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
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.

Bring the Movement to Them

In the last week our family has joined two Black Lives Matter rallies/marches/protests (I’m struggling with the most accurate term). One was in Fredericksburg, VA, organized by the Student Government Association at the university my husband and I attended and at which he has worked for two decades. The other was a mile from our home in the suburbs of DC. Living just outside of Washington, D.C. means we’ve always attended marches there. Marches happen in big cities. Traditionally anyway. Now we’re seeing them in small towns all across the country.

It was lovely to be able to be a part of an event within walking distance of our home. We walked there with our signs and met friends. Both of my children saw multiple people they know. It was quite convenient and easy to fit into our schedules, which was a treat.

I hadn’t really thought about the impact however. We gathered at a very busy intersection beginning at 4:30 in the afternoon and were there for more than two hours. Lots and lots of cars passed us during that time. It was heartening to hear the honks and cheers and see the supportive signs in car windows. It was loud and hot and hopeful.

It also brought this movement to people who might otherwise be able to ignore it. If we’d all gone into D.C. rather than gathering in our community, many of the people who drove by might never have been aware of our actions. Even if the march were significant enough to make the news, many folks would, and could, ignore it. Driving past, hearing our chants, seeing our signs, they had to see us.

Lots of cars passed by with young children in them. I had to wonder how many of those parents had avoided, intentionally or not, having conversations about race and justice and police brutality with their children. How many of those parents feel their children are too young for this conversation? How many of those parents feel they don’t know how to start such a conversation?

I know that parents of young children can spin what they saw to fit their narrative if they wish. I recognize that’s this isn’t a guarantee that children are going to have the opportunity to engage and question in meaningful ways. But I think that taking the movement to people in this way makes it more likely to happen. I’m hopeful some of those cars full of families took this chance to talk.

Near the end we walked the short distance to our local government center/police station where a few of the organizers spoke. The three middle schoolers I was with (two white and one Black, all of whom live close by) had no idea that was a police station. I’m not sure what that means but it was surprising to me.

My thoughts on marching in Fredericksburg (on Breonna Taylor’s birthday and the day that city removed a slave block from a street corner) are complicated. Living in northern Virginia makes it easy for me to forget many of the realities around us. It was an important reminder to me.

Trying to Understand Defund the Police

It appears that my tv viewing is impacting my thinking more than I would anticipate. Possibly because I’m watching more tv than I’ve ever done in my life…

Anyway, at this moment I’m thinking about Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, which my 16 year old and I have (very) slowly been watching. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a miniseries on Netflix about the five young teenage boys who were convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park in 1989 and spent years in jail before being exonerated. As I am about the same age as these men, I remember this story. But I certainly didn’t know it well. DuVernay’s series has been eye-opening for me and has really made me think about policing and our justice system.

So when a tweet like this one pops up on my timeline:

I’m primed to consider it. I’ll admit that when I first started seeing calls to defund the police I was hesitant and skeptical. I couldn’t immediately wrap my head around what that might look like. I could understand the desire but it just didn’t seem feasible to me, it just didn’t make sense. The status quo, one that isn’t harming me, still seemed better than such a significant change.

Then I kept seeing such calls. More and more frequently. Finally I realized I needed to learn more to be able to better understand this issue. Fortunately, plenty of people either felt the same or realized how many of us would need some help, and the links were being shared readily.

How Much Do We Need the Police? from NPR’s Code Switch was one of the first things I read. It’s a short interview with Alex S. Vitale, the author of The End of Policing. One of the arguments he makes, and that I’ve seen again and again as I’ve continued reading, is that we’re asking police forces to do too much and to do things that should never have been a part of their job. One example he gives is the issue of homelessness. Rather than address the issue at its core, we, as a society, have decided the people who are homeless are the issue and the police should fix it.

Part of our misunderstanding about the nature of policing is we keep imagining that we can turn police into social workers. That we can make them nice, friendly community outreach workers. But police are violence workers. That’s what distinguishes them from all other government functions. … They have the legal capacity to use violence in situations where the average citizen would be arrested.

So when we turn a problem over to the police to manage, there will be violence, because those are ultimately the tools that they are most equipped to utilize: handcuffs, threats, guns, arrests. That’s what really is at the root of policing. So if we don’t want violence, we should try to figure out how to not get the police involved.

This was super helpful for me to read. Police have been trained to deal with threats and violence. Not surprisingly, when they have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Why are we asking police to solve our social problems? (I could make similar arguments about what we ask of schools and teachers…)

Another piece I found helpful is by Christy E. Lopez, a professor at Georgetown Law School and the director of their Innovative Policing Program. She wrote Defund the police? Here’s what that really means. Many of the points are similar to those in the Code Switch piece (but it’s definitely good for me to hear/see things more than once).

Defunding and abolition probably mean something different from what you are thinking. For most proponents, “defunding the police” does not mean zeroing out budgets for public safety, and police abolition does not mean that police will disappear overnight — or perhaps ever. Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need. It means investing more in mental-health care and housing, and expanding the use of community mediation and violence interruption programs.

That was helpful to me, too. To get a better idea of the actual how of this process.

One final piece is the FAQ from MPD150. As Minneapolis is the first city (to the best of my knowledge) to take concrete actions towards defunding their police, this site was one I was glad to find. Again, it’s a pretty quick read that got at my questions and confusions. The few questions in their FAQ begin with similar points as the pieces above, getting at the how of this process.

The questions in the middle really get at the why.

But why not fund the police and fund all these alternatives too? Why is it an either/or?

It’s not just that police are ineffective: in many communities, they’re actively harmful. The history of policing is a history of violence against the marginalized– American police departments were originally created to dominate and criminalize communities of color and poor white workers, a job they continue doing to this day. The list has grown even longer: LGBTQ folks, disabled people, activists– so many of us are attacked by cops on a daily basis.

And it’s bigger than just police brutality; it’s about how the prison industrial complex, the drug war, immigration law, and the web of policy, law, and culture that forms our criminal justice system has destroyed millions of lives, and torn apart families. Cops don’t prevent crime; they cause it, through the ongoing, violent disruption of our communities.

This is still an issue I don’t understand as well as I’d like to and I’ll keep reading and listening. But these pieces did a lot to help me grasp why this is such a crucial issue for so many people and how it could (and will) be done.

Systemic Racism

Matt Kay, one of the people from whom I learn much on twitter, has talked recently about how meaningless a phrase ‘systemic racism’ is unless we’re naming those systems.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because I know I’m guilty of doing it. I lack the knowledge, or lack the confidence in my knowledge, to speak more specifically. That’s something I can change. I can learn. I own plenty of books that are just sitting there with this information. Owning them isn’t helping me if I don’t read them and dig deep in them.

I do, however, know what some of these systemic issues are in education. And I can address those.

Dress Codes

I know that dress codes are frequently racist. In my classroom I don’t care if kids have hoods up or hats on or whatever. When my kids have been called out on such ‘violations’ by other teachers, I’ve spoken up and defended them and their choice. I haven’t, though, gone beyond that. I haven’t addressed it proactively in any way.

Responding to Behavior

Behavior is another area I need to consider. Do I respond to students’ behavior differently? Am I harsher on students of color? Especially Black students and even more, Black boys? When I reprimand a child, does that look the same regardless of their race or gender? Answering these questions with complete honesty is likely impossible. Not just because it is hard to admit to racist behavior, but because it’s hard to know for sure how things might have gone. That means I have to be extra vigilant in these areas that are systemic. I have to be willing to reflect on my actions every day. I have to be hyper aware of my tone, my words, and my actions when it comes to responding to behaviors.

Low Expectations

Low expectations, often as evidenced by special education labels, is one more area of systemic racism in education. Do I expect less from my students with special education labels? Do I expect less from my students whose parents have received less education? This might be evidenced by who I call on in class, who gets opportunities for enrichment activities, who gets pushed forward for advanced academic programs, and more. It’s easy to not notice or consciously ignore lowered expectations. Knowing the problem exists is just a baby step for me towards making sure I’m not adding to it.

Issues that are systemic, like those above, are now a norm. They are the status quo. Awareness of them is not enough to change them. I can be aware of a tree blocking the road but if I just turn around and go another way I’m not doing anything to remove the barrier. I have to begin removing branches, cutting it apart, and dragging it off the road. I can do this by doing better for the kids in my classroom and I need to do so. In addition, I need to work to dismantle this through conversations and advocacy in my school, my district, and educational organizations of which I am a part. I must name these systems and work to tear them apart.


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.