Thursday, July 20, 2017

Parents vs. Schools Regarding Required Summer Reading: Both Miss the Point

My eighth grade daughter has "recommended" summer reading activities. 

She is expected to come up with three goals, write out a plan as to how she is going to accomplish them, and fill out a chart of her "summer learning activities" (this requires an "Authorized Signature", which I assume means me??, and a spot on the grid to write how it made her Grow).

There is also a suggested reading list with books selected from the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC)’s 2017 Summer Reading List for Grades 6-8. I haven't heard of any of them, and I'm pretty sure my daughter hasn't either. None of them exactly pique my interest, and I'm a voracious reader (I should note that this particular daughter is not, although you can see from the pic below that she once enjoyed books)

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There is also a link to a lesson plan that teachers were apparently supposed to go over with students at the end of the school year. According to my daughter, this did not happen, and the message she got from her teacher was not to waste her time because nobody cares anyway. Part of me wants to applaud her teacher for her honesty with her students regarding this.

The whole thing is asinine, in my opinion as both a parent and a certified English teacher.

And, as you can imagine, some people in my city are going wild on the issue. Largely on Facebook, of course, but this is probably where you'll get the most honest feedback.

Some samples (All SIC):
* "I don't agree with [mandatory reading over the summer] at all. Both my boys are working full time and involved with family activities. They work hard in school all year and this is the time for them to just be kids. I'm not going to spend my summer forcing my boys to read. It's time to relax and recoup. It is not a time for more school-related pressures."

* "Most kids were burned out of reading after the reading challenge in elementary school making them read makes them despise it."

* "Between football starting next week--ugh--working, visiting family, and dare I say it, just being a kid, there leaves little time to get all this done. It's too much."

* "I think summer vacation means vacation away from school. If you had a vacation off from work and they asked you to do something over that time period you'd think twice about it. J/S."

There are many, many more, but that probably makes the point. And, to be completely fair, there are lots of intelligent, invested parents rebutting these kinds of statements.

Like me, they seem to focus on the idea that kids should be reading *something* in the summer, not just a book from an arbitrary list. Like me, many are appalled that some see reading as such little value. Like me, the idea that having to find time for reading is troubling bothers them.

Children should NOT stop learning because it is summer vacation. My daughter has learned, to give a small sampling, how to put up a pool and monitor chemicals, how to cook a meal, how to hike, how to teach her little sisters to swim, how to beat Super Mario Brothers, how to zipline, how to do different types of French braids, how to survive her first sleepaway camp, how to play the ukelele, how to master gymnastics skills she's been practicing ...

She has also been reading, albeit reluctantly.

She reads a graphic novel series that her father buys one of each month for her. She's reading Thirteen Reasons Why because she was interested in the difference between the book and the Netflix series and whether the story was helpful or harmful to teens (we are both English teachers, so she's heard lots of conversation on that topic) and wanted to be educated enough to weigh in.

She is currently at sleepaway camp (I miss her so much ...), but when she gets back, we are going to require structured reading time. We are going to know what she is reading and discuss it with her. We are going to recommend books to her and read them along with her. She will not love this, of course, because she is not a natural reader, but she will go along because she understands that reading, that learning, is important.

I am not going to require her to fill out those forms but instead keep a log of what she's read and a sentence or two of reflection.

I am going to encourage her to continue swimming, hiking, hanging out with friends, playing with her little sisters, going to Canobie Lake, and whatever else allows her to be a normal thirteen-year-old in 2017.

We made a decision a few weeks ago to cut off her iPad and wireless access on her phone at 10:00 pm. She's certainly gotten more sleep, which has also made a difference.

We are also going to make an effort to go to more museums, historical sites, and that sort of thing.

That is what learning is about ... and learning should happen in the summer. Reading must happen in the summer if we want to keep our children's reading fluency and knowledge base where it needs to be.

Should the school set out a canned summer  learning recommendation list for all students without taking into account what happens at home? No. Families that value summer learning have, with all due respect, long since put things into place that are far more meaningful than what's been offered.

Families that do not value summer learning need more than a bunch of printouts (and poor printouts, at that). They need to be educated on how to turn experiences into learning, which is far more valuable than how to break down a goal into parts. They need support and explanations and suggestions for how to make learning an integral part of every day.

Am I way off base with my frustration here?  

Saturday, July 8, 2017

We Won't Treat Your Pain: A Different Type of Opioid Epidemic Victim

Just to get this right out front, I feel terribly for victims of the so-called Opioid Epidemic. I don't think anyone wants to have their lives controlled by pills or needles.

I recognize that addiction exists, that it is a legitimate condition, and that every single human being experiences addiction in some way, shape, or form. People have the capacity to be addicted to everything from exercise to crystal meth to chocolate to weed to cheeseburgers to tobacco to muscle relaxants to caffeine to ... well, you get the idea. Addiction is real.

For a long time after the words "Opioid Epidemic" came to be, I rolled my eyes and was not especially sympathetic.

Part of this, of course, was being married to a violent and abusive alcoholic, which developed in me the erroneous mindset that those allowing chemicals to change who they were must be weak and pathetic people indeed.

The other part was an annoyance that people tried drugs like heroin in the first place. I mean, it wasn't like every American school child in recent memory hadn't been told the dangers of drugs. I don't know anybody younger than fifty that wasn't educated about drug abuse in schools, that wasn't fully aware that shooting heroin was a dumb idea. I wasn't aware then (because I didn't care to read too closely) that those addictions were often born as the result of prescription pain medication.

I have lost people close to me from drug overdoses. There is actually a current mini-epidemic among people I went to high school with that is just breaking my heart. I am saddened and distraught that people I know, love, and respect have lost a battle with a formidable enemy.

Anyway, does it do any good to say, "Well, they never should have started in the first place?"

And then I became a victim of the Opioid Epidemic myself, if not the traditional type, and I slowly realized that the problem is much larger than people dying of overdoses, families struggling to keep it together after the loss of their loved ones, first responders and public schools trying to figure out the situation with Narcan.

I'm guessing most people have seen this meme, right? Things are pretty out of control.

So how did I become a victim, albeit not the way you would think, of the Opioid Epidemic that has so badly shaken America?

In mid-April, I had a surgery that was supposed to be pretty straightforward. Prior to the surgery, the doctor gave me a prescription for 20 oxycodones to have at home. Filled it, put in the medicine cabinet, used it sparingly alongside ibuprofen and Tylenol when I was released from the hospital, no problem.

A couple of weeks later, I developed a complication. Went to the doctor, used the rest of the oxy while dealing with significant pain, no big deal.

I don't want to get into detail about the additional complications other than tell you that they resulted in two hospitalizations, one of which was ridiculously lengthy. While in the hospital, I was able to have oxycodone every four hours once the Dilaudid pump was removed.

Anyone I e-mailed or texted during this time, I apologize. I was largely in Lala Land.

When I was discharged for the final time (well, knock on wood it's the final time), I had prescription painkillers. I also had pain, and a limited number of prescription painkillers.

The pain, though ... unspeakable pain. Keep-you-up-all-night pain. Sleep on the couch watching Grey's Anatomy because it was too hard to concentrate on a book pain (and for anyone that knows me, I can always concentrate on a book).

I called the surgeon about the pain, and they had me come in. Not unexpected, they said. Try Tylenol, they said. (I was, at this point, already alternating Tylenol and ibuprofen around the clock). Call if it gets worse. It got worse, so I called the next day and they had me come in. Not unexpected, they said. Have you tried Tylenol? Well, try alternating it with ibuprofen. Call if it gets worse. It got worse again, so I called the next day. Have you tried an ice pack? How about heat? Oh, and Tylenol should help.

I finally called my Primary Care doctor, who made a joke about all the reading he has done about me over the past few months. He's been my doctor for years, and I was very frank with him. I explained that I was in pain, horrible pain, hadn't slept in a week, and the surgeon's office did not seem to care. I was not, I told him, looking for a heavy duty prescription, but surely there must be something between Tylenol and oxycodone. He thought for a moment and said, "What did they give you in the hospital?" I told him, and he asked if it worked to control the pain.

"Well," he said, "there are a couple of in-between things I can give you, but it seems logical to me to give you what worked. I'm going to give you five oxycodones. Take it as directed, don't sell it, you know the drill. Call me if you use it all, and we'll reevaluate."

I did indeed know the drill. I needed two of those pills, by the way, then the pain was manageable with ibuprofen and Tylenol.

There were further complications, of course, but my new surgeon (because I was totally all done with the other guy) actually gave me prescription pain medication when she did a procedure. Not a lot, but the same message as my PCP--we will evaluate if you use it all. I needed it for a few days, then I was fine with ibuprofen and Tylenol.

I'm not getting into detail about what was going on, but suffice it to say that my pain wasn't in question, even by the yahoo that told me to use an ice pack. Bloodwork and CT scans supported the fact that I was in excruciating pain. This wasn't me going in and asking for pain medicine with no documentation of obvious pain. It was "Tough it out because we do  not want to be seen as contributing to the Opiate Epidemic".

I'm not saying that doctors were a little loose with the narcotics for many years, by the way. Far from it.

Ten years or so ago, I experienced recurrent pancreatitis because my liver was messed up. Pancreatitis, by the way, makes childbirth seem like a paper cut. This went on for years as they tried to fix the liver damage, and I had a standing prescription for both Percocet and Vicodin. I would call the doctor, say which I needed more of, and they'd call it in. I mean, it was ridiculously easy to get narcotics, and I know that many, many people developed opiate addictions as a result of a situation like this.

I am lucky; I do not have a propensity for opiate addiction, I guess. I've struggled with other addictions over the years--caffeine, cheeseburgers, tobacco, probably even alcohol at certain times in my life. However, opioid narcotics have never been something I've used other than for short-term pain relief.

So here is my issue with the Opioid Epidemic ...

Yes, the ease with which doctors doled out narcotics unquestionably led people to become addicts and, when the prescription pad was put away, those people turned to heroin. Doctors were irresponsible. This is a tragedy, no two ways about it. I know people that have experienced this. I know people that have died from this.

That being said, it is equally irresponsible for doctors to allow patients to suffer terrible pain, which has been happening since new regulations came with the term "Opioid Epidemic" in 2015.

I have huge respect for my PCP and my new surgeon, who have the courage to balance the dangers of opiates with the need for them. Their mindset of giving small quantities of opiates when medically indicated while being incredibly responsible in overseeing the usage of said medications seems like how it should be.

For over a week, when I was crying in pain non-stop, when I was humiliated by a doctor's office telling me to take Tylenol and use a heating pad when I'd already told them I was doing all these things, when I did not sleep and was grouchy to my family and friends, I was a victim of the Opioid Epidemic.

Doctors refused to provide the necessary help because they were afraid ... but I will tell you that pain, true and unspeakable pain, is something people should not have to experience if there is a way around it. I said to myself more than once, usually at two in the morning when I hadn't slept for an increasing number of nights, "I understand why Kurt Cobain wanted to kill himself over his chronic stomach pain ... and also how he became a heroin addict."

There is no earthly reason for someone to try to exist in the pain I was in, especially long-term. A week may not seem long-term, but when you are the person living with the pain, it is a cruel reality that cannot be put into words.

The Opioid Epidemic is generally understood as having victims that are killed by addiction. This is true, and it is terrible.

But there are other victims, too. 

Friday, June 30, 2017

A Strange, Sad Skunk Story

I'm pretty sure that most pet owners have a skunk story ... it sort of goes with the territory. 

This is Howard, a lab/boxer/shepherd mix. He is a very good dog. 

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Howard has had several run-ins with skunks over his almost four years. They have inevitably ended with him sprayed, rolling around in the backyard trying to get the spray off, and shivering miserably in the bathtub while Jeff washes him with Dawn dish soap (we learned pretty quickly that tomato juice was not the best thing for getting skunk odor off). 

I have cursed a lot of skunks.

Yesterday, though ...

I let Howard outside into the fenced-in backyard, just like I have a hundred times. He climbed down the porch stairs, started heading to the area way in the back where he does his business, then I suddenly saw him move very quickly with a small black and white animal in his mouth. I knew it was a skunk before I smelled its defensive spray.

I should mention that I've had a couple of major surgeries in the last few months, and that I am still recovering from numerous complications. I am not supposed to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk; this includes my two-year-old and, I quickly surmised, a 55+ pound dog.

Since I knew I couldn't realistically break up the melee physically, I did the only thing I could think of. I yelled, "Howard, stop! Let it go! Howard!"

I was as surprised as anyone when he dropped the skunk and ran into the backyard, where he started his roll of shame to get the skunk smell off. The skunk ran into the tangle of flowers next to the garage, and I walked on the other side of the yard to get my dog.

I had to hold onto his collar, but he came with me willingly, and I got him onto the porch and locked the door. I didn't want to bring him into the house since I knew I couldn't lift him into the bathtub, so I went inside and got a couple of wet towels and the Dawn. I cleaned him up as best I could, and the smell was very faint. The skunk had looked very small to me, so I'm pretty sure it's "skunk glands" weren't too strong yet. I didn't see any blood in Howard's mouth or on the white fur that's on his neck and chest.

I called Animal Control, but they were, as usual, all tied up for the day. I called Howard's vet. The police called me back and asked if the skunk was still there. I couldn't see it in the growth of flowers, but I was too afraid to go looking too closely. They said if I couldn't see it, Animal Control would not be able to make it ... there was no point.

When Jeff got home from summer school, he went out and looked for the skunk. He found it in the flowers, dying and covered with flies. This was one of the times, he told me, when he wished he had a .22 because the skunk was clearly suffering. Every time he tried to get too close, the little skunk lifted its tail, so Jeff sprayed water from the hose in its general direction and, when he went to look, the poor skunk was drinking some water. It was as comfortable as it was possible for it to be.

I asked Jeff if he had thought about killing it with a rock or something like that, and he said he couldn't. A gun he could point and look away, but actively killing an animal he was looking at, in a way that might cause it more pain along the way, was something he could not do. I told him this was one of the reasons I love him and that I felt exactly the same.

When we got back from the concert for Ari's music camp, the skunk was dead. Jeff buried it, and I am so grateful that he is able to do things like that, because I just couldn't. 

The skunk Howard killed was just a baby. Later that night, as he was coming home from the store, Jeff saw a mother skunk with six babies on the street near the house. This broke my heart.

The thing is, adult skunks are a nuisance and a danger and completely unnecessary when you live in what is pretty much the inner city. During the summer, Jeff has to go out at night and do a perimeter check before he takes Howard out because, if he doesn't, Howard will sometimes encounter a skunk and get sprayed.

But this was a baby skunk, defenseless, separated from its mother, probably petrified, and hiding in the safest spot it could find.

And my dog, my sweet and gentle dog who sleeps in our bed and is infinitely patient with my children, found it and killed it.

I know Howard was doing what dogs do. I even think he might have been more aggressive than he otherwise would have because I was the one taking him out and he has been especially protective of me since I'm not well. If it was an adult skunk, I might even have been relieved that we wouldn't have to deal with it anymore (although I'm not sure Howard would have been the clear victor if it had been an adult skunk). I know my children go running into the backyard to go in the pool or on the play structure without doing a skunk check. 

But it still makes me sad. 

The worst part for me is that Howard didn't kill it outright. It laid in the flowers suffering for most of the day. It's easy to say, "It was just a skunk", but its mother and siblings were looking for it last night. They didn't get to see it one last time, and it died alone and scared.

Perhaps I'm emotional because of the severity of my medical situation over the past few months, but this was a terrible and tragic reminder of the fragility of life.

RIP, Baby Skunk.  

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Call Me a Bleeding Heart Liberal, but I Will Always Keep Trying to Help (Even When I Get Burned)

When I was driving into work on Tuesday morning, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I decided that I'd give my students a King quote for their quickwrite. The one I chose was:

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

I projected the quote onto the screen and had my students write about it for eight minutes, then we had a discussion. It became an incredibly deep discussion, which is always exciting when you're a teacher. As we were wrapping up and transitioning to Romeo and Juliet, one of my students asked where the quote came from.

When I told them, one of them noted, "Oh, Martin Luther King ... so THAT's why you chose it."

It was ... and it wasn't.

Let's face it, America is going to change when Donald Trump becomes president. Trump's candidacy and election have scarred me deeply on a personal level, and I spend far more time thinking about unhappy things than I should.

During that drive to work (it's about forty minutes), I got thinking about the people that say, "Invite a Syrian refugee to stay with you!" or "Why don't you pay higher taxes if that's how you feel?" I know people that say these things. I even like some of these people.

But I don't understand them.

Why? Because I have an inherent need to help, to fix, to make life better for others. My mother used to tear her hair out over it (I once gave away a brand new and evidently very expensive jacket to a child on the bus that had no jacket and lived in a very poor neighborhood); she referred to me as "a social worker", and it was not meant as a compliment.

I understand my mom's frustration now, since I have tried desperately to help people before and gotten burned badly as a result. The student I lent $100 and never got back (I no longer loan students money as a result). My abusive alcoholic ex-husband. You know, the usual suspects.

There are a couple of recent attempted random acts of kindness, however, that have gone shockingly awry. Those are the ones that keep me up, those strangers that myself and my family went way out on a limb for, and we ended up feeling guilty and sort of like the bad guy.

This summer, a woman and her three children moved in across the street. We noticed immediately that she was always hollering at her kids, even yelling swears and epithets like, "I'm going to kill you!", but a DCYF report was pointless unless we had "video evidence". It upset all of us, needless to say.

One summer day, when it was 98 degrees and humid (which, in New Hampshire, is unbearable and, if you're me, means you're not leaving the air conditioner for anything), I was watching out the window as this woman tried to move a couch into her house. It wasn't going well, and her kids were running into the traffic, throwing rocks at her to impede her progress, and poking a dead bird with a stick. She finally sat down on the couch, put her head in her hands, and started sobbing.

I called down to Jeff and told him that I was going to go try to help her get her house inside. Being more suited for this duty (and well aware of how pleasant I am after three minutes in the heat), Jeff volunteered to go in my place.

Long story short, we were soon babysitting the kids every Monday night while their mother went to visit her ex-boyfriend in jail. We'd feed them, keep them from hurting each other, and try to teach them some manners and control. In return, they would break our kids' toys and throw epic, loud battles when it was time for them to go home.

Once school started, the thankless babysitting gig got to be too much for us, so she stopped asking after we said no once (I think one of our kids was legitimately sick). It was honestly something of a relief, although it made us all sad that the kids were stuck getting screamed at all the time.

Anyway, over Christmas vacation, I got a text from her out of the clear blue sky asking if we could watch the kids for two consecutive days from 8-5:30.

I said no.

No reply, no "Thanks anyway", no "Thank you for all the times you did watch them", nothing.

That stung.

The other situation involved a guy that wanders around neighborhoods asking to do odd jobs for cash. I was petrified of him, but Jeff would hire him to mow the lawn or something. It got to the point where he was doing bigger jobs, but he was also coming over ALL THE TIME trying to find jobs to do so we'd pay him.

It got out of control when he was injured in an accident, and we felt bad for him and fronted him money that we couldn't afford to front. He then came and did the agreed-upon work, but he wanted to be paid for it. It got very ugly, and he spent a lot of time begging Jeff to hire him again.

He said no.

So even bleeding heart liberals have a breaking point, I guess. Being taken advantage of and used isn't pleasant ...

However, I would rather live a hundred scenarios like these then not try at all. You see, I know that the few times mine hand has gotten burned for reaching out and trying to help, memorable and painful as they are, is both a warning and an affirmation.

I could stop trying to help people in need. Yeah, those people going on and on about the Syrian refugees when we have people in need of help right here--I don't see them stepping up. I did, and I'm not sorry. If my fatal flaw is a desire to help others, then so be it.

I would rather help other people genuinely and at their level of need than sit around looking down at them.

It was easy to look down on the screaming and incompetent mother, the would-be handyman who we suspect fell off the opiate wagon after being put on painkillers following his accident. I'm not proud; I looked down on both of them, both before and when I was trying to help them. This is not something I'm proud of, but I'm being completely honest here.

I take pride in being a good person, one who helps others in times of need, but there is a part of me that knows that pride is dark and ugly and perhaps influences how some situations end up. Who knows?

My students got talking about King's quote vis a vis being a good and "loving" person and driving out the darkness through that, but they also recognized (and vocalized) that we are all a balance of good and bad.

I can tell you from personal experience, some dark will not allow any late, no matter how brightly you may shine; some people will never allow love to replace hate. It's just the nature of the human beast.

I have always tried to help, particularly the downtrodden, and I will continue to do so no matter the cost.

If that makes me a bleeding heart liberal, so be it.

I am a work in progress, and I will never stop trying.

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Are Minorities Discouraged from Taking Upper-Level Classes?: The Elephant in the Room

As a public school teacher for sixteen years, I sometimes feel like I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen Standards come and go (and despite the brou...