True Story: In 1976, I sat in a first grade classroom at Roswell North Elementary in Roswell, Georgia. My teacher wanted us all to learn about ourselves and one another. One by one, she pointed us out as she moved through the long columns of terrified students, and we told our classmates about our heritages. Students more or less proudly admitted to being half-this or a quarter-that. We didn't talk about lineage in my house. I don't think it ever occurred to anyone to do so really. We were American. At some point, I'm sure I realized I looked (mostly) Norman-French, like most Americans of western European descent, but genealogy? I don't think anyone cared in my family until my paternal grandmother went on a lineage kick sometime after I reached adulthood. What I recall about that day in first grade was my feeling of dread, able to be worked into a frenzy as my peers rattled off relationships with distant lands. I had lots of time to stoke that knot of inferiority, too, since my last name began with W and we were seated alphabetically. Just plain American? Not a single kid in class had made that claim. How dumb. By the time she reached me, I blurted out the only nationality I could think of whose flag hadn't already been planted in the dingy linoleum floor.
"I'm half Russian."
In a time when the Iron Curtain still remained firmly closed between our world and the U.S.S.R., in a time when nasty epitaphs about those people left mouths at dinner tables as soon as the amens were finished, my claim was not met with overwhelming approval but with silence. I remember looking at the Cherokee kid a couple seats over and thinking, "At least I'm original," before wanting the floor to open and swallow me. If only I'd known then how much Native American blood he and I shared, I might have felt differently. Since then, I have tried, not always meeting with exceptional success, to make sure my children know their roots.
Roots give us the prologue of our narratives, though it will be yet our bodies crafting our songs, our branches the epilogues of how future's winds scattered our seeds toward fortune or calamity. Roots give us the strength and agility to dance with Tomorrow's vagaries and sleep with Yesterday's ghosts. Roots are the bloodlines of our humanity.
I've often laughed as I told my little "I'm Russian" ditty, just a marginal side note to the story of Stephanie. Now, having finished The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez before the sun woke today, I remember this piece of my past a little differently. Alma - the most believable heroine I've met in a long time - and I share a number of traits in common (though perhaps not so many as Celia and I), despite my rather obvious whiteness and my advanced degrees and my fertility and my employment. We are so alike, I spent long, long minutes weeping this morning when the thing I will not name (for I shall not ruin this beautiful book for anyone) happened. Yes, yes, Henriquez' language is beautiful, the scene perfectly depicted, the atmosphere raw and unavoidable, but none of these is why I wept. I wept, because I am Alma, and she is I.
As Celia says in this national treasure of literature, "It's amazing, isn't it, what parents will do for their children?"
Celia could not know the great truth of what she told Alma at that moment, but I do, and now, so does Alma.
The Book of Unknown Americans is, loosely, the story of how families and individuals from varying parts of Latin America arrived in Delaware to begin new lives, how Alma and her husband Arturo brought their daughter Maribel to Delaware so that she might heal after a traumatic brain injury, how people's lives become intwined in so-often ordinary ways. This book rides the waves of life, like all of us do, the waves of economic caprice, like all of us do, the waves of love, like all of us do. The extraordinary beauty of The Book of Unknown Americans lies in Henriquez' language, in her ability to show us why we keep putting one foot in front of the other every day (Arturo: "You think I don't breathe you and dream you every single day of my life?"), and in the faces and hands and hearts of the people who populate Fito's apartment building, the people Henriquez chose to knit into a family. Those who read The Book of Unknown Americans will recognize instantly two things: 1) how fortunate they are to be made part of this family, and 2) the obligation being part of that family confers to not look away from their pain; it's ours now, too.
On the back cover of The Book of Unknown Americans a snippet from the Minneapolis Star Tribune's review states, "A remarkable novel that every American should read." I cannot agree more. On Monday, I'll be passing my copy along to the president of my college, a man I know shares a deep and abiding sense of duende for the Hispanic-Americans among us - documented and not - we do not distinguish, for how can we with any honor and integrity of our own? He will love this book as I have. He will see himself in Arturo, in Rafa, in Mayor and Micho - who broke my heart in places I thought long ago beyond more destruction. And then he will pass this book along to someone else. I will recommend The Book of Unknown Americans to my eldest daughter, who teaches second grade in a Title I exceptionally high need school where most children aren't struggling inner city African American children but migrant Latino kids whose parents want their children to have a better life but who are terrified to attend parent-teacher conferences because they don't have even fundamental English skills to talk to the teachers. (As an aside, my daughter's principal was just awarded Principal of the Year this week for his truly tireless work on behalf of these unknown Americans.) I have already recommended this book to all of my students this term, and if 10% of them read it - some of whom are the products of these unknown Americans - I will have achieved something remarkable.
Henriquez is marked. As a writer. Her talent exists beyond the letter, word, and spirit of language. In the very best moments of Gabriel García Márquez, Laura Esquivel, (my beloved poet) Pablo Neruda, and even Borjes and Fuentes rise and continue to rise on two simple acts we, as writers, ignore at our stories' peril: writing our humanity and ignor(ance) of convention. Henriquez is marked by these two on every single page. It isn't contrived narrative or poor dialogue that make us lay down a book before its completion but affected emotion and slavish dedication to genre and formulaic convention. Nothing in The Book of Unknown Americans is contrived. Every moment, narrative and engaged, is authentic and human in the ways of her predecessors (and reminds me why I started my undergraduate career lo those many years ago as a Spanish literature major). Further, this novel defies conventional genre description, and why should it not? Like Alma and Arturo's daughter Maribel, why shouldn't The Book of Unknown Americans just be itself? It is perfect just as it is.
Go. Read this book. You are incomplete until you do.
"I haven't had tomorrow."
I want to begin with a few numbers. Not too many of them.
First, let's establish that all violent crime rates have been relatively stable for the past fifteen years. Acknowledging that...
- Males commit approximately 90% of all violent crime in America, and males are the recipients of most of that crime (77%). However...
- For the 14% of violent crimes made up by domestic homicide cases - more 2400 in the US every year - women are 70% of the victims, and females are 5x as likely to be a victim of interpersonal violence as males.
- Exploding the crime base across all female homicide victims, 64% were killed by an intimate partner or family member.
- Females are the victims in 82% of all sex-related homicides.
In towns and cities across America, backlogs of untested rape and DNA evidence kits sit gathering dust, risking contamination, getting lost. In small jurisdictions, these may number in the one-to-two hundreds. In large regions, in the thousands.
A decade ago, renowned scholar Elaine Murphy told us that being born female was dangerous to our health. She meant dangerous to women's physical, mental, and reproductive health. However, it behooves us to acknowledge that our female-ness is generally dangerous to our health in ways that are much more pervasive than even Elaine Murphy described. We are well aware for instance, even if the privileged majority remain loathe to admit the truth, that racial bias continues to thrive in American jurisprudence. So, it would seem, does sexism.
According to the Department of Justice, as many as 80% of rapes go unreported. Half of victims don't report their rapes because they fear they won't believed. Two-thirds don't report because they fear their attacker either won't be prosecuted or, if prosecuted, won't be convicted.
Sexual assault is the only felony in America in most states where the testimony of the victim is all that's required to bring an indictment, and 67% of victims fail to report for fear of disbelief and/or an inadequate justice system. As women comprise 82% of all victims in sex-related crimes, and as the OED defines sexism as prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex, one can hardly deny an allegation of sexism in our system of jurisprudence. At least in the area of rape.
This is very simple.
If we were serious about rape, we wouldn't have in excess of 21,000 untested DNA and rape kits lying in warehouses and hospital storerooms around this country. We wouldn't have three states out of 50 who have enacted legislative reform with regard to evidence kits and 26 with no state reform and either no information on their backlogs (nine states) or limited information (17).
Being born female is dangerous to our collective health beyond the scope of Elaine Murphy's brilliant seminal exposé. Women are the victims of more than 1600 domestic homicides every year in America, and yet we persist in following outmoded models of handling domestic abuse within the civil/family court system, issuing DVPOs from family court judges and penalizing criminal infractions (when we penalize at all) with civil fines. Despite wide bodies of evidence that criminally domestic violent behavior should be treated as criminally violent behavior and despite considerable evidence from the NY integrated court system that a one-judge model sharply reduces violent incidents, states proceed with bifurcated systems and display shock and consternation when women die at the hands of their abusers.
63% of boys and young men under the age of 21 are currently in prison for murder doing time for killing their mothers' batters, because we have a system of jurisprudence designed to protect the property of our founding fathers' descendants (i.e., upper income white men) and punish those who threaten the property of our founding fathers' descendants. In America, when a child dies at the hands of another, there is a public outcry, because children are considered innocent and worthy of protection. But a woman?
Well, I'm sure she must've made a bad choice at some point along the way. Did anyone see what she was wearing?
52 Mondays is my 2015 project here on wrighterly. Each Monday, I'll post a different essay on some topic related to domestic violence (or a tangential topic). The purpose is to raise the level of dialog on these issues if only among the modest audience I currently enjoy.
Imagine you’ve set a date for lunch with a friend. When she arrives, your friend hands you a box of chocolates and says, “Go ahead. Have one.” The box looks for all the world like a standard, very nice box of chocolates, but when you open it and eat one, you’re transported to a Parisian chocolatier’s establishment. This isn’t good chocolate; this is chocolate the way the Charles V dreamt it should be made. I don’t have to tell you that you buy your friend lunch.
What does a hypothetical box of chocolates have to do with Teresa Frohock’s Miserere? Nothing and, yet, everything.
I’ll confess that I wanted to like Miserere long before it ever went to press. Teresa and I have chatted for a while across the Twitterverse. We’re both NC-based writers. She has a daughter and a cat. I have (three) daughters and a cat. I like to like the work of writers with whom I’ve already connected, and as Shakespeare so truthfully gave us, “I'll look to like, if looking liking move...” So, yes, I was predisposed to like this book. However, I’ll also confess that I’ve grown disenchanted with much of today’s literature, and predisposition toward liking cannot always overcome that hurdle. Miserere stood a better than even chance from the starting gate, but I feel as if I came to the work fairly.
Thus, let us consider my coming to Miserere as our hypothetical lunch date. I expected to enjoy myself. (I was, after all, the kid who read the back of the cereal box at breakfast simply because it had printed material on it.) What I found within moments of starting the story was the first taste of that first chocolate. As I continued, Teresa failed, time and again, to disappoint. Miserere stakes a claim as “dark fantasy/horror” and delivers both of these. I would characterize this tale as a fable for grownups.
Like so many categories of consumption, “high concept” fiction can be defined as “I’ll know it when I see it.” Miserere, regardless of genre label, certainly clears the high concept bar. The plot, intricate and requiring a complex host of characters, travels at speeds precisely parallel to the best works of non-fiction, full-steam action for a few chapters followed by a brief respite (i.e., break-narrative in non-fiction). These breathers are necessary for both the scaffolding of backstory and for the reader to have a moment’s pause, to feel a bit of relief. The pace of Miserere is, in great part, what renders the story itself believable, so believable we forget this is a work of fiction and fantasy to boot.
Plot only carries a novel so far, and Miserere rises above its competition due in large part to the world Teresa built around which to hang the story and to the people with which she populated that world. Constructed of four planes of existence, the principal action occurs on Woerld, the second plane (separating Hell from Earth) replete with the bastions of all Earth’s world religions. Woerld might be mistaken for an intellectual Utopia; all religious houses work together toward a common goal, the defeat of a common enemy. With war ever present in memory and in threat, Utopia this is not. Its peoples, many of whom are warriors culled from the third plane (Earth), live a dangerous and largely noble existence. From these, our protagonist begins our story, and we follow him on a hopeless path of redemption. How the story resolves itself is a mystery readers will have to learn for themselves. For myself, I left Miserere with only one question: Does Lucian realize that his pursuits of redemption in the eyes of God and in the eyes of Rachel are one and the same? I trust Teresa meant us to answer that one for ourselves.
Woerld, so richly conceived, delivered, and developed, will engross readers. Questions of free will versus determinism even in the face of absolute truth that cannot be denied will haunt readers just as they haunted Woerld’s inhabitants. And when readers face the ultimate acts of betrayal in this tale, regardless how prepared they think they are, their hearts will break.
For these reasons and so many more, thank you, Teresa. Miserere is a rare gem.
The sun has set on our International Day of the Girl 2013. It almost feels as if the day itself is a misnomer. I want to call 2013 the year of the girl. Who knew a movement could gain such clarity and such unity of voice over so few months? We’ve dreamt this before as a people, of course. No one forgets Dr. King, Jr., his speech, or the work wrought in his name after his assassination. This… this is different. What began as a clear voice chanting has grown into a roar, and I have a difficult time believing these girls will ever again be silenced en masse. Too many people have heard them. Too many have taken up their banner and march with conviction. Too few have the political capital any longer to stop them. The movement encourages us now to make every day the Day of the Girl, and I applaud this message. Yes, lets. At the same time, let’s bring International Day of the Girl fully to scale. If 2013 is not the Year of the Girl, I cannot imagine when that year could be.
We observed privately. Our community screening of Girl Rising is not until later in the month, and we opted to do something personal and personally meaningful rather than put off our observance of the day. Daughters No. 2 and No. 3 and I invited a small group of their girl friends and parents to join us for the afternoon and evening. We spent our first couple of hours at the marvelous Mary’s House in downtown, a transition house for single mothers in recovery where they can live with their children while they work on their personal paths to wellness. Our group of three 12-13-year-olds, four nine-ten-year-olds, and four moms prepared a meal of spaghetti, garlic bread, and brownies, and the seven girls served the mothers and their children dinner. (Serving may have been a little chaotic, but it was heartfelt and everyone wore wide smiles.) Before and after dinner, our four younger children played with the Mary’s House younger children as if they’d always been friends. Our daughters learned about the value of service, the breadth of their community, and that even in this land of so much material wealth, not all girls and women are touched with their privilege. I hope they want to return, our girls. I do.
After cleaning up, we left the residents to their evening free of further disruptions but grateful for the opportunity to have served them and their children. The eleven of us went to dinner and began our evening by reading the Girl Declaration. (I’d brought copies for everyone.) I asked the girls what their favorite parts were. Some liked the lettering and artwork. One liked the bit that reads, “This is the moment when the world sees that I am held back by every problem and I am a key to all solutions.” Several liked my favorite part, “I have a name and it is not anonymous.” This image is full of so much power.
I didn’t give them long to be excited by the hope in the Girl Declaration. In between drink orders and food orders from our server, I asked each girl to take a card from a bag I’d brought inside with me and read what her card had on it to the group. Each card bore a single fact from the Girl Effect stats page detailing disparities between boys and girls globally, particularly as those disparities pertained to education. (Given the tender ages of several of our girls, I steered clear of sexually oriented facts.) We paused as we read to see if any facts engendered discussion, and several did. Our girls were interested in adolescent and child marriages as these points were relevant to their own ages (and seemed very foreign to them). We also had some adult-led discussion on how education drives economic changes for girls in developing countries while drawing comparisons to the amount of education our girls already had. Several of the younger girls were astonished to learn they would be forced to leave school in another year or two (and one thought that would be extraordinarily lucky!), while the older girls realized they would no longer be able to go to school because they would already be housewives and, likely, mothers.
Finally, before our food arrived, I passed around another set of cards. Bearing the “I AM” IDG avatar but carrying the now-famous Lean In question, the girls were asked to write on their cards what they would do if they weren’t afraid. They didn’t sign them before sticking them back in the little bag I kept for the purpose, and around the table they went for someone else to draw and share with the group. Even two of the moms participated.
Several girls did take ownership of their cards once someone else had read them aloud, and feedback seemed positive and overwhelmingly supportive. Some cards came home with me anonymously written, which was fine as the instructions for the activity dictated no one had to claim his or her own as it was being read. Their responses were lovely, as was the discussion that ensued. One card spun its own discussion that seemed to touch many of the girls at the table: I would believe and accept my talents. This simple statement, made by one of our mothers, became a gift to all our girls, a may you always be encouraged to pursue your passions (and be told how very talented you are). I also watched as another mom agreed that she, too, had not been encouraged to pursue excellence (or much of anything) as a child, and I watched as our children watched them talk and realized that their mothers were not irrelevant.
What did our girls and moms say they would do if they weren’t afraid:
- I would believe and acknowledge my talents.
- Start a program for homeless animals or unwanted.
- I would fight. I would stand up for women’s rights. I will help the people who need it. If I get down then I will pop back up and be better.
- I would go to a graveyard and do the Ouija board.
- I would lean how to ride a bike.
- So, what I will do is to help raise money for homeless kids and adults to help pets, too.
- I’d kiss without apologizing.
- Write an album and publish it.
- I would publicly speak about the effects of depression and self-harm.
We ate, and as we did, we continued to share one another’s dreams, the things these girls would do if they weren’t afraid. Voices raised in support, encouragement, and empathy. I know how you feel, and but you can start with a little bit and then get bigger. And we talked about real fear, the fear of girls around the world who couldn’t go to school because the dangers of getting there were worse than the lifetime dangers of remaining uneducated, the fear of becoming a mother at the age our girls around that table had already reached, the fear of being forever unheard no matter how much one had to contribute.
We planted seeds, and none of us can say what garden will bloom from our efforts. The other mothers and I have already decided to make this a routine event in our girls’ lives, to not wait for IDG2014. Inch by inch makes a mile, and we have leagues to go before our work is done. Our girls are only beginning.
To learn more about the Day of the Girl movement and the organizations involved, please see the links included in Focus on Education Girls Globally.
I sat inside the perfect moment
it's nothing really, the coffee and chocolate
biscuit crumbling between my fingers
when I bothered to put down the pen,
and it occurred to me to share the timespace,
the balm of the breeze on my cheeks
and that singular winking star who flirted
as you once did
with your jock's arrogance
and your father's smile,
and I wondered if they still live there, your parents
in that house less than a mile from where I sat
surely they must,
but perhaps I should gift this small acme elsewhere
a deserving character (or undeserving one)
in a virgin manuscript, the pages as yet unspoilt
by error and wayward impulse,
waiting in the wings for just such a moment as this;
I read a review this week: no one writes like Segal
and mentally substituted my name -
now there's arrogance - and dreamt of the day
this moment wouldn't be quite so lonely
©Stephanie Wright 2013
"Yet the world has a way of reminding women that they are women,
and girls that they are girls." ~Sheryl Sandberg
I've been waiting several weeks to write this review of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. Waiting on myself to finish it between work, the home shift, and writing my own stuff to which I gave precedence until the first draft was finished. Some two months later, here we are.
First, a confession. From the outset, I girded myself, prepared to dislike Lean In. Not the concept; that wasn't it. Unlike Sandberg's early aversion to the stereotypical "bra burning, man hating" version of the word, I've never had difficulty proclaiming my feminism to whomever would listen. This didn't necessarily entail pinning a scarlet F to my chest. Often, my feminism made itself known in my active support for women and their needs. Thus, when I heard her interview on NPR's Morning Edition, I did two contradictory things. I felt myself lean away from her soft, non-threatening version of feminism, and I ordered the book that very day. Even before Lean In arrived in my perfectly suburban mailbox, I wrote the title and Sandberg's name on two sticky notes and gave them to two of my (male) staff members with the same comment for each. "You should order this for your wife. Today." I am nothing if not an untidy bundle of contradictions. My only regret on finishing the book is that I didn't do the same for my two (male) staff who don't have wives and/or aren't seeing people at the moment. And my lone female employee? I should pony up and buy her copy myself.
I haven't joined Lean In on Facebook. In another confession, I don't use Facebook very often. I do have a Facebook page, and once upon a time, I used it relatively often. The combination of having a daughter in college with whom I'm friends on Facebook (I'm not sure I recommend that for any parent) and a need to back away from so much public exposure of my private life led to a hiatus a couple of years ago. I'm toying with returning. So please don't burn me in effigy yet; there's no personal affront meant to Sandberg at all. Neither she nor the company has done anything wrong. (I have followed @leanin on Twitter if that counts.) I only mention this, because I haven't shared my own Lean In story on Facebook, but I will share it here as I work through my thoughts on the book. They are complex, as are the stories of the women who've chosen to lean in... and those who have chosen not to do so.
I know I'm not alone in what I'm going to say. I know this, because Sandberg discusses in Lean In multiple speaking engagements on "women in work" and related issues and how, after speaking, she hears from women worldwide that she's spoken to their lives and their hearts. Again, I am not alone in what I'm going to say. As I read Lean In, I found myself nodding at so many places and thinking she's telling my story. And she was. The tragedy of Lean In was that Sandberg told my story in all the wrong places, the places where I had chosen to lean away from the table (or not sit there at all, as happened a few days ago despite a male colleague entreating me to sit at the table and beside him), places where I felt pressured to make a choice I shouldn't have had to make... places where I had been subverted either by accidental bias or intentional malice, where my partner had not been a partner, where my own inner voice had damned (and dammed) my potential (like that recent choice). Perhaps worst of all, Sandberg wrote of the double standards within which we women operate that help to perpetuate our second class status. So, while I nodded and appreciated her ability to speak to me, I also lamented that she spoke to me so well.
Lean In is a must read for all men and women who want to advance economic and social equality for the sexes in a just, humane, and uplifting way.
I wondered for a good while as I read if I even had a lean in story to tell. I realized I did. Then I realized I had more than one and stories about more than just myself. Perhaps the most salient for me was the day I interviewed for the job I now hold, Director of Institutional Research, Effectiveness, and Reaffirmation for a community college that boasts 15,000+ students pursuing academic credentials and another 25,000+ pursuing job certifications and lifelong learning opportunities. I had a lot riding on the interview. The position was, in some regards, a long way from where I'd started on the career jungle gym Sandberg describes. I had also been out of work for twenty-one months and needed to land a job. At the same time, I wasn't willing to take just any job. I wanted something that appropriately matched my education and experience to the needs of the organization and would stretch my skills enough that I could learn new things on the job. I wanted to bring the best of myself to the college while also finding opportunities for my own growth.
After facing a lengthy interview process complete with about a dozen folks on the committee (including two vice presidents, an associate vice president, two people who would report directly to me, and sundry other people from around the college), I concluded my presentation and Q&A session. The interview broke, and I spent a couple of minutes one-on-one with the VP to whom I would report if I got the job. As I shook her hand to say goodbye, she explained that they still had a few other candidates to interview, they hoped to make a decision in the next couple of weeks, etc. I smiled, told her how much I respected the organization and how easy the fit between the position and my skills seemed, and said, "Please forgive me for saying so, but I hope the other candidates fall flat." I had never done anything like that before in an interview, but the VP, who is now the president at a sister college, burst out laughing and told me she hoped they did, too. A week later she offered me the job on a Friday, and even though she wanted me to start work the following Monday, I was able to successfully negotiate a later starting date as we had to relocate and I had to cope with school enrollments and after school care for my elementary aged children.
This story represents one moment in my life, or one sequence rather. Although I possessed an education and the requisite training to score highly in the selection and interview process, I needed to lean in to stick the landing. Sandberg discusses many such moments for herself and others. One of the aspects I appreciate most about Lean In is Sandberg's candor, which could not have been easy in some moments. I imagine that many of them caused her no small amount of pain to admit. Hurtful comments, damning press, self-doubt, and fear. This humility renders what is, in many ways, a call to arms also a very human story. If an editor, a beta reader, a friend said to her along the way, "Oh, really Sheryl, you shouldn't say that," then I'm glad she didn't listen. Not only do her personal anecdotes make Lean In real, they also temper the economics geek's numbers hand. I sense Sandberg and I have this in common, the desire to hide our emotional selves behind the research, and for this book, for women's issues in general, the data are clear and compelling. It's a simple matter to let them speak for us and shield our personal pain by doing so. For myself, I often give in to the temptation and lose the reader in the process. Sandberg doesn't. Lean In, while generously peppered with hard data in all the right places, never becomes pedantic, always retains its one-on-one conversational appeal. Kudos. I am impressed.
Although Sandberg focuses on the inequities that continue to plague women in the workplace, particularly women in middle and upper management in American companies, I do want to praise her for also addressing inequalities in both perceptions and realities for women who stay home and for men who do, too. This pleased me an inordinate amount, for my lovely, well educated sister regularly leans in… and is a woman who "works inside the home," as Sandberg describes it.
From my own perspective, my sister, too, knows how to sit at the table. I do not think we came by this trait genetically, for we are as different as beer and wine. (I'm the beer, she's the wine.) Both of our parents contributed to our ability to do the things for which Sandberg advocates: sit at the table, lean in, speak out. Our dad, the very epitome of American salesmanship, imbued our entire upbringings with the people skills necessary for connection and engagement, while our mother taught us that the concept of "girl" = "barrier" existed only in the minds of the unenlightened. We were lucky. I was lucky to do the first two years of my doctoral program at North Carolina State University during the years my sister did her final two years of undergrad; this was a bonding time for us. We got to know one another as women and as thinkers apart from family. A year later, she married her husband, to whom she is still married. He is a career naval officer, and they have two boys I don't get to see nearly enough.
My beautiful, intelligent, highly motivated sister now lives in Japan and works inside the home. This is her choice, certainly made easier by my brother-in-law's career choices but not necessitated by them. At the same time, she is the District Membership Chair for the Japan District of Boy Scouts of America. The district includes mainland Japan and Okinawa. She also instructs elementary aged children in yoga most days during the week at a Department of Defense school. For neither of these things does she earn a paycheck, but she does build her organizational skills (and network), management skills, skills in mentoring, budget, flexibility... There is almost no aspect of high level management (with the Boy Scouts) and no aspect of leadership and leadership development in which she is not investing in herself while she's doing the work she feels is most critical at this stage in her life, mothering. My sister is my hero.
Moments, chapters even, of Lean In flew by when Sandberg approached hero status for me, too. Slowly, I unpacked my predispositions toward disliking this book. The data I already knew. The anecdotes warmed me, and Sandberg's humility and grace infected me. (I'm pretty sure that was by design, but almost everything we do is. Spontaneity is nearly dead in the twenty-first century.) Two points bothered me, however, and I think both warrant a brief discussion.
In the first instance, Lean In's Chapter Three, "Success and Likeability" presents a wealth of research and personal stories regarding the perception of women in the workplace. If you've heard of Sandberg and Lean In, then you've heard about the interaction between sex and likeability in the workplace, the phenomenon that when men are successful, they are perceived as more likeable while the reverse is true for women. Aggressive is the term Sandberg cites most frequently as associated with successful women. Ouch. (I know this one up close and personal.) My point of contention with the chapter isn't the research. It isn't Sandberg's anecdotal evidence. I don’t like that Sandberg advocates we advocate for ourselves "with a smile." Sandberg willingly admits her own hope that one day the bias against successful women that leads to the inverse relationship between likeability and success in the workplace will reduce this necessity, but she advocates for the necessity nonetheless. I disagree. I believe that, so long as we perpetuate the "necessity," it will remain one. Further, the advice to advocate with a smile is almost at odds with Sandberg's later opining that she feels everyone in the workplace would benefit from "being nicer." Now that is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree; I only wish Chapter Three had been framed within this context.
My second issue with Lean In is more global. I want to begin with a caveat. I listened to Sandberg as I read this book. I leaned in to her and listened with both ears and an open mind. And I believed in what she said (exception above excluded). Thus, I believe in Sandberg's personal mission and the values that her parents instilled in her, particularly the value of helping others. This is, perhaps, the reason I wish Lean In spoke to all women and not just those in positions of leadership or in the position to one day be in a position of leadership. While some of the data contained within the covers of this book do speak to lower class and the struggling, squeezed lower middle class women in our world, the narrative of Lean In does not. These women do not have many, if any, opportunities to sit at the table, to lean in, to speak out. I understand that this book cannot be all things to all people. No book can. At the same time, Lean In seeks to give voice to those who silence themselves and to admonish society for its silencing of them. Sandberg speaks of women who work inside the home and of those who work outside the home. I do believe a chapter could have been provided to those who work inside the homes of those who work outside the home, of those whose work for non-humane wages perpetuates the perceptions that women should not sit at the table but lay it in readiness for their men. So long as we relegate these women to off-page status, to footnotes and by-the-way mentions, we are not making real progress.
Melinda Gates is quoted as saying, "All lives have an equal value." I believe that. Sandberg encouraged readers in Chapter Six of Lean In to find and speak their truth. I believe that, too. If the truth is that the world's perspective on women is unequal and that women perpetuate the biases against themselves, then we must speak to and for each of us, lifting the potential of all of us as we do.
Read Lean In. Be inspired as Faulkner said not to be better than your fellows but to be better than yourself as you close the cover on the final page. Then make the world better for women everywhere. Your daughters (and sons) will thank you.
An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't. ~Anatole France
I recently visited a blog to read an expert's view on the topic I wanted to launch today. (I anticipate returning to the topic more than a handful of times under various guises in order to do it justice.) I confess I didn't read the expert's post; an advert on the page captured my attention, and I focused on its message instead. The company eLumen examines student outcomes (i.e., assessment), and the advert as well as the corporate webpage I subsequently visited contained the following slogan, "Solving the problem that created the need for assessment in the first place." Having struggled with direction for the first essay on assessment and high stakes testing, these words provided me with a map, compass, and torch faster than you can say, "Jiminy Cricket."
It may seem as if January closed with me lambasting the PK-12 system and its teachers for not better preparing our public school children for college. While I do believe the system is broken, I have to believe that the reformations needed are possible, and I don't lay the blame at the feet of our nation's teachers. Further, I believe most do the best they can within the confines of their own educations, experiences, and the enormous pressures of a system that no longer recognizes itself. This, then, marks the beginning of a discussion on a topic so enmeshed with good intentions wedded with poor definitions we cannot hope to do more than fail at our endeavor without that discussion.
In short, our educational system has cast itself adrift and now wanders oceans afar from its mission.
To wit, in the spring of 2011, I received a letter from the school district attended by Daughter No. 2 (still attended by Daughter No. 2 and Daughter No. 3 and the district of which both myself and my sister are products). At the time, Daughter No. 2 was in the fifth grade. The letter explained to parents the end-of-grade (EOG) testing policy for the district. A scale score of three or four on the reading, math, and (for fifth grade only) science tests would be considered "proficient," while a score of one or two would not. In addition, students scoring a two would automatically retest, while students scoring a one would only retest on a parent's request. I don't know what other parents thought, but my take-away from this letter was that students scoring a two might be within striking distance of a three (particularly given test-retest effects). That is, they were considered meritorious of a retest, but "one" students were not. On further investigation, this policy revealed itself to be state and not local level policy. As with policy-setting in this country in general, local agencies (the LEAs) can adopt more stringent criteria for retesting than the state policy (i.e., they can require all ones and twos to retest), but they cannot adopt more liberal retest policies. That is, they must adhere to the state policy but can add on to it.
My problems with high stakes testing, including EOGs, EOCs, and the like, number in the dozens. As someone who helps collegiate programs with their own educational assessments, I don't have a problem with assessment on its own merits, but I have many issues with PK-12 assessment in its current iteration (and many prior ones, and many I'm sure I'll have more problems before we get it right). Thus, the initial caveat that this blog will see more posts on the topic of high stakes testing in our public schools; I simply cannot cover the range of issues in one essay. Today, I'll focus on mission drift and the most basic tenet of assessment… of all research when we get right down to it.
A little known truth of programs – be they educational or otherwise – is that the method by which they will ultimately be assessed drives (or should drive) their initial design. That is, if my program seeks to deliver mail from Point A to Point B in the shortest amount of time, I wouldn't design such a program so that its eventual assessment determines program efficacy based on the volume of mail delivered from Point A to Point B. That would make no sense. Lapsed time in delivery would be the assessment. Such is the case (or should be the case) with both educational programs and their assessments. The program-aspecific model looks a bit like the following:
One of my (many) issues with high stakes testing in America's public schools is that the testing itself morphed from policy into an assessment afterthought. Thus, educational assessment, no matter how eloquently defined in any district's public documents, doesn't follow the above model. That is, we were well on the way to educating the nation's children for some couple of centuries before we thought about an EOG or EOC. To put it another way, state systems of accountability don't seem to know what, precisely, the EOG or EOC should measure, and a basic rule of any instrument is that it can't be considered valid if it isn't measuring what it's intended to measure. I know, I know. Everyone reading knows exactly what an EOG or EOC measures. We all receive letters from our districts telling us every year what they measure. Here's what the official report from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has to say on the matter. "The North Carolina End-of-Course Tests (EOC) were developed …to provide accurate measurement of individual student knowledge and skills specified in the North Carolina Standard Course of Study…" In point of fact, North Carolina General Statutes allow for children to not be promoted based on EOG/EOC scores below the proficient level. Perhaps I'm making a false claim. Perhaps at least the state of North Carolina does know what it measures with these assessments.
I think not so much. See, tricky me, I truncated the document's statement above. What it really says is the following:
The North Carolina End-of-Course Tests (EOC) were developed for two purposes:
A very different statement, that. DPI can't have it both ways. They can't use EOG/EOC scores to test both individual progress and program efficacy. To return to my mail delivery example, that would be akin to my using a lapsed time assessment to determine both how quickly mail delivery occurred from Point A to Point B and how well the Mail Delivery System functioned as a management system of its employees to ensure that rapid delivery. The assessment works for one but not the other. With regard to high stakes testing in PK-12 (or even higher ed), the program determines the assessment, and you can't piggyback two outcomes onto a single assessment measure. To do so is to invite the sort of trouble we recently witnessed in the Chicago school system with thousands of teachers striking against unfair labor practices that were – at the end of the day – unfair.
On this single issue, I have two problems. Let's address students first, which in many ways also addresses teachers. A student – let's call her Paula – is in the third grade. At the end of the third grade, Paula will take an EOG for both reading and math. In North Carolina at least, she'll receive a scaled score of one, two, three, or four. If she scores a three or four, she'll most likely be promoted to the fourth grade. However, her EOG scores will also be factored into her final grades in both her language arts and math to the tune of a minimum of 25% of that final grade. Given that these tests generally contain between 30 and 40 items at the third grade level, this means we're willing to concede the sum total of what must be known about both language arts and math at the end of the third grade can be boiled down to these handful of items each. That idiocy aside, we're also willing to hinge a grade promotion or retention on the outcome of this test. We don't call them high stakes for nothing. Thirty-forty items can, in no way, be considered comprehensive. Nor can this method be considered fair (for either Paula or Paula's teacher). If Paula has a good testing day, she can conceivably raise a borderline grade, a grade where she might well have been retained for a year or have been referred for intensive remediation that would have helped her significantly to the point where she looks like a normal "C" student. I believe we're all used to the converse argument, equally valid, that a solid "C" student finds herself in sudden jeopardy of retention through a bad day testing or, worse, a bad case of the assessment doesn't fit the needs of the classroom. How can any of us believe 30-40 items to be truly comprehensive? As a final note on Paula, let's consider her year of study in the third grade. She hasn't been (or should not have been) preparing for an EOG in language arts and math. She should have been learning how to identify grammatical and spelling errors in sentences. How to read for comprehension. How write informational and creative essays of short lengths. She should have been learning the rules of multiplication and division. How to calculate perimeter and area. How to plot some simple points on a line. In doing these things, Paula's teacher would have been assessing her progress on a routine basis. These are the homework assignments, quizzes, and occasional tests about which all third graders groan. These are the marks of her comprehension, her burgeoning knowledge. To suggest otherwise, to suggest a 30-40 item EOG takes the place of that and determines her progression is offensive, not just to Paula but to her teacher, who knows her better than these few items ever will. To illustrate, I have yet to read a district report, state summary, or peer reviewed article that provides a look at the relationship between teachers' assessments of student achievement throughout a course and EOG/EOC assessment. Until I see that study, I will continue to maintain that students' assessment, particularly assessment related to progression, is best left in the gradebook.
EOGs and EOCs, at their core, are intended to be assessments of student learning outcomes, broad measures of an educational program's efficacy. I don't have a professional objection to such assessment for such a purpose. My objection lies in the evolution of the nature of these assessments into a high stakes venture for both students and teachers. A good many of the nation's public high schools are regionally accredited by the appropriate agency in their region (e.g., the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accredits most public high schools in North Carolina). Maintaining accreditation can be less a matter of choice than one of policy in some districts, but that's conversation for a different essay. I raise the issue of accreditation, because all accrediting bodies set standards for the assessment of student learning outcomes. Although schools are given wide latitude in how they develop and measure these, two principles underlie all efforts at this critical endeavor. First, student learning outcomes marry the classroom learning with the overall program objectives. That is, what does a curriculum hope to achieve, and how does the classroom support that achievement? The individual support(s) are the student learning outcomes. Second, student learning outcomes are never to be tied to a student's grades, progress, or graduation potential. Why? Because the measurement of student learning outcomes equals the measurement of the program's efficacy, how well the program is doing its job… how well the curriculum is performing, not how well the student performs. This is a subtle but oh so crucial distinction. Colleges and universities have found themselves on monitoring or probationary status with their accrediting bodies for linking student learning outcomes to classroom performance. My suspicion is that high schools will not be far behind. Do I believe this means we should have no EOGs or EOCs? Not exactly. I do believe we should have far fewer of them (but not for this reason), but I also believe that where we have them, the results must not comprise any portion of a student's grade in the relevant class and must not comprise any element of the decision to promote or retain the student. When a state or a district imposes these assessments as a measure of programmatic accountability, then I can get behind them (albeit fewer of them) when the results are disentangled from grades and promotion/retention.
And also from individual teacher accountability.
Rahm Emanuel, for all that I thought he brought an unnecessary maelstrom upon his city, made a statement with which I could agree. I loosely paraphrase here, but he alluded to the fact that public school teachers are among the only profession that has no set system of review or accountability. Thus, his desire to use standardized test scores from the city's students to reward "good teachers," a plan that backfired when teachers went on strike and held out on a number of issues, including this one, until the mayor met union reps at the table to bargain in teachers' favor. I do agree that public school teachers need a system of accountability that works, that is based on more than a district's policy of peer evaluation, principal evaluation (whenever that occurs, be it once, twice, three times/year), students' test scores, and general good will (i.e., if I don't screw up, I won't get fired). The problem with using high stakes test scores for teacher accountability… hell, whom am I kidding? The problems are too numerous to name, but I'll begin with the following:
The reason EOGs and EOCs don't work in their current iteration, will never work in their current iteration (one reason), is the very fact that they are high stakes. They're high stakes for everyone, including students, teachers, and the systems that employ and instruct them. Remove the anguish, remove the punitive nature of the test, and the test itself will become a useful tool rather than an albatross. At the moment, we use these tests to assess individual student progress, program efficacy (for schools, districts, and states), and individual teacher efficacy. The only appropriate use for such a test is the second of these, which is why I took exception when I read eLumen's slogan, "Solving the problem that created the need for assessment in the first place." …that created the need for assessment in the first place. The need for assessment always exists, particularly in the high-dollar business of tax payer funded public instruction. I would never suggest that teachers, students, and state school systems should not subject themselves – willingly – to rigorous and transparent assessment. They should. I do believe, however, we have given up all hope of reinvigorating American public instruction with the nature of high stakes testing as it exists today.
52 Mondays is my 2013 project here on wrighterly. You can read about it at wrighterly.com as well. Each Monday, I'll post a different essay on some topic related to PK-20 education in America. The purpose is to raise the level of dialog on these issues if only among the modest audience I currently enjoy.