Category Archives: Uncategorized

But…

When my children were young I found myself responding to some behaviors by saying things like, “I love you, but you have to put that away now” or “I love you, but it is not okay to behave that way.” At some point I realized that I was uncomfortable saying, “I love you, but…” I felt that saying ‘but’ after ‘I love you’ made the ‘I love you’ mean an awful lot less. It took conscious work to change my wording and either simply separate the ‘I love you’ and the rest of the idea or saying “I love you, and it is not okay to behave that way.”

I was reminded of this today when I saw something a friend posted on social media:

The language we use matters because it says a lot. Sometimes we don’t even realize the depth of what we’re saying. When someone takes the time to point out to us what they hear us saying, we should listen and reflect. Just because our intentions are good doesn’t mean our words (or actions, for that matter) are as well. And our intentions are irrelevant when our language (and our actions) is harming others.

 

Being a White Woman Teacher

For the past couple of months, my 16 year old and I have spent a couple of hours most weekends watching whatever musical production was being shared by The Show Must Go On. This weekend’s show was Hairspray. Watching it yesterday afternoon it seemed quite a choice at this moment in time and I wondered if this was long planned or if someone picked it in the past few days. So much of the story revolves around issues of racial segregation.

It’s always interesting to me how differently I can see or read something depending on my life at that moment. I certainly didn’t remember or anticipate a couple of lines that really stood out to me on this viewing. A young white girl, Penny (played by Ariana Grande) begins dating a young Black boy, Seaweed (played by Ephraim Sykes). In a room full of Black people, with only a few white kids there, Penny says her mom is going to kill her for dating him. Seaweed’s younger sister, Inez (played by Shahadi Wright Joseph) says, “No she’s not. She’s going to kill him.” The line is in the midst of lots of noise and debate. Enough so that Inez repeats it a few minutes later. Still, no one really seems to hear her.

Yesterday I heard her.

In this moment in time, a moment in which I am thinking about Breonna Taylor, Chris Cooper, and George Floyd, that line was loud.

In this moment in time, a moment in which the president tweets about protests outside of the White House, putting the word protesters in quotation marks and noting that the Secret Service puts the youngest agents at the front because they love it and it’s good practice, I heard Inez.

In this moment in time, a moment in which Twitter determined that a tweet from the president of the United States violated their rules by glorifying violence but that it is also in the public interest that people be able to view the tweet, Inez was the wisest one in that room.

At this moment in time, a moment in which people who have been staying home for their own safety and the safety of others are now gathering in cities across the country to protest state-sanctioned violence against Black people; in the midst of a pandemic that is significantly disproportionally killing Black people, those people at greater risk are putting themselves out there, Inez was absolutely right.

And I’m sitting at home watching Hairspray.

And thinking.

What are we, as white women teachers, doing to make this better or worse?

We are the great majority of educators. We have immense power over the future of our country in the ways we impact children in classrooms and schools now. Are our actions helping or harming? There’s not a middle ground on this. Either we are actively working to improve our society, to make it more just, to make the lives of people of color safer and more secure, or we are making it worse. No action is not a neutral choice.

On Friday, Kelisa Wing wrote Teachers Must Hold Themselves Accountable for Dismantling Racial OppressionThat’s quite a title. And it’s well worth the read. She lays out some ways we can all do better. Ways that are meaningful as well as being completely doable.

I teach young children. I struggle with how best to talk with kids in moments like this one. I want to respect decisions parents have made about what their child does and doesn’t know about what is going on in the world. I want to respect my young children of color and not place them in the position of being spokespeople for their race. In the past, I’ve followed my kids’ lead. I’ve tried to make space for these conversations but not initiated them myself.

I don’t know for sure if that’s the right decision, but I do know there are plenty of other things I can be doing that don’t require a moment like this one. Conversations about racial oppression (as well as other critical issues of social justice) should not just happen when it makes the national news. We need to be talking all the time.

This lesson is one example of how to do so. Jess Lifshitz frequently shares lessons and units from her classroom that model how to support students in their struggles to understand and learn how to take action. This morning I came across this graph on twitter and was shocked by far more than watching COVID move its way up. In a study of graphs we could take a look at this one and notice and wonder about what we see. What does it mean that, pre-COVID, malaria, malnutrition, and homicide were the three leading causes of death globally? How are malnutrition and homicide being defined? Does homicide include deaths during war? Who is most impacted by these top causes? What efforts are being made to solve or cure them?

I, as a white woman educator, have to find ways to have these conversations throughout the year with my young students. I have to give them opportunities to see what is happening in their community and beyond, to question why, to consider who is impacted, to think about how they can be a part of making our society more just.

I, as a white woman educator, have a responsibility to ensure that my students, all of them, see people of color in the books we read and in the history we study. My young students, all of them, need to see Black scientists, Latinx judges, LGBTQ+ authors, etc. They should know that anyone and everyone has a voice and power and brilliance.

I, as a white woman educator, have to push others around me to do the same. I have to be ready to identify when colleagues or friends or family members (or myself) are showing their racism. I have to be prepared to call in or out when I see it. And I have to be prepared to be called in or out by others. And take the time to reflect and to learn, when that happens.

White women educators, we have a lot of power. We need to remember that and be thoughtful about the choices we made. No action towards a more just society for everyone is not a neutral choice. It is harmful. We must work: on ourselves, with each other, and for everyone.

Many Perspectives

When I think about what I, as a white, straight, cis-gendered, middle class, English-speaking, non-disabled woman can do to act in anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-biased ways in my elementary school classroom I default to books. I try to ensure that the books I read to or book talk for my students are widely representative and offer them windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors (with many thanks to Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishop and the many educators of color who have done so much to help me learn). I firmly believe this is important.

I also worry that it is very small.

In the more than two months since we have been out of school and staying home all the time, I have struggled to read the many books I had from the public library or the various books my children and I have ordered from independent book stores. Anything even remotely challenging has been pushed aside. Several years ago, I made myself something of a promise that I won’t read books by white men (it’s not a hard and fast promise, but it has kept me from defaulting to book after book by another white guy as those books are widely published, promoted, and easily available). The result, in this time period, has been that I have read book after book by white women. Not terrible, but definitely not my goal as a reader. I’ve read historical romances and light-hearted mysteries. Anything heavier has felt too challenging for me.

This morning I finished the last of the romances I had checked out from the library on my kindle. There are now four books on my kindle, all of which I opened up this morning to get a better sense of them. The one due soonest is Friday Black, a collection of short stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. My sister recommended the book, knowing my goal to read a wider representation of authors.

My current Kindle books

This morning I read the first two stories. After having read such light, fun books for two months it was quite jarring, especially the first story. My sister had suggested that the book isn’t an easy read and I feel confident it won’t be. Being short stories helps though. The bite-sized nature gives me more confidence that I can read an individual story. Doing that twelve times feels quite different from the daunting nature of a novel.

It’s rare that I’ve had the experience of reading so lightly for such a long time and then taking on something as different, for me at least, as Friday Black. As I finished the first story it got me thinking how powerful books and stories are. How important it is that I do a better job of reading more widely. How critical that my students have books and stories that allow them to see themselves and others in as many ways as possible. My belief in reading and book talking as many different kinds of books as possible has been strongly reinforced.

It should also be noted this isn’t just about books for me, personally, as a reader. What I consume needs to come from various perspectives, life experiences, and understandings of the world. So who I follow on twitter, the blogs I read, the articles I click on are other places in which I try to go beyond only seeing words from white men. It is a challenge as there are more white male voices readily available and widely promoted than there are others. That means I have to work a bit. I also have to stop sometimes and check myself. Who have I been reading? Who am I following closely? Where am I getting my information? If I can identify BIPOC, folks in the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and people living in or from other parts of the world then I can feel that I’m doing fairly well in my consumption.

At this moment I am less worried about how small an action it is to offer students a wide range of books. My belief in the power of books is renewed. That doesn’t mean it is enough, by any stretch. On the plus side, reading widely offers me plenty of opportunities to learn more ways to act in order to build a more just world.

 

The other three books, in case you’re like me and can’t help but wonder when someone says four books and then only addresses one of them, are There, There by Tommy Orange, Middlemarch by George Eliot, and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. I’ve checked out There, There before but still not actually read it. My sister recommended it as well. Middlemarch was mentioned by an English professor friend on facebook and I’ll give it a try but I’ll admit I’m doubtful I’ll finish it. I can’t recall what made me put Such a Fun Age on hold. Clearly someone on my corner of the internet mentioned it but, as is much more my norm, I can’t now recall who it was.

SOL Testing

Today, May 12th, is exactly two months since we were last in our school buildings in my district. That feels like a big milestone. Interestingly enough, today is also the date on which my 3rd graders would have taken their first state-wide standardized test, the reading SOL.

This test would have been a big one for my school, my team. The test scores in our school (a K-3 school so only 3rd grade test scores impact such things) have not been meeting state expectations. We’ve jumped through a number of hoops all year with our district as a result (so that they could prove to the state that we are doing so). It should be noted, not one of the eight classroom teachers or two special education teachers has taught third graders at this school for a full year prior to this one. (One classroom teacher was there last year but was out on maternity leave for the last several months the of the year. Another came in near the end of the year as a long term sub in another classroom.)

I’m not sorry my kids didn’t spend hours today taking a reading test on computers. Not at all. I worked with two small groups today and we had a blast reading together and talking about Egyptian hieroglyphics and mummies. That was far more worth their time. And mine.

I am sorry we, as a team and as a school, didn’t get to prove that what we did this year was worth it. We gave our kids time to read every day. We offered them lots of books and let them choose what they wanted to read. We set up book clubs and let them talk with friends about their books. We read aloud picture books and chapter books. We had whole class conversations about the books we read.

Today I was also a part of IEP (individualized education plan) meetings for two of my students. Both of the moms in these meetings talked about the progress their child has made this year as readers. One talked about how proud her child is of the reading they are doing now. These kids, not just these two, but all of our kids, are readers and they would have knocked it out of the park on that test today.

I don’t think the test really proves much. There are so many other things I could point to that show the progress my students have made, that show they are readers that read for fun and for purposes of all sorts. But the test is what gets pointed to again and again. It’s the metric that matters to many folks. So there is a small piece of me that is sad we, the kids and adults, didn’t get the chance to prove ourselves there.

Maybe I’m just sad we aren’t together. Doing whatever we could be doing, even if it had to be a test.

Teaching like this just ain’t really cutting it.

Packing in the Chaos

I spent 8 hours in my classroom today, packing up.

I learned a few things that I hadn’t anticipated.

  1. I really do have my kids do a lot of the work of packing up. They organize a lot of things. They make sure things are all together that should be. They gradually take things home. Doing it without them is a lot more work.
  2. It wasn’t as emotional as I had feared. There was too much work for me to slow down and think about how much I miss these kids.
  3. I really, really, really miss these kids. They were finishing up a nonfiction writing project and I put all of their notes and drafts and nearly finished work in the bags for them. It was amazing to me that nearly two months later I could remember the topics they had chosen for research. Lots of different animals, of course. My favorite was the one on the history of chicken parmesan.
  4. I definitely got more done today than I usually could manage in one day. Maybe being all alone (except for occasional physical-distanced conversations with a few colleagues) is good for my focus. Or having a hard deadline…that I totally didn’t make. I’ll be back another day to finish, sadly.
  5. I have lots and lots of books.

That’s the majority of my classroom library packed into the cabinets in my classroom. I figured books weigh a lot so packing them in the cabinets would be better than putting them in boxes the custodians would have to move out and back in. There are four boxes of books right now. Plus the full-sized bookcase in my teaching space is still full. And I’ve got several bags full of books at home that I’ve been using for teaching these days.

None of the packing I did today (or will do on another day) is well organized. Normally I would pack my classroom library in a way that would set us up for organizing it together in the fall. Today it got stored away more by book size than anything else. That hurts a little.

So, I miss the kids and my stuff is a mess but I’m in a better place than I anticipated. It could be worse.

This Is So Hard

On Monday I won’t meet with my 3rd graders virtually. Instead, I’ll have 8 hours to pack up my classroom for summer cleaning. I should note that never once, in 21 previous years of teaching, have I managed to pack my classroom up in one day. Never. And it’s never looked like this by the time I was really packing.

So that’s feeling a tad bit overwhelming. My school has done a ton to help with this, completely minimizing much of what we usually do at the end of the year. They’ve gotten boxes for us to use. They’ve gotten bags for us to put our students’ things in. There’s no long checklist for end-of-the-year stuff. That helps. But not as much as one might think. This task feels huge beyond words.

And it feels awful. When I walked out of that room on Thursday, March 12th, I thought there was a chance we wouldn’t be back the next day. I sent my kids home with book after book, just in case. But I didn’t dream we wouldn’t be back for the rest of the year. That I wouldn’t see these kids again in person.

When I go in on Monday the physical task of packing will be the big job. But the emotional tasks of coping with school ending this way, even as I have another month of virtual time with my students, are even bigger. I know that what I’m feeling right now is situational depression. This fog I’m in, this inability to see any sun in the future. It won’t last forever. I will feel better. But right now I feel flattened.

When I close that door on Monday at 4:30 pm will I feel better? Will that process have done anything to improve how I am coping with this situation? I don’t know. Maybe. I’m certain it won’t be a panacea.

The reality is this year has been tougher than any I’ve ever known. I missed almost two months with my students in the winter. I was barely back for a month before this hit. I did the math and I think I was in the classroom with my students 94 days this year. That’s barely half of the school year.

I hate it.

I love these kids. They’re brilliant, resilient, creative, thoughtful, generous, and hilarious. I miss getting to spend my days learning with them. They’ll have other teachers and I’ll have other students but I think I will always be a little bitter about how I was cheated of this time with them.

Connecting

I start each of my school days right now with a 30 minute, whole class session. We do a morning meeting and then a short interactive read aloud or number sense routine. It is an amazing part of my day, the four days a week it happens. Of my 22 students I usually have about 19 in that session. (One kid won’t be there at all as the tech is just not working for his family. He and I are now doing one-on-one meetings via facetime. Whatever works.)

The kids have got it all down now. Their mics are off unless they’re the one talking. As is mine, just in case you were wondering. They raise their hands if they want to share something and either I call on them or the student who had the floor before them does. They’ve managed to translate a lot of our in-our-physical-classroom-space routines to in-our-digital-classroom-space. It’s really amazing to me.

This morning we tried a one minute greeting. In our classroom this means I hold up a one-minute sand timer and we all mill about the carpet greeting each other until time runs out. Today I put a digital timer up on the screen and we all just talked at each other with greetings. I worried it would get super loud as some tried to yell over others, but it didn’t. Some didn’t speak at all, which is a choice they get to make. At the one minute point they all turned off their mics and got ready for our share.

Several kids shared today and called on their classmates for questions or comments. As this was happening, two of my students, neither of whom were talking or even had their mics on during this time, held up the cards I had mailed them. They put them right up to their cameras to let me know they had gotten them. No words, no distraction to others, just a way to let me know. It nearly made me cry.

Every kid in my class has gotten one postcard and two notecards in the past two months. My own children have been going through books and now I’m trying to pick one book per student to mail to them with another note. One student has written a note and mailed it back to me. Another mom asked if her child could do the same, to the return address on the card. (It’s my home address so I said sure. I would love notes from them.)

This is the third week our online instruction has really been happening. The first couple of weeks involved a lot of working through technology problems and making sure we all knew how everything worked. This week I feel like I’m actually addressing some academic learning. My small groups are doing guided reading and math work in ways that feel meaningful. It’s been wonderful.

I had to capture some shots of the math the kids were doing because it erases as soon as we move away from the specific screen. (And no judging all the tabs I have open!)

But I know it happens because of the relationships that we have. The notecards are one way that I can keep nourishing those relationships. It’s harder when we aren’t together everyday, all day, in the same physical space. I have to think about it more, focus on it, plan for it. But it is worth it.

Kids Make Life Better

This morning I was in a major funk. Situational depression is probably an apt description of where I was twelve hours ago. Hence the blog post I wrote this morning.

Since that time I did go back to bed, read some Agatha Christie, and napped a little. I felt a need to regularly check my Google Classroom and my school email. As a result, I learned I could meet with students during office hours. (For background, the plan – this week – had been to meet with my whole class from 9-9:30 and then do one-on-one meetings with kids between 12-1 each afternoon. The morning time had been canceled but the afternoon was still an option)

I emailed six sets of parents to contradict the email I had sent to 22 sets of parents at 6:00 am. As a result I got to meet with four of the six kiddos I was scheduled to chat with today. I am so grateful for that.

One kiddo could barely sit still as we talked and told me all about how he’s been learning to play Magic the Gathering with his folks. His two younger brothers and dog ran around in and out of camera. It was awesome.

The next kid told me he’s been working on his multiplication facts and reading great books. He’s also been been watching a LEGO YouTube show and trying out new techniques. Apparently he’s built a beach with radioactive sharks. I had so many questions.

My next darling has celebrated a birthday during this time. He told me all about the various Minecraft decorations and cake. He also had multiple videos games to fill me in on.

The last one I talked to today was a kiddo who has had trouble getting the technology to work so we talked on the phone instead. She asked me a number of questions about the technology and I was hesitant to spend a lot of our (hers and mine) time and energy figuring out tech that may not last. So I told her I wasn’t sure what would be happening in the next week and I was worried the district would give up on synchronous meetings, given the problems we’ve faced. She paused, took a deep breath, and said, “You can’t give up!”

Forty-five minutes with four third graders and my day improved drastically. I’m feeling far more hopeful about where we’re going next (of course, twelve hours ago I had given up, so the bar wasn’t very high). The email tonight suggests we’ve got more meetings and training tomorrow and then try out the new plan on Thursday. Fingers crossed.

from Petra de Boevere’s flickr

I Give Up

from Wes Peck’s flickr

Not for good. But for the moment.

All my joy yesterday disappeared when we got the news at 9:30 last night that we would not have synchronous learning times today and it is not clear when we will again.

I have lots of things to think about, things I’m learning through this process about our educational system, about myself, about my priorities, about my children and my husband, about other people. I’ll think about it all at some point.

For today, I’m giving up. I’ll check our Google Classroom to be there for my students. I’ll check my school email to be there for families or colleagues (and to be sure I’m aware of where things are going next, when we actually know).

Otherwise, I don’t think social media will be a healthy place for me today. There will be a lot of disappointment, which I totally get. There will also be a lot of anger and I can’t face that right now.

So, I’m curling up in bed with movies I’ve watched dozens of times, books i can disappear in, and comfort food. I’ll try again tomorrow.

Ranting: A Tad Differently Than Most, I Think

My district has been in the news quite a bit in the past week and not for positive reasons. I haven’t read the entirety of all of these articles so maybe my rant will be off but here’s what it’s looked like for almost a week.

From April 15th: Tech glitches, harassment mar Fairfax County schools’ online learning rollout

From April 17th: a letter to the editor: Fairfax County schools and Blackboard are flunking on distance learning

From April 18th: Failed tech, missed warnings: How Fairfax schools’ online learning debut went sideways

From today, April 20th: Online learning sputters again in Fairfax, as proof mounts that district was warned of issues

We were set to start distance learning (online learning – whatever) last Tuesday, April 14th. It didn’t go well. Classes ended up being canceled for the rest of the week and drastic changes were made to how students access online meeting spaces for class. As well as changes to how to access materials and how much time would be synchronous vs asynchronous options that didn’t require Blackboard.

Today we got back online together. There were plenty of challenges and glitches. Some of them, I believe, came from all of us trying to navigate a new system and not all fully understanding it. Some of them came from the tech not holding up to the demand.

People are really ticked off. I get that. I especially get it for parents who are trying to support their kids’ learning while also working and dealing with myriad other unknown stresses. Teachers are frustrated with all of the time and energy they have put into planning and setting things up only to have things fail again. And we’re all feeling all kinds of emotions simply because we are currently dealing with a pandemic. That definitely adds to it all, for everyone.

So I really do get the frustration.

I just don’t get why anyone thinks any school system should have been prepared for this situation. No one, no organization, no government, no business, not a soul was ready for this situation. It is, as so many keep saying, unprecedented. There are countless possibilities of unprecedented situations for which we are all unprepared. We can not be prepared for everything. That is absurd. We do not have the time, the money, the mental space, or the energy to prepare for all of the possible awful things that could happen.

Should this be going better? More smoothly? I would have liked it to. Very much. We have, however, nearly 190,000 students in more than 200 schools in our district. Those students’ lives and needs range greatly. In the midst of a pandemic our district started serving food to kids and families the first day we were closed. They quickly expanded the sites over the following week. Our district has provided devices, in the midst of a pandemic and stay at home order, to many families. In the academic area, packets have been mailed to K-8 students for weeks now to keep their learning moving forward (this is a far from perfect option but it is definitely helpful for some families) and activities and links were up online almost immediately.

I really can’t wrap my head around why folks think we should have been able to move, in a month, from serving kids almost solely at school to serving them almost solely at home. It doesn’t change that it sucks to be where we are and to keep having things not work smoothly. I know. And I can feel frustrated with that.

What I don’t feel is the need to start throwing blame around. So many who are having blame thrown at them have been working far harder than I have for weeks while living in a pandemic. I’m willing to assume they’re doing their best. Their best just isn’t meeting the massive need we’re currently facing. We’ll have to keep trying. Maybe with a little grace too.