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.

 

It’s On Us

img_page_1_58c412e3781dc.png

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.

 

 

 

 

Can We Please Stop Grading Independent Reading?

“But how do you grade their independent reading?”

I am asked this question while presenting on how to create passionate readers.

I am stumped for a moment for an answer.  Not because I don’t know, but because we don’t.  Why would we?  And yet, it is a question I am asked often enough to warrant a decent response.

My middle school does not issue a grade for how many books a child has read.  For how many minutes they have read.  For how far they have gotten on their book challenge goals.

And there is a big reason for this.

How many books you read does not tell me what you can do as a reader.  How long you can sustain attention to a book may tell me clues about your relationship with reading but it will not tell me where you fall within your reading skills.  Actual skill assessment will do that.  Explorations where you do something with the reading you do will tell me this.  The amount of books you have read will not tell me what you are still struggling with or what you have accomplished.  Instead it will tell me of the practice you do with the skills that I teach you.  With how you feel about reading in front of me and when I am not around.  About the habits you have established as you figure out your very own reading identity.  These habits are just that; skills you practice until something clicks and it becomes part of who you are.   Those are not gradeable skills but instead a child practicing habits to figure out how to get better at reading.  A child figuring out where books and reading fits into their life.

So just like we would never grade a child for how many math problems they choose to solve on their own, how many science magazines they browsed or how many historical documents they perused, we should not grade how many books a child chooses to read.  We should not tie pages read with a grade, nor an assessment beyond an exploration into how they can strengthen their reading habits.  Number of books read, minutes spent, or pages turned will never tell us the full story.  Instead it ends up being yet another way we can chastise the kids that need us to be their biggest reading cheerleaders.

So when we look to grade a child on how they are as a reader we need to make sure that the assessments we provide actually provide us with the answers we need.  Not an arbitrary number that again rewards those who already have established solid reading habits and punish those that are still developing.  And if you are asked to grade independent reading, ask questions; what is it you are trying to measure and is it really providing you with a true answer?  Are you measuring habits or skills?  Are the grades accurate?  If not, why not?  And if not, then what?

PS:  And for those wondering what we do assess in our reading, here is a link to our English standards.  

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.

 

In Favor of the Slow Learning Movement

We have been going kind of slow these days in room 235D.  Taking our time. Finding our groove, digging in, digging deeper.  Talking more, asking more, and sometimes even relishing the calmer, quieter new us.  Well, calm to an extent, this is after all 7th grade.

It’s not that our curriculum disappeared.  It is not that our time expanded (still 45 minutes to teach everything!).  It is not that I figured out how to cram more into the heads of the children I get to teach in the time we have.  I didn’t flip, I didn’t give them more homework, I didn’t hand them all of the work to do on their own and then finally got to the point.  No, the truth is much simpler; we have slowed down our learning.

We have cut out the extra.

We have cut down on the projects.

We have cut down on whole class instruction.

We have taken our time with a few things.  We have taken extra days when we needed.  We have taken detours when we needed.  I have stopped and listened better to the students in front of me and then tried to adapt to their needs.  It is a luxury, sure, but it is also making a difference.

Gone are all of the extra little projects that I would try to squeeze in just to make sure they understood.  Gone are the small assignments where I check for understanding, replaced with conversations.  Gone are the days where we seemingly jumped from one thing to another, hoping to find time for the bigger learning at some point.

The projects we do now count for more standards.  Take longer with all the work-time built into our class time.  I circle or pull small groups.  The teachers that support our kids also work with small groups.  Anyone can join us, no stigma attached.

And the kids?  They are understanding more.  They are calmer.  They are grasping the importance of some of the work we do, and also finding it easier (hallelujah).  They leave happier.  They leave more invested.

And me?  I feel like I am a better teacher.  Like what we are doing is actually making a difference.  That they are growing more as learners.  That all of the knowledge I want them to explore and even be able to apply is within their grasp, if not already conquered.

We have realized that by doing less, we actually learn more.

So what can you do to join the slow learning movement?

Cut out the extra.  What are the nonessentials crammed into your schedule?  What are the things you value most?  How can you find more time for the things that matter and give less time to the things that do not?  I realized that while there were certain things that I would like to do, such as a quick write every day, that within our 45-minute framework they did not make sense.  So I let them go; what can you let go?

Make a project count for more.  We are standards-based and so it is common that our projects and explorations count for more than one standard at a time, but I have also been purposeful in planning this.  So the projects we do now tend to count for three or even four standards, all graded separately.  This way I do not need to create as many different opportunities for the students to show their understanding.  This way students can focus on one longer project and go deeper with it.

Remember that when students speak, more learning happens.  I have really been working on letting student conversations run their course rather than rushing them through it.  This is where the connections are being made, this is where the understanding broadens.  So before you ask the next question or move on to the next task; wait a moment and let them continue to speak.  Listen in and even let silence fall for a few seconds, you may be surprised at what other thoughts are shared.

Keep the larger purpose in mind and front and center.  All year I refer to the same goal that I have for our English class; for the students to become better human beings.  This is something I refer to often and also tie in with our curriculum.  So when we write, we do it to be able to be better storytellers who can influence others, when we speak it is to understand, when we listen it is to build connections with others.  While the projects may change, everything we do is to be better than when we started, and that includes me.

Know your students.  I teach 136 students, I think.  It takes months to get to know the kids and, in fact, there are still kids I feel I barely know, but I am trying.  So to know your students, you have to ask your students; what do you need from me (be prepared that sometimes they do not know), how can I support you, what will be helpful to you if we have to get to this point?  By asking my students, I can read their moods and modes better.  I can slow down further if needed, I can let them loose when needed.  I can scaffold and cheerlead at the same time.  And I can help them know themselves.

This year I swore it would be the year of less rush, of less get-it-done, of less “more, more, more.”  And it has been, and it is working, and I can tell that my heart no longer pounds as quickly when the day gets started.  We laugh more.  We learn more.  We are more because we do less.  How can you find the time to slow down as well?

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 infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  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.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   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 Wins

I was out of school yesterday.  My husband strained his back and since he is a stay-at-home dad that meant that all of a sudden my own kids needed me more than the kids at school.  It was our first day back after a three-day weekend and you know how sometimes things go wrong on that first day back after a three-day weekend?  Well, yeah, some things went wrong.  And yet…

When I returned to our classroom today, I was met by cheers.  “You are back, Mrs. Ripp!””How is your husband?”  “Why weren’t you here with us?” As I got them up to speed, we quickly got to work; book shopping to be done, self-reflections to fill out.  A day full of busy, much like any other day, and a day full of small wins.

From the child that knew just to grab a pencil rather than ask if they could borrow one, to the child that told me to please hide the new book in the pile because he had already started reading it.

To the girl who gushed about a book I held up to make sure others read it, to the boy who told me he was proud of how he had challenged himself.

Four kids all racing in after 7th hour to grab the same book and telling me that the others better read it fast because they have to read it now.

A child simply telling me thank you when I helped him.

Being given the chance to hand a child an assignment back that they had done so well in and seeing the moment they recognized their own achievement.

From the girl that kept trying and finally did, to the boy who told me he had found a way to stop his pen tapping, to the boy who told me that in our class he does well.

Those are the moments that followed me home.  Those are the moments that matter.  Because while we may look at the big picture of the year and wonder how far we still have to go, the truth lies in those small wins where we really see how far we have come.

To all of my kids today, I am so proud to be your teacher.

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 infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  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.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

 

Problem Finders or Problem Solvers?

I try to be honest with myself, I feel like it is the only true way I can grow.  After all, how can I expect my students to accurately reflect on how they are as 7th graders if I don’t reflect on how I am as a teacher?

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about assumptions.  The assumptions I make about the choices my students make.  The assumptions I make about what will happen if I try something.  The assumptions I make about the actions of others and what they mean for me.  We all know what they say about assumptions and I believe it.  Assuming does not really get us further with anything, instead, it plants needless doubts, worries, and even conflict that isn’t really there.

Yet, the thing about assumptions is that they are safe.  That when we assume, we don’t have to find out, we can just think we know and then adjust our course accordingly.  We can continue with whatever we have determined is the truth and not really question it, not really question ourselves.  Our assumptions can take us far if we let it.  Yet, I wonder how often I have incorrectly adjusted my thinking, my doing, my plans because of something that wasn’t really true?  How often I have traveled down a path that I found necessary based on things that were not accurate?  How much energy have I wasted thinking about the versions of events that I think occurred?

So the very first we can do with assumptions is to realize we have them.  To really questions ourselves, and not in a punitive way, but to check how much of what we think is based on truth or our perception of the truth.  To seek solutions and answers rather than more problems.  In fact as one of my smart colleagues said today, “We are always great at being problem finders, but what about being problem solvers?”

I want to be a problem solver.

So are your assumptions stopping you from moving forward?  From positivity?  From having better relationships with your colleagues, with your students?  In fact, I bet if you think about it, a situation probably will come to mind where assumptions you had did more damage than good.  I know mine have, I cannot be alone in this, but that also means there is hope, and in hope, there is always a way to move forward.

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 infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  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.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.