Be the change, being a student, being a teacher

Every Day

I have been thinking a lot about the way we show others that we trust them. About how we code switch between our different environments, how we let down our guard when we feel the safest because that is the only place we can truly just be without having to worry about the potential judgment we face within our uncensored self. How sometimes, when kids trust us the most it is when they show us the hardest sides of them. When they let us see their anger, their tears, their silence.

And I get it. We all carry our guards up, hoping that others will allow us to lower them enough and not reject us when we are the most vulnerable. I think of my journey on here, and how there have been times where I couldn’t believe I shared the thoughts and yet, somehow, somewhere they resonated with someone else.

I think of how long relationships take to truly form, even when we see the same kids every day. How some, right away, click with us and we move into comfort quickly, while others look from afar, not quite sure how to take us, to use us, to fit in with us.

I think of the ways students show us they trust us. How they let us into their identity and how they view themselves little by little. How they start to give us slivers of themselves in order to see how we will handle those parts, evaluating whether we will be able to handle all of them, if we will take care of them, or just use it as ammunition when they push us to our limits. When I tell my 7th grade students that I feel I have to earn their trust every year, I mean it. I don’t take it for granted, nor is it assumed. Yet trust is not always shown quietly.

I think of the kids who slam our doors. Who refuse every single trick we have. Who reject us purely out of determination. Who won’t even tell us how to make it better. How they are easy to see as troublemakers. How they are easy to discuss only in labels and incidents, rather than the child they really are. How despite their seemingly hurtful acts, how despite their sometimes loud emotions, they still need us there as a safe person, our rooms as a safe place to scream, to vent, to slam, to break.

Sometimes my students’ love language is yelled through clenched teeth. Sometimes their declaration of loyalty to us is written through swear words and exclamation points. Sometimes it takes us a moment to remember just what those emotions mask – kids who want ot be seen, to be heard, to feel safe. So the least I can do is recognize them for the full human being they are, even when the language they speak is at odds with what we would like to hear.

So every day, we say, “Welcome.” Every day, we say, “We’re glad you’re here.” Every day we remember that all kids deserve adults who remember that today is a new day, a new chance to continue to build something that wasn’t there before. That every day, no matter how it ends, marks the beginning of a chance to help every child feel safe, feel trust, feel home. And that every kids deserves that every day.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. If you like what you read here, consider reading my 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.  

Be the change, being a student, punishment, student choice, Student dreams

What Are They Trying to Say?

Black,                 Free Image

As I sat with colleagues not too long ago discussing a shared former student, it was mentioned how she still sees me as an ally even though I no longer teach her. Hard to believe as this was the same child that slammed my door loud enough to shake the team area while telling me exactly what she thought of me and *!@&*% class. And yet, still, to her, I am someone who cares. To her, I am someone who still has her back, despite our ups and downs while I had her.

We all have these children in our memories, perhaps you are teaching one right now (or many). The kids whose love language seems to be filled with protest, with ways to push us as far away as possible. Whose method of communicating their lives and their needs do not follow the same path as our own. How these kids, our kids, sometimes are the ones that carve out the biggest place in our days and in our hearts as we try to understand what it is they are trying to tell us. How they often make us feel like failures when our latest attempt at connection was dismissed and not enough. And yet….in every moment, in every day, we have this incredible chance to show that no matter what they throw at us, we can still be there, we can still care, we can still ask if they are okay rather than react in a more volatile way.

We speak so often of our vision for what our schools should look like. What they should sound like (silent in some cases which is terrifying but that’s for another day). What they should feel like for every kid. We plot and we plan. We dream and we train, and yet, some of that seems to be forgotten the very moment a child fails to live up to our expectations (thank you, Shana White for that thought). The moment a child seemingly steps out of line. We throw our hands up in exasperation, lose our temper, and quickly a situation that did not need to spiral out of control has done just that. Just because we had to prove a point.

I can only speak for myself, I try to not yell. It is something I work very hard at. Not because there are no situations where yelling might be used, but because I think the act of an adult yelling is only to be used in true emergencies. Yelling is only to be used when things are really dire. I don’t want to scare, nor intimidate my students, why would I? Instead, I try to treat these kids as the human beings they are; complicated beings who are carrying their own set of burdens every single day, just like I do. I try to treat them the same way I want to be treated; with concern, with an eye on my humanity. Not in an angry, authoritarian way, because in the long run, it does more damage than good.

So as I think about our school system, about the horrible inequities that exist, especially for marginalized populations, I think of what I can do. How I can certainly share the information that inspires me such as this article from Teaching Tolerance, but also the small things that I can do within my own sphere; our classroom. How I can approach each situation with calmness, how I can approach each child with care rather than anger. How I can ask if they are okay rather than jump to conclusions, how I can ask how I can help, how I can respond in calm rather than anger. How I can use humor and trust to try to diffuse the situations that arise. That I can try to be a part of a classroom that functions on humanity rather than punishment. How when I mess up, because I will, I can apologize and try to do better.

I know that every child is trying to tell us who they are, they just do it in many different ways, and sometimes those ways can be seen as a challenge. Yet, I know how deeply I care about my own story being told and heard, I can only imagine that our students do as well. Yes, our system needs to change, and we need to be a part of that, but that change starts right within our own spaces in how we treat the very children we get to teach every single day. How we protect their humanity even as they sometimes rage. We will never know their story if they don’t ever trust us enough to share it.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. If you like what you read here, consider reading my 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.   

Be the change, being a student, being me

Teaching Bias Through Inference and Identity

I can’t remember the last week we had a full week of school. Between snow days, cold days, and now an ice day, I think it was December the last time I had the pleasure of being with our students for five days in a row. All of these days off have given me time to think, a luxury it seems within teaching, and in particular about how I can use the units my team had already planned to expand our work on bias and social comprehension.

Now, before I share these ideas, I want to make something very clear; I am not an expert on this work. In fact, I have gone back and forth on even sharing what we are doing because this is truly something I am working on myself, something that is nowhere near perfect, and something where I lean heavily on the work of others to do my own work. And yet, perhaps it is exactly this insecurity of trying to get things “right” that holds many educators back from doing any of this work. So perhaps then, this post will help someone else take the plunge, much like I have. I go into this work knowing that I have much to learn and that starting it is the right step for me, even if I am bound to screw up.

Focus of Unit:

Old focus: So our original main goal for the past few weeks was to focus on inferring and how we use evidence to support our inferences. In the past, I have written about the work we have done here, and while the work was good and reached its intended learning outcome, it also was a missed opportunity to discuss how what we infer is directly related to our perspective, our identity, and the bias we may carry.

New focus: So the new goal became focusing on inferences and how the evidence we use to support them are shaped by our identity and bias. A subtle difference that has made a huge difference in all of the work we are doing.

Some Resources used:

While I had my original slides that contained some great ideas, I knew I needed further resources to guide me in this work. Some of the resources I have turned to have been:

  • Teaching Tolerance – one lesson plan I am using is their ideas for teaching bias in the media through tone and word choice, however, these are not the only resource I am using as their webinars and their articles shape so much of my thinking.
  • Allsides.com I appreciate the collection of articles here that allow my students (and us) to really see how news can be reported to us and what it may look like from different news sources. This news site will also open up an opportunity to discuss whether the site itself is unbiased in how it is reporting others.
  • Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension by Sara K. Ahmed. This book has really helped me think about how we can teach social comprehension through identity work with students. It is incredibly well-written and offers up a wealth of ideas no matter where on the journey you are.
  • Time Magazine and their collection of iconic images as we discuss what we see versus what we can infer. I am also using these images to help students discuss which parts of their identity may be reflected or triggered in the images.
  • #DisruptTexts and their mission of disrupting the common narrative that shapes many of our literacy experiences.
  • The National Equity Project is partnered with our district so a lot of the images and information I use is coming from the training they have been giving us.
  • Professor Deb Reese and her work in the critical analysis of the representation of Indigenous People. One of the threads of our conversation has been why we are not as “triggered” by the racist or stereotypical representations of Native Americans in our everyday life. One student shared yesterday that she has realized that she hasn’t been triggered by it before because there has been such little shared throughout her education and life about indigenous people in general except for stories of how they might have been in the past.
  • Social Identity Wheel and the personal identity wheel shared by Inclusive Teaching at the University of Michigan.
  • Jess Lifshitz and the work that she does with her 5th graders in Illinois. She has written extensively about her work on her blog and also who she is inspired by, as well as shared great resources.

This is not an exhaustive list as I am so grateful for the work of many and I highly encourage you to read a lot, to seek out opportunities to learn, and to become connected to others who are doing this work. This is also why I am purposefully not sharing my handouts and slides, because they are created specifically for my students and are based around the learning I am doing myself. I really feel like all educators, especially white educators like myself, should be learning more about this and taking on this work, if I just share all of my slides then the work may not be started..

Guiding Questions

Much of our in-class work has been reflection and discussion based, rather than creating products, which is how we normally function anyway. I wanted students to have an opportunity to work through this with each other, if they chose to, and also reflect quietly if they wanted to. I also want to honor the varied lives my students have, some are deeply aware of the bias others have because this is their lived experience, while some would be brand new to the idea of bias. I think this is simply the balance many of us face. I set this up in stages because some things took longer, some things we needed to circle back to, and I didn’t want to rush this. Once again, I realize that this is just a start, it is not the only work that needs to be done here.

Stage 1:

The focus of stage 1 was establishing a common definition of what inference is and also activate background knowledge. Questions we used accompanied with images and video clips included (amongst other resources):

Stage 2:

The focus of stage 2 was picking up on missed clues and why we might have missed them. Questions we used included:

  • Writing about how others see you.
  • What do we need to do make correct inferences?
  • What do advertisers want us to intentionally infer about their products?
  • What do advertisers unintentionally have us infer?
  • How does bias shape you?
  • Using the first half of the story Wisconsin Winter we look at a text focused on what the main character is like. Then students are given the second half and we use it to discuss how we miss clues that seem obvious when we have the whole story.
  • What are different types of bias?

Stage 3:

The focus of stage 3 was different types of bias and how we see the world as individuals. We used a lot of different images to do a lot of this work, as well as news headlines. Questions we used included:

Stage 4:

  • What associations do you have when you see…using a variety of images.
  • How do assumptions play into bias?
  • How does the media shape us in our understanding of a situation?
  • How may this strengthen or diminish our bias?

The focus of stage 4 was what do we see versus what we can infer. I felt it was important that students saw how much inferences plays into how they view an event, a person, or the world in general. Questions we used included:

  • What do you see?
  • What do you infer?
  • What are you basing those inferences on?
  • What is the historical perspective of this event using Time Magazine pictures?
  • How does your identity and experiences affect your inferences? We used the personal identity wheel to help us think about how we see ourselves.
  • What are the associations you have using a list of words such as Family, love, marriage, police, school, and Thanksgiving?

Stage 5:

The focus of stage 5 is identity and which pieces of our identity we put more weight on which then, in turn, influences how we react to the world and what we think. Questions we use include:

Stage 6:

The focus of stage 6 is thinking about how our identities are triggered by images, videos, headlines and such. This is leading us closer to our end reflection, which is based around students finding an image that connects with their identity in some way. Questions we use include:

  • Do you connect to this image? Why or why not?
  • If you connected to it, which part of your identity was activated?
  • How might this connection affect how you view this image?
  • How does bias play out in the news?
  • How does bias play out in your own identity?
  • How does word choice and tone affect our understanding of a news event?
  • How might the news shape our understanding of the world?

Stage 7:

The focus of stage 7 is introducing our end reflection; how does our identity frame how we connect to something as well how might our bias play out in our understanding? There is so much more work to do, but in order for students to have some time to process and internalize all of this work, I want them to have some time to reflect and put the work into the world they are faced with. That is why our “end” product is asking them to reflect on how they see their identity reflected. Some of the questions they can reflect on include:

  • On the social identity wheel, what were the identities you thought the most about?
  • Which social identities have the strongest effect on how you see yourself?
  • Which part(s) of your identity is reflected or reacting to the piece you found?  Or is it that your identity is not reflected in the piece?
  • How is your bias reflected in the image/video?
  • What, in particular, makes you connect with it (evidence)?
  • What does your identity make you infer in the image or video?
  • Which identities have the greatest effect on how others see you?  Is this good or bad?

Students will have time in class to find an image or video and then to discuss before they write.

Throughout the entire unit, I hope students get a chance to reflect on who they are and how all of this may play into how they see the world. It is a start as we continue our work for the rest of the year, which involves debates, TED talks, and also much more reading and reflecting. This work will become part of our existing foundation as we move forward with the work that we have planned, hopefully allowing students to take a step back and notice how bias plays out in the world around them and in their own lives. This is not the only thing we will do, it is not the only thing we have done, but it is another concentrated effort in order to help students understand the world more. As always, I am so grateful to those who share their expertise with us so that we can all grow and help our students grow as well.

Be the change, behavior, being a student, being a teacher, being me

Is School Really Safe for All?

White,                Black,                Red,                 Free Image

I have been thinking a lot about belonging. About how we assume that school is seen as a safe place by all who experience it. How we assume that we are all doing enough to help these kids, these children whose lives don’t often mirror our own, these kids who someone, somewhere have made feel as if they do not belong.

I have been thinking a lot about feeling seen. About how we assume that in our schools we do enough to let every child know that we see them. That we do enough to let the adults know that they belong too. That they matter. That they are an indispensable part of our community, a community that thrives on embracing all, on love, on acceptance.

We write fancy vision statements where we tell the world that this is a safe place, one filled with opportunities for all who enter to learn, to become something more. We ask our staff to live this vision, even as they feel unsafe themselves. We have assemblies and events celebrating our accomplishments. We hand out awards and accolades. Praise and positive notes. We remind each other not to count down to the break, to the weekend, to the end of the year because for some kids home is not a safe place.

And yet, we forget that for some school isn’t safe either.

For some school is everything they fear.

For some school is only a mirror of the society who also refuses to acknowledge them as full citizens. As full human beings who deserve to be embraced, loved, accepted.

We fail at times.

Sometimes purposefully when we refuse to acknowledge that those who do not fit into our moral view of what it means to be righteous are still deserving of love. Purposefully when we suspend entire groups of children more than others. Purposefully when we enact dress codes that are only a condemnation of those whose choices we don’t agree with. Purposefully when we offer no protections for those who need it. When we let children fail at extraordinary rates because of the circumstances they face. When we continue to say that “Boys will be boys…”When we fail to stop the adults in charge from targeting each other and creating toxic work environments. When we fail to see that in our own silence, that within our own fear of rocking the boat, we are actively telling some that this, this place, is not one where they should ever let their guard down.

And sometimes we don’t even see our own failure. How when we leave certain books out of our libraries we are telling children whose stories are mirrored in those pages that their lives do not belong in our schools. That their lives are too mature, immoral, or indecent. When we tell kids to cut their hair, to change their clothing, when we display pictures of our district but they fail to show all of the people who are a part of it. When we don’t translate our news so all can read it. When we only set up events during school hours and fail to see that not everyone can change their schedule. When our texts, our videos, our learning materials fail to showcase all types of lives. When we assume that everything is a learning experience and surely those are experiencing it just need to work a little harder to find success. That we have done all we can.

And then we wonder why not every child finds success. Why educators quit. We have so much work to do.

We can do more and it starts with acknowledging those we do not see. Those whose lives are not currently valued. And I don’t mean silently valued, I mean embraced through our language, our decorations, our instructional decisions. Embraced out loud as we continually realize that there is more work to do. Making space for their voices so we can use them as a compass for how we can grow. Reflecting on our own choices and actions so we can see how we too can do more. We can ask questions through surveys and conversations and then act when people tell us that it is not safe. That they do not belong, instead of dismissing it as a fluke, only the opinion of a few. As the mother of a child who was viciously bullied, who begged us not to send her to school because it was not safe, I will tell you this, being heard is where the change begins.

The other day I overheard a child tell others about what it meant to come to our school. She said, “When I came to this school and saw the rainbow stickers, I was shook, it finally felt like I belonged.” She felt like she belonged because of a sticker. How many others do not? We assume all kids feel seen and safe at our schools, but do they really? The only way to find out is to start asking questions. Who will ask the first one?

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. If you like what you read here, consider reading my 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.    

Be the change, being a student, Literacy, Student dreams

Disrupting the Narrative in Small Ways

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?

PS: I wrote about the text selections disruption process we use more purposefully here.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. If you like what you read here, consider reading my 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.     

being a student, writing

Reclaiming Handwriting

Every year it seems as if spelling, punctuation, and capitalization have become a little harder for students to master.  Despite the great lessons they have had before.  Despite the repeated instruction, reminders, and opportunities in previous year’s classes, the fundamentals of writing just seem harder to master.

Some might say that it is not a big deal.  That most written work doesn’t require handwriting anyway.  That handwritten work is slowly dying and so why waste time worrying about things that can be auto-corrected.  And sure, computers are definitely the way of the future, the way much of our society already is, and yet, there is still a place for handwriting.  For sitting down with a paper and pen(cil) and doing the work.  Even if kids choose to not do so on their own.  And while, I am a fan of spellcheck, Grammarly, and all of the autocorrections Google Docs does for us, we kept wondering as a team whether these tools were part of the problem.  Perhaps because we have moved so much of our writing to the computer, kids are not naturally noticing their own patterns?  Not noticing when they don’t capitalize on their own name, the beginnings of sentences, proper nouns because the computer does it for them?  Perhaps punctuation is being added at the end because it is easy to do on a computer and so it is missed while writing?    The only way to find out was to try to integrate more handwriting, see if it would make a difference.

So this year, every single time we do our free writes in our writer’s notebook, they are by hand.  Typing is no longer a choice unless it is a required component of an IEP.  Kids are asked to grab a pencil, we have plenty, and to formulate their thoughts on paper.  In the beginning, there were groans, complaints of how their hand hurt, which I get, how they preferred to type.  But we stuck with it.  Asking them to create in pencil, revise in pen, get a smelly sticker if you put in the effort (whatever they think effort might be).

And slowly, we are seeing a change.  More punctuation, for sure.  A greater awareness when sentences don’t make sense.  More capitalization.  The small components that seem to be needed as students grow as better writers.  Better letter formation as kids realize that they can control their handwriting because they need to.  We don’t assess their free writes, they are for them to play with writing, not for us to create a grade, but we do ask them to pay attention to the basics:  Does it make sense?  Did you capitalize?  Did you use punctuation?  But that is not the only change.  We are seeing more writing.  More ideas coming quicker.  Better ideas being developed.  Kids wanting to share their stories, their thoughts.  Kids experimenting with the way they write and what they write about.  An added bonus, but an important one, as we tackle all of the emotions that sometimes stop kids from feeling like writers.

Typed writing is still a part of our class.  When we do large projects, when we research and such.  And yet, there needs to be a space for the written word by hand as well.  As more and more districts race toward one-to-one, I worry about the effect of eyesight with the increase in screen time, I worry about the lost instructional time every time a child has to log in, find the website, and the internet is slow.  I worry about how kids share that sometimes staring at a blank document is more overwhelming for some of our kids than a blank piece of paper.  So as my students tell me time and time again; everything in moderation, and that includes working on a computer.

For now, we will continue to sharpen our pencils every day, share a prompt, and ask the kids to fall into their writing.  To simply try to write something, even if it is not very good.  To focus on reclaiming this part of themselves that they may have become disconnected from in rush to computers.  Settle in, settle down, get to writing…

If you like what you read here, consider reading my 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.