being a teacher, being me

In These Divided Times

Yesterday, I was given the opportunity to speak for 5 minutes on the ISTE small stage.  I was given five minutes to share something I am passionate about.  Something I care about.  I knew I wanted to discuss technology.  I knew I wanted to discuss division,  I thought I would discuss the Global Read Aloud, and yet as I started writing I realized the inherent opportunity I had been given to speak about something I am still learning about and growing within.  Something I have spoken about before but not at ISTE, not in a tech space.  So yesterday, I delivered the following Ignite to a full room.  I don’t know if my words will matter, I never do, but I was nervous and proud to speak from the heart.  Hopefully, I didn’t screw it up too much.  And while some told me it was a brave speech, I am not so sure about that, after all, I am pretty protected within my privileged place.   It was truly the least I could do as we continue to work toward a better world for all, not just those of us with privilege. 

PS:  Some of the words were repeated from my NCTE speech but they fit here as well.  I also think a video will be made available at some point and will add a link here.  For now, here is a Periscope version of it.


I was clutching the steering wheel.  The red and blue lights behind me flashing.  My heart in my throat. In my head, I kept wondering what I had done.  I knew I had followed the speed limit, used my blinkers. And yet, I was getting pulled over and I was frozen.

As the police officer walked up, I was scared.  Not for fear of a ticket, but because I didn’t have my green card on me.  That little card that grants me the permission to be here as a lawful immigrant.  That little card that I am supposed to carry on me at all times, in case the police, or ICE agents, or even strangers ever question whether I have the right to be in the US.

I didn’t have it.  It was at home. She came up to my window.  “License, registration please, do you know why I’m pulling you over?” My brake light was out.  That was it. Get it fixed or get a ticket – not questioning, not deportation. She thanked me for my time.  And then she walked away.

She never asked about my green card.  She never asked if I was here legally.  She never even thought to ask.

I was raised in Bjerringbro, Denmark, but my mother had a wandering heart and at the age of six, she moved us to inner-city San Francisco.  I navigated not understanding what someone said to me when they spoke. Figuring out how to find the bathroom when you don’t know how to ask to leave, how to make friends when you don’t speak the same language, how to show I was smart even if I couldn’t communicate it.  

And just when I felt like I had mastered this new culture, this new language, this new me,  we went home. Becoming Danish once again, rather than a kid from a foreign country. But when you see me;  Do you see a woman whose first language is not English? Or do you just see my white skin? Hear my American English and assume the rest?  

When I was 18, we moved again.  July 1998, I walked up to the counter in Logan Airport and declared myself an immigrant.  Alone and clutching my sealed papers, the officer took the papers and led me to a small room.  After what felt like forever, he finally handed them back, said; “Welcome to America” as he led me out into what felt like a whole new world.  

For 20 years no one has ever asked me for my papers again.   I have walked freely wherever I wanted to without being questioned, without being asked where I am from, without anyone asking me where I was born, all because of how I look.  That is white privilege,

When I wrote about how I am never assumed to be an immigrant, someone replied; “Well, that is easy to understand, after all, you look like an American.”

Let’s think about that for a moment.  How can I look like an American when I do not have a single drop of American blood in me? How can I look like an American when my first language is Danish and not English? How can this Danish girl be handed so much privilege – my skin of course.

You see, my family and I are so white we are like a caricature of whiteness, blonde, blue-eyed and tall.  I was born white, it is who I am, but I am on a journey to use my innate privilege to be something more. Not just an ally, but a fighter, and technology is my weapon.

My students and I have taken the curriculum that the world has handed us and tried to figure out where we fit into the world.  We have used books and computers to connect to the world. Web cameras, videos, and apps to not just share our work but to learn more.  

Yet when a student asked what does refugee mean and another child answered, it means the enemy, it was a stark reminder of the work that still needs to be done.    On the urgent need to use technology so that we can make our own decisions based on actual experience and not just hearsay and biased opinions. Use it so that those of us, who live with privilege,  can be a part of the fight for a more just world.

Because let’s face it, I am privileged because I get to be afraid of the type of reaction my teaching may cause if I continue to teach about inequity. If I continue to teach what it means to be privileged.  I get to be afraid for my job and I get to choose whether to have these hard conversations or not. But the truth is, there should be no choice. We, as teachers, are on the front lines of writing the future narrative of this country.  Of this world. Ugliness and all. We are the gatekeepers of truth, so what truth are we bringing into our classrooms?

Where is our courage when it comes to being a part of dismantling the fears that drive us apart because It is not enough to bring in devices, the latest gadgets, without using them to learn about others.  To understand others. To have the tools to dismantle our prejudiced world but then choose to do nothing to change the world that we live in.

We, as people with privilege, must use technology to create more opportunities for the students to do the hard work.   To create an environment where they can discover their own opinion. Where they can explore the world, even when it is ugly so that they can decide which side of history they want to fall on.

So look at the power of the tools you have at your disposal.  Look at what you can do with a camera. With a computer. With your voice and your connections.  Look at whose voices are missing in your classroom. Look at who your students need to meet so that they can change their ideas of others.   

We say we teach all children, but do we teach all stories?  Do we teach the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or just the sanitized version that will not ruffle any feathers?  I can choose to bring others into our classrooms so that their stories are told by them. I can choose to model what it means to question my own assumptions and correct my own wrongs.

What if the next time a child made a statement that divided rather than united, instead of scolding them, we used a camera, a microphone, and others as a way to start a conversation.  What kind of world could we be? What kind of history would we write?



16 thoughts on “In These Divided Times”

  1. I absolutely love your speech!! I was so disappointed I wasn’t able to make it to Chicago to hear your presentation. I think more teachers need to discuss white privilege in the classroom. My 5th grade students and I had several morning meetings about white privilege, racism, and the under privileged. We need to discuss these issues with our students or how else will we change the world?

  2. I LOVED your speech and hope you continue to speak out and be brave on the issue of white privilege. As educators, we need to discuss white privilege in our classrooms and how it affects the lives of our students. Your words, and your passion, are inspiring!

  3. Educators: the small collection of “nurture not conquer” attitudes. Members of this community need to be alive and well for the sake of ALL families. Thank you Pernille……carry on!

  4. I am an African American mother of 2 teenage sons, 17 and 14. My husband and I are both college educated and live in a gated community. We have worked so hard to provide a great life for our boys. We started dating in college 22 years ago and have been married for 17 years. I know that we do not fit the norm in today’s society, with everyone in our household having the same last name. I teach in the school district where my sons attend school and just completed my 20th year. My husband is in the business sector and is very successful at what he does. However, all of this means absolutely NOTHING when I think about my 17 year old son driving. He has his license and his own vehicle and every time he leaves the house I pray to God that he comes home to me. I say things like, “Don’t drive with your hoodie on.” “Don’t speed.” Make sure you have your license and can easily get to it without having to reach in your pocket.” “If you get pulled over, please, please, please be respectful.” “Don’t question police officers.” And all of these things are just so my baby will come home to me. This fear is REAL and people who are NOT BLACK will never understand. I’m crying as I type this because this is not the world I want my babies to grow up in. Thank you Pernille for being a voice and advocating for fairness, equality, compassion, empathy, and literacy.

    1. When I read your response, it made me cry. I’m so sorry. We need to do better. We must do better. You’re right, I can never understand. I can only advocate the best I can for justice. Bless you and your family.

    2. Thank you Pernille and thank you Traci. I just watched the movie about Mr. Rogers- Won’t You be My Neighbor?” I had no idea that the message he was creating went so much deeper than making each child he spoke to feel special. He used TV to reach children when their lives were being bombarded by violent turbulent times. He left us with -(I am paraphrasing) When you are scared and in a bad place, look for the helpers. There are always helpers. You, Pernille, are a helper- a voice of hope. You feed my courage to act. Traci and Pernille – your parallel stories of driving shines a light on the shameful truth of our country. It doesn’t feel like enough- but connecting kids globally is one thing I can do. And, you give me hope.

  5. Pernille, your message is indeed a brave and truthful reminder of how privileged many of us are simply because of the color of our skin. I was deeply touched by your words and by your truth. I was also filled with shame that Tracy had yet another story to write with her own truth as a mother. I hope you both will give me permission to use these thoughtful stories as read-alouds with the teachers I am privileged to work with…and any one else I can get to listen. We all have a moral imperative to take responsibility for continuing this important conversation and to do so starting now.

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