Standardized Second Graders

Legs swung and kicked intermittently above linoleum tiled floor as Mrs. D’s class of 2nd graders sat before glowing computer screens hunched in blue plastic chairs. The scratch paper before the students was blank, turned sideways, and smudged–a snapshot depiction of the standardized testing state of mind. One little girl’s paper was completely clean. A graphite grid of numbers and scrawls and diagrams, a boy named Tom’s was packed to the brim. Violet took breaks after each math question to add a toenail, snout or paw print to the careful canine portrait that took shape across an hour-long timed test.

Whispering to themselves and raising unsteady hands to ask for the reading (but not hints!) of a question, the 7 and 8 year-old students were in their own worlds. They were  each sequestered in lists of questions adapted to strengths and weaknesses–rearranged in real time. Gone are the days of pencils and bubbles and underlined paragraphs. Instead of physically scratching circles into the white space of thick test booklets, these kids have learned to drag bright and lifelike images across virtual drawing pads for word problem visualization.

As the students fidgeted, clicked, and typed away at the computerized and tri-annual Math Measure of Academic Progress (MAP,) I made the most of my birds-eye view into their meandering minds.

I watched as one 2nd grader twisted her long black hair around nervous fingers, while another (a girl named Emily who I’ve come to know well) swiveled 180 degrees on her knees. Eyes locked on hers, I released the reminder: “focus…” She stuck out her tongue, then tried. I remembered her crawling across the floor of the green-carpeted library during so many of our “just right” book quests–making those “meep” noises that always seemed to lead her to a good shelf or author. Her own internal library detector. I wished she had more time to take the test. I wanted to let her get up and count out tile squares as if they were numbers on a number line–literally “walking” her through each problem.

After three questions in a row read to her by a teacher, Juanita escaped to the bathroom. She sat with her legs dangling and her cheeks relaxed into a grin. She didn’t feel the weight of the test. She didn’t understand the terrifying gravity that accompanies the fact that she still can’t recognize the word “and” on some days. Juanita can read fairy tales fluently in Spanish, but her English reading level will barely meet 1st grade expectations by the time she enters her third grade classroom.

Across the aisle, a boy’s brow furrowed as he ticked off the fingers on his hand (fingernails and knuckles transforming into the ice cream cones referenced on the screen.)

Meanwhile, a digital clock popped up on another child’s computer. We read the question together. It went something like this: Which choice correctly describes the time: Quarter-to 12, Half-past 11,  or 20 minutes to 1? Leaving him to click one of the perfect round bubbles, I wondered if my own children would ever learn to read an analog clock. To be surrounded by the technology of the digital age and then asked to translate it to the terminology of previous generations is more difficult than it sounds. I imagined equipping those future kids with “old fashioned” watches and make a giant clock face to lay on the living room floor. We would make hours and minutes out of arms and legs….

2 seats over, a girl called Judy is convinced the correct answer to her graph question isn’t listed. She’s failed to read the key and units carefully, (forgetting to multiply the lbs of beef called for in the question’s recipe by 2 because of the serving size and number of people who will be eating the meal.) I am not allowed to explain the mistake. Instead, I tell her to read the question again, answer with her best educated guess, and keep moving forward.

Peering over the bobbing heads of sandy blonde, raven black, and stick-straight brown, my gaze landed on Mrs. D. I can only imagine her pent-up frustration–the countless lesson plans whirring in her mind. In every student’s silent struggle on a question that takes a tad too long, I see her working out the details of how she would explain the problem to the student. I too am making mental notes–inventing a kinesthetic game of sight words for Jane and a review of unit multiplication for Judy.

In Minnesota, the MAP test is  “state aligned computerized adaptive reading and math tests that reflect the instructional level of each student and measure growth over time” ( For data collection purposes, each student receives a “score, percentile rank, goal performance [indicating areas of strength and weakness,] and…growth score.” These reports are especially useful for teachers as they work to involve parents in elementary education as much as possible. As with everything in education, the adaptive and digital testing model has both benefits and pitfalls–offering more individualized test scores and the potential for greater communication with parents, but also the frustration of a different (and sometimes confusing) format from what is learned in day-to-day class sessions.

Two days after her students completed their test and filed out of a windowless computer room and back to their desks, Mrs. D will tell me that the results are much better than last time. And then, shaking her head, she’ll say they’re still not good enough. She’ll point to the columns of names handwritten in alphabetical order. Next to a handful of rows is a neat blue highlighter dot. “Each of them has improved… see what their scores were at the beginning of the year? But they still won’t make grade-level by the end of the year if you trust the projections made by the test.” She points to the trajectory–moving across the impressive arcs of data compiled for each student at the end of the digitized testing experience. For each student we can see how long he or she took to complete the test, scores for each type of question (from “number sense” to “problem solving” and “algebra,”) and predictions for future scores.

This is the world of “adaptive” testing– questions that bounce around based on how well you’re doing. Students begin with questions from the numbered level achieved during their last test. For example, if Tom achieved the highest level possible in his last math test (scoring 250 or above,) he will be prompted with an advanced 250-level (5th grade) question. This might look something like: The diameter of sphere A is twice the size of sphere B. What is the ratio of the volume of sphere A to that of sphere B? To accurately solve this problem, Tom would have to know the formula for the volume of a sphere (4/3 Pi*r^3,) and how to apply it to the word problem. When the typical student at Greenvale enters 2nd grade, he or she should fall into the 170 category. By the end of the year, performing at “grade-level” means hitting the 190 mark.

Should he get the answer right in our hypothetically advanced problem (8:1,) Tom will continue to receive math questions from the “above 250” question bank. However, should he get the problem wrong, he will be bumped down to an easier level–working his way back up to 250, or falling down into the 231-240, 221-230, or 211-220 categories. In many cases, students are discouraged when they start where they “left off.”It takes more than a few questions to get into the groove, and by then they’ve been bumped down or up several times. In this sense, it’s hard to tell how you’re doing. I’ve experienced the same frustration on the new and “improved” adaptive version of the GRE practice test.

Sample Math Problems from the MAP Test for grades 2-5. To be considered at "grade level," 2nd grade students should reach 190 by Spring.

Sample Math Problems from the MAP Test for grades 2-5. To be considered at “grade level,” 2nd grade students should reach 190 by Spring.

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Taking note of the diverse set of glowing problems on the students’ screens, levels ranged from around 150-220. The complexity of teaching the same lesson on any given day to this range of ability levels in one classroom is daunting. Small group workshops, one-on-one attention, and individualized worksheets are key. This is a Brave New World of times tables, number sentences, and teaching.

Pacing a room of 2nd graders with necks craned toward computer screens, I was filled with a strange sort of nostalgia for pages that flipped. Taking the Wisconsin standardized tests and ACT in my own educational experience, there was a camaraderie that came in the organized breaks between math and reading and science sections. Because we all took the same test, we were reassured that others had the same difficulty with that weird wording in number 9 and confusing graph somewhere around number 35. When reading a passage in preparation for a string of comprehension questions, I was careful to underline key phrases–no scrolling necessary.

As a teacher entering the elementary classroom in roughly 6 months, I wonder how much testing will change throughout my first year. Without the use of computers for every class period, will I be able to teach in a format that translates to a digital test? How will I make sure that though we highlight with markers and write notes in margins during class, students must understand the nuances of multi-tasking on screen?  How will we learn the art of answering reading questions that call for highlighting relevant passages with a mouse and master “skim reading” with a scroll bar?

I am a product of the technology age (complete with iPhone, Facebook, New York Times online, and Twitter feed,) yet I am unashamed to say I harbor concerns about teaching digitally. I’m 22 years old and ancient.

Plastered on the walls of the computer lab are posters filled with digital literacy themes. Plan: What am I supposed to know? What am I supposed to do our make?

Do: What can I do to get good information? What can I do to show what I know?

Review: Did I do what I was supposed to do? Did I do my best work?

Digital Literacy Projects: Internet Safety, Author Project, Online Research, Holidays, and Snow Poems.

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As the children finish their tests one by one and settle into scribbling houses, Harry Potter wands, and maps of their neighborhoods onto loose leaf “scratch paper,” I am lost in thoughts of Khan Academy and flipped classrooms. Will I work in an iPad classroom or one with outdated textbooks shared by groups of two and three? Will I have the time and freedom to assign my students multiple “books in a bag” fit to their personal reading level, (as Mrs. D does,) or will I be pushed to assign only those stories aligned perfectly with the standards of the increasingly popular Common Core–exchanging the imagination of fairy tales for a strong emphasis on non-fiction texts?

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Making the 25 minute walk back to College, I remembered the blog post I wrote 2 years ago–just beginning my exploration of the education in an independent study with a professor I’ve grown to call a friend and admire deeply. In my exploratory post titled “Do Our Tests Live Up to the Test?” I grappled with definitions of “success,”the notion of hidden curriculums, and who gets to teach history. I took a stand on learning for the sake of learning and questioned “to test or not to test?” I wondered how students develop a sense of self or identity when they are constantly told by standardized who they are and at what levels they will achieve. I asked where there was room for field trips, hands-on learning, and community.

2 years and hundreds of hours in the same 2nd grade classroom later, I still have many of the same questions and concerns. As a new Teach for America Corps member (Indianapolis 2013) preparing for the challenges ahead, I grasp the weight of the responsibility that comes with standing at the front of a classroom. In the coming weeks, I will spend full days in Greenvale Classrooms, visit innovative charter school models with our SFER St. Olaf student organization, explore MN public policy, and carry out more than 50 hours of reading in preparation for a summer of teaching and TFA Institute. Still, it will not be nearly enough.

When I circle the computer lab and the library and the classroom filled with the students I’ve grown to love, I envision the students I’ve yet to meet in coming years. I hope desperately that I will not fail them, and I dream up ways to strike the balance between a moral and fulfilling classroom ecology and “teaching to the test.”

Each time I meet with Mrs. D to learn more about the intricate art and civic duty of teaching, I sit on the edge of my chair. I want to soak it all in–gaining insight in a field that no amount of advice or observation or reading can prepare you for completely.

*names have been changed to protect student privacy.

Posted in SFER Senior Project, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Greening the Momosphere: Mommy Blogs and Social Change

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(This research paper is the cumulative result of a semester spent researching  sustainability culture in the United States–particularly in the realm of parenting. In the post below, you’ll find the introduction. Click  here for  the full paper.) 

November 5, 2012. On the eve of Election Day, Rebecca Woolf sits down to her computer and types. “Faith, 2012.” It is a title foreshadowing a conversation she’ll have with thousands from the privacy of her empty living room. Or kitchen. Or bedroom.

After her four children are tucked in and dreaming, Rebecca writes about politics and parenting. In the morning, 41 people will leave comments. They will tell her she “changed their minds,” and offered the “best argument” they’d heard in favor of re-electing President Obama.  A world-famous “mommy blogger,” Rebecca (better known as “Girl’s Gone Child” or GGC,) has written a book and made it into the The New York Times, Time Magazine, Huffington Post, and NPR. Boldly writing since 2003 when gave birth to her first child, Woolf has navigated the virtual blogosphere for nearly ten years. She is a celebrity—risen to fame for being relatable, yet out of the box. On November 5th, Rebecca writes about hope and voting. She draws out lines about women’s rights, gay marriage, and national pride—explaining her vote and knowingly contradicting herself along the way. As she types, she pastes hyperlinks to political agenda articles from national newspapers. She unearths the hyperlinked versions of herself buried deep in her 2008 blog archives. Rebecca traces the progress of the United States as she traces her own transformation as a woman and as a mother. Drawing comparisons to her roller coaster marriage and the daily uncertainty of childrearing, Woolf is one of 3,900,000 “Mommy Bloggers” in North America. She belongs to a cohort of 500 who have “considerable power and reach.” From her mini web series to the scrolling advertisements for her iPhone app, Twitter feed and Youtube channel framed in her blog’s sidebar, Rebecca is a lifestyle brand. Supporting her family of 6 through her blogging, she is living a new kind of American dream. Her blog’s web page is a crafted living space. Inviting an audience into her world, Rebecca furnishes the virtual as she would the real. In the block-lettered header of Girl’s Gone Child, twin sets of baby blue eyes and chubby fingers extend to readers. In her headlines and streaming feeds, Rebecca tells them: these children and this mother are real. Commenting on why she blogs, this Girl Gone Child describes her motivation as a desire to understand: “I draw parallels to everything so that I can rationalize decisions – so that I can relate to all the things I feel detached from. So that I can relate to this election. So that I can stand firmly behind the man I will be voting for.” Like her children, Rebecca Woolf is still growing. She is zooming in and out—the camera lens of her life panning from her wedding day to her children’s faces to the Presidential election playing out on the TV screen. Both child and adult, she strives to be complicated. “Who am I?” she asks. The answer, “A Mom,” encompasses everything.

To realize the impact Rebecca (and so many other blogging mothers,) has on communities of parents and citizens, we must understand the stage on which she plays and acts. In 2012, the state of motherhood is one rife with anxiety. As authors Hall and Bishop state in their text Mommy Angst: Motherhood in American Popular Culture; “ American mothers are anxious about nearly every aspect of their lives. Their careers, their families, their bodies, their children, their mothering abilities… Americans want a ‘mom’ definition of motherhood—a nurturing, accepting, easy definition. Mothers…are the reservoir of American expectations.” Through “Mommy Blogs,” mothers across the country are able to grapple (on their own terms) with increasingly complicated definitions of motherhood in the modern age. In forums and comment streams they define and edit the cultural “supermom.” In the archives of mommy bloggers, we find diatribes, social movements, and humorous moments frozen in time. In the winding paragraphs and photo-montage memories of mothers who tailor their blogs to fit personalized interests and experiences (ranging from farming to fashion, environmentalism, and child loss) we see a diverse movement. Though Mommy Bloggers represent a narrow demographic of women when it comes to race, income, and social status, their stories tell us about the nature of parenting in an information age. Their far-reaching support systems redefine communication in a confusing age of multitasking and divided attention.

The impact of mothers and women as writers, advice-givers, and innovative feminists in the Mommy Blog realm is not unprecedented. Putting Mommy Blogs into historical context, the late 19th century brought a wave of feminism that did not associate with anger, but identified with dynamic storytelling. In many ways, this emergent feminism was a precursor to the Mommy Blog movement of the new Millenium—an unearthed opportunity for mothers to write their histories in real time. In 19th century female-centered magazines and advice books, women authored their own histories. As was true in these advice books and magazines of the 19th century, Mommy Bloggers break the mold and rewrite womanhood. In the 1800s, the publication of magazines targeted toward women spiked dramatically as “[women] became key consumers of household goods in the 19th century and gradually expanded their roles into spheres outside the family.” Similarly transforming the conversation of American womanhood in the 21st century, Mommy Bloggers take advantage of technological advances to reach female audiences of millions. In both cases, public discussion about supposedly private life is normalized.  Like the writers of the 19th century, our modern blogging mothers articulate what it means to be a mother and a woman in 2012. They mold themselves into agents of social change.

Analyzing Girl’s Gone Child and her blogging peers and followers, a slice of the “Momosphere” is revealed, questions are raised, and we learn how a new medium might be used to shape parenting practices in the US. This includes working together as a population of parents to reduce the carbon footprints that plague our children’s generation, and molding the minds and ethical understanding of children who will become future global citizens.

Climbing the multitasking rungs of social media and afterschool hierarchy, the “Momosphere” asks questions big and small: What substance lies behind filled calendars and the constant effort to “have it all?” What happens when the little girl whose parents told her she could do anything grows up and has a family of her own? Does she leave her powerful business career behind, or compromise a between-the-lines kind of feminism? What about all of the fear-addled headlines? The seeping toxins and destructive hurricanes and situations parents cannot control? What about the bullies and the ten million monthly newsletters designed to reveal “all you need to know” to be a “good” mother?

It’s easy to feel helpless in the slew. But these Moms can write. Transferring the power of the 1950s coffee clutch to the 13” lap top screen, blogging moms form networks. In turn, these networks have the scope to create dramatic change (if they choose.) Bridging entertainment and information in the same genius way Oprah did for television, Mommy bloggers reveal what matters to a powerful demographic of American women.

Blurring the lines of virtual and the real, the online activity of Mommy Bloggers is positioned to become a viable form of activism. The best blogging Moms balance the simple with the deep —juggling questions of backyard sandbox shenanigans with climate change and overconsumption. They also learn to conquer multiple mediums, brand themselves, and build communities.  Rebecca Woolf is one such example. In a follow-up to her November 5th thoughts, Rebecca wrote a post called “Politics & Friends” –expressing the complexity of a motherhood citizenship as she said:

“We matter and I believe with all my heart, so do our choices. As voters and parents and human beings, we can choose to support one side without ripping into the other. We can celebrate our wins without booing those who voted against us, speak our minds without criticizing the minds of those who think differently, hold hands without rolling our eyes. And to quote Thomas Jefferson…I believe that not only is it  possible to stay friends with those who share a difference of politics, opinion, religion and philosophy, it is our duty as citizens of the world and mentors to tomorrow’s leaders. Because if we can’t get along as adults how can we expect our children to?

They’re watching us.”

She is not alone. Examining a selected sample of twenty Mommy blogs, representations of motherhood are diverse and sometimes seem disconnected. When it comes to issues in the environment (arguably the biggest ongoing challenges their children will have to face,) most mention climate change or global warming or fear. Few dare to dive in over their heads. These women have the means to shift culture. In a cacophony of voices shared over cups of coffee in quiet rooms, they form families. These writers might use their wit to shift market consumerism, direct others to well-informed sources of political information, raise a generation of conscientious citizens, and inspire more eco-centric efficacy. Exploring the recorded values and messages of Mommy blogs, we find a blueprint for future generations of citizens. Critiquing and applauding the work of these writers and mothers, readers might navigate their own ethics of parenting—approaching child rearing as a political act of the greatest consequence. Until now, the “Mommy Blogger” demographic has been trivialized and pushed aside. There has been little research on the impact these women are having in communities, politics, and consumer markets—forging a digital frontier of shared space and ideals. This exploratory paper seeks to dive into the archives of these notable women and analyze their footprints (on both ecological and social scales.)

Rebecca Woolf is a wonderful entry point for the “Mommy Blogging” conversation, but this paper adds to her symbolic presence by putting her in conversation with a woman who represents another side of the Mommy Blogging path and formula for “success.” This woman is Diane MacEachern, author of environmentally themed Big Green Purse blog and striking example of the “Eco Mommy Bloggers.” The method of my evaluation involves a survey of twenty blogs—the top ten most popular “general” Mommy Blogs, and the top ten “Eco” Mommy Blogs.  Analyzing the most recent blog posts and comments in each of these online communities, common themes emerge. From “business” to “motherhood” to “hope,” “thrift,” and “agency,” the women of the complex “Momosphere” redefine an American vocabulary that is no longer common sense.

“General” Mommy blogs (those without one clear niche,) do not explicitly raise ecological citizens. However, their parenting styles reflect themes of Ecological Citizenship. These include storytelling, instilling care for future generations, and teaching their children to ask questions. As Rebecca Woolf (a representation of generalist Mommy Blogging) claims, mothers have the responsibility to be “mentors to tomorrow’s leaders.” In the other branch of Mommy Bloggers explored in this paper, “Eco Mommy Bloggers” write openly about creating ecologically minded citizens in their children. However, these activist mothers run the risk of assuming that their children will take action by default. As exemplary Eco Blogger Diane MacEachern stresses, “We need to protect our health and the health of our kids and grand kids, and laws and regulations can’t do it alone.”

Focusing on one representative blog in each category of general and “Eco” writing mothers, the Girls Gone Child and Diane MacEachern’s Big Green Purse sites become “dense facts.” Through the voices of both bloggers, (supplemented with the dialogue of eighteen other noted bloggers,) we read a national conversation that shows the state of the world in the early 21st century. Juxtaposing these diary-like entries, questions, and lengthy comments on citizenship, we re-assess the values of parenting in the United States. The “Momosphere” tells us what concerns and dreams we hold for future generations. Recognizing the expressed values of the “Momosphere,” this paper examines how we might make the leap to operative values in parenting—combining “best practices” of parenting from general and environmental spheres, leading by example, and energizing a population of future activists and feminists (freed from the modern stigma.)

(To read the full body of this exploratory essay, click here: Greening the Momosphere)


Posted in Sustainability Culture Fall 2012, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

“The Lottery” and Charter School Semiotics

Lottery Poster

On December 6th, SFER St. Olaf hosted a film screening of the hit Education documentary The Lottery. Focused on the successes of one very high performing charter school in New York, this film is known for its emotional pull and largely one-sided interpretation of the education reform movement.

As the New York Times stated in a 2010 review, “On one level, this heart-tugging documentary recounts the experiences of four children competing in the academy’s annual intake lottery. On another, it’s a passionate positioning of charter schools as the saviors of public education.”


Recognizing the power this film has to start a discussion about the Charter School agenda that occupies headlines often on both local and national levels, our SFER St. Olaf screening was designed to incorporate an interactive Q&A. We were lucky enough to connect with St. Olaf alumnus Dan Wick–an Associate at the Minnesota nonprofit organization Charter School Partners (CSP). This organization coordinates to “launch” Charter Schools in Minnesota, and hopes to have 20 take off in the next 5 years. CSP’s work includes an “aggressive advocacy component,” and several “partner schools” whom CSP supports in an effort to make each charter school a “successful closing-the-gap school.” These partner schools are targeted because they have experienced initial success. CSP helps them to replicate and expand in order to serve more students.

After Dan agreed to speak about his experience working in a new Charter School network following our screening of The Lottery, a group of 6 students (and SFER members) sat down to draft questions and shed light on the complexity of the Charter School movement and its place in education reform. Like everything else in education reform, we knew that this was a loaded, complex, and multi-angled dialogue. It deserved to be treated like one.

Before the big day, we decided to pre-screen the movie in an empty English classroom for our SFER St. Olaf members who signed on to help plan this event. Equipped with cookie-filled bellies and pages full of notes, we started to type. Our first questions: How do these schools operate? What is a Charter School, anyway? The movie assumed we knew the answers. Though I’ve read about Charter Schools again and again, I found the logistics and legalities difficult to articulate. We realized that a Charter School 101 debriefing was in order. 45 minute later, 2 students had volunteered to do research for a pamphlet we would hand out at the film screening, and we had 9 questions to send Dan Wick:

1) Can you give us a brief overview of the work you personally do with Charter School Partners?

2) What local charter schools are you modeling future charter schools after? What were the successful tactics you noted in these schools?

3) How have you dealt with anti-charter school sentiment? What has your organization done to combat this sentiment?

4) How are the teachers in the charter schools you work with assessed?

5) Do you see charter schools as a primary solution to closing the achievement gap?

6) This film shows the climate of the charter school movement in an urban area. Can you speak to any of the differences in communities that are not urban?

7) Why build new charter schools rather than isolate the “best practices” used in successful charters and implement them in traditional public schools? How can we marry the two systems to create a better overall picture for kids?

8) We noticed on the CSP website that CSP has “an aggressive advocacy component.” What specific policy does your  organization advocate for implementation in all schools in order to further level the playing field?

9) How has your liberal arts perspective as a St. Olaf alumnus shaped your approach to the work you do with Charter School Partners?

Brad West, one of our leading Executive Board members for SFER St. Olaf, developed a Charter School 101 break-down that we would share at our event. Here are the facts he compiled:

Definition of a Charter School
Charter schools are public schools that do not have to conform to all the same regulations of traditional public schools. This gives them increased autonomy to develop innovative teaching practices that wouldn’t be possible in traditional schools. In exchange for this autonomy, charter schools are held accountable to their charter, or performance contract, which means they must produce their intended educational outcomes and results. So the key concept behind charter schools is that they operate autonomously and are held accountable for their students’ achievement.

Brief history of Charter School Movement
Ray Budde, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, first developed the idea that schools should be held accountable for results and not for processes and inputs originated in the late 1980s. In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to pass a charter school law. Since then, charter schools have proliferated and can now be found in forty states plus Washington, D.C. According to the Department of Education, in 2010, 1.6 million students were enrolled in charter schools, and five percent of public schools were charter schools.

As we’ve seen in The Lottery, charter schools are very controversial for a number of reasons. Supporters of the movement claim that these schools use their increased autonomy to achieve the kind of positive results we rarely see in inner-city school districts. And of course, while some charter schools are very well-run and boast high student achievement, there are also bad charter schools out there. Meanwhile, critics attack charter schools for being anti-union and for undermining public education by turning education into a private business model to be exploited for profit.

When we spoke with Mr. Wick one week prior to the event, he walked us through the presentation he would give–an impressive overview of the Charter School presence in Minnesota and his place in it. Understanding the confusion that comes with understanding the Charter School movement, and tailoring his speaking points to fit our questions, Dan left room for debate and free-form conversation.

Titled  Are Charter Schools the Solution to the Achievement Gap?, Dan’s “Prezi” showcased the nuance and systems thinking that our chapter of Students for Education Reform strives for. Unpacking scatter plots, statistics, and school profiles, Dan showed us the many ways The Lottery is oversimplified. Not every Charter School is Harlem Success Academy (the school showcased in The Lottery.) We cannot forget that like traditional public schools, these schools fail too.

SFER St. Olaf member Brad West gives his Charter School 101 Introduction

SFER St. Olaf member Brad West gives his Charter School 101 Introduction

Dan Wick, Charter School Partners, St. Olaf Alumnus ('09)

Dan Wick, Charter School Partners, St. Olaf Alumnus (’09)

Charter School Partners works to identify the Charter Schools in Minnesota that are currently “beating the odds.” These are the schools that see a narrowing in the “achievement” and “opportunity” gaps for their students as they get off the ground and begin to make changes in classrooms and communities. These are schools with adult leaders committed to the principle that “all kids can learn at the highest levels.” They are spaces where instructional vision is consistent across the board, and accomplishments happen quickly. Student data is collected incessantly and used to adjust teaching to meet individual needs. The “successful” schools Dan outlines share a “high expectations” and “no excuses” culture–working to give students a vision for their future (usually one that points to a college degree.) Time is a valued entity, and the school day reflects it–often stretching past 4:00. Dan Wick stresses that the Charter School model is not a silver bullet solution, but a flexible model that we might learn from. What our country needs are great schools. What form they take shouldn’t be the issue.

Step by step, Dan took us through the varied circles of CSP. He painted the practices of the organization as conscientious and community-based. Teachers with a high success rate working with low income kids and communities are recruited by CSP–approached with the possibility of “changing the trajectory” for under-served students in Minneapolis. They are the “rock stars” with 200% growth rates–meaning they manage to effectively teach 2 years of material in one. After signing on, these superstar teachers are given their very own start-up Charter Schools. As soon-t0-be principals, they hone their beliefs, learned teaching practices, and educational values into a kind of values “mission statement” for their schools.

CSP supports these men and women by taking care of the legwork involved in achieving authorization and writing grant applications. They help to provide time for Charter School development–2 years of community engagement and lesson planning and faculty building that do not fit the norm for Charter Schools in Minnesota. CSP pulls together a team of local experts to weigh in as these Principals develop their goals. The organization also arranges residency for the future Principals–giving them a taste of high performing schools in the area and encouraging further investigation of best practice models. CSP does not hold lotteries for the positions open in their schools. Instead, they encourage “authentic engagement” with communities and active recruitment of students in the 2 year grace period.

Though we were impressed with CSP’s innovative model for start-up, our group of ten  movie-goers still wondered about the inevitable conundrums and problems. Dan Wick was selling a formula for a great school. I wondered if this seemingly cold interpretation of educational success was too scientific for dynamic communities and schools.

To me, Charter Schools are successful when they are fit to communities. Harlem Success Academy uses the heart wrenching platform of a public lottery to prove that they are wanted by a community divided along Union lines. “We are giving our students a future” they seem to scream. “Look at all of these anxious parents. Look at these tiny faces. Take in the hundreds we have to turn away because the system isn’t changing fast enough.” The Lottery reminds us that every parent cares about their child’s education.

CSP works to harness the invaluable voices of parents–investing in parent organizing and getting their Principals out into “the field.” However, like so many other organizations, they have a formula. They follow a flow chart of Charter School foundation building.

Dan reassured me. He told us that though there is a “formula,” it differs with each location’s unique landscape of community engagement.

In the rest of our time together, Dan fielded similar questions and concerns from his audience: (These Q&A synopses are not direct quotes.)

Q: How do you decide when a Charter School has gotten to the point of failure where it must be shut down? What about the fact that it must take some of these schools at least a few years to start seeing results?

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A: In general, most new charter schools don’t start off as “rock stars.” It is the job of organizations like CSP to try to provide the tools that make it possible to be a “one-off” charter that is effective right away. In terms of assessment, Charter Schools use internal tests just as traditional public schools do. The Authorizer and the school develop a performance contract that goes beyond standardized tests. This contract includes aspects like “parent satisfaction.” In Minnesota, the founders of charter schools use unique models. In this state, much of the message for Charter Schools is about innovation. This is nearly impossible to measure, but is more important than test scores in some cases. (Here, Dan made clear that Charter School goals in different regions vary significantly. For example, in the depiction of NY in The Lottery, the heavily pushed goal is “college for every child.” In MN, the mantra is about innovative learning and teaching in the classroom–offering the skills kids will need for any path they take. )

For CSP, the goal is to do well on both tests and innovation skills that get kids through college (i.e. the new buzz words in education like “grit,” “zest,” and “perseverance.”) CSP believes that we must take into account the cultural factors of college completion that need to be learned throughout a K-12 education. In this sense, character building is emphasized alongside standardized testing in the Charter Schools that partner with CSP.

Q: In the film, we saw the parents of the failing NYC school PS129 incredibly angry about the possibility of Harlem Success Academy occupying the current PS129 building. The dialogue was heated, and the community seemed furious. Have you had to deal with any opposition like this? Criticism for your organization? If so, how did you handle it?

A: In NYC, space is a huge issue. The purpose of the lottery is saying that if we had more buildings in NYC the most effective Charter Schools could scale up today. However, this isn’t necessarily the case in MN. Unions don’t hold the same leverage they do in NY (but they are still an obstacle.)

We generally are called corporatists, Hedge Funders, or corporate reformers. We have a stigma that says we are privatizing schools…We are just trying to find flexible ways to create change in an effective time frame. Unions can prevent this because the contracts are so hard to negotiate. It would be great to have a district system that had charter-like flexibility, but it’s unlikely.

Q: What does the future look like for Charter Schools in MN?

A: Eventually, we want to have a model where Charter Schools are higher quality schools right off the bat… What happens if a majority of kids on the Northside are educated by Charters? This could change the district model…


Dan Wick speaks with Katie Busch, co-chapter leader of SFER St. Olaf

After our  Q&A session, Dan took time to follow up with a few extra-interested students.  Channeling his Liberal Arts Education, Mr. Wick made connections and explained the intricacies of only one part of an incredibly complex hierarchy in a way that we understood.

Despite a low turnout at the event (final exam studying was already well underway at this point,) the conversation was nuanced and rewarding. All who walked away from the theater felt they knew more about Charter Schools. We spent the evening ruminating over CSP jargon and system-changing solutions.

Like Dan Wick, I don’t see Charter Schools as the “quick-fix” solution for our nation’s education system. I am impressed with the results of many of the highest performing models, and I recognize the innovation and potential for progress that comes with comprehensive “formulas” for start-up schools across the country.

And yet, I still have a great deal of hope for our traditional public schools. I don’t believe that the answer is to let these schools fail and ultimately be replaced by charters. There are hundreds of traditional public schools that are performing at higher levels than even the best charters. Granted, these public schools often have access to more resources, higher paid and well-respected teachers, and the funds for extra-curricular activities that are proven to develop the whole student.

A big part of me wonders why we can’t share the “best practices” that the Charter School movement has harnessed with all of our schools. I am not the first one to have this thought, and I know that many Charter School proponents will blame Teachers’ Unions for this “impossibility.”

In a country where the profession of teaching is underpaid, under-respected, and unsustainable, I see Unions as a necessary entity. I wish that the contracts didn’t make it so difficult to fire teachers who are not adequately serving their students, but I understand that protection in a time of such economic chaos is a good idea. Like any other profession, great teachers have the right to feel secure.

Over this past week, the amazing work that teachers do and the relationships they build has taken center stage. We have seen the face of Victoria Soto, a 1st grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, displayed across Facebook newsfeeds and memorial newspaper spreads. She thought quickly and hid her students in cupboards and closets when she heard  gunshots down the hall. She sacrificed her life for her students– killed by the gunman as they sprinted to safety outside. Victoria’s heartbreaking and inspiring actions remind us of the extreme dedication so many teachers have to their students. We trust teachers with our children for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. For this reason, we need to figure out a way to make sure that they are able to do their work  as well as possible and with high levels of support. We also need to make sure that the profession attracts the best of the best–competing competitively with the salaries of other white-collar jobs and acknowledging teaching as a vital piece of our country’s success. Charter Schools are trying to do this in many cases, and traditional public schools can too.

Is there a way to bridge our traditional public school model with the Charter School craze that has showcased so many victories for kids? I think that the least we can do is try. We’ve realized that the partisan nature of our government is hindering growth and progress. We are shackled by our inability to compromise and collaborate across party lines. The same might be said of the education reform movement.

In the tense scenes of The Lottery, we see adults confront each other–unwilling to back down despite the unspoken agreement that something needs to change. We are a country of  ideas. Let’s start using them to find our common ground. As President Obama declared last night from Newport, “This is our first task: caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?”

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Words With Friends: Making and Breaking Connections in the New Millenium

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As the glowing green numbers on two clocks move closer to midnight, my parents sit upright in their Queen-sized bed—knees forming a peak beneath the sheets. Their brows are furrowed, their eyes fixed on 4.33” x 2.36” iPhone 4 screens (“New Cases”). Thumbs hover above squares of shimmering electric blue. Every 60 seconds or so, a pointer finger will swipe across the screen rapidly. Sometimes, the quick and dexterous flick is followed with a triumphant snicker. Kate and Tom Gomoll play Words with Friends every night before bed. They find it hard to sleep when a familiar buzz echoes from bedside tables. Rolling over to check the screen, the text pops up: Your Move.

Navigating a “smart phone” application developed in 2008 by innovators at NewToy and designedto allow users to play a digitized Scrabble-like word game with close circles of “friends,” my parents are constantly competing with several selected players at once (Kincaid). My brilliant Nana is known for her clever use of X’s and Z’s (i.e. in the virtual tiles spelling out “telex” or “azine.”) The hippest of grandmothers, she games from her iPad. My Dad makes up letter combinations and tests whimsical words until the Words with Friends Dictionary magically accepts one (“etui” or “hadj”). Mom artfully constructs words that hit every red, blue or green “bonus” square on the board (“shindigs”). Each player has strengths and weaknesses, and my collection of family devoted to the app has learned to prey on the Achilles heels of word-building strategy. Conveniently, the application is designed to fit around our schedules—conforming to a well-defied culture of convenience. No longer must we sit around the kitchen table at the cabin to play Scrabble for hours on end. Instead, we spend our evenings and spare change moments shuffling letters with our fingertips. When the mood strikes, we’ll punch full sentences into the chat box located in the upper right hand corner of the virtual board. This way, we stay in touch without lengthy phone calls or video chats. From dorm rooms, apartments, and houses across the country, my relatives interact on the shiny surface of miniature screens. We stack pixilated tiles as we watch TV, brush our teeth, walk to class, and settle down for bedtime. The backseat of the family station wagon becomes a dead zone for traditional conversation as my brother and I tap away on thin glass. “Don’t be rude,” she says from the passenger seat. “But Mom, I’m playing you!”

My family is not alone when it comes to this quirky pastime. With more than 12.5 million monthly users, Words with Friends is a daily routine for hundreds of thousands of players and citizens (Griggs). Equipped with this authority, the game becomes more than just another “app.” Like so many board games before it, Words with Friends is an artifact of contemporary culture. Due to its space on the timeline of American game-playing, its ties to globalization, and its role in the construction of the “mediated lives” we live in the 21st century, Words with Friends becomes much more than a satisfying pre-bedtime ritual. As Thomas De Zengotita argues in his 2005 text titled Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way you Live in It,”  “[we live] lives composed of an unprecedented fusion of the real and the represented, lives shaped by a culture of performance that constitutes a quality of being, a type of person—the mediated person” (6).  Mirroring the apps we play, we become individuals defined by icons. Analyzing Words with Friends as a representative mechanism of our perpetual desire for mediation and competition, this paper will work to unpack the layered meaning behind a “simple” word game—revealing digital letters and floating yellow squares as a microcosm of the “plugged in” American life. Recognizing the overlap of virtual and physical spheres of our modern existence through the example of Words with Friends, we might question; in a “mediated” world, are we more or less connected?

(…to read the rest of this essay, written as a final project for my Media Studies 260 course, open the full pdf: Words with Friends; Connection in the New Millenium v2)


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Tiffany Box #1

(This post was the final exam for my American Studies course this semester. We were asked to “dense fact” an artifact of American culture–taking something “ordinary” and unveiling its hidden meanings. At our scheduled final exam time, we displayed each of our objects with carefully crafted “artifact labels.” I chose to put a Tiffany & Co. Box on display in our makeshift museum. The post below is its label.)

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In 2009, this iconic box produced and imagined by the New York City jewelry company Tiffany & Co. was pulled from the pocket of an 18-year old young man and placed in the hands of an anonymous young woman. Dented slightly in 4 places around the left and right edges and containing traces of an unknown substance (likely makeup powder in a light shade,) it was handled frequently. The shiny trinket that lay atop the cotton gauze inside this box is unimportant. The unique texture, blue hue, and elegant symmetrical font tell a deeper story. In the lines and leathery texture of this palm-sized box is a piece of the American Dream, a complicated status symbol, a history of consumption, and a set of nuanced values. In its clean visual simplicity, there is so much more than meets the eye.


This box is not blue. It is trademarked at number 1837, the year Tiffany&Co. was born. “Tiffany Blue” is its title. If you are a woman, it is more likely that you recognized it from a distance. From three feet away you mused; “Tiffany’s.” You could not read the font printed across the lid. It is December. Perhaps you remembered the glossy magazine advertisements telling you to “Dream of Blue Boxes beneath the tree.” If you are a man, your association may have been less defined. Though research shows that men are less adept at discriminating among blues, greens, and yellows than females, the reasoning extends beyond genetics. For men, this box is “blue.” For women, this box is a heart-racing, display worthy hue. It is a color so valuable it must be owned. For both, it is a metaphor for success and exceptional quality. Tiffany Blue’s patented shade screams luxury, decadence, love, identity, and worth. Its subtext reads “inequality.” This shade is reserved for the wealthy. Or for those who have invested. It is a shade of confidence. This box, defined by its unmistakable palette, plays on your emotions and places relationships into high quality identical packages—a greater metaphor for our consumer culture. We fill our lives with thousands of boxes, yet this one stands alone.

In Tiffany’s founding year, this shade of robin’s egg blue made its debut. An ode to Napoleon III’s wife Empress Eugenie and her prized position as client for the King of Diamonds and Tiffany founder Charles Young Tiffany, the fashion icon Empress’s favorite color defined the tradition of Tiffany & Co. It would go on to embed itself in the American psyche. Like the trademarked Royal color, the straight and narrow font of each stamped letter is perfectly defined. The typeface is simulated in wedding invitations and Tiffany-themed parties held by the elite (or those who wish to be.) The dimension of these simulations are never a perfect match. They are protected by history. It was a wealthy man who opened the first Tiffany & Co., but it was the ideal woman and image perfection his name and packaging would come to represent.


Should you cradle this modern box in careful hands, you would hold a significant fragment of popular culture (but please, do not touch.) 48 times Tiffany&Co. has appeared on the silver emblematic screen of American cinema. From Audrey Hepburn’s worshipped role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to the Tiffany & Co. product placement in Sex and the City scenes, this “little Blue Box” defines beauty and happiness for the white, upper-middle class American woman (and the man who offers up the little blue bag.) On average, 30 proposals are made each year at the Fifth Ave. Flagship Tiffany & Co. store. 30 bended knees, 30 Tiffany Blue boxes, 30 buy-ins to a brilliantly crafted campaign that associated the box sitting before you with eternal love and fidelity. In a 21st century climate of uncertainty and relationships dulled by technological excess, the Tiffany box becomes a placeholder for trust, authenticity, and longevity.


Aware contemporary concerns that consume the American public sphere, Tiffany has extended representation of “eternity,” “trust,” and “longevity” to include protection of the environment that inspires its designs. Tiffany & Co. has pledged participate in sustainable sourcing for both its products and renowned packaging, and to set a conscientious corporate example. Were this box produced between 2011 and today, 89% of its materials would derive from recycled sources. In the Tiffany Blue Box, American consumers enjoy a historical context of social worth and reverie, a status of “green” behind the Blue, and a “thing” whose meaning will last “forever.” Though Tiffany & Co. produces the silver trophies of PGA Tours and Superbowls, their name is primarily associated with the exterior of this box. A Tiffany Box is never wrapped nor covered. Once sold empty on eBay for purposes of pure status, the Box is its own commodity. Today, it can only be obtained through Tiffany.  I am the real thing and you are priceless, it whispers. Through the Box, we see who we are and who we are not.

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20 Empty Desks

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Yesterday, as I ate my oatmeal and performed the daily ritual of reading my horoscope, 20 elementary school children in Newtown Connecticut were shot to death at point-blank range.

When I saw the headlines– buzzing urgently in a series of text message updates from the New York Times–I didn’t know what to feel.

First there was guilt. The thought that I sat there, secluded on a Hill in a bubble of Liberal Arts Education as 20 families felt the weight of the world give out beneath their feet. They ran to that filled Firehouse haven of survivors, only to be pulled aside.

Around me, college students buried their noses in books and stared with eyes glazed over by the blue sheen of computer screens. Final exams don’t stop for tragedies halfway across the country.

Then there was disbelief. Disconnection. Feigned normalcy. The everyday habits carried out, but the feeling that they were twisted and wrong. Legs pounding on icy sidewalk squares on an afternoon run, I wondered what they’d eaten for breakfast–those twenty children under age 10. What clothes had they worn? Who had kissed them on the cheek? What stories were read the night before, tucked safely away in bed?

I stopped and walked–taking in the suburban houses around me. Christmas trees framed in paned windows and reindeer figurines in front yards. I thought about the presents  hidden by parents in the backs of closets in that Connecticut town. Santa would never come. How many gifts would go unopened–breaking hearts with every untouched bow?

I began to put the tragedy into the terms of what I know. What if Newton had been Northfield? Or my hometown of Whitefish Bay?

In an Atlantic article written today, the demographics of this idyllic community felt eerily familiar: “The town’s median household income is $86,553, well above the state average of $53,935, which is one of the highest in the country. The high school graduation rate hovers around 95 percent, seven points above the state average.” The town is more than 300 years old–its citizens gathering for holiday parades several times a year. This is the fairytale town associated with the American Dream. According to Newtown’s Wikipedia page (and the 2000 census,) more than 95% of the town is White. The school district is amongst the top 5 in the state. For all of these reasons, the actions of a 20-year old shooter with a deranged mind become increasingly incomprehensible. Newtown was a fairytale. Today it is a nightmare.

Last night, Twitter and Facebook feeds exploded with grief and empathy across the globe. There are op-ed pieces and blog posts about gun control and the inundation of shooting-spree tragedy that has plagued our headlines over this past year. Curled in this red armchair, watching  December rain fall onto clotted brown snow outside student union windows, I take in the world’s reaction in real time on my 13″ computer screen.

As a 22-year old college student, where do I fit in to all of this? How do I transform the twisted feeling in my gut into something worthwhile? Someday, how will I talk to my future children about events like these… the Columbines and the Auroras and the impossibility of guaranteed protection?

I remember sitting in front of the TV screen on September 11, 2001. I was 11 years old, and my parents sat on either side of me. The headlines took up half the newspaper page on our red kitchen counter. I learned what a terrorist was–feeling the weight of knowing that if someone really wanted to hurt me (willing to sacrifice their own life in the process,) they could. This same feeling is being experienced today not only by the survivors of yesterday’s shooting, but the children across the country whose parents sat them down and attempted to explain the images flashing across TV screens.

On Tuesday morning, I will walk a mile and a half to Greenvale Elementary school. I will hug the children I tutor bi-weekly in the library and ask them about Christmas. I will answer their questions and share their excitement about Junie B. Jones, Corduroy, and the Hungry Caterpillar. I will feel that same spine-tingling chill I felt in a Minnesota movie theater as the shots of a Batman movie rang out from giant speakers. I cringed and imagined the bullets lodged in bodies and plush seat cushions the day before. That day dozens were gunned down in their cinema seats.

A movie theater in Aurora. Kindergarten classrooms in Newtown. The hallways of Columbine. Stairwells at Virginia Tech. Goosebumps are raised with each of these names. Each public space was once associated with safety, hope, and escape. Movie theater escape from the violence and weight of our modern world. The safety of the public school. The hope of the college graduate.

The victims were our children, mentors, and friends. In each of them we see someone we’ve loved. We can relate.These aren’t the drive-by shootings in “bad” neighborhoods or the undercover prostitution rings. This is the loss of those voted most likely to “succeed.” The loved children of middle-upper class homes with two cars in the driveway. The blossoming entrepreneurs dedicating an evening to the fun of a movie release. The almost-high school graduates with the world at their feet, and the college students encased in a 4-year bubble getting ready to “achieve.” We see these faces, and we see futures torn away. Worlds erased with one flick of a triggered finger.  “It could have been me,” we think.

Is this the wake up call our country needs? Last night our president wiped away tears with a shaking index finger. He said that this tragedy would bring us together–calling for an action to prevent another indescribable tragedy. I hope that something comes of Obama’s emotional speech. That Newtown does not fade away to the paragraphs of history books and googled archives.

I am left wondering: How will we protect our children–letting them live their lives without metal detectors and fear?

Echoing the many voices I’ve read in these past 24 hours, I agree that we need stricter gun control. We need to hold each other close and appreciate the moments of our fleeting lives. However, beyond these first emotional reactions, I think  too about how Sandy Hook’s community might remind us of the injustices that exist in classrooms across this country. These day-to-day tragedies of skewed opportunity are not the same as a senseless slaughter in a storybook town, but they too result in “lost” children.

My mind wanders to these kids. The ones whose ages match the victims, but whose life experiences do not. The children who do not attend  schools like Sandy Hook–who have never benefited from the passion of guidance school counselors like yesterday’s slain psychologist. Who have never had a principal who knew every child’s name as Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung did.  These are the kids who would not have been in gym or music classes like the 4th graders in Newtown yesterday morning. For many of them, feeling “safe” is not the default setting of childhood. In many cases they are under-served by their communities, teachers, and schools. For these kids, the “opportunity gap”  takes its toll every day.

The children and families plagued by Sandy Hook’s shooting had their futures stolen in a matter of minutes. The low-income and minority students in struggling schools who face the opportunity gaps in our education system have their futures stolen over the course of several years.

After the New Year passes and school in Newtown resumes, 20 desks will be empty. The students who once scribbled away enthusiastically on papers laid across those surfaces will be remembered by a community and by a country. They will be recognized as lost beacons of light and life. But what if they were also beacons of hope?

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An Army of Liberated Cliches

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I sat today in the windowless media room of our college library with my legs crossed and pink headphones tucked inside my ears. The woman on the screen told me that I am a slave to the commercials I’ve seen from ages 2 through 22. She drew out the lies of “liberation” plastered across billboards and glossy magazines–pointing to images of half-naked women twisted into power stance.  Knees positioned at shoulder width and staring through smoldering eye make up into the camera, these “strong” women are punctuated with lines of emphatic jargon; “You have the right to remain sexy.”

Images and cultural texts like these tell us that stereotypical forms feminism are restrictive and unappealing–reserved for women with hairy legs and closets full of shapeless shifts. The woman with the bright red lips, photoshopped hips, and superwoman pose leads us to believe that adhering to the culturally prescribed (and unattainable) definition of beauty is in fact a form of resistance–refusal to be dominated by un-sexy feminism. The ad is filled with a subtext of “claiming” your body and writing your own rules about  putting it on display. Objectification by choice.

How empowering is a choice to shape your body to one kind of beauty defined by a market that survives because of the $100 you spent on anti-aging, de-frizz, “enhancing,” “cover-up” products clinking against one another at the bottom of a branded plastic bag? A market that thrives because we hate our bodies?

These advertisers know what they are doing. Each full page advertisement and tailored side-bar window on your news feed is designed to provoke insecurity and a paradoxical feeling of control.

As I made my way through the 45 critically feminine minutes of scholar (and former model) Jean Kilbourne’s 2010 documentary Killing Us Softly 4, my thoughts bounced from middle school boyfriends to modern myths of feminism, “enlightened sexism,” and the carefully hidden and insidious presence of eating disorders in my high school hallways, track and cross country teams, and tangled mind. Like so many others, I’ve claimed that I ignore these ridiculous advertisements that objectify and de-humanize women–breaking them into fragments and selling their digitized curves (or twiggy limbs.)


I see this image and I am reminded of the lists and excuses and twisted games that filled my own head for years. I was never diagnosed as an anorexic, but I thought like one. I walked through the cafeteria like a girl on eggshells. Like the woman in this ad, I exercised to “make up” for especially high calorie “treats.” I ran through lists of foods after every meal and before bed–making sure that I was being “good,” always plotting the contents of the next plate.

I compared my body to the girls in the lanes next to me at track meets mercilessly. When it came to cross country running, the skinniest girls always seemed to  cross the finish line first.

In time, I recognized how destructive and depressing these trains of thoughts were. I accepted that these obsessive feelings and threads of impossible perfectionism did not make me stronger, but weakened me in both body and mind. I’ve watched as too many girls I love have fallen at the hand of invisible and needling messages worked into the deepest corners of consciousness.

Jean Kilbourne frames the soft killing performed by the corporations and media that rule our lives as a “public health problem.” She tells us that we must become “a public that thinks of itself primarily as citizens rather than consumers.” She hopes that some day we will uniformly devote our passion to people over products and celebrity aspiration. Kilbourne relates to us–admitting that it is not wrong to want to be attractive and sexy. What is wrong is to put an emphasis (at incredibly young ages,) on the exclusion of other important qualities and aspects. Listening to this particular point, I was reminded of a video created by famously successful “mommy blogger” Rebecca Woolf (AKA Girl’s Gone Child)

Are We Harming Our Daughters When We Say “You Look Pretty?”

Rebecca poses a question, and theorizes that the harm is not done if she (as a mother) is careful to emphasize the “Awesome” traits her daughter has beyond her looks. As Woolf says, her kid can be pretty, smart, and “kick ass at putting together puzzles,” and she deserves to hear about all of it.

A few questions:Keeping all of these bouncing  trajectories of thought in mind, what does it mean to be a “feminist” in a country where corporate definitions differ significantly from historical ones? What about raising a feminist?

How do we make that leap that Kilbourne calls for–plastering labels reading “BS” across unrealistic depictions of women in the media and working to become fuller citizens?

How do we cap the pervasive association of food with guilt (i.e. model Kate Moss: Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,) the increasing sexualization of little girls, the portrayal of women in pieces, and disturbingly narrow visions of “ideal?”

How do we take control in a way that doesn’t involve shrinking to fit into size double zero jeans, double bind expectations of sexual prowess alongside virginal innocence, and anxious menu morality?


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