Guest Post, Karin Rosman: A Place to Avoid

When I was in grade school, I learned a couple of important tips to surviving middle school. One was to keep your mouth shut if it didn’t involve you. The other— really, there is no need to bring up the other because it paled in comparison. For example, I no longer need to know how to make an ice ball to fight back, or how to conceal rocks in my pocket, or how to kick if I’m attacked while lying on my back. It took me decades, but I eventually learned how to avoid trouble.

But sometimes I still can’t keep my mouth shut, even if it doesn’t involve me. Now that I work as a substitute teacher in the Seattle and greater Seattle area, and now that I have seen the incredible income disparity between schools, now that I can say what I witnessed has a lot to do with race, I’d like to tell you something others have already been shouting. When it comes to schooling our kids, middle income parents in America have a bad habit of putting our own kids first, and we do this at the expense of students of color.

I spent three nonconsecutive days in one of Seattle’s worst performing schools. I’m not going to name it because the students don’t deserve the school’s label, and it’s my experience with parents in Seattle that they will label a school as a place to avoid, and not do enough to address the reasons they are avoiding it. I’ll nickname it Wallace, after that amazing writer who, it seemed to me, couldn’t sit still with his own intelligence. The base statistics of Wallace speak clearly: 61% of the students receive free lunch, 73% of the students are of color, 30% of fifth graders are passing assessment tests of English Language Arts, 21% of fifth graders are passing assessment tests of math, 24% of the fifth graders are English Language Learners. There is a steady decline in assessment tests from third to fifth grade, as if the kids are tumbling down a kite hill.

Wallace is a school that parents will spend a lot of money to avoid. It exists in a wealthy and hip (liberal) neighborhood but does not reflect the general population of that neighborhood. When I’m in Wallace and speak to the students, I have the sense that it works as a funnel, drawing similar students from various neighborhoods around the region, from as far away as Everett, nearly thirty miles away. I know from reading news reports there is a significant homeless population attending this school, and these students are also served by an organization providing shelter and housing services.

What I experienced as a substitute teacher at Wallace was complex and not easily described in a handful of words. On the first day, soon after we had ninety minutes of incident-free explicit instruction and practice, one student slighted another in such a careful way that I could not hear the insult. Before I could draw a breath to ask them to line up for recess, they were circling each other, kicking with so much magnetism half the class was pulled into their fight. The other half sat in miserable ineffective frustration. I put everyone in order by leveraging recess time. After pulling the two fighting students aside to take to the office, I walked the students partway then released the rest with a to-myself-prayer: please walk the halls quietly and without the ramped-up energy you showed in the classroom. I worried they would re-embroil themselves into another slight and fight unattended in the halls. My faith in these students was secure. They went to recess where the normal rivalries—and there were plenty—played out on the field.

On another day, as I assisted a teacher in the classroom, a small whiteboard fell off its easel. There were only eleven students tackling the math lesson, and six ran out of the classroom in a post-traumatic stress panic. One openly exclaimed he thought it was a gunshot. Though he sat in his seat and reapplied himself, his panic was evident in the way his feet and eyes didn’t stop moving.

These two experiences are not irregular at Wallace, and I found it difficult to teach content over behavior, despite my strong belief that every child should have access to grade-standard material. But, as is evident in students who are succeeding there, teachers at Wallace structure their day around grade standards and benchmarks, leveraging as much learning from students who want to learn but have bigger things on their minds. In the class I subbed for, the students had pulled their reading two levels higher than at the beginning of the year. They were approaching grade standard. Their fight had less to do with the slight than with the insecurity of being with a substitute they didn’t know, someone who might believe the statistics over their drive to do better.

These kids don’t deserve the home lives they have, and by that I don’t mean the parenting. Yes, there are some bad parents; but I’ve seen bad parenting in the school my son goes to. I’ve also seen great parenting at the food bank I volunteer in. Income or race doesn’t drive parenting skills, but being continuously impoverished drives desperation. Living in a community that is constantly impoverished increases the examples of desperation. What is normal for them is a state of hyper-alertness, like the boy who ran out of the classroom. If it isn’t a state of hyper-alertness, it can be a state of complacency about one’s own situation, like the children who sat waiting for me to teach them. What else can they do?

These kids deserve communities that can help them. If I, as a mother, thoroughly foul up and go on a drug or alcohol bender because my investment portfolio fails (this is purely theoretical, my benders usually involve binging on books in the summertime), my son is still surrounded by better behavior from those whose immediate needs are taken care of. That’s because in my income community, we may lose our jobs and have to cut back on cello lessons, horseback riding, or biking gear, but we will eat food we choose, and we probably won’t have to give up our homes (and if we do, we’ll find an adequate little place and turn down the heat). We have time to spend with our children (rather than take on two to three jobs) and average our personal errors with reflection and better practices. If we lose our jobs, many of us have a sweet compensation package—or in my case, decent spousal support—to help us get through tough life transitions. It’s not that we never feel overwhelmed or experience personal difficulties, it’s that we aren’t continuously overwhelmed, and our personal difficulties don’t expose us to violence or the continuous threat of violence. When we experience a crisis, we can come back to a common place—game night, reading night, movie night—and not worry that the neighbor in room 12B will interrupt it with drug-induced hysteria.

These kids don’t deserve the school they go to. No matter our income, no matter where our kids attend school (and I know this doesn’t happen just in Seattle), Wallace is our problem. We are irresponsible when we push so many kids into a school where what is normal is a constant struggle for survival. And then we have the nerve to call these kids underachieving. More than a few kids at Wallace will steal their teacher’s lunch. They may have free lunch, they may have free breakfast, but it has all the nourishment that you can expect from sugar and fried breaded bits of whatever, which means they are hungry for more before school gets out, and many of them don’t know if they will have supper. Normal shouldn’t be this, or any version close to it.

In nearly every class I substitute in, there is one to four students who cannot sit comfortably for more than a few minutes. Various measures are taken to help these students learn; and when the teacher is particularly skilled, the other students carry on with their learning in a way that acknowledges the student but not the behavior. The students who can’t sit still are carried in the learning current, and bring their own swift thought. In all classrooms, students learn and they teach each other. It’s marvelous to witness and be involved in, but particularly so where we don’t choose the cohort based on academic ability and life privileges. The demographics of poverty, homelessness, and trauma should not overwhelm a school in the way it overwhelms Wallace. This should not be their norm.

Students’ brains at this age have incredibly plasticity, meaning they are adaptive; and their experiences have a profound impact on the rest of their lives. We must ask what they are adapting to, and what they will carry with them on their life journeys. Morally, that means we should ensure a quality education in a safe environment for all students. We should not separate students with difficult life circumstances from students who experience daily secure social interactions. My son should know the grit of that boy who returned to his seat after his body kept telling him a shot was fired. Every child deserves a fair chance at a normal education, no matter her life-circumstances.

Project Humanities’ Hacks for Humanity 2015

Project Humanities invites you to their upcoming event, Hacks for Humanity 2015. Hacks for Humanity is a 36-hour hackathon for the social good, starting at 8am on Saturday, October 3rd, and ending at 8pm on Sunday, October 4th. They invite techies, programmers, developers, humanities, artists, students, educators, and creative visionaries to hack with one mission: to create technology solutions and initiatives that will contribute to the social good and address the needs of humanity using the seven principles of the Humanity 101 Movement: respect, kindness, integrity, forgiveness, empathy, compassion, and self-reflection.

Last year, the winning team went on to win the $10K grand prize from the ASU Changemaker Innovation Challenge last spring for their life-saving mobile application “ARKHumanity.” This team of five determined individuals not only showed their talents in technology, but also their love and dedication to the needs of humanity. Furthermore, they show their everlasting support of our Humanity 101 Movement. You can win Hackathon this year and move on to greater competitions, too! Join for another exciting 36-HOUR event!

Sign up for this event here: www.hacksforhumanity2015.eventbrite.com.

Project Humanities' Hackathon 2015

Guest Post, Ben Grossberg: Ponzi Scheme

Maybe I’m putting the worst construction on it.

Why do undergraduates major in creative writing?  Surely many dream of being writers.  And no doubt some are looking for a relatively breezy route to their Bachelor’s.  And then some want to be college professors.

Actually, it occurs to me all these motivations could sit together pretty comfortably.

My fear?  That the dream of being a professor — an unlikely proposition — motivates a lot of them, and that I implicitly encourage it.

writing workshopThe creation of my position, tenure track in poetry writing, depended on students taking up creative-writing study.  That my university — a school of about five thousand people — should need a tenured poet!  It’s easy to imagine a school this size having literature faculty teach creative writing.  My colleagues would do so energetically and certainly well enough to meet the needs of our students.  It’s even easier to imagine a place this size having a single creative writer, one who covers all genres.  But no.  Creative writing is popular.

Even so, the maintenance of my position depends on students continuing to choose the major.  In lean years, I must actively recruit so my classes will “make,” as we say here.  (The euphemism calls to mind a child mastering his or her body functions.  Faculty ask each other in the hall, Did your class make?)  And the result for a professor whose classes don’t?  Composition, general education classes.  Eventually tenure lines get cut.

So a Ponzi scheme — one with two levels.

Students who want positions like mine, the next level up, become investors.  And in order to continue in my position, to “pay myself,” I need to maintain an influx of them . . . even though I know most will never realize profit.  They will get a decent undergraduate education, and of course that is important.  But the dream that motivates many – that profit – is, by a function of numbers, very unlikely.

And I tell them how unlikely – tell them gently and encouragingly.  Gently and encouragingly because I know my job depends on them taking my classes?  Gently and encouragingly because peeing on someone’s dreams is hard, and I’m bad at it, and because, finally, what do I know?  These young writers are talented, some of them, and I don’t pretend to be sure what kind of growth anyone is capable of.

So I tell my students how hard it is, how the profession is shifting toward contingent faculty.  I point to my own qualifications, which are reasonable, and still how very lucky I was to get this job.  I note that I was up for another job, too, and had I gotten that one, I’d be living out in rural Missouri right now – a particularly dismal prospect for a single gay man.  And, I say, I’d be lucky to have that job, too.  I also point out where my colleagues’ degrees are from; there are ivy leaguers, undergraduate and graduate, up and down the hall.  My students don’t know it, but they are already in a kind of academic caste.  Our university is a fine school, but not a prestigious one.  And I do more than this.  I put together panels of writers with other jobs – editors, office workers, even a particularly well-published plumber I know.

But here’s the catch: nothing I say or do is as powerful as my example.  What the students see in the classroom is a performance, of course – but a happy one.  It’s happy because I teach at a tuition-driven institution, and we are directed from all sides to welcome our students.  Happy works; it’s the ethos of the school.  But happy also because I really love being in the classroom.  Students don’t see the unhappy stuff – mountains of grading, meetings and more meetings.  They don’t see the amount of time I spend alone, must spend alone to do my job competently: writing, reading, grading.  They don’t see how this academic life has forced moves I didn’t want to make, and that, for eight years of post-undergraduate schooling, I made no money, and that I now make far less than any of the professionals I know.  Hey, I’m not complaining; I love my job.  I feel incredibly lucky to have it.  Really.  But not naively so.  This is a good ride, but it’s not the only ride out there, and you don’t have to be on this particular bus to write.

A colleague recently told me that teaching, unlike most jobs, cannot be said to harm the world.  Perhaps she’s right: teaching is largely carbon-neutral.  And most students experience a significant liberalizing – an ability to read and articulate more clearly, and a widening of the subtleties of thought which enriches the experience of life.  So maybe that even helps the world.  I’m not saying students get nothing out of creative-writing study.

And, of course, not all of them dream of being professors.

But can I really expect an undergraduate to concentrate on creative writing without fostering some hope based on the readiest model to hand, their professors, especially if the job looks fun – if I make it look fun?  And then, every year, half a dozen (or more) of my students apply to MFA programs.  With trepidation, I ask about their job plans.  I regularly hear that they can’t picture any life other than being a professor.

Haven’t I implicitly fostered a largely unrealizable a dream — and profited from it?

What else to call that but a Ponzi scheme?

Past Intern Updates: Sarah Murray

Sarah Murray, Issue 9 Fiction Editor, shares where she found her inspiration after Superstition Review and her future plans.

Sarah Murray

Photo by Ken Camarillo

My initial plan after I graduated from ASU was to take some time off. I was going to move back to Los Angeles (which I did), recover for a couple months, and then start looking into Grad school. Study for the GRE. Take the time to actually write and get published. Possibly learn guitar. Possibly start looking into getting my EMT certification. And, of course, probably get a job.

What I didn’t bank on was getting a job with some of the most determined, open-minded people in all of Los Angeles. One day I’m at home, minding my own business on Facebook, when I see a post from AIDS Walk Los Angeles advertising a job opening. I applied and was hired in about a week.

I consider myself an activist. In college, I was involved with a variety of organizations that were dedicated to eliminating social stigma in one way or another, mostly in terms of queer activism. My senior year I was predominantly involved with a nonprofit called HEAL International, which was dedicated to HIV/AIDS awareness and education. When I graduated, I was hesitant to apply to just any position. I wanted to pick a job with a mission statement that I agreed with, something greater than myself that I could have a hand in progressing. AIDS Walk Los Angeles allowed me to do that. I was a Team Coordinator/Fundraising Specialist, which means that I worked on an individual basis with hundreds of people who formed their own teams for AIDS Walk. Teams range from corporate teams to teams made of friends and family members. I specifically was in charge of school and university teams.

AIDS Walk Los Angeles was held in West Hollywood on October 14, 2012. Now that it’s over, I am going to keep with my original plan of continuing my education and other assorted aspirations, and in the meantime I am going to look into volunteering at 826LA. I am also in the process of getting a thesis of mine published (final edited draft for Queer Landscapes: Mapping Queer Space(s) of Praxis and Pedagogy due March 1st; keep your fingers crossed!). But, let me tell you why, when I was working for AIDS Walk, I was the most inspired person you could hope to talk to. First off, I worked with students. Students are my absolute favorite people. I was a student leader myself for many years. At AIDS Walk, I talked to them on the phone all day long. I sent them emails. I visited their schools and answered their questions. I was a resource for them to take advantage of, a point of contact between themselves and the event. The kicker, though, is that I was in charge of empowering all these students (if they weren’t already empowered, which, to be honest, half of them were).

Now that AIDS Walk is over, I’ve mostly been reading and writing. But there’s that damnable itch that’s starting again. Sometime soon, I’m going to end up working for another nonprofit. Maybe even AIDS Walk again. Change is a comin’. I can feel it.

Guest Blog Post, Lee Martin: The Lyric Essay: A Writing Activity

Lee MartinI’ve noticed among my students an increasing affection for the lyric essay, a form that requires the writer to trust in leaps and associations as he or she works with what may seem to be disparate images, details, memories, etc. In the act of considering, the writer invites the reader to follow the sensibility that will eventually find a moment that resonates with the significance that these particulars generate when held next to one another. That juxtaposition actually makes possible a conversation between the particulars, a conversation that’s taking the writer and the reader to a place neither could have predicted when the essay began.

To invite the lyric impulse, I offer this brief writing activity. Our objective here is to get down to the bare bones of a short lyric essay, knowing that we’ll go back later and fill in the connective tissue, the meditation, etc.

1. Choose a particular detail that has lodged in your mind, anything from the world around you: a dandelion, a crack in your bedroom wall, the man who lives in the house on the corner. Write one statement about this object or person. Perhaps it begins with the words, “I see it (or him or her) for the first time. . . .”

2. Quick! Before you have time to think, list two other particulars suggested by the one you recalled in step one. Write them in the margin or at the top of the page.

3. Write a statement about one of the particulars from your list. Perhaps your sentence begins, “One day, I notice. . . .”

4. Write one sentence, more abstract, in response to either or both of the particulars that have made their way into your essay draft. Let the gaze turn inward. Perhaps you begin with the words, “I’ve always wondered about. . . .”

5. Write a statement about a third particular. Put yourself into action. Perhaps you begin with something like, “Tonight, I walk. . . .”

6. Close with a statement of abstraction, a bold statement, perhaps. We’ll hope this to be the moment in which you discover how these three particulars connect. Maybe it’s a line like the one that ends Linda Hogan’s short essay, “Walking”: “You are the result of the love of thousands.”

Please feel free to take the sentences from the exercise above and expand your essay in whatever way pleases you. I hope the writing leads you to unexpected connections, becomes a process of discovery, forces you to “push through” material that may be a bit uncomfortable, and in general leads you by an indirect method to the heart of something you may not have approached otherwise. I’m hoping this exercise will be helpful for those writers of creative nonfiction who want to try their hands at forms that aren’t predominantly driven by narrative, but instead by the meditative leaps from one thing to another.

Reminder: Lux Submission Deadline is Almost Here

The submission deadline for Lux Undergraduate Creative Review is fast approaching. Submissions for fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, film, music, and art are due by Thursday, October 15th. Selected creative pieces will be published in their sixth annual issue, which is set to launch during the Spring 2010 semester. This is a great opportunity for undergraduates students to be published in a magazine that values originality, individuality, artistry, diversity, and passion.

For information on submitting to Lux please click here: http://www.asu.edu/clubs/lux/submissionguidelines.html

Don’t forget to submit and we look forward to seeing your work in the next issue!