The answers lie in the questions

I’ve wanted to be a teacher since Ms. King’s fourth grade class at Bill Hefner elementary. Ms. King, if you’re reading this, you were the shit and I thank you for helping realize that I was that kid.

I was that kid who asked my teachers for leftover worksheets or overheads so I could go home and teach my stuffed animals all about sentences. I would line them up, each with a pencil in hand, in front of the chalkboard my stepdad made me.  I was that kid who would lend out my books to friends, fake glasses posed on my nose as I cataloged which book they’d borrowed. I was that kid who wanted to get in front of the class and show everyone that I knew how to do things. I still am that kid, but I have found that that kid has more ideas and passion than I originally gave her credit for.

It is no secret that there are problems within the school system, but it seems to be a secret to the administration on just how to fix those problems. After receiving my BS in English Education and learning just how I was supposed to impart knowledge to the future administration, I decided that public school was not going to be where I made change happen. There were simply too many papers and tests and board members in the way of everything I wanted to try and everything I thought was useful for my students. So I tried a new route and realized that I wasn’t the only teacher having this problem.

When I taught Composition at ECU, I found that a majority of my students were not only intimidated, but often confused by the idea of creative license. What a novel thought for an instructor to not only genuinely ask for your opinion, but allow you to structure it in more than one way.  At the beginning of a new semester, my students would repeat similar questions and sentiments:

“This needs to be five paragraphs, right?”

“I’m not really sure how to write a thesis.”

“You can start a sentence with ‘and’?”

“I thought you should never begin or end on a quote.”

“I was always told that you can’t use ‘I’ in your papers.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever actually written a research paper.”

“What’s analytical writing?”

These students were in college—many of them even took AP English. And through no major fault of their own, they were victims of American public school narrow-mindedness. Now before I go any farther, let me qualify that statement: I am in no way placing complete blame on the public school teacher. I have been there and understand how hard it is to be creative and demonstrate variety when you have objectives and deadlines and supervisors to deal with. That being said, I have encountered too many teachers and too many of their students who are stuck in conventional ways and rules when it comes to language and writing. Language is ever evolving; the instruction of it should reflect that.

So when faced with those questions and statements of rules and regulations, I would smile and shake my head slightly. Forget it, I would respond. Forget everything you have ever learned in high school about writing. Here, you are not writing for an end of year test. In my class, you will not receive a zero on your paper if you repeatedly make the same grammatical mistake. (I won’t be happy, but you won’t get a zero.) Here, your content and conventions will be weighed equally.  When you leave my class, if you forget everything else, remember at least these three things:

1. Always ask questions

I could not stress this enough. Always, always, always ask questions. No questions, no answers. At the heart of every great piece of writing lie questions. Questions about the world and how we respond to it. Even if you think you already know the answer, it is vital to know what question you are answering. The answer to life may be 42, but what is the question??

2. What’s not there is just as important as what is there

Say I give you a picture of a house with a girl in front of it. You describe it to me in great detail—the girl and her dress, the house and its faded curtains and open, empty garage, the overgrown yard and what appears to be a broken tractor in the background.  But what’s missing? Where are her shoes? Why is the garage empty? Why is no one else in the picture? No other houses? There lies the story.

3. The best of writers were the ones who challenged the rules

What I teach my students is not set in stone. The rules I tell them are more guidelines than anything else. I give them tools to help them and show them how to best use those tools in various situations.  If they figure out how to use those tools in new ways and apply them to new situations, then I have done my job. If they decide to acknowledge what I’ve given them, but change the way things are done, then maybe I can learn something new from them.

It takes me at least whole semester to convince my students that I don’t know everything and that’s ok, but that I will share what I do know and that writing isn’t such a horrible thing once you’re allowed some wiggle room.

So all this rambling leads me to my questions (for it is imperative to always ask questions):

  1. How can we change the system when the system won’t acknowledge what it’s doing wrong?
  2. How can we convince teachers that variety is essential to learning and that what we teach today might not apply tomorrow?
  3. How do we help our students keep that excitement for learning that many of them had when they first started school?
  4. How do we know that what we are teaching them is what they really need to know?

I have opinions for each of these questions, but not necessarily answers. I’m a teacher—I don’t always have all the answers. But I’ll be damned if I don’t keep asking questions.

Big girl, you are beautiful

One of my favorite shows is The Biggest Loser.  What can I say? I’m a sucker for success stories and almost every person on the show is there to make a positive, healthy change to their lifestyle.  For some of them, it’s a life or death matter.  I like how the trainers on the show focus on being healthy and achieving goals before they focus on looking good. Though one of the goals is always to lose a bunch of weight, it’s still a slightly different tone than the normal American media. At the end of the show, the contestants always focus on how much better they feel and how much more they can do and then talk about how awesome they look. If I’d dropped 200 pounds, I’d point out how awesome I look all the time.

I am currently 150ish pounds (a healthy weight for a 5’6″ woman) and wear anywhere between a size 8 and a size 14, depending on the store and cut of the garment. While I am confident in my appearances and try to maintain a healthy lifestyle, I constantly critique my body. This is something all women do, whether they admit it or not.  A child of divorced parents, I grew up with varying ideas of what beauty is. Beauty at my dad’s house is defined in a more traditional manner (thin, active, etc) than at my mom’s house (curvy, lively, etc). With the media sneaking its way into every space of my daily life, the constant influence of my upbringing, and the ideas and thoughts of my friends and those closest to me, my idea of beauty has become broad and accepting.  Although, like any woman, I am often not as accepting of myself as I am of others. And like I said, I am confident in my appearances, but we all have our weaknesses.

What has really got me stuck on this subject lately is the following video one of y friends posted:

It is part of a documentary by Jean Kilbourne–a long-time warrior against the damaging effects of advertisements. Like I said, I always thought I was above these ads. I don’t wear much make-up, I haven’t been a size 2 ever, and I am often upset by how skinny these girls look. But I’m beginning to realize that I’m still affected by these images: Some of the clothes I want to wear fall better on a taller and slimmer figure. I often wish my unruly curls could be tamed and luscious, if just for a day.  And when I buy my workout equipment, I want to be as toned as the people on the cover.

And still I know that I am not the worst off. When Kilbourne talks about the model who died of Anorexia, I think of my friends who have had or are currently battling eating and body image disorders. I have seen their daily struggles and it kills me to know that my words will not change how they see themselves or the value they place in a number on a scale. Kilbourne says that “our society’s obsession with thinness is a public health problem.” A public health problem indeed.

So the idea is more that we should focus on health than beauty, right?  I exercise often and don’t eat too unhealthily (I was blessed to not have a sweet tooth), but when I think of getting healthy, three things come to mind: I want to look good, feel good, and be healthy.  Should it not be the other way around? Shouldn’t I want to be healthy, feel good, and then look good? I know the answer to this epidemic isn’t easy and certainly isn’t a quick fix, but I think it can start with awareness. Ignorance may be bliss, but knowledge is power and I think it’s time we educate ourselves. How  do we get healthy, appreciate our bodies as they are, and look past the numbers and look more to the abilities?  We start by questioning what is around us and not accepting what is given to us as fact.

And as for the media, if only they could be a little more appreciative of all sizes, shapes and colors.