how to wear a suit.

june cleaver, via takefive

Today, I wore a suit.

This wasn’t my first time. But—as usual—I was struck by how uncomfortable I looked and how awkwardly the collar of my dress shirt laid upon the lapel of my blazer.

Remember Ralphie’s little brother, Randy, in A Christmas Story? Remember his snow suit? It felt a lot like that.

Now, perhaps it’s just an ill-fitting suit, but I doubt it: everything was tailored just fine. No, this wasn’t so easy to explain away. When I looked in the mirror, I just felt sort of shapeless and boxy. More significantly, I felt like I was playing dress-up in an outfit—and an image—that doesn’t belong to me.

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Suzanne Venker would like to exploit validate this insecurity. In her Fox News op-ed entitled “The War on Men,” women are harangued for seeking out higher education and full-time careers because “women aren’t women anymore.” As a result, “the men have nowhere to go.”

Luckily, Venker breaks down her argument in easy-to-digest pieces so even my feeble female brain can understand. Her argument is simple: “Men want to love women, not compete with them.” The solution? Even more simple: As a woman, all I have to do is “surrender to [my] nature—-[my] femininity—and let men surrender to theirs.”

While this is exceptionally good news for me (like I said, I look awkward in a suit; strollers and aprons are much more flattering), what I worry most about is what our daughters’ futures will look like with such bleak and repressive attitudes towards them.

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It’s not enough to slut-shame. It’s not enough to rape-shame (…and rape-shame…and rape-shame). Now, we must ensure that our girls understand that this overwhelming world of education and self-sufficiency is—really—no place for a lady.

Instead, all too often, powerful women are accused of being overbearing, masculine, unladylike, and—worst of all—unattractive. Thus the “feminine” Kardashian archetype becomes the new role model because even if they’re not the smartest or nicest women, at least they’re pretty.

—————

I cannot tell you how many times this has come up in my interactions with middle-school girls: pretty lips, pretty eyes, flat stomach, curvy hips, cleavage, “good hair.” It broke my heart every time that grace or intellect or humor were afterthoughts—if they were even thought of at all. This is our value system, and it becomes all the more apparent when reflected within the autonomy-shaming vitriol espoused by Venker and her anti-feminist cohorts.

In reviewing what sort of external attitudes we would like ourselves to be subject to and what sort of lives we want for our daughters, we must first determine what sort of role models we will choose to be. Blaming women and shaming young girls away from academic achievement and self-reliance only serves to defend the disparities and further feed into self-esteem issues, thereby weakening our society as a whole.

The real solution to this social schism has nothing to do with surrendering; in fact, it’s just the opposite. If we hope to provide a “balanced life” for our girls, we must first demonstrate the value of their minds and demand their self-image be derived from a place of internal power, rather than external perception.

Essentially, we must first teach them how to wear a suit.

worth the fight.

via YWLP

Last year during mentoring, one of my seventh graders confided that she spent every evening—from the time she got home from school until she went to bed—taking care of her four younger siblings. She explained how this meant that she often didn’t have time to even look at her homework, and she was usually too tired during the day to stay awake during class. Her mom worked two jobs and didn’t get home until after midnight, so it was up to my seventh grader to babysit, make dinner, do the chores, bathe her siblings, and get everyone into bed.

When I asked her about school, she shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m too tired… But I don’t really care—it’s not like I even like any of my teachers anyways.”

———–
The statistics clearly show that my seventh grader is just one of many students not properly served by our current system. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 4.1% of all high school students dropped out of school between October 2008 and October 2009 (NCES, p. 8). While this number has lowered significantly since the 1970’s and 1980’s, 4.1% per year could easily turn into 16.4% total by the time an incoming freshman class is supposed to graduate.

Furthermore, the distinction between high school completion rates across race and socioeconomic status are staggering. Over 9.3% of black young adults (aged 16-24) have dropped out, and that number skyrockets to 17.6% for Latinos (NCES, p. 9). Additionally, students from low income homes were five times more likely to drop out than students from middle or high income families (NCES, p. 6).

———–

My 7th grader is easily on track to become yet another addition to that statistic. In the particular school I mentored for, Buford Middle School, 56% of the students were eligible for free or reduced lunch (over 48% eligible for free lunch alone). Already—in a school that serves only 7th and 8th graders—the dropout rate was 4.1%.

———–

Having spent the past couple years working with Buford Middle’s at-risk seventh grade girls, I can understand that it’s easy for an educator to begin feeling helpless—especially as one continues to witness greater levels of student potential intermingled with greater levels of adversity. However, it is this potential, above all else, that demonstrates why it is so critical for us to keep fighting.

Whether weighing different types of responses to bullying, seeking out additional homework help, or explaining the subtle intricacies between “going with” and “talking to” someone, my girls have already navigated difficult circumstances, adverse social cues, and responsibility beyond what any 12-year-old should have on her shoulders.

The part of mentoring that impacted me the most was not the bonding and connections formed, nor the joy of facilitating young girls’ development into young women (although both of those were equally powerful experiences). Instead, it was that—each day—I witnessed these students weigh their options between giving up or moving forward. For each day that they chose to move forward, I felt that much more committed to my own promise to be there with them every step of the way. For the more difficult days where they wanted to call it quits, their struggle provided me strength to keep pushing and served as a reminder of why that promise is—and will remain—so important.

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There are so many different ways to make a positive impact, and—if you can find a few hours per month to spare—I would highly encourage you to get involved. While we may not be able to overcome all of the difficulties our students are facing, the value of having someone to motivate them to stay in school, work through their challenges, and find value in themselves and in others really can make the difference in determining a child’s outcome.

That alone is worth the fight.

via YWLP

storyline.

“Monticello Rd.” via Piedmont Council for the Arts’ Facebook page.

Every so often, I am fortunate to come across something that seamlessly blends my most passionate pursuits and interests: youth advocacy, education, community engagement, the arts, and Charlottesville.

Allow me to introduce you to the Storyline Project. Their mission is simple:

“Teams of campers and volunteers will use creative inquiry, historical information from local experts, and in-person interviews to make portraits of people from the community, and to explore real and imagined stories about Monticello Road’s past, present, and future.”

This project allows students to make sense of their own histories as well as begin the process of understanding the subjectivity of their experiences through comparison, all while incorporating a hands-on and community-oriented approach.

It is this exact sort of activity that is most needed—and often sorely lacking—in the classroom. By blending their personal narratives and applying those to historical events and the current community, children learn a number of critical lessons pertaining to historical studies, sociology, writing composition (through story formation), geometry and proportion (through drawing figures), as well as how to function as members of society.

Admittedly, this particular project may be a little out-of-reach for many school budgets, but there are a number of elements that could easily translate into our current educational model for very little cost to the school. Consider:

  • Utilizing school grounds, rather than taking a field trip.
  • Obtaining historical information online and allowing another teacher or school official to present the information in order to offer a “new” perspective.
  • Collaborating between classrooms for peer interviews.
  • Using crayon and long sheets of paper (instead of chalk) to create the community “storyline” mural.

Be sure to check out the Piedmont Council for the Arts’ Facebook album to see more photos and offer some kind feedback!

The full mural, via Charlottesville, Virginia’s Facebook page.

size matters.

Yesterday at the Universal Blueford School, a struggling West Philadelphia charter school, Mitt Romney remarked that smaller class sizes are not significant in determining the success of our public school students. Already this has caused a considerable amount of heated opposition, and—indeed—one’s own intuition seems to reject Romney’s statement.

After all, parents and teachers aren’t advocating for more students and a higher student/teacher ratio in their schools. On the contrary, they’re fighting for smaller class sizes to ensure that each child is able to receive more individualized attention and one-on-one time to assist student comprehension.

Romney is often criticized for being “out of touch” with the American people (e.g. Biden, Baldwin, even the Auto Workers’ Union), and this may appear to be one more instance in support of that opinion. While I disagree with dismissing altogether the significance of class size as a factor, I do think that much of his statement was taken out of context.

Granted, it is an election year, so there will be an understandable amount of “tweaking” to what members of each political party say. However, Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith’s rhetorical response that “Larger class sizes are the answer to a better education?” demonstrates just how far Romney’s initial statement has been pushed.

Instead, Romney’s main point is that “it’s not the the classroom size that is driving the success of those school systems.” This is significantly distinct from the purported claim that class sizes don’t matter at all, and I think this claim is the real message behind Romney’s stance that has—regrettably—gotten lost in the political circus. Of course, smaller class sizes and student achievement are often linked, but it is not the size itself that matters, but rather the ability of teachers to identify weaknesses and provide personalized attention to students in need. Obviously, this is all facilitated by smaller classes, but it is ultimately the motivation of the teachers to inspire academic confidence and promote a healthy learning environment that makes the real difference.

I do feel strongly about ensuring a fair shake for both candidates (as long as they’re willing to play fairly in the first place). Romney has managed to alienate a large number of Americans through both comments and practices, and he is solely responsible for those results. However, it is important to listen to the whole message and remember that—while we can interpret his statements as an attack of “larger vs. smaller class sizes”—addressing the issue of class size would be treating the symptom, rather than the underlying problem.

teacher appreciation week.

via pinterest

By now, I’m sure we’ve all heard the various arguments surrounding teacher compensation, work responsibilities, and quality, but—in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week beginning today—I figured we could skip the exposition and focus on the positive.

What better way to demonstrate the intersectionality of creativity and education than to highlight some clever DIY crafts to honor our educators? There are teaching moments in taking on a new project (regardless of how easy or small), so all of these offer fantastic opportunities for children to engage in active learning.

1. Framed Crayon Monogram {The New Home Ec.}

This project is incredibly easy and really only requires a little patience in sorting and cutting crayons (hot glue will help, too!) Check out the above link for a few other great ideas for how to incorporate crayons into easy DIY crafts.

2. Colored Pencil Flower Vase {Country Living}

This project is even easier to do and completely customizable, depending on one’s color preferences. As a way to include a “bonus gift,” opt for a living plant (e.g. tulips) to place inside the vase instead of cut flowers.

3. Candy Pencils {Thrifty and Thriving}

A great option for a teacher with a sweet tooth, this Thrifty and Thriving tutorial hides Rolo candies inside a pencil facade. Better yet, the directions are concise and easy to follow.

******

From elaborate DIY crafts to gift cards to a simple “thank you” note, there are innumerable ways to demonstrate your gratitude for those who pursue such a valuable profession. Regardless of what you decide to do to honor the teachers in your life, remember that in an environment where so many people feel unnoticed and undervalued, a little appreciation truly can go a very long way.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

lessons from elwood.

Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 classic, “Harvey.”

Upon reflecting on all of my family’s traditions, one stands out above the rest:

On the rainiest of lazy weekend days, the whole brood would pile up on the couch with popcorn, snacks, various knitting projects, and our puppies in order to snuggle and watch Jimmy Stewart play Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey.”

Some were, admittedly, a little more distracted than others.

Black and white movies always have a way of making even the dreariest days seem vibrant and full of color, but what set “Harvey” apart as our go-to “family flick” was the way it seamlessly integrated our most cherished values and consolidated them into a single 104-minute film. In particular, one pivotal quote could stand as the motto of our family crest:

“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

As I near the end of my college career (less than three short weeks!), I am reminded to pay homage to what helped me to reach this point in my life.

I am brought back to the summer after 4th grade where my mom and I spent an entire day in the IKEA showrooms playing house and pretending we were famous chefs starring in our own cooking show. I remember impromptu art projects, making gluten-free ravioli by hand, cabin vacations, spending countless frustrated hours pouring over and revising college essays together, sipping on mojitos with mint from our garden, talking for hours about everything, embracing innumerable tangents and digressions of conversation, and the entire spectrum of minutiae that comes from being a part of a boldly opinionated, close-knit, loving family.

Mom and I enjoying a gluten-free mustache party after baking.

However, I am also reminded of how this experience is undoubtedly “atypical.” Many of my friends are the byproduct of a highly structured environment, delicately balancing sports, academics, and just the “right” amount of piano lessons to ensure they’re “well-rounded.” This is no sleight: there are obviously many paths to receiving a satisfactory education and every approach is different.

For my particular path, though, this emphasis on play and active learning has been instrumental in broadening the way I see the world. In order to demonstrate the educational significance of what this approach has offered me, I call to a concept expounded upon in Elliot Eisner’s The Arts and the Creation of Mind. Eisner points out that “artistic activity is a form of inquiry that depends on qualitative forms of intelligence (Eisner, p. 232).” The reason for this is simple: art—and imaginative learning in general—affords us new ways to form conceptual connections through representation. As Eisner further elaborates:

“The process of representation stabilizes ideas and images, makes the editing process possible, provides the means for sharing meaning, and creates the occasions for discovery …The act of representation is an act of discovery and invention and not merely a means through which an individual’s will is imposed upon a material. It is this sense of discovery that affords individuals the opportunity to grow (p. 239).”

Stewart’s character, Elwood P. Dowd, reminds us that discovery is not solely limited to the tangible properties surrounding us (in Philosophy, we like to call this “the external world”), but rather can be deeply rooted in the process of creating and sharing meaning. One of my favorite scenes recounts time spent in a bar, as Elwood explains how he and his imaginary friend, Harvey, interact with their fellow patrons:

“Harvey and I sit in the bars…And soon the faces of all the other people turn toward mine and they smile. And they’re saying, ‘We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a very nice fella.’ Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers—soon we have friends. And they come over… and they sit with us… and they drink with us… and they talk to us.

They tell about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey… and he’s bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that’s envy, my dear. There’s a little bit of envy in the best of us.”

In this scene, Elwood and Harvey both create and share meaning with perfect strangers despite the fact that Harvey doesn’t exist to anyone but Elwood. Quite simply, though, he doesn’t need to. The representation and sharing of imaginative conversation is enough to sustain the creative process. This, in turn, facilitates qualitative learning by imparting significance upon a wholly malleable medium. Harvey may represent one thing to Elwood, but the story passed down to a fellow patron may take on a completely new life.

There is flux in the process, and it is through the simultaneous enacting and embrace of the process—whether it’s making ravioli by hand, writing an essay, or swapping bar stories—that one can adjoin becoming “oh so smart” with being “oh so pleasant.”

imagine.

nick nelson via society6

In his plea for peace entitled “Imagine,” John Lennon once sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Each listener was called on to imagine a peaceful world united by fraternity and social kinship in the hopes that maybe—just maybe—we could end violence through community initiative.

Indeed, most children are raised with the understanding that violent behavior is not a tolerable type of social interaction. In line at the grocery store, mothers scold their children for hitting, while the maternal adage of “Keep your hands to yourself!” is one that stays with many of us long after we leave the nest. Even schoolteachers are given the task of teaching students about proper social interaction: hitting is uncivilized, brutish, and absolutely will not—or, at least, should not—be tolerated in the classroom.

Yet, as we develop over the years, this simple philosophy often manages to get muddied. Whether you blame video games and the internet, music videos and lyrics, or  movies and TV, there appears to be an endless supply of mixed messages. Suddenly, Mom’s warning doesn’t seem to stick as much as it once did, as children are left with the arduous task of unraveling the infinite number of signals being sent to them—all in the hopes of developing a coherent system of socially accepted behaviors.

This same situation unfolds in our educational climate.

*****

In my time spent working at a preschool, I discovered that the promise of “free art time” was like Kindergarten catnip. Overexcited four-year-olds would frantically put away their toys and rush to the art station, anxiously awaiting their supplies. As each child meticulously created his or her own small masterpiece, the only sound that would fill the room was a quiet chatter outlining each illustration in painstaking detail.

As an Assistant Teacher, I often enjoyed the perks.

Yet, by middle school, there is no “free art time.” Students are either encouraged to read, finish homework, or (if you’re lucky enough to get a “cool” teacher) quietly talk to a friend. There is no creative outlet. Sure, reading may have the ability to excite one’s imagination, but—as with any chore—it loses its appeal when it becomes an obligation. When the entire day is structured around implementing obligations, is it any wonder so many students complain about disliking school?

Additionally, this practice can even turn the Arts themselves into a slippery slope of begrudging commitment. If one is expected to play the violin for 3 hours each, this too becomes a chore. As a result, the benefits usually incurred through creative expression can be dampened just as easily as they’re fostered. This tells us that it’s not necessarily the practice of “art” itself that produces such strong educational advantages, but something else…

Something bigger, and perhaps a little less tangible.

*****

John Lennon invites us to consider a world different from our own—one lacking possessions, countries, and religion—all for the sake of mental exercise through an imagined future. In listening to my four-year-old students chatter about their art projects, each one had a story unfolding from it:

“…Here’s the sun, and here’s you and me…First, we’re playing outside. Then we pick flowers for my mommy and I find a really big yellow one…” **

There is no obligation in developing this story; it could just as easily be a picture comprised of colors and scribbles without any associated meaning. But the act of choosing to develop a spontaneous, original story is where the element of creative liberty shines through:

It is here that “art” takes place. It is here that Maxine Greene’s mission of “releasing the imagination” is met.

As this practice all too rarely occurs in secondary education, it is also here that we still have a lot of work to do. In advocating for an arts education, it is not simply about securing band instruments and school plays—indeed, seeking to develop a codified structure of “the Arts in schools” defeats the very purpose. Instead what we must do is foster that development of expression: tell me a story; make something up, anything; use your imagination. 

Only by adapting our current learning practices and incorporating this philosophy into our current education structure will we fully access the benefits derived from arts-based education.

** [N.B. That was the actual story provided by my student, Addison, on the first picture featured in the photograph above.]

full steam ahead.

Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics—Unquestionably, all good things. Certainly, all necessary to help in the advancement and proliferation of modern society. These facts are undisputed.

But, aren’t we missing something?

Perhaps my primary and secondary schooling experience was unusual. While I may gripe from time to time about not having a more well-rounded Arts experience overall, I was still immersed in vocal performance, drama, and—for a very brief time—jazz band. Over the years, music has always managed to maintain a strong presence in my public education experience. However, as we continue to slash school budgets and emphasize the necessity of technology as our only means to “compete in the global economy,” the arts are often the first to go.

As we weigh our options with No Child Left Behind and struggle with an increasingly globalized economy, Americans are at a crossroads. Over and over again, evidence points to connecting the arts with science and technology in order to provide the greatest educational benefit (Root-Bernstein, 2008), yet in our frantic attempts to “compete with the global economy,” we continue to disregard the facts, opting instead for a “Hail Mary” by way of route memorization and math drills.

What is most interesting about this disconnect is that the notions of “science” and “art” are not diametrically opposed; in fact, it’s rather the opposite. For example, in Erik Robelen’s Education Week article (“STEAM: Experts Make Case for Adding Arts to STEM“), elementary students in a Philadelphia school utilized art-making projects to learn complex mathematic concepts (simply put, they created a “Fraction Mural”). From using watercolor paints to illustrate the parts of the cell to discussing the literary concept of “setting” through paintings, there are boundless ways to incorporate imagination and creative endeavors into even the most rigid of standardized curriculum.

The opportunities for implementing academic pursuits through artistic endeavors are literally only limited by one’s imagination.

bullied by the mpaa.

Lee Hirsch's "Bully" is a heart-breaking look at how five families are affected by the institutional and societal shortcomings in our management of bullying behavior.

“Bully” isn’t set to hit theaters until March 30, but already there is a significant debate surrounding Lee Hirsch’s latest documentary, and—specifically—the “R” rating it received from the MPAA as a result of the film’s “language.” What is frustrating in the MPAA’s decision is that this is not an issue of some fictional account glorifying bad behavior, but is instead a reflection of things as they are for many students already. Essentially, the MPAA is attempting to “protect” children from something they already experience on a daily basis just within their own school hallways and lunch tables.

In addition to the sheer illogicality of seeking to curb a student’s access to a film discussing an issue most of them must deal with in some way or another every day, there is the issue of weighing which of these aims will provide more benefit to our youth. Better yet, which of these issues would provide more damage if ignored?

While it may seem honorable to attempt to shield children from profanity, it is a misguided endeavor, especially considering how prevalent profanity is within our media—including cable television. Instead, what suffers is the message that Hirsch is seeking to deliver, as children who may want to better understand the emotional toll bullying has or who may be bullied themselves and are simply looking for a way to know they’re neither alone nor powerless. Linda Holmes says it best in her review of the MPAA’s decision:

“There’s a grotesque irony in declaring that what is portrayed in Bully should be softened, or bleeped — should be hidden, really, because it’s too much for kids to see. Of course it’s too much for kids to see. It’s also too much for kids to live through, walk through, ride the bus with, and go to school with. That’s why they made the movie. The entire point of this film is that kids do not live with the protection we often believe they do — many of them live in a terrifying, isolating war zone, and if you hide what it’s like, if you lie about what they’re experiencing, you destroy what is there to be learned.”

Many of us who have safely made our way out of the middle- and high-school battles zones already have some idea of what it feels like to be picked on by our peers. Even more of us can—at the very least—empathize with feeling insecure and awkward during those years. While this film highlights just how much more brutal youth culture can be today in comparison to our own experiences, “Bully” is not necessarily for us. It is to give the children navigating a hostile school environment a voice that they are all too often robbed of. To silence them further by rating their stories “R” or watering these stories down by censoring the language continues to bully them. If we don’t respect these children enough to give them a voice at the institutional level, how can we expect them to have any hope of successfully overcoming what they face from their peers?

It may be a small gesture, but please consider signing the petition. At the very least, give our students a chance to be heard.

Alex is just one of the five students featured in "Bully" whose story is restricted as a result of the MPAA rating.

UPDATE 4/6/2012: We won! The MPAA has changed Bully’s rating from R to PG-13 as a direct result of public pressure. Thank you so much for your help, and please make sure you (and all of your adolescent acquaintances!) see this documentary.