Moments of Joy

I’ve written before about how challenging this year is. I could still list many things that I think aren’t working or aren’t working anywhere near as well as they could. But I’m feeling some success and finding some fabulous moments of joy. One of each happened during our small-group time today. (We have an hour each day, Tuesday through Friday, to meet with small groups for remediation or enrichment or whatever support is needed.)

I had promised my 3rd graders some time to finish a couple of things from earlier this week so I had set aside the first part of our hour for them to do so, if they needed. Whenever they were ready, I had an interactive slides math game prepared for them. One of the things they were doing was a program my district has purchased and that I have them use for about 20 minutes each, three days a week. One kiddo has been stuck in it and she and I have worked together to support her progress. Today she said she was still feeling stuck. I told her I’d work with her as soon as I answered the other questions that kids had. Before I could do so, another student piped up to ask if she was working with hundreds or thousands, because he’s on the thousands part. So is she. He offers to help. With both of their permission, I sent them to a breakout room so they could easily talk through the challenges. When I had a chance, about 15 minutes later, I popped into that room. The first student was sharing her screen and they were working together to solve the math puzzles. They did that, without any help from me, for at least half an hour.

In our classroom in our school building, that wouldn’t be unusual. In the virtual setting it is hard for kids to partner up naturally. They can’t just go off to a quiet space to work together. They can’t see each other’s faces and body language to determine who might be needing some help. Both of the kids above are new to our school this year (I teach on a military post and we have a 40% mobility rate so kids new to the school is a norm). They’ve never met each other in person. His offer to help, her easy acceptance, and their collaboration brought me such joy.

In that same block of time, after these two kiddos headed off to work together, I worked with another student. I had sent emails to each of my kids so that they could respond with nonfiction topics they wanted to write about. (I don’t really need to see their topics, but emailing me pushes them to make a choice and to commit to it in some way.) About half my class had sent those emails to me this morning and I had promised to help anyone else walk through it during our afternoon hour of small group time.

A brand-new student, she started last week, hadn’t sent me an email so I asked her if she wanted me to help her take care of that. (Rookie mistake, for the record, never ask a question if you want a specific answer.) Her response to me was that she doesn’t know how to send emails. I reiterated that I was ready to walk her through the process. She reminded me that she’d already written these things down on paper. I explained that I needed to have the information so I needed her to email me. She said ok. Then she got up and walked away. This is what I saw on my screen for a few minutes while I cracked up.

When she returned I asked her where she had gone. “To have my mom take a picture of this and email it to you.”

Nice try, kid, nice try. I still walked her through sending me an email. Even after she told me she doesn’t like typing on the computer. I thought, oof, this is going to be a long year, kiddo.

On the whole, that hour of our day felt like a pretty solid win.

At the end of the day, the student who offered to help a friend and headed to a breakout room together, asked if he could share something before we left. I try to honor these requests, especially when they’re so thoughtfully offered as ‘at the end of the day’ rather than just whenever they pop into 3rd graders’ heads. Some kids signed off, but many stayed to see this.

He explained that he made this for our whole class, that it is about all of us.

Several students turned on their mic to tell him how beautiful it is and what a great artist he is. It was an awesome way to finish our day. I am trying to hold onto these moments in the midst of all the ways I feel I’m falling short of what my students need and what I want to be doing for them.


More Perspectives

Several years ago, when I got a new car, my husband suggested I change the settings on it. When we got the car, it was set so that the driver’s door would unlock when I put my hand around the outside, driver’s side handle. There was an option to change the settings so that instead of just unlocking the driver’s door, that action would unlock all of the doors. My husband’s car was set to do that. It does make things easier when you have passengers. However, I told him I was not interested in changing the settings. I prefer to only have my door unlock. Passengers (mostly our kids and him) will have to wait when traveling with me. In a dark parking garage or a crowded but quiet parking lot, I want to know that the only door that can be opened is mine. As a woman, that’s a safety issue for me.

When I explained, my husband immediately understood. It wasn’t something he’d thought about before my explanation however. I think about this a lot when I read books, articles, blog posts, and updates on social media. When someone in the BIPOC community or LGBTQ+ community share a concern or issue that harms them, I try to listen. That concern or issue may not be something I have ever faced or considered. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real. It simply means I am privileged enough to not be challenged in that way and clueless enough to have missed it for others.

The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir by Michele Harper

This is something I’ve thought a lot about as I’ve read Michele Harper’s The Beauty in Breaking. The book is a memoir and Harper’s story is a powerful one. She has been a doctor in emergency rooms for many years and the stories she tells are powerful too. She is a Black woman and she spent many years in the ER of a VA hospital. There are so many perspectives there that differ from mine. So much for me to learn.

First of all, this book was very much the right book at the right time for me. I checked it out from the library and almost didn’t read it (as is true for about 75% of the books I check out because I am a very ambitious library patron). Having read it, I am placing an order for the book (from a local, independent bookstore I love) because it is a book I want to be able to pick up again and again and to loan to others.

There were many occasions in the book when Harper or one of her coworkers or one of the patients would describe a challenge they faced and my immediate response was skepticism. That quick, gut response. That response is now a sign to me that I need to slow down, take a pause, rethink and reevaluate my understanding. Again and again as I read Harper’s memoir, I found myself shifting in my perception and understanding of the society in which I live.

I can’t know all perspectives. I can keep trying to understand more and more of them. I am grateful to people like Dr. Harper for the time, energy, and love put into sharing these stories and helping me (and many others, of course) gain broader and deeper understandings.

Priorities Matter

I started my week in a meeting Monday morning with colleagues discussing family engagement. I don’t know all of these colleagues but the ones I do know I respect greatly. This was our first meeting so the committee chair kept things pretty open ended so we could be really flexible and creative with where we want to go in our work together.

Pretty quickly it was clear that we all value family engagement (not shocking, as we all opted to be on this committee) and we all want to find ways to support and engage families without overloading them more than we’re all overloaded right now. Many members of this committee are school staff who are not classroom teachers. They do a lot to support families in many different ways but all are aware that many families are likely falling through gaps in our support.

I have long felt that the most effective communication and collaboration with families (at least at the elementary level) come directly from classroom teachers. We are the most direct line and strongest connections. In our discussion, there seemed to be solid consensus around this idea. Everyone seemed to think families will be most likely to read things from their children’s classroom teachers and respond.

That led us to a discussion about how to make that happen. Asking teachers to do more without taking something off of their to do lists is something that is a norm. For years we’ve been doing that. Right now it is at an extreme. Instead, we brainstormed how we could advocate for the time and space for teachers to focus more on connecting with and reaching out to families that haven’t been responding. We talked about things we could suggest don’t need to be done at this moment or things that could be done by someone else (specialists, office staff, etc.) to give classroom teachers time and intellectual space for this instead.

We have to make decisions all the time. Often we pretend we aren’t making a decision and continue with the status quo. Continuing with things as they’ve always been is a decision, whether we want to face it or not. Over the years I’ve slowly (far too slowly) learned to question what I am doing, being told to do, or planning to do to consider if it truly fits my beliefs around teaching and learning and if it will actually serve the purpose it is aiming to serve. As a result, I long ago eliminated homework, tests (aside from those required by others), and many aspects of grading. I have given up a lot of control over our classroom space and instructional choices. It’s constant, never-ending work. It’s work that means I become a better teacher and do better for the kids (and families) I serve.

I’m rambling. Writing this well would take longer and I’m making a decision about my priorities right now. We can’t do everything. We should be thoughtful about what we do choose to do.

from our classroom last year when families came in to read with kids

Winning Elections

I voted in my first Presidential election in 1992. In 1996 I was freshly back from working on a cruise ship, mostly around Europe, when I voted in my second Presidential election. In 2000, I was teaching fourth graders and we dug deep into the candidates and issues in that election. (Those kiddos came in every day wanting to know who won. It was rough on us all.)

Voting in 2016 with my kids.

Then, in my late teens and 20s, I thought candidates won by convincing folks to vote for them. I thought they had to sway the most voters to their side. Maybe that was true then, but, looking back now, I don’t think it mattered that much. I don’t think that was the biggest factor.

By my 30s and 40s, I thought turning out voters was what had to be done. I believed most folks weren’t undecided, they just had to be convinced to make the effort to get out and vote. As I am currently in my 40s, this is where I’ve been most recently and is something I still think is a factor. Voter turnout can make a difference for candidates.

Now, however, as I read more history, follow more super smart IBPOC online, and pay attention to what is happening across the country, I’m convinced that swaying voters and turning out voters isn’t enough. At least not for Democrats. The voter suppression that has been a norm in the US since it’s very beginning can’t be ignored.

At the start, only a handful of folks could vote. White men who owned property. That left out a lot of people. Legally. Slowly the legal definitions for who could vote expanded. At this point, if you’re a citizen and 18 or older, you should be legally able to vote.

Should be.

There are legal reasons why people can’t vote. people who don’t have IDs that are considered valid. People who are incarcerated or formally incarcerated.

Then there are all the other ways people are kept from voting. Not enough voting locations in certain areas making it super hard for people who work on Election Day to also vote. Mail in ballots being questioned or thrown out. People showing up at voting locations and intimidating people.

I am certain there are far more voter suppression tactics I have missed. I recognize that my knowledge of various forms of oppression is more limited than it should be.

I have hit the point at which I believe that anyone who pays taxes should be able to vote. Are you 16 but paying taxes? Are you undocumented but paying taxes? I don’t care. Lower the voting age to 16 and allow anyone and everyone from 16 on up to vote. It should be a universal right.

Needing a Plan

Check ins have been important and “On a scale of…” ones are favorites for me.

It’s the end of the first quarter for our school district so today was an early dismissal day for students and Monday and Tuesday are teacher workdays. On Fridays I try to do some kind of quick check in before we all leave and today it felt even more important as we won’t be together as soon. So we shared roses and thorns. It was beautiful. Many of the roses were small things, reading to a younger sibling, getting to see a family member, wearing their Halloween costume. The thorns were mostly disappointments, not getting to go Trick or Treating, it’s getting too cold to sit outside and read a book. No one had to share and they didn’t have to share both roses and thorns. Whatever worked for them.

When everyone who has raised their hand has shared, I always ask if anyone else wants to share. I want to be sure they have every chance. Today, a girl who had already shared raised her hand. I asked her if she had another rose or thorn. She said no, that her little sister wanted to share. So she did. This four year old told us her rose and thorn before we left.

I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry.

That’s been true a lot lately.

This week I found myself working hard to be upbeat with my students. Both my third graders and my undergrads. I feel so frequently on the verge of bursting out in tears. The students, both the little ones and the big ones, lift me up. They help me feel hopeful. They make me smile.

The deep well of emotional uncertainty and pain don’t go away though. I don’t know if getting past the election – and getting a final result for the election – will help or not. It might, as feeling uncertain is definitely not a favorite feeling for me. Knowing where we are, whether I like it or not, could mean beginning to plan for a path forward. Maybe.

I know many teachers are feeling exhausted and beaten down. We’re working harder than ever and we feel like we’re doing less for our students than ever. That’s an awful way to feel. I’m equally sure we aren’t alone. I’m sure many people in many professions are feeling anxiety and depression and hopelessness. Some of the feelings may be related to the job and some feelings may have nothing to do with that. Whatever the reasons, many of us are feeling weighted down.

Kelly Wickham Hurst, one of my favorite human beings I’ve never met, wrote a thread today that I need to read again and again and internalize and live. I feel it because I definitely need a plan for Tuesday and the days to come (I have part of a plan for Tuesday that is definitely all about taking care of my mental health on that day). I also feel it because I need a plan in general. For months, as we’ve not known for sure what to expect next, how long we’ll need to be home and away from others, how likely we are to get sick, for months of uncertainty, I’ve been afraid to plan. I need to look at planning differently. I need to plan for how to care for myself, my family, and my students regardless of what anything else looks like. That’s possible, it’s just not how I’ve thought about it in the past. I have to shift my thinking and I’m grateful to Kelly for helping me get started.

(That said, I may also just need to watch a sad movie and have a good cry, too.)

Learning from Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Back in mid-August I began reading this book. I should finish it in the next couple of days. (Thank goodness for a library system that will automatically renew your books as long as no one has them on hold. At least, they’ll renew them three times which is just about long enough for me to finish this book.)

This is clearly an academic biography of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. It is an 800 page book, but the biography ends on page 660. The rest of the pages are endnotes and index. It’s intense. It’s also not what I was thinking of when I asked for recommendations on twitter back in August. I was thinking of a more popular style of biography. One that I could read quickly. This one has been read at a rate of 15-20 pages per day. That said, it’s an impressive book, I have learned a lot, and I’ll be thinking about it for a while to come, I’m sure. Now I’m looking for a good biography of Madam C.J. Walker, if anyone has any suggestions.

Before reading this book I could have told you Ida B. Wells (I didn’t even know she married and hyphenated her name) was a journalist. I knew she had worked for woman suffrage, because I read Lifting as We Climb. It was that book that made me want to learn more about her, actually. One of my first realizations was how little I knew about this woman.

I have many thoughts from this book and maybe, if my brain and emotional well-being requires it, I’ll write more on it. One thing that I’m not focused on today but is frequently on my mind due to this book is the reality of our history of lynching. I knew something about lynching but until reading this book (and from parts of White Rage), I really didn’t fully comprehend. Probably still don’t. I need to process that more so we’ll see if I end up back here on that topic.

Right now, however, I keep thinking about Wells and W.E.B. DuBois. I am sure I am wildly oversimplifying and quite possibly highly inaccurate in my assessment and thinking here and I am completely open to being corrected on this. As I’ve noted, I knew very little before this book. In my perception, DuBois believed that Black people would gain rights through education and, essentially, assimilation in the white world. Wells, on the other hand, believed that Black people would gain rights through changes in legislation advocacy, protest, and fighting back.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because of how relevant it feels right now. There are many folks who believe that the way forward follows DuBois’s beliefs. The idea that Black people must behave a certain way to be given their rights. We see this again and again with protests of all sorts. There are always some people arguing that protests shouldn’t be done that way. Whatever way that might be. It shows up with the arguments that Black people should follow directions given by police and they’ll be fine. In spite of plenty of evidence suggesting that isn’t true.

My sense is that these arguments are saying that if Black people become enough like white folks they’ll finally be granted the same rights and privileges. It feels like the idea is that to be a full citizen one must behave in certain ways. Citizenship is not a right for all but something that must be earned through proper behavior and education and hard work.

Others, following with beliefs more aligned with Wells, believe society should change. This take includes the idea that citizenship is a right for all, something that is assumed and not something that needs to be earned. So society must change the structures and systems that are keeping many people from full citizenship.

To oversimplify this even more, I see advocates for two ways to move to a more equal society. One group advocating for Black people to change to make it happen and the other group advocating for white people to change to make it happen. Given that the inequalities have been created by white folks, it seems like white folks are responsible for changing and creating a more just society.

One step I’m taking is to learn more about those structures and systems and the history behind them. Changing them won’t be easy but understanding where they came from will, I hope, provide some guidance on how to dismantle them. Another step is to listen to the many brilliant Black people who are doing this work and have been for a long time. That includes those who came before, like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and those who are doing the work in this moment. They know far more than I do and I intend to listen, learn, and follow their lead.

Still Figuring This All Out

One of my students this year can’t consistently participate in synchronous instruction. There are a variety of reasons for this, all of them valid. He’s an awesome kid with an amazing family and I miss having him in class regularly.

We (family and teachers) worked out an asynchronous plan for him. He is still doing all of the work and doing it well. Last week I made short screencast videos for him to explain assignments and do some quick teaching about content. I was also glad to have some kind of connection with him still.

Midway through last week I realized those videos could be helpful for all of my students. If they missed some information or directions or if they’ve forgotten what to do by the time they go back to finish something days later, the video could be useful. So this week I made the videos without talking directly to this student and attached them to the assignments in our google classroom. We’ll see if it helps.

I did make a few videos specific for this student, including a read aloud of a book. I am still glad for the individual connection with him through those.

Would I make these videos if it weren’t for this student? I don’t know. It’s not extra work for me, right now, as I’m already making them for him (that’s where it’s extra work). I’d like to think I would because I do think they’ll be useful for lots of kiddos. Again, I’ll guess I’ll see how this plays out. (It’s quite possible that making the videos will actually save me time in the long run as I won’t explain things as many times or repeat information. Maybe. If so, it’ll also be good for my mental health.)

#Educolor The Moment Is Now The Movement Is Now. Black T-Shirt Front

I was wearing my Educolor t-shirt at laptop distribution when I got the chance to meet this kiddo. Since then we’ve bonded even more with Hamilton references. Such joy.


No Good Answers

First of all, there are no good answers. Not only are there no right answers but truly no good answers. Nothing we do is going to truly serve everyone involved. We’re in an awful place and it is hurting everyone. It is definitely hurting some folks more than others, however.

Right now I am working harder as a teacher than I have ever worked in more than two decades of this career. At the same time, I am doing less for my students and their progress (academic, social, emotional) than I’ve ever done. I can’t do for them all they need and all I’m capable of doing in this virtual setting.

  • I can’t have a quick conversation with a student to check on how they are doing, academically or emotionally or whatever.
  • I can’t see the work students are doing to ask a prompting question or suggest a strategy or just engage them in conversation about it.
  • I can’t make quick, on the fly changes to group kids or offer kids breaks or whatever. (I can make some changes, but the virtual environment is far more rigid than our physical classroom.)
  • Things take longer in this virtual environment. Breaking into groups requires waiting for the software to move everyone into breakout rooms. Even if that only takes 5-10 seconds each time, it’s adding up. Wait time is longer because we can’t see each other to gauge people’s needs to talk or not.
  • Kids can’t talk to each other. They can’t turn and talk to a partner about a book we’re reading or the math strategies they’re trying. They also can’t just have a conversation for fun about anything they want.
  • We can’t glance back at our previous work on the board or the walls as we keep going. We can save our work (I’ve got plenty of screenshots of charts we’ve made and of student work) but we can’t just have it around us and visible to us all at any time.

Those are just a few of the challenges this current setting involves. And that’s just from my end of things. The challenges for families who are now serving as instructional aides for their young children while working from home or taking care of other kids or finding a safe place for their child to be while they are at work are also significant. The lack of social interaction and, for some at least, of physical activity for young children are more challenges. It’s not a good answer.

Going back in person isn’t a better answer. It might solve some of the above challenges, but it brings new ones. The most obvious is the risk of infection to students, staff, and the families of both. That’s a significant concern.

Going back in person doesn’t look like school looked a year ago. Many of the things that aren’t working in virtual learning are still not going to work. Kids won’t be able to work in small groups in meaningful ways. They won’t be able to turn and talk with a classmate. And they can’t all be in the classroom at the same time which means we either double the number of teachers or we have some kids in the classroom and others joining online at the same time. Oof.

from Thomas Cizauskas’s flickr

from Travis Wise’s flickr

There are no good answers.

The question, it seems to me, is what school means to us. Do we have to get kids back into school buildings so families can get back to something more like the normal we knew? What is the most important goal for schools? Teaching students academic content? Helping students grow as thoughtful, productive, caring people?

Until we decide that, we can’t know which of the possible options, none of which are good, is the one that makes sense. And when that decision is made by a district (or school or state or whatever) it will highlight the values of that organization. For better or worse, it will tell us what matters.

With the caveat that we often see what we want to see. So assuming that an organization that is returning in person doesn’t value teachers may not be accurate. It may be. But it may not. This is complex. And, no matter what, it sucks.

The Power of Stories

Last night I showed my undergraduates (I’m teaching a children’s literature course for a nearby university) this TED talk. I have long loved Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing (both fiction and nonfiction). This TED talk is one I have seen many times and still find thought-provoking each time.





My Wednesday night group is a fabulous one. They’re thoughtful and willing to share (either by speaking or putting things in the text). I had struggled with the best way to facilitate discussion of some sort after watching this. It’s a lot to take on and, in the best of situations, a challenging discussion. We are most definitely not in the best of situations and I’m not convinced we’ve established enough trust to engage in these types of conversations meaningfully. No matter how hard I’ve tried. The setting is a challenge and I’m inexperienced when working with undergrads.

So I created some interactive slides for sharing. Each slide asked the question, “What is a single story you know about…” with a different group. I tried to include groups who are often stereotyped in our society. So I had slides for people living with financial hardships, people in the LGBTQ+ community, people of middle Eastern ancestry, people who are overweight, people who are over 75 years old, people who are exceptionally wealthy, and such. I put digital post it notes on each page for students to record their thoughts.

I pointed out that they’d show up on these slides anonymously and suggested they could add single stories they don’t actually believe but that they’ve heard. We took about ten minutes to record thoughts and it was amazing. Students were writing on the slides and jumping back over to the chat to share their thoughts on what they were seeing. We took a bit to reflect on the slides at the end.

Many students remarked on how many of these stories they had heard. How frequently these stories are told in our society and how pervasive they are. One student mentioned how detrimental they are. Not only for the many people who are not in those communities, but for those who are. It began in reference to the stories told about people living with financial hardships, but it was quickly expanded to other communities. Even when you know that the stories being told about your community are not accurate, they are often still internalized and cause shame and challenges.

These stories are windows and mirrors in ways that are harmful and painful. Which makes me feel even more strongly about the importance of books that offer kids windows and mirrors in more meaningful ways (as well as tv shows, movies, video games, and more). Our kids deserve so much more.

So Much Book Love

There is so much beautiful, powerful children’s literature out there these days and it is such a gift. I am grateful beyond words to the authors and illustrators who are creating such art. Most of the time, I feel I don’t properly appreciate it. I like it, I enjoy it, I share it with kids, but I don’t always fully appreciate what is being given to us.

I am teaching two sections of a children’s literature course for undergraduates at a nearby university this fall. I’ve never done this before and it’s a serious undertaking and I am loving it. It is also helping me slow down and really bask in the books.

In our focus on contemporary realistic fiction, I read aloud Last Stop on Market Street and Carmella Full of Wishes, both written by Matt de la Pena and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Last Stop on Market Street was one of those books I fell in love with the first time I read it. I had preordered it when I was teaching kindergartners. I read it to them countless times that year. Scholastic offered a 5 book set of it in paperback and I ordered that as well. When the Spanish text came out, I got that one too. I definitely still have at least one paperback copy, my original hardback, and the Spanish book. Several of the paperbacks have been loaned out, to kids or teachers, and not made their way back home. I’m fine with that. The more folks with access to this book, the better.

Last Stop on Market Street: de la Peña, Matt, Robinson, Christian: 9780399257742: Books

There is nothing quite like reading this book to undergraduates and having them drop thoughts in the chat throughout. The lines that strike me, also struck them.

“Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, C.J., you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful”

I read that line and the chat lit up. It was awesome.

The experience with Carmella Full of Wishes was similar. We are focusing on reading with a critical literacy lens and these books led to such amazing conversations. Both books have so many issues to discuss without smacking you in the face with them.

My students explored poverty, homelessness, immigration, siblings, class, and more.

We dug into big societal and structural issues and explored gorgeous writing and illustrations. How can one book do that? It astounds me. And I am grateful to Matt de la Pena and Christian Robinson. Eternally.