What We Can Learn from 7th Graders this Election Season

This post is about the 2016 presidential election, the Common Core, and it’s written by a public school educator. So it’s got all of the ingredients for a storm of anger to descend in response, if only this blog were better known. A girl can dream, eh?

In reality, though, this post is one I could’ve written before this election and one I’ll want to write again later. It’s a post I think about writing to all of my adult friends who partake of their first amendment rights and share their opinions in writing and verbally and otherwise. I’m confident my fellow ELA (English Language Arts) teachers are nodding their heads in agreement.

Why? The Common Core ELA standards. Really, the things we have committed ourselves to teaching our kids have aligned with these principals before the Core, but it’s just worded so nicely and concisely in these CC standards!

The thing is, from August to June, my students learn how to read informational texts with a critical and analytical mind. They learn how to write their own informational texts after conducting research where they use only credible resources. They even learn how to not only have clear, coherent, and accountable arguments but how to evaluate them in writing and in media.

See for yourself!

Reading Informational Texts

In summary, students learn how to comprehend what they read, they learn to critically analyze informational texts – AKA “the media.” They dig into argumentative writing and informative writing and are able to evaluate the author’s intent, bias, and layers of meaning. Think about Facebook for a minute – how many people fail to do this? Thank God for the Common Core, am I right? Here are a few that really nail it:

    Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
    Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text (e.g., how ideas influence individuals or events, or how individuals influence ideas or events).
    Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to the development of the ideas.
    Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims.
    Analyze how two or more authors writing about the same topic shape their presentations of key information by emphasizing different evidence or advancing different interpretations of facts.
Not only do our nation’s 13 year olds learn how to read like pros, they learn how to write effectively. They learn that in order to write an effective argument, you need to have reasons and evidence. Like, fact-check-proof evidence. They write things that are “clear and coherent” – you know, appropriate to the audience. Thoughtful. Tailored. More of that critical thinking the Core loves so much! My all-time favorite standard is W.7.8 (full text below) where students learn to identify whether or not a source is reliable and trustworthy AND they learn how to avoid plagiarism (I’m looking at YOU people who post quotes without sources!!) And to take it even deeper than your average fan of the ol’ FB, 7th graders learn how to use multiple sources as evidence for their own, new ideas!
    Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
    Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
    Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
    Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
Speaking and Listening
Debates. Oh, those debates. How many ELA teachers were just clinging to the SL standards during a debate? How many of us were not-so-secretly thrilled when our students brought up the lack of accountable talk stems present in the debates? Sigh. These standards are all about having meaningful, fruitful, peaceful discussions. They’re about evaluating arguments. They even cover things like eye contact and voice volume. DO YOU SEE THE BEAUTY?
    Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
    Analyze the main ideas and supporting details presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how the ideas clarify a topic, text, or issue under study.
    Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
    Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with pertinent descriptions, facts, details, and examples; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.

And these are only 13 of the standards – for a full list and as my only external source, you can check out for yourself what we’re up to that makes 7th grade ELA students more qualified voters and maybe even political debaters than most of America.

Bad News Revisited

Auggie is becoming more active during the day time, and usually during late morning I feel him kick and swivel around. It’s like a morning tradition with him,  sending  little secret messages to Mom that he’s there and he’s coming and it’s the best thing.

Another morning tradition, a much earlier-as-soon-as-I-awaken tradition for me, is scrolling through the day’s Timehop feed and seeing what the past had to offer. Today brought up a blog post from 3 years ago, called Bad News. I remembered this post without having to read it, but I did read it, because of its new significance. It was 3 years ago today that I got the call from the Polk County Health Department informing me I did indeed get Lyme Disease that summer. The whole post was important for me personally to read, but this bit in particular is important for more than just me, I think:

Before I had even hung up the phone with the health department, I began to cry. Once the connection was severed, I burst into sobs. All of a sudden the migraines and aching fingers, the still-lingering spurts of numbness and soreness in my neck and face, the ever-increasing numbness of my fingers including the recently finicky middle finger….it all seemed much more ominous. Allergies and sinus infections and improper ergonomics when typing vanished and lymph-node dwelling, meninges-eating, Lyme loomed darkly in my mind. A future of decreased mobility, no children, and memory loss seemed certain. All through this I prayed, and quickly went to find my mom for more assurance.

That part about no children ate at me more than any other. It was echoed in the following months as I sought treatment through many paths and experts. Not that it was guaranteed infertility, but that it could be, and that it would certainly be “irresponsible” to try getting pregnant until 1-2 years had passed because my body needed that time to heal. No woman wants to hear that even if she wasn’t planning on having children. It’s like this essential function has been denied, stolen, taken away.

I’d already lived in that fear of biological failure because of the eating disorder, because of 6 years of amenorrhea and then a violent, monthly, return. Because of what doctors had already told me all this without the addition of Lyme could very well add up to mean.

I’m going to put faith in you that you’re recognizing the significance of this anniversary. As I sit and reread and relive those fears and wonderings, this baby boy, my son, is squirming to a point of adorable discomfort. I know that not every woman’s issues with fertility end this happy. I know (trust me, because of my bff Anxiety) that our story isn’t over and happy may not be where we land.

Even in my dreams of Augustine, he’s often with someone else and I’m desperately trying to get to him. It’s probably my anxious mind’s lingering disbelief working itself out. But just last night I had a different kind of dream,  one where I did get to him. And I saw a wrinkly, red little boy with bright blue eyes and so much dark hair it looked like a wig, whose face broke into a smile the moment I leaned over his crib and said “Hello.”

Even if the timing of that old post and this one is coincidental, I think its helpful for me and for others to reflect on those dark moments in our past and recognize what beautiful light has come bursting through.

Critical Compassion

Can I admit something?

Not for the sake of a response, but because it’s on my heart, and I feel compelled to be transparent?

I’ve been down, depressed, and discouraged these past few weeks.

Not every moment – I’m so grateful for the joyful anticipation of preparing for Auggie to arrive, of sitting still for extended moments just to feel him move around and of reorganizing our home and finances as we make our life ready for him to come.

But there have been several moments where I have broken down and wept. Sometimes it’s over the repeated and varied acts of violence in our world. But the tears have also streamed hot and furious out of frustrated confusion when I watch the world’s responses. I’ve found myself singing songs like “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” choking out the words  through tears, desperate for a dispersal of those “gloomy clouds of night.”

Now please hear me – 

I am not saying my response is the only correct one and others are wrong. I believe a variety are necessary because it takes many minds and varied strengths to find solutions. Asserting me vs. you or us vs. them is popular but deeply problematic.

But I am saying that through these past few weeks, I’ve been processing and praying and, well, watching you. Yes, you. All of you. I’ve been watching what you say and how you say it. I’ve been asking myself, and often you, why these things are being said. Sometimes I don’t ask, because I’m afraid to know the answer.

Because of what I’ve seen in others’ posts and in my own, I’m contemplating a cessation of posting anything political or controversial, specifically on Facebook. Only there do I see the worst kind of abuses, and I’m tired of being attacked and misunderstood (clearly I’m not cut out to be a politician or lead a movement myself). I have become aware that only those who already agree will respond positively. Minds are rarely changed on Facebook because in order for that to happen, the mind has to be open to the fact that it doesn’t already have the answers. The articles and posts have to be read from a stance of “what can I learn?” and not “what now?”

As a teacher, it’s harder for me than you might think to stay silent. I’m not used to closed, fixed minds so opposed to asking questions and then being interested in the answers. Even before teaching, I used to think that critical thinking was the magical key to understanding and knowledge. That as long as we could break down and process and analyze and postulate, we could find common ground, common themes, and eventually solutions. But this season has taught me that critical thinking is only a part of knowledge. Critical thinking without compassion is a mirror reflecting only existing beliefs, not understanding.

One day while, as mentioned earlier, trying to sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” in the shower, and feeling very powerless to effect any change, a quiet thought broke through:

“Do you believe that justice is possible?”

And the answer in my heart is still, maddeningly, yes.

But it requires compassion. Listening. Being open to being wrong. It requires making statements and choices out of love, not fear.

Justice requires this reminder:

“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

 If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.” (source)

For all the talk of voting based on moral grounds on either side of the fence, if we are unable to keep from spewing venom at those who disagree, we are the morally bankrupt ones. If we are unable to be mindful even of the venom that mean memes made of candidates (which I’m guilty of posting occasionally, too), we are the morally bankrupt ones. I don’t want to feed into that anymore, even if it means a cessation of positive, open posts. Because I know those posts will breed the wrong kind of response and there’s too much of that for me to handle right now.

We can have all of the answers to America’s problems, we can be the most critical of thinkers, but without compassion to filter decisions – without love – we are nothing.


It’s a Boy!

It’s a boy! And we have named him Augustine Lewis House.

Why? Glad you asked!

My sophomore year of college at St. Ambrose University I was registered for a course called History of the Western Church that normally only upper-classmen on the track for priesthood took. It was a fluke, but I was up for a challenge. To date, it was the most demanding course I took in school (including my Master’s program). No such course would be complete without study of pivotal historical theologians and philosophers and St. Augustine of Hippo was one of them. His words and thoughts resonated with me more than any of the others we studied that semester, particularly his straightforwardness about loving others and loving God and how complex it is to remove self-interest from any of it. That kind of awareness of selfish impulse in the face of a commitment to love others better anyway is something I want in a son.

During my master’s program, study of educational philosophers was obviously a large part of Advanced Educational Philosophy. Each student was assigned a philosopher to dive into and present on. Guess who I got? Augustine treasured the power of words, and was known to push other writers and speakers. He exalted education and valued knowledge and reason.  And while I’ll admit some of his ideas show his age, this one in particular is how I want my little one to see the interactions with others, not just for myself as a literal school teacher, “The teacher should take into account the unique characteristics of each student and relate to the students as unique individuals” (source).

It’s worth noting that I have wanted to name a child after Augustine since that sophomore year of undergrad. I don’t know that Mike and I had talked about names much in the earlier years of our marriage, but one day we walked into his parents’ house and saw some plaques leaned against the wall bearing the name Augustine Hernandez. My heart stopped. I asked who it was and learned it was Mike’s great-grandfather. That moment sealed the deal. Augustine it would be.

If you know me, then chances are you know where Lewis comes from. C.S. Lewis, the man, the myth, the legend. The master storyteller. The man unafraid to simultaneously take on the mantle of authority while disclaiming that readers are responsible for thinking critically and making their own decisions. A person who was never too old to see magic everywhere, and yet questioned everything while offering possible solutions.

Both of these men share loves of knowledge, words, and love of others. If we add to this the gifts this kiddo will hopefully receive from his own dad of problem solving, selfless serving, and the fast-working, connections-making mind of an engineer, we will have one wise little man.