Virtual Appreciation Note: SLA

I haven’t written one of these in a while and that feels wrong because my appreciation for a wide range of educators has only grown in the past few months. Watching others navigate online schooling or hybrid schooling or in person schooling with all the pandemic fears has increased my appreciation for educators in general and specific ones.

For the past decade, at this moment in time I would be prepping to head to Philly for Educon. The first year I went was the second year of the conference and I was beyond excited. Until I actually got to Philly and then I had serious imposter syndrome and asked myself what I thought I was doing there. When I finally psyched myself up enough to leave the hotel and head over to SLA it was so worth it. The students, the families, the conference sessions, the attendees, everything far exceeded my expectations. At the time, all of the students wore lab coats that said SLA on them as their school uniform. Lots of them were decorated in fabulous ways. I loved them. I will never forget summoning up the courage to go into Chris Lehmann‘s office and ask if I could buy a lab coat instead of an Educon t-shirt. I’m sure he found it somewhat odd, but he immediately made it happen. I also vividly remember Zac Chase being in the office and saying to me, with a knowing nod, “Nerd chic.”

The next year, my husband insisted on going with me to Educon and for the past decade it has been a joint venture. Our kids were quite young when we began going and it was like a special weekend away for the two of us. Educon has been a gift, both professionally and personally.

I am an elementary school teacher. I have never taught high schoolers and I don’t ever plan to do so. However, I have learned so much for time spent at SLA and from the teachers who work there. The way students are truly at the heart of everything, every decision, every change, is amazing. Many schools say, and I think, truly believe, that students are at the heart. But it’s rare to see it in action the way it is at SLA.

So many SLAers are people I call friends now. Which never ceases to amaze me. Chris Lehmann and Zac Chase co-authored a phenomenal book, one I love to pick up again and again when I need reminders of what we can do and should be in education. Each of them blogs (sometimes more often than other times) and being able to read their words and thoughts continues to inspire me to ask more questions, not accept the status quo, look more deeply, and push back. Diana Laufenberg hasn’t blogged in a while and I miss her voice there. It’s all good though because she has given me enough to last a lifetime through her tweets, her work in history and government education, and how much I’ve learned about life on a farm. Oh, and the travel tips! Diana is brilliant. And she makes sure it all gets done. With the focus where it needs to be. It’s really quite impressive but sometimes that’s hard to remember because she makes it all look so easy.

Educon isn’t happening this year and I truly think that’s the right call. A virtual conference would be a ton of work (not that an in person one isn’t but they’ve got a lot of practice with that) and it couldn’t really measure up to what we’ve known. Even as I know, intellectually, that I support the decision not to have Educon this year, it breaks my heart a bit. Not getting a weekend with the myriad educators that make their way to Philly, not being inspired and challenged to think more deeply and differently, not grabbing quick conversations with some of my favorite people in the world, I will deeply miss that. I am more grateful than I can say to everyone at SLA, not just the few named here, for all they do to improve education everyday. It is awe inspiring.

Nonfiction Today

As I’m really good at identifying all of the things I’m not doing well as a teacher (and beyond but that’s a whole other thing), here we go again. I started the year off well with some multi-day read alouds. We read some really fun fiction chapter books and the kids looked forward to that time every day. Our current language arts unit is a nonfiction one. We’ve read some awesome pictures books and I told the kids we’d start a longer book for our afternoon read aloud time. And then I couldn’t find anything I was excited about and thought they’d be excited about. And it was December and finding a good book was not a top priority.

Then I stopped to pick up books from the library one day and scanned the New Arrivals shelf. I grabbed a couple of possibilities. This one won.

I remember Kate Messner writing about it and about how she coauthored it with her sister. So far we’ve read the introductory information and we just started Mystery #1. The book starts off teaching about forensics and then has several mysteries for readers to solve, using what they learned. My third graders had many theories and predictions about evidence and suspects from just our first day in this mystery. I wasn’t sure we’d do all four of the mysteries in the book but now I think they won’t let me skip any.

The book is so thoughtfully designed and is super engaging. It is exactly what I wanted for a multi-day nonfiction read aloud.

For my own reading, I just started Christina Soontornvat’s All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys Soccer Team. I am frustrated that I need to teach and take a shower and do other things that take me away from the book. And I already know what’s going to happen! That is some compelling writing to pull me in when I remember the events clearly. The photos and diagrams and sidebars in the book are also phenomenal.

Both of these nonfiction books are ones I checked out from the library but am now ordering because I need to own them. It is wonderful to teach in a time with such fabulous nonfiction available for kids.

Never Certain

The older I get, the less likely I am to feel confident I am doing the right thing or even know what the right thing is. This week has been an extreme version of that. Part of it is not feeling as certain about anything I’m doing as a teacher in the virtual setting. Another piece is my own mental and emotional state after an attempted coup on our federal government, just a few miles away from our home.

My own children are 17 and 13 (the youngest will be 14 on Inauguration Day, a fact that is far more positive now than it was on the 10th birthday…) and I feel like I am doing okay addressing current events, be it the insurrection or racial inequalities (which is so insufficient to describe reality) or COVID or international events or whatever. We’ve always had frank conversations with our children and encouraged questions. They have strong feelings and speak up and out often. I’m glad we keep talking.

As a teacher, especially of young students, I am less sure. In the fully online world we’re in, I’m even less sure. In person, my students and I have had some difficult and important conversations over the years. It isn’t always easy but it is always worthwhile.

On Thursday, I offered my students information about the attack on the Capitol. I offered them ways to talk to me alone or to talk together about it. No one took those opportunities. I am unsure of what is next. Do I continue to offer? Do I make it more explicit? Do I let it go?

These two tweets fairly well sum up my struggle. I have immense respect for both of these educators and absolutely adore them both. They are brilliant, thoughtful, passionate, and lots of fun.

I think this is a huge concern. I’m totally with Val on this. I also know Val is seriously frustrated with parents who are not talking with their children.

And then, there’s this from Matt.

And I agree with that too.

I firmly believe that it is impossible to be sure we’ve made the right choice in education – or as parents, for that matter. Even in hindsight it is hard to know if the choice we made was the right one.

For now, I’m trying to find ways to make sure my students know they can talk to me about the attempts to destroy our democracy, either one-on-one or with others. I want to trust that my students know what they need and that my role is to give them ways to get that.

Too Many Days Like This

Nearly 20 years ago I was teaching 4th graders on 9/11. We live just outside of DC, only a few miles from the Pentagon. We didn’t have school on 9/12 because there were still so many unknowns in our area. On 9/13 I greeted my students and we gathered in a circle, as we did everyday. I let them speak. I listened. I reassured them they were safe as much as I could. I reassured some that they were not at fault for what had happened (as my students who were Muslim and Sikh had clearly gotten that message). We read books about hope and caring for others. We wrote about the same.

Four years ago I was teaching 3rd graders. Different school, but just down the road. On November 9th we gathered in a circle, as always. And I listened as my students processed. Fifteen years later and fifteen years older, I wasn’t as quick to reassure them they were safe. I reassured them that we, the adults in their lives, would do everything we could to care for them. The majority of my students, at that time, were 1st and 2nd generation immigrant children. Their fears were completely valid. I didn’t want to overpromise. I did want them to be able to be children.

Today is much farther into the school year than 9/11 or the presidential election. In some ways I know my students so much better than I did on those days. But being in school virtually means I don’t feel like I know my students well this year. (There are indications that I may be wrong about this but my feelings impact my choices here.)

I spent most of our five mile walk this morning (my husband and I try to walk most days) thinking about how to be there for my students today. Again, I’m in yet another school. Again, same school district so still nearby. We can’t sit down in a circle and be together. I didn’t want to force a conversation they didn’t want or need but I wanted to be sure they had the chance to talk if they wanted it.

I opted to take our hour after lunch to give them that opportunity. I dropped the plans I had and reintroduced Newsela to them as it had been a while since we used it. I offered them the choice to read there or to do the math activity that is typically a part of our Thursday routine. To make space and freedom, I put everyone in their own breakout room with the ability to move into other rooms. I told them they could come to the Main Room if they wanted to talk to me about what they were reading.

In the chat there were some comments about how quiet it was. The consensus seemed to be that it was kind of nice to have that quiet. Students used the chat for help when they had technical problems. Some came to the Main Room with me to get help on various things. No one came to talk about the events of yesterday.

Maybe they didn’t opt to read anything about it on Newsela. Maybe they did but they felt comfortable with their understanding. Either way, I hope it’s because they didn’t feel they needed to talk with me and not that they didn’t feel comfortable.

I looked back at my post from the day after the 2016 election. These images give me hope yet again. Those kids are 7th graders now. I hope they are all doing well.

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our-dreams

Looking for Words

It’s 4:45 pm on January 6, 2021 on the east coast of the United States as I open up this tab. For the past two hours I have been scrolling social media (and I have learned that my twitter lists are spot on for my needs) and actually watching C-SPAN. I don’t think I’ve ever watched C-SPAN in my life. I live about 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C. I love living here. On rare occasions, like today, I feel slightly nervous about living this close to that city.

I am a white woman. Very white. My kids can happily point out to you all of the ways I am and act white. So many. I look more like the extremists who stormed the U.S. Capitol this afternoon than I do the majority of people in this country. I look more like those terrorists than I do the two candidates who just won new seats in the U.S. Senate from Georgia, than the students I taught for two decades.

I do not consider those white nationalists my people. But that doesn’t matter. I have family members who I am sure support the rioters in our nation’s capital today. Whether I want to claim that mob, they are, in more ways than I care to count, my people.

I don’t know what is going to happen next. I am not convinced it is going to get better quickly, however. I am confident that the only way this changes is if white people, my people, do something. And in significant numbers. There are plenty of white folks who do not believe in white supremacy. As long as we, us white folks, all keep benefiting from it and not actively fighting it, however, nothing will change.

I don’t have an answer. Especially not right now as I wait to see if a city I love burns to the ground. It is something I think a lot about, however. And will keep thinking about. And need to keep writing about.

That said, I will still be a white woman. If you need suggestions on BIPOC educators or writers to follow on twitter or read their blogs or anything, please ask. There are so many brilliant, thoughtful, and passionate folks out there who share generously. I am happy to make recommendations.

from Senator Jeff Merkley’s twitter: Electoral college ballots rescued from the Senate floor. If our capable floor staff hadn’t grabbed them, they would have been burned by the mob.

Taking a Stand

I struggle with how to actively be an ally or accomplice or support for BIPOC, folks in the LGBTQ+ community, disabled individuals, and others. I am always afraid of screwing up. Given that I screw up regularly in many different ways, you’d think this wouldn’t be a big deal to me anymore.

This morning I drove to school. I’ve only done this a handful of times since March so it’s a bit of a big deal. That meant I listened to NPR on my drive. That was a norm for me for more than twenty years and I thought I’d miss it more than I have in the past nine months. Not being as completely and fully informed has likely been good for my mental health honestly. But I did enjoy it this morning.

One story has stuck with me all day. Apparently all five Grammy nominees for best children’s album are white.

All five.

In 2020-2021.

All of them.

The models for the next generation. All white.

So three of the five have declined the nomination. They have taken the stand that they do not want to be considered for an award if the pool is all white and therefore the bar is not the same for all performers.

Grammys 2021: Recording Academy criticised for 'disaster' Album of the Year  nominations | The Independent

I’ll admit I haven’t done any more research on this but, to the best of my knowledge, none of these groups has won a Grammy before. Declining such a nomination is significant. That is one thing white folks can do to make change. If a panel or a collection of authors or a team of teachers or group of award nominees are all white, we can stop the process and say that is not acceptable. We won’t be a part of an all white whatever-it-may-be.

My kids are 17 and almost-14, so they are a bit past the best-children’s-album age but I want to buy the newest albums for these three nominees and for the various BIPOC artists and groups they believe should have been nominated. (I already have some Ella Jenkins from when my kids were of an age for these albums.)

The Challenges are Huge

Today’s Washington Post has an article, What it’s like to learn online from inside a homeless shelter, that highlights the reality of online schooling for kids who are currently homeless. It’s worth a read. I’ve taught students who were living in homeless shelters and the challenges were significant before the pandemic. There is no question it is tough now, but it has certainly never been easy. It is just one more spotlight shining on the ways we, as a society, do not care for others.

Somehow this picture that I took when we went to see the planetary conjunction a few weeks ago feels just right here.

I teach on a military post so my students come and go regularly. Since early September, I have had three students join our class and five students leave it. I want to share the story (with some details changed for privacy) of one of those students because it is important that we know the reality for many of the kids in our care.

This student, Jessica (not the student’s name, but so many of my kiddos are J names this year so I decided to stick with that) had not responded to anything before the year began. I had reached out to all of my families multiple times and had scheduled online meetings with almost all of them before the first day. A few I had reached out to let me know that they had moved. Not surprising in our community. This was the only family I hadn’t heard anything from at all. I figured I’d see if she showed up on the first day before taking any more steps. I was assuming the family had moved.

On the first day, no Jessica. I decided I’d call at lunchtime. Still assuming the family had moved. I called and her mom answered. When I introduced myself and explained why I was calling, I learned that they’d had to move out in the past month for medical reasons. They had nowhere to go so the kids (Jessica and her older sibling) were with grandparents in one state and the parents were with family in another state. They were looking for jobs and a new home in yet a fourth state. I was so shocked I was almost speechless. I think I said something about how hard that must be and to let me know if we could help.

All afternoon and evening I kept thinking about this family and about how insufficient my response had been. The next morning, the second day of school, I texted this mom. I said Jessica was welcome to come to class no matter where she was, if she had a device and wifi. Mom and I went back and forth a bit to figure out what that might look like. She said she’d talk with the grandparents. That was Wednesday.

Thursday the grandparents went out and bought a chromebook for Jessica. Friday morning her grandmother called me to ask if they could wait until Monday for her to start class as the grandfather had been up super late setting up the chromebook and they were feeling stressed. I said of course and offered to talk over the weekend to figure out the details.

On Sunday we chatted to make sure they had all the links and everything they needed in place. On Monday morning Jessica joined us. They live in a rural area without strong internet so they were using their cell phones to connect her chromebook. She was in class every day. She was excited and engaged and a delight to have.

I texted with her mom fairly regularly about her progress and their plans. One Monday, about six weeks later, she let me know that Jessica wouldn’t be in class that day as they were traveling. They were all four going to be together as they made arrangements to move into a new home. Jessica now attends her local school in a new state (not here, not near her grandparents, and not near the other family members who her parents stayed with). Even when they were first in the new house she was joining us for school until she could be registered and begin locally.

I am thrilled things have worked out for her and her family. I am still astounded by how hard it was for her to attend third grade for the first two months of the year. Just a note, her older sibling, in middle school, did not attend school in all that time. That student fell through the cracks for a number of reasons. How many kids are falling through the cracks? Even if it is only temporarily, it is not okay. It is in all of our best interests to care for the kids in our communities. More importantly, it is the right and humane thing to do.

Reading Widely

According to Goodreads I read 179 books in 2020. Looking back over them, just briefly, fewer than 10% were written by white men. As my goal is to read no books by white men, that’s actually higher than I expected. Books by white women, on the other hand, are a significant percentage. That is clearly my comfort zone. A quick estimate suggests that about 40% of the books I read were written by IBPOC. Looking back at the 134 books I read in 2013, that percentage is significantly lower. It is reassuring to find that I am making progress on my goal of reading a much more diverse collection of authors, even as I know I have a long way to go.

The last books I finished in 2020.

The fact is that the majority of books that are published are written by white folks. The majority of books that are widely promoted are written by white folks. It is easy to read books by white authors (especially white male authors). As long as we keep doing so, we continue to have a publishing industry that sees that as the demand and that remains the focus.

This is even more true when the books we offer students, either as options or requiring them, are overwhelmingly by white authors. We purposefully continue the cycle. As an elementary school teacher, I don’t require that my students read books (aside from ones we read in guided reading groups – everything else is their own choice) but I do have control over our classroom library. It has taken thoughtful effort to curate a classroom library that is more diverse. For many years my classroom library was majority, a significant majority, white authors.

My students have had a diverse classroom library thanks to many educators and librarians, many of them BIPOC, who generously share online about new books. The four brilliant folks who founded and continue #DisruptTexts are some of my favorites. The work they are doing is critically important for our current and future students. They are far from alone, but they are high enough profile to have been attacked in a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (I feel no need to link to it here).

Why have we, as a society and especially as educators, decided that the books most worth reading are written by white men and a handful of white women? Can we not recognize the systems that have always valued those books over any others? We, as a society, as educators, and for our children, can do so much better.

Broken

Back in August or September we realized and accepted that this year’s holidays would not be what we would have liked. Without some drastic changes in the reality in which we were living, we knew we would spend Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years on our own, as we’ve spent the majority of 2020. It was disappointing, but not the worst possible thing.

The fall has been a challenge for all of us, adapting to teaching and learning virtually and without all of social interactions we clearly need. As a family of four we are immensely fortunate for many different reasons. We have plenty of space to be together or apart at home. We have outdoor areas to enjoy. We have, for nine months now, gotten along far better than anticipated. For all of that I am truly grateful.

The theater near my school. Onward is either ironic or a mantra I need to adopt.

And yet.

At the end of Christmas Day I broke. Completely. For three days now I’ve been broken.

Final revisions on my book manuscript are due in a few weeks and I keep opening and closing drafts. There are piles of stuff in our kitchen area left from reorganizing and cleaning cabinets and I look at them and walk away. When I sleep I have strange dreams that feel almost like hallucinations.

For three days I have been unable to do the basic things. I’ve had trouble even interacting with my family (who, I’m sure, feel lost just as I do about this).

A part of me is frustrated because I know how much worse this time could have been for me and for all of my family.  I know all the ways things are good for us.

And yet.

Writing this has been hard. Writing is a coping strategy for me. It is a way of processing and working through things. I don’t feel processed. I don’t feel less lost. How much longer that will be true, I do not know.

Writing this has been for me because writing, typically, helps me. It is also for anyone else who may be feeling this way.

Valuing Writing

TL;DR Writing should be a much more significant focus in our classrooms.

I’m going to start off by admitting that this is a realization I should have reached long ago. I spent my first 16 years of teaching in a school with some of the most brilliant colleagues and thoughtful professional development anywhere. In those years I gained a lot of experience with how children learn, especially when it comes to reading and writing. (Instead of what so many teachers get, which is how teachers teach. How children learn is far more important.) I have also been involved in the Northern Virginia Writing Project for a number of years. I’ve been writing here, relatively regularly, for almost sixteen years. So the value and  benefits of writing should have been clear to me much sooner.

In addition, for many years I’ve thought we should do a far better job of connecting reading and writing. I love reading workshop and I love writing workshop for the choices students have and the time to truly read and write. I don’t love that having separate workshops gives students the impression that reading and writing are distinct and unrelated things. At least a decade ago I smushed the two workshops together and my first graders had LAB (language arts block). We began with one focus lesson, spent the next 90 minutes or so reading and writing in various ways (independently, in small groups), and then came back together to share. The connections between reading and writing were explicit and transparent.

In our current, virtual setting, I have returned to that LAB structure. We only have 90 minutes for language arts. Trying to do two focus lessons and two shares, especially with the chance of technical challenges, was eating up all our time. So we opted to try this out. It’s not quite as fluid as what my first graders were doing years ago, but it is definitely far more connected than a typical reading and writing workshop are.

Currently our students are in the midst of a nonfiction unit. As I’ve been planning this unit, both for reading and writing, looking closely at texts, and writing for the prompts I will be giving the students, I’ve decided that writing should be a much bigger focus.

The process of writing, especially on a topic or story that is of genuine interest to you, really forces you to understand how text works. We are looking at mentor texts, reading them, learning from them, and analyzing what the author did to organize and share information. Then we try out those same ideas as writers. Doing the writing we are also reading is clicking on some lightbulbs. Students are connecting ideas and noticing what authors are doing. They are reading with a new lens.

I have felt most comfortable with this in nonfiction for some reason. That’s okay, for now. It’s my stepping stone to take this on more broadly. My students are always writing in the genre or style that we’re reading, at least some. I work to balance my expectation that they are trying on the genre with my belief that they should have choice in their writing. Sometimes I’m better at it than other times.

Our next unit will be focused on traditional tales. When I reflect on how we’ve done it in the past, I realize the skeleton is there. I’ve had students take what they’re reading and use what they’ve learned for their writing. Now I want to be sure I’m building a two-way bridge between the reading and writing. I’ve frequently fallen into the trap, a very common one in education, I think, of valuing and prioritizing reading over writing. I’ve seen reading as a way to help students grow as writers. I haven’t been so thoughtful about the flipside.

Writing this has helped me clarify my own thinking. Just another reason we should be having students write and helping them do so a lot more.