Sunday, April 23, 2023

River to River 2023: Pass Me That Baton

Right before one of my runs this weekend, a teammate asked me if I was nervous. I did an internal check because my initial response seemed wrong: no, not nervous. Just happy. So happy to be about to take the baton.

I went into the whole thing sort of nervous. I’ve done River to River, an 80-mile, eight-person relay, four times before. It’s always been a marvelously wonderful time. But the last time I did it was in the before-times, April of 2019. Since then, I’ve run very few races at all. Partly that was from a hip injury, and partly it was Covid. For me, everything is still Covid-tinged to some extent, particularly large events that will put me in contact with large numbers of people who may or may not put effort into not spreading Covid. I was nervous about being in a van with people for three days. And then, to make it worse, I have a sore hamstring. I wasn’t sure I could finish the distance with any integrity. I was, frankly, worried about the pain. Also, I figured that doing the relay might finish off my running for the season. I decided, though, that I was going to do it poorly and with pain if that’s what it took. I preemptively lined up an appointment with a doctor who has helped me with running injuries in the past, and I asked for the leg with the easiest runs first and the only big hills at the end.

I was nervous about what to pack. The weather reports shifted so many times: warm and partly sunny, cold and raining, everything in between. And, to be fair to the weather forecasters, all of those things could be simultaneously true over an 80-mile spread in April in Illinois. So the clothes were, of course, hard to pack efficiently. Efficiency matters when there are eight people with the gear and food needed for everyone to run three races over the course of 13 hours. And the food is a thing too. What and when does one eat when she gets up at 3:30am and then runs three times before finishing at 8pm? My friend JJ calmly reminded me of some things I already knew, so I stopped by the grocery store and bought too much and stayed up too late packing and repacking food and clothes and got myself ready.

After meeting up, loading the van, driving, going to the packet pick-up, finding dinner, and going to the race meeting, we finally arrived at our rental house in time to go to bed for a few restless hours before rising at the aforementioned 3:30am for a 4:15 departure.

Driving to the race through what was still night to most people, I had one of those peak moments, one of those moments when you metaphorically stop at a high spot in life and pause to look around. I looked back at all of the experiences that had brought me to be in that passenger seat in those running clothes looking up at those stars in the National Forest. I thought about how as I was going to be running a relay that I love, my son was going to be initiated into his fraternity. It was going to be a big day for him, too. It was going to be a day that had nothing to do with me and in which I did not have a role, and so it was perfectly--even wonderfully--good that I was doing something I loved. My daughter would be waking up in a few hours to run in her own relays for her high school track team. I didn’t know then, but she was about to achieve the goal she set weeks ago: to run the mile in under six minutes. I knew that everything I had done, either well or poorly, had somehow gotten me to this moment where my children and I were just where we wanted to be. I knew that anything could happen, either good or bad, in our day or the days ahead, but we were right at that moment right where we were supposed to be. The past and the future were just the past and the future, and the present was the only and the perfect thing. I was free from both regret and fear. It was a moment of perfection.

Moments, by definition, pass, but that sense of combined wonder and rightness stayed with me for a while. The morning was still chilly as I stood at the first exchange waiting for the baton. I was not nervous.

When I started to run, the sense of wonder and rightness expanded to fill me. My hamstring was not yet sore. My legs felt fresh and powerful. My segment of the race was in a valley filled with the soft yellow light of the just-risen sun and, ahead of me, a great glowing cloud of rising fog. The fields around me were sprouting and the trees in southern Illinois were already covered in either blossoms or tender green. Everything around me was starting anew, rising, beginning. I ran a little harder than I had planned just because I could. I ran until I started to feel my breath shift, and then I held that pace, perfectly balanced between ease and effort.

Here, I break up the beauty with a dark but interesting touch of reality. As I was still running past the vehicles of other teams in the exchange, I saw a small group of people looking down at something in the road: a flattened armadillo. Huh.

The first round of runs was such a delight. The second runs were, of course, harder. We were a little tired from our first races, most of which were hilly. The coffee we had started to sip at 4am was gone and worn off. The third round of runs, though, is always really rough. Everyone is very tired and possibly sore in some joint or muscle. People start getting headaches from the sun or fatigue or some unmet nutritional need or just because they do. This year, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped, and we were cold standing in the exchanges cheering each other on. Given my pending hamstring injury, I had requested a leg that has the easy segments first and the hardest run last, thinking that I’d just give whatever was left in me at that point, and if my injury was terrible at the end, then so be it. It would have been worth it. Obviously, though, it’s a challenge to run the hardest segment already tired and sore and ready to be finished.

My last run was shaped like my leg overall: easy at first and hard at the end. What the elevation chart could not show, though, was the wind, which was at our back for most of our afternoon runs. My run, however, turned just when it started to go uphill, and yes, it turned into the wind. So, in the last half of my last leg, I looked up into my steepest climbs and the wind blew me back down. I passed a woman who seemed to be committed to power walking the whole hill. The guy who had blown past me in the flat miles stopped and walked and never caught up to me again. The guy in front of me walked every now and then. I started to gain on him. The hill was steeper in some places than in others, and a couple of times I stopped and walked for 20 seconds—long enough to settle my breathing just a bit—and started again.

I had told my teammates that my goal for the last run was to be fully there—to see it and feel it completely. When I was out there, though, what I thought about was my teammates. Several of them had never run any relay much less one that is pretty much all hills. And yet, knowing we needed to meet a time goal for our race to count (the finish line closes at 8pm,) every one of them pushed themselves to go a little faster than they thought they could. Every one of them faced the big hills. The hill I was on wasn’t anything more than what everyone else had already done that day. I was inspired by the calm and cheerful steadiness of the woman who had handed me the baton and the stoic courage of the injured woman who would take it from me. I was inspired by my teammate who had really only run 5Ks in the past. I was inspired by my teammate who agreed to be runner six when I got injured and said I couldn’t—she’d done it before and so could do it again. I was inspired by my teammate who will be running an ultra in a few weeks and so agreed to take an extra segment if needed. I thought about my teammate who faced that first big hill in leg five and just…did it. That is what one does when one is on a hill. You move each foot and then do it again until you get to the place where your friend can take the baton.

Partway through the day, just when we were all feeling incurably grumpy and tired, just when the wind was picking up and the temperature was dropping, my husband sent me a text that my daughter had earned her “sub 6” shirt in her mile race, and he sent a picture of her standing on the track waiting to take the baton in her relay. In the picture, the track is covered and the air is filled with hail. Then he sent a picture of her running with the baton. Again, the track is covered and the air is filled with hail. Her legs are stretched out in full stride and neither foot is on the ground. Her gaze is focused, and the baton is in her right hand. She looks strong and fast and beautiful, and she looks stronger and faster and more beautiful because she’s running in hail.

After the race, after marveling at the luxury of the running water at the Chill and Grill by the finish line, I thought about why we do something that is very hard and tiring and sometimes gross and often painful. And more than just doing it, we rejoice in it. We look forward to next year. I suppose we all have our own reasons, but this weekend, I was acutely aware that the relay offers me a moment to appreciate my own life and makes me brave. There are hard things all around me—parenting, teaching, work politics, politics politics, scary changes, growing older—but the relay reminds me that we can enjoy doing hard things. When I am halfway up a steep and/or long hill, I know I can keep going. My teammates have done it before. I have done it before. And what’s more: I WANT to keep going. Life is hard, but it’s also so beautiful. The hills and the hail actually make it even more so. Sometimes the wind blows against you or it starts to hail while you’re waiting for the baton. Sometimes the sun rises and shines on the spring blossoms and the flat armadillo on the road. So be it. Pass me that baton.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Let's Start with the Hypocrisy

 Abortion is hard for me to write about or advocate for because it's not a choice I've had to make, and it's not a choice I want any woman to have to make. I love life. Yesterday, after the Dobbs ruling, I sat in my backyard and noticed the way summer sunshine looks and feels when filtered through the leaves and branches of a tree. I listened to bird songs. Later, I sat by a fire and ate a perfectly toasted marshmallow. I fed people. I love life. I love my children. But this issue is more complicated than just life vs. not life, and the disingenuousness of reducing it to such compels me to try to parse out the complexities. Perhaps because I am angry, I want to start with the hypocrisy. I hope later to come back to the idea of human rights for women and maybe, when I’m less raw, to some more personal anecdotes about the extremely life-shaking acts of carrying, birthing, and caring for children as well as a story about someone I love as much as life itself whose life was probably saved by an abortion.  As I said, I feel deeply the complexity of this issue, but I want to start with the logic and ethos rather than the pathos. I want to call out the elephant in the room (and I mean that both in its idiomatic sense and its political sense.)

The self-righteous hypocrisy of the “pro-life” movement infuriates me. If this movement was really about loving life, we'd provide support for mothers and children--healthcare, paid leave, access to formula and nutrition, living wages, and equitable education. If it was about life, the life of the mother would matter. If it was about life, we'd be doing a heck of a lot more about guns in this country. If it was about life, we'd get rid of the death penalty. If it was about responsibility, men would be forced to pay for and care for the baby and healthcare and missed access to income. If it was about responsibility, we’d sterilize men who impregnated women against their wishes. If it was about responsibility, the rich would pay taxes commensurate with the benefits they receive from our system. If it was about democracy, we'd make sure every single citizen voted.  If it was about “states’ rights” (*cough cough* please see pro-slavery and Jim Crow South for why I don’t find this a compelling argument,) we would have let New York pass the gun safety laws its citizens voted for. What gets me is that the people who worked to overturn a woman’s constitutional right to privacy and bodily autonomy in favor of “life” and freedom seem to be the same people who block healthcare, block gun safety regulation, enable and/or promote voting restrictions, decrease regulations on corporations that pollute and take advantage of workers, and on and on. The dots don't line up.

One more take on the hypocrisy: I believe many of the people who advocated the overturn of Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood did so as Christians. I am a Christian. I am not aware of any words of Jesus about abortion. I do believe, though, based on the commandment that “Thou shall not kill” and Jesus’ repeated healing of the diseased, disadvantaged, and, a couple of times, the already dead, that we are called to care radically for the lives and the well-being of others. But if we, as Christians and Americans, were to do so without hypocrisy, we’d need to think about a few salient issues. First, as an American, do we believe in the separation of church and state? If yes, can we impose our Christian understanding on non-Christians via the government? I’d say we cannot. If we no longer care about the separation of church and state, does that mean other religions can impose their religious priorities on us? It’s something to consider. Second, if we hold the example of Christ as our rationale for banning access to abortion, is that where the Bible would have us start? Wouldn’t the words of Jesus lead us first to selling all that we own and giving it to the poor? Wouldn’t the words of Jesus compel us next to care for the sick, visit the prisoner, and refuse violence, even in matters of self-defense? Didn’t Jesus quite radically show compassion for women others were looking to shun or punish? And anyway, aren’t we advised to take the logs out of our own eyes before taking the specks from our neighbors’ eyes? Aren’t we told that we can only throw the first stone if we are completely without sin? And didn’t Jesus himself decline to throw a stone in that scenario? Doesn’t this mean that even if we were to dismiss the separation of church and state, we’d only be able to punish others for their actions AFTER we had already meticulously followed the very tall order of completely turning ourselves over to the wellness of others, at which point we’d be loath to punish others because our hearts were more concerned with caring for them than punishing them?

All of that Christianity talk is not to say that I think Christians should not work to reduce non-medically necessary abortions. I think we should. But we should do it through radical giving and hospitality, through compassion and support and community rather than punishment. We shouldn’t make laws that punish others for making choices we find immoral; we should pass laws that make it easier for people NOT to make those choices. See above. We’d pass laws that provide for women and children and families. We would give, not punish. An additional benefit to this strategy is that evidence indicates that these measures are far more effective at actually preventing abortions than legislating against them. It comes back to the ideas above. If it was really about love and life, we’d behave differently. If you’re concerned with punishing women for being in terrible situations rather than helping them out of those situations or helping them avoid them in the first place, you’re not acting Christ-like. You’re using Christ’s name and work in the worst kind of hypocritical way. And while we’re talking about what Christ would want, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t a fan of hypocrisy. If I remember the Gospels correctly, very little made him lose his composure, including temptation and crucifixion, but hypocrisy made him throw tables. Same, Jesus. Same.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The hunter is here...

 Exodus 12:2020-2021

I will pass through Egypt… and when I see the 

blood, I will pass over you. No destructive 

plague will touch you.


Each man is to

they must 

You are to 

The animals you choose must be 

without defect, and you 

Take care of them until 

when all 

must slaughter them at twilight. Then 

they are to take

That same night they are to

Do not 

Do not 

you must

This is how you are to 

We followed the rules and

followed the rules and

followed the rules

we stayed awake

we kept oil in our lamps

we wanted to look back, to

admire the shining, glowing city where

we used to live

we wanted to taste the fruit

to know the pleasure of the juice on 

our chins we believed it but we

also obeyed we walked

away without

weeping to save

each other to live

to know on the third crow

that we did what 

we were told

we painted the lintel and 

stayed inside with our

faces covered and the space

between us carefully measured

We followed the rules but

we were hunted and each night

forced to breathe into the dark 

together in exhaustion from 

following, from fleeing

We followed the rules but

we carried the enemy with us inside

our aching shoulders and cramped

muscles, the bones of our 

feet cracking, heels bloody

We painted the lintels with the blood

and behind them, under them

fell into frightened dreams 

We followed the rules but

I heard him in the dark hours

before any light

pulling his heavy feet up through

crunching breaking snow and 

smashing back to an 

inevitable beat

We followed the rules but

the snow erased the 

blood we left and

the hunter is here

sniffing the door behind which 

I stop my breath



Sunday, August 8, 2021

Why I Go on ASP

If you already know me, you know that I am a high school teacher and that this past school year was...not easy. If ever there was a year to take the summer completely off and stare into space for ten weeks, it was this year. But on July 4th, I found myself--once again--in a big white van full of teenagers on the way to Kentucky. The first time I made such a journey was when I was 14 years old, and since then, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve gone back on ASP. These days, I sit up by the steering wheel with a GPS soundtrack instead of jammed into the furthest back row with three good friends and a pile of pillows and cassette tapes of REM and The Cure, but the essentials are the same. ASP isn’t easy, but there are reasons why I keep going, and the apostle Peter and Julie want me to give you an account for what it is that keeps bringing me back. This morning, I’d like to share why I keep going back to ASP.

The first reason is that it’s always an adventure. This year we had the new struggle of trying to follow Covid procedures and figuring out how to navigate the logistics of the center, which meant that the females in the group were staying in a place accessible only by van, separate from the men and the campus where dinner and evening gatherings were. And devotions and materials were somewhere else. And breakfast was in town. The first two days had an additional layer of “Where should I be right now? And where should the van be? And how can we supervise all of these different areas with at least two adults in each one? ...Where should I be right now?” But along with that adventure came the moment that made me laugh harder than I had in quite a while. After unloading Rick and AJ and the tools Rick would need to do an extra water-pipe repair after dinner, the girls and I drove the van part way up the mountain to the female living quarters. We were going to be last in line for our showers and we were hungry and tired and wet from a sudden rainstorm that had taken us by surprise at the work site. “Go fast!” the girls said. But as I started up the incline, we heard the big cooler of ice water slosh and tip over. I couldn’t look back, but Eve and Aubrey and Leah could. They screamed. Eve unbuckled and catapulted over the seat into the back of the van. “What?! What’s happening?” I asked, as I slowed down. “Don’t STOP!!” yelled Eve, as the wave of ice water she had been trying to hold back with her arms overtook her as I decelerated. Everything we had in the van, including Eve, was drenched. The sight of the ice and water bursting from the back of the van when I opened the doors combined with the fatigue of the day set me off into fits of laughter. It still makes me smile.

The second reason involves a little snapshot into the life of our homeowner. Debbie (name changed) worked for a Title I preschool 45 minutes from her house (in good weather,) making not quite enough money to make ends meet. Her husband, a former big rig driver, claimed to be either really lucky or really unlucky--he’d been struck by lightning three times. I’m not sure if repeated electrocution was the cause of his illness, but he is not well and needs a wheelchair along with other medical care. He can no longer work. One day Debbie came home to find her husband had fallen out of his wheelchair and had drifted in and out of consciousness on the floor all day long. She worried about leaving him alone and decided that when the school year ended, she would retire. Then her car broke down. She had to decide to fix the car or fix her house or keep leaving her husband unattended. In the winter, her uninsulated house was so cold that when she opened her kitchen cabinets, it felt like opening the freezer, but she had to fix the car and she had to retire to care for her husband. And so, she told us many times, we were the actual real-life answer to her prayers. She had been praying for months, asking God what she should do, and God sent us. 

To have someone say, “I asked for a miracle, and God sent you” and to know that (a) I was part of God’s response to one of his beloved and (b) I could have chosen not to be is a realization that really gives me pause. Over the course of seven weeks, 40-some people agreed to be the hands, feet, tape measures, saws, and hammers of God in answer to Debbie’s prayers, and I got to be one of them. It’s quite a privilege.

And I’d like to explain one more reason I keep going on ASP. ASP doesn’t just give Debbie and the other homeowners hope, it provides a much-needed booster to those of us who are really just there to supervise and empower our youth to be the answer to prayers. If you haven’t seen a teenage girl become the master of the circular saw, you’ve missed a great joy in life. Watching a group of high school students work together, cheer each other on, try out new skills and power tools, make calculations, remind each other to hydrate, hold the ladder or climb the ladder, show their peers and elders grace and a sense of humor in the presence of the inevitable but frustrating errors and ice water mishaps is a major source of hope for me. 

God doesn’t promise that you’ll never need to utter a desperate prayer, and God knows many of us did so during the last year, but the Bible does tell us stories of people whose desperate prayers were answered in unexpected ways. So if this year, more than others, made me want to do nothing, this year, more than others, I needed ASP to show me that the kids are OK, that there is still goodness and selflessness and laughter in the world. I saw it in Bell County, KY, and it came home with me and lives here too. We are the answer to each other’s prayers.

“So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” --Galatians 6:9

Friday, April 2, 2021

Waiting in Line at the DMV on Good Friday in a Pandemic

When I arrive, 30 minutes before opening,

the line, everyone six feet separate,

stretches past an ice cream shop and a donut shop

through an empty lot of lifeless weeds.

By 7:30 a.m., the line extends

down a side street, and people have brought lawn chairs.

The sun has risen, but the air is 22 degrees, 

and my toes hurt. One must suffer, 

one way or another, at the DMV.

We pilgrims are silent.

The man two people behind me tries three times

to get the man between us to admit his humanity

to chuckle, to confess, to agree,

but the man only grunts. He knows the rules: 

it may be a sunny morning, 

and Christ might have died for us,

but we are in line at the DMV.

As I planned my mission,

my husband asked me, “Can you imagine

working every day for forty years

at the DMV? Wouldn’t you hate people too?”

But a woman in a Carhartt coat 

and warm, sturdy boots works the line.

She holds the book I brought about the Little Rock Nine

but am too frozen-fingered to open

as I check that I have the right paperwork.

She calls me honey, like I’m her beloved

niece and not some 46-year-old woman shivering

in the bright morning sun in an empty lot

on the morning of Good Friday.

I AM the Beloved 

she serves at the DMV.


Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Danger of Partial Data

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

 “a writer is someone who forces what's living in their head to pay rent” (@patricknathan on Twitter)

The following was in our staff newsletter last week:

D/F Data Updates - [Numbers of D's and F's broken down by grade--removed to protect any privacy issues that might exist.]

If you have a student earning a D or F, they should be invited to your Extended Learning Session every opportunity that exists for your class. 

Beyond the statement that “they should be invited to your Extended Learning Session every opportunity,” no commentary was included. And yet somehow this news item feels judgey. As a student of language and communication, I want to think about why that is. 

  1. Statistics about D’s and F’s have not previously been communicated to us--at least not that I can remember. Their inclusion in the letter implies...something. The assumption I leap to is that these numbers are (a) high and (b) unacceptable. They seem high and unacceptable to me, at least. 

  2. This information was not accompanied by any promise that teachers have been, are, or will be engaged in discussion about why these numbers are what they are.

  3. The only commentary, although couched in passive voice, was still about what teachers should do about this. 

  4. There’s a lot of data left out.  For example, it might be informative to include the following data:

    1. Attendance: is there overlap between who attends class in any form and those passing classes? (Shouldn’t there be? If kids can pass high school without showing up to class, is high school even worth it?)

    2. Attendance: of the students who *can* attend in person, how many actually ARE showing up in person? For those that have selected to be in-person but are attending remotely, what are their reasons?

    3. Attendance: when we invite students to extended learning periods, how many show up? (Note: I invited 12 students to my 1st extended learning period today, and one kid showed up. That one kid was NOT one of the 12 I invited but one who showed up to class earlier in the day and wanted some extra help on an assignment.) What “should” happen when we invite and they do not attend?

    4. Attendance: of the students who are marked “present” how many of them show evidence of actually being intellectually present? How many log in and walk away from their computers? How many would respond if called on in class, and how many would be not there and leave a big, gaping, awkward hole in the conversation?

    5. Attendance: How many of the students who are marked present arrived partway through class and/or left early?

    6. Effort: How many of those F’s were earned on work done in class during class hours when the student was doing nothing? How many of those were non-responsive when a teacher tried to assist?

    7. Non-school-related issues: How many of those F’s are associated with students who have lost a parent or loved one to COVID? How many are working to help out their families?

    8. Habits: How many of those students have not turned in any work for the last six weeks but fully intend to complete 18 weeks worth of work in the 18th week and expect teachers to grade 18 weeks of work in a matter of hours? How many did that last semester, last year, for the last six years? Have we created this problem? In trying to solve the problems of differentiation and standards based grading vs. traditional grades have we accidentally caused students to develop habits that will ultimately not serve them very well? 

    9. Trends: How different are these numbers from past years? How many students are represented by these numbers? Is one student failing five classes counted five times?

    10. Ownership: Can we have a conversation about how often in past years I would stand very close to a student and stare at him/her until he/she reluctantly started to write? Would I do that again if my student were coming to school? Of course. Should I? That’s another conversation altogether.

  5. Finally, the real knife buried in this data is the unvoiced implication that somehow teachers should solve this problem. But HOW? We’ve been solving problems five ways from Tuesday (is that the phrase?) for a year now. We’ve learned how to teach remotely and THEN how to teach when five kids are in the room and the rest are (supposedly) remote but with their cameras and microphones off. I’ve tried SO many new things. I’ve implemented every bit of teaching wisdom I know: nurturing low-pressure conversations and interactions, connecting to prior knowledge, linking everything six times so you can’t MISS getting to it, planning every lesson down to the tiniest detail so that it’s all ready to present in multiple modalities, reading the books out loud, providing graphic organizers for thinking, small group, large group, individual instruction, Edpuzzles, Padlets, Jamboards, social annotation, Kami, Peardeck, Poll Everywhere, collaborative slides, accepting late work, offering individual help…. I’m saying that if I knew what else to do, I would have already done it, but I’m already working harder with less feedback and less reward, and I just don’t know what else I can possibly do. You can show me evidence that I’m doing it wrong, but without helping me see how to do “it” right, without offering some sort of assistance, the judgement feels un helpful and frustrating at best.

  6. Is the same level of innovation, effort, support, grace, and trust that I’m daily extending towards my students, including the ones who log in and walk away, being shown to me? It doesn’t feel like it.

Thursday, February 25, 2021--More Data

In December, the week before Christmas, while we were fully remote and ending the semester, the district mandated that I give my students a survey about student engagement. “Well,” I thought, “this is bad timing! Still, I really do want to know what motivates my students and why they are and are not involved.” My colleagues were upset about the survey, but I thought, “Meh. I do want to know what kids are really doing behind their dark screens and when they don’t respond when I ask them questions out loud or in the chat.” Then I opened the survey. It wasn’t about the students, really. It wasn’t about how much sleep they get. It wasn’t about how often they have open other tabs and are doing other things. It wasn’t about if they have their phones in front of them during class. It wasn’t about if they are listening to music with lyrics while they try to read difficult texts. It wasn’t about if they have a quiet place to study, much less “attend” school. It wasn’t about if they are “going to school” from bed with the lights off (side note: I have since had several students tell me this is what they do.) It wasn’t about whether they complete work independently or even accept that responsibility as their own. It wasn’t about if they do work during class time when class time and support are provided. Nope. The survey asked questions like “When you feel like giving up on a difficult task, how likely is it that this teacher will make you keep trying?” (For the record every single one of my students who actually took the quiz said I would probably “make” them keep trying.) It turned out that this survey about student engagement was less about students and more about teachers. I saw why my colleagues were angry.

As I said, this was given mid-December, and today, more than two months later, we were given the results. We were told we weren’t required to look at them this time, but of course I knew I would. At first glance, they are pretty demoralizing. The survey opens up to a home page with a summary of results. My summary said that more than half of my students responded “positively” to questions about me having high expectations, my pedagogical effectiveness, and my student-teacher relationships. A dismal (to me) number responded “positively” to valuing the subject I teach and class engagement. Ugh. That smarts. But then you can dig in a little further. My results said I was below the school and district average in almost every category. (Also, I could see how I compared to social studies teachers which seems like an odd piece of data to offer me.) So...that’s depressing.

But here’s the thing: that data doesn’t include a lot of potentially telling information. Should I use this information to make my students see my subject as relevant and valuable? Of course! But what that data does not show is that I teach students who chose NOT to take the AP courses and, for the most part, the honors courses offered. This survey is taking a group of students who, before they arrived in my class, decided that English was not really where they wanted to spend their time and energy. Then they surveyed them the week before Christmas and while fully remote during a pandemic and asked how important English is to them and then, in February, sent me data saying that my students don’t value my class. Oh. So that stings.’s also sort be expected? Kids who chose not to take the challenging English classes don’t value English? Got it. Other teachers scored a lot higher than I did, but some of them who teach electives and AP start on second or maybe even third base. That’s not reflected in the data. 

You know what else is not reflected in the data? How many books the kids had in their homes growing up, a data point that’s been shown to be statistically significant. Also not reflected: are you a native English speaker? Some of my students are not. Is this true for AP teachers? Also not reflected: how many books have you read in the last five years? A student today told me he hasn’t read a whole book in many years. (For the record, this student also told me a couple of weeks ago that my class is his favorite--not because it’s rigorous, mind you.) Also not reflected in the data: how did my non-AP students rank their other classes? If the point I should take from this is that I should work to make my subject matter feel relevant to my students, then yes, I agree. But comparing my ratings to teachers who teach students who self-selected to take AP courses feels, well, really unfair.

Then I dug a little deeper into the questions. When a student said they were “somewhat interested” or “somewhat excited to go to class” or “somewhat eager to participate,” that was counted as a negative response. So if many of my students who self-selected to not take AP or honors classes said they were “somewhat” excited about my class, that was counted against me. What in the actual [bleep] are we doing to teachers here?

Finally, it appears to me that only 50 of my students actually took the survey. For the record, I teach more than 50 students.

I know for certain that the results of this survey demoralized more than just me. If I’m assuming positive intent, I can see that it was intended to help us reflect on what we are doing well and what we need to work on. Acknowledge. But here again, this information is being shared with us in a way that instead of spurring me to greatness makes me feel like I am, again, a miserable failure. I am less than my peers--who teach more motivated and confident students. My students feel negatively about the value of my class (except that I will “make” them keep trying and I will “make” them explain their answers. Oh, and 97% think I’m extremely knowledgeable about my subject, so there’s that) in comparison to my peers whose students selected to take a higher-level course or maybe even a non-required course. 

This summer, a friend posted on social media a scientific study and in their (staying gender neutral) summary commented that masks are only minimally effective in protecting you from the coronavirus. “Is this true?” I wondered. If it is true, what are we to do? So I waded through the whole study, which was filled with A LOT of numbers and terminology that I don’t encounter much. At the end of the study, the scientists commented that the study focused ONLY on the effect for the person wearing the mask and the fact that the protection level was small did NOT mean that masks are not effective at reducing community spread of the virus if everyone wears one, that other studies had shown that the way the masks are effective is not for the wearer but for the people around the wearer. If everyone wore a mask, everyone would be safer. I feel like teachers--at least at my school-- are being given only the misleading summaries. We are being shown only part of the data and, because we care an awful lot about what we do, we’re taking it personally. Indeed, if we were not meant to take it personally, what are we meant to do with it? You can show me where I need to improve, but if you show me where I fail to measure up to other teachers teaching different students, what can I do with that information but feel sad and ineffective and ponder what else I should maybe do with my life?

If teachers were to tell students that they were getting a failing grade because we were only “somewhat” excited to grade their essays and then told them how they compared unfavorably to all of their peers, even though we knew full well those peers were taking totally different classes, what would we expect to happen? Are teachers not also human? 

Data is good and useful, but partial data can be dangerous, insulting, and counterproductive.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021



Today, last day of my 46th year,

I noticed, walking down a hallway, that

I seemed to have grown. Maybe my head was

tilted at a new angle, or my spine sent

energy flowing upward. Maybe it was

the shoes I wore to go with

the pearls I wore to go with

my new vice president.

What a pleasure it will be to awake,

to be 46 and just a few hours,

to feel myself in the warm middle but

celebrating a body that feels new.