being a teacher, Dream, Literacy, promises, Reading, Reading Identity

The Promises We Make to Our Readers

2020 was a year I didn’t read much. The normal escape and joy I find within the pages slid out of my grasp as the world sent us constant reminders of our its cruelty and our own mortality. Reading was no longer an escape but rather a dreaded task, one more thing to do on an ever growing to-do list. One more thing I was supposed to fit in as my teaching life and outside life shifted on its head and somehow, some way, we were once again just supposed to make it all work.

I was reminded of how far I had slipped from reading as I spoke to one of my students in a private reading conference in December. His honesty was appreciated as he told me he didn’t really read much anymore, that reading wasn’t his thing and had never really been, and now it just seemed kind of pointless. I don’t know what he expected me to say but rather than fall into tropelike patterns exalting the validity of reading, I instead leveled with him and spoke from the heart, “I hear you, reading does feel kind of pointless right now. It feels like a lot of work. Not pleasurable. Not something that pulls and holds my attention. But what if we both make a commitment to read more? What if I start to read as well, so that we can work on it together?” I am not sure if he believed me, or if that promise even held a lot of meaning, but it was what I needed to kick start my own reading life again. After all, I implore my students on a daily or weekly basis to find space in their lives for reading so why not my own?

There are many promises I make my students every year. Deeply rooted ones that aspire to help them feel safe, valued, seen, and heard within our community, within our curriculum, and within our learning. Closely held ones that push me to grow as an educator and to always reflect on what I am doing, to try to do no harm but instead recognize my own shortcomings in order to be better than I was. There are many promises I repeat throughout the year, some small, others major. And yet some of the ones that are nearest to the work we do center themselves within our reading journeys. Promises that I don’t think just my students deserve to have made to them, but all kids really, in order to create learning communities that not just focus on the content we must cover but the human development we get to be a part of it. But sometimes those promises can get lost, pushed off the table as we are faced with yet another set of commitments thrust upon us, forgotten as we swim in our survival modes trying to simply make it through the day and yet, these promises, these rights really are at the center of the transformative literacy experiences students should be a part of, so what may these promises be?

I promise to read. While I am often asked how I find time to read the books my students read, there is no easy answer because I don’t find the time. I make the time, and much like every other person in the world, I don’t have a lot of it. Yet I do know that every day, I can read a few pages. Every week, I can read a chapter book, read some picture books and constantly expand my knowledge of the books available to be placed in the hands of kids and recommended to fellow teachers. I read because I ask my students to read, it is as simple as that.

I promise to stay current in my reading. I remember laughing alongside my niece when we compared our 9th grade English class required reading lists because while we span 22 years in age difference, our lists were nearly identical. In 22 years, no new books had been added, in 22 years nothing had apparently risen to the top of what deserved to be explored by students across many high schools in America. What a loss this is. Because I can tell you that every year, books that will someday be considered a classic text are published, just waiting to be discovered by those of us who choose books. Every year, there are books that will transform the lives of readers, just like many classic texts have done for some. Every year, there are new works that beg us to ponder deeply about the human condition, even at the elementary level. But we cannot know this if we don’t stay current in our own reading. So I pursue the new, not in a dismissal of the old but in the rampant belief that new books deserve to be taught, to be discussed, to be brought into our learning alongside those that have occupied the space for many years.

I promise to read broadly. If my reading life was only for myself, I would never read a sports book, I would never read books about dogs, or mermaids, or a lot of historical fiction. I would focus simply on the texts that I crave and leave it at that but since I know that my students look to me for reading recommendations and ultimately search the collection of books I curate in our classroom to find their next read then I need to ensure that what they encounter shows a broad and inclusive lens of the world. That means setting my own reading desires aside at times and reading wildly in order for my students to have the opportunity to do the same. I need to recommend all sorts of books. I need to know all sorts of books. I need to purchase all sorts of books. And I need to recognize the gaps that may exist within our experiences and whose stories are centered in order to be able to actively work on filling them. It doesn’t matter that I teach a very homogeneous population because the world is not homogenous, so neither should our book collection be.

I promise to remove harmful or outdated books. I am grateful to have access to many people who read with a different lens than I do, that read with a lot more knowledge than I bring, and that share so graciously of their expertise in order for all of us to grow. My promise, therefore, is to listen and to act. If a book that I have in my classroom collection is problematic, even if I didn’t see it at first, then the least I can do is pull it. If a unit is centered too much on the story of only one type of journey, then my promise is to expand it to, to seek out sources that can help me expand the unit or question the unit altogether. In this day and age, there are so many people willing to share their expertise, such as Dr. Deb Reese and Dr. Jean Mendoza, Dr. Laura M. Jimenez, Dr. Kim Parker, Julia E. Torres, Tricia Ebarvia and Lorena Germán of #DisruptTexts and the incredible group of thinkers from We Need Diverse Books founded by Ellen Oh, all we have to do is tune in and listen and to not take it personally when a book we may have loved or grew up with fond memories of, or even one we have recently discovered and loved, is given a critical review. Open up our ears, listen in and do the right thing instead of clinging to our notions of perhaps we can make it work, or maybe it is not so bad after all.

I promise to pre-read. While I used to love discovering a new read aloud alongside my students, I now see the exploration I cut myself out of by not reading it first on my own. I now see the shortsightedness of not sitting down with a book and truly pondering how it would weave into the tapestry of our year together, to truly wonder whether this singular text deserves to be at the center of the work we will do for several weeks. When we don’t pre-read our texts, we may not see the potential hard conversations that we need to prepare for in order to successfully navigate them alongside kids. The extra wrapping we need to provide for the texts, the images and other venues of exploration that should be taught alongside it. Yes, the thrill of a new discovery is something I miss, but I would much rather be fully prepared to unpack a read aloud by pre-reading the text.

I promise to be honest about my reading. I have said before that kids don’t need perfect reading role models, they need us, the flawed ones, that are readers even when we don’t read but that share about the struggles that we sometimes face when it comes to staying connected to reading. My students don’t need to know me as a perfect reader, instead they need to know that I too, sometimes, don’t have the energy, that I too, sometimes, have a hard time finding a book, that my attention wanes, that I get bored, that I get frustrated, that I sometimes binge-watch TV instead of picking up a book even though I know what is better for me. That my reading life ebbs and flows but that the one constant I do have is that I always come back to it. That I still give myself the gift of considering myself as a reader even if I am not actively reading.

I promise to afford my students the same rights that I hold dear as a reader. I have written much, and spoken at length, about the rights of readers. About how our students every year create their rights and it is then my job to honor and protect them. And so those same rights come down to the same promises I make every year to myself as a reader and to my students. I can abandon books, I can choose to not read a book even if everyone tells me to read it, I can choose to speak about books or not, to recommend or not, to forget about a book or not. I can choose freely and widely, and I can get access to books to those where access does not come easy.

It is easy to get lost in our reading when the world tugs at our fingertips, when our piles of work seem insurmountable, when even taking care of ourselves seems like too much work. I know I have gotten lost but only for a little while, the path is still there, we are still readers even if we step off of it. Our students deserve to be in rich literary driven classrooms and curriculum that is not centered around the voice of one, but instead the voice of many. Our students deserve to have their stories told in the pages of our books, and they deserve to see the stories of others unlike them. Not to have their reading journey shaped by only one voice, or only one way, but instead a reflection of the many paths that lead us into reading and keep us there for years to come.

There are many promises to make, the question is, how will we honor them?

I am excited to get to work with other colleagues around the world doing virtual and in-person coaching collaboration, and consulting right now. If your district or organization would like more information, please see this blog post.

being a teacher, being me, Dream, global, Reading Identity

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

Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) - Twitter.clipular.png

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.

being a student, Dream

On Embracing Our Stereotypes – A Post from A Student

Every year we finish our year with the This I Believe assignment.  Every year I am floored by their messages of hope, of figuring out right from wrong, of creating a world where kids feel accepted, engaged, and loved.  While many of them are incredible, I asked one student if I could share what they wrote.  

Note:  I did not do a good job explaining why I asked this child to share their writing publicly.  To me, hearing these words, caused immense sadness.  It was a metaphorical slap to once again remember how much power we have as teachers, as adults, to confine the view that students have of themselves.  While people have debated in the comments, I know what the intent of the student was.   She chose to rise above the stereotypes thrust upon her, which I told her made me sad.  No child should have to fight stereotypes in this way.  She disagreed with me, but I still wanted to post the speech because it really made me think deeply about things I still have to do better.  Thank you to those who have engaged in the debate.

Have you ever felt that because you’re different from someone, that you somehow needed to prove yourself or make someone think a certain way? That you had a stereotype that was so untrue you almost could laugh. Stereotypes. We all know them. Most of your childhoods we’ve grown up believing them. People who wear glasses are… People who are blonde are… People who are tall play… people who are popular are…  Stereotypes are bad. You shouldn’t say them, use them, or even think them. We need to do something about them. At least that’s what many of you probably think. Nope, not me. I believe stereotypes are good! They make you your best self, at least from my experiences.

There is a moment I think of whenever I say my “This I believe” sentence. I remember this moment perfectly, it wasn’t  the moment I realized stereotyping is real, I already had seen it and even had it happen to me. Instead, what I really realized was that people don’t mean to do this they just do it without realizing what they are doing. I was in the 5th grade and it was the first week of school. I’d barely talked to the teacher the past day and she barely knew me at the time. We were working on some project talking about how we thought our year would go. I was writing and writing until my hand hurt I was so excited about the year. I walked up to the teacher to ask if I could go to the bathroom. She was typing on her computer. I barely got the first syllable out when she turned around so fast it was like she was expecting me to do something and she needed to watch for it. She sat up in a more authoritative position and folded her arms and did that mean “what do you want” teacher face that almost all teachers do and said, “What?!”. I went ahead and asked her if I could go to the restroom, but as I was talking something weird happened. Her position became more relaxed and she started to unfold her arms and look less cross. Her eyes also became very wide and then normal and kinder. You would only notice this if you were watching closely or used to this happening. And she said in a much kinder way than before. “ Of course you can honey it’s right around there, Do you know where it is?” Well, that was weird I thought as I walked to the bathroom. I stayed in there for probably longer than I had to, just looking in the mirror and trying to figure out what just happened. “Was it what I was wearing?” “Had she heard I was bad!?”

It was as if just by hearing me talk no different than how I normally talk or how anyone else talks she thought higher of me and then after I used manners like thank you she was even more surprised. So I thought if that made her think higher of me then where was I on the scale before? But it was okay, I knew what she was thinking. She was expecting me to talk “ghetto” or say something rude or be loud because those are her experiences I guess.

The thing is, no one remembers the polite, quiet, hard working black kids.

Oh no, they remember the loud obnoxious ones who are rude, disrespectful, talk back and cuss at them.  Those experiences stick in your head. Not the good ones.  At first, when I realized this, I was angry. I wanted to go in there and accuse her of being mean or a bad teacher. I wanted to judge her on something, see how it made her feel. I thought about that pretty much all day. About what “thing” or stereotype I wanted to give her.

And I thought about it while sitting at lunch, Waiting for my bus. Even when I was home. And I forgave her. She probably didn’t do it on purpose and besides, I barely knew her yet anyway. But when I went back to school the next week, I made sure no one would ever have that realization again. In every class I sat up straighter, so straight it would probably be parallel to a board. I made sure without fail I always said please, thank you, May I, etc. I made sure my work is always in on time and always my best. I was kind to everyone and never scowled or looked angry. Close to the third week of school, we started to get homework which I made sure I did. When the teacher went around to collect it, she looked impressed that I had mine out and done and did that thing where you purse your lips and nod sort of. She didn’t do that to anyone else. Umm…. was I not supposed to have it done?

I didn’t miss one assignment that year.  Every stereotype I made sure I proved that stereotype wrong. Such as black kids being rude. I was never mean and/or rude to anyone in my class. Or that black kid who would all talk “ghetto” and have bad English. I made sure whenever I talked it was never with much slang or used words like ain’t but with respectable english. And my tone was always quieter than most very much so. (That actually took me awhile to get out of because, I became very quiet that year and I got used to it. I had to work myself back out of my shell). Whenever you have a stereotype that is not true, you work hard to prove someone wrong. You are your best self too! And most of all you show what you want to. So that people see what you really are not just what they want.

I’m used to this now. I no longer spend hours thinking about these things. I don’t get mad or sad anymore  either. But sometimes we are judged, we are judged all the time actually. And I speak from experience, it doesn’t matter if it’s the clerk’s eyes on you in a store like every single second or the way you talk. What you wear,  how you look, if you wear glasses or not. Your stereotype makes you better by giving you motivation to change it or change what people think when they first see you.  It’s very easy to form a stereotype. Heck, we do it all the time. So if you come across someone who has a completely untrue stereotype of you, don’t dwell on it. Make sure you change their minds. Make sure they remember how you proved them wrong. That’s why stereotypes help you. It makes you think more, It makes you present yourself the way you really want to be seen like. It makes you think about every decision more carefully and think “Is this what I really want to do?” It makes sure that you make yourself stick out from the crowd and prove your stereotype wrong and that’s what makes you your best self. I believe  stereotypes make you your best self.


being a teacher, being me, Dream

Before I Set Out to Change the World

I never set out to be more than a teacher , to be a speaker, an author, as someone who people ask for advice.  In fact, I still find the whole thing confounding, dumbfounded over how in the world I got so lucky to get to be inspired by so many others.  To get to teach teachers, to learn with others, and to bring those things back to the incredible students I teach at the school I call home.  And yet within this awestruck notion of being more is the truth of me; I may be many things, but the one thing I am first is the teacher to my own students.

So before I set out to change the world, I must first change the very classroom that I teach in.  I must make sure that what I say I hold so dear is not just a stepping stone for bigger things.

Before I set out to change the world, I must make sure that the very thing that has given me the courage to speak up is still the very thing that gets the best of me.  That the students, whose dreams I am trying to protect, are still the most important part.

Before I ask others to listen to the voice of their students, I must give my own students a place to speak up, to be heard, and plenty of time for them to find the words they need to share.

Before I ask others to change, I must change myself.  Reflect on my own mistakes and become better.  Reflect so I can grow and not pretend that I have all of the answers or all of the power.

Before I set out to change the world, I must make sure that the words I speak are the truth.  That what my students and I do really is making a difference for the better.   That what we say we do is really what we do and not just what we hope to do.

Before I tell others how to teach better, I must make sure I am a better teacher.  That my teaching is not a point on the to-do list, but is the thing that challenges me in the very best kind of way.  That my teaching really allows my students to be empowered, be engaged, be passionate.

Before I give others all of me, I must make sure that I have something to give to my students.  That I take the time to get their lessons right.  That I take the time to make it work for them before I share.  That I take the time to make the time to be present when I teach and not think of the world that lies beyond.  Because in our room, room 235D, I am not the teacher of the world.  I am not an author.  I am not a speaker.  I am not the creator of the Global Read Aloud.  I am the teacher of those 7th grade students that show up to English every day at Oregon Middle School.  And that is the very best thing for me.

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

advice, assumptions, Dream, students

A Child Reveals His Ambition and I Snort

Basketball (Photo credit: mvongrue)

“…Awe but Mrs. Ripp, I won’t need to know how to do this because I am going to be a famous basketball player…”

I hold back a snort.  Really?  A famous basketball player?  In my head, the statistics of this ever coming true run through at lightning speed, I am about to say something, and then I stop.  Who am I to squash a dream, even if in my eyes it is an unrealistic one?

So I take a different approach.  “Did you know that even famous basketball players have to go to high school, have to learn, have to go to college?”  The boy stares at me.  “Did you know that this will directly lead into more math that we are going to do and I have a feeling you are going think it is really fun?  Did you know that to be a true role model you shouldn’t just be great at basketball but you should also show the world just how smart you are?”  The boy nods, still unsure of what I am saying, but I walk away, dreams still in place, not squashed by this teacher.

As a teacher, I used to be the biggest realist I knew.  I was quick to tell students what they could or could not do, the odds of something happening to them.  I felt it was part of my job to set them up for “real life” with real expectations and real failure coming their way.  Now I know better, there is no sense in destroying dreams, even if we know it may not happen.  There is no sense in taking hope away from children.  What we can do, though, is to show them everything else that is important; how an education fits into their dreams.  How an education may be the ticket to get them where they need to be.    Hoa an education is not a waste of their time, so don’t make it a waste of their time.  Make it something they want to have, make school a place they want to go to.  A lofty goal perhaps, but a necessary one.

being a teacher, Dream

Allow Yourself to Dream

Cross posted from the fantastic Cooperative Catalyst

I do my best teaching while I dream.  Far away from my own cowardice that tells me to stick within the lines, follow the lesson plan, and to not deviate off the trodden path.  I do my best teaching right before sleep comes and envelopes me, right before the stress of the day falls away, leaving only time to think of what can be done.  That is when I think of how I will reach all of my students.  This is where the labels are cast aside and only ability and tenacity shine the brightest.  This is when I fully believe that they can all achieve everything.
In college, I was taught not to dream.  Dreams were for people without teaching degrees, people that might make a warm and fuzzy teacher, a softie,  but certainly not someone who made their students achieve.  Instead I was told to plan, plan, and plan some more.  Read the standards, correlate them, and throw in some spice for those students with minor special needs that may pop up in your classroom.  English language learners?  No problemo; just throw in some pre-teaching of the vocabulary and off they will go. I was ready to teach them all that school was fun and useful.  And then reality struck and I looked at the list of my not so minor disabled students, my english language learners that did not just need vocabulary, and even that one child that was just so angry at the world.  And so I planned some more.
After a year or two with glazed eyes and long, drawn out speeches about how important it all was, I dreamed a little.  I dreamt of a classroom that students wanted to come to.  A room where learning was loud, excited and maybe not always practical.  And so when I was dozing every night, I would think that maybe I could try one little thing, maybe that would not hurt my plans so much if instead of planning every minute of the lesson, I asked the students what they wanted to do instead.  Maybe they could dream along with me?
So I have become a dreamer, one who believes that children have a valid voice in their own education.  One that believes that parents should be involved in the school, one that believes we must drop the labels and see our children for what they are; dreamers just like us.  They do not dream of a school that talks at them, but one where there is engaging conversation.  They do not dream of being drones chained to desks being stuffed with information, but rather really learning through experimentation, thinking, and yes even dreaming.  So let them dream, or even more importantly, let yourself dream.  For it is in these dream that we realize just how powerful our classroom can be.  It is in these dreams that we shape the future and the future shapes us.  We are a world of dreamers, if only we choose to be.

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