Be the change, being me

On Forgiveness…

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I have been thinking a lot about forgiveness. Not so much forgiveness in the sense of feeling at peace with the world, but instead the forgiveness we sometimes lack in education; the forgiveness of ourselves. While we spend our days often forgiving others for the things they say, the things they do, the slights that are bound to happen when we work with and around other human beings, we seem to forget to give ourselves the same treatment. To realize at the end of the day that we, too, are only human, and that as humans the best we can do is the best we can do.

I think of forgiveness more often as the days tick closer to yet another break in an already tumultuous winter. With all of the days off, with the weather driving us inside more than ever, we never quite seemed to settle into the lull of the winter routine, where we find comfort in the small moments shared within our learning spaces. Where we find comfort in the trust we have placed within the community to allow us to be the people we are. Instead, it felt rushed at times, forced at times, and sometimes as if we had altogether forgotten what the community that we had painstakingly built up really felt like.

And so as the children we work with at times seem to push us away harder than ever before, I have spent many nights reflecting on what else I can do. What else we can do? What now? What next? And I will admit, there are simply nights where I have come up shorthanded. Where I have realized that my bag of tricks has run dry and that for right now, there is nothing more new I can try to re-engage a disengaged child. There is nothing new I can try to help a child stay engaged, help a child learn, help a child read a book. It is a hard thing to swallow. After all, we are supposed to work daily miracles within our rooms, never giving up on a child, never resting until every child is learning, every child is reading, every child sees value in what we do, what we are together.

And yet, sometimes we don’t work miracles. Sometimes even the best of ideas fail. Sometimes the team cannot brainstorm anything else to to try. Sometimes even what has worked for every child before this one, fails. And we carry that failure with us as yet another added weight in already heavy load. We carry that failure as if it means that we have failed all of the children we teach, as if we will never be a good educator again.

Those who work on the fringes of education, those who sit in power, may tell us that the fault lies within us, the educators. That if we only gave more choice. That if we only gave more freedom. That if we only gave students more space to be who they are and not who we want them to be, then, then….they surely would learn. That if we just brought in more technology, if we only let them lead, if we only gave them the reigns, then, then…they surely would thrive. And yes, those truths ring loudly, that has been the journey I have been on with my students for the past nine years. There is so much to be gained when we have freedom, when education focuses around the individual and not around the group, when the explorations we do are led by students, created by students, and valued by students. There is so much to be gained when we create equitable spaces that are focused on the humanity of each individual and not just tests, homework, and grades.

Yet to always fault the educator with no mind for what is already in place is to dismiss the larger problem. That true education is a collaboration. That for students to really be invested in learning, they have to first be invested, and yes, that means feeling safe enough to invest. That we can provide amazing opportunities for self expression and for some kids it is simply not enough, right now.

So this week, I realized that I am only human and that perhaps others needed to forgive themselves too. That at some point, stepping away from a child who has actively refused every single opportunity we have provided to learn, to change the system, to engage somehow, is the only next step we have at that moment. And that stepping away does not mean giving up. That stepping away, for now, does not mean that that child cannot learn, that that child cannot re-engage, that that child cannot find meaning. But it does mean that right now, I am not the teacher they need, I need time to come up with new ideas, and I need to be okay with that. That perhaps what we all need is a break once in awhile to remind ourselves that we are not meant to be saviors, but instead the bringers of opportunities. And sometimes that means stepping away and forgiving ourselves.

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

To the Moments

This is not a revolutionary post. One that will echo through our chambers as it brings forth the message of new. This is not radical, nor groundbreaking, but instead a gentle reminder to the world at large of what the small things can really do.

That when we take a moment, the moment, to say thank you, to acknowledge, to praise, the ripples that emanate may just one day turn into waves. May make the difference between a child who felt school was unsafe now is a place for her after all.

That when we go out of our way, come back to the way, of what it means to see how a child is trying, how a child is doing, what a child wants to be, we may just remind them that they are, indeed, all we need them to be.

So this is a thank you to the smiles and the hi’s. To the people who stand outside their classrooms, their offices, their schools and busses and every day greet the people with the loudest hello they can.

To the notes and the postcards, to the gotcha’s, and high fives. To the praise that matters and the shoulders that carry. To the scoot in’s and scoot overs. To the “Are you ok’s?” “I got this” and “Any time…” To the hugs, the goodbye’s, the thank you’s and taking the time. Every time. Any time.

A thank you to the quiet moments and the not so quiet. To the questions, the laughs, the aha’s and uh-oh’s.

But most of all, thank you to the people who saw our daughter for everything she was and not everything some wanted her to believe. Today, through your recognition, she started to believe it a little bit more, that she, too, is somebody worthwhile. Today, she saw for the first time in a really long time, what we have never lost sight of. A kid that matters. A kid that matters to others. A kid that is somebody.

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?

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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.