Destination: Mars

My friend Lisa Lewis who teaches Chemistry at Albion College in Albion, Michigan shared this terrific way to be a part of the Insight Mars Lander program. Members of the public can add their name to a list that will be onboard the Insight Lander when it sets course for Mars in May 2018. I just added my name! You can too, but you have to act FAST. Deadline November 1, 2017 at 11:59 PM. I love that the destination for the trip is the Plain of Ideal Happiness. 🙂 https://mars.nasa.gov/syn/insight

Dear America, This is my love letter to you.

Dear America,

This is my love letter to you.

On September 3, 2005, 6 days after giving birth to our first child, four of which were spent in the NICU of the very same hospital where I was born 32 years earlier, I arrived at your door, an immigrant. I was scared, nervous, and worried about my baby. I was worried about how I would cope as a new mother in a new place where I knew absolutely nobody.

At Customs and Border Patrol in Detroit my baby daughter and I were given TD status — dependents of my husband, a TN visa holder, who had accepted his very first academic position at a small, liberal arts college in Michigan. Anyone who has struggled through a PhD in Canada knows the exceedingly competitive realities of the academic job market. My husband is an historian — a very good one. More than 300 people applied to the position. When it was offered to him, he couldn’t possibly turn it down. Despite his best efforts in Canada, there were no jobs for him. This job, in the United States, was his chance to realize the dream toward which he had been working for so many years. So, we left our families, our friends. We sold our first home. I left my career as a teacher to pursue this new life — a life that we knew would bring challenge, for sure, but that we hoped would allow all of us to reach new summits.

In time, my husband published his book, and got his tenure.

Our little baby grew up.

We had a second baby in 2010. An American citizen.

We made dear friends.

We witnessed the inspired election and presidency of Barack Obama.

I earned a PhD from Michigan State University.

In so many ways, America, we love you for all that you allowed for us to do. I love you for the wings you gave to our ambitons. I love you for the kindnesses we received; and for those we were able to return through our service to students, to community, to friends. I also love you for the ways that you broadened our perspectives and challenged us to rethink our privilege. We love you for the ways that living in your systems brought us closer to your history, and to you as a nation.

But, and this is the hard part of this love letter — we also struggled because of systems that did not work for us, or for our community. Michigan’s economy, particularly after the crash in 2008, was brutal. Families could no longer afford high tuitions, and enrollments at the college slumped. The college nearly went under. At one point, my husband and many of his colleagues were fired so that the administration would be free to hire back only essential staff. Some of his tenured and tenure-track colleagues were not as lucky as he was. In our little town, property values plummeted. Those who had lost their jobs had mortgages to pay on homes that were worth less than what they owed. At the same time, enrollments in our local public schools were plummetting too. Michigan’s Schools of Choice law allowed families to take their children to any school they wanted and, for reasons I will never understand, many families in our little town had done just that. By the time my daughter started kindergarten in our community school, the middle school had closed down. Hundreds of local kids were going to schools in other districts. Our school district had hired three different superintendents in five years. By the end of her 1st grade year, lack of funding, lack of services for children in need, and lack of leadership had created a school climate so stressful, that I could feel it and see it in every interaction I had with teachers. And, my daughter wasn’t happy. She started to have sick tummies a lot and didn’t want to go. Her teacher — a woman whose deep commitment to children I never questioned — wanted to help, but it was also patently obvious to me that she was stuck in an impossible situation. She had 29 students, many of whom had learning disabilities and there were no extra professional learning supports for them. She was pressured by high-stakes testing mandates to get all of her students reading at “level C” by the end of the year. If her kids weren’t reading, she would receive a poor evaluation and the school itself would not meet yearly progress targets outlined by the No Child Left Behind Act. The bullying that my daughter was experiencing was going unnoticed, not because her teacher didn’t care, but because her teacher was set up by the system to fail.

And so, my husband and I were forced to weigh our child’s emotional wellness against our deeply principled position that she should attend our community schools. We desperately wanted our schools to be good for all of the students in our community — but by the end of the year, our daughter was so profoundly unhappy that we couldn’t keep her there. That year, the superintendent who had “promised to stay on for as long as it took” resigned. We had no assurance of leadership that would last. Our child needed stability and so did we. We enrolled her in a school 7 miles down the highway and we just tried to live with the guilt. By leaving, we had contributed to the problem. We knew families who stayed in the schools hated us for it, and we didn’t blame them. We knew that our choice impacted them — but as we were trying to make ends meet ourselves — my husband doing his best for the college, and me driving an hour away to study — we needed a school that felt safe and supportive for our child. We needed to depend on the system to provide for her needs.

We also struggled with health care costs. People are often surprised to learn that when we first arrived, the family insurance premiums that my husband’s employer plan provided were more costly than our monthly mortgage. As Canadians, raised on the belief that access to free, universal health care is a human right, it was deeply demoralizing to pay such a large chunk of our single income to an insurance company whose raison d’être was to serve shareholders, and not us. Opposition to President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act confounded us. We were thrilled with his hard-won successes, but we couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t want a single-payer system that would mean fewer hours on the phone challenging insurance company decisions, that would simplify the lives of their healthcare providers and give them more latitude to recommend all available options rather than just the ones an insurance company would likely pay for, that would calm the worries of affordability when in the middle of the night, my child awoke with an earache and I knew the Emergency room visit would cost $500.

When I gave birth to our first daughter in Canada, we paid $75 for the 4 days we spent in a private room. Our health care system covered all of the costs for the birth and the intensive care she received. The supplemental health insurance that I purchased at work covered most of the room fees. And then, I had a year of paid maternity leave. As a first-time mother in a new country, I needed that time to heal, to adjust, to learn. In contrast, when I gave birth to our second daughter, my choice to take a semester off to heal, to adjust, and to learn meant I lost my health care coverage. Our second daughter’s birth, which was so, so easy in comparison, cost us more than $6000.00 out of pocket in insurance premiums, deductibles and costs that were not reimbursed by the insurance plan we purchased. I had no paid maternity leave and I went back to work, 3.5 months post-partum exhausted, because we couldn’t manage financially if I didn’t. All the while, I wondered why American families didn’t have access to the same kinds of maternity, paternity and peri-natal health benefits as those living in other Western democracies.

In 2012, I became a permanent resident. After 7 years of living as a guest in America, I finally had status. I was allowed to stay and work. But that same year, people in Aurora, Colorado were gunned down at the movies, the children and teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary School were murdered in their classrooms, and Trayvon Martin was shot dead on the street while carrying a bag of candy. When attempts to pass changes to gun legislation were again, thwarted by the gun lobby, I wept. I had left my own country for an America that was controlled by a majority of representatives whose actions showed that the right to own a gun was more fundamental than the rights of children to live. My heart was broken. It still is.

Last year, I was offered my dream job at a University in Canada. My husband and I had talked for years about US citizenship, what it would mean for us, whether we wanted to pursue it so that we could finally have a voice and vote. And in those same conversations, we talked about the guns, the systemic, racialized inequalities, the education legislation that had harmed our little town and the teachers in our local schools, the expense of health care coverage, the rhetoric on the Right to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and to limit women’s reproductive rights, the weak State economy and our low wages relative to our levels of education. And we had become so disheartened by a Congress led by people who dismissed science, who used religion and gun culture as screens for platforms that undermine human rights, who refused to compromise. We had felt the pain acutely when other families left our town for brighter opportunities. We didn’t want to be the source of that feeling for the friends we loved, but we also realized there was a hole in our hearts that could only be filled by home.

Tonight, I signed the formal declaration of my abandonment of permanent residency status, and I watched Hillary Clinton accept the Democratic nomination for President. Her candidacy gives me profound hope for women around the world, for liberty and justice for all, and for you, America, which is probably why tonight, I felt I could let you go. Mrs. Clinton’s example inspires me deeply and I hope that you elect her as your first woman President in November. Canada has never done what you accomplished tonight. Kim Campbell was prime minister for a little while, but she never ran in a general election as the leader of her party.

In the decade of my life that we shared, I tried to live honestly, to serve, to do important work, to raise our daughters. And, because of you, I see my own nation differently. I see its flaws, its inequalities, its systemic and politicized injustices. I see Canada’s position in the world and the ways our politicians manipulate public sentiment so we can all feel smug and accomplished on social issues, even as the Truth and Reconciliation Report shines a light into the dark corners of our own rascist history. And because of the examples set by powerful American women — Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren — who use their voices without fear, I know that I too, can speak out, advocate, challenge, and work for change in my field. Because of Bernie Sanders, I know that millions of people are outraged by the same disparities, tensions, and inequalities that I noticed, and that when resolved, will make you a more perfect union.

America, you have a way of making people love you, even when you are hard to love. My hopes for your success are as deeply felt as those I feel for my own country. I know that my own struggles in and with your systems are the very same struggles that millions of Americans experience every day — but who do not have another place to call home. Because of you, I am more humble, and more committed to my responsibilities to serve. Even though I had to go, I thank you for making me stronger, more resilient, and more aware of my place in our world.

I love you and always will.

Michelle

Messy Moments

It was because of a three year old’s expectorant cough that I came to see the moments captured in mess.

Mess #1.

On the chesterfield.

Under the cushions.

I had to scrub.

Her first.

Then the cushions.

Feeling better, she requested pancakes.

Sure. It’s Saturday. The furniture can wait.

Flour, salt, sugar, milk, maple syrup. Drips and sticky bits.

Mess #2.

Tummies sated, there were adventures to have.

From upstairs came the unmistakable sound of nine hundred building blocks cascading from bin to floor.

Mess #3.

I went back to the chesterfield.

Vacuum humming, I paused. There’s that little pink egg timer!

Oh! And a few bits of yellow yarn from the time big sister learned to finger knit.

Twenty seven pennies, three Canadian.

A tinker toy.

Orange marker, a dryer sheet, popcorn kernels, sesame seeds, a grocery store receipt.

A doll shoe.

A tiny golden bead.

Years of small moments gathered, archived, still living on in the recesses of…

HEY! She HIT ME!

Sigh.

Mess #4.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are the crickets singing, Mama?

Inspired by last night’s conversation with my 2 year old…

In through her bedroom window, Ellyn heard the sound of crickets.

She pushed back the sheets and peered into the warm summer night.

“Are the crickets singing, Mama?” she whispered.

“Yes,” said her mother.  “The crickets are singing.”

“Are the crickets happy, Mama?”

“Yes,” said her mother.  “The crickets are happy.”

“Are the crickets in the grass, Mama?”

“Yes,” said her mother. “The crickets are in the grass.”

“Are they in the dirt?”

“Yes, probably,” said her mother. “Some of the crickets are in the dirt.”

“Are they in the mud?”

“Maybe, “ said her mother. “Maybe some of them are in the mud.”

“Why are they in the grass and in the dirt and in the mud, Mama?”

“Because they live outside. The crickets live in the grass and on the ground.”

“I can hear them.” Ellyn put her hand to her ear.

“Why do they sing?”

“They sing for each other,” said her mother. “They sing songs about the day. They sing songs about the night.”

“How do crickets sing, Mama?”

“They sing with their legs,” said her mother. “They rub them together and they make their music.”

Ellyn smiled.

“Will you sing me a song, Mama? Can you sing me a song about the day?”

Ellyn’s head fell slowly to her pillow. Her mother laid the sheets back over her arms.

Out from the bedroom window, on a warm summer night, crickets in the the grass, and in the dirt, and in the mud heard the sound of a mother singing her baby to sleep.

Witches’ Fingers and Pumpkin Carvings

It’s two days after Halloween…but as long as there is left-over candy in that bowl, I figure it’s still fair game to post photos…

It just so happened that the Hagerman family was scheduled to bring the classroom snack on Halloween. Now, generally, I send in apples, crudités, granola…that kind of thing. But, I’ve had this recipe for about 15 years…and I figured this was my chance to give it a go. Could there be a better occasion for witches’ fingers than the 2nd grade halloween party? Much to my delight, the kids who were brave enough to try them generally thought they tasted pretty yummy! The others seemed rather skeptical about the green goo oozing out from under the fingernail…which offered its own kind of ghoulish delight on Halloween — the kids were a little freaked out by them! [insert ghastly cackle here…bwaaahhhhhh]

We also carved some jack-o-lanterns to ward off the witches and ghosts. I really do love the pumpkin carving tradition!

Making Jam

When I was a child, the women in my family canned fruits and vegetables and made jam. I grew up on a farm. We always had a garden and what we didn’t grow ourselves, we bought from our neighbours. In August, my mom would buy bushels of peaches from Mr. and Mrs. Birch. Peaches were their specialty — and they always piled those bushels beyond full, because that’s just who they were.

Once hauled into the house, Mom and I would lay out the peaches on newspaper in the basement — a cool place for them to ripen. Dad and I were the peach testers — when the juice ran down our chins, they were ready for canning. Mom would soak the fruit in hot water to loosen the skins, peel each one and cut them in two. With the pit removed, she placed each peach half carefully in the large mason jars, covered them with simple syrup and turned the lids on tight. She boiled those jars until they were sealed and ready to store. In winter, jars of canned peaches brought the heat of summer back to our minds; sunny orange, syrup sweet.

My mom still cans peaches, actually. Now, she does it for my girls — which I appreciate a lot. And yet, the act of canning is something that as a mother myself, I can’t not do. There’s something about it, the saving of summer, that I can’t pass up, no matter what. It’s just in my bones, I think.

And so, because it takes a little less time than canning, I made peach jam one August evening. My dissertation proposal was staring at me — angrily — but the simple act of making jam cleared my mind and helped me to delight in the world. I should be saving the jars for winter, but admittedly, I opened one soon after the skimmings were devoured…and have enjoyed those jammy peaches on my toast each morning since. With each bite, I smile. Sweet, yummy, and a reminder of all that is lovely.

On finding a writing partner

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that doctoral students in education are a bit of a self-selecting group. As a rule, we’re generally people who like school — a lot. And when I say we like school, I mean really. Consider the obvious. We like school so much that in addition to having become teachers as young adults – a choice that would ensure we got to spend all of our adult working lives in schools, we each had an epiphany that would allow us to be even more schoolish. We each decided, as grown ups, to enroll in a doctoral program so that we could read about teaching and learning all of the time, write about teaching and learning all of the time and teach about teaching and learning whenever we weren’t reading or writing. And — here’s the real kicker — we decided to become doctoral students knowing full well that (a) we would be paid very little to do this work, (b) that it would take years (if ever) to return to the salary we made as teachers and (c) of course, that after all of this extra school love, we might never actually get a professorship.

It’s crazy what we do for love, isn’t it?

You might be wondering where I’m going with this?

As psychology students we also know that people like things that they’re good at. The truth is that part of why we love school so much is that we’re good at it too. We know the culture of school. We know the system and how to excel in it. We like its values — hard work, creativity, responsibility, collaboration — but not too much collaboration because independence is also pretty essential. I mean, nobody takes the ACT with a partner, right?

So, one of the great surprises of doctoral study comes when professors tell us to “find a writing group”.

In these moments, in doctoral seminars around the College of Education, you can almost hear a collective gasp. Politely, we all nod our heads. In our minds, questions swirl.

“What if everyone in my group thinks I’m a terrible writer? What then?”

“How can I be sure to get good advice from other people whose writing I’ve never even read yet?”

“I have so many questions myself. How could I possibly help other people?”

Plus, part of what has made us good students is that we’ve been able to navigate the expectation of “independence” in schools very, very well. We were told early and often that we only cheat ourselves if we don’t learn to do things on our own. Who were we to question this?

In graduate school, we should because, oddly, at the top of the schooling ladder, working too independently can prevent us from thinking our best thoughts.

Eventually, we all reach our own limits and realize that the thinking that would earn an “A” can only take us so far in the quest to contribute to the world’s knowledge about variable X. Another epiphany comes when we look around and realize that the only people who can help us think harder than we have ever thought before are our peers.

And so, doctoral student colleagues, as we become scholars, I offer this post as a nod to the people who have helped me to think better and write smarter over the past four years — my peers. Like you, I love school and I have been adept at navigating school independently. However, as I find myself teetering near the top rung of the schooling ladder, I realize that it’s my peers who now steady it from below — each one with an idea, or a recommendation or a suggestion that will allow me to step with greater confidence into the stratus of a dissertation and a lifetime of researchable questions.

Embrace your ZPD and find a writing partner who may not know more about your topic, but who brings you fresh eyes, a critical mind and questions that will help you to think better.

Thanks to my writing partner, Selena Protacio, who always reads and responds with care and wisdom. Thanks too, to stalwart colleagues Kristen Kereluik (who has provided so much feedback on ideas that I’ll forever be in her debt) Autumn Dodge (who has read really terrible drafts and still found good things to say about them) Paul Morsink (who can find holes in any argument and help me think of solutions), Laura Jimenez (who inspires me to work harder), Leigh Graves Wolf (who knows just when to share an idea that will take me in a new direction) and Kristin McIlhagga (who listens and gives encouragement). Thanks as well to countless other classmates and advisors (professors included) who have looked at this, that and the other thing, always with a generous heart and fresh mind.

P.S. There is some debate in the world about collaborative dissertations. Hmmm…would it be better than a dissertation you write yourself?
Crossposted at ideaplay.org on September 13, 2012.

AERA 2012

Downtown Vancouver

 

I haven’t been to Vancouver in 6 years and I can hardly wait. It feels a bit elicit, really. I’m not presenting. I just said it out loud. There. I’m attending a major academic conference and I don’t have anything to present. I waffled for some time about whether I should go. And in the end, I decided that AERA in Vancouver was a chance I just couldn’t miss.

Why?

Well, there are the obvious reasons. Everyone loves Vancouver. If you’ve been there, you know that it gets into your head and into your heart. Like me, you’ve probably asked yourself how there could possibly be such a beautiful place on earth — the ocean, the mountains, the cerulean sky (except, of course, for when it’s raining…but somehow, even the incessant rain fades from memory). I love the neighbourhoods – Kitsilano, Yaletown, Granville Island. I love the city center. I love the seawall and the beaches. I love all the fit people bustling about on bikes and skateboards, scooters and rollerblades. I love the restaurants and the shopping. I love Stanley Park and the Endowment Lands. I love the ancient trees and the smell of saltwater.

And, like other educators, I also know that AERA is a right of passage. It’s a conference that you just have to attend a few times in your career. Ideally, to present, of course…but for a first-timer like me, I figured it might be good to check out its enormity without the pressure of having to say cogent and empirically grounded things.

In truth, however, I see AERA in Vancouver as a bit of a homecoming. For me, there is also a special kind of happiness in that place. At 27, wanting to make my way in the world, I moved there, alone, to start an M.A. at UBC. I did it in the Department of Language and Literacy Education and it’s because of that department and the amazing mentorship I received that I’m coming back to Vancouver at all. It was in Vancouver that I began to think that maybe, just maybe, I could be a researcher.

And so, AERA, I have high hopes. I’m coming back to be inspired by ideas and by the great thinkers in my field. I’m pretty sure I’ll be overwhelmed but I’m also pretty sure that when I leave Vancouver this time, I’ll feel even more excited and sure about my choice to become a researcher.
Photo: flickr.com contributor, runningclouds, licenced to share under creative commons
original image at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/runningclouds/3220810175/in/photostream/

Leveled Texts in My Daughter’s Classroom

Last evening, I met with my daughter’s teacher. I was worried about the ways that my little one has come to identify herself as a “leveled” reader — as in “I’m a level I reader, Mom, so I don’t read level M books”.   At home, she has told me, “I can’t read those words, they’re too hard,” and “I don’t want to read. I can’t do it,” and “This book is NOT at my level.”  The reading comprehension researcher in me can’t help but find this troubling…so it was time to ask questions,  listen and share my concerns with her teacher.

Now, to be fair, my daughter has become a more fluent oral reader since the start of Grade 1. She started the year at a level C. Now, she’s a level I. She knows more words. She’s reading. She’s improving. She seems to have developed essential foundational skills that we know correlate with reading comprehension performance in later grades. And, her teacher is, without question, incredibly committed to supporting my daughter’s growth. So what’s the big deal? What is there complain about, really?

Two things, actually. First, the focus on levels in my daughter’s classroom has lead her to believe that good reading = fast reading and knowing all of the words. She told me so herself, last night when I asked her to describe a good reader. Second, I worry that the use of levels is limiting my daughter’s definitions of herself as a reader and creating, in her, a very narrow framework for understanding her own growth and learning. Is she only to feel proud of her reading accomplishments when she “moves up a level?” Certainly, moving up a level is cause for celebration in the classroom…everyone seems to know what level everyone else is at. They’re encouraged to say “good job” when they know a peer has “moved up”.

It seems that most of the books in the classroom have been sorted by level. Even if the books are trade books — regular children’s literature books that one might buy at a book store — the teacher has organized them by level of difficulty in boxes. She does allow kids to choose from among certain of these books during “read-to-self” time but her focus on steering kids toward books that are “just right” has eclipsed another important aspect of supporting early readers — opportunities to engage in many different ways  with texts at multiple levels and genres. I know that the teacher would wholeheartedly agree with this idea but in an effort to ensure kids look at the words and are able to decode them, she has forgotten that early readers also benefit from interactions with texts that are beautiful and just plain interesting.

Informational texts have only just been introduced. I’m happy they’ve been introduced at all — but the notion that the introduction of informational texts should wait until kids can adequately decode is problematic for me because even non-readers can extract information from the images and come to understand text structures before they’re able to decode the words.

This might sound like a criticism of my daughter’s teacher. It isn’t meant to be. As I noted above, she’s wonderful. That said, teachers can only be as good as the systems that support them. There is no librarian in the building with whom my daughter’s teacher can liaise.  There is no professional learning network in my daughter’s school focusing on best instructional practices to support emergent literacy development. And perhaps most importantly, my daughter’s teacher is held accountable for the reading levels her students achieve. So, that’s it. If she’s expected to get all of her students to a level “I” by the end of the school year, then leveled books are going to be a central aspect of her language arts curriculum.

I do have some questions for the school district, however. Where is the curriculum leadership? Who is helping teachers think critically about their pedagogical choices? Who is encouraging them to take risks, to introduce new and innovative ideas, to not think about testing for a while? Who is telling them that leveled readers should be ancillary rather than central to the language arts curriculum?

Hmmm…I guess it’s time to make an appointment with the Superintendent.