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, being a teacher, being me

30 Day Challenge For a Happier Teacher You

If you are like me, January brings excitement, positivity but also exhaustion.  This quiet month is one where I sometimes find my energy running low, my creativity running out, and rather than take the time to take care of myself I barrel on as if that will do the trick.  So this year, much like the years before, I am challenging myself to take better care of myself, as well as those around me. And so the 30-day challenge is back. A challenge meant to remind me of all the good. Challenge me to take better care of myself.  Challenge me to slow down.  Challenge me to focus more on meaningful interactions, rather than hurried conversations.  Feel free to join me if you want or create your own.

My challenge starts on Sunday, January 27th.  I cannot wait.  To see the challenge document, go 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.    

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.    

being me, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

On Book Quantity and the Damage It Can (Sometimes) Do

Note: This post is a personal reflection with more questions than answers. In no way is this post meant to be used as a way to to argue for lowering expectations for kids when it comes to increasing reading quantity. The research shows us again and again that access to great books and the time to read them in both supported and unsupported ways is what creates reading success. Both of these are also privileges and not something that all kids, still, despite the numerous years of research have access to as Donalyn Miller reminded me of. What this post is meant to highlight and discuss is when we teach kids who have access to books and set incredibly high goals that then destroy their reading experience. That change their reading experience into one that chases only books as a point, a notch, or a number, rather than helps support their development as readers who experience books.

Today our students did a midyear reading goal reflection, a quick check to see whether or not their reading goal for the year should change. A quick check for them to take the pulse of their own reading life. It is always interesting to listen in as kids discover that they are either reading a lot more than they thought or need to step it up a bit to make their challenge goal of reading at least 25 books in 7th grade. For some 25 books is not a big deal, for others it is a mountain that they are steadily climbing, slowly putting one foot in front of the other as they find yet another book to hook them to a readerly life. They know there is no punishment for not meeting their goal. They know it is meant as a motivator for them to increase their reading. It has taken several years and different iterations for us to reach a reading challenge that seems to be successful for nearly all. And today, was a day to check in on that challenge.

As I meander by the students, a girl asks me how I am doing with my reading goal; 105 books? They like to check in now and then to see if I am staying on track, even if it is just to marvel at the goal itself. 105 books?! Who in the world can read that many books? She is trying to keep up with me but she is only at 30. I quickly tell her that one of the things I am also working on is slowing down when I read and yet the look she offers me tells me of her disbelief. After all, if my goal is to slow down then how come I am trying to read so many books?

Today, that look really hit me. I usually shrug it off, it is not the first time a student stares at me in disbelief, but today amidst the slowness of the day it gave me pause. Why is my goal so high? Why am I trying to read so many books? I don’t need to impress anyone. I am not in competition with anyone. Sure I love to recommend books but I am not the only one capable of doing so. What started as 80 books a year five years ago only keeps growing and to what end? Why the need for the high number, when 70 or even 50 would suffice?

And so I sit tonight realizing the danger of my own reading goal. Of setting it as a quantity one rather than one that calls for me to challenge myself. With this goal of 105 chapter books for the school year, I am falling into the same old habits as our students do when we focus on speed versus quality; picking shorter books, skimming texts, forcing myself to read even though my heart is not in it. With the increase in quantity comes a seemingly decrease in enjoyment. Reading is now a task in order to reach my goal, rather than something I do to relax. My to-be-read bookshelf is now work waiting for me to complete rather than adventures beckoning me to join them.

I see this happen with students too who for some reason believe that high quantities of books mean that they are automatically stronger readers. For some of my kids who set goals of hundreds of books in a year who seem to be missing most of what they are reading. Now, don’t get me wrong, research, of course, shows the positive correlation between reading large quantities of texts and being a better reader, but at what point for some kids and even for some adults does it become detrimental rather than good? At what point does the hurried race after too high of a goal in order to impress encourage students to skim read, to skip pages, to develop poor reading habits rather than lose themselves in the experience? Instead of setting a goal that challenges them in a new way? How do we balance the need for students to read more, which many need, but also to read well?

There is a balance, of course, that sometimes gets lost in the school shuffle where kids’ reading lives are made into contests through public book challenge displays, leaderboards, and reading scores. Where it often matters more how much you read versus what you read and what you get out of it. Where students are celebrated for reading quickly, even if they didn’t fully get the chance to actually appreciate what they read. Yes, quantity, and increasing quantity and access to great reading material matters for all of us, but so does slowing down, savoring text, and actually enjoying the experience. This is how we help students become or remain the types of people who cannot wait to read for fun. Where is the balance?

So today as the students did their midyear goals, I changed my own. I don’t want to read 105 books this year. I want to read 80. 80 amazing books that I cannot wait to finish. 80 books that I cannot wait to share. 80 books that allow me to fall back in love with reading and see it for the great gift it is, not for the job it has become. And who knows, perhaps I will read more, but I am allowing myself to slow down. To sit with the books. And I cannot wait.

PS: It is not too late to join the winter book club study for Passionate Readers – it starts this Sunday. Come join the conversation with hundreds of other educators as we try to create reading experiences for all of the kids we have. Also, I am currently planning my summer speaking schedule, see this page for more information if you would like me to help reach your vision for creating a school experience where students are empowered and engaged.

being me, new year

A Word to End the Year

Image from I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

The house is clean, my exercise goal met, lagkagen stands at the ready – Happy birthday, sweet Theadora – and as 2018 runs slowly out, I think of the year to come. A year where I will turn 39. A year where Augustine will enter kindergarten. Where we will travel as far away as Taiwan to teach and learn. Where perhaps another book will be written. A year that beckons for a word to describe it. And so like in the past, I choose a word to help me focus as the year opens up and daily life returns.

More.

More love, even when it is snuck in small moments and through small gestures.

More relaxation. Augi already asks me if we will go to the pool every day this summer.

More moments to sit quietly.

More moments to feel good.

More “I love you’s” and ” I like you’s.”

More thank you’s.

More laughs.

More books.

More sleep.

More walks.

And even more vegetables.

More opportunities to say yes to and if no is said it is because it stood in the way of another more.

But also knowing that more does not mean all. That more does not mean unlimited. That more does not mean sacrificing my family to be more for others. But the type of more that comes with paying attention. With care. With a positive outlook that allows us to look back and realize that we already have so much and that what we really need to do is to realize it.

To give more when it matters. To know when to say no, more. To know when others should have the chance to be more, to be an ally more.

More for the good of others.

And so I wish you more, to quote the incredible Amy Krouse Rosenthal. More of what you need, not what you don’t.

Thank you for giving me more.

being me

On the Day You Were Born

Five years ago today, I held our youngest daughter for the first time. She was 24 hours old. She was down to almost 3 pounds. She could fit into the palm of her father’s hand. I held her for the briefest of minutes until she stopped breathing, her alarm went off, and she had to go back in her incubator. I remember being too scared to hold her, she was so tiny, and yet the nurse, Layla, told me she would be okay. That being held by us would only help, that we would get used to the alarms, the wires, the tubes. That what Augustine needed most at that time from us was our touch. It was the one thing we could do.

I wasn’t supposed to be able to get pregnant on my own. I still remember the doctor being as surprised as we were. The whole pregnancy with her was one fraught with complications. 8 weeks in we thought we lost her, but it turned out that it wasn’t her that was causing the bleeding, it was the blood clots that I had. After weeks of bleeding, and so many ultrasounds we could fill an album, the news came that they thought she had Spinal Bifida. One more ultrasound in a darkened room as they meticulously scanned every centimeter of her body. Her gender was revealed as a side-note, “…by the way you’re having a girl…” and I remember calling my husband, Brandon, to tell him. Standing in front of the hospital shouting into my phone over traffic; we’re having a girl, and she may be okay, they didn’t see any holes…

When my labor started at 29 weeks, we were surprised, yet didn’t think it meant anything. Surely, it would stop. Surely, it was much too soon. Yet, 6 days later as Augustine came so fast that the nurse caught her because there was no doctor in the room, we became part of a tribe of families that got to take the elevator up to the 8th floor of the hospital, to scrub in, to watch their baby grow under plastic. Who got used to alarms beeping and others caring for a child, we were supposed to take home. Whose crib stood empty as her siblings asked us what happened to the baby?

And to this day, while I see the child she has become, the child that knows no limits, I also am reminded of the events of her birth, of the brutality of her birth. Of how we didn’t know why I was in so much pain that even the strongest pain medicine they could give, didn’t do anything. Of how my mother came to visit and didn’t know how to help. How Brandon stood by my side, holding my hand, imploring the doctors to figure out what was going on. How I couldn’t even scream in the end and just cried silently as I felt like I was being torn apart and they couldn’t make it stop.

In those events, wrapped up in pain and fear, Augustine came into the world. Silently and quickly. Brandon was the first to tell me she was breathing as they rushed in and rushed her away.

It was then that they realized that the lining had separated from my uterus. A condition that can kill your baby and cause massive bleeding to the mother. Having Augustine early was my body’s way of saving her. Forcing her into the world was my body’s way of giving her a chance.

And she is fine. She just turned five. She is in school and knows how to write her name. She knows our phone number. She is a great friend and role model. She loves her teddy “Puppy” and asks me to sing to her every night. The doctors have declared her perfectly average years ago and yet, on her birthday, and in the days leading up to and away from it, I am reminded of one of the most traumatic events that happened to me. Of the fear, of the pain, and of the incredible guilt that comes with giving your child such a hard start to their life, even if you know rationally it is not your fault. I can see that she is fine. I know she is fine, and yet, the joy is wrapped in memories that are hard, still, to process.

How many others carry memories such as these silently?

I think of our students as they come to class with unknown trauma surrounding them. Of how small things that we see as harmless may be triggers. Of how we all carry our stories with us and within us and that sometimes those stories can still make us cry when we are reminded of them. That one of the things trauma does to you is to intricately change the connections in your brain and that you might never fully heal, even if you know you should. That it causes you sometimes to act in ways that don’t make fully sense at first, but then later can be traced back to a reaction caused by something that happened to you. That it is something I have had to recognize within my own actions as I cried on her birthday and I couldn’t figure out why.

And so as I share this seemingly too personal story, I do it in the hopes of giving myself the freedom to speak these words out loud. When I recognize that her birthday, while joyful, is also one that carries many layers, I can feel the burden lighten. When I write out the thoughts that continue to haunt me, they seem to lose some of their weight as we look to a new year of memories.

Sometimes I wonder how some of our students do it every day, knowing full well the lives they live in, the lives that continue to produce trauma in their world. How perhaps in our rooms they can feel safe. How perhaps our time together can be something good in their lives that doesn’t cause them more pain. How perhaps with us they can find courage if they need it, reclaim their voice if they lost it, find hope if they seek it. Because I know that what we do everyday matters, that how we help kids feel everyday matters. And as Augi sits here next to me, I am reminded of what we all know to be true; every moment is but a moment, and yet, every moment has the power to break us or empower us. We choose its legacy. Happy birthday, Augustine Grete, and many more.