This Year

“Has this year made it harder or easier to write, Mrs. Ripp?”

We are sitting in circle today (a restorative justice process we use to communicate), and the question now hangs between us, fourteen kids staring at me, waiting for an answer.

I know what she is asking me; has this year, with this group of kids, made me write less or more?  Has this year been too tough to handle or have I found inspiration?  What will I tell others about the kids I teach?

I don’t hesitate, I tell her the truth, after all; these kids tell me their truth all of the time.

So I tell her it has been hard.  That I have had to weigh my words more carefully.  To really craft the sentences that have been published on this blog.  To think deeper before hitting publish.  To take a moment to breathe before I go to write.  To write clearly, to write with intent.  To write with care and with meaning.

But not because this year has been hard.

Not because these kids have been hard, although some days have been hard.

No.

But because this year I have been pushed as an educator further than I have been pushed in many years.

Because this year I have felt like a terrible teacher more days than before, and not because I lost my temper, or things fell apart, but because I wanted to be everything for everyone. Because I wanted to change the narrative; the story these very kids told me of the reputation they came with, of how they knew they were the “bad kids” and how hard that was to carry when they didn’t feel bad.  To help them know that they are not “bad” or “trouble,” that the actions of a few do not define the whole.  I wanted to help them know that we, teachers, saw this as a new beginning, that with us they could reach the goals they set, even if some days would be hard.  To help them all believe that reading was worth their time.  To help them understand how transformative writing could be.   To help them at this incredible stage of their journey.  To make sure that every day I brought my best because they deserved it.

But some days I have failed.  Some days the minor things have piled up and I have left feeling like I could never be enough.  That I was not enough.  And that is hard to write about.  After all; which parent wants to read about how their child’s teacher does not think they are enough?  Who wants to publicly admit that sometimes they don’t have the right answer, a new idea, or even a clue as to how to make everything work for all of the kids you teach.

Yet.  This year, with these kids, this is one I will remember.  For how they pushed me, for how they questioned, for how they wanted to be something more than the story they felt was written about them.  This year may have been hard to write about, but it sure has been good to be in.  And that is something worth remembering, even when we feel we are not enough.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

Small Steps to Become a Better Advocate for Social Change

I do not write this post as an expert.  Nor as someone who knows more than others.  Where there are areas that I feel I know some things, this is not one of them.  And yet, how many of us, and by us, I mean white educators, are trying to do better in our classrooms when it comes to creating an awareness of the world we live in.  Trying to be better educated so that my students can become better educated when it comes to social justice, equity, racism and a host of other systematic oppressions happening to many in our nation.  So this post has been percolating as I have been on my own journey to know more, to teach more, to learn and to stand up.  To be a part of the solution rather than just a part of the problem.  So please read this post as a starting point.  Please take these ideas and do something bigger, do something more, because that is what I am doing.  This is a just a beginning to change, a small step on a long journey.

So what I have done to get further on a journey of enlightenment and activism?

I have listened.

Because of my own inherent privilege.  Because of the color of my skin.  Because of where I live, my financial situation, and the fact that I have the ability to walk away from things that other people cannot, my job is not to speak right now, (although I guess you could say this blog post is speaking in some ways), but instead to listen.  To listen to those who know.  To listen to those whose voices have been silenced.  To listen to everything that is shared.

I have learned.

The job of others is not to educate me when I have questions.  I have a computer.  I have the time.  I have a vast social network of really brilliant people who share thoughts, articles, book, speakers, and anything else that might help educate others and so the least I can do is pay attention to what is shared.  To read what is out there.  To realize and to remember that there is so much to learn.  To remember that while this may feel like an educational quest of sorts for me, that for others this isn’t a choice of exploration but instead life.  That this is not about MY journey toward a better place of understanding but instead about the bigger journey of others.

I have found experts.

I am so grateful to all of the people who are out there for us to learn from.  Communities like Educolor, We Need Diverse Books, and Reading While White push my thinking and lead me down a rabbit hole of reflection and pursuit of more.  Fiercely intelligent women and men like Val Brown, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Cornelious Minor, Rafranz Davis, Shaun King, Debbie Reese and Rusul Alrubail push my thinking and lead me to others who I can learn from.  Find your own people to follow.  Find those that will push your thinking.  An event I excited about is the #CleartheAir chat happening on April 4th or the free EdCollab Spring Gathering happening on April 8th.   The reason I come back to the people I mentioned before is because they make me think about all the things I need to work on, not because they placate me and tell me I am doing a great job being an ally.  It is not the job of them to educate me, it is my job to be educated.  So join the conversations but listen first.

Stay.

Don’t walk away from hard conversations.  Don’t block people who point out your mistakes.  Don’t react in anger.  Learn something.  Read the uncomfortable.  Realize your own shortcomings. You will be embarrassed at your own ignorance, you will get upset, you will feel like you are right and others are wrong.  Just stop.  Reflect.  Then learn something.  This is bigger than me.  This is bigger than us.

Critically evaluate your curriculum.

I work for a district that gives us an immense amount of freedom to create relevant learning experiences.  I am grateful for that.  That also means that we can tear apart the curriculum we teach.  So examine what you are teaching, how you are teaching and look for hidden biases.  Look for your own assumptions.  If you are teaching history, which I think we all do in some way, whose history are you teaching?  Who is being represented as normal in your classroom?  Who is the status quo?  No curriculum should get a free pass because it is a tradition or because it is not that bad.  Start with tomorrow’s lesson and take it day by day; what is the story being told, how are people represented?

Create a chance to learn.

I think our students deserve to have a chance to formulate opinions about the world we live in.  My job is not to shape the opinions of my students, but instead to offer them a chance to create opinions.  Even in polarized communities, and perhaps particularly in those, we should be looking at bringing in the hard conversations that are happening around us.  So, find a way to weave the stories out there.  If you have to teach compare and contrast; why not compare and contrast opposing media sources?  If you have to teach how to annotate, why not annotate articles that have to do with the travel ban?  Think of the ways you can bring in current and relevant topics so that students can be educated on them and shape their own view. Otherwise, our silence speaks volumes.

Bring others in.

There are many reasons I love Skype or other technology but one of the biggest is how it allows me to bring other people into our classrooms to speak to the students.  Right now our world seems driven by fear of “others” and so utilizing technology we have an opportunity to bring those “others” into our rooms.  If students live in a predominantly one-faceted community, speak to experts that do not share their same experience.  If students have biases, bring in people who break those stereotypes.  While it is not the job of others to educate us, create opportunities for your students to interact with classrooms that do not mirror their own experience through globally collaborative projects like The Global Read Aloud or any of the ones found here.  We cannot stay afraid when we are educated.

Critically evaluate your classroom library.

Just like your curriculum establishes the norm so do the very books kids read.  It is not enough to have diverse books if they only feature books that show one or two experiences of others.  It is not enough to have books that only highlight certain aspects of a culture.  I wrote about how I assessed my own classroom library here, but it is bigger than that.  Buy #OwnVoices books, speak up for better diversity in publishing.  Spend your money supporting authors and illustrators who are typically underrepresented and then share those books with your students and others.  Amplify and continually push your own thinking on what makes a quality book.  Be critical as you read books yourself and ask what message they tell kids.

Speak up.

I am now contradicting myself because I just said to stop speaking, but there is an area where we need to speak up right away; the critical underrepresentation of POC as speakers, authors, leaders, and even teachers.  If you are at a conference where the line up is all white; ask questions, raise a ruckus.  Look at authors getting deals, being represented, being featured – who is getting the attention?  Same thing goes for in your own district; is there a plan for attracting POC to teach in it?  Is there any sense of urgency?  If not, create one.  Our schools, our conferences, our learning opportunities should reflect the diverse society we live in, not the whitewashed one that is currently portrayed.  So use the platform that has naturally been handed to you as a white person and use it for good.

There is so much more to be done.  There are so many things I still have to learn.  There are so many mistakes I will still make as I try to grow myself, lord knows, the road is long ahead.  But I hope that these few things I have shared here can offer you a place to start, some people to follow, some things to read.  I urge you to go on this journey; our students deserve it and so do our own children.

 

On Hygge and What It Really Is

I am not wearing wool socks right now.

There are no lit candles in my classroom.

I am not smothered in blankets, nor playing a board game with a loved one.

I am not slowing down, nor contemplating life.  I have not cooked an elaborate breakfast before I started my day.

And yet, “jeg hygger” right now in my classroom.  The morning is quiet and dark, I am content, I have my tea and a new day awaits.

This past year, it has been interesting being a Dane outside of Denmark.  It seems as if everywhere I go, my entire culture has been distilled into one word, “Hygge.”  (Not pronounced hoo-ga by the way.)  Strangers have asked me for tips, my friends have shared their own experiences, and I have smiled, laughed and tried to explain that hygge and being “hyggelig” is not something you create meticulously.  That yes candles may be a part of it and so are warm blankets and fires and laughter and love and books, don’t forget about books.  But if you think that that is what hygge is, then you are sorely missing the point.

As the elements of hygge have been sold to the world, they have become just another form of cultural appropriation.  There are, indeed, practical explanations for most of them; we wear warm socks in winter because it is cold, drafty, and sometimes dreary during our dark winters.  Candles are for reminding us of the sun which we don’t see for long stretches of time during those same months.  Books are because Denmark believes in an educated populace and so we have amazing libraries all around our country.  Growing up we played board games because we didn’t have devices and we had very few channels on TV.  Cooking together was much more economical and practical than eating out.

So what is hygge, in the eyes of this Dane?  It is hard to say, although I have been asked to explain before.  Hygge just is.  But perhaps part of what it is can be said like this; it is a state of contentment.  Of being at peace with yourself and others, even if just for small chunks of time.  Of being in the now, whatever the now is.  Of comfort when the elements seem rough, but also about not taking yourself too seriously.  About gentle when you need to be. About love.  About togetherness even if you are alone.

So before you try to create an atmosphere of hygge, before you make your life overly complicated searching for an elusive state of something; don’t be fooled. Look around, check yourself; are you content?  Are you happy?  If yes, then you may already have mastered the art of “hygge” and you didn’t even need to wear warm socks.

 

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Oskar and I reading a book together in our messy living room – this was hyggeligt

 

 

 

An Exploration Into Found Poetry

My students don’t love poetry.  I know this because when I told them we would be creating poetry, the cacophony of noise that erupted was not one of joy or happiness.  It sounded more like some of them were sick.

But this is exactly why I love teaching poetry in 7th grade.  It is a chance to rewrite and reclaim the whole notion of what poetry is.  To help students see that they too can create things with meaning without feeling like poetry is just one more thing they are not smart enough to produce.

So instead of “regular” poetry, we create found poetry.  Introduced to us by the amazing David Daniel, an actor who does a weeklong poetry workshop with us every year (the kids have no idea how much they will love it).  We create poetry out of words that were not made by us.  We make poetry out of our surroundings, out of noises, out of words found in books and on books.  And I see the change, I see the spirit with which kids embrace this task.  How they all of a sudden feel like poets.

What are the different components?

Video:

Every day we share a video of a spoken word poet, some of our favorites are – if you have others, please share them in the comments:

To This Day Project by Shane Koyzcan

Knock Knock by Daniel Beaty

What Kind of Asian Are You? by Alex Dang

Somewhere in America by Belissa Escobedo, Rhiannon McGavin, and Zariya Allen

An Ode to Whataburger by Amir Safi

Why I Hate School But Love Education by Suli Breaks

Different Concepts:

There are many ways to create found poetry, here are a few of our favorites

Black-Out Poetry

Where students black the words out on pages of books, leaving only the words of their poem behind.  We use discarded library books for this.

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Found Words Poetry

Students search the classroom for words to fill out in a table on a piece of white paper.  Once they have filled all of their boxes, they cut them out, put them in the order they want and then glue them down.

Book Spine Poetry

Students create poetry using the titles of books, by stacking them on top of each other and then snapping a picture of their creations.  We shared them on social media using the hashtag #OMSreads

 

Collage Poetry (or Ransom Note poetry as the students coined it)

Using images and words from magazines, students cut out what they need and create a poem collage.

 

Conversation poetry

Send students to a busy area listening for sounds and snippets of conversations.  Write them down and then use them as lines in your poem.

Model poetry

Who says poetry needs words?  Using maker space materials create a visual poem that tells its stories using words or not.

There are many other ways of creating found poetry, if you have other ideas, share them in the comments.

While this may seem like just fun and games, it has been quite amazing to see the transformation.  We have also spoken about poetic terms that the students have been exposed to before, but may have forgotten.  This great word wall came from our 8th grade English teachers and help kids get reacquainted with terms they may either need or would like to be inspired by.

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So while my students didn’t love poetry in the beginning, and some might not still, many have realized that can be poets.  That poetry should make them feel something.  that poetry can be all around us.  I have loved this exploration so much.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

On Turning Older

 

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Birthday card from a student today – one year closer to death, I love it 

 

I turned 37 today.

Every year I receive an email from myself on my birthday, a letter from the previous birthday reminding me of what is important.  Asking myself the questions we tend to ponder when our birthday rolls around and our own mortality becomes more apparent.

This year I noticed the pattern; are you slowing down?  Are you relaxing?  Are you eating better?  Are you exercising more?  Like the ghosts of long lost new years resolutions, my birthday letters have become reminders of what I should be doing but don’t.

As I see my children grow older, I feel my own years adding up.  I don’t feel old, but I know in the eyes of my kids, I have never been young.  I have never been a teenager, nor an early twenty-something who had no idea what her future would hold.  Instead,  I have always been Mom, someone who seems to have many things to do and who sometimes raises her voice or is tired. Who sometimes misses that amazing dance move or that quiet moment playing.  Who sometimes tries to be everywhere at once and thus ends up being nowhere.  Who never misses the big moments, but is sometimes absent from the small.  Who carries more guilt about how she uses her time than should be allowed for anyone.

And so as I drove home this evening after a day of celebration, it struck me that perhaps I am going about this whole life thing a little bit wrong.  That perhaps it is not about changing habits, although, I should do all of those things, that perhaps it is, instead, about changing my attitude.

Perhaps the change I need to make this year is not to do less work, but instead to enjoy the things that I do more.

Perhaps it is not to slow down, after all, when does that really work for most people, but instead to live in the moment of what I am doing and find pleasure in that.  Because is it not in the mundane details that our lives are lived?

To stop feeling so guilty and instead embrace the things I am doing rather than pining away for the ones I am not.

So for the year ahead, I will enjoy more.  I will not try to fight the battle against time or carry the guilt of all of the habits I cannot seem to change.  I will find the pleasure in what life has to offer, even the details we seem to never notice and be at peace with that.  Be at peace with myself.  That is the gift I can give myself right now.  And for right now; that will be enough.

 

 

It’s On Us

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We know we set the mood of our classrooms.

We know that the power we have to make a day better or worse is immense.

We know that what we think about a kid, or a class, sometimes matters more than what we actually do.  After all, kids can read us in ways we have yet to fathom.

So when I had gotten stuck on a class being negative.  When I had formed a narrative in my mind that a class was never excited to come to English.  When I had decided that this was my least engaged class, I was right.  Because the moment I decided it, it became true.

Kids will gladly live up to what we believe they are.

And every day I would think of ways I could get the kids to change.

Every day I would think of ways to re-engage them.  To discuss with them what the room felt like.  To ask them how we could get better.

This went on for months.  Wrack my brain to come up with ways to make it a “better” class, yet dreading the energy of the room.  I even told others that I didn’t know what to do.

One day, after I had asked the class what else we could try, a child asked me this, “Is it all of us, Mrs. Ripp?  Is it me…”

For some reason, I didn’t know what to say.  It took me a while at least and finally, I realized that when I told him “It was the energy of the class…” I had lied.

It wasn’t them.

It was me.

I was the one that had determined the fate of this class.

I was the one that had shaped the narrative of our community and the kids, while responsible too, could not do anything to change my mind.

And so I took a moment at home and realized that what I had pegged as negative energy, was just 7th graders being calm.

That what I had taken as disengagement was instead a quiet pondering of facts.

That what I had taken as hating English, instead was an investment, albeit a quiet one, into learning deeply.

My class wasn’t a negative class, it was a chill class, and as a 7th-grade teacher, I was not used to that.  I created a problem, breathed in the narrative, and then looked for evidence to back it up.  It wasn’t the kids, it was me.

So before we blame the kids.

Before we blame the class.

Before we assume there is nothing we can do because we have tried everything.  Stop.  Look at yourself.  Look at what you have determined to be true and then what you are doing to make it true.

We hold more power than we can ever imagine, let us never forget that.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.