For the Kids Who Show Up

This is for the kids whose stories I don’t know yet.

This is for the kids whom I haven’t met.

This is for the kids whose names stare at me from class lists, whose eyes shine brightly in their school pictures, who right now mean little to me.

But they will.

This is for the kids who hope we will like them, maybe even love them.

For the kids who need us to have their backs.

For the kids who are scared to share who they are.

For the kids who were scared and shared anyway.

This is the for the kids who were born this way, somehow deemed not normal in our gender/race/religion obsessed society.  Who fear the wrath of those who label them different.  Who are scared before they come to our schools.  Who don’t think they will be able to find a book among our piles that speak to who they are.

This is for the kids who are part of all of the kids we say we teach when we write our fancy vision statements, when we discuss how we are going to create safe schools and then do nothing to create community.

This is for the kids who need us most, who may not even be able to share why they need us, yet look to us to keep them safe as they try to access the education they have been promised.

So as we head back to school.  As we start our trainings.  As we meet as a community to discuss how this will be the year we try to reach all the kids, make sure we are really talking about ALL the kids.

Not just the white kids.

Not just the money kids.

Not just the cis kids.

Not just the straight kids.

Not just the Christian kids.

Not just the kids that fit whatever default view we have of what normal is.

As teachers, we try to speak up for all of our kids but we need to know that our schools have our back.  That we can create communities that are truly safe for all the kids that show up and not just for those someone decided deserved to be protected.  That our school boards mean it when they say that this school, this community, is for all kids to succeed, for all kids to have a chance.  Not because it is politics, but because it is human decency.

This is for all the kids who dread the first day of school because they are not sure what they will face.  This is for the teachers who fear as well.

We may not be many.

We may not be the majority.

We may not always get it right.

But we see you.

And in our eyes, you are normal.  In our eyes you are just the child we hoped would show up, so welcome.  I am glad you are here.

PS:  Go read Dana Stachowiak’s post 

We Are Stories

I am in the air, headed to another conference, headed away from home for the next three days.  As home fades to a pinprick, my husband’s grandmother lies in hospice, surrounded by family, finishing her journey through life.  The guilt weighs heavily on me, they know I would be there if I could, but still….

 

Our kids are trying to process what it means to die.  Our four-year-old son cries at bedtime telling me, “I will miss her so much, Mom.”   Our eight-year-old asks me why people have to die and how is that fair.  Our three-year-old asks us when Old Grandma will go home, not sure why she isn’t answering when she asks her questions.  My husband, stoic as always, keeps his emotions close to his chest, he never was one for public displays.  We are all processing in our own ways, trying to bumble our way through something we know is inevitable, yet always comes as a surprise.  As each child asks their questions, we try to navigate as best as we can, offering up shallow answers and lots of hugs.

 

 

As our children process, I try to think of what they will remember.  The stories Anita leaves us with.  The little things that stand out to us, to me, as she welcomed me into this family.  As I recognize that without her, my husband would never even exist.  The little gestures that mattered the most, such as how she brought pickled cucumbers to every gathering because she knew they reminded me of my grandfather.  How she met Brandon’s grandfather and the trouble they got in together as they married young, knowing they were meant to be together.    How when Augustine came ten weeks early, she crocheted two blankets the size of doll bedding to keep in her incubator and tiny hats to keep her warm, saying they would be better than the ones the hospital had – and they were.  How she slipped her false teeth out of her mouth just to scare my kids and they didn’t even notice.

Her stories become our stories, but only the ones we know.  There are so many we don’t know. Death is never easy.  Neither is grief.  The thought of all of the missed opportunities.  The missed moments where we could have asked for more stories, more of her.  The times we were too busy.  The times we didn’t ask more questions.

And that’s it, isn’t it?

Stories are all we are.

All we leave behind are the stories that when read from start to finish make the book of our life.

We take life for granted so often, We live as if our time will never run out.  We get too busy to stop and listen to each other.

So as I think of the year ahead in our classrooms, I think of all of the stories we are waiting to begin.  The stories awaiting us.  How it feels as if we don’t have the time to know the kids we teach because we have so much curriculum to cover.  And yet, either way, our story will continue.  The story we will create together will be written into existence whether we give it our time or not. And we can hope that this coming year is one of the good chapters, the one where there is more good than bad, more happy than not.

As Anita slowly passes, our own mortality is remembered.   We tell her thank you, we love her, and hope that it is enough.  That we were enough.  And I hope that one day, my own family will gather around me as I get ready to leave this Earth and will share their stories.  Will have enough to remember me by, not as someone who was there once in a while, when work didn’t call, but who was there for the small moments, where there are more stories than time to share them.

We can’t just wait for it to happen.  We write the story of our year, of our lives.  We are the authors of what awaits.  So make it matter.  Make it one that will be shared for years to come.

We have no more grandparents left after this.  The generation that gave birth to our parents has vanished into memories, ready to be overtaken by the next one.  Ready to have the next chapter written.  As we grieve and process, we are thankful and grateful.  At least we got to be a part of this one story.  This one life.  May we all be so lucky.

 

On Hard Conversations and Having Courage

I am so white I am like a caricature of whiteness.  You see me coming; blonde, blue eyes, tall, my Viking heritage directly responsible for the four blonde children that cruise around with me in our mini-van while we bungle the words to Despacito.  I was born white, it is who I am, but I am on a journey to use my innate privilege to be something more.  Not just an ally, but a fighter.  Someone who doesn’t just shut the door when the going gets tough but leaves it wide open.

We live in a neighborhood that does not mirror us.  It is through circumstance we came to it but by choice that we stayed.   Living among other cultures, races and identities have brought many questions to our dining room table.  Questions that were hard for us to navigate with our young children, questions who pushed our own thinking.  I shudder to think whether these questions would have been posed by my children if we did not live here.  And so I think of the choices we, as white people, make as a privileged society to keep our lives homogenous.  How we live in neighborhoods where people look like us, we send our kids to schools where they float in a sea of whiteness, we not only elect people whose values mirror our own but so do their faces.  I can choose to step away from racism.  I can choose to step away from inequity discussions.  I can choose to step away from anything that may be upsetting, dangerous, or demoralizing.

I am privileged because I get to be afraid of the type of reaction my teaching may cause if I continue to discuss inequity.  If I continue to discuss racism. If I continue to discuss what it means to be privileged in my classroom.  I get to be afraid for my job and I get to choose whether to have these hard conversations or not.  But the truth is, there should be no choice.  We, as teachers, are on the front lines of changing the future narrative of this country.  Ugliness and all.  We are the bastions of truth, so what truth are we bringing into our classrooms?

I saw this tweet from ILA

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and it has kept me up at night.  Where are the white allies?  Where have I been?  Have I done enough?  Where is our courage when it comes to being a part of dismantling a racist and prejudiced system?  It is not enough to have diverse books in our classrooms if we are too afraid to discuss diversity and what the lack of humanity for others does to our democracy.  It is not enough to say “You matter” and then do nothing to change the world that we live in.  Or to celebrate diversity and then not accept a child for who they truly are, differences and all.  It is not enough to say we are an ally if our actions don’t match our words.   I don’t need 100 clones of me, I need to create more opportunities for the students to do the hard work.   To offer them an opportunity to decide.   To create an environment where they can discover their own opinion.  Where they can explore the world, even when it is ugly so that they can decide which side of history they want to fall on.

So this year I am planning for even harder conversations.  I am planning on being an ally, for being a fighter, even when I get scared.  We say we teach all children, but do we teach all stories?  Do we teach the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or just the sanitized version that will not ruffle any feathers?  I am so white, I am like a caricature of whiteness, but perhaps even this white person can make a difference by not being so afraid.  By listening, by asking questions, and by doing more than just saying that this world is filled with wrongness.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  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.

On This New Country of Mine

Brandon stood outside the door, ready to congratulate me.  My best friend, my better half, took one look and asked why I was crying.  It was hard to find the right words…

I came here in 1998 with the idea of staying one year.  I had said my goodbyes but they felt like so longs and yet as the years progressed, my home, Denmark, slipped further and further away.  Once I married Brandon and Denmark changed its immigration laws, I realized that this country was probably my home, because no longer could the man I loved come with me.  It hit me like a ton of bricks because in this country, as an immigrant, I was not seen as a full person with equal rights.  And yet, I stayed, believing in this nation and the work that we do in education for the future of us all.

But I’ll tell you; the past eight months, as an immigrant to this nation, have not been easy.  Every time I have left, I have wondered whether I would be allowed back in.  When I have discussed my political opinions, I have wondered if my name would show up on a  list somewhere.   I have worried that this country which has been my home for 19 years and is the birth-nation of my husband and children, was no longer a safe place for me or anyone who does not fit this version of what it takes to make America great again. I have been reminded of my own white privilege and then also been reminded that just like that, what I take for granted, could be taken away.

It wears on you when day in and day out, you don’t know if this is the place you belong.  I cannot imagine what it must feel like for those who feel this way every day, with no end in sight.

So when I took the oath today, I cried.  Not just because I am proud to become a part of the glorious mess that is the American experience.  Not just because I can now travel without worry.  Not just because I get to vote, but because I feel this sense of relief.  Like my rights cannot be so easily dismissed or taken away.  Like I now matter to this nation, as if I am fully human here now, and not just someone with pseudo rights that can be easily tossed out.

When you are born with these privileges you may not know what it means to be handed them.  This is the closest I will ever come to feeling marginalized and that is something worth remembering.

So I cried my tears and then I registered to vote and in my heart, I said yes.

Yes to seeing the greatness that already exists.

Yes to being a part of the change that we need.

Yes to fighting for the things I believe in.  And fighting loudly.

Yes to seeing the flaws.

Yes to realizing that my voice matters now more than ever.

Yes to taking responsibility and also being in awe of that.

I am now a citizen of the United States of America and I am ready to work for change.

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Essentialism for the Overworked Teacher

I have been sick for the past two months.  Not just cold sick, but several attempts with antibiotics, various diagnoses, including pneumonia, and an ever persistent exhaustion no matter the sleep I got, kind of sick.  What started as a virus has become something I can’t fight.  And I am well aware I have done this to myself.  Between teaching full-time, speaking, writing, being a mother and a wife, and selling our house, I have forgotten what it means to do nothing.  Forgotten what it means to relax and not feel so guilty about it.  Even reading has become a chore and so I realized last Thursday, that in my attempt to make the world better I have forgotten about myself.

Why share this?  It is not for sympathy, but instead to highlight something so common in education; the overworked teacher.  We have all been there, in fact, many of us exist constantly at this stage it seems, where we get so absorbed into our classrooms that we forget about our own mental health and then wonder why we feel burnt out.   We know we should do less but worry about the consequences and so we push on and dream of vacation and doing little, yet never make the time for it.  I have been reading the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown in an effort to make sense of my own decisions, of this exhaustion I am working through, and as I read I cannot help but transfer this knowledge into the classroom.  How much of the discipline of Essentialism can help us, as overworked teachers, and steer us away from burn out before it even begins?

One of the central tenets of the book is the idea of doing less better.  We seem to forget that in education as we constantly pursue new ideas to add into our classroom in order to create more authentic experiences for our students.  We plan, we teach, we juggle one hundred things and add in extra whenever we see a need, and then come back and do the same the next day.  Yet, we know this is not sustainable, so what can we do?

Discover your essentials.

What do you hold most sacred within your teaching?  You can decide either in your subject area or in your whole educational philosophy.  List the three most essential goals for your year and then plan lessons according to these, eliminating things that do not tie in with your goals.

So for example, one of my essential goals for the year is to help my 7th graders become better human beings.  While a lofty goal, it steers me when I plan lessons as I ask; is there a bigger purpose to this learning or is it just a small assignment to “get through?”  If I want my students to become better human beings we must work within learning that matters and that gives them a chance to interact with others.

Say no more.

We tend to volunteer ourselves whenever an opportunity arises.  But as Greg McKeown discusses, saying “Yes” is the easy way out, we don’t have to deal with the guilt that comes with saying no or not volunteering.  However, when we live in a cycle of yes, we take on more than we can truly handle.  Therefore, evaluate what is most essential to you and to your classroom.  If something is not in line with your goals, and you are not excited at the prospect of doing the work, then politely decline. Others will almost certainly take the spot meant for you or the work will be approached in a different way.

Eliminate the clutter.

Just like we need to say no, we also need to stop creating extra work for ourselves.  I find myself distracted when my classroom or especially my workspace is cluttered and using the extra time to find something or put something away becomes one more thing to do in our busy teaching days.  While I don’t mean, “Get rid of everything,” look at the piles that you constantly move.  Why do they not have a home?  Do they need a home?  If everything has a specific place in your classroom, then you know where to return something to once you have used it.  That method will help you eliminate all of the extra time spent simply shuffling things around.

Plan for no plans.

We tend to plan every minute of our day so that we can get the most use out of our precious time, yet we know that throughout the day, extra items will get added and all of a sudden we did not get to the things we meant to get to.  So leave gaps in your prep time or in your before or after school routine for the extra things that have popped up or the major item that still needs to get done.  That way you are not trying to squeeze extra things in when you really have accounted for how every minute will be spent already.

 

Slow down your decisions

So often, in order to be efficient, we make a snap decision without really thinking the decision through.  This can lead to more stress, more thing to get done, and also less happiness.  In the past year, I have learned to hit pause before I reply to that request and really consider whether this is something I want to dedicate myself to and whether I will enjoy it.  If I cannot answer emphatically yes to those two things then I politely decline, however, I cannot answer those two questions if I do not take the time to think about it first.  If a request comes up in conversation, it is okay to tell someone that you will get back to them with an answer as soon as you can.

Choose your yes’

My 2017 word of the year has been “Enjoy.”  I chose this word as a reminder to myself that when I do say yes to something, I need to enjoy what I am doing.  That doesn’t mean that my life is filled with fun and exciting things at all times, but it does mean that when I choose to do something I try to be mindful of the fact that I chose to do it.  This has been a great reminder of why choosing my yes’ with care is so important.  If I am in, then I want to be all in.

Remember you have a choice.

Greg McKeown wrote, “When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless.” How often is this the case not just for our students when they come to us believing school is just something to get through, but also when we forget about our own power of choice?  While being educators means that there are many things we do not have power over, there are many things we do, and so remembering that we do have a choice is important for us all.

 

Create your own priority.

I was really struck by the discussion of how the plural version of the word “Priority” was not invented until the 1900’s when mass production and multitasking became the thing to strive for.  How many priorities do we juggle in a day as educators?  Look no further than the vision statements of our schools; I have yet to find one that lists one single thing, rather than many.  Yet, when we have multiple priorities we are, in essence, not working on any of them by spreading ourselves too thin.  So much like you should discover your essentials, discover your one priority.  What is the one thing that you want to focus on?  It can be a larger goal that encompasses many small things, however, limit yourself to one and then dedicate yourself to it.  This goes for the work our students do as well.

Plan for play.

Much like I have embraced doing nothing the last few days, I have also tried to join in the play with my children.  I have been more at peace, had more fun, and also had an incredible surge in brainpower while pretending to be a stealthy ninja or trying to beat them all at Sorry.  Play often feels like an indulgence and something that we, as adults, should grow out of, yet reintroducing the concept of play, and also of boredom, has been incredibly revitalizing.  So plan for play next year, whether by creating challenges for your students, taking the time to draw, playing jokes on colleagues, or doing something else that seems off topic and even frivolous.  Plan for play before strenuous tasks or when stress levels seem high.  I cannot wait to see what our brains will do after.

Stop the guilt.

We are awfully good at feeling guilty as educators.  Whether it is guilt from feeling like we didn’t do enough, like we didn’t teach well, or because we didn’t volunteer, didn’t go the extra mile, didn’t write enough feedback, or insert whatever teacher related item here; guilt seems to be our constant companion.  But think of the weight of guilt and how it consumes our subconscious.  Why do we let it?  In the past six months, I have started saying no more and I can tell you, I feel guilty every time, but as it has become more of a habit, the guilt has lessened and the weight I feel lifted is palpable.  So turn the guilt around; rather than feel guilty for saying no, congratulate yourself.  Celebrate the fact that you know when to protect yourself and your energy.  Celebrate the extra time you just gave yourself and then don’t plan extra work for that time.

Dedicate yourself to yourself.

We spend so much time thinking of our students, their needs, and their goals, that we forget about ourselves.  So as you plan lessons for your students, plan lessons for yourself as well.  How will you grow as a human being or as a practitioner today?  How do you want to feel at the end of the day?  There is nothing selfish about focusing some of our energy on ourselves as we go through the day trying to create great learning experiences for our students.

As I slowly gain my health back, as I slowly feel less exhausted, as I slowly start to clear my mind, I start to remember what it feels like to not work all of the time.  To have vacation.  To take the time to step away so that when we come back, we feel so excited.  The truth is; work is not the only thing I want to consume me.  I want my family to consume me.  My love for my husband.  I want to find joy in reading books with a cup of tea next to me.  To play stupid computer games.  In baking.  In laughing with my kids rather than telling them to hurry up.  I want my legacy to be more than being a good teacher.  And I cannot do that if I don’t change my life a bit.  The first step was to realize that things had to change, that came courtesy of my exhausted body, now it is up to me to continue on this journey.   Reading Essentialism has provided me with a path.

And Yet We Grow…

“I don’t think you were a good teacher to me and you did not help me this year at all. I don’t think you should be a teacher here. This year of english is the worst year all.”

Three lines.

Three lines that cut deep.

Three lines that can crash your world.

Three lines that can make you question every single thing you stand for and everything you believe.

We pride ourselves on the difference we hope to make.  On how we try to make our classes more engaging. On all of the ideas we try, hoping to make school somehow better.

And yet…

For some, it is not enough.

For some, you are not good.

For some, you shouldn’t even be a teacher.

I will admit there were tears.  Embarrassment, after all, am I not supposed to have it figured out?  Perhaps even confusion.  I didn’t realize that I would elicit such a strong response from anyone, but I did.

And yet in these words, beyond the surprise, beyond the hurt, there is also a truth.  A truth that must have taken a lot of courage to share, to write, knowing that I would see the words and also see who wrote them.

So rather than wallow, or lick my wounds, or at least not for long, I asked the child to tell me more.  To help me better understand so that I could prevent this reaction in future years.

Their answer was to the point; I just hate English, it is not really you, but the class.  When I asked if they were sure because it sounded like I was a part of the problem, they shrugged and said they didn’t really mean it.  They were just angry and resentful toward English.

I thanked them for their honesty and vowed to do better.

I share these words tonight because they still hurt.

They still are embarrassing.

They are words I would rather hide and pretend I never read.

And yet, within these words is a careful truth, one that is beyond the obvious of being a teacher who seemingly failed a child; we are not perfect.  None of us are.  I am not perfect, not that I have believed that for a long time.  I am still growing.  I am still learning.  And yet sometimes we look to others and think they have it all figured out.  That in their classes all kids love what they are doing.  That every child must love them as a teacher and we look at our own classrooms and wonder why we cannot seem to reach that pinnacle of perfection.

So see these words and know; they hurt, but they are not the full story.  One child’s reaction will never be.  Your story will never be told in just three sentences so do not diminish yourself to three sentences or less.

There may be days where I feel like I figured it out, but there will always be days where I know I haven’t.  The most we can do is to keep coming back and try again.  To reach out again.  To keep asking our questions even if the answers hurt.

We grow because we dare to ask.  Because we tuck our pride away and take the words that are delivered.  I don’t ever want to stop asking.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.