#EdDefeat

I am not meant to be an ideologue. I make a poor leader, too, I think. Criticism gets to me. It sits in my pores and hangs on my shoulders, and people around me notice. I am plagued with the ability to see the reason in even the most ignorant of arguments. And the worst part is that most arguments aren’t ignorant. Most arguments are made by reasonable, intelligent people.

It’s not that I don’t think my arguments aren’t valid. I know they are. I know they are important. But I am one kid. I am 21-years-old. Most of the issues I think are important, I’ve only been thinking about for five years tops. And for the first two or three years of that, I thought Atlas Shrugged was the fifth Gospel. So, obviously, I’ve been misguided before.

I tend to ignore absolutes. If someone says they are “for charter schools,” I usually take that to mean that they have seen charter schools do good things, not that they think that charter schools are good 100% of the time. The latter would be an indefensible position.

There is too much truth in both sides of any argument that we should never completely write-off an opposing side.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been dragged firmly into the ed reform debate. Not the childish one that goes on at most college campuses where people honestly don’t know that there is an achievement gap, but the real one. The one where people have opposing ideas about how to close that gap.

Mostly this has made me want to tear my hair out. I’m not a debater. It’s not in my blood.

Because here’s the thing: both sides have legitimate truths. The typical TFA/SFER/DFER/Students First angle is that advocating for student and parent choice is the quickest way of ensuring that a lot of students (much more than are being served now) can receive excellent educations. The typical Ravitch/teacher union/anti-reform angle is that choice isn’t the best way long-term of ensuring an equal education for all. Both of these ideas are probably right. Charter schools aren’t going to solve the problems of classism and racism in this country unless we pair them with intense laws concerning integration and maybe also outlaw private schools altogether. And if we are going to go the charter route, we should probably also start thinking seriously about if we want for-profit schools. Admittedly, that does sound a little scary.

The design of neighborhood schools, though, is probably outdated. The middle class isn’t staying in one place anymore. The lower class is stuck in cities and rural areas. So while the middle class can move to good school districts and make choice that way, the lower class doesn’t have that benefit. In Ohio, the way we fund schools has been ruled unconstitutional on several separate occasions. Funding by income tax DOES NOT provide an equal education for everyone.

I would love to see a completely socialized education system that works in the US. But that’s probably a long ways from happening. We don’t like socialism in this country for various reasons. And even if we got rid of charters and parochial schools, we would still have to deal with the fact that our upper class parents were sending their children to private schools.

Mostly, I feel defeated. I feel like I’m up against a rock and a hard place. I’m not a politician or a millionaire. I can’t walk into my Statehouse and say, “Hey, instead of worrying about charter schools today, let’s start thinking up ways that we can free teachers and administrators in traditional public schools to replicate some of the things that have made some charters so successful.”

I feel defeated because I know that there are bad teachers, and I know there needs to be an objective way to identify them, but I also know that standardized testing is problematic.

I feel defeated because I suspect that there are many Republicans who support ed reform because it might mean union busting, and I don’t want union busting.

I feel defeated because while we argue about what’s the best way to fix the education system, even more students drop out, get a bad education, and are incarcerated.

Why I SFER

Recently, there has been a lot of alarm about an organization I am a part of – Students for Education Reform. I think this alarm mostly started with this post by a really smart girl from Rutgers named Stephanie Rivera. Diane Ravitch, a prominent player in the education reform conversation, then got hold of  Rivera’s post, and applauded her and took a stance against SFER. And next thing I knew, my Twitter feed was blowing up. I have been thinking about this the past week or so, and I think it would be helpful to explain why I, a student, started a chapter of Students for Education Reform at Ohio University. This is going to be a long post so I thank you in advance for your patience.

My name is Spencer Smith. And I SFER because I think that every child deserves a great education right now.

I went to school K-12 in Springboro, OH. Springboro is the ninth richest school district in Ohio. Our graduation rate is over 97%. Of those 97%, most go on to college. I tell you this knowing full well that if critics want to throw the privileged spear at me, they can do it now. But better I come out and say it then someone think they are digging up the information. 

I didn’t get into my top choice universities. I landed at a great honors program at the very public Ohio University. OU is routinely ranked as the number one party school in America. When I would tell my high school friends where I was going, they would wrinkle their noses. But really, OU is a relatively good school. It holds its own against the much bigger Ohio State University and the slightly more prestigious (maybe) Miami University. The middle fifty percent of admitted freshman are a good bunch. They are good students. Not great students. But good students. Probably B students, most of them. Additionally, because of its location in Appalachia and its middle-of-the-line tuition, it’s home to many first generation college students.

For my first two years at Ohio University, I didn’t think much about education. I had made it to college. I figured that everyone who wanted to be at college was there. It was a done deal for me. I grew a beard, and started thinking about things like racism, sexism, and heteronormativity the way only a white straight dude from the ‘burbs can – theoretically. Then, at the end of my sophomore year, Teach for America invited me to be part of a series of leadership seminars. I heard about the achievement gap for the first time. My world was rocked. There were places where only 8% of students graduated from college? This was huge news for a kid coming from a place where it seemed like 80% of students were going to graduate from college. (This is probably an exaggeration, but that’s what it felt like).

I stayed in contact with Teach for America. I participated in a summer book club. One night, I was on a call discussing Mike Johnston‘s In The Deep Heart’s Core. Mike Johnston was on the call and he offhandedly mentioned Students for Education Reform. I sent an e-mail to Alexis Morin that night. Because she was listed as a co-founder on the website, I didn’t expect to hear back from her. But I heard back almost immediately. That summer I learned a lot about the organization. I learned how it started in a dorm room with e-mail blasts between the early members. I learned how it was infectious. And certainly, Alexis’s and Catharine Bellinger‘s enthusiasm and optimism is infectious. They come from a tradition of thought that says when you believe something, you do something. You don’t sit on the sidelines. You get up and say something. I wanted to do something, too.

So I did. And for the past year I’ve been the Chapter Leader at Ohio University. In that year, my knowledge of the education crisis in this country has grown more nuanced. I used to think that there was someone to blame for the whole thing. And that wasn’t anything SFER taught me. That was just me being a dumb college student. Thanks to SFER and other opportunities, I had the chance to study ed policy more in depth. Through Chapter Leader training and the weekly discussion series our chapter held on campus, I was able to approach issues from multiple angles. A lot of the members of our chapter are future teachers. (I’m a future teacher, too!) We aren’t calling for the abolition of teacher unions or the privatization of education. What we are calling for is conversation. We want to put everything on the table. We want options.

Because of SFER, I have done and seen things that I would have otherwise never done or seen. I organized a school visit to KIPP Journey in Columbus. I learned that whether or not you agree with charter schools, there are kids who are benefiting from them. And those kids can articulate that. They know that they are going to college. And they know that precisely because of the school they are going to. I was so impressed that I interned with them for a while.

SFER hosted a national summit for all the chapter leaders. By the time the summit rolled around, there were almost 100 chapters. I was struck by our diversity. Sure, I was a dude from the ‘burbs. And sure, there were Ivy League schools represented. But there were also chapter leaders who were mini-miracle stories. They had beat the odds in low-performing school districts, made it to college, and were now working to make sure that more students had that same opportunity.

Additionally, because of the SFER national summit, I learned about the Breakthrough Collaborative. I applied to Breakthrough, got accepted, and spent my summer teaching ninth grade English. I learned that 30 high school and college students can alleviate summer drain for over 100 middle schoolers.

Because of SFER, I believe that education reform is not just a conservative thing, a liberal thing, a union thing, a student thing, a teacher thing, a parent thing. Education reform is all of those things. We aren’t going to get anywhere by eliminating each other from the conversation. Maybe you don’t agree with SFER or Teach for America or Democrats for Education Reform. That’s fine. You don’t have to. But don’t be against them. Be against the achievement gap. Be against the failing education system. I promise you we can work together.

Why My Creative Nonfiction Professor Thinks I Am A Mess With The Ladies

If things had gone differently, I have full faith that I would still be with a girl named Lauren N. Lauren was the cutest girl in my second grade class. Our relationship developed, as most second grade relationships do, on the playground. The playground is essentially the bar of elementary school. You go there to do other things (drink, talk, dance in the bar; chase, swing, slide in the playground), but everyone knows if you are spending time on the playground, you are single.  All the boys with girlfriends play kickball.

I was a committed bachelor. Whereas other boys were self-conscious on the playground, chasing girls so that they could ultimately land spots on the kickball court, I reveled in the chase. I had no interest in kickball. I had chase strategies: Foster a friendship with the girl. Converse with her on the swings. Jump up suddenly. Chase her. Direct the chase to the Hill. Outlast the girl on the Hill.

If I managed to outlast the girl on the Hill before the end of recess, in my head, I had two options. I could choose to be the girls’ boyfriends or start again next recess. Before Lauren, I always chose to start over. But Lauren was special.

Chasing Lauren started off like chasing any other girl. I got her to the Hill by the end of recess without any problem. Then something interesting happened – Lauren began to talk.

“Oh, I am just so glad you are my boyfriend.”

Emergency lights began flashing in my head. I hadn’t committed to anything, had I? This wasn’t part of the plan. Identify, chase, reset. That’s what I was used to.

***

  • Chelsea B., if I hadn’t been too afraid to talk to an older girl.
  • Libby H., if I hadn’t written that short story where the love interest was named “Libby” and then published it in the school newspaper that her mom was the faculty adviser for.
  • Ruth Z., if I hadn’t believed that her parents didn’t want her dating.
  • Elizabeth G., if I hadn’t told her that when I hugged her it felt like I was hugging my sister. I don’t have a sister.
  • Mary T., if I would have let her drunkenly make out with me.
  • Lindsey J., if she knew that one of our professional dinners was actually a date.
  • Jess R., if I had never asked her on a date.

***

I gulped as Lauren took my hand and led me back down the Hill to stand in line for the end of recess. My days of recess bachelorhood were over. I didn’t even know how to play kickball.

I didn’t take well to a relationship. I disliked being around Lauren, but she insisted that we spend all of our free time with each other. It became quite clear that puberty had not yet hit me. I knew girls were different, but I was not yet attracted to them for that difference. I was more attracted to the fact that they would run when I chased them. If a boy had done that, I would have chased boys. (And would have probably faced ridicule from the kickball courts.)

Imagine my surprise, then, when Lauren began whispering about a secret plan. A secret sleepover plan. Lauren, being the worldly woman she was, knew that couples sometimes spent the night together and so she began talking of me coming over to her house when her parents were asleep. I was petrified. Never mind that we were eight years old, had no sense of direction, no transportation, and no way of getting past locked doors. I thought this plan was a very real possibility. It literally kept me up at night.

I spent hours wide awake, trying to devise an excuse. But I knew I couldn’t come up with an excuse for every night. I was only a second grader, after all. My schedule wasn’t exactly brimming with other engagements.

One night, as I was lying awake in my bed, quivering fearfully from the thought of spending an entire night with Lauren N., my father came in my room to check on me. He noticed I was awake.

“Is there something the matter, son?” he asked.

“Lauren N. wants me to have a sleepover with her!” I said tearfully.

My father waited patiently as I explained the situation to him, and then he introduced the greatest childhood excuse ever devised. “Just tell her that your mother and I aren’t comfortable with it.”

***

  • Staci B., if she hadn’t gone to an all-girls school after kindergarten probably because her father was frightened by the fact that I was her only friend.
  • Liz A., if her parents hadn’t forbidden her reading Harry Potter.

***

After my parent-developed excuse, the issue, for me, was resolved. I told Lauren the next day that my parents would never go for it, and in a weird not-yet-rebellious second grade world, that seemed to work. I was free to chase again! Life regained its sweetness.

But I soon realized my mistake. Lauren, after all, was the cutest girl in my second grade class. I had ruined my chance with her. The first reason, then, that Lauren and I are not still together is because I, in my second-grade ignorance fearfully told my parents about what would have been the first of what I can only guess would have been hundreds of romantic trysts.

The second reason that Lauren and I are not still together happened a week later. Right before lunch, we were pulled down to the guidance office. The guidance counselor, a small, kind, middle-aged woman named Mrs. R, ushered us into her office.

“I hear that you two have been thinking about… dating,” she started. I rolled my eyes. Back at this. I had been chasing new girls on the playground for a whole week. Lauren had tears in her eyes.

“I think we can all agree that the two of you are a little young to date.”

I was nodding profusely.

“So I thought we would come up with some appropriate ages for dating.”

Mrs. R pulled out some hokey picture book that she had bought with school funds for occasions like this one, and read us a story about Jack and Jill who dated in high school and then got married and lived happily ever after.

“See,” said Mrs. R. “Dating in high school doesn’t put you behind. So, what do you think would be an appropriate time to start dating?”

Lauren answered first, sniffling as she did. “High school?”

“That’s great, Lauren. That’s really great! Now what about you, Spencer? When do you think is a good time to start dating?”

We had just read a story about people dating in high school and getting married. Lauren had just answered high school. The answer should have been obvious. But I crossed my arms and answered: “College.”

***

  • Bethany M., if I hadn’t smeared dandelion on her Abercrombie cardigan at recess.
  • Lauren P., if I hadn’t gone to the Spring Fling with Amy V.
  • Amy V., if I hadn’t almost elementary-school cheated on her with Lauren P.

Columbus’s Christmas Idol

I am interning at a middle school over break. The school’s choir is currently in a contest. The video below is their submission:

If you are impressed, vote for KIPP Journey Academy, here . There are a bunch of really awesome students who would appreciate it.

Why God is the Opposite of Boobs

I got your interest with that title, didn’t I? It’s true though. And it’s not because I’m trying to gender God or something. Maybe God is a woman and then She would be opposite of Her boobs. That’s all I’m saying.

When we are little (like before-we-can-move-by-ourselves little), we have very little concept of the world. And it is theorized that new-borns believe that the entire world is their mothers’ breasts. That’s all there is to life. Nothing else matters or is important. They, supposedly, are consumed by their little newborn perception of that breast. And that’s all that is going on.

Well, then fast-forward a decade or two, and life seems really really complicated. We deal with careers, school, mortgages, children, spouses, significant others, aging families, funerals, marriages, births, birthdays, war, taxes, depressions, disease, and all the other stuff we think is important. And we think we have grown vastly superior to the baby who cannot comprehend anything other than her mother’s breast.

But the truth is that we still haven’t reached a sophisticated truth. Sure, life isn’t all about boobs. It’s good we learned that. (Maybe some people are still trying to get over that part.) But it’s silly that we think that life is all about all of the various things we surround ourselves with now. Why should ten, twenty, thirty years make all that much different.

It’s funny because we often include God in this list of stuff that life is about. But we would be much closer to understanding what God’s power was if we said something like God is life. We used to believe that boobs were life. That was wrong. God is life probably isn’t all that wrong. God’s kinda the opposite of boobs.

There’s a scene in the movie V for Vendetta when one of the characters is reading a letter from one of the other characters, and the letter-writer says that her grandmother used to tell her that “God was in the rain.” I try to remind myself of that every time I find myself uptown without an umbrella.

Freudian Thoughts

Sigmund Freud

I really dig psychology. I’m taking a Psychology of Personality class this quarter for my psychology minor. And I’m loving it. It’s a two-hour lecture class, and typically these kinds of classes rarely hold my interest, especially when you can typically read all of the information in the textbook, but I am enamored by this course. We are working our way through the history of psych of personality, and so, like all good psychology, we start with Freud.

Freud was a pretty interesting fellow. He wrote a lot of stuff that people took to be really sexual and stuff when it kind of really wasn’t. Also, he didn’t write about women very much because they were a “dark continent” and he “never really understood them.” And for those reasons, Freud is usually written off as a crazy person. It’s sad, though, because while people don’t think Freud was right about everything anymore, he certainly got some stuff right or said some things about the world that are useful.

Freud had this one really interesting theory about child development. Without going into too much detail, Freud thought that we all go through the same stages of development and that during these stages of development we are obsessed with different erogenous zones. Erogenous zones is just a fancy way of saying parts of the body that give us pleasure. So first, we are obsessed with the mouth. And that’s all good, we get food that way and that makes us happy. Then we go into the anal stage, which has to do with potty training, and then the phallic stage, which has to do with discovering our genitals and so on and so forth.

So basically the whole thing goes that when we are in each stage, we don’t really know about the next stage so we think that the happiness and pleasure we are experiencing from our current stage is the greatest of all the happiness and pleasure we will ever experience. And it’s like, obviously there are greater pleasures than being fed. But when a baby is in the oral stage, everything has to do with the mouth. All objects pass through the mouth because when the mouth is your pleasure center, if something doesn’t work with your mouth, it’s no good for you. If we could just tell all babies that there are greater pleasures than mouth pleasures, then we could fix the whole babies choking on things problem.

Us adults exist in the genital stage, where we have supposedly realized that reproduction causes the greatest pleasure. But this whole notion kind of strikes me as odd, as if there is some end point to development – that one day, we wake up and if everything had gone perfectly from birth, we would be perfect adults. That doesn’t seem right to me. I think we kind of go on developing, and I think that’s why sex permeates our culture in a lot of ways. If we believe, like the baby with his mouth, that the end-all be-all of human existence is sex, then of course we are going to put it everywhere and in everything.  I wish someone would tell us that there are greater pleasures than reproductive pleasures.