Requiring the Pledge

I live and teach in Virginia, one of many states that requires the Pledge of Allegiance be recited by public school students every day.

Virginia law:

According to the law (as I know that may be tough to read), school boards must require the daily recitation and display of the flags in all classrooms. However, “no student shall be compelled to recite the Pledge if he, his parent or legal guardian objects on religious, philosophical or other grounds to his participating in this exercise.” I’m not sure if this means students can only not participate if they have some reason they can express for that choice but I will say I have never forced a child to say the pledge in my classroom. I should also note that it has been rare that students have not just automatically stood up and recited the pledge.

My school board’s policy is pretty similar to that:

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately for some reason. In my first few years of teaching my school did a morning news show and the pledge and minute of silence were a part of it. Then we dumped the news show because of the amount of instructional time it was taking and teachers did the pledge and minute of silence on their own. Which meant they didn’t happen in my classroom. I don’t feel strongly against either, but also don’t really see the value and so didn’t prioritize them.

I’m not even remotely convinced that having students say the pledge every day makes them better citizens of this country. Repeating words every day, in my opinion, makes them lose their meaning. If they had any meaning to young children anyway. (This may not be true for all people, but I feel confident young children, elementary aged students, are not internalizing any meaning from repeating the pledge on a daily basis.)

Last year my school started a morning news show so the pledge is back in my daily routine. There is  much I like about the way our morning news show is done so this is just fine with me. I have, however, noticed that the way I personally deal with the pledge has shifted.

In my first few years of teaching I recited the pledge with my hand over my heart. I’d done it as a student for thirteen years and so continued doing so without much thought. In recent years both of my daughters’ schools did the pledge and they shared their thoughts.

They both stand and recite the pledge but don’t say ‘under God.’ Their father is a historian and they are aware of the complicated history of those two words, which were not added to the pledge for many years. They also both have strong feelings about the separation between church and state and, so, have chosen not to say those two words.

For a bit I followed their lead (as I often do – they teach me so much). I stood with my hand over my heart and said the pledge, omitting those two words. Then I gradually began standing with my hand over my heart but saying nothing. Reciting the pledge every school day for the thirteen years I was a student and now for nearly a decade of my teaching career (as there were those years it didn’t happen) it has no meaning for me. Repeating it is something I’m doing only because it is what we are all doing. I feel no need for that. I try hard to have a why for the things I do in my classroom and I can’t find a good answer for myself for why I should say the pledge. So I stand quietly, respectfully, and look at the flag during the pledge.

Last month we buried my grandfather in a military cemetery and had a full military funeral. He served several years in the army during WWII (luckily he was young and entered the military near the end of the war and never saw active fighting). My father also spent several years in the army, his stint during the Vietnam War. He was also lucky and spent his time being trained in Russian and living in remote Alaska translating radio messages.

I feel immensely lucky to have been born in this country. I vote in every election (and I do mean every – primaries, local, state, and federal). I believe in the United States, the power, the potential of this country. I just don’t believe requiring the recitation of a pledge of allegiance is meaningful.

Listen for the Request in the Complaint

This class was weeks ago and I tweeted the statement because I wanted to remember it. I remember it. That fact owes some credit to the number of people who responded to the tweet.

As I was in an instructional coaching class, I heard this statement in reference to colleagues. The more I thought about it, the more I recognized what I am often trying to say when I complain. (Just yesterday afternoon I whined to a couple of colleagues about not wanting to go to a short meeting after school. The request in that complaint was crystal clear. That said, the meeting was short and  well run and I survived.)

I have often responded to my colleagues’ complaints with empathy because we are all in the same boat. I get their frustrations (or at least I think I do or try to do so). But I haven’t gone a step further to think about the bigger message behind the complaints.

Most of the time, when we complain we are using that as a coping strategy, I think. Complaining is a way to handle the stress or frustration or anger or sense of helplessness. I don’t think we are often aware that our complain houses a request. At least, I know I’m not consciously aware of it. In the past few weeks I’ve become more aware, after hearing this in class.

As the listener, having empathy for the complaint as well as hearing the request is an amazing thing to be able to do.

Many of the folks who read the tweet read it with a different lens (as I am inferring). They thought about the request in student complaints. I hadn’t considered that perspective and it fascinated me. I’m so glad for the responses that helped me consider that as well. If we, as adults, are struggling with recognizing that our complaints really couch requests, it would be absurd to think that children recognize that. So thinking about their complaints as containing requests is quite intriguing.

Listen for the request in the complaint. That’s a new goal for me – for my own complaints and for those from others.

Today’s Big Achievement

This might not seem like it should be such an achievement, but believe me it is. Several years ago our youngest was in first grade. I was also teaching first graders at the time. In fact, we were right across the hall from each other.

That year we had two weeks off for the winter break. I think it was the first time we’d had such a long break. I was used to having a little over a week off. So this felt like a significant gift.

Near the end of our break my daughter and I were chatting about going back to school and talking about her friends. She was sharing all the kids she was looking forward to seeing again and then she mentioned one little girl who had been in her kindergarten class. I said, “Oh Carla (we’ll call her Carla), I remember her. She’s a sweetheart. Is she in your class this year?”

My almost-7-year-old gave me a withering look and slowly said, “Mom. She’s in YOUR class.”

That’s when I realized that two weeks might be too long for me to be away from my students.

Grading Sucks

I’ve long had issues with grades. Possibly this goes back to when I spent 6 of the 8 quarters of my middle school years grounded because of my grades (Cs). But maybe not. Regardless, grades have been a bee in my bonnet for the great majority of my teaching career.

from Kyle Harmon’s flickr

When I have adjuncted and taught grad students it has been even more frustrating to me. Grades felt like a judgement and I did not feel qualified to judge. I had plenty to offer as their professor, but judging their work seemed a step to far. Offering feedback was fine (if more work) so I did plenty of that.

My district moved to standards-based report cards at the elementary level some years ago. That was a step in the right direction, in my mind, but only a baby step. The end of each quarter causes me to be super cranky as I have to input grades for my students.

If the purpose of grades is communication with families I believe we are falling far short. Let’s say a kid gets a B in math for a quarter. What does that mean? Does it mean that child is above average in math? Could it mean that the child seriously excelled in the geometry unit but struggled in the fractions unit and that averaged out to a B? How on earth would parents get that information from a letter grade on a report card? If our goal is to communicate student progress to parents we need a better option.

Then I read this article from the New York Times, When Report Cards Go Out on Fridays, Child Abuse Increases on Saturdays, Study Finds. I don’t really need to say more. That headline pretty well speaks for itself. (If it doesn’t, click through and read it. Even if it does, it’s worth a read.)

I believe grades are far more about competition than they are about communication. Unless kids are making As, and maybe some Bs, parents tend to get upset. In spite of the fact that those letters often mean very little. We’ve got our kids chasing a brass ring but the destination is constantly moving because different teachers assign grades in different ways. But we’ve made grades the end all and be all of education. We’ve made letters on a progress report more important than learning students are doing. We’ve shifted the focus because it’s difficult to compare student learning but it’s easy to compare student grades. That is a terrible thing to realize about our system.

Seeing the Big Picture?

Last Sunday a seven year old girl was shot and killed. She was in her car with her mother and siblings in a Walmart parking lot in Houston, Texas. Her name is Jazmine Barnes. This is her.

Jazmine Barnes

Since Sunday I have seen news of this killing on twitter again and again. It is a story I could not have missed. As a result, I assume that it is a well known story. I have a tendency to believe that if I am aware of something or knowledgeable about something (outside my professional area of expertise) then it must be something that is common knowledge.

I am wondering how true this is. Is Jazmine’s story known to a significant percentage of people in the US? A quick google search shows articles from a decent range of news organizations: CNN, BBC, Washington Post, NPR, The Guardian (interesting that the first page of results for me showed up with two British news organizations). But while the story seems to have been covered by many organizations, it doesn’t seem to have gotten that much coverage.

As I reflect a little more, I realize I’ve seen Jazmine’s story on twitter many times but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it on Facebook. There is some overlap in the people I see on those two platforms, but not a ton. Facebook tends to be family and people I see in my daily life while twitter is more professional, a place I follow educators from across the country and around the world. On Facebook I know most of those people in person and have known many for quite a long time. Twitter is the opposite. While I know some of those folks in person, most are people I only know online (or have only met briefly at conferences).

Twitter exposes me to a wider range of experiences, stories, knowledge, and more. I’ve worked to be sure I follow a range of brilliant people there who help me learn about the world in ways I would not otherwise.

So I’m left with a sense that I don’t know what is actually widely known and what is not. I can accept that. What it means for me, I think, is that I need to stop assuming stories are widely known and share them more. I need to err on the side of sharing too much rather than not enough. Especially stories like Jazmine’s. Stories that I believe need to be seen by many.

Trying to Be Clever

I always want to be clever when it comes to holiday gifts for my administrators. I don’t know why I feel like I should get them something much less why I feel compelled to be clever about it, but it is what it is. This year December was a bit more than I could handle. (Thank goodness I’d taken care of gifts for my colleagues and much of our family months ago. I’m rarely that on top of things but it was such a wonderful relief this year.)

Very last minute I pulled together a tin of goodies linked to initiatives at our school. We’re in our first year of being a Literacy Collaborative school so each of my administrators got a journal to go with our work on writing and reading.

For several years now we’ve been working on implementing math workshop so I included the chocolate money to represent that. The long box on the side is full of maple sugar leaves. Those connect to our amazing outdoor classroom that has been growing for a number of years but really expanded this year. The blood orange candies represent our fresh fruits and vegetables program. Our kiddos get a serving of a fresh fruit or vegetable as a snack three days a week. We had blood oranges recently. The Mixed Emotions jelly beans connect to our new work on The Positivity Project.

I’m satisfied with this as my gift but not impressed by it. It meets my minimum standards. Hopefully I’ll raise the bar a bit next year.

Readings to Wrap Up 2018

November and December have been a bit busy and I haven’t stayed on top of this as well as I would have liked (and there are still a lot of pieces from the past couple of weeks that I haven’t even read yet).

This piece from Tom Woodward, Digital Survival Skills, is full of ideas on how to make smart decisions about apps and other digital tools we use. Plus, Tom always has fabulous endnotes in his posts. This piece is full of good advice.

No point in creating a miserable experience for yourself even if it’s “highly productive.” Set up workflows and patterns that energize you and make you happy.

I frequently share pieces from Jose Vilson and I’m likely to keep doing so as long as he keeps writing them. This one, You Don’t Have to Like It (Students Watch and Talk About Us, Anyways) addresses the importance of students’ stories and voices in schools.

Our society vastly undervalues student opinion as a matter of course. In the way of efficiency and so-called rigidity, we continually push for institutions that force schooling upon students, not education for and with students.

Sherri Spelic‘s brilliance is not new to me, but this piece really made me sit back in awe. Most of my colleagues don’t attend conferences and I am often asked, after I return from one, to share my learning. I struggle with how best to do this and, as a result, I rarely do anything. Sherri’s strategy here is awesome.

I drafted an e-mail which included links to the blog post I wrote, to the conference website and to the hashtag tweets, as well as some photos from the session I led. I want people to know where I’ve been, what I gained and what I’m bringing back.

Not only does that share her conference experience, but it’s a great way to reflect and think about the highlights of the conference.

Continuing with people I already knew were brilliant, Marian Dingle wrote You Didn’t Want to Know, a piece about Twitter Math Camp, that I’ve needed to read more than once. There is so much here about making conferences (or other events and spaces) truly welcoming to all. As one who looks like the great majority of people attending the conferences I attend, I am exceptionally grateful to Marian for taking the time and emotional energy to write this piece. It is a lens I lacked and the more I read pieces the more I am able to take on this lens.

Instead of asking what type of flowers the guest likes, how about inviting them to co-create the visit with you? Plan the activities, meals, and décor? This is easy if the imagined space always included educators of color, much more difficult if it never did. This is the renewed thinking that I crave. I don’t want to feel welcome in your conference; I want to feel that I belong in ours. I want to feel that I am creating it along with you. Why did you never think to ask me? Why didn’t it feel hollow with my absence?

Going perfectly along with Marian’s piece is this one from Julia Torres about NCTE, another conference. From my vantage point, following the conference on twitter, Julia rocked that conference. Reading her piece helps me remember how much it takes for someone to do that, especially an educator of color. Julia’s piece also goes beyond conferences and is a reminder of what it means to be a person of color in our society.

It might help if people understood that for those of us who have been historically or consistently underrepresented in the field of education, these “instances” that people would like to see as one-offs or isolated events are anything but that.  It is exhausting to always have to be the one to point that out.  I can’t speak for everybody, but I can speak for myself when I say that whenever I go into spaces where POC are not the majority, I hope things like these will not happen.  Yet, they always do. I feel cut by them, and this is what makes attending educational conferences so exhausting.

One of the treats of going to VSTE, even briefly this year, was getting to spend some time with Karen Richardson in person. Like so many of the people linked here I get to see her online often, but in person rarely. She wrote Just Because You Can Look It Up, Should You? It gets at the question of direct instruction vs student exploration. A question that is more complex than it appears at first glance and more complex than many people believe.

I saw a comment on Twitter recently suggesting that teachers should never tell students things that they could look up. It struck me as one of those zero sum statements that are not helpful as we try to navigate the changing relationship between teachers and students. Teachers have expert knowledge to share that can help students move forward with their own learning more efficiently. Finding the balance of when to share and when to encourage students to explore on their own is, in my humble opinion, part of the art of teaching.

I have been amazed for quite some time at Audrey Watters‘ ability to collect and curate educational news stories every week. Some weeks it has been difficult for me to read her collection because it is painful. Actually creating it must have been far harder. Audrey is doing work that is rarely happening in education and she is doing it exceptionally well. I have learned so much from her writing over the years and I look forward to that continuing, even if in a different format. So I’m sharing here her last Hack Education Weekly News. But what I’m really doing is saying that you should be reading her, following her on twitter, learning from her in any way possible if you aren’t already.

Kevin Hodgson is a favorite of mine because of the various ways he uses his site and his writing. He clearly uses it for his own reflection and learning. He also writes about his writing process and helps us see what he is doing and gain new ideas and strategies. (He does a lot more but this is where my brain is about him right now.) In Writing a Song about Watching a Writer at Work you can see some of this. It’s amazing. So is the song,

Just for the fun of it, read this piece, An Interview with Santa’s Lawyer, from John Scalzi, a sci-fi/fantasy author. Just a quick taste…

Because he has a round belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly.

Which is not true, by the way. I’ve seen Santa out of uniform. That dude is ripped.

On another note, this piece from Teacher Tom is a great example of how teachers think through events in their lives and use that understanding to better support kids.

I’m an adult person, not typically prone to these sorts of aggravations, yet a mere thup-thup-thup threw me completely off my game for a time, causing what others would consider inappropriately strong emotions, so strong in fact that I had taken measures to remove myself. Imagine being a child, less mature and experienced. Imagine being unable to pinpoint the cause of these strong, prickly feelings, not having the option to remove yourself, or the experience to do so, nor the self-control to not lash out.

And one last just-for-fun post from KQED’s Mind/Shift. Quick snippets from teachers about gifts they have received from students.

Jill Lowery, a grade school teacher in Des Moines, Iowa, sent a simple, sweet story: “I was given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich made with one slice of bread, folded in half, stuffed in a plain white envelope.”

It was from a first-grader, and the bread was a little crusty by the time Lowery got home. But she wrote, “I was amazed by his ability to think so sweetly of me.”

2018 has offered many great pieces of writing (and there are probably more currently waiting in my RSS reader, sigh). I’m looking forward to what 2019 brings.

Courage to Serve All Children, VSTE Part VII

Our current system does not have high expectations for all children. Just before VSTE’s annual conference this year I read this article from the New York Times, Louisiana School Made Headlines for Sending Black Kids to Elite Colleges. Here’s the RealityThis school was sending students to ivy league colleges and was getting lauded by news organizations, talk show hosts, and more. But it turns out they weren’t holding high expectations for their students. They were exploiting them.

In reality, the school falsified transcripts, made up student accomplishments and mined the worst stereotypes of black America to manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity. The Landrys also fostered a culture of fear with physical and emotional abuse, students and teachers saidStudents were forced to kneel on rice, rocks and hot pavement, and were choked, yelled at and berated.

Far too often our educational system fails students of color, students learning English, poor students, students in the LGBTQ+ community, students who have faced multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences, and more.

We have to have the courage to recognize how the systemic issues in our society impact the way we see the students we serve. We are not horrible people because we have internalized so many of the messages in our society. We are human. We are also educators, however, and we have to move beyond our biases in order to truly serve all students.

We also have to have the courage to engage in difficult conversations. I am a strong believer in the importance of diverse literature for children. I have worked for years to have a classroom library with a wide range of authors, illustrators, and characters that reflect many. I have struggled with having book that have LGBTQ+ characters, however. I have had fear of angering families and/or administrators. It took many years before I began buying those books for my classroom library. I had to have some difficult conversations with myself. Some internal arguing about living what I believe. When I finally got courageous enough to do that, I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I simply put the books in the library with all the others. I was still afraid. In the past few years I’ve book talked and read aloud books with LGBTQ+ characters. I have the courage now to have the difficult conversations with others if someone challenges these books being available to my students.

I am saddened by the idea that I need courage to do this. That it takes courage for me to ensure that all of my students are seen and welcomed into our classroom. That just makes it that much more important, though.

As educators we need the courage to challenge. To challenge ourselves to identify our biases and notice where we are falling short. To challenge our colleagues. To challenge families and students. To challenge our administrators. To challenge the system.

If what we are doing every day does not require courage, if it isn’t pushing us outside of our comfort zone, if it isn’t requiring confrontation and uncomfortable conversations, then it also isn’t serving all kids.

Courage to Stand Up and Say No, VSTE Part VI

The mascot at my school is a leprechaun by the name of Lenny. St. Patrick’s Day is known as Lenny Day at my school and it is a BIG deal. Like many leprechauns, Lenny has been known to make a mess. (If you’ve never been in an elementary school on St. Patrick’s Day you are really missing out.) I was out last year on Lenny Day and my students were concerned about what might happen so one of them wrote this note and taped it to our door.

I was inspired. If an 8 year old could stand up to Lenny, which is like standing up to Santa or the Tooth Fairy, surely I could stand up when needed. This kid knew that Lenny would cause trouble, that what Lenny would do would not be best for us, so this kid took a stand. Educators have to do the same thing. We have to identify the things we are doing or being asked to do that are harming children and stand up and say no. To our bosses, to parents, to legislators.

Equally as difficult, or possibly even more difficult, we have to keep teaching children in a system that we are fighting. We have to keep putting students first. We are living in a society of racial and socioeconomic discrimination and oppression. It is far bigger than just our schools, but our schools are a part of that system. Recognizing the racial and socioeconomic discrimination and oppression that is systemic in our society and our schools is critical and is a lot to face and to carry. In spite of that we have to have the courage to keep teaching children. To keep teaching them in spite of the fact that they are living in a system that does not want them to succeed. We have to keep working to give them the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. And to work towards a better, more equitable society.