Reasons I Love My Job

One reason? This conversation with one of my third graders:

G: Do you know what next Friday is?
Me: Noooooo…I know this Friday is Field Day. (What can be more important than Field Day?)
G: It’s Friday the 13th.
Me: Oh, that’s right. One of my daughter’s friend’s has a birthday that day.
G: Oh. Well, some people say it’s when a Spanish singer died and he comes back as a ghost. Supposedly it’s really scary.
Me: I didn’t know that. But I noticed you said “some people” and “supposedly” so maybe it’s not really true.
G: Yeah, some people, like ME!

 

Another reason, this second grader dressed for picture day:

Another teacher remarked that she looked like she was ready for Hogwarts. Just made me love the outfit even more. And she totally rocked it.

 

One final reason (for the moment anyway), is that this year’s kiddos have such love for books. They groan when I put down our chapter book read aloud. We’re on our third one for the year and they’ve done it with all of them. They also clap when I finish reading a picture book. And we’ve read plenty of those! They are even encouraging when I read them a book in Spanish (because my Spanish is far from what I would like it to be). When it comes to books I feel like I have a classroom full of mini me’s.

Our Lived Experiences Have Power

Somehow this picture of one of my students carrying her books back from the library seemed just right. Not sure why.

In writing about the NFL players protests recently I was thinking about how difficult it often is for us, as human beings, to see beyond our own lived experiences. It is a challenge to recognize, much less understand, how different someone else’s experience can be. It requires genuine effort and care to do so and especially to do so well.

Those thoughts came back to me in my classroom this week and I realized how guilty I’ve been of doing the same thing with my students over the years (far less so in recent years, I believe, but there are a lot of years on which to reflect). For a very long time I projected onto my students reasons for behavior that I understood and knew. When they were not sitting still or making annoying noises or clicking their fingers together even after I’d asked them not to again and again and again, I was sure they were doing it to get to me. I assumed students were behaving in certain ways to get attention, to annoy adults, or to manipulate others. Those are things adults (and quite possibly older students) do. But elementary students are not miniature adults. They are young children who are still learning to control themselves in various ways and to understand all of our social norms. It’s far more likely they are not sitting still or making annoying noises or clicking their fingers together because they can’t help it and, most likely, don’t even realize they are doing it. I spent many years punishing or chastising children for not behaving as my lived experience suggested they should.

I also know I committed the same sin in the exact opposite direction. I didn’t take my lived experience into account when considering how I treated my students. I required behavior or work from students that would seriously irritate me if requested by my boss. I talked to students in ways that I would never accept from others. As the adult, the one who has more lived experience than anyone else in the classroom, there are certain things I’m willing to accept about the power I hold. However, my students are human beings who should be treated with respect. I’m far better now at imagining myself in their shoes and questioning whether or not my behavior is reasonable. I feel for those classes I taught before I came to this realization.

Our lived experiences have power. That power can be positive or negative, mostly depending on whether or not we are conscious of how our lived experiences are impacting us.

More on Working on More Them, Less Me

Before school started I wrote about having my students set up our classroom library rather than doing it myself. I knew it would be more time consuming and require a lot more effort, but I decided it would be worth it. It has been time consuming. It has required a lot of effort. And it’s been worth it. Not that we’re finished yet. But still worth it.

One of the things slowing us down is that my students are stopping and reading significant portions of books as they sort and they’re engaging in conversations with great excitement about the books they’re finding. The energy around books and reading in our classroom is astounding. I see it during independent reading but also when I read aloud or when I do book talks. When my students go to the school library they are rushing around trying to find certain authors or series or books. It is beautiful.

There are a few things I’m having to let go of in this process. One is wanting it all done now. The fact that we’re in the fifth week of school and still working on our classroom library is causing me some pain. I have to keep taking a metaphorical step back and looking at what is happening as readers every day.

One of the reasons I hesitated for many years about doing this was that I didn’t believe the students would organize the library the way I would. Of course they won’t. Also of course, they’re the ones using the library, not me. So I’m having to accept that they’re placing books in categories that don’t seem optimal to me. The library needs to work for them. They are creating it.

Of course, I do seem to have some lines in the sand I’m not willing to cross. I was moving one of the piles into a basket recently and found these four books. The category was Mysteries.

I understand why each of these books was placed into that category. And yet. I decided these required a conversation. If, after talking about these books with a little more depth and detail, the kids decided they belonged in Mysteries, that would happen. (I’d still cringe but I’d go with it.) Because it’s their library.

 

(I should have said this in the last post, but the title comes from one of Gary Stager‘s mottos: Less Us, More Them.)

#TakeAKnee

I’m late to getting at this and you may be over it already, but I think it’s still worth some discussion. As I’ve engaged on social media about the NFL players protests – not protesting the flag or the anthem, by the way, no matter what people are saying – I’m noticing a couple of things.

  1. There’s a difference in perspective as to whether or not the protest is offensive. In my eyes, players kneeling with their hands over their hearts during the anthem is about as respectful a protest as one could get. They are doing nothing to disrupt the anthem. They are making a quiet stand. However, it’s clear that many find this offensive.
  2. I believe there’s a difference in perspective as to whether or not the protest is necessary. Some folks seem to believe that the Civil Rights Movement fixed our racial problems and that any problems we might have left are no longer about racism. I can’t feel more strongly in disagreement with that.

Reflecting on those two differences in perspective between folks on opposite sides of this issue has me noticing two more things.

  1. It is very difficult to see past our own lived experiences. That’s a normal human issue. We extrapolate from our experiences to the wider world. (Heck, we teach kids to do this, to connect their life and experiences to others and books and events.) However, if we can’t take the perspective of another and genuinely try to see how their life and experiences might differ from our own, we will never be able to understand others. I’ve heard from several folks that they worked hard to get where they are and everyone needs to just do that. Or that they served in the military and others need to respect that. There is a clear expectation that others understand and respect their lived experiences without doing the same for others.
  2. This is the big one. We, as white people, are not willing to look at, to analyze, to even admit to our own racism. We can pretend this problem doesn’t exist and no protests are needed if we pretend we aren’t racist. (Much less if we pretend the entire system isn’t racist.) I hate to say it, but I know I am racist. It is something I have to actively fight against regularly. I have to step back and notice how I respond to a Black man walking down the street, how I assume a person’s whiteness when I hear them on the radio as an expert. I need to notice these reactions in order to make them less likely to happen in the future, in order to be less racist.

Avenue Q is a fun musical that it can be hard to take seriously. But the song, Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist, has always made me laugh and feel pained. If you don’t know it, take a few minutes and listen and recognize that we are all racist. Pretending it isn’t true isn’t helping anyone.

My favorite, also funny and painful, take on this comes from The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah. He takes just a minute to explore how best Black people should be protesting and ends up, as I have ended up in every conversation I’ve had about this, coming to this realization:

If you’re struggling with this issue (although, chances are if you’re reading this you aren’t struggling at all) I highly recommend taking five minutes to watch this video of Nick Wright talking about the protests. Normally I won’t watch videos more than about two minutes but I did watch this one and I’ve now watched it a number of times. Wright hits on so many of the problems I have with people’s distaste for these protests. He also takes some time to explain the history, about how Colin Kaepernick was originally sitting during the anthem until a Navy SEAL reached out to him and suggested that he kneel as that’s more respectful. Kaepernick listened, found meaning in what the man said, and began kneeling instead. If only we could all listen so respectfully and meaningfully.

#M4RJ and #M4BW

Yesterday my youngest and I headed into DC for the March for Racial Justice and the March for Black Women. We marched back in January but we hadn’t marched since. I knew we’d only make it for part of the event as an all-day protest is a bit much to ask of a ten year old. (It had also been a ridiculously long week for me with far too little sleep so my own stamina was in doubt.) As a result, we headed in after the early speakers and met up with the marchers a little way into the route.

It was amazing to stand near the United States Capitol and watch and listen as the marchers headed toward us. We watched for a few minutes and then merged into the group. I felt hesitant as we did. I wasn’t certain we belonged. But being there was important to me and it was clearly important to my daughter. So we marched from the Capitol to the Department of Justice to the Trump International Hotel and on to the Mall. We listened to amazing drummers and musicians marching nearby and read brilliant signs. When everyone took a knee we joined them. We chanted Black Women Matter and What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! along with others.

But I never felt completely comfortable. I think my daughter did. I don’t think she felt differently marching yesterday than she had felt in January. For me, our otherness was always there. I am not a Black woman. I am not facing racial injustice. I felt a bit like an impostor at the march. For the record, no one at the march made me feel that way. I recognize this is all my own issue.

Being there, and being there with my daughter, was important to me. She had many questions throughout and my answers often made her quite angry. She asked at one point if Trump would hear us and I explained that he was in New Jersey golfing. She asked who paid for that and I told her we do. She was irate. Later she saw a sign that said, Voter ID = Jim Crow. My explanation of that one also made her angry. I finally told her that she was angry because she’s paying attention.

This is the sign that almost made me cry. My daughter asked me to explain it too. We talked about how it was clearly too late for me to march so that she doesn’t have to. That now we’re marching in the hopes that her children live in a world that is more equitable to all.

Too often I don’t do or say things because I am uncomfortable. Yesterday I didn’t let that discomfort stop me. Too often I think we, as white people, are unwilling to be uncomfortable.

I am thankful to all of the Black women and people of color who organized yesterday’s march. Comfort has never been an option for them. It’s time for it to stop being an option for so many of us as well.

More signs here and some great photos here and a bit of coverage here.

Mistakes Were Made

from Tim Green’s flickr

As some friends and I walked to dinner in Austin Friday evening we were surprised to hear a crash just behind us. We turned around to see two cars had collided, not terribly, but enough. We stopped briefly to see if we could figure out what happened. Car A was heading down a street, into an intersection. Car B was heading into the same intersection, ninety degrees to Car A. Car B had a stop sign. Car A did not. I feel confident the driver of Car B stopped and looked before entering the intersection. But there was a large delivery truck parked on the other street, blocking the view of Car A. It was an accident in every way. The driver of Car B, who caused the accident, at least according to the rules of the road, likely did all she could to do things right. And still there was an accident.

I felt for both drivers. No one seemed to be hurt, fortunately. But I’m sure both drivers are looking at hassles as they deal(t) with police, insurance, and repair shops. My greatest empathy, however, was for the driver who would be found at fault. She did her best and still screwed up. That stinks.

How often is that true? How often do we do our best and still make mistakes? I think it happens all the time. It’s an awful feeling. When things don’t go well because we didn’t make an effort, it’s not good, but it doesn’t beat us down in the same way. Car B’s driver was likely feeling quite demoralized and questioning what she should have done differently. Having seen the situation, I’m skeptical there was anything she could have done to avoid the accident. She did her best and still screwed up.

I think that it happens often, not just for us, but for our students too. They do their best and it still isn’t good enough. They do their best and still screw up.

A colleague mentioned to me recently that in her son’s kindergarten class there is a behavior chart. You know what I mean, with the clips that move up and down based on behaviors. The children in that classroom may do their best, still make mistakes, and have to move their clip down. Not only will they then be dealing with the feeling of having screwed up but also with the public shaming of it. Not unlike the driver in Austin.

Space to make mistakes, even when we try our best, maybe especially when we try our best, is critical for learning. Kids (and adults) will stop taking risks, stop stretching, stop aiming high, if trying their best and screwing up means they’re punished. Whether that punishment is a grade or moving down the behavior chart. Either way we’re sending the message that making a mistake is to be avoided at all costs.

We stopped briefly on that street in Austin to assess. That’s what we adults need to do regularly. Stop, pause, consider the situation. Recognize the ways in which that child (or other adult) tried their best. Accidents will happen. They don’t have to be the end of the line.

Normal is Relative

One morning this week I walked into our classroom and was struck by a bit of cognitive dissonance. I walked in thinking about how comfortable and normal our classroom felt to me. Then I thought about how much our classroom isn’t normal at all. A brief reminder that whatever your normal is seems completely normal without some external reminder or push to suggest it’s not.

At first glance, it looks like most elementary school classrooms.

A nice bright rug, easel, places for books, even a SmartBoard. Pretty standard fare.

A little closer though and I take stock of the things that make people pause when they enter our room.

The black thing behind this table is a piano. In kindergarten and first grade we used it to sing and dance a lot. In third grade last year we hardly used it. This year I’m hoping to use it to sing (school appropriate) pop songs my kiddos know. I’m especially looking for ones that are powerful and send a message of empowerment. Planning to kick off next week with some songs from Moana.

The couch is often a topic of discussion when people visit our room for the first time. My mom bought it years ago, decided after a while that it really wasn’t what she wanted, and passed it on to some young colleagues of mine who were in need of furniture. When they all moved on and no longer needed it, it came back to me and I decided I wanted it in our classroom. I’ve had it for ten years now and I can’t imagine not having a couch.

In the left-hand corner here there is a floor lamp. It’s one of four, one in each corner, in our classroom. There are also two strands of rope lights (like holiday lights but brighter and tougher) above the whiteboard and a bulletin board. We don’t ever turn on our overhead lights. They are too bright and too harsh. Between a wall of windows and these lights we’re all set and in a much warmer setting.

We’ve got flexible seating in our room. Tables with typical school chairs, the white table above with folding chairs, a table with stools, a couple of tables for sitting on the floor, and a table for standing. Plus, bean bags and little spinny chairs. Lots of choices and no need to stay in one place if it isn’t working for a child.

That’s all been true in or room for a while, which is why it seems so normal to me. This year I added one piece of furniture.

Now kids have the option to take their shoes off in our classroom.

My hope is that our classroom is a place in which everyone is comfortable because without that it’s awfully tough to focus and even tougher to take risks. I’m sure there are ways our space doesn’t work for everyone (it doesn’t work for me when the kids leave it a mess!) but that’s always my goal. No matter how odd it makes our classroom seem.

Hearts and Love

On the first day of school we read this book. The photographs throughout are all of hearts found or created in surprising places. It’s beautiful. It’s also all about spreading love. Reading it didn’t take long but it’s a fun one to go back to again and again.

At least three weeks later, as my students were eating fruit for snack (our school is part of a program that provides fresh fruits and vegetables several days a week) this happened:

One girl noticed that she had taken a bite of her fruit and left a heart. She shared it with a friend who suggested she show it to me because it was like the book. Of course, then everyone wanted to make a heart in their fruit!

The original girl was so sweetly appreciative of her friend’s suggestion and her friend’s excitement. At the end of each day I’m pretty exhausted. I’m sure I’m not always as patient or kind as I should be to these eight year olds. I’m grateful to them for reminding me to spread the love.

Third Graders and Conversations about Racism and Sexism

This was our morning message yesterday:

At the end of our morning meeting each day we read our message together. After reading it today I asked my third graders what they noticed about who signed the Constitution. Their first thoughts were to begin guessing who might have signed it. “Thomas Jefferson!” “George Washington!” I said we’d have to do some research on that, but redirected them to the message and asked what they noticed there about who signed it.

One girl said, “Men.” I asked them if I would have been able to sign it if I had lived then. They said no because I am a woman. I then told them that the thirty-nine men who had signed it all looked a lot like me, with very pale skin. Not one of them had dark skin.

My students, on the other hand, all do. Of my nineteen third graders, sixteen are Latinx, two are Vietnamese, and one is Black.

We talked briefly about how our government now does have women and people of color. (Not enough by any stretch, but we didn’t get to that. Not yet.)

I asked them how long ago this was that only white men could be a part of our government. One of my students figured it out pretty quickly, with some pretty awesome math.

I hope that my students feel the possibilities in knowing something of what our country was 230 years ago and what it is now. We have so far to go still, but knowing progress has been made should give some hope.

This was a brief conversation but I think it was an important one. My students are eight years old. They should not be taking on the entire world and I have to walk a fine line. I want them to understand the challenges in their lives due to the structural racism and sexism we face but I also want them to believe in their abilities to be and do many things. Especially to be a part of continuing to improve our society for all of us.

In a Rut

As I may have mentioned at some point this is my 20th year in the classroom. I’m starting to wonder if it will be my last. I’ve hit slumps in the past, times when I knew what I believed in doing but wasn’t actually doing it. I changed grade levels or began teaching our gifted class to mix things up and get me rolling again. Not only did I get rolling again but I grew a lot as I looped with a class (twice), taught our gifted class, and moved from the upper grades down to first grade and then kindergarten. It’s been amazing and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And (mostly) I believe my students have benefited from being in my class.

This year I adore my class. I knew half of them from kindergarten, either because I taught them or because I worked with them in some other way. The work we’ve done as a school around academic talk is showing amazing benefits. I’m working with a special education teacher this year (who is awesome) who takes five of my kiddos for a good portion of the day. I’ve always worked with a push-in model so this is new for me. Teaching only fourteen kids for much of the day is fantastic and adjusting to when I have all nineteen and have to address needs very differently is an interesting challenge. I have no complaints. I mean look at them. They’re awesome.

 

And yet.

For all the things that I am doing well as a teacher there are so many that I’m doing badly. I’m not suggesting I’m a bad teacher. Simply that there are too many things, and things that matter a lot to me, that I think are not good at all.

I can’t figure out what’s got me in this rut when it comes to some aspects of teaching this year. That’s part of the problem. If I could figure out why it’s happening, I’d be far more likely to be able to figure out how to fix it. Instead, I go in every day with the best of intentions and, somewhere during the day, slip right back into behaviors that I hate.

I’m not looking for reassurance that I’m a good teacher. Whether I believe that or not, there’s plenty of reassurance for me. What I need is to figure out why I’m stuck like this or how on earth to turn things around. I believe students deserve better than what mine are getting from me right now.