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Choosing High School

desk down

Every day is not perfect in high school. Some days I feel like this desk. Most days I don’t though.

A veteran teacher asked me, “Are these the students you want to teach after student teaching?” after finishing a day substituting in my classroom of sophomores. I made eye contact from across the room as I pushed in chairs and closed left-open literature text books and answered, “Yes, exactly.” I bent over to pick up a Jolly Rancher wrapper off the floor and as I threw it in the trash, I reflected upon my words.

It’s amazing to me to see the potential and talent in my students, something I hope some of my high school teachers saw in me at one point. I was never an easy student; I see my high school-self in many of my most challenging students. But then I look at my students who have a love of reading and writing and realize I see my teenage-self in them too. I think I took on many teenage personalities back then. I always knew I’d be good, if only I could escape from the town and people who surrounded me. I think that’s why I don’t sweat the small stuff. I know most of the students will be all right. Some won’t quite see the light soon enough, but most will. Most will understand how to play the game of Life by attending college, getting jobs, or enlisting in the military. They’ll make decisions based on who they are, not what society has cookie-cuttered out for them. Whichever path they choose is their own and although I feel the pressure laying on my shoulders to push them to their highest achievement right now in English, I understand fully that some kids won’t acquire the love of reading or writing. That’s okay with me.

Sometimes I argue with myself about the meaning of my lessons and I always come back to making it mean something to each student – most students, anyway. Not every lesson or skill will reach every student; not every wish on a Friday afternoon to “Make good choices” gets into my students’ comprehending heads. But I hope at the end of the day my students know I care and understand more than others. Because I’ve been there. I get it. I care.

Completely.

So yes, Mister Veteran Teacher, I do want to teach these pubescent, 15-turning-16, free-as-a-licensed-bird teenagers who many flinch at from afar. I understand middle schoolers may be “more excited to learn” or “would appreciate a teacher a bit more openly”, but I like my students who try to give me the cold shoulder, but can’t because I’m easy to talk to and can take a joke. I choose high schoolers because they are merely kids who very rarely see their own potential and talent. A part of the job I get to do is provide opportunities to see that potential. I get to teach them, guide them, and influence them to believe and be confident in themselves. Because even though they are challenging every. single. day., I want to be that consistent, caring, dependable teacher that I still remember from my high school days. I want to make a difference.

And I will.

Even on days where I get assignments like this. I still want to teach high school.

Even on days where I get assignments like this. I still want to teach high school.

I give stickers. So I'm cool anyway. :P

I give stickers. So I’m cool anyway. 😛

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America is not a meritocracy

Note: I wrote this after an in-class debate over America’s status of being a meritocracy or not. I supported and still do support that America is not a meritocracy, but there are exceptions who make it through their merit, although it seems to be scarce. Be prepared to read this with an open mind and feel free to comment with your insights. This was a graded assignment.

“Equal opportunity” is not enough to label America as a meritocracy and it was the main argument for the yes side of the scholarly discussion. Even though our constitution and our laws state that all people will be treated equal, I do not buy it. Even with the Golden Rule – treat others the way you would like to be treated – we all learn in preschool and up through grade school, it creates an informal version of this equal opportunity way in America to condition us early, people of America have the choice. The choice many have made is to work their selves to death making the grades and GPA in school, get into their college of choice, graduate with honors, make a difference, and then be awarded with the job they have dreamed. This is somewhat the path of my American Dream.

My American Dream before teaching was to go into the journalism and media realm and conquer with my writing and editing skills – the ones I had mastered in college that I paid for through loans while working endlessly on many collegiate media outlets and organizations. My entire focus in college was to build my resume. I did well and my resume was full, but then after the Olympic Gold Medalist Shawn Johnson got a job with CNN simply because of her gift as a gymnast even though she had no schooling after high school, I became even more aware that America is not a meritocracy. I understand talent and knowledge sometimes comes naturally like in gymnastics and Miss Johnson probably did know a lot about judging sports such as hers, but the fact that she did not have to prove herself through journalism classes or a degree that included how to properly interview, quote, and construct a fair and unbiased story really pissed me off.

Another example of this came out of an opinion piece from The New York Times in August of 2009 by Eric Etheridge entitled “There Goes the Meritocracy”. It uses much sarcasm and light humor to address the ridiculousness of how the elite and financially or politically prosperous obtain their professions. Although it is laced with sarcasm, it states facts and instances where America appears to only elect and subject these people to the American Dream. The example they use is Jenna Bush Hager, the daughter of President Bush, and her correspondent job on the Today Show. He cites a Gawker article by Foster Kamer. “Jenna Bush is nice, and fun! And know what? This is actually somewhat likable in its complete and utter boldfaced stunt-casting nature. And while this might not exactly be a ratings boon – at all – educational it shall be: all you aspiring TV anchors, look to the stars! You apparently have a better chance of getting there than on Today.” These are some of the points I wanted to make in the scholarly discussion.

Much of my research I gathered focused on opinion pieces and blog posts relating to how the average American sees him or herself in the real world of American meritocracy. The fact-based research such as the statistics in The Economist article many cited and I read did not hit the stories I wanted to find. I did read many fact-based, journalistic articles though. A Red Room blog post by Michael Forbush called “The Myth of American Meritocracy” allows readers to see America from his perspective and looks at product superiority rather than just people-based meritocracy. He defines meritocracy the way I would, “…how one rises to the top based on one’s merit. This idea fits into the capitalist myth that the best products survive, the best ideas survive and the weaker things fail.” He then lists counterexamples such as Unix, Microsoft Windows, and Apple OS, which opens readers’ eyes to a bigger meritocratic problem than before. “Windows trudges on in this capitalist system regardless of the fact that it is by far the worst of these three operating systems. The real truth is that the product with the most aggressive marketing wins, regardless of whether the marketing is true or false. And, products that have a market presence are more likely to maintain it than an equal, newly introduced product.” His point is “products do not excel merely on their merit and neither do people.”

This brings me to the argument of connections – bluntly, if CEO Daddy can make it happen, it will happen most of the time. America is compared to a pyramid structure in Forbush’s blog post. “If we imagine that those at the top award the vacancies as they appear then they award them to [their] family and friends before they fill them with those who truly merit the positions. Therefore, some of the positions will be awarded by merit, but for the most part family and friends will be rewarded first.” This was brought up in the scholarly discussion with many students citing people such as Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, Donald Trump, and other elite members of American society. The “Yes, America is a meritocracy” side countered again with the opportunity argument that from birth everyone is given the equal opportunity to shoot for their dreams and be able to apply for every position available in the United States and beyond. As we discussed, everyone must hold a social game as well as an achievement game. Some people cannot be president or LeBron James because of lots of reasons. The opportunity argument just makes me want to yell, “But doesn’t majority rule in this country?” If you are the five or whatever percent struggling to make yourself something under the worst circumstances, do you really hold the same chance as the heir to a rich company? No because the majority rule. Whatever the majority wants, it gets.

To touch on a great example of merit because there are many examples of merit that we brought up in class such as Oprah, but The New York Times article brings up a great example in Sonia Sotomayor, a Supreme Court Justice. Here is her merit timeline: “… grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Bronx housing projects; whose father had a third-grade education, did not speak English and died when she was nine; whose mother worked as a telephone operator and a nurse; and who then became valedictorian of her high school, summa cum laude at Princeton, a graduate of Yale Law School, and ultimately a Supreme Court Justice.” Now that is a whole lot of unfairness turned into a lot of deserved merit.

Although I stand by my declaration that America is not a meritocracy, I understand that there are exceptions. But how can America be a meritocracy when it is solely based on exceptions? It cannot. Resumes and merit have a place in America and it should be a bigger one than it is… it should be the majority. Instead the majority find other convenient ways to make it in this country. A main point I have learned is you have a strong social game just as much as you have to have a strong resume to get the job you want. Even then it is a fight to the death of the elite, the heirs, and the people who know the CEO or the public relations director. America should be based the merit of the people and products, but it is not.

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I Got It From My Mama

By Jennifer Dryden © September 2012

Mom. Teacher. Mentor.

Fruit Loops, books, and first graders were the main components at first. A sneaky mission had to be deployed and my tippy toes were ready. I had connections at the cafeteria doors and all I had to say was, “I’m going to my mom’s room,” and I was free. I gave up my lunch and lunchtime recess to sneak down to the first grade pod. While I munched on cereal I sat at the teacher’s desk, waiting for the sneakered footsteps to screech in the hallway. Sometimes I sipped the teacher’s watered-down Pepsi from her mug. The screeches came. I closed the bag of colored loops, pick up a book, and took my place in the teacher’s chair at the front of Mrs. Dryden’s first grade classroom. I quickly practiced how to hold the pages just like my mom and then laid the book on my lap. The students filed in and sat at my dangling feet.

“The title of this book is Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” I read in my best second grader voice. They all listened. I looked up at my mom and she nodded with a smile. A smile now I have learned is her proud-of-you smile. This became a routine – each time the same Fruit Loop cereal, the same class, and the same proud-of-you mom smile. The only difference was the book. The book was my favorite part; the question, always, “Which one today?”

 

I owe a lot of my motivation and teacher preparation to my mother who has been a determined woman and an admirable teacher her entire life. While enrolled at Western Illinois University, her father – my grandfather – kept saying, “Just make it through your sophomore year…” because tradition held that women might not graduate with a four-year degree. My mom pushed the words out louder each time she replied, “I’m going to graduate. I want to be a teacher!” And she did graduate and has taught every grade from preschool to fifth grade, spending most of her years in first and second grades.

I have only seen her teach a handful of times, but every time she does, it’s like she transforms into an entirely different person – she’s in teacher mode, as I call it. She’s focused on a lesson, on behavior, and on tying one concept together with another. She’s firm but caring, and that’s something I’ve only seen a little bit at home – there’s more caring than firmness with my brother and me. Truthfully, it impresses me. This is cliché, but she puts 110 percent into her job, something I think is rare these days regardless of industry.

She currently teaches second grade and always teases her students that maybe some day she’ll be smart enough to go on to third. She says, “You’re just too smart for me now!” as the last few days of school wind down to a close. She says it helps the students giggle on the last day of school rather than cry about the changes ahead in third grade. On Fridays, it’s show-and-tell and one day three students all brought musical instruments – one guitar, one small drum from a Caribbean trip, and a Burger King amp toy that had rock and roll sounds. She had all three of them play in a band in the front of the room while everyone else danced. I remember her telling me this. I replied with, “Didn’t it get chaotic?” and she responded simply, “It was Friday; they’re kids. Let them have fun because learning is hard work.” I then declared to have more fun with the children I work with at Ames Community Preschool Center because I take things too seriously sometimes. She’s a mentor because she sets a good example.

She has always encouraged me to be whom and what I want to be and to reach for my dreams no matter how crazy they might sound. Believe me, I’ve had some farfetched dreams and she helped me reach a big one of mine in New York. She’s been my rock and my counselor when overwhelmed. Most of all she’s been a soundboard for lesson plans, practicum, education classes, and visions of my newest paths to success. She also debates with me on the current news on education laws, ruckus in the field, and general opinions on the diversity of our schools pertaining to students, staff, policies, standards, and “growth” according to standardized tests. She’s always honest with me, which I appreciate and learn from the most. Many things we agree on, but other things we see differently. That’s when she makes me learn and think deeper into what this law is really proposing.

There were many nights after John Kinley’s C I 426 night class where I would come home motivated and excited to become a teacher. By the time I unlocked my apartment door my mom and I would be in a deep conversation over the phone about the policies I was planning for my room, my philosophy of teaching, and how even though I dreaded a night class, every night in that class was motivation enough to keep going further. This is when I really started to respect my mother on a new level because she knew what she was talking about and had incredibly amazing ideas to contribute to mine. I have always respected her about raising me and always believing and supporting my ventures and dreams… the list can go on forever… but this was a connection we had naturally. This stemmed back to her proud-of-you mom smile umpteen years ago.

Even though my mom is an elementary teacher of seven- and eight-year-olds, and I will be teaching English to students ten years older than that, she has helped me more than anyone else. Her impact cannot be matched. A mentor lets you talk it out, pushes your thinking, and reminds you of your strengths when you can only name your weaknesses. She puts in her two cents to better you for the future even if your future’s unknown stresses you out. A mentor also gives you opportunities to test your abilities with students, grading, planning, and organization. I’ve been setting up my mom’s classroom bulletin boards, desk arrangements, and centers before first grade. Once my handwriting improved I started labeling folders, notebooks, mailboxes, birthday charts, and nametags. Now my mom sets a yearlong theme for the classroom and she lets me go wild. She says I’m more excited about it and wants to provide me with practice – even if it is a different classroom setup than high school English – she is giving me these experiences just like she was doing during lunchtime and recess in second grade.

With each conversation I have with my mother as an adult and as a teacher, she’s leading me in the right direction. She is invested in my success and shares a passion for teaching and young people. She drives me to be a better teacher and inspires me to be a better person. My mom has gotten run over with a lot of bumps in the road that could have interrupted her career as a teacher, but she never let it. Like I said before, she transforms into something almost supernatural in front of a group of students – something too good to be true. But it is true, and when you see it, it blows your mind. She has always stood tall enough to know that home and her job are separate worlds, which is something I admire. I can only hope to be as much of a success as she is in the classroom, but most importantly of all, in life.

Thanks, Mom.

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My Inner Teacher was Showing.

Note: This is my personal statement I had to write for my qualifying portfolio for the English Education track at Iowa State University. Thought I’d share if you’re curious about my newer career path.

In my mind I write sentences constantly and more often than not they escape my head without writing them down on paper. But every now and then I’ll have something too good to ignore and I’ll take out my cell phone and type it out on my Sticky Notes application. I’ve composed entire stories there. My life can be followed through the many pieces of paper and saved Word documents on my computer I have written since I could form the letters of the alphabet. I have sought out my writing dreams because I never want to look back and regret not doing something my heart told me to. I went to New York City to become a part of the publishing industry and became a published children’s author. I wrote my fingers off with personal essays and got one published in a literary journal in Seattle. And now I dream of teaching my passion of writing and my knowledge of the publishing industry to make the next generation excited to dominate their words and stories.

My educational background consists of a bachelor degree in journalism and mass communication from Iowa State University that I obtained in May 2010. During this time I was dedicated to leading the First Amendment Day committee as co-chair and the Leo Mores Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as vice president. I gained important planning skills and organizational strategies that have helped me in many situations in my student and professional life, including lesson planning. I reported, edited, copy edited, and helped create the Business section at the Iowa State Daily student newspaper from 2008-2010. I wrote for Ethos Magazine and Sketch Literary Journal, smiling at my front-page cover story about a diverse subject of same-sex marriage. I was comfortable with my writing skills, but not until those experiences sharpened my pencil.

During my first go-around at Iowa State, I turned my focus and found my true niche in Professor Benjamin Percy’s Advanced Nonfiction Creative Writing workshop in the fall of 2009. I wrote and wrote and wrote for his class, which turned out to be the best thing for me because I wrote something that made Ben and my peers stop mid-sentence and wow. I wrote my first non-journalistic memoir essay entitled Concentrated Breathing, which is attached as my piece of academic and professional writing. After taking his class, he invited me to consider a MFA program in creative nonfiction or the New York University’s Summer Publishing Institute in New York City. He said those last three words that describe the biggest city in the country and my heart jumped. That was my next endeavor and I would do whatever it took to get me there. So I applied. Then I got accepted, along with 104 other graduates from around the world.

I flew across country to Manhattan for the six-week publishing program and found homesickness and my fire at the same time. All day sessions, five or six days per week was exhausting, but I think I learned more there than in all my years at Iowa State about the book and magazine publishing industry because the sessions where taught by its editors, publishers, agents, authors, and CEOs. The program was split into two three-week periods, one focusing on magazine publishing where groups of ten students built and pitched a new magazine, and one focusing on book publishing where different groups of ten created and pitched a book imprint. I held the Web Director and Sales Director positions on these projects. Panels of professionals advised and critiqued us along the way.

I found myself falling in love with the book publishing industry just as it was switching to digital e-books and online-based content. I caught the start of implementing social networking, online resources, and e-books into our projects, which taught us how to adjust to the changing market. All of these skills are filed in my skill set folder in my brain and are ready to supply my students with those key components to becoming a well-rounded and learned individual. The publishing institute held a private career fair for us and I gave my resume to many organizations like AOL, Random House, Little Brown, HarperCollins, Hearst, Meredith Corp., and Barnes & Noble’s publisher Sterling Publishing.

In early September 2010 I accepted an internship with Sterling Publishing’s educational children’s book imprint, Flash Kids, in New York City and worked there until May 2011. While there, I served as an editorial assistant, directly under the editorial director, Hanna Otero. I edited language arts/vocabulary gifted and talented workbook manuscripts for grades one through six, which refreshed my knowledge on the subject and put the thought in my mind of some day teaching those concepts. I edited numerous drafts of these six manuscripts and every time I caught myself smiling I realized it was because I had envisioned students learning. My inner-teacher was showing.

Hanna and I sat down for our meeting with the children’s department and talk about a new preschool workbook series started fluttering from mouths, along with the decision to create a new one. She asked me if I wanted to write each of the six manuscripts, outlining the design and layout briefs for the designer who lived in California. I coolly said I’d be honored to and got right to work. If I wasn’t in a professional environment I might have screamed, “Yes!” numerous times. This was a dream and a golden opportunity to prove myself in a big way. So I outlined a pitch, pitched the idea of how each book would flow, constructed a mock-up, and once approved I wrote six, eighty-page preschool manuscripts. Those six manuscripts turned into my six published children’s workbooks on January 3, 2012 in every Barnes & Noble store in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.  This taught me the love of publishing; something I hope to pass on to my students, even if it’s by the local newspaper or school newsletter.

I moved back to Iowa to become that teacher I daydreamed about being while editing in New York. I have freelanced professionally for LineZero, a Seattle literary magazine, and have done some editorial work for a manuscript critique company called Queuebooks in Minneapolis while enrolled at Iowa State University full-time. I also co-edited an Iowa State business professor’s manuscript, centering on religious studies. Finishing it was a life-long goal of his and an exciting experience for me. I plan to freelance and teach at the same time, especially during the summer months. For many years, I have been the go-to editor for my friends’ college essays, manuscripts, or any kind of writing and I take great care with those. I absolutely love it.

I have chosen to teach English as a career because writing teacher materials isn’t as much fun as actually teaching them. Through my time as a part-time childcare provider, mentor, and student in practicum, I have realized that these middle and high school students are bright and most want to learn, even if they make it hard to see. My friends and peers trust me to suggest revisions to make their work better; teachers hold the same responsibility. I want to be that great teacher whom students can trust that will teach them something. In middle and high school, writing saved my life. I truly believe this. It was my cheap therapy through struggles with family, friends, love, and discovering who I was. Students need an outlet and as an English teacher, I’m there to supply the therapy of journaling, poetry, and personal essay.

My goal is to be an English teacher who students want to learn from. I want to keep my professional writing career current because if they see me writing for fun, they will want to keep writing. I want to see those “light bulb” moments come from a lesson of mine, like those I experienced in Benjamin Percy’s class at Iowa State. I want to go beyond lecture and get my students published, into peer editing, into workshops with other students and professionals with the same interest, and ultimately confident that they can write well. I want to help a struggling student catch up when he or she is behind or work one-on-one with students to discuss their personal goals for my class. I really just want to teach what I love and learn from my students on how they want to learn or learn best.

My overarching intention is for my students to learn and enjoy learning through writing, reading, or discussing language arts. I intend to be a strong, motivated, and passionate teacher and give the publishing industry great future writers, reporters, authors, or readers. But even if the students aren’t as passionate about English as me, I still want to be able to reach them on a topic they know and enjoy. The world takes all kinds of people to be successful and even though my heart may beat word after creative word, theirs may be beating to their own drum in science or politics. But to be successful in whatever they choose to do, they must have a strong foundation of English writing and reading skills. That’s where I come in.

Writing and teaching are my passions. If I wasn’t able to do both, I wouldn’t be able to be who I really am. They go hand-in-hand. One without the other is honestly like those cheesy metaphors: a cookie without the milk or the peanut butter without the jelly. And who really likes to eat a cookie without the milk? No one. So I’m back at Iowa State University covering my bases for a happy and satisfying life.

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