Saturday, July 25, 2009

"No Child Left Behind" or "No Child Left Alive?"


July 24, 2009

Dear President Obama:


I know you’ve got your hands full: the economy imploded last year and millions are unemployed; two insanely expensive wars still rage; the American people are suffering badly with lack of healthcare, or healthcare that’s unaffordable. The world as we know it is changing quickly, often in bad ways—thanks to out-of-control pollution and global warming that we either won’t admit to or can’t fix (not that we have the money to, anyway). And those pesky conservatives are praying for you to “fail” and trying to stymie your efforts for positive change at every turn. 


Nevertheless, despite all the chaos and all the issues on your ambitious agenda, I must plead with you to focus on one more:  education.  As I was writing this yesterday, you were speaking about a race to the top for American students. Sounds great; let's get to the top. Let's just, please, not make the same stupid mistakes as before.

The biggest mistake (maybe ever?) in education is, to my mind,  No Child Left Behind (I shudder even typing those hateful words). NCLB, as it is known, and as you surely know it, is a reform enacted by the Bush Administration. It is a plan that seems, on its surface (or seemed, when it was first introduced so many years ago) to be a no-brainer. Who wants children to be left behind, especially American children? Who could ever say, “Yeah, let’s just leave them behind?"  It’s like a for-us-or-against-us patriotic issue—but what else would you expect from the administration of George W. Bush?


In actuality, however, NCLB in its seven frustrating years of existence has been destroying, not improving, our entire educational system and hurting exactly the students it purports to help.


I beg you now to eradicate it. As a teacher and as a mother, as an educated person who finds NCLB about as callously simplistic in its practice as “Just Say No” was for The War on Drugs when Nancy Reagan touted it so many years ago, I ask you please, Sir, dismantle this plan. 


NCLB, while it aims to provide top-notch education to all American students (or, at least, aims to show that our students must be decently prepared, given their scores on certain tests) actually turns school into a factory-like system. Students in certain years spend literally months doing nothing but preparing for standardized tests, which are then used to chart the school’s “progress.” Those school districts whose students do not score a certain percentage at a Proficient level (which is ever-increasing) are then penalized and, soon afterward, shut down.


The worst part of NCLB is that it hurts the students who need help the most. Schools in poor areas, and in cities, or schools with large and diverse student populations, may not have had the funding in years past (or may not ever have attracted the most experienced or skilled teachers) to prepare every student to the utmost. These are the schools that get warnings—making teachers so paranoid that they will literally do nothing but “teach to the test.” These are the schools that then get closed, leaving the already-hurting students to go bring down the quotas somewhere else, while often needing to travel an hour each way to do it—which they can usually ill-afford.


Principals and teachers live in fear of NCLB. It is making their jobs nightmarish. It is turning our kids off.  Children are bored to tears with the constant drilling they endure, the lack of learning for learning’s sake, the total absence of inspiration, creativity, and room for “extras” such as field trips, library time, art, and gym--or just plain fun. NCLB is making school a miserable place and doing exactly what I believe, as an educator, is the worst thing that an educational system can do: ascribing meaning only to test scores and to numbers.  The only good thing to be said about NCLB is that kids have opportunities to win iPods if they score well as a group (the school then holds a lottery; yes, this happens where I live; that’s how messed up the program is).


Will our children be better prepared for life because they have taken several years’ worth of big state tests, lured by the very remote possibility of winning an iPod or iPhone? No. We all realize there is a profound difference between streets smarts and book smarts. At the rate we are going with NCLB, however, our kids may only have “test smarts,”—if that. 


Let’s scrap “No Child Left Behind.” It doesn't work and it makes everyone unhappy.  Instead, let’s make sure that all  “American Children Get Ahead”—because we care about educating each child as a whole, individual person, as human beings, not numbers.


Now having said all that, I must ask that you also show your support for the developing minds and talents of American kids by insuring that Gifted and Talented programs are fully funded.  As a nation, we put plenty of money into programs that we hope will raise up the lowest-scoring populations (whether or not these programs even work, as NCLB clearly doesn’t work too well), but while that was being done, the really brilliant kids were totally ignored.


I am not saying that brilliant students are more deserving of federal dollars than remedial students are. What I’m saying is that we can’t throw money at one problem (low performance) while ignoring the kids who may, in fact, turn out to be our best hope for fixing some of the gargantuan messes we as Americans currently face.


If we just let the smart kids fend for themselves, if we let them doodle in the back of classrooms while other kids get tutored, then are they ever going to reach their potential? No, they’ll probably just slide into mediocrity, fade into obscurity.


When school bores them (as it bores most kids right now), even the geniuses will just turn off and may even stop trying. They may never go on to achieve what they might have, if they had only had the opportunity for enrichment that not only Gifted programs, but also basic library services, art classes and even guest speakers and interesting field trips, might have provided. All these so-called "extras" have been cut because there's no time to draw and run around on the playground when absolutely everything hinges on some standardized tests. (Obviously, lack of enrichment hurts every student--not just the especially bright ones.)


Funding for gifted programs (the Javits funding) is going to come before the Senate next week. The House already passed it—which surprised me a bit, since I don’t have much faith in Congress right now, given the partisan bickering and blocking of progress. At least they voted to keep the funding the same as last year, and not reduce it. But anyway—the true test is in the Senate, and barring that, in you, President Obama.


If we want reform that will be truly meaningful, we need to start with our kids. They are the ones who inherit the problems we have created, or those that have been created and left for us to clean.  They are also the ones who may figure out how to solve them. It all starts with education.


One mess we can fix is No Child Left Behind.  Once that’s done, let’s also make sure that all our kids get what they need in school: namely, inspiration to achieve.


Thanks for reading this.


Elizabeth Collins

Thursday, July 9, 2009

What People Really Want to See: Why We Like Gross Stuff

These photos of me with a grotesquely-swollen, Betadine-stained leg with dual rows of bloody staples are...what's the word? Disgusting. They are also the most-viewed items on my blog.
I get traffic and hits from around the world, visits from countless people who apparently want to see what a tri-malleolar ankle fracture, post-surgery looks like.

I wonder if I'm scaring people, or titillating them? I wonder if people are refusing surgical fracture fixes because of me? That's actually not my intention.

These photos are up as a public service (no, don't laugh).  I also posted them because I wanted people to stop asking me what it looked like. It looks like a nightmare. Yes, it hurt like hell. In fact, it still hurts.

This injury occurred nearly 10 months ago, and I am still not better. I wonder sometimes if I will ever be better, or like I was before. I try not to think about it too much, though. I just do my exercises and shut up. But my limp gives me away. The bandages I still have (now, after second surgery, this time to remove the hardware, and my second round of staples) are like a flag. "What happened?" everyone asks.

At least I don't still have to use a walker--that, for a 37-year-old, was so...I can't even go there. People almost can't look at you when you have a walker, like you might somehow infect them with Unfortunate Accident-itis.

My main complaint right now is Dowdy Shoes.  I have to wear sneakers most of the time--thick-soled trailrunners (which is ironic, as I may never run a trail again. I am not sure if these shoes, which I am wearing for their stability, really, are motivational or just reminders of what I am missing).  I don't think there's a worse look than the suit jacket with sneakers, but I rocked that one quite a bit this past year.

Currently, I am sporting Birkenstocks, which I think are not the most attractive shoes, but I frankly don't care anymore.  I am just happy to be wearing shoes. I couldn't for several months, at least on one foot, and let me tell you: there is no way you can feel like a normal, put-together woman when you have one foot in a giant hospital sock. No matter how nice the rest of your outfit might be (or might not be, because really, why bother if you're wearing tube socks?).

If you really want to know how it felt to break my ankle, and the story of how I broke it, you can read my December posting (my article is helpfully entitled, "How Does it Feel to Shatter Your Ankle?")  I am not one of those people who want to tell everyone their bad news story. I swear I'm not.

Most people, I've noticed, don't seem to read my ankle-break story. They just want to view the gory pictures (which I've reposted, for convenience).

All of this is fine with me. I know there are people who have been through much, much worse. I am not interested in one-upping anyone's injury story. I also don't feel particularly sorry for myself.

The ultimate point of writing the story of my accident and this current analysis, too, was to examine the "Google" effect. I wanted to see whether or not it is psychologically helpful for people to Google their symptoms, and what--if anything--they might get from reading different forms of health information and shared online stories of injury and recovery.

I also wanted to see if it made me feel better to write about my own broken-ankle issue. Would it be cathartic--or was that purported benefit of writing about a personal crisis just a bunch of hooey?

I came to the conclusion that Googling is helpful. Knowing that other people out there in the wide world share your pain and feel what you've felt is oddly comforting. 

It's not that I am pleased to know that other people have suffered in similar ways; that's not it, at all. It's just knowing that I'm not alone, even if I am sometimes.

As for writing about painful experiences--I do think it helps. Once you get the pain on paper, it seems to stay there. You've sorted through it, and now--one hopes--you can leave it behind.

But back to the pain in these pictures:  I look like I'm going to my executioner, don't I? I don't look too happy.  This is mostly because my orthopaedist's assistant was just about to remove all those staples, and I had the distinct feeling it was going to hurt.

Yeah, I was right.

A few weeks after breaking my ankle (too soon, actually), I was back at work. I am a writing and English teacher and my students quickly figured out that I have a blog. They thought it was funny in a gross-out sort of way to log on, fire up the SmartBoard and show the entire class these photos.  “Eeeww!” they all screamed. 

This was weird to watch in person. I felt the pain all over again when they shrieked. I also had to point out that the color is worse when the photo is projected. It looks oddly green and yellow, while in real life, my flesh wasn’t rotting, just recently disinfected.

So I guess that putting up the photos and writing my story helped me, but what definitely doesn’t help is watching other people wince when they see my words, look at my ripped-up leg.  As long as I don’t see other people’s reactions, I can begin forgetting about the pain. Until then, if I help anyone with the story I've written or with the posting of these gory pictures to face the truth of what they will likely go through during recovery, then it was worth it.

Be well!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tweeting by Twits

A few days ago, I woke up, groggy from the Oxycodone I've had to take after (my second) ankle surgery, and logged onto what I'm now-sort-of-into: Twitter.

I had just started following a writer I admire, and strangely, on the morning of June 28th, she had posted a series of complaints about a review of her most recent novel.  I think I saw 11 tweets right away, and every few minutes, a new one popped up.

The "complaints" were increasingly bitter. The writer called her reviewer a "moron" and an "idiot." She disparaged the newspaper in which the review was printed.  She discussed how women don't have to be nice when other people are "trying to destroy" them.  

Hmmm. Real-time soap opera on Twitter! I felt like re-tweeting some of this so other people could watch along with me. It was both horrible and entertaining. I really had the urge to be first to do this, too (Twitter was making me competitive in a weird way--and later, I saw that other people *were* doing this. There's something about scooping on Twitter that I just have to catch up on).

But here's the thing: I'm just too nice to laugh when other people are freaking out. We've all freaked out, haven't we?  We've all thought other people are morons.  The difference, perhaps, is that we don't Tweet about it.

I will be the first to admit that I didn't really get Twitter until about a month ago.  "What are you doing now?" is the question Twitter asks people to answer.  This is not a whole lot different from Facebook.  Why do we need two of these things? I wondered.  I was also bothered by the strange Twitter lingo (RTs--re-tweets) and plentiful @ signs and constant tinyurls and bits.

Now I see it. The difference is that Twitter is instantaneous. All your friends/followers will see your tweets without having to visit a special page, and without the weird occasional hiding-of-posts thing that FB sometimes seems to do.

As another writer, Nick Belardes, told me back then, when I first complained about Twitter: "Methinks you're not getting Twitter, chickadee. It's micro-blogging on a global level."  As someone else recently posted, Twitter is e-mail times 1000.  It's powerful. It's timely. Its potential impact is amazing.

So, to see Famous Writer Freaking Out minute by minute, her posts getting ever more snarky, I thought: Wow.  I also thought, who is going to advise her to stop?  It was sort of like watching someone have a mental breakdown. You might giggle nervously, but really, deep down, you're worried.

What should I do? I wondered. I didn't want to be mean and make her look even more stupid (she was doing that really well all by herself).  I also didn't want her to hate me if I wrote about her. I could see, though, that this was rather important, and I had to say something.

So I tweeted that the PR flack in me (and PR comes too naturally, sometimes. I see what others never seem to, and they never want to hear it, but I can smell an impending scandal ten miles off. I am always thinking about damage control) thinks that imploding writers probably should NOT publicly gripe about bad reviews...because it just makes other people want to read them.

That's the next thing I did.  I read the review. 

It was negative, but still, not that bad.  It was objective. The review made total sense.  I felt exactly the same way as the reviewer: this writer's work was slipping. She was still sort of amazing, but just not as good as she had been.  

It could be a natural progression (after 20 or so novels, perhaps a writer just starts losing steam; plots become repetitive; the details might suffer).  My very favorite writer's most recent novel was so disappointing that I actually couldn't force myself to finish it.  I think he's done now, probably. But it was good while it lasted, and he still wrote some perennially important novels, and one of my all-time favorites.

The same thing could be happening with this writer. I don't, however, want any part in her destruction (though her use of that word was very odd, I thought. How can a super-rich, bestselling author with more than 20 books out ever be "destroyed?").

If anyone is now wondering or getting frustrated, I am not getting involved with naming names. I am just not going to go there. Still, I am too nice--or maybe I haven't fully fallen under the Twitter spell.  I still think people need privacy sometimes, and I don't care about being the first to write about a personal catastrophe. 

Tweet when it's interesting, I say. Tweet when it's meaningful.  Don't Tweet about the minutiae of your life or what you can see outside the window (unless it's tres bizarre). Don't Tweet to publicize really old articles on your blog...I mean, really old ones (I saw that today and thought it was so stupid).

Use Twitter, though, to start conversations, to share what was funny, clever, or blew your mind.

Don't let Twitter take over your life, but just enjoy it for its usefulness. Does that help?

The aforementioned Famous Writer deleted her Twitter account. She didn't know how to sit on her hands when she got angry, but she certainly showed me how important it is to learn that skill.