words that really struck me. Perhaps, it was the harsh, coldness of them. I knew they weren’t used in malice, but for some reason they seemed to me, to be mean and unfeeling. I was upset that they were being used to describe you – my loving, happy, and energetic Auntie.

Never before have I ever experienced such heart wrenching pain. Tears welled up from a place I didn’t even know existed and proceeded to shake my whole body as I let them pour out.

That day, January 4th, 2013, will forever be cemented in my heart and mind. How could it not be? It was the day I simultaneously lost an Aunt, friend, teacher, and confidant. It’s been about to be two years since you’ve been gone; over these years I have tried to think of some way I could honor your memory or do something special for you.

It’s not like I can talk to you and tell you how much I love you and miss you. Although, sometimes I forget that you are gone, and think that is what I’ll do – even going so far as to pick up the phone. It is these times, when I forget and then suddenly remember, that I feel your absence most poignantly. It hurts.

There is no point in making you something, because I have nowhere to put it, other than your grave. And there it will only be destroyed by animals or the weather.

I’ve tried to think of what you would want, and honestly, you would probably tell me that you “don’t want anything.” Because, that’s how you are. You showed more care for me (and many others) than you sometimes did for yourself. However, there is one memory I have of you, that stands out so very characteristic of you – and it comforts me and makes me feel like maybe there is something I can do.

One day, several years ago, you took me to town for a “girl’s day.” We traipsed around town all day, happily shopping and enjoying ourselves. At the end of the day, you took me out to dinner. I remember at one point you jokingly, but with an undercurrent of pain, looked at me and said something like, “Are you embarrassed to be seen with me?” I tried to respond as casually as possible so I wouldn’t hurt your feelings.

I told you, “Of course I’m not embarrassed of you.”

I wasn’t, but I was hurt that you would think that and I felt sad that you might feel that way about yourself. It made me wonder if I had done something to make you feel that way.

Once we had eaten dinner and were back in the car, I thanked you for such a wonderful day. You responded saying, “just remember to do this for someone else one day!” At the time, I didn’t really think about what you said.

As time has passed I look back at this day, not only as one of my fondest memories with you, but as a life lesson. The simple act of spending time with me, and the honest, plain spoken words you said to me taught me more than you could ever know.

The memory of that day is an emblem in my mind, representing a few of  the many things you shared with me. You taught me, not just that day, but over the course of your life and our friendship to cherish those I care for, to give them my unbridled love, and to treat every person with the same respect and kindness.

You had the natural quality of being able to make everyone feel equally important, special, and loved. This is how I remember you. And, if one day, I can do what you did for me for someone else, I know I will have made you proud. That is what I want to do.

Time may not take away the scar and that’s okay. I’ll happily carry it with me for the rest of my life, in remembrance of you, so that I never forget what is truly important in life.

I love you.