Social Media versus Reality


Yes, we know celebrities edit their pictures, we know people wear makeup, and we know people sometimes lie on social media. In today’s world, people constantly remind us why we shouldn’t believe everything we see on that bikini model’s Instagram.  There’s a good chance that girl who took a selfie with perfect hair and makeup at the gym didn’t work as hard as you did when you walked out drenched in sweat; and you know that. However, sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the realm of social media, among pictures of people’s perfect, healthy meals, perfect outfits, and perfect significant others. Social media can alter our reality in subtle ways that negatively affect us more than we might notice, but there are ways we can mold our social media so that it becomes a helpful, positive piece of our daily lives. 

Here’s a video by Ditch the Label, an anti-bullying organization, highlighting the way people lie on Instagram to make themselves appear more put together, more organized, or healthier than they really are. It shows a guy getting out of his car, walking up to the top of a hill, taking a picture, and posting it with the caption, “30km bike ride done!” This type of social media behavior is damaging because it creates a domino effect of people scrambling to look healthy on social media, and it confuses your own perception of yourself. Are you healthy? Or do you only appear to be healthy on social media?

While people totally have a right to put whatever they want on Instagram, it’s important for us to remember that not everything we see is real. Most Instagram posts are snap shots— carefully set up and edited— of a much more complex life. The same thing goes for Facebook, Twitter, and even Snapchat. It’s easy to see these posts and think, “why am I not that healthy,” “why am I not that organized,” or “why am I not that pretty,” even though we’ve been told time and time again that not everything on social media is accurate. Other people’s stuff on Instagram sometimes makes us want to buy green smoothies just to post pictures of them and put on makeup just to lay in bed. Keeping up with a fake image like that can be tiring and unhealthy. It’s important to remember that we should be practicing healthy lifestyles to make ourselves feel better, not to create a false image for our social media followers

Despite the lies, there are so many ways to harness social media so it becomes a beneficial tool. For example, there are blogs online, similar to this one, that strive to help people by posting uplifting messages and guides to healthy, happy living. It’s never a bad idea to seek out positive, uplifting blogs on days you’re feeling down— cuddled up with your laptop in bed because you just don’t want to do anything else. Also, it’s helpful to follow accounts on Instagram that post things that make you happy— not just gorgeous selfies and pictures of healthy meals. For example, I follow Yrsa Daley-Ward’s poetry Instagram account because poetry makes me happy, and seeing her posts helps to break up the constant stream of people posting about their seemingly perfect lives. 

Another thing you can do to make your social media more beneficial to you is to stop trying to mimic the seemingly put-together posts of the people you follow. Sometimes being honest with your followers on social media can be such a relieving experience. So for example, if you want to post a picture of the brownies you made at 2 a.m. with the caption, “Much needed after a hard day,” who cares? To be honest, a lot more people than you might think will relate to such a post. And who knows, maybe it will create a ripple affect, and more people will be true to themselves on their social media. A little honesty goes a long way. So go ahead, post that sweaty gym selfie because it’ll feel good, and honestly, everyone could use a little burst of reality on their feed. 

Real Talk


The Sport We Call Life: Four female athletes battling chronic illnesses persevere

Living with a chronic illness sometimes means mustering up enormous strength to compete in the sport we normally refer to as life. There are some famous female athletes out there who accomplished great feats while battling chronic illnesses. Each of these women pursued their dreams with incredible strength and courage, despite the obstacles life served them. 

Here are some amazing female athletes who, despite battling chronic illnesses, have accomplished astounding victories.

  1. Venus Ebony Starr Williams

Venus Williams was ranked No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association three times in her life, she has won four Olympic medals, and is currently ranked No. 5 in the world in the Women’s Tennis Association single rankings. Aside from battling it out with an opponent on the tennis court, star athlete Venus Williams has also been battling another opponent: Sjogren’s Syndrome. Although this autoimmune disease forced Williams to drop out of the U.S. Open in 2011, she still returned to tennis and is still considered one of the most powerful female athletes in the world.

Venus Williams at the 2017 Wimbledon Championships

2. Carrie Johnson 

Carrie Johnson is a sprint canoer for the US Olympic team, competing in several sprint canoe world championships and summer Olympic competitions. Johnson was also diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Despite her diagnosis, Johnson was still able to compete in sprint canoe races at an Olympic level.

3. Shannon Boxx

Shannon Boxx, a player for the US women’s national soccer team, won gold medals in three olympic competitions, third or better rankings in four FIFA Women’s World Cups, and first in one NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship. Boxx was diagnosed with Lupus in the middle of her career, but continued to compete in World Championships and still lives an active life after her retirement from soccer.

4. Jillian Michaels 

While Jillian Michaels may not be an Olympic athlete, she is one of the most famous fitness gurus in the world. Michaels holds certifications with the National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association, The Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, Kettlebell Concepts, and the American Fitness Professionals and Associates. She was a trainer on the reality series, The Biggest Loser,  and has released several books and DVDs on fitness and wellness. Amidst her successes, Jillian Michaels was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Although the illness didn’t do much to damage her career, the fitness guru was unable to have children. Instead, she adopted one daughter and had another son with her partner Heidi Rhoades.

These four women have put incredible displays of strength out into the world throughout their careers by accomplishing many victories all while facing chronic illnesses. Their stories are truly inspiring, showing that anything is possible with some determination and of course, a little #girlpower.

Real Talk

Celebrate Green Lights

Author: Samantha Thuesen

A sure-fire way to spark conversation is to ask a thought-provoking question; there will usually be multiple answers, none of which have to relate to each other. It fascinates me how something can be interpreted in several ways, and how every interpretation can be logical (most of the time). When I struggle to find a topic to write about, I like to ask myself these kinds of questions to see where my mind wanders. I googled “thought-provoking questions” and came across a blog post by Peter Pilt called “39 Powerful Thought Provoking and Inspiring Questions.” Immediately, I found what I wanted—the perfect opportunity to use the great power of the metaphor: do you ever celebrate the green lights?

First, let’s address the literal meaning of this question. We can all agree that red lights can be maddening, especially if you’re in a rush. If you live in a city, the incessant stopping and going can be even more infuriating. Red lights can easily get a reaction out of us, but what about green lights? Do we take them for granted? Personally, if I’m approaching a green light I feel anxious knowing that at any moment it can turn yellow, and then I’ll have to make the split-second decision to either speed up or slow down (but I’ll speed up most of the time). To put it simply, red lights make me angry because they’re preventing me from going, and green lights make me anxious because they have the potential to prevent me from going. NOW, let’s get metaphorical.

In life, we have many red lights—obstacles that keep us from achieving what we desire. These red lights can come in many forms: your health, your location, your education, your financial situation (rhyme only slightly intended). Obviously, these obstacles are frustrating; they make it harder for you to get what you want. You may tell yourself if the circumstances were different, you’d be able to do anything, but that’s not true; you can already do anything. For some, “anything” isn’t an option, but there is always something that is just as satisfying. The circumstances only interrupt you, and with time and patience, the light will turn green.

On the other hand, life offers many green lights as well. We can spend time with our family. We can go out with friends. We can wake up every morning to watch the sunrise. For those of us in the world who are blessed with freedom, we have the opportunity to pursue our dreams. However, that yellow light is always looming over us, making us think everything could come to a jerking halt, so how do we live with it? How do we keep driving without the fear of being stopped? The truth is, that fear may never go away completely. There will always be a chance of that light turning yellow, but that’s all it is, a chance; it’s out of your control. You have to keep driving and celebrate every green light you pass. Spend time with your family. Go out with your friends. Watch the sunrise. Pursue your dreams. Don’t let fear slow you down, because even if the light does turn red, it will always turn green again.

All of this many sound silly, but that’s the metaphor at work; it allows us to see truth in unusual places. Make the decision to always live your best life. And for the record, I don’t want to encourage speeding through yellow lights. Be smart and drive safely.

Real Talk

Leaders of Body Positivity

Author: Samantha Thuesen

We’re always told that “confidence is key,” but in today’s world, confidence is difficult to gain, especially for women. With appearance on social media becoming a priority in so many people’s lives, we’re constantly bombarded with the image of the “perfect body.” It’s crucial that women, young girls especially, have strong female role models who promote healthy bodies rather than “perfect” ones. Thankfully, there’s a good list of celebrities who are determined advocates for body positivity.

Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer became widely known after being casted as Katniss in The Hunger Games. Many people in Hollywood commented on her weight, arguing that with society’s standards, she was too full-figured for the part. Here are a few statements made by Jennifer regarding her appearance, provided by an article from

“I’m never going to starve myself for a part … I don’t want little girls to be like, ‘Oh, I want to look like Katniss, so I’m going to skip dinner.’ That’s something I was really conscious of during training, when you’re trying to get your body to look exactly right. I was trying to get my body to look fit and strong – not thin and underfed.”
– to Elle

 “The world has a certain idea – we see this airbrushed perfect model image … You just have to look past it. You look how you look. And be comfortable. Like, what are you gonna do, be hungry every single day to make other people happy? That’s just dumb.”
– to Yahoo!

 “Shows like the Fashion Police and things like that are just showing these generations of young people to judge people based on all the things that are wrong, and that it’s okay to just point at people and call them ugly and call them fat. They call it ‘fun’ and welcome to the ‘real world,’ and that shouldn’t be the real world. That’s going to keep being the real world if we keep it that way. It’s not until we stop treating each other like that and just stop calling each other fat … with these unrealistic expectations for women. It’s disappointing that the media keeps it alive and fuels that fire.” 
– to Yahoo!

Jennifer is saying that this world needs more confidence and kindness. We need to prioritize health over perfection, so younger generations can do the same. We need to see others for who they are rather than how many flaws they have. We need to live by the mantra “don’t care about what other people think,” but at the same time, we need to change the negative way those people are thinking.

Amber Riley

Amber is best known for her role as Mercedes Jones in Glee, as well as her win on the 17th season of Dancing with the Stars. Krislyn Domingue from For Harriet writes, “…Amber Riley has exhibited a continued commitment to body positivity throughout the years. Whether in magazines, interviews, in the studio, or on-air, Riley carries a positive and powerful message of self-love.” Here are a few inspiring statements made by Amber, provided by an article written by Jessica Torres from Revelist:

“I will never forget to walk tall ever again. No matter what is said or done to me that might want to cower me.”

 “I am a beautiful, courageous, black African queen with more curves than highways and more lumps than my mother’s potato salad and you will deal.”

 “Sometimes they don’t recognize your value, but that doesn’t mean you can’t prove them wrong.”

 “I love myself and that’s enough.”

Amber shows everyone how to be confident. She’s a beautiful, successful woman who is happy with herself, and that’s exactly the kind of person women everywhere need as a role model.

 Sonya Renee Taylor

Sonya is an author, poet, and the founder of The Body is Not An Apology movement. Here’s an excerpt from the website: “The Body Is Not An Apology is an international movement committed to cultivating global Radical Self Love and Body Empowerment. We believe that discrimination, social inequality, and injustice are manifestations of our inability to make peace with the body, our own and others.” You can watch a performance of Sonya’s spoken word here. Here are a few excerpts from her empowering poem:

 “The body is not calamity. The body is not a math test.  The body is not a wrong answer. The body is not a failed class. You are not failing.”

 The body is not an apology. Do not offer the body as gift. Only receive it as such.”

 The body is deity, the body is god, the body is god. The only righteous love that will never need repent.”

Sonya takes body positivity to the next level, creating a haven for people who want to experience “unapologetic self-love and body empowerment.” She saw a problem and did not hesitate to become a leader.

Demi Lovato

Demi is a singer, songwriter, and actress, starring on Disney channel before rising to have an extremely successful singing career. After being bullied in school, she developed an eating disorder. In 2010, she admitted herself into Timberline Knolls, a “residential treatment center in Illinois for women battling addiction and eating disorders.” (Source: ABC News)

Since then, she’s become one of the most outspoken celebrity advocates for body positivity. Here are a few of her profound affirmations, provided by an article written by Abigail Cardi from Bustle:

“We all have problem areas. I’m always going to have thick thighs. I can’t change that, and obsessing over it will only make me miserable. Learning to be grateful for our bodies and taking care of them are the best ways for us to empower ourselves physically, mentally, and spiritually.”

 “Love is louder than the pressure to be perfect.”

 “It helps to even look in the mirror—and it sound so cheesy—but if you just say, ‘You are beautiful,’ and ‘You are worthy,’ those things really help you.”

 “You can’t love other people until you love yourself.”

 Demi has shown everyone that light can be found in the darkness. She has so openly shared her personal struggles in the hopes that people everywhere will be inspired to practice self-love, and she’s succeeding.

Self-love is so important, and these are just a few of the many women who truly embody it. With their influence, along with the influence of everyone they inspire, the world can be a beautiful, compassionate place for everyone.

Real Talk

Lost and Found: Misplaced Identity

Author: Samantha Thuesen

One day you may find yourself questioning who you really are. Depending on the lives we lead, it can be easy to lose ourselves, whether it’s because of friends, work, or life at home. Oftentimes we have different personas for different situations: a serious demeanor at work, a goofy attitude with a childhood friend, an easygoing air with a new acquaintance. It’s not uncommon to behave differently in front of certain people; you’re not going to make small talk with your best friend, and you’re not going to talk about your enemy from high school with your boss. In some cases, you change personas for the worse, and you need to find a way to rid yourself of those negative identities. We can get so caught up in all our identities that we have trouble locating our original selfhood. I’d like to share some of my techniques for dealing with this sense of, what I’ll call, “identity misplacement.”

Write down what you’re feeling. You can spend all day thinking about how you feel, but until you write down your thoughts, they will remain an unorganized mess in your head, causing stress. Take a pen to paper and address your emotions in chunks. For instance, let’s say you’ve been spending a lot of time with one of your friends who gossips a lot. Being human, you may indulge in the gossiping yourself, but later you feel guilty about it. Because you’ve been spending so much time using that “gossip persona,” you start to question what kind of person you are. Am I a bad person? What happened to my morals? First, write down what you and your friend gossip about, then talk about how gossiping makes you feel. This will remind you of your morals. Address if this friend is a bad influence, and create a plan of action to confront them about it. Writing down your thoughts is much more constructive than driving yourself crazy; it allows you to find a solution to your problem, and thus find yourself again.

Volunteer. When all seems lost, kindness is guaranteed to bring us home again. If you’re taking on a negative persona, it’s possible you’ll feel selfish. There’s nothing more humbling than giving your time to those less fortunate than you. That’s not to say you should use charity for the sole purpose of making yourself feel better, but use it to remind yourself of what’s important—that there’s something bigger than yourself. Charity is not always a completely selfless act; you receive joy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Surround yourself with kindness and you’ll without a doubt remember who you are.

Have one-on-one conversations with loved ones. It’s when we’re in large groups of people (mainly people with whom we’re not close) that we put on a thick persona. Sometimes you need to take the time to be one-on-one with those closest to you so you can spend time being yourself. Again, it’s not always a bad thing to “put on a face” for people, because that’s the whole point of getting to know someone. Just make sure you keep in touch with that part of yourself people want to get to know.

Lamisha Serf-Walls from HuffPost wrote an article called “7 Tips to Find Yourself When You’re Feeling Lost” where she addresses a similar issue: feeling lost in life and “going through an incubation period and transformation.” I found a couple of her tips to be applicable to the issue I’m describing as well.

Go on an adventure.I’ve given the same advice in other articles addressing completely different situations, but adventures are always beneficial. Lamisha writes, “Whether it’s a day trip, a solitary retreat, or a week-long drive along the coast, go out and explore the world. This will not only allow you to tap into the flow, but it will also give you the time and focus to really reconnect with yourself again.” Nature is where we originate, and it’s the best way to remember our roots, our morals, and our selfhood. You don’t even have to look toward nature if you don’t want to; find adventure anywhere that isn’t home, as long as you’re taking yourself out of your regular environment.

Get quiet and listen.Lamisha writes, “Everyday there are signs, messages, and guideposts that will inspire you to act, but you only notice them if you are open.” In context to her issue, you need to “get quiet and listen” so the world can guide you instead of trying to guide yourself. I interpreted it differently for the issue I’m addressing. Some may call these different personas of ours “acting,” which can get tiring after a while. Sometimes you need to sit back and reevaluate your environment; bring yourself back to reality. It’s important to take time for ourselves to be alone with our thoughts, but it’s also important to give attention to your thoughts when you’re with people, so you can think before you act. The easiest way to slip into a negative persona is acting first and thinking later. You’ll gain more respect from others and for yourself if you tread carefully in potentially uncomfortable situations.

Whether you’re trying to find your individuality or ridding yourself of negativity, these techniques can help guide you in the direction of your true identity. Putting on different personas isn’t always a negative thing, but regardless, it’s important to know how to find ourselves if we get lost.

Read the rest of Lamisha’s article for the entirety of her great advice!

Real Talk

Controlling Your Empathy

Author: Samantha Thuesen

It is our moral duty to listen to the problems of others, but it is not our responsibility to make those problems our own. You may be familiar with the phrase “therapist of the friend group.” This is the friend who everyone goes to for rant sessions and leans on for advice. If you are the “therapist,” then you’re familiar with taking on large amounts of responsibility. You may also be familiar with the toll that responsibility takes.

I recently read an article written by Malia Bradshaw from Tiny Buddha called “How to Be There for Others Without Taking on Their Pain.” She gives great advice on how to listen to your loved ones without trying to “fix them.” Malia offers four pieces of advice, which she then expands upon with stories and plans of action. I would like to share her pieces of advice here, as well as provide my own stories and perspective.

“Realize that being supportive doesn’t mean fixing their problems.”

I’m guilty of wanting to fix everyone’s problems; it’s only natural to want the people around you to be happy. However, sometimes you just need to listen. Malia says, “…my loved ones never tried to fix me. They didn’t become obsessed with finding a solution, and they didn’t rush me to get better. All of that would have increased my anxiety tenfold.” I can understand the frustration in being given unwanted advice; sometimes I just want to complain, and I want someone to understand my frustration—not try to fix it.

On the other hand, sometimes advice is justified, even if your loved one doesn’t want it. Some people have trouble seeing a solution when they’re so engulfed in their emotions. It’s alright to point your loved ones in the right direction, but make sure you’re not belittling their emotions. I’ve had a friend point out my fault in a situation when I was complaining to her, and I’m thankful she did. It allowed me to reevaluate and redirect my emotions.

“Allow them to find their own way.”

When I was younger, I’d always ask my Mom for help with my math homework. She’d provide me with possible solutions, but I’d inevitably get angry with her. Why? Because I didn’t want there to be a solution. I liked being frustrated with my homework; I wanted to give up and be angry. Eventually, I’d get over it and figure out the problem, and that benefited me more than asking someone for the answer. That sounds confusing, maybe immature, but it’s normal for a range of people in difficult situations.

For instance, I had a friend who would ask me for advice about his relationship that ended, but when I’d give it to him, he’d get angry with me. I like to view this situation in the same way as my example above. He may like being frustrated. Of course, I may be completely wrong; I’m not inside his head. However, I know eventually he’ll be able to find his own solution, and he’ll be stronger for it. Sometimes you need to step back, because your advice may be feeding into the frustration.

“Realize that you’re only responsible for yourself.”

You can’t help everyone, because then you wouldn’t have any time to help yourself. Malia writes, “You can’t control who suffers and who doesn’t. And what a burden that would be if we felt we needed to safeguard everyone in our lives from pain. That’s too overwhelming.” A few years ago, I was approached by someone from my past who needed advice. Every day we would talk about her problems, and how she could possibly fix them. Just when things were starting to look better, they got worse. This went on for months, and one day I decided that I couldn’t help her anymore. I was feeling anxious all the time, and I had my own problems to manage. I cut ties, and it was beneficial for both of us. I was finally able to focus on my life again, and I heard through other people that she was also doing well.

You shouldn’t feel guilty for not being able to help someone. Airlines got it right: put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.

“Practice grounding back into your own body and energy field often.”

I need to turn off my phone sometimes to get away from people—to focus on myself and how I’m feeling without everyone else’s problems weighing on me. Malia writes, “Immerse yourself in nature. I love to go hiking when I get overwhelmed with others’ energy, and allow the grounding energy of the earth to support me. Spend time alone.” Her advice has encouraged me to go hiking more often. I couldn’t agree more that nature grounds us; nature is where we originated, so it’s only natural that we go there for comfort. Spending time alone is something I do often as well. After a long day of being with a lot of people, I need time to wind down and be alone with my thoughts. Read a book, take a bath, lay on your bed and stare at the ceiling, meditate—do anything to clear your mind and get back in tune with your own emotions.

Being empathetic is a great thing, and you can help a lot of people, but don’t forget to make yourself a priority from time to time. You don’t owe everyone everything, but you do owe yourself happiness. Read the rest of Malia’s article for the entirety of her great advice!

Real Talk

How to Overcome Negative Occurrences

By Sarah Pasia

In life, we face many trying times that test our personality. These “bumps in the road” can include situations such as: being laid off from your job, being diagnosed with a chronic illness, or even realizing you are unhappy with where you are in life. When we stand head on with adversity, it is our decision how we deal with it. Some of us may feel that there is no hope of getting better or no chance of improving the situation, but when there is bad, there is always good too. Though it’s easy to act in haste and become consumed by the situation, it is important to stay grounded and stay positive. How can we do this, you ask?
When you feel like you are facing a setback, remember to breathe.
Breathing gives us a moment to assess the situation. It gives us a chance to catch up with ourselves. Breathe in, breathe out. Do not allow the situation to consume you. Although it seems like there’s no hope, there is always a silver lining. Inhale the positive and exhale the negative.

Once you’ve calmed down, understand that you’re not alone.
Understanding the situation also brings you closer to accepting the hand you have been dealt. This may take minutes, hours, days, or even years to come to terms with the situation and that’s fine. We are human. It is a part of life to struggle and be thrown at awful situations. It’s how we become stronger. Remind yourself that many people have once found themselves in the same place as you and were able to continue on. If they can find strength, remember, you are just as strong and you can too.

Research what you can do to better your situation.
After accepting the negative occurrence, I hope that there is a burning desire within you to make your situation better. Whether it may be trying the newest medication or changing careers, it’s always important to consider all possibilities and outcomes. As you seek additional information, it may also help to reach out to those who have been in the same situation as you. These people will not only provide you with their experiences, but could offer support and friendship as well.

Once you’ve gathered your information, make the change.
Regardless of what you may think, there is always a way to turn a negative happenstance into a positive experience. It may seem like a daunting task at first, but once you begin to do something about the problem, the less upset and helpless you will feel. More often than not, the first move transitioning between the different stages in life is the hardest part. It will feel uneasy at times and perhaps a little challenging but know that every step makes you closer to your goal.
We all know how easy it is to be caught up in problems that seem larger than us. It’s human. It is fine to feel upset, but always remind yourself that it is what it is. You control your outlook and you control what you choose to make of this. Do not allow the negativity of an illness or a situation to be a part of you. Never allow it to consume you. Don’t like how things are going? If you can, change the situation. You will survive, you will succeed, and you will be stronger at the end of this.



Forgetting the Illness

By Sarah Pasia

A few weeks ago, I had a phone conversation where I was asked if I know of anyone living with a chronic illness. I thought about it for a few seconds, checked people off in my head, and replied with a no. During that exchange, my brother came off of his mini-bus from school. I made the universal signal of “be quiet” to him as he walked up stairs. A few minutes later we were able to have the same verbatim chat as we do every day.

“Hi Sarah.”
“Hi John.”
“Did you have a great day Sarah?”
“Yup, did you?”
“What’d you have for lunch today John?”
*Insert hot lunch of the day here*
“That sounds good!”

That weekend I accompanied my brother, John to his appointment in NYU Langone’s Laser and Skin Surgery Center of New York. While seated in the waiting room, I scrolled across a photo of my sister participating in this year’s Spartan Race. Our conversation over dinner one weekend popped in my head when she said, “I should write ‘MS Warrior’ across my stomach for the race.” One of my eyebrows lifted and a wave of realization came upon me. I remembered that the two people who I am closest to are living with a chronic illness.

I sat still for a moment and questioned why I hadn’t said anything when I was asked if I knew anyone with a chronic illness. I know that it wasn’t because I was ashamed of them; I love telling people about my brother and sister. In fact, I could spend all day talking about them. I ended up assuming that I didn’t mention them because I’ve really almost forgot. I have grown to see beyond their chronic illnesses. The waiting room that I was sitting in was just that. Another room in our routine of hospital visits for John. I grew up going to Yale New Haven Hospital and New York University Hospital just like my younger brother did, but in a different way.

Never in my life had I classified either of my siblings as a person with a “chronic illness.” Although my brother has a port wine stain on the left half of his face, I’ve grown to see past it. As for my sister, she looks strong and healthy, making others assume that she’s medically sound. When in fact, she was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while my brother was born with glaucoma and Sturge Weber Syndrome. When I picture them, it’s not their illness that I see; I see them as John and Marie – just as they always were.

I believe that occurrence was a reminder for me to be more empathetic and understanding, not only with my siblings, but to others as well. It’s easy for us to get stuck in our own thoughts and actions where we can sometimes forget about the ailments that our loved ones face each day. As family member of two siblings who are chronically ill, I believe I should ask more often, “How are you actually doing?” Like, “How does your body feel?” “How is your heart, your soul?” Just because people look fine from a glance does not always mean that’s the case. It important to remember that not all chronic illnesses are visible, which is why we must treat each person with kindness. We never know what obstacles others must face on a day-to-day basis.

Confronting Segregation in Our Country’s Schools

After the unanimous Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 struck down the “separate by equal” doctrine and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, people of color continue to lag far behind whites in access to employment, opportunity, and education. If you recently saw the film Hidden Figures, a must see biographical drama that illuminated the racism and sexism that exists in this country, Brown v. Board did nothing to address the inequalities that existed. The film profiled three African American women from NASA who played a pivotal role in the launching of the first successful space missions and their struggles as black women in the 1960s. Today research shows that blacks and Latinos are still underrepresented in higher education institutions and professional employment, while they are overrepresented in high school dropout and incarceration rates (see Civil Rights Project).
In 2007, the Supreme Court dealt a severe blow to integration efforts that many school districts have adopted across the country. The Court ruled it is unconstitutional to integrate schools based on race, even if it means a racially diverse atmosphere. Justice Kennedy maintains that the school districts must use other means to the classification of students by race as he cast his fifth vote in the 5-4 decision in the case against the Seattle and Louisville school districts (Parents Involved in the Community Schools v. Seattle School District, No. 05-908 & 05-915, 2007).
Gatekeeping, which involves the process of course selection that begins in early years and continues throughout high school limiting access to challenging curriculum, increases the divide between black males and other groups of students. Because school districts have developed systems that determine course placement, this systemic design serves as a gatekeeper. For instance, some schools use a number of predictors such as recommendations, guidance, parents’ choice, test scores and grades received, while others use a rigid tracking system. Gatekeeping can be a result of parent and student choice input, but also persists if there is a lack of prerequisite courses in schools limiting enrollment in advanced courses. Lack of knowledge can also affect gatekeeping, where some students aren’t properly informed of their options or are steered to lower tracking. The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University reports that racial and ethnic makeup can adversely affect gatekeeping because some guidance counselors may encourage people of color to take lower level courses. I can attest to the former.

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When I moved from an urban school district to a suburban district in seventh grade, the school decided that a lower placement was in my best interest. Fortunately, my mother, my report card and my academic ability only landed me in that environment for approximately two weeks. I do remember there was no learning occurring. It was the most fun that I had in school. All my friends were in the class, and I enjoyed their short-lived company. That experience was quite a revelation, for it was clear that the teachers’ expectations had been extremely low. Once, I moved to the appropriate level, learning returned as did increased teacher expectation. Unfortunately that was not my only experience with racism or gatekeeping in education.
Another time would be class registration in the library three years later, when my guidance counselor attempted to place me in a lower level science course for the upcoming year. Because I saw how my mother handled it several years earlier, I was equipped to handle the situation. I simply approached my science teacher to inform him of my guidance counselor’s decision. My science teacher marched over to the table and informed my guidance counselor at once that I was an excellent student and the rest is history.
A similar scenario occurred to a young girl whom I met in a summer program involving the same guidance counselor, ironically. She had been classified with a learning disability, but was denied access to college preparatory classes. One summer in the upward bound program at the local college during the SAT preparation course that I was teaching, she revealed that she would be taking recordkeeping her senior year. I told her to talk to her guidance counselor, still unfamiliar to our shared connection, to take algebra and other college preparation courses. Years later at dinner, she told me that he refused to place her in an algebra class. She then pleaded with her father to speak to her counselor, who like some parents in families of color (due to cultural differences) left such decisions to the school. After being cajoled, he agreed. She ended up taking algebra along with a geometry course. She did well in both courses receiving Bs and better. After high school, she went off to college, graduated with honors, and now is a Special Education English Teacher.
Unfortunately, many students and parents are not self-advocators and are not aware of the grave consequences of tracking. To compound the issues of gatekeeping, in inner city classrooms, black students are placed in classrooms with teachers who have less experience or who may be less prepared to teach in their content area. For instance, in New York City, close to 90% of black students are taught by teachers teaching out of their certification area or with no certification. Statewide, 7% of teachers are teaching out of certification and 5% of core classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers (see New York State School Report Cards). In District 18, 16% of core classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers, which is three times the national average (see Inequality in Teaching and Schooling). Black men being taught by less than qualified teachers in segregated schools is counterproductive to closing the achievement gap. Yes, segregated schools continue to be a real issue in New York City despite the diversity of the city due largely to housing. Negative experiences in school most likely will produce negative attitudes about education, thus leading to increased delinquency and possibly higher dropout rates.  It is time for real changes to be made. Policy makers need to be on placed on notice or not reelected. We have the ability to effect change in solidarity.
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Leadership matters: What makes a good school?

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Educators play a huge role in shaping the lives of our future. It isn’t an easy profession as educators face many issues such as student homelessness, poverty, and increased testing mandates. The attitudes of teachers and leaders affect the students tremendously. Students respond to educators who sincerely care about them. In Pedro Noguera’s (2003) research in Northern California schools, 90% of black males indicated “agree” or “strongly agree” to questions such as “I think education is important” and “I want to go to college.” However, only 22% responded affirmatively to questions such as “I work hard to achieve good grades” and only 18% indicated affirmatively “My teachers treat me fairly.”

Noguera’s study confirmed that teacher expectations of students are extremely important for black students. He finds black males were least likely to respond positively to statements such as “My teachers support me and care about my success in their class.”  Ferguson (2002) also found teacher encouragement as critical for students of color, where 47% of blacks cite encouragement as crucial compared to 31% of whites. An evaluation of the discrepancies between the desire to achieve in higher education, the effort put forth in school, and teacher expectations suggest the need for more support structures in and beyond schools.

Teachers and school staff are responsible for the culture of the schools, student learning, and the upkeep of the building. Clearly not all building resources such as computer labs and per pupil spending are in their control. Educators who work in underserved communities need to work with what they have. Although school staff may not be responsible for the all conditions in the building, educators are accountable for instruction and facilitating meaningful and engaging lessons.

As an educator, I have encountered students whose attitudes appear to be apathetic. I say appear because many of these students have multiple issues that lead to this mindset, destruction in self esteem due to tracking and gatekeeping that occurred in elementary and middle school not to mention many of life’s issues, e.g. homelessness, residential treatment programs such as group homes, abuse, low skills, etc. To reach students who appear to be apathetic, I create relevant lessons that include knowledge of pop culture, e.g. movies and music, while building a rapport with my learners. To reach learners, assessments that are project based, student centered with engagement at the core are utilized.

Over the years, I have encountered students who gave me eye-opening experiences. One student will forever resonate. She asked me two months into the U.S. History Regents course, “Do you give us all this hard work because you taught AP?” I replied, “I challenge you all because you can do it.” Slowly but surely that class began to rise to my expectations. Her comment made it clear that other teachers weren’t holding them to the same standards. A fact I had known, but her comment illuminated  the effect of gatekeeping and low expectations. I cannot imagine that class’ various experiences from elementary to junior year that affected their views on learning.

Generally speaking, society has a negative view of the underserved communities as lazy and uncaring. Additionally, many of the parents may not be involved in their child’s education because of monetary reasons, e.g. working multiple jobs or cultural reasons, where many minorities feel the school knows best or don’t know the best way to advocate for their child. The use of gatekeeping and tracking can also affect a child’s self-esteem.

It is important to build strong school communities to support learners. A strong school would include effective educators who make learning relevant.  To increase student achievement, schools need administrators who are effective leaders, have experience, and are in districts that do not have a high turnover rate. An effective leader will:

  1. Recognize teaching and learning as the main business of a school
  2. Communicate the school’s mission clearly and consistently to staff members, parents and students
  3. Foster standards for teaching and learning that are high and attainable
  4. Provide clear goals and monitor the progress of students toward meeting them
  5. Spend time in classrooms and listen to teachers
  6. Promote an atmosphere of trust and sharing
  7. Have high expectations for all: students and staff
  8. Provide meaningful professional development for teachers to meet diverse learners
  9. Build a good staff and make professional development a top concern
  10. Not tolerate bad teachers

Advocating for students and providing support for students is crucial for many, especially those living on their own or coming from impoverished homes. All students should be connected with someone who cares at school, educators should stay informed and pay attention to research on school violence, have community meetings to inform parents, churches, and youth organizations about youth problems and expectations from students in school. Schools should develop collaborative associations within local communities to address the needs of at-risk students, and conduct asset surveys with students in the community to identify their behavior. Leaders and teachers should maintain high expectations for all students where learning in the classrooms is made relevant.

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