Standing in the Margins

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My job as an educator is to help kids become good human beings.  Part of that involves living the things you teach.  In doing so, I have had to speak for those whose voices are least heard.  I have had to stand between those that hate and those who are hated.  This is part of my job, not for some students, but for all of them.

Several years ago teaching first grade, I met a student that changed my perspective on many things.  She joined my class in January.  Immediately it was difficult to fit in, but over time she slowly started feeling more comfortable.  Even so, I noticed she tried hard not to be noticed.  In a class of sixteen, it is hard to blend in.  While she was starting to make friends and growth, I had worries about the future and I was concerned..  

During my time with her, we developed trust, both with one another, and with the her family.  Fast forward two years and I found out she was about to make a public transition to her true gender identity in our school.  As a third grader, she was about to become herself in public for the first time.  

One of the things that struck me was that we had such a good relationship, the classroom had been such a welcoming place for her, yet she and her parents were not ready.  Our community embraced her transition as well as I could have hoped.  She has known great friendship, caring teachers, and a generally safe school.  Even in a supportive community she faces serious discrimination.

I share all of this because I have seen firsthand the benefit of this girl being able to express her true self.  While she had become part of the culture of the school, she had yet to thrive until she could be herself.

Knowing her, seeing how her life has changed since she was able to transition, is what draws me to this cause.  Knowing her makes this real.  She isn’t a trans girl, or a trans person. She is a girl, she is a person.  Her rights ought to be the same as any other person.  Her rights are important, and so are the rights of every other trans person.  Here is why:

Being around trans children exposes children to diversity that will help them learn to understand people who are different than themselves.

Perhaps the most frequent argument against policies in place to protect the rights of Transgender youth expresses that being exposed to trans kids will somehow corrupt or damage their children’s sense of morality and virtue.  It is easy to be moral and virtuous in a bubble.  What makes a person truly virtuous is the ability to treat people well when their views or norms do not conform to their own.  Our children will be faced with a world full of incredible diversity outside this bubble.  If we continue to insulate our children to “protect them” we do them an incredible disservice.  Trans youth are not invaders of morality and virtue, they are children; children that deserve the same right to feel safe as any other person.  

There is should be no argument from a religious standpoint for two reasons.  First, we are talking about rights in public places in our country, our state, and our schools.  Religious values are not the law, but there are a number of laws already in place that defend our students from discrimination.  The issue is that these laws are reactionary.  In this case a trans student must have been harmed in order to invoke the laws.  Are we saying that some people only get protection after they have been injured?  The second is from a religious angle itself.  The strongest opposition to Trans rights comes from Christians.  Let that settle in.  Christ was a man who washed the feet of sinners, who accepted the least desirable social groups of the time in the same way he did anyone else, and who loved everyone.  If he felt people were sinners he prayed for them.  I won’t try and dissuade anyone of their beliefs, but if you believe in the teachings of Christianity, then you should love all people.  Discriminating against Trans youth and Trans people is a form of hate, and goes against the very values Christ sought to teach.

Trans children are at the greatest risk of suicide and self harm of any group.

At this point nobody should be surprised by this statistic and yet it needs to be part of EVERY discussion of Trans rights.  According to a 2009 study by GLSEN 82% of Trans students felt unsafe at school.  Nearly 50% of them had reported skipping classes or days of school because they felt unsafe.  Nearly 90% of Trans students reported having been verbally harassed at school, and 44% reported being physically assaulted in the past year.  There are dozens more equally horrifying numbers associated with Trans youth from this study.

You may argue that the study is 8 years old, so things are better now, right? Wrong.

In a 2015 study from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital they reported 30% of Trans youth (aka CHILDREN) have attempted suicide.  That number is nearly seven times higher than the 4.5% of average youth in America.  It also stated that a staggering 42% of Trans youth had attempted some form of self injury.  According to Trans rights activists, these numbers are low.  Even so, they point to an alarmingly important conclusion: Trans youth are the most marginalized, unprotected group in American schools, and it is literally killing them.

Trans  children are still children.

This is all there is to say.  These are children, struggling to make sense of a world that has not embraced them.  At the same time they want what every child wants, and they deserve the same right to a free and appropriate public education.  Unfortunately it will not be free of discrimination no matter what policies are passed, but it is our job as educators and schools to make them feel as safe as possible and enable them to learn.

But…

Here are the arguments being used to negate trans rights.

What about my child? Exposing them to this will corrupt them? (Go back and read above)  Exposing your child to people other than themselves provides them with an opportunity to learn.  If we hope for our children to be successful, moral, and virtuous people, they will need to learn to exercise such virtues in diverse situations.  Being a good person means being a good person to everyone, even those with whom you disagree. (Despite my feeling that disagreeing with a person who is attempting to be themselves is wrong, the value judgement is insignificant.  Either way, being a good person involves treating others with the respect and dignity they deserve simply because they are another human being.)

This is a state’s rights issue.

“If it isn’t in the Constitution then it is a state’s rights issue”  This argument is what I am referring to with kids when I explain the value of learning history.  We, as a country, have tried many times to make civil rights a state’s rights issue.  Each time we have seen the interests of the strong in a number of places trample upon the civil rights of the few.  Civil rights, human rights, are not an issue for the states to decide.  If we, as a nation, cannot uphold Civil rights for our citizens, what kind of nation have we become?  If you are arguing state’s rights outweigh Civil rights, you will find yourself on the wrong side of history again and again.  Trans people are human beings, they are citizens of this country and as such, legally deserve to have the same rights as anyone else.  (Notice again, your opinion on Transgender expression doesn’t matter. This is simply a case of attempting to limit the rights of a particular group of people, which isn’t legal or morally right.)

What if men just decide to start using the women’s bathroom?

What if cafeteria workers just decided to start putting fingernails in the food? We could play this game all day because it is simply absurd.  But, for the sake of those who don’t realize this, I will indulge.

There simply aren’t cases of Transgender people assaulting others in restrooms.  In the 18 states that have laws protecting trans people’s right to use the facility of the gender they live every day, none have seen an increase in sexual assault in restrooms.  What there are however, are statistics that support the opposite.  In a 2009 survey done by UCLA’s WIlliams Institute, nearly 70% of transgender participants report having been denied entrance to or verbally abused when attempting to use the restroom.  9% reported being physically attacked.  I cannot imagine being physically attacked for needing to use the restroom, but for trans people the fear is a reality.

So let’s return to those men who want to use the women’s bathroom.  A man who would intentionally violate another person’s privacy while they use the restroom has a name: sex offender.  Someone who would perform a heinous act like this is not going to be saved from their depraved actions because of legality.  When we start legislating against other people’s rights because we assume Americans are so morally reprehensible, we have a problem.  Not only would this defense of a criminal activity not suffice, it should not be the basis for endangering the health and well being of American citizens, and American children.

We have an opportunity. Here and now, we have the opportunity to speak for those who have no voice.  We have the opportunity to stand in opposition of hatred.  We have the opportunity to demonstrate our moral virtue to others in the world.  If we don’t have the courage to protect the most vulnerable of our kids, we do not deserve the schools we claim to love.  Our job is to help create good, well rounded human beings by providing all kids with education in a safe and nurturing environment. Don’t talk about doing what is best for kids if you are not willing to stand for those kids most in danger and provide them with some hope of a safe learning environment.  Take this opportunity now and start living the messages and values we try to instill in our children by standing for these children who have been pushed into the margins.

 

*several articles and studies have been referenced in this post:

Borello, Stevie.  (April 22, 2016) Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Organizations Debunk ‘Bathroom Predator Myth”, ABCNews.  Retrieved from: www.abcnews.go.com/US/sexual-assault-domestic-violence-organizations-debunk-bathroom-predator/story?id=38604019

Brady, Jeff. (May 15, 2016). When a Transgender Person Uses a Public Bathroom, Who is at Risk?, National Public Radio. Retrieved from:  www.npr.org/2016/05/15/477954537/when-a-transgender-person-uses-a-public-bathroom-who-is-at-risk

Graytek, Emily A., Kosciw PhD, Joseph G., Diaz, Elizabeth M. (2009).  Harsh Realities-The Experience of Transgender Youth in our Nation’s Schools, GLSEN, Retrieved from: www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/Harsh%20Realities.pdf
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “High rates of suicide and self-harm among transgender youth.” ScienceDaily. Retrieved from: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/08/160831110833.htm

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Building With Imagination

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I have been making a lot of games lately.  Over the past few weeks I have been pushing the depths of my own creativity togame-amker build games for various purposes using simple, easy to reproduce tools.  Between choose your own path (adventure seems like the wrong word when trying to survive the Great Depression) and Digital BreakoutEDU games I have been consumed by game making so much so, I often feel like the head game maker for the Hunger Games (only I am pretty sure  no one dies.)

If you are familiar with frequency illusion or the Baader-Meinhof phenomena you will understand what I am currently experiencing.  Everything I am seeing is being translated into riddles, clues, alternate paths, and puzzles.  I am finding ways to repurpose simple things to make mind bending challenges.  I believe these to be enjoyable, meaningful learning experiences for my students.  I also worry that in my excitement as I travel deeper down this rabbit hole, I will become too dependent upon something simply because I enjoy it.

I am enjoying this process because I get to push the boundaries of new technologies and their applications.  I have always had an active mind.  This is a way to engage that mind and challenge myself to learn more.  While I am conscious of potential to overuse these tools as experiences for my students, I am also eagerly awaiting the next opportunity to create, the chance to gain feedback, and create something better.  I love doing this, and I love when others enjoy or are inspired by my creations.  So, please feel free to try some of them.

Digital Breakouts:

Let the Race Begin

Cracking Enigma

Frosty’s Missing Magic Hat

Rescue El Copa Mundial

Pi Day Challenge

Choose a Path:

The Great Depression (see link above)

and my newest hybrid

The Case of the Missing Torch inspired by a childhood favorite: Where in the World is Carmen San Diego.

This list doesn’t include games I have made that are content specific for my teachers, just things that I have done for fun. Yes, I am a little crazy for doing these things for fun, but these things engage my mind.  I hope you enjoy them, and if you are ever inspired to create them, please know I am happy to help!

 

Dear Betsy: An Open Letter to Betsy Devos

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Dear Betsy,

This is not acceptable.  Please allow me to elaborate.screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-9-37-41-pm

Whether teachers agree with it or not, you are now the Secretary of Education, and we have the option of a perpetual standoff or trying to engage in meaningful discussion.  You lead the department that oversees many crucial programs to America’s public education system.  In doing so, you now have a profound connection to America’s public school teachers.  I am not looking to talk about policy yet.  I am hoping to set the tone for what could hopefully be a working relationship between you and the public education community.  How you choose to proceed is up to you.

 

I would like to introduce you to the people you are going to work with over the next several years: Educators.


We are passionate.  I don’t want to speak for other professions, but as an educator and someone who often communicates with other educators, this is incredibly important.  The vast majority of educators across this country care deeply about the young people whom they serve.  There are many issues I never personally invested in before becoming an educator and knowing a child that would be impacted.  

 

Not all of us are afraid of change.  Many of us work hard to create positive changes in our schools.  We explore, experiment, and implement a variety of things each year in order to better serve our kids.  It is part of what makes education an interesting field for me.  I love that there are always new things to learn.

 

You may have noticed a pattern.  I don’t just call them students.  They are my kids.  I don’t say I teach them; I serve them.  

Education is a service profession that provides so much more than what federal and state data attempts to quantify.  This is the cornerstone of my career, and I know I am not alone.  The parents of students I have worked with will be happy to tell you what it means.

Most of us understand the need for accountability, the desire to make education better for all of our kids, and the value of developing quality educators.  We recognize there are some teachers in our ranks, like in every profession, who are not good enough or who have lost their drive, but that is a small minority.

This is a short introduction to the people with whom you work and communicate.  For the sake of public education in America I hope you learn to communicate.  You tweet you sent at the end of your first day speaks volumes.  I am not someone who believes you need to have attended or worked in a public school to lead the Department of Education.  It wouldn’t hurt, but it isn’t a requirement.  What is required is that you attempt to understand public school teachers, parents, and students are, and the realities we face. This tweet is evidence that you do not yet.  I believe you want to work with us to make schools better.  However, it is a patronizing attempt to endear yourself as “one of us.”  Let me be clear about this, you are not.  You will likely never be one of us.  Please don’t pretend otherwise.  It is better for all Americans if we face hard truths?

What else would help all Americans?

Visit public schools.  Talk to teachers about their experiences.  I understand you have been rebuffed from school visits, accosted, and treated in a manner you surely feel is inappropriate.  Rather than run from those people, address them.  Rather than ignore their frustration, embrace it.  Teachers are passionate and dedicated professionals and passions have run high.  We should work together to create powerful, positive change in education for the good of Americans.  Please persist in  visiting public schools.  Please spend time getting to know what educators do each day.  Address the anger teachers feel by offering to listen to them, observe what they do, and the struggles they need to overcome on a daily basis.  Spend time with public school students.  Shadow students in various classrooms at various age levels.  Find out what it is like to be a child in public school.  

This is the path forward to forge a working relationship with America’s educators.  I understand the relationship has not begun well.  You were not our choice, you are not one of us, but that shouldn’t stop us from working together to help America’s children.  Please  take the time to understand us, understand what we do, and understand a different view.  A recent common saying for educators is “the smartest person in the room is the room”, meaning the best ideas are generated in a room full of intelligent people during positive discourse.  That will be hard work for you, and for us.  I, for one, am willing to do it if it means improving the future for our kids and I hope you are as well.

 

Sincerely,

Brian Costello

Carry On

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I felt an all too familiar sense of dread when the penultimate vote was cast.  I don’t remember ever watching the vote tallies in the Senate before today.  Officially, Betsy DeVos will become the next Secretary of Education.  Why is this bad? Throughout her life not only has she led policy efforts to privatize and create for profit public education systems, but she has failed.  When she had the opportunity to speak to stand as an advocate for the children she claimed to want to help, she failed at almost every measure.

I could go on to describe the inadequacies, the inequalities, and the inexplainable shortcomings that our new Secretary of Education brings to the position, but that debate doesn’t matter.  This is the hand we have been dealt.  For eleven years I have worked in education watching the the same things happen.  Funding gets cut, teachers tighten up.  The most capable teachers move on to places that can afford to pay them a living wage (I am guilty of this as well), meanwhile our neediest students are left in overfilled classrooms that are often under supported and under funded.

This is likely going to get worse.

Let me repeat that, allow it to sink in.  This is likely going to get worse.

As an educator I have gotten used to this requirement, though it does at times take it’s toll.  Do more.  We expect high standards, which I believe is fair.  I have always had extremely high expectations for all of the kids I serve.  I tend not to measure them in the same way as the Department of Ed has done recently, but none-the-less, I have expected great things from my classes.  At some point however, it isn’t about doing more, it is about doing differently.  The idea that we can continue this accelerated path of learning is detrimental to kids.  Sure we can make learning better, but that shouldn’t mean moving the bar on what is developmentally appropriate.  We as teachers are going to be expected to do more, to produce at incredibly high levels of excellence.  I already expect that from myself, the problem comes in that we are constantly expecting more rather than better.  Better means higher quality, not greater in quantity of content.

For each of the last 8 years the schools where I have worked have been expected to plan for less.  Get less.  Our schools will be getting less.  I am not simply talking about funding, although we can expect a meaningful decrease on that front.  I am also talking about services, protections, and liberties for our most vulnerable children.  Those jobs that once had names, will fall under the crushingly weighty banner of teacher or administrator.  Where once we had hope that meaningful reform legislation enacted to protect those that could not protect themselves would uphold their liberties, now there is only work.  Our work.  The less we are getting is far beyond just money, it is all of the pieces that go into our children’s education that are so often taken for granted.

As the wealthy begin to flee these schools in distress (this already exists in many places), we will be left with mainly those that do not have the means to run.  We will be left to perform these great magic tricks with the Neediest among us.  Our clientele will continue to demonstrate greater needs while the supply and demand quotient is ratcheted up past 11.

This is likely to be our world.  As many among us have over the past decade, we will carry on.  We will continue to search for ways to improve teaching and learning, provide quality services for kids, and create art where once there was only a dream.  This will not be a time for the feint of heart.  We will lose many potentially great educators along the way.  Burnout, frustration, or simply seeking a less demanding, more financially feasible career will take many of our best educators from the field.  Those of us that stay will do so because this is our chosen path.  Education will continue to improve with or without the support we hope to receive.  I am reminded of an inspiring post written by my friend Dr. Wick Ed. (I do love saying Dr. Wicked). We will be forced to improve, not through support and mentoring, but by necessity and stress.  There will be times when the weight of it may crush you.  At those times know that you are not alone.  As educators it is our time to fly, our time to run.  But as Dr. Wick Ed. says, when you can’t run, you crawl, when you can’t crawl, you find someone to carry you.  Be that someone for all of your fellow educators, not just today, or the next four years, but throughout your career.  Know that there are others around you ready to step in and carry the load, and always remember that you are valued not by the numbers on a paper, but by the impact on children and their families.  We will be ok.

As it did before, allow this one to settle in.  WE WILL BE OK.  It may not be pretty, but we can, we must, carry on.