Be the change, being a teacher, being me

The Teachers Tell Us…

A reflection…

Working through my keynote for this morning and I keep coming back to this moment from my own students – I asked my students who the “bad” kids were and they answered, “The teachers tell us…”

Even though I was there to witness it, it still hits hard every single time I see it. The power we wield, as educators, as adults, in how human beings see each other is astounding. It is something I carry with me every single time I teach, that through my actions, whether conscious or not, I will shape how a child’s humanity is potentially seen by others. While not singlehandedly determining the narrative, my presence, my being will provide others with a road map of how to see themselves and others.

It is something I don’t feel we spend enough time discussing, pondering, and helping us shape our teaching experiences.

And it starts on the very first day where we explain through our rules what “good kids” do and a child looks at that list and doesn’t see themselves.

That quote is 5 years old and yet, I wonder how many kids would still say something like that in schools across the world.

How many kids would consider themselves “bad” kids because that is the legacy we make for them?

Or how we label entire grade levels as “hard” groups or other awful titles and then wonder why they live up to it?

Words matter, actions matter, and the way we help children shape their identities in school to the point of where some are trying to succeed despite us is something to sit with, and then something to do something about.

Because as the mother of a child who felt unsafe at school due to bullying, who felt her teacher hated her in kindergarten, that was exactly the legacy she thought she should live up to. A child who didn’t belong, who was angry, who was broken.

And as a teacher who continues to screw up, despite her best intentions, I have realized that the least I can do is ask the very kids I teach whether they feel safe and respected and if they tell me no, then do something about it.

Because then, perhaps, we can change the narrative.

Be the change, being me

Chasing Happiness…

For a long time, I have kept a journal, well, let’s be transparent here, not a journal, but a long-standing to do list in a journal form. What started as a commitment to keep a bullet journal has morphed into my own version of my life in a book, with plenty of boxes to check off daily, and also main points of the day. My husband provides the journal, painstakingly researching the ones with the best paper and presents them with pens whenever a chance affords itself, I am lucky like that.

Every morning, while my computer boots up, I pull out my leather-bound journal and make the day’s to do list. A quick brain dump as I think of tasks big and small that need to be completed in order for my brain to change focus and be present when I get home. Sometimes on Sunday’s I make my list for Monday in order for myself to continue to focus on home rather than school as the weekend ends. On the days, I feel disorganized and off it is often because I haven’t taken the time to make my list. On the days I feel more stressed and scattered, the same culprit is at play.

After the to-do lists comes the second part of my ritual, a simple list on the previous day’s page titled “Happiness is…” In the quiet morning hum of my classroom, under the covered fluorescent lights, I try to take a moment to remember all of the happy moments. The ones that brought me peace and happiness that previous day.

This year for my word of the year I chose the word “More.” More love, more joy, more slowing down, more meaning, learning, more great food, naps, and everything that makes life truly worth living; more family, friends, and people who inspire me. More of the good things balancing out the to-do’s and the must do’s in order to be a responsible human being.

And I embraced the pursuit of more, I still do, but I also quickly noticed that my happiness list was dwindling, that in my eagerness to do more, I ended up working more to get more done, to be more productive, and so there weren’t many true happiness moments beyond the big events that stood out. If you looked at my happiness list, you might think I lived a sad life, and yet, that short list also became my realization that perhaps there weren’t as many happiness moments as one might expects but not in the way one might expect.

Because there is nothing wrong with my life, instead, my lens was foggy. I looked for true happiness, that elusive feeling where the world stands still and you get that this moment, this very moment you are in, is of importance. It turns out we don’t have many of those if we compare our lives to others. We don’t have many of those if we are too busy to-doing and not just to-being. What we do have is small moments of joy sprinkled throughout our daily life that we seem to skim over in our task-slaying ways.

So this summer, all four days of it so far, I have been chasing happiness. I have been making my to do list in order to have more moments to add the next day. I have added my yoga, because it makes me feel better, I have added my bike rides with my children as they are all out of training wheels and the world beckons for our exploration. I have added the quiet nights with Brandon as we watch in wonder Good Omens and the illustrious story-telling. The chocolate, the great books – so many great books – the sunlight, the naps, the phone calls and contacts with friends, the pool time, the compliments, the great learning from others. The ideas I am collecting from the learning I am doing that I know will create better learning opportunities for all of my students. I am looking at my own deficits in understanding and not seeing them as faults but instead as a learning opportunity. How wondrous it is that we can learn so much from others and in turn become more than what we were? I am planning for these because it feels right, it feels good, and don’t we all need a little more goodness in our lives?

And so my list is fuller and so is my life.

I know, that life will get filled up again, it always does, but chasing happiness in the form of meaningful interactions is something that will always be worth it. To seek out opportunities that will bring you joy is never wasted, unless the joy is at the expense of other people. I know I can become more than I am due to the teaching of others, due to the time with my kids, due to the meaning I choose to add to my life and pursuits. That is on me, that is my mission. And I can channel that into the teacher I am, that teaches with purpose, with an eye on changing the very experience we have together in order for the children to have a better chance at their happiness pursuit. If, in the moment you are in, there seems to be little joy, ask why. Is it beyond you, because let’s face it, life can be cruel at times, we certainly have already navigated some difficult situations in the last few weeks, or is it just your lens that needs to change?

Only you can fully answer that, but perhaps a list is in order. Won’t you chase happiness with me?

My main causes of happiness…

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  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.

Be the change, books, Literacy

On Blind Spots and Doing Better When We Know Better

Three years ago, I wrote a blog post detailing my journey with the book When We Was Fierce and in particular the journey with realizing that a book I had marveled at and called a must read was being critically reviewed by others. While at first I was embarrassed by my enthusiasm and not knowing better, in the blog post I wrote about the growth I had when I put away my own embarrassment and instead approached the moment as a learning opportunity, simply put; when I knew better, I could do better. It is a journey I have tried to continue on ever since.

Since that post, I have tried to be more in tune with critical reviews. I have tried to read new or old books that come my way with a broader lens trying to step out of my own lived experience to discover how others may view a book. How others may be potentially harmed by a book. How others may have world view shaped in a an inaccurate manner because of a book. While the voice in my head has gotten better at alerting me to potentially problematic texts, it is far from perfect and it is a journey I continue to be on.

I share this because this week I published my best books of the year so far list, a list I try to carefully put together in order to help others find books that may heighten their reading experiences. It is also a list for myself to look back upon as I celebrate the incredible works put out in the world that have deepened my own children’s’ reading lives as well as my teaching experience. This morning, I woke to a tweet sent to me by a colleague highlighting a potentially problematic book on the list.

My response: Thank you, I will definitely look into it. Which I did.

Dr. Laura M. Jimenez (@BookToss) had written a great post detailing problematic aspects of the book Stonewall: A Building, An Uprising, A Revolution by Rob Sanders and Jamey Christoph. This book was on my best of the year so far list and a book I had really enjoyed, even contemplating how I could use it as part of our upcoming historical research unit where we will write from the perspective of an object. While I had read the book and the voice inside my head had noticed how there didn’t seem to be a broad acknowledgement of the trans community, I had put aside my concern rather than followed up on it, despite having also read the book The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets by Gayle E. Pitman that had explicitly discussed the broad community anger and how this went past the mostly gay men present in the inn on the first night of the riots. Dr. Jimenez discussed those concerns and then some in her blog post, and also received a reply from the author, Rob Sanders, which I really think you should read.

After reading the blog post, the concerns with the book were crystal clear so I pondered why I had I put aside my concerns? The answer? Because I really liked the book AND also because of my lack of knowledge. While I had a minor concern, I didn’t follow up on it and instead chose to highlight the book because I thought that it would be great for others to read. End of story.

And this is what I want to write a little bit about, because those two things, dismissing our concerns and not knowing better, are exactly why I think many, especially white, educators keep problematic books in classrooms and home collections year after year. I know the emotional attachment is what makes me sometimes try to mentally finagle a way to be okay with a book in our collection that may do potential harm. Even though I know better. Even though I end up not placing it in our library because I know better. But how often do we, and especially us white educators who live within the dominant lens, simply not know better? Or how often do we dismiss the criticisms because we somehow think that having the book will surely alert students to their own concerns and then be able to navigate potential problems within it?

But here’s the thing, if I, as a 39 -year old educator who has taught for nearly 12 years and reads hundreds of books, as well as reviews of books, and critical discussions of books every year cannot figure out on my own that a book is problematic, then how can I expect my students to do so?

Because they won’t, not unless we teach it, not unless we discuss our own mistakes when it comes to reading and highlighting problematic texts. This is why I use the book The Secret Project by Jonah and Jeanette Winters in my classroom. While I had the book at first because I loved it and had already read it aloud to my classroom, after I read Dr. Deb Reese’s post on the problems with it, I re-visited the book with students and we discussed why we had not ourselves caught these problems with the text and instead taken it at face-value. It led to a larger discussion on what else we miss when we don’t know more, or the blind spots we all walk around with and how to shrink them.

This is why we must do better when it comes to vetting our own collections and also being okay with admitting it out loud. I know that there are a lot of emotions attached to books and their creators. I know I don’t want to hurt other people when I distance myself from their work. I know that many educators, me included, like to think that I know enough to carefully select books that will not present problematic, inaccurate, or full on harmful stories to my students, but that is simply not right. Even though I have grown and gotten better, I have so much to learn still. I will, probably despite my best intentions, continue to embrace books that because of my own lens, my limited perspective, I cannot see the problems in until others point it out.

So what can we do when we realize either through our own investigation that a book is problematic or when someone else points out harmful representation or stories?

Say thank you when someone points it out. We cannot grow if we don’t know what we need to do better on. That is why recognizing when someone offers you an opportunity to grow and acknowledging it as an opportunity to grow rather than getting defensive is always the best way.

Get over our own feelings. Is it embarrassing to screw up? Absolutely. Would I rather do well? Sure. Do I learn from these interactions? Every time. However, when our response is one of incredulity or dismissal we are not really growing, we are certainly not focusing our energy on what we should be focusing on, which is the conversation surrounding the text or illustrations rather than our own feelings. (I am listening to White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and this is part of what she discusses).

Read the criticism, seek to understand it, and ask questions. I always read or listen to what is being said and then try to find other voices who are discussing it as well. If I am not sure why something is being discussed the way it is, then I ask questions. That is why I love being connected to others because social media gives me a quick way to reach out.

Take action outwardly. Whether it is publicly acknowledging your screw up if you have recommended it, or spreading the word by amplifying the discussion happening, do your part. It is often isolating to be someone pointing out critical aspects so knowing that there are others who will back up your words and calls to action is powerful.

Transfer the knowledge. Teach this critical skill to students by also connecting them with book reviews blogs so that they can be adults who have access to information, so that they can notice their blind spots, and also try to see whether a book may be harmful or not. Make it a part of your already embedded curriculum units so that it is not a stand-alone lesson but instead one that is addressed in many different ways. After all, isn’t teaching critical analysis one of our main teaching goals?

Take actions personally. Remove the book altogether or use it to discuss blind spots like I have done with a few books, but do something, rather than just push it aside because “no one will know that you still have the book.” While that may be true, this is also an incredibly twisted way of looking at the process. While it feels very strange to throw books in the garbage, almost sacrilegious, yet sometimes, that is where certain books belong. Don’t just say you will do something, actually do it.

Try to do better in the future. While I definitely catch more problematic books before I recommend them than I have in the past; as evidenced by this post I still have a lot to learn. All of us do. But the good news is that through social media we can easily learn from others as long as we are willing.

Finally; say thank you and support those doing the work. Thank you to those who tirelessly advocate for better representation within the book industry. Who repeatedly point out when texts or illustrations are problematic. Who take the heat that comes their way over and over again when others accuse them of being in a “mob” or even sends them death threats. Because of people like Dr. Reese, Dr. Jimenez, Edi Campbell, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Valeria Brown, Chad Everett and the fearless educators, authors, and activists involved in #WeNeedDiverseBooks #OwnVoices, #DisruptTexts, Reading While White, LatinX in Kid Lit, and #DiversityJedi I have grown as a reader of books and that matters because the books I share are used within my own classroom, as well as recommended to others on a global scale.

So what did I end up doing with Stonewall the book that started this whole blog post? I removed it from my best books of the year so far list and with the encouragement of Dr. Jimenez wrote this blog post to make my thinking visible. While I love the missing parts of history that the book represents, I cannot use it as an actual representation of what happened that night, there is too much missing.

And that is where I start my summer vacation. Knowing that I have so much to still learn about others and from others. Not a bad way to start my summer as I try to grow as a person and as an educator. I now know better, so hopefully I can do better. Can’t we all?

Be the change

To Our Daughter’s 4th Grade Teacher

To Thea’s 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Thompson,

Tonight, during bedtime, Thea looked sad. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me in that heavy way that only kids can seemingly pull off that she doesn’t want 4th grade to end. That she doesn’t want to leave her friends. That she doesn’t want to leave you.

That while summer will be fun, and 5th grade might be cool, she would be okay with simply staying in 4th grade for a long time. With you.

This is from the same child who in August begged us to not send her to school. Who asked over and over again if she could just go somewhere else. If she could be homeschooled. Who asked us what she should do when the bullying would start back up, because she knew it would. Who asked us if we thought that this would be a year where she would make more friends. Who asked us in a way that told us that she had little hope for the year ahead.

This kid. This beautiful, strong-willed, stubborn girl doesn’t want to head into summer. Doesn’t want to spend days doing nothing. Doesn’t want to go on vacation, or go to the pool. Not it if means 4th grade is over.

That’s how good you have made it for her. That’s how much of a difference you have made in the life of a girl who didn’t think school would ever be safe again.

So if you are ever in doubt about what you do, much like we as educators sometimes are. If you are ever in doubt whether you are making a difference, whether what you do matters, let me tell you this, and the rest of the world to…

You helped our daughter feel safe.

You helped our daughter feel like she belongs.

You helped our daughter find her own strength once again.

You helped our daughter come back to what she was before 3rd grade. Before those kids took so much of her away from us.

And there are simply not enough words for us to thank you. This is my feeble declaration of the deepest gratitude.

So to all the teachers who tried this year. Who gave it their best. Who worked tirelessly so that kids, all kids, could feel safe, could feel accepted, could feel loved, may you know that there are kids in the world, at my house, who are hoping that school will never end just so they can keep being with you.

We go to school every day hoping that what we do matters, and sometimes we don’t know if it does.

But let me tell you this, Mrs. Thompson, and all of the other staff members who helped our daughter rise up out of the ashes; you did this, and it matters, more than you will ever know.

With our deepest gratitude,

Pernille and Brandon

Be the change, being me, failure, Student dreams

It Starts Now

White, Black,  Free Image

I have been thinking a lot about failure. About this whole notion of growth mindset and having kids take risks. About how often we ask kids to just keep trying even when it is hard yet seem to fail to do so ourselves. About how often we expect kids to give us their all, their best, their utmost, and then for them to navigate the pieces when it all falls apart, after all isn’t that what having grit teaches you to do?

About the supposed safety nets we have in place for students to fail safely.

About how we tell them that experimentation is great, that trying something new is the way to learn, about stretching themselves into unknown territory so they can discover who they truly are.

About how it doesn’t all add up.

Because the thing is, and I know I have said this before, we say a lot of things as educators without really thinking about what we are asking all kids to do. We say a lot of things without looking at the systems we already have in place, the routines and procedures that wield so much power in our schools that actively fight against this whole notion of embracing failure as another way to learn.

Take grades for example. We tell kids to take risks but then expect them to all succeed even if on shaky ground. If they don’t, then their scores or assessments reflect that. How often do we fail to recognize that it is because we attach subjective scores to something that we boil learning and curiosity into something we never intended. It becomes nothing more than an experiment in playing the grade game rather than the true learning experience it should be.

Take control and compliance. How often do our beginning of the year routines surround getting kids to be quiet, to sit still, to only ask questions when we designate the time for it. To make only the smallest of spaces for themselves in order for all of us to function because you can’t have a functioning classroom if kids are too loud, too energetic, or take up too much space.

Take how we handle behaviors. How often the preferred method is social isolation playing itself out in some form of removal from the classroom. How often we ask kids to leave in order for us to keep teaching and yet we see the behaviors continue as they rejoin us because nothing has changed in the experience, only paused.

How often we tell our loud kids to quiet down.

How often we tell our quiet kids to speak up.

How often we tell our dreamer kids to come back to Earth.

How often we tell our pragmatic kids to dream.

How often we somehow tell kids that to be a successful student all you have to do is play by the rules but then we never hand them a rule book or we change the rules altogether.

And then we wonder why kids say they don’t think school is for them.

So as we race toward the end of the year, or perhaps only the middle depending on your hemisphere, I want to take a moment to think about what my students are telling me they need. About what I am telling them not just with my words, but in my actions, my routines, and my expectations.

About how I need to continue to ask whether I not only would want to be a student in my own classroom, but also could be a successful one. About how we need to not give students a voice because they already have one, but instead need to carve out an authentic space for the things they have to say.

How it starts with asking questions – do you feel respected, does this learning matter, how can we create engaging learning opportunities together? How it continues with reflection – how is my voice and my power being used as a potential tool for inequity, does every child feel safe with me, does every child have a chance of truly belonging? How it rests with us as we realize that there is still so much to be done, and yet so that can be done if we start within the small decisions we make every day. If we take apart the small routines and structures that we put in place to make it work for everyone and ask whether it truly works for everyone, because almost everyone is not close enough. How along with our thoughts surrounding how we want to have better curriculum, we also need to think of how we want students to feel with us and then how we are going to accomplish that.

How when they tell us that they want to change the world, we start with the one they live in every day; our classrooms, our schools, our attitudes.

And it starts now.

And it continues each day.

Because much like our students, we all have so much to learn. I have so much to learn. I have so much more failing to do, only so I can keep growing.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  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.

Be the change

Before They Tell You…

Before they leave.

Before they say goodbye or perhaps they don’t.

Before the last locker is left open.

The final pencil broken.

The room that looks so empty, the hallways so silent.

Before you realize that you never did quite get to all of the things you had hoped, but boy, did you get to a lot.

Before you realize that you can finally let go of that breath you have seemingly been holding for the past many months when you thought about these kids and those choices and their future.

Before you realize that sometimes so long really means goodbye because before the summer ends so does their lease.

Before they tell you it’s finally summer.

Before they tell you again how they can’t wait.

Before they tell you once again that they don’t really think they will be reading, but nice try anyway.

Before the last notebook is forgotten. The final sweaters left behind.

Before the final bus pulls out and you finally know that it is truly done.

Before they tell you it mattered.

Start out the conversation yourself.

Tell them that you wouldn’t trade a moment.

Tell them that you are so glad you got this year with them. That you know you have changed because of them.

That they will always be your kids.

That they will always have a home.

That there will always be a book, a hug, a piece of gum.

But tell them they are ready, even if you’re not.

Tell them that you are proud of them.

That they will be okay. That they are okay.

That you have an incredible job because they are a part of it.

Tell them you cared.

Tell them thank you.

Because without them it wouldn’t really have mattered at all…