Category Archives: Uncategorized

So Many Questions

Our local elementary school, the ones my kids went to for a few years, has been retweeting other nearby elementary schools as they share the numbers of students whose families are opting for in-school or online instruction. The choice, as we’re seeing it right now, is either two days of in-school instruction with other days of online work supporting that OR fully online school.

So far, the results I’m seeing in our area look like about 4 times as many families opting to send their elementary kids to school two days per week versus the full time online option.

I have lots of questions, of course. (I should also note, our own two children, heading into 12th and 8th grades, have opted for in-school instruction and I have said I want to return to school. We’ll see how that goes, but that’s where we are, as a family, right now.)

  • Do these families (including my own) truly think this will be safe (as much as that is possible right now) for everyone involved?
  • Do these families believe the in-school instruction will be more meaningful than the online version?
  • Do these families need childcare? The numbers I’m seeing so far are all from elementary schools.
  • Do these families believe it is important for their children to be around their peers and this is, possibly in their minds, the safest way to make that happen?
  • Clearly lots of folks haven’t responded with their choices yet. Is that because they are hoping for more information? Or because they can’t decide? Or because they aren’t seeing the request for this choice from the district?
  • Is this typical across our district? These schools are mostly middle and upper-class white families and that is not true for many parts of our district.
  • Do these families have any kind of plan in their minds for what will happen if (when) we have to move to fully online for everyone again?

I’ve said before and I’ll keep saying, there is no good answer. Our federal government is doing little to nothing to improve that. State and district governments vary widely, I have no doubt. At the moment, I’ll continue sitting with my questions and waiting to see what I learn next.

I know that if I do get to return to room 208, it won’t be anything like this. That breaks my heart a little. I remain hopeful that someday we will get to return to this. For now, I’m preparing as best I can to teach and care for kids in whatever way is available.

I Know I’ll Be Okay

Sunday evening we sat in our friends’ backyard for post-dinner drinks and an in-person chat. Monday morning I had coffee with a friend in her new backyard. Prior to March, I saw these friends regularly, every couple of weeks usually. Seeing them again, getting to sit together and talk for a couple of hours, was a gift. I felt my soul healing from months of isolation.

Then, mid-day Monday, my stomach curled up in knots. I’d eaten my regular breakfast sandwich (a routine my husband and I have down solid) and a latte I’d made. Both were things I’ve had many times before so I wondered what might have caused such pain. Stomach pain is not something I am familiar with. Nausea, sure. Pain like this, no. As the day went on it got worse. I finally curled up in bed, trying not to cry.

The day before, on Sunday, our oldest felt exactly the same way. She has ongoing challenges with stomach pain so she has been trying to stay hydrated, get enough fiber, eat healthy, and figure out good sleep routines. When Sunday was extra rough for her, I suggested it might not be a problem she could solve physically. I told her I thought her pain might be anxiety related.

So by Tuesday morning when I felt better, but far from good, I had to face the same thing myself. What if my pain were caused by emotions rather than a physical ailment? I’ve never been a very anxious person so it seemed a bit of a stretch to me. In the past 24 hours, however, I’ve come to realize it is quite likely.

This past year was awful. There was so much good and I wouldn’t have missed it, but it was exceptionally hard. Here’s a brief timeline:

  • I changed schools meaning I had new colleagues and administration to get to know as well as new kids and families in a very different population.
  • My new school was huge, about 1,000 kids in preK-3 so getting to know folks was extra challenging. I really got to know my third grade teammates and others with whom I interacted regularly. I probably still don’t know a good three quarters of the staff.
  • In December I was placed on administrative leave after being accused of harming a child. That lasted nearly two months during which I was almost completely isolated from my school community.
  • A month after I returned to work, school buildings closed for COVID-19. Between admin leave and the closing of buildings, I had about half the number of days at school with my students and colleagues as I should have had.

So that’s the past year. All of that would definitely add some anxiety to all of our natural anxiety about the coming year. (And I think we all have plenty of totally reasonable anxiety about that. I have no idea how to prepare to help my students, my own children, or my colleagues navigate what is to come. I feel completely at sea.) Here’s the additional anxiety inducing issues:

  • My district decided (this was announced while I was on admin leave) to change our campus. Instead of being a preK-3 and a 4-6 school, third grade will move to the upper school. So I’ll have a few teammates I know, but otherwise all new colleagues.
  • I don’t know my admin. I had a meeting scheduled with my previous principal and my new principal for late March. Obviously that never happened. I hear wonderful things about my principal. I also know she didn’t choose me and she’s getting me a year after I was on admin leave. I don’t feel super comfortable with how this is starting.

When I stop to think about it all, my stomach issues don’t seem terribly surprising. To some extent, that’s reassuring. At this point in time, any physical pain or discomfort or change can be pretty terrifying.

For the record, I’m confident I’ll be okay. I’ve been teaching and parenting long enough to believe that I, in collaboration with those around me, will be able to figure it out and makes things work. It might not be ideal but I’m not concerned it’ll completely be a mess. Writing is a coping strategy. I’ve also found, no matter how hard or strange things are, often there are others feeling or coping with the same. Sharing here means I frequently find myself feeling less alone. That is always a gift.

Reading this collection of essays may be doing quite a bit to help me face the emotions I would prefer to ignore or bury right now. It’s a phenomenal book.

A Whole New Summer

For the past decade or so our summers have included:

  • time at the swimming pool, often with friends
  • summer camps, definitely Acting for Young People and often others as well
  • travel – to see family, to visit new places, day trips and longer trips

This summer has none of the above. Some pools in our area are open but the limitations, that I believe are smart, mean that the pool wouldn’t likely offer us what we want from it. Acting for Young People, as well as many other camps, are happening virtually. My kids weren’t interested in that option. We’re unwilling to fly, which would be necessary to see some of our family. Family we could drive to see is being smart about isolating so we’re sticking with video calls for now. We did arrange a couple of two-night AirBnB’s for July and August to get out of our house for a bit.

The end result is that the kids (16 and 13) and I have lots of time on our hands and not too many options about what to do with it. Given the routines I noticed during the online school period I anticipated that our summer break would mostly consist of sleeping at any hour and watching lots of TikTok videos if I let it. I have no interest in controlling my kids’ lives, but I do want them to be useful to the family and to do some things that I think are important to their physical and mental health.

So, to keep some sense of normalcy, weekends are still weekends. Other than helping with chores, they are free.

Monday through Friday, we each (the two kids and I) have a checklist. It includes doing a chore, some kind of exercise (we’ve been doing 7 minute work outs together), a random act of kindness (we brainstormed a list of possibilities together last week), some time reading, some time writing, and some work on a big summer goal (they picked their own big summer goals, such as learning to sew, creating some artwork). We won’t manage to do every single thing every single day and I’m okay with that. It’s giving us some sort of focus while leaving us plenty of time to do whatever we want.

Me and my kids in Gaudi’s Park Guell in Barcelona in 2018, back when our summers looked quite different.

Taking Steps Forward

Earlier this week, this tweet crossed my radar:

First off, I love all three of these books. I’ve read them all. They’re all books I have highly recommended to others and have gifted copies of to others. My copies are full of highlights and post it notes. There is no question that I think people should read these books.

Initially, this tweet was in response to a request for PD material on implicit bias/equity. Again, these are great books on those issues. Immediately I noticed that the list is three men. That was impossible for me not to see.

I couldn’t ignore it. And immediately both Jose and Chris, two of the men whose books were mentioned above, started sharing books by women that should be read.

The books suggested by Jose and Chris included:

All of that is interesting and an awesome collection of books – both the original three and the ones that were shared after I asked.

But it’s not my point here. Which is probably a concern about my skill as a writer because who takes this long to get to their point?

When I saw the original tweet I immediately thought, “Why are there only men on this list?” The lack of women was glaring. I wasn’t willing to ignore that. I had to push back.

What if the list had been only white men and women? Would I have noticed? Would I have pushed back?

As a woman I know I appreciate it when men push back at panels or recommended lists that are all male. It shouldn’t only be on women to do that work.

It shouldn’t only be on IBPOC to push back on panels and lists that are all white. White folks need to speak up but in order to do so we have to notice it. We have to recognize how often panels and lists are all or overwhelmingly white. It’s easy for us not to see it. Seeing it is a critical first step to actually working towards change.

Somewhat related is this thread from Kory Graham. Kory is an educator I greatly respect and this thread shows some of why. She shares here the ways in which she is still learning to do the work of anti-racism better, especially as a white woman. I’m grateful for this because I think one of the things that will help a lot of us do better is to see behind the curtains of others. We have to share, not just what we’re doing well, but our challenges and learning journey as models for others. Kory does that and, a critical piece, cites those who are helping her along as well.

Just Another Rant

I’ve had to walk away from several Facebook groups recently. These groups popped up in late March as a way for teachers to support each other as we moved away from our schools and buildings and began supporting our students virtually. The groups were fabulous. Teachers were sharing and asking questions and pointing each other to resources.

In the past few weeks, as we finished the school year and started looking toward the fall, that has changed. The groups have become, at least to my eyes, more about people complaining about what the fall will hold. No matter what options are being shared by districts, there are many people unhappy.

OF COURSE THERE ARE!

I apologize, my frustration is strong on this one.

There is no good answer. There is no magic solution that is going to solve all our problems. There is no option for schooling that will serve everyone; kids, teachers, families, and our society. (Which isn’t to suggest that what we were doing four months ago was serving everyone either, but that’s a different issue.)

If we have kids in school buildings we put people at risk of COVID-19 and we may traumatize kids due to the precautions we’ll put in place in an attempt to keep people safe.

If we do completely online schooling we continue to keep kids from any social interactions with peers and we may not be able to provide as complete or meaningful an education as we have in the past. In addition, many of these kids will need an adult with them which means someone either has to not work or work from home while caring for kid(s). And we’ve got kids in living situations that are tenuous or downright dangerous and online learning means they stay there 24-7.

If we do a hybrid, which is what my district is planning, we have all of the positives and negatives of both in schools and online.

Some services are exceptionally challenging to provide virtually. Think about occupational and physical therapists or speech pathologists. Not being in person with kids makes their job far more difficult and means that some kids are not going to be able to get the support they need to develop even as their bodies continue developing.

There is no good answer. There is no solution that is truly best. Anything is, at best, better for some and worse for others.

I am waiting before I get angry at the people in charge. I am trusting, as much as possible, that they are doing all they can to serve as many as possible. (I am a white woman which means this trust comes more easily given history. Most of the teachers I see complaining in these FB groups are white women and white men.) I am going to do whatever I can to make sure my kids and I are safe when it comes to school in the fall. I am going to do whatever I can to serve the next bunch of third graders who are entrusted to me.

For the moment, however, I am going to stop reading posts in those FB groups and try some mindfulness activities. I find water and nature soothing. Maybe it’s time to find a place by a lake to sit with a book for a while.

from gillyan9’s flickr

Everyone Farts

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that this has been the most challenging year of my teaching career. In many ways it was the worst year, for me. My students were fabulous. Their families were wonderful. My colleagues and administration were fantastic. The people were all positives. But the circumstances, from beginning to end, were rough beyond words.

In the early weeks of the year I was completely overwhelmed. I was in a new building, with new colleagues and administrators, and a population of students unlike any I’d taught before (my students this year all have at least one parent who is active duty military). So much of what I knew, or thought I knew, didn’t seem to matter. I felt like a brand new teacher even though it was my 22nd year in the classroom. So I guess this story isn’t terribly shocking.

Third graders had specials at the end of the day this past year. We would drop them off, head to meetings many days, and then pick them up to return to our classrooms for dismissal. It was not a schedule I liked. By the time I picked my kiddos up again I was exhausted; physically, mentally, and emotionally. Getting them back to our classroom, a long walk from almost anywhere in our huge building, and getting through the 20-35 minutes dismissal could take, did not bring me joy.

One day, somewhere in the first two weeks of the school year, we got back to our classroom and seated on the carpet to see dismissal on the smartboard. Almost immediately a kid farted. And they all cracked up. On that day, it was the final straw for me. I did not handle the situation well.

I went off on a fart rant. It went something like this (and likely included arms waving significantly):

Is there anyone in here who has never farted? Stand up if you’ve never farted. Everyone farts. The president of the United States farts. The pope farts. If we didn’t fart our bodies would explode. The average person farts seven times every day. It is something we all do. 

(All of those sentences should probably end in exclamation points given the force with which I made those statements.) By the end, my kids looked shocked. One kid mumbled, “Yeah, it’s just natural.” Mostly they just sat there in silence staring at me.

If I’d been doing better I’d have kicked off the next day with a book about farting. There are plenty of good ones.

The first page of books with a search for ‘fart’ on bookshop.org.

Of course, if I’d been doing better I probably wouldn’t have lost control and ranted about farting to my students.

We Teach Kids

In a book club discussion recently I mentioned a mantra I try to remember frequently in my classroom, “Teach the writer, not the writing.” (It’s second only to the mantra, “Shut up.” that I repeat to myself constantly.) I didn’t come up with this, it’s from Carl Anderson’s book, how’s it going? (At least, I think it’s that one of his books. It’s definitely his.) I’ve had it printed out and stuck to the clipboard I carried around the classroom during writing conferences. I needed that reminder that I wasn’t trying to help a kid make that piece of writing perfect but to improve their writing skills through that piece of writing.

It struck a chord with others in the book club. Which means I’ve been thinking about it more too.

If I were to print it out now and stick on a clipboard (if I carried a clipboard around anymore), I would modify it. I would have it say, “Teach the kid, not the skill or content.”

Maybe because this mantra came into my teaching life fairly early on and it’s been a part of my teaching of writers for so long, it feels easy there. I am comfortable using a piece of writing or an idea for writing and helping young children become better writers. That piece of writing may not be phenomenal after we work together, but I feel confident my students are gaining writing skills they can use long term (at least the majority of the time – not all conferences go as well as I’d like).

In reading or in math I find this much harder. Especially math. When a child isn’t fully understanding how to subtract a three-digit number from another three-digit number with regrouping, I find myself trying to do all I can to help them get the right answer. If that works, they may feel good about themselves, but I always feel a little hollow. It took me too long to realize that it was because I hadn’t done anything to help them long term. I may have helped them solve that one problem but I didn’t help them in a way that would mean they can solve future problems. Whether or not they get that one problem correct is far less important than whether or not they have learned something they can use in the future. Right now I think they’re often just learning to come back to me to work again.

I am better at this with number sense routines than I am with more traditional lessons. That’s probably something I should dig into a little deeper.

Maybe this is because I have a stronger base of knowledge about how kids learn to write and to read than I do about how they learn math. Maybe I’m a stronger writer and reader than I am a mathematician. I don’t know. I just know that I have to do something differently in order to better help my kids as long term learners and problem solvers rather than just helping them get through that moment of challenge.

Struggling

I’m really struggling right now. That’s not surprising as I think the great majority of us are struggling right now for multiple reasons. Fear and uncertainty and sorrow and more. All of it adds up to most of us not being at our best. I’m trying to remember that.

One of the most significant challenges we’re all facing is that we know so little about the virus that is driving everything. The more I read, the more questions I have. Medical personal and other experts agree on very little. The virus is so new and the majority of efforts have been focused on healing people. We’ve haven’t had time to understand this virus in order to be sure our behaviors will keep us safe. We are (at least the great majority of us) making choices as best we can with the knowledge we have.

I’ve seen this chart flying around social media. It feels very vague to me. Camping, at level 3, can have such varying risk based on whether you are staying near others or more isolated. So many other activities depend on whether or not folks are masked, how close they are to each other, etc. We want easy answers but they don’t exist.

Not everyone has the same freedom to determine how much risk they will take. Many people have had to go to work for the past three months and be around others, facing that risk. People who work at grocery stores, drive public buses, or work in gas stations. There are also many who have lost their jobs. Which also means losing their health insurance.

It is easy for me to think I know what my K-12 school district should do for the fall. All things being equal, I think we should not open. We should not put hundreds of thousands of kids and thousands of teachers and staff in buildings together. All things being equal. That would be the safest choice. At least for everyone’s physical health.

I have two major problems with this.

  1. Lots of folks will not get paid. If we are solely online our bus drivers and our folks who work in our cafeterias will not have jobs. Or health insurance.
  2. The mental health of many students (and some adults) is a significant concern. Children who are living in abusive situations are now there all the time, in a situation that is likely even more stressful than the norm, cut off from all external supports. Children in the LGBTQ+ community who are not accepted at home are now unable to live as themselves constantly.

I do not have a good answer for either of those problems. But I am unwilling to completely ignore them. I have been lucky enough to be able to work from home and continue earning a salary. I am lucky enough that my own children are old enough to be independent and allow me to actually work from home. I am lucky enough to live in a large house with lots of space for all of us. I know how lucky I am in this moment. I know that my perspective on what would be ‘best’ for our school system to do is deeply influenced by my situation. I have to hope that those who are making the decisions are seeing a far bigger picture. That they are able to look beyond their privileged situation and consider all the factors in play.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t remain virtual in the fall. It just means that if we do, there are lots of other considerations beyond just the physical health of teachers, staff, and students. We need to address those issues as well.

Please, if you are feeling so confident that your K-12 school system should remain virtual (or your institution of higher education for that matter) this fall, consider that you may not know all that is involved in that decision. It doesn’t mean you are wrong. It just means it isn’t as easy as we’d like to think it is.

And I haven’t even begun to address issues of equity or academics…

Finally, if you’re speaking forcefully about how schools should remain closed but you’re heading out and eating at restaurants, going to the mall, or having playdates for your kid, you are being a hypocrite. Either it is too dangerous for people to be together and we should keep things closed or not. Plus, if you want restaurants, malls, stores, and things to be open, someone has to be working there. What are their young children doing while they’re at work so we can go and shop? It’s complicated. Please don’t pretend the answers are obvious.

Youth in the LGBTQ+ Community

It’s Pride Month and in the past several years I’ve gotten to know a surprising, to me, number of high schoolers and middle schoolers in the LGBTQ+ community. I’ve gotten to know these kids because they are friends with my own kids. Some of these young people have supportive families and friends and seem to be doing great. Others live in homes where they deny who they are or are denied it. Some are afraid to tell their families about themselves. They live pretending to fit the societal norm.

from Victoria Pickering’s flickr

I don’t remember when I knew I was straight. I don’t remember when I knew I was cis-gender. I don’t have to know because it was what was expected and I didn’t have to think about it. I do know I had crushes on boys in elementary school. If a kid has a crush on someone of the same gender in elementary school, why do we question that? Why do we assume that crushes on people of the opposite gender (assuming a binary, which is quite an assumption) are totally normal and valid but crushes on someone of the same gender might just be a passing phase? Somehow we think kids can’t possibly be trusted to know who they are when it comes to gender and sexuality. At least, if who they are isn’t straight and cis-gender.

My first name is Jennifer. I share that first name with an astounding number of people about my same age. In fact, 10% of the girls (again, I’m making some serious assumptions about gender here because I’m not sure how to do better than that yet) in my 8th grade class were named Jennifer. Over the years of elementary, middle, and high school I tried on lots of different variations of Jennifer: Jenny, Jenni, Jen, Jenn, Ginger (my mom would call me that). I even tried out Jo, as my initials are J.O. I know I considered using Amy, my middle name, but I’m not sure I ever really used it. By adulthood I decided I really don’t care. I tend to introduce myself as Jennifer but I respond to just about any variation on my name. I appreciate that I was given the freedom to try on all those different options though. It was a part of trying to figure out who I was/am.

No one told me I couldn’t do it. No one said, “Your name is Jennifer. When you’re older you’ll understand that, even though you feel like experimenting right now. It won’t last.” (Although, when I was the student musical director for our school musical my junior year and they thanked me on closing night, calling me “Jen Orr,” my mother was appalled. She said it sounded like I was a kitchen appliance. The fact that jenorr is now my URL and twitter handle does show that her response to that initial experience didn’t have long term impact.)

I am aware that trying out versions of my name is not even close to the same as trying to live as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. There was no danger for me. My family and teachers accepted me, whatever name I opted to use. They might not have always remembered to use the name I wanted, but no one was trying to stop me or deny me being who I saw myself as being. I’m sure one of the arguments would have been that no one was harmed by my trying out different versions of Jennifer. Which is definitely true. Of course, no one is harmed by a young person being gay or gender fluid or bisexual either. Except maybe that young person who faces scorn, disdain, prejudice, and even violence.

A couple of years ago I read Mark Oshiro’s Anger is a Gift. Since reading it I have given it as a gift to multiple young people. The high schoolers in this book are a diverse crowd in every possible way. I realized, as I read it, that I had no trouble accepting the idea that this group of friends included kids from many different races and ethnicities. I spent sixteen years teaching classes exactly like that. The group also includes kids in many parts of the LGBTQ+ community. At first that was a bit hard for me to believe. When I started to think about my oldest, who was a freshman then, I realized that could be her group of friends (if they were far more white). I knew those kids. Their gender and sexuality are not, mostly, driving parts of the book. They are just who the kids (and their parents, for some) are. Race and police violence are far bigger issues in the book. Which means that right now, in Pride Month and in the midst of a massive Black Lives Matter movement, it’s a fitting book to read.

A Gift of a Book

A couple of weeks ago, as we headed into the final two weeks of school, one of my colleagues reached out to me to ask if I had book recommendations for a read aloud as the Black Lives Matter movement was growing and growing. I was honest with this colleague and said that I could definitely suggest books, but that I hadn’t done anything to address this with my third graders. Being online instead of in a physical space together changed so much about our interactions and I don’t yet know how to do this well. I can’t see all my kids. (Which is fine. They don’t need to turn on their cameras. And even if they did, I can only see a few at a time.) I can’t read the room online in the way I can in our classroom at school. I opted not to discuss the current movement because I was afraid that I would do more harm than good for my Black students. I also didn’t want to put those students in the position of speaking on behalf of their race. Being online means I can’t have quiet side conversations with kids to be sure they’re feeling safe or to help them see how their statements or questions might be harmful to others. I don’t think these conversations are impossible online, I just wasn’t confident I knew how to help my students navigate it well and I was unwilling to do it any other way.

In the final week of the year I read parts of Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A-Z. This book, by Irene Latham, Charles Waters, and Mehrdokht Amini is an absolutely beautiful book in language and artwork.

Most of the words in this dictionary have a two-page spread. Each spread includes a poem with the word as its title, a quote (often from books for kids), an anecdote from one of the authors, and a try it with an idea of how to take on the word.

In our final week, I took one of our days and shared the pages for Upstander, Love, and Empathy. The try it section for Upstander asks kids to think about how their favorite superhero (from a book, comic, or real life) is an upstander and how that can be a model for them. The poem for Love is short and powerful:

Love in the time of racism
requires
cardinal’s
red
courage,
requires
bluebird
carrying
sky,
requires
love — no time for racism.

In the short time we had, I shared those three words with my students and gave them some time to respond to each. They were mostly quiet. I hope that means they were taking in the poems and anecdotes and challenges.

On another day in our final week I shared other words from the book with them. Words I told them I hoped would be a big part of their summer. I started off with Question, followed by Create, and then Gratitude. I briefly showed them Dream and Exercise as well as we were running out of time.

This is a book that will stay by my bed all summer. I want to read each word’s spread slowly and then read them again and again. This is a book I want to know backwards and forwards because I believe it is a book I can use in so many ways in the future. The book is challenging for third graders, I believe, and could be used with much older students as well.

One last note about it, each word’s poem is a different kind and there is a short footnote on the poem pages explaining that type of poem. This book just gives and gives and gives.