Thursday, July 31, 2014

Dear Mr. President

I’m sure you hear “You are my hero” multiple times a day. But for me, speaking those words is something I never do. I usually pride myself on my arm’s length cynicism. Seeking a hero is not something I consciously do.

 But when I’m facing challenges as a special education professional, advocate, and parent – when I feel particularly frustrated or alone in my struggle – you are the one whose words and actions inspire me. From the moment I watched your speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, I was absolutely swept away by something you probably take for granted. Simply: You are a thoughtful person. You see nuance. Rather than impose a black-and-white view on the world, you recognize and value every subtle shade of gray. I never expected or even hoped to see a President who could do that. You are an inspiration.

And that is why I’m so disappointed, Mr. President, in your administration’s approach to the one subject nearest and dearest to my heart.

Last month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced a “major shift” in federal oversight of special education. And while I was initially delighted to finally hear some acknowledgment of special education at all, I was heartbroken to hear the superficial, ineffective approach your administration has chosen.

The article I read claims your administration will “hold states accountable for demonstrating that [special ed] students are making progress.” It says “[s]tates that fall short could lose federal funding earmarked for special education.”

In other words, we’re going to address the very serious problems our special education students face with…more high-stakes standardized testing. I don't see how that addresses any of our issues in a meaningful way at all.  

It’s not a question of rigor. I know these children. I work with them every day. My own son receives special education services for autism. I can tell you – I can promise you – lack of academic rigor is not what’s failing these children.  

They face low expectations sometimes, yes. But more often and more devastatingly than that, they face unreasonable expectations. In the name of “rigor,” they are forced to comply with a system that wasn’t built with them in mind. In the name of “rigor,” they are denied empathic support that meets them where they are. In the name of “rigor,” they have fewer and fewer minutes in their day for playing outdoors, socializing with peers, or even eating lunch.

It’s not enough to simply impose standardized testing on a group of students and assume that those who score high are well-served and those who score low are not. My son is autistic, but he is also particularly skilled at taking standardized tests. He consistently gets high scores, regardless of how well he’s actually being taught. Many of my students, on the other hand, are extremely diligent and have overcome extraordinary hardships in their lives just to be able to sit in a classroom with their peers. Anyone who knows them can see that they’ve made incredible progress this year. Sadly, that progress is not always reflected on their standardized test scores. I’ve watched them struggle in front of the computers – not with the content, but with the mechanics of the computer itself. I’ve seen them misunderstand the semantics of the questions. In one extremely frustrating instance, I saw a girl struggle simply with the mechanics of filling in bubbles with her pencil.

This is not what learning looks like.

Learning is not black and white. There’s nothing “standard” about it, just like there is nothing “standard” about the children we teach. Yes, they all need to learn reading and math. But how each child gets there is an individual journey. We don’t need teachers who can herd them all blindly through the same hoops. We need teachers who are dynamic and absolutely in love with teaching who can find each student where they are, celebrate their strengths, honor their differences, and earn each child’s trust. Only then can real learning take place.

 How do we get there? By valuing the profession of teaching instead of denigrating it. By demanding that our teachers not only be intelligent, but thoughtful, flexible, creative, and kind (and by compensating them accordingly). We get there by seeing and valuing every shade of gray.

We can do this. You can do this. I’m asking, Mr. President, because I know you have the tools. Please bring your thoughtfulness and your ability to see nuance to the issues of public education and special education. Visit our schools. Play chess and four square with our students, join them in the cafeteria, let them tell you all about their favorite things. Give them a reading assessment. Watch them play and argue and forgive each other. Come to IEP and wraparound meetings. Come to staff meetings. Ride a school bus.

Take the time to truly understand the unique challenges and strengths we face. If anyone can do it, you can.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


I’ve written about this before. I said it at the time, and I’ll say it again: Why do I feel like the minute I start making arguments in favor of birth control, we’ve already lost?

So, I’ll tell you what. Instead of a thousand words, here’s a picture. Check it out:

Do you recognize her? That’s me! Well, my ovaries, to be precise. It’s hard to make out the one on the left, of course, because it’s covered by that huge-ass bleeding cyst that’s practically swallowing the thing whole. I was 24, and this is what endometriosis looks like. This photo was taken during one of my surgeries.

Let me tell you, it felt every bit as bad as it looks. It felt like walking around with Moaning Myrtle inside me, seizing up in wails of pain at the slightest upset. For six months, I had to get hormone injections that imposed a fake menopause to inhibit its growth. I was painfully aware that endometriosis can cause infertility. Even after every trace had been surgically removed, there was a good chance it would grow right back.

Fortunately, as I mentioned in my other piece, endometriosis is easily managed with good old-fashioned slut pills! And for the next seven or so years, that’s all I needed to stay healthy.

The story ends happily enough for me. My various health plans over the years covered birth control. Of course they did. I never felt the least bit rogue or slutty or even feminist for expecting nothing less. My health plans covered Ortho-Cyclen same as they covered allergy meds or antibiotics. Healthy sinuses, healthy ovaries…it was all the same. The endometriosis never came back, and I went on to have two little monsters of my own.

It’s this second little monster who’s very much on my mind these days. Endometriosis is hereditary. My mom had surgery for it when I was in college. My maternal grandmother likely had it too, although in those days they handled it with a friendly “out with the uterus!” approach. It’s pretty likely my Grrl is going to cross paths with endometriosis at some point in her future.

I always planned that I would encourage her to use birth control pills as soon as she and her doctor agree she is ready. Why have her suffer like I did with all that pain and wild moods from the hormone therapy and worry about future infertility? Who would want that for their daughter?

I don’t doubt that birth control pills will be accessible for her when she needs them. What concerns me is that all of a sudden it’s such a weighted choice. People are talking about birth control as if it’s the same thing as abortion. Which it just ISN’T, people, it isn’t. I mean, grab the reigns. How did we get to the point where this is even up for debate? And how did we get to the point where not wanting to be a raging endometrial cyst-monster somehow equates with being a slut? How did we get to the point where using birth control for any reason equates with being a slut?  

Well, okay then. Call me a slut. Call us all sluts.

But don’t think that name-calling is going to stop us. Because we are going to go right on taking care of our bodies and our futures with birth control however we see fit. Some of us are going to have sex before we’re married. Some of us are going to have sex long after we’re done making babies. Some of us are going to have sex and NEVER make a single baby! Not that any of this is anyone’s business. But by trying to restrict women’s access to birth control, they’ve kind of made it their business, haven’t they?

Well, as much as it’s hurt to have our complacency shaken up so much – as painful as it’s been to come face to face with a contempt for women so intense that they actually consider it a religious liberty to hold us down – we are going to fight back. Call us sluts all you want. But you can’t stop us. 

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