I had the chance to sit with a few of my brilliant colleagues this week to plan our upcoming units together. Count this as another reason of why I love working for Oregon School District; the chance to get a sub so that we can collaborate and actually have time together to share ideas, push our learning, and try to craft meaningful experiences.
One thing that struck me among many was the careful selection of the types of materials we were using to illustrate teaching points. As an example, in our upcoming TED talk unit, where we hope students will not only deepen their passion for something but also be able to share that passion with others, we searched for TED talks that not only illustrate the teaching point such as engaging openings or illustrating a certain type of through-line but also spoke to potential social issues that our students are aware of in different levels, meaning some live it and some are not even aware it is an issue.
This purposeful selection of the materials we use to teach something is a big attempt for us to not just teach kids the “standards” but also expand their understanding of the world around them and hopefully find something to become invested in, to disrupt the privileged narrative that many of us live in. Yes, our students need opportunities to grow as students of reading, writing, speaking, and everything else that is involved in their education, but they also need so much more than that; to become (more) aware of the issues that face us all.
And so when I think of disrupting the narrative, of increasing social awareness within the classroom, it certainly is in the large units we plan, how we treat kids, and also the educational framework we place them in. But it is also in the day-to-day, the videos we show of speakers, the read alouds we use, the mentor texts we share, the images, and the quotes we use. Whose stories are we constantly framing our learning in? Whose experiences are the dominant narrative? Are we embracing the small opportunities that naturally present themselves within our classroom to question, to push thinking, to urge students to inform themselves so that they can formulate (better educated) opinions? And more importantly, are we asking students to take on the hard work of noticing? Of questioning? Of changing the world that they function in? Are we giving them the opportunity to explore the perimeters they work within in order to question that very same framework?
When we plan our lessons, we have so many opportunities to make the work bigger than the learning target we are trying to reach. We need to be aware though of our choices and then push ourselves to expand those choices. Whose stories are we upholding? Whose stories are forgotten?
An often asked question I receive is, “How do you help kids set a reading goal?” And while the answer really could be an entire book, I promised the Passionate Readers Facebook group that I would write a little bit about my process here. After all, perhaps something I am doing as I try to figure this out myself can help someone else, or perhaps, and this is often the case, somebody else has great ideas that they can share in the comments.
In the past, I used to set the reading goals for all of my students, after all, as the adult in the room I thought it was part of my job to set attainable goals for all students in order for them to read more, comprehend more, be more. And yet, whenever I sat with a student and we discussed these goals that I had pre-determined based on what I saw as their needs, unsurprisingly there wasn’t always full buy-in. Sure, some kids were onboard and appreciated the goals, some even took them to heart and really worked on them, but some also (sometimes many) forgot everything about the goal the minute our conversation ended. This then began a chain of reminders, notes, and post-its for their notebooks as I tried to somehow get them all to not just remember their goals but actually invest in them. Perhaps you have been in this situation as well?
It took me a few years to realize that part of the reason these goals failed was that they had little student input. The goals were, mostly, determined by me, and while many of them were sound and based on best practice within reading instruction, they offered students little chance for ownership or engagement with the goal. This meant there was no skin in the game for our students and the goals were easy to dismiss. There was also a distinct lack of conversation surrounding the goal, sure, we conferred, but it often followed a “script” in a way and didn’t allow for a lot of natural conversation to occur. While I liked having a format as a newer teacher, it stopped me at times from really listening and reacting to what they were saying.
Realizing these two things was a huge step and yet it still didn’t solve my problem; how do we create goals that students may actually want to invest in? Well for me the answer was student reading identity. Not the goal itself, but instead students (re)discovering who they are as a reader because without any kind of realization of this, they won’t do well setting goals.
Knowing this, we start every year with a survey, a reflection, and a discussion of who they are as a reader. The survey changes every year, as it should, but it still creates the foundation of our very first discussion the first time we meet. It allows me a small peek into how they view themselves as readers as we get to know each other. And so the very first goal is typically many-pronged. Many of our students need to increase their reading and so for many that is part of their goal, and yet, that in itself is not a great goal for many. There are many of our students who should be reading more but they have habits that need to be changed first before they can even accomplish that goal. Our conversation may then center around the following items:
Desire – to increase reading stamina, success, and better relationship with books.
Barriers – Doesn’t know how to select a great book, doesn’t take books home, doesn’t have “book people,” and doesn’t actually read outside of class, in fact, some days doesn’t even read in class.
Old goal: I would have asked the student to increase their reading outside of school without realizing which and how many barriers they may be facing.
Potential new goal: Figure out which books they like to read. OR add more titles to their to-be-read list. OR…. (this is where the conversation comes into play – what makes sense for them in order to challenge themselves as readers?)
Questions I (may) use when discussing whether a goal make sense:
Is this a goal that will actually work for you?
How will this goal challenge you?
What barriers are in place for you to reach this goal?
Which habits do you need to change in order to reach this goal?
What is your next step toward this goal?
How can I support you in reaching this goal/What would you like me to do?
The thing is, we need to give students more opportunities to discuss what they know about themselves as learners. And when some students inevitably tell us that they don’t know who they are as readers then that is where we start our conversations. We become detectives trying to help them recognize and then further their own reading identity, this then leads to them discussing and then choosing potential goals, even if for some it is a reluctant goal. The one they set for themselves is recorded and then discussed whenever we meet. This goal may be a goal that some of our students work on all year and while this may seem disheartening, I don’t think it is, in a way it makes sense; after all students sometimes have well-established habits that can take years of great experiences to undo – don’t we all?
What I have learned in goal-setting with students is simple yet has once again transformed how I treat our year together. Conversation and uncovering/rediscovering their reading identity and then basing everything on that is what will fuel our goal setting. The students have taught me that everyone needs a unique goal. That the best goals start with reflection, conversation, and then are set. That goals only mean something if students are part of the conversation. That goals can change. That we should not set the goal for them if we can help it because this transfers the ownership. (Note: I have goals I set for kids privately but that is to inform my teaching and not part of our conversation.) That goals need to mean something.
So as I sit with kids every day discussing what they are working on as readers, I am always amazed at the conversations we have. On how they reflect on themselves and what they need to do. On how more are realizing why this goal setting is actually worth their time. On how proud they are for reaching goals that matter to them. And while I am proud of all of our readers, I cannot help but smile the widest when a child discovers just how much they have grown. Not because a test told them so but because they realized it by thinking about themselves and their progress. Isn’t that how it always should be?
The group looks at me, hoping I have answers to give, some ways to make it easier. And while we have been working together for the past ten minutes, while I have been coaching the best that I could, it is also time for the truth.
“Yes, it is…this is hard work but guess what? You’re doing it.”
They get back to work, we continue with our learning.
This simple moment together doesn’t fix the work that lies ahead. The hard work of understanding, of growing, of learning. It doesn’t make it less hard, but what it can do is make it easier to carry. Make it easier to stick with it, to try again even when it seems unclear, uncertain, or even just plain challenging. When we acknowledge that this work, whatever it may be, is, indeed, hard we are letting kids know that it is not that they simply don’t understand it. That it is not because they are somehow dumber than other kids, or less capable, but that instead, that all kids go through these phases of learning and that at times, the work is hard to do, to understand, to break down and carry on with.
So many of our kids who feel less than. Less than a reader. Less than a writer. Less than a student are not always acknowledged for the incredible effort it takes to learn. For the incredible work that their brain is doing to make sense of something that seems incomprehensible at first.
And so we must tell our kids that learning is hard work and mean it. We show our own struggles when it comes to doing the work by working in front of the kids rather than doing the work before they show up. We tell them when we are unsure, when we mess up, when we really have to break it down into small steps in order to feel like we are moving forward at all. We show them what learning looks like as an adult and then we remember to acknowledge the work behind their growth, no matter how small it seems at times, is something to be proud of. That in this moment, that in this class, they have grown as a learner, and that is something to be proud of.
The work we are doing right now is hard. Analyzing text is hard, even for adults, and yet at that moment, when we recognize that this is not easy work, we offer students a chance to see themselves not as students who cannot get it right, right away, but instead as students who are learners. And learning takes time. Let’s not forget that.
Let’s talk about reading logs for a moment. Yes, I know I have gone down this path before, but it bears repeating because not a week goes by without someone asking about them. Asking how they can speak to their child’s teacher about the reading log they have now been assigned. Asking how they can convince their colleagues that they are not needed. Asking how they can change their own practices.
As someone who used to believe in reading logs and assigned them myself, I get the draw. A way to check to see if kids are really reading outside of our classrooms – sign me up. We veil it in reasons such as to become a lifelong reader you need to read for pleasure. If I am not around to see that then I need proof. And yet, reading logs is every single year one of the top reasons that my students hate reading.
As a parent, I have seen the damage firsthand. When presented with a reading log one year, Thea quickly informed me that ALL she had to read was the 20 minutes that it said, after that, she was done. It didn’t matter how much I told her that it was not just 20 minutes that she needed to read because the piece of paper told her so. And the paper trumped my insistence to simply read.
We have been lucky in that every time a reading log has been sent home for our kids to do, three times and counting so far, we have had incredible teachers who have been fine with us not doing them. We explain that we read every night, that the log changes our carefully protected reading habits, and ask whether they will simply trust us when we say that our child reads. But this is not always the case, sometimes teachers insist that they are done, that they use them for grading purposes, that they are not an option. They attach rewards, punishments, special treatment to those who either do or don’t do the logs. As if parents signing a piece of paper tells us anything about a child’s reading habits. Because I am here to share a secret; as a parent, I lie on reading logs. I don’t always know which specific books my child just spent the last 30 minutes devouring. Sometimes I do, but not always. I can’t tell you the exact minutes of reading because we don’t keep track. Sometimes we simply forget to sign because life is busy. It reminds me of what Donalyn Miller says that the only thing a reading log proves is which parents have a pen on Friday morning.
I write this post not to shun, not to rage, and not to put down. I write this post not to say what is right or wrong, but instead to add a little tiny piece to the ongoing discussion of where reading logs may or may not fit into our classrooms. Of the damage and the usefulness of reading logs. This is not a post with absolutes, or at least, I don’t think it will be. Instead, it is a post meant for discussion.
How I Know My Students Are Reading
One of the biggest reasons I know teachers use reading logs is the accountability piece, if students fill out a reading log then I can see their outside reading lives, and while that is sometimes true (remember, parents lie) there are better ways to do it that don’t involve the traveling of paper back and forth. How do I know my students are reading if I don’t check their reading log? How do I know that at some point their eyes meet a text? There are many ways actually.
They sign in with their page number. On our whiteboard hangs a simple sheet that allows kids to put down the page they are currently on in whichever book they are reading. At the end of a week, I do an average tally for each kid. They have individual reading goals (set by them) that they keep track of in their notebooks and they also enter in their page numbers in a reading data sheet. This allows kids to see their own patterns of reading, as well as to reflect on their growth. I can quickly glance and see who is reading or not.
I watch their reaction. Kids who read want independent reading time. Kids who are in a great part of a book want time to find out what will happen next. Kids who slowly get settled into their book, who distract others on the way; those are the kids I need to check in with and help.
I keep an eye on their to-be-read list. As I confer with kids, I glance at their to-be-read list, it should be messy, with titles added and sometimes crossed out. I know which books have been book-talked so I can see when kids are using it.
I kept an eye on their book bins. A whole bookshelf in my room used to be the proof that my students read. Periodically I would look through their bins, noting which books a kid has and whether those books had changed. If they hadn’t, I checked in with that child.
We recommend. Another favorite in our room is the speed book dating. We quickly rattle off a book we love and why it should be read while the listener has their “I can’t wait to read ” list in their hand.
We show off our reading. I have my reading door outside of the room so that my students always know what I am reading and my students can recommend books to their peers on a book tree. This makes our reading is visible.
We discuss. Reading should not be a solitary endeavor so we make time to discuss our books and why they are the best or the worst book ever.
I kid watch. If I want to know whether kids are reading, I watch them. Sometimes instead of conferring, I just sit back and pay attention. This is one of our great superpowers as teachers, don’t forget that.
We reflect. I often ask students to tie in today’s teaching point with whatever they are reading right now. Whether it is on a notecard or through conversation, students take a moment to think and apply and once again lets me see what they are reading.
We do monthly reading reflections. This year I really wanted to have a open dialogue with the students in regard to their reading life and although I do constant one on one or small group instruction, I wanted something more formal that I could file away and look at when needed. My students know they are not judged on what they write but rather that I use it as a way to start a conversation with them. I always appreciate their honesty and my actions show that. The surveys are quick and to the point.
We have great books. If you want kids to read, have great books. I do not know how much money I spend a year on books, I know it is a lot, but every time I am able to book talk a book and see the reaction in my kids, it is worth it. Couple that with an incredible librarian and my students are pretty lucky in the book department.
I lose a lot of books. Because I encourage my students to take our books home to read, I inevitably lose a lot of books. While it is hard to think of it from a financial standpoint, I also know that hose books are being read by someone. So yes, it is hard to constantly replace books (and expensive) but it is something that goes along with being a reading classroom.
If You Have to Use Reading Logs
I have written before on my complicated relationship with reading logs; from being a teacher who demanded all students fill them out, to a teacher who threw them out, to a teacher who was asked to use them as part of their teaching, to a teacher whose students asked them to stop, to a parent who has signed them. But I have never written about how to use them better. Because I don’t like reading logs, there I said it, but at the same time, there are so many teachers that do, great teachers that care about children’s love of reading, and there are even teachers that have to use them. And I don’t feel that shaming others will further the conversations.
My biggest issue with reading logs comes from the inherent lack of trust that they communicate; we do not trust you to read every night, we do not trust you to read long enough, nor do we trust you to grow as a reader, so fill out this paper instead. And while I could write a whole post on that, I think Jessica Lifshitz did a much better job on it than I ever will.
And yet, I also see the value in getting a window into the reading lives of a student. I see the value of having students understand their own reading habits so they can figure out how to grow. To mine their own data so to speak in order for them to discover new patterns and new goals. So what can we do, if we have to use reading logs (or we want to) to make them better for students?
Ask the students. Ask the students their feelings on reading logs and consider their feedback carefully. If most of your students think this tool will help them become stronger readers then work one out with them. For those that are opposed to them, figure something else out. If we truly want students to fully embrace the opportunities that we say can be found within a reading log then we need to make sure they have buy in as well. Create reading logs that are meaningful to the students, which means that they will probably look different from year to year, based on the students we teach.
Ask the parents. I will flat out tell you that I will sign whatever I have to from school. I will not count the minutes, I hate writing down titles because we read a lot, and I do not see much value in her logging her reading every night. If you want proof, ask me in an email or in conversations, but do not make me sign a piece of paper. If some parents like reading logs then by all means work out a system with them, but exempt the other parents since more than likely they will probably not be invested anyway.
Differentiate. For the kids that do want a reading log, find out what it is they would like to gain from it. I have a few students that love coming in every Monday and writing down the titles of the books they read or abandoned over the weekend (that is all they keep track of plus a rating). For those kids their record keeping is a way for them to remember what they have read and whether they liked it or not. They do not keep track of minutes or anything like that, we discuss that in our written reading reflections that we do once in a while or face to face. So find out what it is that the students like about logging their reading, if it is the reward that is attached to it then that should be a huge warning sign.
Keep it in class. When I had to do a reading log in my former district, we kept it in class. Students were asked to write down the title and for how long they were focused on the book right after independent reading. That way, organization and parent follow up were removed from the equation and all kids (and me) were following the district expectation.
Stop rewarding. If reading logs really are meant as a way to investigate ones’ own reading habits then stop tying in rewards with them. The reward is in the reading, not the ticket, not the pizza, not the trinket. Ever.
Stop punishing. When we punish kids who do not turn in their reading logs, we forget our bigger purpose; to establish lifelong readers, instead investigate. Why was it not turned in? What happened? And for the sake of everything good; do not force a child to then miss recess to make up for the lost time in reading. You do not want to equate reading with punishment, ever.
Make it an experiment. If you like using reading logs to find out student habits, then do it as a 2-week experiment with all students. Have them for 2 weeks keep track of when, where, what, and how much they read and then have daily or weekly conversations and reflections on what they discover. Set tangible goals from that. Do it periodically throughout the year if you really want this to be seen as a learning opportunity, that way students can see a value in tracking their reading life this way. If you have them do it all year, most students lose interest and will not see it as an opportunity to grow but just as one more thing to do.
Leave time for reflection. Rather than log, we reflect. My students set monthly reading goals and then at the end of the month they reflect on how they did through a survey. The students and I will meet and discuss formally and informally and this is what I use for my vantage point into their reading life. I ask them to tell me what they are working on and they do.
Don’t forget the purpose of reading logs. If the purpose is to help students grow as readers then make sure that the very act of filling out a reading log, with or without parent signature, is not damaging that purpose. It is often when we set up more processes for students in order to help them read better that we lose them as readers. When kids spend more time doing things attached to reading, rather than the act of reading we have a problem.
In the end, in our pursuit to establish classrooms filled with passionate readers, we must make sure that the things we do, even little parts of our day like reading logs, do not do more harm than good. That we fit our processes around our students, rather than the other way around. That we continue to debate, question and consider as we decide what to invest our time in. And that we always, and I mean always, ask the students what they think. Even the little ones, they have a voice that matters too.
“I’m a bad writer because I can’t spell…” a student’s answer when I asked them who they are as a writer.
One of the oft-repeated conversations in room 235d is dispelling the notion that to be a great writer you must be a great speller. While, of course, students need to work on their spelling, I spend a good deal of time helping them realize that content is different than grammar. That sharing their words is more important than spellcheck. Now before anyone gets upset with me, yes, I believe that spelling should be taught. Yes, I believe that students should work on it. Yes, I believe spelling matters. BUT. It can’t be the biggest thing we focus on as students get older. There has to be a balance.
So all year we talk about how we work on our spelling but we develop our writing. How we shouldn’t let our fears of misspelling a word stand in the way of the message we are writing about. I cannot tell you how many students are relieved to hear that their content and their spelling are assessed separately. That the two represent different skills and are treated as such.
So few children believe that they are writers if they are poor spellers and that’s on us. That false notion comes directly from how we frame our writing instruction. From what we focus on when they hand us their stories, their opinions, their words and we focus on how it was written rather than the what even though the assignment was to write a story.
What if we told kids that yes, spelling, grammar, mechanics matter, but they are not the most important skill in writing at all times. That as a teacher we can support them through the clean up of their work. That we want them to play with language. To be fierce in their word choice. To write what they feel like without the fear of judgment when we take apart their hearts with the symbolic red pen.
So we find a balance in room 235D. We work on spelling and grammar as their ideas develop, but we give as much or if not more attention to what the idea actually is. We celebrate the kids that try new things. That use new words. That stretch their burgeoning spelling skills as they reach for language they are unfamiliar with. We look at mentor texts where words were played with, grammar rules foregone, and spelling changed to see how they used these changes to push their truths. We make a safe space to play with language rather than be worried about what the teacher will say. It takes time. It takes trust. And it takes a deliberate conversation about what writing really can be for our kids. We need both; focused mechanics instruction but also writing for the sake of discovering who you are as a writer and while the two are not mutually exclusive, we have to be careful with how much emphasis we place on one over the other.
When students year after year tell us loudly that they cannot be great writers because of how they spell, then that should be the impetus of change that spurs us to examine what message we are giving students. Because as I tweeted last night; when students share their truths with us and we take it as a chance to question their grammar and spelling skills instead of listening to their words, we are once more complicit in the killing of student voice and engagement with school – that’s on us, that’s a choice.
For those of you who follow this blog, you know that I don’t often have guest posts. Yet, today, the truth that my friend and mentor Dr. Dana Stachowiak is about to share is probably one of the most important posts I have shared on here. I am so grateful for the words and the trust in me as a steward of them.
Why This Topic?
Yes, the Trump Administration’s disgusting memo calling for an erasure of transgender as a gender identity lit a fire in me to write this post. But, a few months back, Pernille asked me to write a guest post on “Trans 101” for her literacy blog. I am used to a request like this, and I love Pernille, so I agreed. I put off writing the post for her because I wasn’t in love with the idea; talking about the ways in which educators can support trans students is so much more than knowing and using the terms and definitions.
Learning these things don’t require what is most needed though: compassion. Yes, most educators have empathy and compassion, and that’s what drives them to want to learn so they can support trans students. Empathy and compassion are often conflated to mean the same thing, and though related, they are slightly different.
Building empathy (resonance with another’s feelings) is abuzz in the world of education. It’s important work, but it’s also taxing work to maintain. It requires us to constantly attempt to relate to others’ experiences. While this effort is important and good, unless we accept the reality that we’ll never really relate fully to another, we will keep spinning. And eventually, we burn out.
This is where the Trans 101 blog post requests come in: reach people’s empathetic nature and give them some concrete type of action that they can go do in their classrooms – like giving a list of trans-related books or providing ways to assess classrooms for gender equity (I’ve done these things. A lot). Learning these things is a way for people to feel better about themselves because they have more knowledge about trans folx, AND it gives them a way they can help. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no harm in this – and people should feel good when they do this work. Keep doing this work!
What’s missing in all of this, though, is that critical piece of compassion, the glue that holds this work together. It is what we need to do before (and perhaps as) we burn out on our empathy work. Compassion requires us to hold empathy (for others’ feelings), accept it for what it is (that we’ll never really ‘get’ it), and then take some action to support who or what it is we were trying to empathize with.
Compassion is a matter of the heart. I study mindfulness, and in my learning, one of the most compassionate things a person can do is to be fully present and listen to others. When we do this, we are simultaneously building empathy. We are often so hungry to fully empathize with others and help them, however, that we forgot to stop trying to solve all the problems and just really listen to peoples’ stories, especially those of minoritized people like trans people (I can say all of this with confidence because I am guilty of listening without compassion at times – I know this hard work first-hand).
But if we truly don’t get to know people’s stories, their experiences, their realities, we remain forever detached from the person. That’s where the trouble lies.
So, instead of sharing with you a quick-read “Trans 101” that you can implement in your classrooms right way, I am going to invite you to sit with the story of my gender journey, be fully present, and listen as you read.
Small disclaimer: Sharing this terrifies me. Only a close few know many of the pieces I share here (it’s not everything, but it’s a lot). I know it’s going to be long, but I do hope that you will take the time to sit down with me, get to know me, and then make your own important decisions about how you can grow your compassion with trans people. From there, I truly believe that all the future 101s and 201s and encounters you have will be deeper and create positive, transformational impacts.
The journey I have taken with my gender has been a long one, a difficult one, a fulfilling one.
Tomboy with a Capital “T”
I can distinctly remember, at 4 years old, running around the backyard of the house of grew up in, wearing my brother’s underwear – fastened with a diaper pin so they’d fit – in the hot summer sun, no shirt and bare feet. I distinctly remember this because I felt so carefree, so happy. I can almost still feel the smile stretched across my face and the happy contentment radiating from my chest.
It wasn’t until in adulthood that I’d learn that my parents took me to my pediatrician that summer because they thought something was wrong with me; I always wanted to dress like a boy. The doctor laughed, told them I was fine – I was just a tomboy.
My early elementary school years were happy. I remember loving school and wanting to please my teachers in kindergarten through second grade. Although hardworking and shy, my classmates always told me they thought I was goofy – I loved to crack jokes and make people smile. If you’ve ever met me, you know this is who I still am today as an adult. If I can help make something hard or sad or difficult a little bit lighter, I’ll swoop in with something that will catch you off guard – something goofy – to ease the tension. I love when people are happy.
I had all sorts of friends those years, but my very best friends were Dan, Scott, and Jeff. Back then, the adults thought we were boyfriend and girlfriend. I guess we thought we were, too. I was a tomboy through-and-through. I don’t ever remember thinking, “I’m a girl!” I just remember thinking I was a kid. I was happy. I remember laughing and smiling a lot.
Third and fourth grades were weird transition years. The pressure to be “more like a girl” was mounting. The boys who were my friends weren’t my friends anymore; they were replaced by girls. My hair was now long, and I spent a lot of time studying the way other girls and women, especially my teachers, acted. I did my best to mimic their ways, but it always felt clumsy, awkward, wrong when I would try it. I was still relatively happy, but school, which I had always enjoyed, started to get harder, and my understandings about the ways I was supposed to be in the world were confusing. I remember immense sadness growing in me when I was in the fourth grade.
By the time fifth grade hit, I was a mess, a ball of anger. My fourth-grade teacher was male, and I loved that. My fifth-grade teacher, however, was a female, and she was different from my other female teachers – she was butch. She wasn’t married. She was confident.
I hated her.
I hated fifth grade. I started acting out and was angry all the time. I grew up in an incredibly loving, stable, and happy home (my parents just celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary, my Mom is my best friend, and my Dad is my biggest protector). I was always a little short-tempered, but no one really knew where all of my anger was coming from. Nothing traumatic had happened to me to cause such angst. I didn’t know it at the time, but in hindsight, I was struggling with my gender identity. Society was telling me that I needed long hair and dresses and boyfriends, while my heart was telling me that I wanted short hair and jeans and girlfriends.
And I hated my fifth-grade teacher because, at a time when I was really searching for an understanding of how to be a female, she – who I saw more hours a day than my Mom – couldn’t provide that for me. Instead, she provided me with more confusion. I hated her for it.
Middle school was awful. I wasn’t known for being that quiet but goofy kid in the class anymore; I was known for having a short fuse, talking back, and being emotional. I was teased so badly – by the very people who called me their friends. I was shoved into lockers. Kicked. Harassed. One time, some girls poured perfume on my clothes so I could “become a real girl.” Some girls broke into my gym locker and took my clothes out, smeared them all over the floor, and threw them in the bathroom stall. When I got to the locker room and found them, the girls who did it laughed and said a dyke like me deserved to wear dirty clothes and should change in the bathroom stall. I began tumbling emotionally; I internalized everything.
Making It Work – For the World, Not for Me
I was able to find somewhat of a refuge in sports, music, and dance. I wasn’t very good at sports, but it was a place where I could let me inner “tomboy” out. It just led to more confusion though. On the basketball court, dressed in a uniform that looked more like boys’ clothing than girls’, I felt unstoppable – like that kid running carefree in boys’ underwear and no shirt. But when I had to take that uniform off (and, I took it off in the bathroom stall and showered after everyone else was gone because I had learned my lesson about “dykes like me”), I had to go back to being a person I didn’t recognize, walking the earth in a body that didn’t feel like mine.
And dance. Oh, dance. I loved it. I could tap dance forever. But, goodness, did I also hate it. My body didn’t move as freely as the other girls’, and the leotards I had to wear each week to class drew unwanted attention to my budding, albeit slender, female figure. I hated looking at myself in the mirror. Tapping felt masculine; those leotards felt humiliating. I loved and hated dance.
I was good at music, and I excelled at in high school – it is what saved me, I believe. I was the drum major of our high school band, first chair in my section, and I was even voted “Most Musical” for our Senior Year Mock Elections. Music, for me, didn’t remind me of my gender identity. It was a place for me to escape. Sports slowly dropped from my world; I didn’t have close girlfriends, but Dan (from my early elementary days) became my best friend again, and I kept to myself in high school. I was still teased and picked on relentlessly. I went through the motions of having prom dates, and I let myself focus on music and school – and I stayed numb to my gender. And I was a usual happy-unhappy-happy-unhappy angsty teen of the 90s.
Undergrad and grad school were much the same. I went through the motions; did what I was supposed to do; hid what I wasn’t supposed to feel/think/do (I’m talking about my sexuality here, which is not tied in any way to my gender identity, so, besides mentioning it here, it remains separate from this sharing). Then, I became a teacher.
Let me rephrase that: I became a female teacher.
I had long curly hair. I wore skirts and heels. I was a good female teacher. I was such a good teacher that, very early in my career, I became a curriculum coordinator of literacy for middle schools in our large county. This came at the perfect time because it was around the same time when “power suits” were in for women. This was such a godsend because I got to dress a little masculine but still fool everyone. I was secretly watching the L Word at home so I would buy power suits like the one Bette wore (check this out if you don’t know what I’m talking about here). I lived one life at work and a completely different life at home.
Loss, Finding, and Letting Go
Then a day came that changed me forever: I was outed by a colleague. Someone saw my life at home, and they brought that life to the school board. On paper, I lost my job because of “budget cuts.” But in the Superintendent’s office, with the district lawyer sitting next to me, I was told that there “wasn’t a place” for people like me in their schools. I was too young, but I knew I wasn’t a protected class in my state. What they did was completely legal. Because I questioned it, though, I was offered a teaching position. I took that for a year.
And in that year I spent back in a middle school literacy classroom, I stopped hiding little by little because I realized that no matter how much I hid, I would be found out. And I couldn’t hide and lie any longer. I cut my hair. I stopped wearing dresses and heels. I pushed teaching boundaries. I started teaching more lessons on reading and writing for social justice. I chaperoned the 8th-grade prom – in a suit and tie. At the end of the year, I took out my retirement and went to get my Ph.D. full-time.
I promised myself that I would never compromise myself again. I would never internalize oppression or hide who I am again. Getting my doctorate brought me into classrooms where I was able to freely talk and philosophize about gender identity and equity freely for the first time. I took it all in, hungry to know and understand. I still was a little confused about my gender identity. I didn’t really identify with “female” or “male,” and I didn’t really identify with “transgender.”
One day, a classmate of mine, who identified as a trans male, told me about how he was trans because he “didn’t want to be the last genderqueer standing.” I had no clue what genderqueer was, but I acted like I did…and then went home and Googled it.
I FOUND ME.
I let go.
For the first time, I found a gender identity that fit everything I had felt about myself. For me, genderqueer means being neither male nor female, sometimes more masculine, sometimes more feminine, sometimes a combination of both. But mostly, I am just me. For the first time, I felt again what I felt when I was that 4 year old in my brother’s underwear – free, happy, full. Me. Not female. Not male. DANA.
This S— Is Hard
Today, I walk through this world and identify as a non-binary genderqueer (I encourage you to begin your “Trans 101” by looking those terms up. What does “non-binary” mean? What other definitions exist for trans? For genderqueer? How is genderqueer related to trans?). Today, I am visible. I have a supportive wife who loves me for the genderqueer that I am, and she encourages me every day to be me. I have surrounded myself with friends who do the same and who love me for who I am completely.
Make no mistake: being visible is also hard. There are incredibly difficult days. Like the day a colleague informed me that others in my building feel uncomfortable around me because they “don’t know what to do with me.” The days when I’m looked at with disgust in the women’s restroom. Or the days I’m told to leave the women’s restroom. The days when people do everything they can to avoid touching my hand when I give them my credit card, or they sanitize their hands after the transaction. The days I’m terrified to get out at a gas station. The days I’m called a faggot. The days I’m threatened by men who want to beat me up. Those days can sometimes get me really down.
Some days, admittedly, I give in. I don’t have it in me to fight sometimes; it’s so overwhelming. Like the day two weeks ago when the insurance adjuster came to my house to assess hurricane damage. My wife, who is very feminine, was not home, and I was terrified that the adjuster might treat me unfairly because of my gender identity (this has happened before). Sobbing, I went to my wife’s closet, put on one of her bras that gave me breasts, slid one of her V-neck shirts over my head, put on some earrings, feminized my hairstyle, and put on jeans that showed the outline of my small hips. And sobbed some more. But I couldn’t risk not getting a decent settlement because the adjuster didn’t like who I am. He told me I pulled off a great Demi Moore. Whatever that means. But it meant that he thought I was feminine enough, and that’s all I needed that day. I sobbed some more when he left. It was a draining day.
As tough as those days are, as hard as visibility is, I wouldn’t trade it for the years I suffered in silence and hiding, when I wasn’t being me. These hateful things that happen to me are because other people don’t have the understanding and compassion to have someone like me in the same spaces as them. It’s about them, not about me. This has taken me a very long time to understanding (and I’m still growing in understanding that too – this s— is hard!). And, for as much as I am visible for me, I am visible for others who can’t yet be visible. I can only hope that my being me and in this world, offers others like my younger self some hope, courage, and strength.
The Trump administration would like to make trans identities like mine and many others disappear (see article here). The reality is, they can’t erase us, but they sure can make our lives more difficult. By doing what they are proposing, I will inevitably have more days like the ones I’ve described. And so will our trans and gender variant kids.
This is where you can come in as an educator. #WontBeErased isn’t just a campaign that trans folx can participate in; it’s a campaign that cis folks can support and participate in. You can pledge to not be a part of this in as many ways as possible. Here are only a few:
Change your social media profiles to include an “I support trans people” frame.
Use the hashtag #WontBeErased to spread support.
Read/view more stories of trans experiences (like the ones found here ).
Work with a trans organization in your community or online (like this one or this one).
Check out my work from this summer for the International Literacy Association. I wrote an article (found here) and a related blog series (found here) that provide you with easy tips to think about gender equity in your literacy classrooms. They’re short and accessible, a place to start.
Seek out other trans writers to learn from (like Janet Mock).
Will you be at NCTE this year? I will. Are you in North Carolina? I’m keynoting the SafeSchoolsNC Conference. Come talk to me. Say hi, invite me to coffee, come to my sessions. Show up to other sessions with trans or LGBTQ topics. I do consulting. Invite me to do work in your school. If you can’t get books about trans people in your classroom libraries, why not bring a trans person into your classroom?
These things will grow your compassion. These things will amplify #WontBeErased. These things will change procedures, policies, and hearts. These things will save lives.
Getting to Know Me
I feel like you already know me, but if you want to get to know my work and scholarship, you can find me on Twitter (@DrStachowiak), at The Educator Collaborative, and at UNCW.
Thank you, Pernille, for gifting me your tremendous platform, for asking hard questions, building your compassion, and loving me for who I am. Those around you are lucky to have you. We all are.
Thank you, the reader, for sitting with me, listening to my story, and growing your compassion. I’m excited to hear where this takes you, how it moves others, and how it transforms lives.
Addendum: My Positionality
As a critical pedagogue and social justice educator, it is important that I take time to recognize and name my positionality, particularly my privileged identities. My gender identity, as an oppressed identity, meets at the intersections of my privileged ones, thus creating a complex assemblage of opportunities and experiences for me.
I am white, middle-class, and able-bodied, and I come from a supportive family. While the small number of experiences I have shared are by no means to be taken lightly (after all, they have been oppressive because of my gender identity and sexuality), I recognize that there is inherent power and privilege that contributes to the oppression of minoritized people within the same systems that have afforded me opportunities and access.
Murders of trans women of color is astronomically high (and steadily on the rise), and the media coverage on this community is astronomically low, practically non-existent. Please consider supporting and amplifying of the voices of these women and related organizations in your journey of becoming a more compassionate and inclusive human and educator. Trans Women of Color Collective is a great place to start.