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.

Come Back Next Year

Come back next year.

Four simple words. Four simple life-changing words.

When I was in eighth grade, I told a girl that I would die for her. “Well that’s not healthy,” she responded.

In eighth grade, I was certain that my self-worth was tied to whether or not this girl could ever like me back as much as I liked her. I spent nights obsessing over it, lunches plotting about it with my friends, and many an AIM conversation trying to figure out how she really felt about me.

I think I read too many books for my own good. The large majority of young adult literature uses the romance subplot. It’s sexy. It’s interesting. It’s a lie.

Come back next year.

It’s summer. A lot of my friends from high school are getting married. Other friends are getting engaged. At least half a dozen of my Facebook friends entered into a FB official relationship in the past week.

It seems that my obsession from eighth grade has become a cultural one.

If you are semi-active on-line and you are in your twenties, chances are you will see an article or a blog post at least once a day that lets you know that it’s okay if you are single. Or maybe it helps you survive wedding season. Or maybe it tells you how to find a partner.

It’s sad that we need articles about how being single and being lonely are two different things. But we do need them. Desperately. Because everyone is telling us that being single is the worst thing that can possibly befall us. If we are religious, we are supposed to pray every night for a mate. If we aren’t, we are supposed to date as much as possible. Go get ’em tiger.

Come back next year.

The trouble with the culture of coupling is that we are complex people. I think almost everyone is single by choice. If you really didn’t want to be single, you would put everything else on hold and find someone. At least that’s what I would do. But there are other things that we devote our time to. Other important things.

For a lot of us, I think the myth that you are either a family-oriented wonderful person or a career-oriented cold-blooded bastard is completely misguided. If you do something that fulfills you and maybe makes a difference, why is that any worse than spending a life in a quaint suburb with a 2.5-kids-family?

Come back next year.

Love is not just a thing between two consenting adults. Defining it that way already limits it. Love is so much bigger than that. We should be practicing love with our coworkers, our friends, our neighbors, our parents, our children, our bosses, our teachers, and our students.

Come back next year.

Almost eight years after telling a girl that I would die for her, I taught a group of ninth graders for a summer. My conceptions of love were tested. I loved my students with a teacher-ly parental love. It was different than romantic love. I didn’t care if they loved me back. I cared if they grew. If they hated me but were learning and growing, I was happy.

And somehow, this was all-encompassing. It was fulfilling. It made me happy everyday to wake up and love something the way I loved my students. I was content with this.

Then the last day came. And it was hard. And I hated it. They passed out yearbooks of the summer. Students rushed around, getting their peers to sign; others found teachers and asked us to sign. I stood in a corner, letting the students interact with one another for the last time.

An eighth-grade girl came up to me. She politely asked if I would sign her yearbook. I hadn’t taught her. I barely knew her. We had interacted once or twice. I had told her and her friends to be quiet during assemblies and told her to walk in the hallway. But she knew I taught ninth-grade English. I asked if she would sign my yearbook as well. She did. She wrote a simple message, and it changed everything.

Come back next year.

When I was in eighth grade, no one told me that those four words would mean more to me than “I would die for you, too.”

How to Teach Ninth Graders

Forget that you are cool. You are necessarily lame. You are the father with bad puns. You are the mother who asks too many questions. Don’t feel bad about this. It’s a role you must play. And it will make it much better when your students are pleasantly surprised when you know who Frank Ocean is or when you can dance beyond the few “white-boy” dance moves.

Forget that you have opinions. When your students talk about abortion or same-sex marriage, remember you are there only to make sure they are supporting their arguments. You want them to be skilled free-thinkers, not brain-washed automatons. Remember that now you are capable of brain-washing, too.

Remember you are not their friend in a ninth-grade sense, but also remember you love them dearly. When you get angry, remember to tell them it’s because you want to best support them.

Remember every student is capable of success. Sometimes, it will seem like many of them aren’t. Sometimes, it will seem like many are doomed for failure. But keep teaching. Keep providing extra help. Keep going over comma splices. Eventually, the unwanted commas will disappear from their writing.

Remember to always be excited. There will be days when you don’t like your lesson. There will be days when the kids are so hopped up on hormones that you almost feel like you are going through puberty again. There will be days when every kid in your class is mad at you. Be excited. Especially on those days. Jump around the room. Yell and scream. Make them yell and scream, too. Remind them that learning is always fun.

And when you go home at night and are thinking about the day, forget you were the teacher. Instead, be a student with fifteen teachers. Remember what they taught you about forgiveness and love and knowledge.

Be inspired.

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.

Three Conversations Ed Reformers Need to Move Past

I made a Tumblr last week for ed reform. I want to talk about education from a global platform, but I don’t know how. The Tumblr is my first step in that direction. But right now, it doesn’t have the kind of audience this blog has.

I’ve been talking about education a lot the past couple of days. I was at the Statehouse for a while listening to legislators talk about it. And I’m frustrated. I’m actually beyond frustrated. I’m angry. We never get to talk about the good stuff, the stuff that will change kids’ lives because we are so busy misunderstanding things and phrasing questions in the wrong way. Here are three things we are doing wrong in the education conversation in this nation:

1. Whose kids are going to go to the trade schools? Legislators love to talk about how it’s not that we don’t have enough jobs to go around, it’s that we don’t encourage children to learn trades. We are always going to need electricians, they say. That’s true. We  will always need electricians. But no legislator would encourage his or her child to be an electrician. Their  children are too smart for that kind of job, right? And that’s where we run into a wall. In this country, not every student has the option of going to college, even if he or she is achieving at the requisite level. And so encouraging kids into trade schools starting in the ninth grade is a form of forcing complacency. Give these kids a trade in which they will be earning $40,000 a year, but don’t give them the education my children get, the legislators say. And so while we masquerade the trade school solution as the thing that’s going to decrease the gap between the haves and the have-nots, it’s actually just a way to make it bigger. Senators’ sons will turn into more senators, and electricians’ sons will turn into more electricians until those two worlds hardly ever talk. So let’s put the trade school conversation on hold until we are sure that every kid, no matter of their zip code or parent’s income, is getting the option of going to college.*

2. Liberty and equality are not opposites. I heard a speaker the other day that was trying to tell me that they are. But they aren’t. If I have a penny, and I want a bagel, but the bagel costs $2.50, I can’t buy that bagel. I’m not free to buy that bagel. That’s how education works. If I have a second-rate K-12 education because I grew up in inner city Detroit, and college expects a first-rate education, I can’t go to college. I’m not free to do the things that I want. Equality is not (as some people like to put it into metaphor) about making sure everyone is on the same starting line or about putting some people in front of others for the start of the race. It’s about making sure that no one shoots any of the runner’s in the leg, while they are running.

3. If you get rid of standardized testing, what do you put in its place to evaluate schools, teachers, and students? Look, I’m no idealist. I don’t think standardized testing is perfect. And if I could come up with something that took more of the learning process into account, I totally would. But we can’t just keep saying “Get rid of standardized testing.” That’s not helping the conversation. Come up with an alternative. Then we will talk.

Please, when we talk about education, let’s stop having the above conversations, and let’s start talking about how we are going to save the kids.

*I want to point out that I don’t believe that being an electrician or having any other trade is anything to be ashamed about. All I’m saying is that when a senator’s kid is good at math, that kid is encouraged to become an engineer, not an electrician.

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 Kids are Rarely Skeptics

There are a lot of skeptics out there. They are hard to ignore and most of the time, they are impossible to escape. Maybe you are a skeptic. Society likes to train skeptics. The Enlightenment and the scientific revolution and all that jazz have proven skeptics useful, I guess. Universities spit out skeptics like it’s nobody’s business. I don’t know anyone who has recently been through four years of college who didn’t take at least once course that was greatly influenced by postmodernism.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of postmodernism. Heck, I’m an English major with an interest in communications and psychology. It would be almost impossible for me not to enjoy postmodernism. But there’s one realm of education postmodernism has not yet infiltrated – primary schools (preschools, kindergartens, grade schools, and to a great extent, middle schools).

In those grades, children are still taught short, optimistic slogans like “Hard work always pays off” or “Be an individual” or “Good things happen to good people” or something of this nature. I think, in most cases, if any student were to utter these words in a college course, there would be argumentation. And for good reason: they aren’t always true. We can all think of instances when bad things happen to good people, for instance.

But the thing we easily forget is that the reason these slogans exist is not because of some government conspiracy to keep citizens complacent (in most cases). They exist because they are simplifications of very complex truths that are beneficial for us. “Good things happen to good people” is not true, but something like “You have no control over the exterior things that happen to you, but if you act in a noble and optimistic way in the things you can control, chances are you will live a much happier and fuller life” is true.

So next time you walk through an elementary school, instead of scoffing at all of the seemingly overly-optimistic saying on posters and motivational pictures, be a little more forgiving.