Author of the suspense novel, The Ezekiel Project and Signs of Life: A Memoir in Poems
Christina Knowles lives in Salem, Oregon with her musician husband, Randy Knowles, their dog, Walter, and their cat, Pyewacket. Christina also writes novels, short stories, poetry, and screenplays.
Today was Inauguration Day for Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris, a day overshadowed by the threat of violence and the realization of how close we came to losing our democracy. Of course, I expected to be joyful and relieved on such a day. What I didn’t expect was to be reduced to an emotional puddle of tears at the mention of each seemingly normal act throughout the day.
For the past four years, I’ve been increasingly ashamed of the United States and embarrassed by both its president and many of its citizens. I don’t like this feeling. I grew up filled with pride to be an American. I considered myself a patriot and loved our country. I was raised to believe that being an American meant being part of a sacred idea, an idea of equality and freedom and democracy. A place where no matter where a person came from socioeconomically, no matter what race or creed, Americans were “out of many, one.” We were truly a melting pot, or salad bowl, if you prefer. Of course, I knew we didn’t live out these ideals perfectly every day. It came to my attention in the last decade that being poor was more of a prison sentence than a result of poor choices. And when Barack Obama was elected our first African American president, I was both overcome with emotion and pride in America and stunned to see the overt racism emerge from the shadows with a force I had never imagined could still exist. Over the past four years, I have seen institutional racism exposed and seen our political leaders embrace the most vile of white supremacists.
I’ve seen our reputation around the world deteriorate at a startling but understandable speed. I’ve sat astounded while obvious lies spewed from the president and his supporters. I’ve been disgusted as his press secretaries abused the press while blatant lies rolled off their tongues. I’ve listened flabbergasted as those who knew better pretended they didn’t and played into what I can only assume they saw as political benefit. Flagrant lies and unfounded and absurd conspiracy theories became a daily occurrence; families divided over impossible to believe notions, friends were torn apart, and our nation fractured. Finally, I sat dumbfounded as deluded domestic terrorists attacked our beautiful Capitol and attempted to overthrow the government and overturn a free and fair election at the encouragement of a sitting president, a treasonous tyrant in the White House.
I knew we were desperate to get President Trump, the sociopathic narcissist, out of a position of power before he started another world war or damaged truth beyond all repair, but I didn’t realize how personally traumatized many of us were. Not until today.
Today I saw democracy win, and I cried. I saw a biracial woman, a daughter of an immigrant, sworn in as Vice President, and I felt that old pride stirring once again, and I cried. I listened to President Biden’s stirring speech about healing and unity, and I cried. I listened to the “National Anthem,” “This Land Is My Land,” and the “Pledge of Allegiance,” and I cried. I swelled with pride at being an American again as I listened to the Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, perform her beautiful and patriotic words of hope, and I cried. I watched President Biden begin the difficult work of undoing the barrage of hateful legislation implemented by former President Trump, and I cried. I listened to Jen Psaki address the press with respect, directness, and truth, and I cried. I watched the relieved and hopeful response of our treasured allies around the world, and I cried.
I expected to be relieved, happy, and hopeful. I didn’t expect that the mundane and ordinary business of politics would ever affect me like this. I didn’t know that I’d been holding my breath for the past four years. I didn’t realize how long it’s been since I’d felt pride in being a United States citizen. I didn’t realize how much I still love my country and have hope in the ideals I thought we stood for, that we might, indeed, still stand for. I didn’t realize how completely traumatized we’ve all been for the past four years. I feel like we’ve all been held hostage by a hostile power, and we’ve just been rescued by the heroes, and it’s finally safe to let out our breath and just cry.
I’m not naïve enough to believe everything is going to be wonderful. I don’t expect miracles from President Biden. I know he’ll make mistakes, and he’s sure to stick his foot in his mouth more than once. He won’t be able to accomplish all he hopes to. I know that racism, conspiracy theorists, and hate will not be eradicated. Everything will probably not be okay, not for a long, long time. But for now, democracy held, the Constitution prevailed, and we’ve been rescued from tyranny, and we have emerged with a healthier understanding of the fragility of everything we hold dear, and a stronger resolve to protect it in the future. Today is a good day to be an American.—Christina Knowles
After finishing Our Dried Voices by Greg Hickey, which I very much enjoyed, I was excited to receive his new book, Parabellum, in exchange for an honest review. Parabellum (the title is brilliant) starts off with a massacre on a beach in Chicago, then flashes back one year, introducing us to four characters, one of whom we presume to be the mass shooter. This idea was very intriguing and had me instantly interested in these characters. What follows in the majority of the novel are the in-depth psychological studies of four potentially dangerous people and what might cause them to become a murderer. Unfortunately, a too-blatant clue eliminates one of the four right away, which I found immediately disappointing.
The characters are unnamed, which probably serves as a trope to present them as a kind of everyman, but for readability, I found it a bit more difficult to immerse myself in their stories because of this. We know them only as the student, the ex-athlete, the veteran, and the programmer, and their personalities and problems are given to us in detailed and poignant vignettes that are realistic and recognizable. I was able to empathize with all except the programmer, whom I found repugnant. As the lives of the four progress and come full circle back to the present, we are introduced to the victims of the beach massacre in what seems to be an attempt to humanize them and dramatize the event in greater depth. However, it’s too little, too late, and what we get is equivalent to a list of victims’ names and occupations we will not remember in five minutes’ time. While Hickey seems to have a strong understanding of the psyche and is clearly a talented writer, in this case, the end result is a somewhat engaging novel that starts out with a primal scream and suddenly peters out and ends with a disappointing and anti-climactic whimper. An original idea ends all too predictably, never doing justice to the incredible psychological insight of the previous chapters.
And though I was disappointed in the end, I still rather enjoyed the journey through the minds of these all too real characters. I definitely look forward to reading future novels by Greg Hickey. Three out of five stars for this one. —Christina Knowles
I really try not to compare books I review to other more famous books, especially when they really are not knock-offs at all, but in the case of Our Dried Voices by Greg Hickey, it’s hard not to. Don’t get me wrong. This book is definitely its own original work, but still, it is impossible to read without looking back nostalgically to a couple of familiar prized works, and I mean this in the best possible sense. This dystopian novel is reminiscent of both The Time Machine by HG Wells and Ayn Rand’s Anthem.
The book is set far into the future. Samuel, who appears to be more intelligent than anyone else in his community, has an awakening of sorts, which stems from noticing things that go awry and setting about to, at first, just fix them, and later, to solve the mystery of who is behind the strange mishaps that befall his village, and figure out why they are happening. Like the character Equality 7-2521 in Anthem, Samuel wants to make a difference and befriends a slightly less intelligent female, Penny, similar to Anthem’s Liberty 5-3000. The similarities continue, but unlike Rand’s collectivist criticism, Hickey makes us think more deeply on the issues of the “nanny state.” Like HG Wells in The Time Machine, Hickey postulates on the de-evolution of humanity in a perfect Eden where there is nothing left to do but eat, sleep, and frolic in the garden, having sex with whoever is nearby and willing. Does work make humanity smarter? Does work give existence meaning? At the very least, it seems to prevent the de-evolution of the mind and body. But Hickey goes further, asking what gives us purpose and joy?
Without giving away too much of the plot, I’ll say that the answer is left somewhat up to us; however, the implication may be that trading one controlling ideology for another may not be the right answer. Ultimately, freedom is necessary to grow and be happy, much like Equality and Liberty find when they reach their cabin in the woods.
At any rate, I found this novel to be extremely engrossing. I thoroughly enjoyed it right up to the end of Samuel’s story. However, I think this is where the book should have ended. I wish I could have set the book down, satisfied with the knowledge of Samuel’s outcome and been done. But what followed titled, “From the handwritten manuscript ‘The Early History of the pearl colony’” (Kindle Locations 2705-2706), was an extensive and boring fictional history leading up to where the book starts. This history includes mostly dates of when certain diseases were cured, leading up to the Eden of Samuel’s community. I struggled with the purpose of this chronology, which seemed to be some kind of commentary against science, or perhaps, it was a warning against population explosion. It seemed to be saying that by curing these diseases and extending life, we took away any possibility of living fulfilling lives. Whether that’s what was meant or not, it pulled me out of the fantasy of the book and made me question important themes in the novel, wondering if I had even understood the point at all. The title also bothered me. I think I understood the point that we lose what we do not use, but it seemed like there should have been some connecting point more clearly tying the title to the novel.
With all that being said, I gave this book four out of five stars because, although I think it could have been better, it certainly ranks up there with many of our favorite and important dystopian novels that we look back on and say, “So and so predicted this would happen.” Maybe someday we’ll experience a dystopian moment and say, “Hickey warned us about this,” but I certainly hope not.
Thanks to the author who gifted this book to me in exchange for an honest review.
Recently, I have witnessed many angry outbursts on social media regarding the approximately 100,000 unaccompanied immigrant children pouring over the border, originating from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, choosing to leave their families and risk the dangers of traveling alone to cross the border in search of hope and safety. These children, who are fleeing violence and poverty in their homeland, turn themselves in to American immigration authorities and beg for help. But apparently, numerous Americans, many of whom claim to be pro-life, refuse compassion to these starving, freezing, and abused children, and just want them immediately deported—sent back to the violence and chaos from whence they fled. I do not understand this curious and callous lack of common decency and compassion for these suffering children.
A few weeks ago, a friend posted this on his wall: “I am ashamed that SO MANY Texans will argue that a fetus is a living human and deserves to live a full life. But when a little ACTUAL FOREIGN kid shows up on your doorstep. All of the sudden you find every excuse as to why you can’t take care of it.” This caught my attention because I have always wondered about this particular paradox myself.
Before I had a chance to chime in, a person, whom I do not know and who will remain anonymous, responded, “But it’s ok for some bimbo who can’t get her shit together and get on BC or keep her legs shut to have multiple abortions. In some cases these late term abortion babies are born alive and left to die. That’s so f—ing sad. Your [spelling was not corrected] right I’m not taking care of a little American or foreign child. I did not make that choice to have sex and create them. In the form of taxes you could say I already do take care of them. People are put in jail for animal abuse and it’s ok to murder someone you never gave a chance to live.”
Apparently, she wanted to prove his point. For some reason, many people in the pro-life movement only seem to advocate for the lives of unborn children, which, forgive me, strikes me as pro-birth, or even anti-abortion, but not pro-life. I, personally, don’t think one should label oneself pro-life, unless one is also interested in respecting all life, protecting the dignity of all living beings, having compassion on them, and doing one’s best to elevate their situation out of suffering. Unfortunately, these remarks and lack of concern for anyone except unborn fetuses are typical. Fetuses may, indeed, be human beings who have the right to live, but because another human being’s health and well-being is also involved, abortion is a complicated issue, but the question of whether or not to help these child refugees should not be complicated at all.
Most people who hold a hard line against illegal immigrants, in this case, more properly identified as refugees, do so because they fear that sharing our resources with others will cause our own people to go without. However, “the irony with today’s anti-immigrants is that they are themselves descendants of uninvited immigrants who came from countries lacking in opportunity a few hundred years before” (Headbloom). And although the angry and indignant reaction of those in opposition to any humanitarian aid for these children is based in selfish instinct, I suppose this is somewhat understandable. It will require sacrifice on our part. However, if we are to be the leaders of the free world we say that we are, then we need to set a humanitarian example. “The US is constantly insisting that countries around the world accept refugees. Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan are all accepting millions of Syrians, for example. They are much less equipped to do so based on their economies and their size in comparison to the numbers arriving,” according to Brenna Daldorph, journalist for France 24. Aren’t we, at least, willing to live up to the humanitarian standards we expect from others?
But beyond our reputation, I would like these people to consider that, both personally, and as a nation, our most valuable possessions are our character and compassion, and if we are able and willing to coldly refuse help to those who cannot help themselves, especially children, who through no fault of their own, flee horrific conditions for the chance at a better life—or any life at all, then we have nothing worth preserving anyway.
How soon we forget our own history and what this country has long represented. America has always been a nation of immigrants, and we used to be proud of it. We visit the Statue of Liberty and read the beautiful words inscribed there:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
(“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus)
And we are moved and proud. But we have no reason for this pride any longer because too many of us don’t care about the huddled masses, the suffering, the starving. And why? Because we want to keep everything for ourselves. We don’t want to lose what we have and become like them. But by doing so, by protecting ourselves from them, we have become something far worse. We are not even worthy of them or of our own heritage. If this is who we’ve become, if this is who we will be, then we truly have lost the best of who we once were.
As Americans, we need to once again become the nation worthy of being that “beacon of light,” that “shining city on the hill,” the country that stands against tyranny, protects the weak and downtrodden, and offers comfort and shelter at least as often as it wields its mighty force and influence. Like my friend who originally posted that he was ashamed, I don’t want to be ashamed of America anymore. I want to be proud, proud to be a citizen of a country who lives up to the lofty ideals of our forefathers, even if it costs us something. The price of protecting these children, we can afford. It is much more expensive not to; it will cost us everything, at least everything that matters—our character and our ideals.—Christina Knowles
Unfortunately, we are at a point in history where teachers need to defend the importance of smaller classes on student achievement and future success, as if this were not common sense. This is a clear indication that lack of funding, or perhaps mismanagement of finances has become such an issue that those in charge of schools are trying to deny what we all intuitively know is true—one teacher cannot effectively teach 30 plus students in one class. The pressures of new teacher evaluations requiring personalized, individual instruction plans and nearly daily communication with parents creates an impossible situation for the teacher. Gone are the days when teachers merely brought home grading every night. Now teachers struggle to keep up with individual lesson plans, tracking individual students, documenting data, keeping up with parent contacts, and grading. Catching up and completing work is now impossible, no matter how many outside hours are put in, and the stress of these demands is driving experienced, quality teachers from the profession in a mass exodus, and they are quickly replaced by first year teachers who do not know what they are in for. On the middle school and high school levels, teachers are required to personally know and teach five or more 30-plus-student classes of different students. The real injustice is to the student who is expected to focus in an overcrowded classroom with an overworked teacher who cannot possibly give them individual attention—that, and the fact that teachers continue to be held accountable for what students learn, despite the fact that class sizes and duties have become unmanageable for anyone, regardless of his or her skill, dedication, or experience.
As the last school year drew to a close at the high school where I teach, the faculty was called into the auditorium for a meeting with the district administration to discuss cuts in the budget that would result in letting some teachers go and letting vacated positions go unfilled. Before the cuts, my classes ranged from 28-38 students per class, which I have gotten used to, but according to research, are too large. I was grateful for these numbers because at one point the year before, most of my classes ranged from 45-52 students per class, which was completely unmanageable. We were reassured that class sizes would not go up much, but this did not prepare us for what came out of a high-level district leader’s mouth next. He spoke to an auditorium full of stressed-out teachers, who had just finished struggling to provide documentation of a vast array of new responsibilities for our yearly evaluations, many of which were not in our control at all, but also including one-on-one instruction, differentiation, and tracking of each individual student. He smiled and said in a completely casual but serious tone, “But we all know class size doesn’t matter if you’re a good enough teacher, right?” Audible gasps filled the auditorium. Shocked at the audacity of such a statement, I turned and gazed around the large room, taking in the stunned faces, the mouths dropped open in disbelief. The room became silent. It seemed everyone was speechless. Nervously, I raised my hand, cleared my throat, and uttered a barely audible, “Umm, I disagree with that statement.” The room burst into conversation, and soon others snapped out of their stunned silence and began disputing the remark uttered so casually and without regard for common sense.
Nevertheless, cuts were made, and I started the year with 42 students in my largest class and 33 in my smallest. Couple that with a rigorous new set of responsibilities, Common Core requirements, three preps, and a new online program with which we were to become proficient, and the familiar thought popped into my head: What else can I do with my English degree? But worse than the large classes was the realization that we were just not respected anymore. The idea that our own district leadership thought we would fall for a pathetic line of flattery or shame us into admitting we must not be “good enough teachers” was just too much.
One of our evaluation requirements is that we research “best practices,” so I did just that. Guess what I discovered? I discovered that it is not only common sense, but that actual documented research shows that the optimal class size is between 15-18 students for achievement and future success. I would be thrilled with 25! Studies also show that the overall load of the teacher should be lightened, particularly for English teachers and teachers with a heavy grading load. A high school teacher should ideally have no more than 80 students total. This year I have 170 students, more than double the optimum.
I’ll let you read the research for yourself, but let me just speak from experience for a moment. The year that I had 52 students in one class—no learning occurred. I shouted over the students, no one could hear anything. In a class of 52 students, I could not even see over the heads to the back of the room. If every student murmured, it was a low roar, blocking out my voice. I spent most of my time trying to keep them safe when boys began wrestling in the back where I couldn’t see or when an argument broke out over a snatched notebook. I couldn’t even make my way through the desks to the back of the room. I wrote dozens of detentions to try and gain control, but most of the students ignored them, and I had no power to enforce them. Nothing happened to them if they didn’t show up, and I was criticized for writing too many detentions. On the rare occasion when I got them working on something, and I stopped to help one student, the entire class erupted into noise and chaos. I spent my entire evening calling parents and did not have time to grade the little homework that actually came in. The students complained that they couldn’t hear the instruction and did not understand what was going on. In 14 years of teaching, I have never previously had issues with classroom management. My room was not even large enough to fit that many desks, so some students were sitting on the floor. This year is not that bad. I have a quiet and controlled class, and our current administration supports our discipline, but students are not able to get one-on-one instruction, and it took a couple of months just to learn their names. The idea that I am supposed to get to know each of these students, their learning styles, tailor instruction to their needs, monitor their growth, provide tutoring, and keep parents informed is ludicrous. But that is exactly what is expected of me because it wouldn’t be a problem if I were “good enough.”
But if common sense and experience are not enough to convince you, I have listed the research here, complete with links because the evidence is too astronomically large to synthesize in this blog, and this is only a fraction of what I found. For your convenience, I will list the source after each, rather than at the end.
I found this one particularly interesting because we are supposed to avoid lecture-style classes in favor of more hands-on, engaging lessons, but the research shows large class sizes increase lecture-style teaching out of necessity. “The empirical case against large class size: Adverse effects on the teaching, learning, and retention of first-year students. Journal of Faculty Development, 21(1), p5-21. ‘Good summary showing that “empirical evidence…suggests that there are eight deleterious outcomes associated with large-sized classes: (1) increased faculty reliance on the lecture method of instruction, (2) less active student involvement in the learning process, (3) reduced frequency of instructor interaction with and feedback to students, (4) reduced depth of student thinking inside the classroom, (5) reduced breadth and depth of course objectives, course assignments, and course-related learning strategies used by students outside the classroom, (6) lower levels of academic achievement (learning) and academic performance (grades), (7) reduced overall course satisfaction with the learning experience, and (8) lower student ratings (evaluations) of course instruction.’” http://www.classsizematters.org/research-and-links/#benefits%20for%20post-secondary%20education Cuseo, J. (2007).
This one finds that keeping fewer teachers for budgetary reasons is not cost effective after all, particularly when funding is withheld for lower test scores. “This policy brief summarizes the academic literature on the impact of class size and finds that class size is an important determinant of a variety of student outcomes, ranging from test scores to broader life outcomes. Smaller classes are particularly effective at raising achievement levels of low-income and minority children. Policymakers should carefully weigh the efficacy of class-size policy against other potential uses of funds. While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall.” Schanzenbach, D. W. (2014). “Does Class Size Matter?” National Education Policy Center Policy Brief.
“’Further research suggests that schools are organized more for purposes of maintaining control than for promoting learning’ (McNeil, 1988), and ‘Small class size is integral to this individualization: Teachers should be responsible for a smaller number of students so that they can get to know each student and his or her learning preferences. It takes time to get to know one’s students and to individualize the learning experience, and doing so requires concentration. In a classroom with a large number of students, such attention simply isn’t an option. Powell (1996) examined independent schools in the United States and learned that private preparatory schools value both small school and small class size as necessary conditions for student success. In 1998, the average private school class size was 16.6 at the elementary level and 11.6 at the high school level. By contrast, the average class size was 18.6 in public elementary schools and 14.2 in public high schools’ (National Center for Education Statistics, 1999)”(Wasley, from Small Classes, Small Schools: The Time Is Now). http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb02/vol59/num05/Small-Classes,-Small-Schools@-The-Time-Is-Now.aspx
King, J. (2008). Bridging the Achievement Gap: Learning from three charter schools (part 1), (part 2), (part 3), (part 4). Columbia University (Doctoral Dissertation). “School size and class size are linked to the five key cultural values ….: a culture that teaches effort yields success; a culture of high expectations; a disciplined culture; a culture built on relationships; and a culture of excellence in teaching. Small classes and small overall student loads allow teachers to spend more time working with individual students to help them track their own progress and develop their skills – thus reinforcing the principle that effort yields success. High expectations are easier to maintain when teachers know their students well (because of small school and class size), can identify whether a student’s poor performance on an assessment reflects deficiencies in their effort or their understanding, and can respond accordingly.” http://www.classsizematters.org/research-and-links/#opportunity
Tienken, C.H., & Achilles, C.M. (2006). Making Class Size Work in the Middle Grades. AASA Journal of Scholarship & Practice, 3.1, pp 26-36. “In a NJ middle school, reducing class size led to a reduction in the failure rate from 3-6% to only 1%, despite a concurrent increase in 40-60 students, and a 7% increase in poverty students, without any additional spending. Gains in test scores were statistically significant with .80 effect size.”
NCTE: National Council of Teachers of English. (1990). Statement on Class Size and Teacher Workload: Secondary. “The Secondary Section of the National Council of Teachers of English recommends that schools, districts, and states adopt plans and implement activities resulting in class sizes of not more than 20 and a workload of not more than 80 for English language arts teachers by the year 2000.”
Bernstein, K. J. (2000). Class size does matter. Prince George’s and Montgomery Journal Newspapers. “Excellent essay by a high school teacher, explaining why both smaller classes and a smaller teaching load is essential to improve student achievement.”
MetLife, Inc.. (2012). The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Teachers, Parents and the Economy. A 2011 survey of teachers, parents and students. “Teacher job satisfaction has dropped 15 points since 2009, from 59% who were very satisfied to 44% who are very satisfied, the lowest level in over 20 years….Teachers with lower job satisfaction are more likely to report that in the last year they have seen increases in: average class size (70% vs. 53%)…One in seven (14%) students agrees that their classes are so big that their teachers don’t really know them….”
I would like to point out that I did find a few, very few articles that stated they found no significant difference in achievement levels between large and small classes, but in these studies, a large class was defined as 25 students. I agree, 25 students is manageable. I do not have any classes as small as 25.
Certainly, we all know schools are suffering with budgetary cuts and the money only goes so far, but cutting teachers is not the place to save money. Cut anything else first—anything. We are driving over-worked teachers out of education and under-reached students out of school. Although we would all love to create 21st century students with skills in the latest technology, the most important thing is learning critical thinking, critical reading, and effective communication. I can do that with a book, a pencil, and a piece of paper—and a reasonable number of students. But I don’t think we need to go that far. I want our students to have the latest technology and up-to-date text books.
I have a better plan. I think we should cut excess at the top first—before ever considering cutting the boots on the ground. We have someone in charge of everything, but not enough people to carry it out. School leaders should trust the professionals they hire to do the job without the micro-management of a highly paid director of this and director of that—people we never even actually see as teachers, but answer to indirectly. We spend money on publicity specialists hired to sell the fantasy that we offer the best education in our over-crowded classrooms (and I’m not attacking our district—we are one of the best, but I am criticizing the educational model in general). We buy expensive airtime on radio stations and on local television. Here’s a novel idea—let’s hire lots of good quality teachers, reduce class sizes so students get personal attention and help, and actually become the best district. Word of mouth boasting from parents and students who actually experience an excellent education will attract more students than an inflated and unsubstantiated claim of excellence on a TV advertisement ever will. And when they come, we do not let the classes become overgrown once again, but we hire more teachers. If we really mean to do what’s best for kids, smaller classes are essential.—Christina Knowles
I’ve been complaining about government interference in education for years. But forget the government. There’s a new clueless interloper on the scene. She’s been around forever, but she’s just recently gained the power of a government agency. She is the overprotective, overinvolved mom. Let’s be clear. I believe parents have a say in their children’s education. I believe they should complain if a teacher is doing something wrong or treating their child unfairly. I am a parent, and I would not sit idly by if my child was receiving less than a quality education or was being mistreated. That’s not what I’m talking about. I am also not referring to the majority of parents who reasonably contact teachers and administrators with their concerns, discuss situations, and offer fair solutions or advice. I’m referring to parents who worship their children to the point that they unknowingly handicap them and effectively destroy any chance of them receiving useful skills or an education that will serve them their entire lives simply because they can’t bear to see their child struggle. We’ve all met them. They complain about every grade, write their children’s papers, excuse them when they want to stay home and play video games, demand testing as soon as their child says an assignment is too difficult, and blame the teacher when their child continues to fail all their subjects, or in some cases, merely don’t receive As. Unfortunately, some struggle is required for learning anything new. If a child never struggles in a class, they are not thinking, being challenged, or doing any of the work necessary to learn a new skill. They are merely doing what they already know how to do.
In the past teachers were trusted to institute their own guidelines, within reason, to suit their style, the children’s needs, and their subject matter. The same model does not work in every class. With the passing of new programs and laws such as No Child Left Behind and the new Common Core Standards, came a host of rules and regulations of how a teacher should teach and grade. Our classes are lumped into categories such as English, Science, Math, and History, among others, regardless of their specialty. Each of these categories has their own standards, which may or may not make sense in the specific class. All of these standards have the same weight, regardless of their real world importance, and a standard for turning things in on time or turning in things at all, does not exist, even though in the real world for which we are preparing students, no one cares what a person knows if they are unwilling to produce any action. However, in school, it no longer matters what a student does, only what they know, and it is the teacher’s sole responsibility to figure out what they do know if the student is unwilling to share that information.
Add to this the fact that teachers are the only ones held accountable for what the student learns, and we have some very overworked and frustrated teachers shaking their heads at the system. Obviously, there is no motivation for the student, and this also is seen as the fault of the teacher. Of course, scores drop and desperate administrators dealing with angry parents and threatening superintendents implement one experiment after another trying to stem the flood of apathy and poor test scores. No system sticks around long enough to get an accurate evaluation over a period of time because as soon as little Johnny complains that he doesn’t like it, our overprotective mom rushes to the superintendent to rescue him. For some reason beyond my comprehension, some superintendents and administrators cower in fear at the angry parent and immediately give in, ordering the teacher to make it easier on Johnny while threatening that the teacher had better not let Johnny’s test scores slip. If you aren’t one of these parents, maybe you’re thinking I’m exaggerating. I assure you, I am not.
Recently a situation like this happened on a grand scale affecting every teacher in my building. A couple of years ago, the teachers at the school where I work were forced to implement a modified form of Standards Based Grading. If you aren’t familiar with it, it is a system where no points are accumulated and formative homework is not counted. Students are given letter grades on summative assessments that fall into the Common Core Standards. They are allowed to re-do these assessments, erasing earlier grades that were not passing, re-take every test, ignore deadlines on assignments (because we only care about what they know), and any poor grades would be replaced by newer grades as they learn. This made things much easier for students and much harder for teachers. Teachers now have to spend hours at home creating new tests for re-takes and re-grading tests, papers, and projects while also grading the new work that comes in. Most teachers thought that this was unreasonable and too easy for the students, so we implemented a few rules to make it more challenging and to create some incentive to do the work. We made some restrictions. For example, if a student has an F in one standard, he would not be able to receive higher than a C in that category. Each category is calculated together to receive the overall class grade. If a student failed an entire standard, he could not receive higher than a C in the class. Also, we made a rule that if a student took a test over and did worse, then they would receive the most recent grade.
But Johnny didn’t like that. Now it would be risky to keep taking the same tests over again without studying. In addition, Johnny didn’t like it when he had two Bs and two As and ended up with a B in the class even though the two As were in categories that hardly mattered, and the Bs were in important categories. Johnny thought he deserved an A because—well, just because. Johnny ran home and complained to his mom, and she was furious. She’d take care of that mean teacher trying to educate her son by actually holding him accountable for his work. So Johnny’s mom got a few parents together and went to the school board and superintendent. They demanded records from the overworked administrators and harassed the teachers. They circulated petitions and filed complaints. By the way, Johnny was already receiving free tutoring from the teacher after the teacher was supposed to be home with her family. The teacher was also providing notes for Johnny because Johnny has a hard time copying words off the board when he is playing games on his phone. Johnny also got to use the teacher’s notes on his tests because he has trouble remembering stuff for his modified tests. He only has to read half of his novel because he can’t concentrate on reading when he is almost to the next level of his video game. But anyway, I digress. Johnny’s mom chewed out the superintendent about the mean teachers at his school, and the superintendent asked her what she would like to happen. Johnny’s mom said she wanted all the grades to be rounded up, no restrictions about Fs hurting grades, and she wanted only Johnny’s highest grades to count on his test re-takes. She also demanded that her new rules should be retroactive, and the teachers should have to go back and change all the grades from the previous semester to fit the new rules if the student asked (the grades that were done exactly as the administration dictated before). The superintendent said, “Of course,” and ordered all the teachers to comply. He also made sure the teachers knew that their test scores had better not drop, or they would receive a poor evaluation. It’s too bad Johnny’s mom doesn’t demand a smaller class size, but she never mentions the fact that there are 45 students in his class because she voted against the measure that would have reduced it. She doesn’t want that school to get any more of her money than they already do. Besides, the superintendent says that class size doesn’t matter “if you’re a good enough teacher.”
True story. Johnny is not one boy but represents many. Johnny’s mom is not one parent but a vocal minority. I don’t blame the students. They are good kids, and I love them. It’s human nature for them to take advantage of the system they are caught in, and I applaud the ones who resist the urge, who do their best and work hard despite it—and they do exist, but even they often admit that they have lost motivation and a great deal of their work ethic in this system. This is why I hear from college professors more and more that the biggest problem with incoming college students in our area is no longer what they don’t know, but their expectation of being coddled. They expect to turn things in late for full credit, they expect to miss class with no repercussions on their grades, and expect to re-do assignments and tests. In short they are not prepared for college in ways beyond academic knowledge. Unfortunately for Johnny, his mom holds no sway with the college professor.
As the system continues to spiral out of control, quality, experienced teachers are being driven out of education faster than new ones can graduate. I fear that by the time my students have children in school, school will have become nothing more than a daycare center catering to their every whim and staffed by paraprofessionals making minimum wage. Quality teachers with advanced degrees will not linger forever in a field that devalues them, holds them to ridiculous evaluation standards that are wholly out of their control, and subjects them to taking orders and abuse from overprotective parents who know absolutely nothing about educating their children.
Something has to be done about this mentality of scapegoating the teacher, blaming her for the actions of everyone around her and ignoring the enormous sacrifice she daily makes to educate other people’s children. States and districts pile more and more meaningless busywork on the already stretched teacher while, at the same time, removing all responsibilities from the students. We ignore the fact that most teachers work between 60 and 70 hours per week while being paid for 40. We demand that they provide individual instruction in a class of 45 students, which by the way, is impossible, yet part of her yearly evaluation. We hold her responsible for someone else’s motivation level, while removing most methods of creating this motivation. We make her accountable for things completely out of her control like whether or not the student communicates with his parent about grades or the student taking the initiative to seek out learning opportunities on his own. Why are we so eager to take away all responsibility from our children and place it on the teacher? Does anyone really think that is good for kids? If so, I hope they are prepared to support their children well into their thirties. As for the rest of us, we need to give back to teachers their autonomy and control over that for which they are held accountable. It is not fair to demand results, and then tie their hands in achieving those results. The crisis in our education system has reached critical mass, and we, as teachers, will no longer passively accept the blame.—Christina Knowles
By now I’m sure everyone has heard that eleven Atlanta teachers have been convicted and sentenced on racketeering and other charges associated with conspiring to cheat on state standardized tests. This scandal shocked the nation and teachers for different reasons. While the nation shook their heads in disgust at the dishonest actions of those entrusted with the education of their children, teachers nodded in understanding—I don’t mean to say that they condone their behavior in any way, but we certainly understand it.
If you haven’t heard, eleven teachers apparently changed the answers on student standardized tests and passed them off as student work. The failing school where they worked reveled in the jump in student achievement, and when they were caught, all the major news outlets attributed their motivation to bonuses and incentives—but immediately, I was skeptical. There is no way any teacher would risk losing his career, punishment by the law, his ethics, and waste years of education for accolades and a bonus.
It didn’t take long for the truth to emerge. According to Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, this was not likely the motivation. In her April 1, 2015 Answer Sheet blog, she attributed their actions to “pressure to meet certain score goals at the risk of sanction if they failed” (Strauss PG 1). This might sound ridiculous to anyone who is not a public school teacher, but every year incredible pressure to outscore the year before is placed on teachers who are threatened with losing their jobs or having their schools shut down based on these scores.
I know what you’re thinking—Why don’t they just focus on doing a better job teaching? For an American school teacher in today’s society, meeting the impossible and ever-growing demands of this thankless job is not even remotely possible. Meeting the minimum requirements of a public school teacher demands a 14-16 hour day, and in reality, teachers could work round the clock and never catch up with what “needs” to be done.
Most of a teacher’s day involves actually teaching in the classroom, then meeting one-on-one with students, contacting parents, attending meetings, and copying the material they stayed up until midnight the night before researching and writing. Every night and weekend consists of grading hundreds of papers, lesson-planning, reading and researching for future lessons, and contacting any parents that they ran out of time to contact during the day. Maybe, if there is any time left over (yeah, right), they will analyze data and make plans on how to reach individual students who are struggling. An American high school teacher today has between 150 to more than 200 students to reach individually.
Today’s students are not the students of yesteryear, further complicating the job of the teacher. Today’s students have had it drilled into them that everything is the teacher’s responsibility. If they are not learning, then the teacher needs to adjust the way he teaches. If it is hard, then the teacher needs to make it easier. If he is failing, then Mom and Dad need to set up a meeting with the administration and give the teacher more responsibilities, such as typing up notes, modifying tests, and creating lots of alternate assignments to make sure the child succeeds, even though these accommodations don’t result in anything except a meaningless diploma—and lower test scores. Today’s students are allowed to be disrespectful in class and disrupt the learning of those who are trying with very little, if any, consequences for their actions. The teacher has no power to enforce detentions or any other punishment, and with the implementation of Standards Based Grading, students receive no negative consequences for ignoring homework. Sure, they will fail the test for lack of practicing their skills, but they can just take an easier, modified version of it after they Google the answers. If a teacher won’t allow this, Mom will set up a meeting. Maybe she will even get that teacher fired. And this does not even take into account attempting to mitigate the damaging effects of poverty, violence, and apathy with which some students deal on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, with every new requirement, with every new impossible expectation, worn out, stressed teachers continue to try and meet every demand for two reasons: They actually care about the kids, and they spent years preparing and doing this job and don’t want to throw it all away and start a new career. If only I can make it to retirement and collect my meager public employee pension, they think, I can just substitute teach, because even though they love the kids and the content, they only have so much to give.
Combine this with a struggling economy, student loan debt, and medical care for their acquired stress-related illnesses, and demoralized, unappreciated, and harangued teachers just may be beaten down enough to compromise their ethics and cheat when threatened by demanding administrators and superintendents to deliver the scores or be fired.
According to Strauss, this was likely the case when Atlanta public school superintendent, Beverly Hall, who died shortly before the trial of the eleven teachers under her supervision, refused “to accept anything other than satisfying targets [that] created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education” (PG 2). Hall and her top administrators did not threaten job loss just once before the crime was committed. This atmosphere of fear and oppression continually built over a period of several years to the point that when the cheating began, it was encouraged through fear and reward. Teachers who blew the whistle were quickly fired, while teachers who cooperated were awarded with praise and bonuses, in effect, creating a hostile environment of coercive practices by those in charge (PG 2).
One of these eleven teachers avoided jail time by making a plea deal and giving up the right to appeal, another managed to receive weekends in jail, and the rest received up to seven years in prison (Calamur PG 1). It is unbelievable to me that they would receive any jail time! College students who cheat on tests don’t even fail a class anymore, but we are going to throw the book at a few emotionally broken-down teachers trying to keep their jobs?
Of course, Hall is not here to take the responsibility, although surely she bears more of the guilt than any of the teachers, but in my estimation, the true responsibility for this disaster of public education lies with the government. Every year there are new rules and responsibilities to contend with, new threats of losing funding, new batteries of endless tests, all which serve only to further corrupt and destroy the system of education for our children. Why are they not on trial? Why are they not held responsible for declining scores because they are the true cause. They started this wrecking ball rolling in the path of every public school in America, and teachers and students had better get out of the way because it doesn’t appear to have any intention of stopping. Why should it, when teachers make such a convenient scapegoat?
So, yes, I understand why they did it. I get it. And I don’t think they deserve to spend one day in jail. In fact, I think they should sue their district and the government for creating such a hostile work environment and coercing them to cheat (I won’t even call it a crime because that is so ridiculous). These are not criminals. These are the used and abused teachers who loved our kids, who year after year, gave everything they had and more to help them succeed, and we said it wasn’t enough.
Although I work in an honest district where the strictest protocols for testing are followed, and no one even hints at altering tests, we still feel the ever-growing pressure from the state, and so do our students. The more tests we have to give, the more, understandably, the students rebel. During our last testing session, half of my students drew pictures instead of answering the questions or just held one letter of the keyboard down and filled the page with gibberish. They don’t care anymore. They want to be more than a test score. They want to do more than take tests. They want to get excited about something that inspires them to learn.
Luckily, I teach in a district with a principal who is supportive and understanding, yet even as this is the case, we, as teachers, feel the pressure. So, would I ever be tempted to change answers? Cheat on a standardized test? Fortunately, I am not even tempted. Not because it is such a detestable crime, not because there is no one telling me to, but because I just don’t care anymore. That’s what this system has done to me. Much like the students, I don’t care if they pass or fail a stupid state test. I do, however, care about them. I care that they learn to think and to communicate. I care that they find a passion and pursue it, something that will inspire them to passionately investigate.
So, that’s what I teach them, and if my kids fail the tests, then they can call me a bad teacher and fire me. So what? I am a teacher. A public school teacher is highly employable because they are skilled and intelligent and capable of working long hours in the worst conditions. We put up with abuse, disrespect, and blame while never letting it change our love for the students or how we interact with them. Anyone would be smart to hire a former teacher because we are highly educated, critical thinkers, creative, good communicators, great at thinking on our feet, and excellent multi-taskers. Go ahead and fire me for low test scores and bad evaluations based on impossible tasks. You’d be doing me a favor. The only thing that worries me is who will replace us? Who will they get to teach our precious children when they have driven the last of the good teachers out of the profession?
We can say these eleven teachers were bad, and we are lucky to be rid of them, but our system made them in to what they became, and then turned them into yet another knife to stab at the profession. But I won’t make them the scapegoat. It’s time to stop blaming teachers, or we won’t have any teachers to blame. –Christina Knowles
Originally posted in 2015
Calamur, Krishnadev. “Jail Terms Handed To Most Atlanta Teachers Convicted In Cheating Scandal.” The two-way: BREAKING NEWS FROM NPR. NPR.org. 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2015
imgbuddy.com. Photo of jail hands. web. 24 Apr. 2015.
Strauss, Valerie. “How and why convicted Atlanta teachers cheated on standardized tests.” Answer Sheet. The Washington Post. Washingtonpost.com. 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.
Too often being a teacher means living for breaks. Fall break, spring break, winter break, and summer break—that’s when we will begin living again.
In the life of the teacher, particularly high school English teachers, but also for most kinds of teachers, breaks mean catching up on everything from cleaning the house to exercising. There simply is no time during school to do anything other than school work.
I’ve tried to change. Every year I make new promises to myself about how I’m going to erect boundaries and take time for friends, family, and personal interests, and every year, I get trapped in the I’ll-get-to-that-on-break lie. Here’s the problem. By the time break comes, I have accumulated so many things on my list of catch-up-on-break items that I can’t possibly get through half of them, and thus, I am sometimes even more stressed out over breaks.
For example, I have not properly cleaned my house in over a month, I have piles of mending to complete, piles of stuff to organize, the paint is chipping—all the paint—on everything, and things are breaking and wearing out all around me. I quit exercising about three weeks ago to catch up on grading and to get more sleep that I lost out on while grading papers and attending nighttime parent-teacher conferences. I quit meditating several weeks ago on Sunday mornings to plan for the coming weeks of school and to write tests I had to administer before the end of the quarter. I quit cleaning the house to grade papers before parent-teacher conferences. I put away the book I was writing when school started and haven’t touched it since. My poetry collection is waiting for me to finish the cover, but I said I’d do it over break. My fish are gasping for breath in want of fresh water, and my dog forgot what it was like for his mother to walk him. I have so many pictures on iPhoto that I’m not allowed to take another photo on my phone, but I haven’t had time to save them somewhere else. I need appointments for my teeth, my car, and my body. My hair needs cutting, I haven’t had a manicure in six months, and my summer to-do list isn’t even halfway completed, and now it’s fall break.
When you are a teacher and everyone knows you have break, they naturally assume that now you will not be neglecting them—at least for two weeks. Your friends, your family, your kids, your husband, and your dog all expect that now you will finally spend time with them. And I want to—very much. However, after I schedule them into my calendar, the rest of the list looks pretty hopeless.
Of course, there were even a few school things that I thought I could nonchalantly slip into my fall break schedule—re-reading the chapter I’m teaching after break, writing a new unit, finding an example paper for that assignment the students are finding difficult. Why did I think I’d have time to do that over break? Because there isn’t time during my workday, or even in the evening when I finish grading.
Some may wonder how I find time to write this blog? I find time because if I don’t write, I will surely lose my mind, and then I will never finish my list.
On a positive note, I’m really glad I realized the futility of catching up on things so early in my break. Maybe now, I will be able to cast aside my hopes and expectations and actually relax. I’m not sure I can, but admitting the truth is the first step toward tearing up the list. We’ll see. Maybe I can just put everything on my winter break list because who needs to spend time with family celebrating Christmas? Maybe I’ll start living for retirement.—Christina Knowles
Just beautiful. In The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, the main character, Arthur, has to deal with the loss of his wife and learn how to build a life without her. One year after his beloved Miriam has passed away, Arthur finds a charm bracelet left behind by his wife and sets out on a journey of discovery to find out who his wife really was and ends up finding out who he is in the process. Fans of A Man Called Ove will love this book, even though Arthur is a very different character. This book is a perfect read when you have no idea what you feel like reading. Arthur will work his way into your heart, make you laugh, make you cry, and leave you joyful about this beautiful life.–Christina Knowles
This book was absolutely wonderful! This is quite likely the best memoir I’ve ever read (Well, actually, I listened to it.). Trevor Noah narrates and uses all his repertoire of voices and accents his fans are familiar with on The Daily Show. There are laugh-out-loud moments, for sure, but what surprised me was the depth and vulnerability present in this memoir. Noah bares his soul and shows us the truth of growing up biracial, a crime, in apartheid South Africa. He paints a beautiful, but honest, picture of a strong, loving, and somewhat eccentric African mother, an aloof, yet caring, Swiss-German father, a complicated and abusive step-father, and a colorful portrait of his other friends and family members.
Some of Noah’s experiences shocked me. He seems too well-adjusted and happy to have gone through so much, but I think he makes it clear that his mother is primarily responsible for that, along with a pretty peaceful temperament and a good head on his shoulders.
This memoir is a must-read, though, not because it is funny, sweet, honest, and poignant, which it is, but because it gives a first person account of the effects of apartheid, racism and caste systems in general, and some of the issues that all poor people face, and minorities in particular. He discusses phenomena such “paying the black tax” and the code of ethics in the “hood” with the benefit of thoughtful hindsight and sheds light on issues of poverty, racism, and crime in America as well.
This memoir is highly engaging, and I was sad to have it end. Noah left me anxious to hear more about his life and to find out more about how he achieved his current success, even though it is clear he was on the path to it when this book ends. I highly recommend this book. Trust me; you’ll love it!–Christina Knowles