Love is a Battle

“Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does.  Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”– James Baldwin

This week students are reading The Things They Carried, and working on definition essays about love, or war.  It’s fitting, because right now, it feels as though our society is definitely on a precipice suspended between the two.  Due to the daily trauma of never knowing what violent event will occur next, or where, or which group will be targeted, both children, and adults are carrying a lot.

Working in education, I know I have to do something, but what?  Do I declare war against those who create policies altering school environments so dramatically that neither my students, nor I recognize what it means to have fun getting an education?  Or, do I work to help others transform our practice room by room, teacher by teacher through the slow spreading of radical, and revolutionary love in the classroom?


Monday, our school was given a gift.  NY Times Bestselling author Nic Stone came to Montbello.  For us, this was nothing short of miraculous.  She signed books for students, read the first chapter of Dear Martin aloud, answered questions, gave hugs, and words of advice, and was generally a beacon of love and support for our children.  I continue to feel so immensely grateful for her visit, because seeing the looks on my children’s faces, and the life she breathed into them as readers is like nothing I’ve ever personally experienced.

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As just one example, one of my students had a mother, a grandmother, and a girlfriend die last year.  This particular student lit up in her presence in a way I have never seen in all three years we have known each other.  After the visit, when I asked the student if they wanted another book from my library, they said, “Definitely, but let me finish Dear Martin first.”

This is the power of reading living writers.

We live in a book desert, so we do not have access to bookstores.  Our public libraries exist, but none in schools, and our hard-working immigrant community is much more focused on generating income to pay for college, and upward socio-economic mobility, than they are on purchasing books for in-home libraries.

For all of these reasons, Nic’s visit was a game-changer.  As I looked out over the sea of students–many of whom had not read Dear Martin because of lack of reading time or established habits–I sensed their responsiveness to her presence and her reading in such a powerful way.  Nic is one of those people who embodies that unique combination of passion, talent, and drive that really is transforming our world.  The students, and our entire community, felt this.

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After the assembly, Nic said that our students had her feeling like #BookBeyoncé, which they did (I can testify to it because I was there).

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What she doesn’t know is that she made them feel special, too.  Most of my students do not have firmly established reading identities,

yet…

  • knowing she cared enough to come visit
  • hearing her read aloud from her engaging, and culturally relevant book
  • having the experience of meeting her
  • talking with her
  • receiving a signed copy of the book with a personalized message

WILL change that.

 

 

The thing about working with students in communities like mine is that students are not quick to trust strangers.  They do not really know what to do with someone who shows them love without an ulterior motive.  But, they can tell when someone actually loves them.  Nic loves kids.  They feel it.  They know it.

This is miraculous, because from their perspective, accepting love from adults you don’t know when you are so used to feeling suspicion toward, or rejection from them–is a battle.

Nic came to our school because of our mutual association with #ProjectLitBookClub and my dear friend and colleague Jarred Amato. I will forever be grateful to the Project LIT Community for the book love and support we share on a daily basis.  They are a consistent force for good in my life and that of my students.

Project LIT truly is changing the world–making it possible for authors and teachers and students to come together to share a love of reading that will open doors for children in underserved communities.  We use our love of socially conscious and culturally relevant books to ask the big questions of society, and empower our youth to be proactive about producing change.  Students initiate projects that bring literacy from the schools into their communities–and so much more.  Reading the Project LIT books this year has given them the confidence to see themselves as experts.  It has validated and affirmed their lives, identities, and experiences.


Four years ago, the district closed our library and our librarian quit.  Blame it on the bureaucracy, as people do, and as dystopian as it sounds; there are no longer any libraries or librarians in any school in Far Northeast Denver.  The physical library spaces (with books students cannot check out – thrown haphazardly on shelves) remain.  The expectation that students demonstrate literacy scores on standardized tests equal to their counterparts in suburban schools persists.

It is a grim situation.  And, it is precisely for this reason that author visits, grants for classroom libraries along with generous classroom donors, and programs like Project LIT are so important.  I am one who believes that a life without books is a hollow life indeed.  It is true. I am biased, but love is a battle–love is a war.  I believe in fighting for what, or who you love.  I love my students, so I will do whatever it takes to win this battle with and for them.  I also believe that “books save lives”, so I will go to any length for my students to have opportunities for high quality education, forming reading identities, and participation in life that they deserve.


This week was also Valentine’s Day, and another senseless incident of violence took place on the very day when we have traditionally celebrated our love for one another.  In a Valentine’s Day PD session, we talked about radical love in the classroom and what it means in our white-dominated educational landscape if students of color do not feel loved by their teachers.

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What can we do to change that, especially if cultural differences in “love languages” are the reason our students do not feel loved?  What is our responsibility to them to make sure they DO feel love at school?  How does this translate into an individual’s sense of alienation or rejection by a teacher, class, school, or the system as a whole?

I would be remiss if I ended this post without recognizing the 18 victims of yet another mass shooting in a school in our country, most of them young people with brilliant futures ahead of them.  This did not have to happen.

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We will never heal if we can’t examine the relationship our country has with violence and it’s rampant disregard for humanity.  It is my belief that this is a direct consequence of living in a society where we treat one another as objects and live segregated lives; culturally, geographically, psychologically.

These are not values that belong to my community.  Here I will say something radical:  My children believe themselves to be safer in the “ghetto” than they would be in the “white world”, and they might just be right.  Despite what you see on TV, people in communities of color — though we may have our issues stemming from the deliberate destabilization of individuals, families, local businesses, and our educational systems — do not prey on one another with surprise attacks involving AR-15s.  We are for the most part united because of our cultural traditions, because of our shared experience of being othered, and because we’ve realized that for means of survival, if nothing else, we have to belong to each other.

“Love is a battle.  Love is a war;  Love is a growing up.”  We must, as a country, grow up and raise our collective consciousness to the point where we are no longer able to see one another as objects, separate from ourselves, if we truly want to stop the cycle of violence.

Love is also a verb.  It’s not just what you think, feel, or say.  It is not the expression of now-becoming-defunct “Thoughts and prayers”.  It’s what you do.  If we truly want change, we have to show that with our actions.  The future is now.  We cannot afford to wait for “someday”. Change has to begin today.

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Do Black lives really matter in your school?

This week was an important one.

It was Black Lives Matter at School’s Week of Action, a week where schools and educators really have to wrestle with what it means to value Black lives.

The conversation about whether Black lives in particular should be valued separately really should no longer BE a conversation.

If the idea that Black lives in particular need to be protected offends you…

If somehow America’s history (and present) traditions of racially fueled violence specifically directed at Black people has escaped you…

…you’re not paying attention.

Please stop talking and start listening.


Black Lives Matter at School is a logical extension of the national Vision for Black Lives

However, as we in education are still working to raise individual and collective consciousness around what it means to inspire students to enact change, it follows that in many schools, the Black Lives Matter at School week of action was completely ignored.

In lots of minds, and lots of communities, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” has been twisted and flattened and altered to mean, “Nobody else’s lives matter,” and “We support public acts of violence and destruction,” and “We agree with killing police officers to get back at them.”  Most often, this line of thinking belongs to people living in geographic, cultural, or thought silos.  They do not educate themselves about any other perspectives or associate with people who might actually have experienced trauma from a racially motivated act of violence or daily micro-agressions. They do not deeply connect with people outside their sphere of familiarity or comfort.  They do not have conversations with the goal of listening to understand, rather than react.

Educators know that one single thought can change the entire world.  It all begins within.  However, the excuses I most often hear for not bringing the vision for Black lives into school is that, “Politics and social acts of resistance don’t belong in school,” and “I don’t want to bias my students with my viewpoints,” “It’s not in my curriculum” and “I’ll get fired if I do that.”  To each of these I statements I would ask, “If your school isn’t a place where you can inspire and empower students to change the world, what ARE you doing?” Failing to shift our thinking, and to educate ourselves and our students about all sides of the vision for Black lives has serious consequences.  I should not have to assert that my life matters, or shove to make myself visible–but I do.

Excuse making and failure to affirm and value Black lives in particular is one way the system and those within it dismiss and further marginalize the oppressed.  This is the soil in which minds that nurture seeds of racial violence germinate.  Such violence becomes justified and permissible in these minds when the people on whom the violence would be enacted are objects, or strangers about whom our children know virtually nothing real–nothing true.  The fact that someone isn’t holding a torch or a sign saying, “White is right” doesn’t absolve them of responsibility for creating the circumstances we currently find ourselves in.  We know that suspension and expulsion rates disproportionately affect Black students, as do zero-tolerance behavior policies that lead directly to the school to prison pipeline.  We know that Black and ethnic studies classes do not exist in millions of schools, and that fewer than 2% of all educators are Black males.  These are just a few examples of the actual truth behind the fake school integration we have accepted for so long as “good enough”.  Raising our students in such environments is a dangerous game–one people of color always end up losing.


So what did last week look like in Room 4?  Let’s break it down with student voices/work:

Monday February 5th#BlackLivesMatterAtSchoolWeek Theme – Restorative Justice, Empathy, Loving Engagement

Reading discussion/seminar “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid (More on how I do my seminars later, but here is a screenshot of the Google doc I had for the students to do a back channel conversation while the inner circle was having their fishbowl conversation).  This lesson might have fit the Friday theme better, but we read four poems last week, and students voted on the one they wanted to discuss this week, “Girl” won.

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Read aloud + discussion and writing about Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin 

How is empathy a seed of social action?  This is what Jailin has to say…

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Tuesday February 6th: #BlackLivesMatterAtSchoolWeek Theme – Diversity, Globalism

Students started working on contributions to a Google folder envisioning a future where Black lives matter in all schools.  Their work is in response to the prompt “In a school where Black Lives Matter we…..”

This was one of my favorite pieces by my student Jason R.

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and a poem from Adriana F.

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AMAZING panel Tuesday night from Youth African-American and Latinx Leaders.  Check it out here:

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Wednesday February 7th:#BlackLivesMatterAtSchoolWeek Theme –Trans-Affirming, Queer Affirming

We still needed to work on projects from Tuesday, so we did.  However, we had time for a quick conversation about trans women being women too, and I pulled this quote from How We Get Free: Black Feminism and The Combahee River Collective

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We will definitely return to this topic and day as I love Audre Lorde’s poetry and essays. They have a permanent presence throughout my class, not just this week.

Thursday February 8th#BlackLivesMatterAtSchoolWeek Theme – Intergenerational, Black Families, and Black Villages

We heard Matt de la Peña reading his book Love

in this YouTube video which was amazing.  I love bringing picture books into the high school classroom.  I never have students not enjoy them.  I also love having authors read to the kids–it’s a winning combination.

After, we spoke about non “traditional” schemas for love and students did a little writing about what love looks like in their families and cultures.  This is one of my favorite topics to explore, and next week we’ll be returning to it for students to write definition essays (the second round–they did the first ones just before break).  I always love the lesson where we talk about what it means to have a Black or Mexican mama. We will also talk about Black families…the ways they are depicted, and the way it feels to actually be a part of one.

Arianna said it best:

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And here is how our children say they feel love…

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Friday February 9th: #BlackLivesMatterAtSchoolWeek Theme – Black Women, Unapologetically Black

So for the millionth time, I’m definitely over people saying, “I don’t see color,” when the fact that I am Black and a woman, and a Black woman doesn’t escape anyone.  I’ll just drop this here in case someone has been living over a rock and missed this simple explanation.  Saying you don’t see two of the most OBVIOUS things about me is

A) not true

and

B) implying there is something wrong with these traits.

I talk more about how to affirm (read – not traumatize) Black women and girls (and really all people) within the school system in my post #BlackGirlMagic if you’re curious/interested.

Given that I worked a 12 hour day Thursday with conferences and all that…and because I love doing #HipHopEd and because it’s Beyoncé, I had to go with some #Lemonade for ALL the reasons.  If you haven’t seen it yet or taught it in your class as visual rhetoric/storytelling, I really don’t know want to hear it, at this point.  Shout out to the homie @heatheryreads for the GENIUS Google drive folder that we share with all the goodies for teaching Lemonade.  I will be using it forever.

Also…#Representationmatters

Two things:

1) Shout out to the homie @misskubelik for sending me her ARC of The Poet X by @acevedowrites !!  This is all I have wanted since November when I missed the giveaway while I was running around #NCTE18 like a crazy woman.  I cannot wait to read it.  It feels like it was made for me, and me for it.  This may have been the book I’ve been waiting for my whole life, if I’m honest, since there were no books written in poetry (which is a cornerstone of my private life) with girls who looked like me on the cover when I was coming up/learning to read.

Revelation: Students will be working on a dope ethnography project for argument/synthesis with The Poet X and Electric Arches as mentor texts.

2) I cannot WAIT for my students to meet @getnicced on Monday–especially my young Black women.  I don’t have enough words to describe my state of mind about this visit.  I know it’s going to be an emotional journey and I’m all the way ready for it.

 

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A word…

The majority of this post has been dedicated to AP English Language and Composition students and their work, but a very special THANK YOU goes out to Jason Reynolds for his book Long Way Down.

We read the book straight through while listening to the Audible audio version.  The children were captivated.  We were sitting in a circle, so I could see all of their faces and as any Lang Arts teacher knows, there is little better than experiencing a book you love anew with children you love.  There is just nothing like it.  I am so lucky to be able to have that experience on the regular.

One of my students, Oscar A. is such a joy to experience new things with.  When we went to see the play Macbeth at the DCPA I was probably more entertained by watching his reactions to everything that I was watching the actual play.  He is absolutely incredible and he LOVES hip hop, so I know I can count on him to be all the way in when we do #HipHopEd

But…

He hates to read.  He has admitted it many times.  I’ve been his teacher for two years, so we struggled through the books for AP Lang last year and now he’s taking two concurrent enrollment English classes as well as AP Lit from me–so issalot of reading.

I really don’t have words to describe watching him read Long Way Down, but I can say that it was everything that makes this job so magical.

When we finished reading it, he had the following things to say:

“This is the best book I’ve ever read.  Wow.  That book was so dope.  It was beautiful.  I don’t like reading.  This is a book I actually might BUY.”

To which I replied, “I will GIVE you a copy and write you a letter in the back so you’ll always remember this moment.  You might like poetry more than you think you do.  You love hip hop, and poetry and hip hop are siblings, so….”

So, what does the world do when something this beautiful happens?  Let Jason Reynolds know…

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This made Oscar’s LIFE.  He was so hyped after seeing this tweet.  He lit up from the inside and I was there to watch it happen!  This is the power of teaching/reading living writers….

For those of you wondering about the details of how this text can be used in AP Lit, here is my lesson plan, and a Teaching Tolerance Learning Plan I made for expansion thinking/conversations/activities.

Also, students made a BOMB #hiphoped playlist with songs to accompany the book that I’ll be tweeting out soon, so stay tuned….

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Last but not least, I was interviewed Tuesday for the Imaginarium about Chris Emden, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Thinking Strategies, Learning Liberation and all the good things.  Check it out below [but stop it when the bell rings or risk hearing a not very good and possibly profane song at the end aaaahh Sound Cloud hahahaha]

 

#BlackGirlMagic

“Just because we are magic does not mean we’re not real.”–Jesse Williams

My week began with a female student of mine coming forth with, “Miss, I need to read this ‘Write a letter to a character’ assignment to you.  It’s three pages, and I worked really hard on it.” Of course I was going to listen.  How could I turn her away?

Despite the attendance that needed to be taken, the advisory period that needed to be managed, and the ever present requests to go to the bathroom, I made space to hear my girl out.  As she began, she kept pausing to tell me she was shaking and just how nervous she was.  It seemed like she had to talk herself into reading the letter to me, and I wasn’t really sure why, until she got into the bulk of the letter.  It revealed the many ways in which the school system had wronged her:

“In kindergarten my teacher told me I looked and smelled like cigarettes.”

“Then, in the first grade I had a substitute teacher and she and these kids were talking about being poor and being middle class or rich and out of all the kids she points at me and says, ‘Look at you, you’re poor, look at your shirt.’ And I remember that like it was yesterday because I grew up to find out what ‘poor’ meant, and it shocks me that a teacher would tell a little child that.”

“I have 4C type hair [the hardest hair to deal with out of the whole hair chart] and my mom didn’t know how to take care of my 4C type hair but she still tried and the teachers always looked down on me because of that.”

“In middle school I never really dealt with any racism from the teachers, but the kids were always racist. All the black kids would be racist towards me because I was the darkest girl. My whole 3 years were hell, not because of the teachers but because of the hate I received because of being black by other black students. Surprising huh? I was called ugly by every boy, I was made fun of by everyone. I got in a fight and lost which made school even worse.”

The letter, and conversation were intense. How was I, a person working within this system, supposed to respond?

Two things were immediately apparent to me: 1) This student did not feel like the educational system respected who she is–her identity.  2) It was imperative that I do what I can to restore her sense of self-worth and empower her to feel that she does matter and who she is IS accepted, wanted, needed–at least in my classroom.  I could tell it was cathartic for her to be able to tell someone about all the hardships she had endured, so I let her speak.  After she finished, I handed her my copy of Black Girl Magic by Mahogany Browne and had her read it.

Then, we talked about what it really means to be a Black Girl, and to be magic, but also…real.  We also spoke about victimhood and how it is a passive state–that in order to enact change, we have to become active, to supercede the label of “victim” (though victimized we may have been) and remember that we are deserving of the best, so we have to demand exactly that from people, and institutions.  I told her what I always tell people when conversations turn to the hardships I have faced in living this life as a woman of color–I am fortunate to walk the world in this skin, because although it means sometimes people will underestimate or try to silence me, I have a perspective that is unique, and a capacity for empathy that is unparalleled.  I know she heard me.

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The part of teaching too many teacher prep programs do not really prepare folks for is having to face trauma caused by the very system we perpetuate, then wrestle with what it means to actively work to create spaces of healing and love in environments that do not necessarily prioritize these things.


This week, during a PD on Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, the subject of childhood trauma induced by the school system came up again.  Our PD began with this thought provoking video from Dena Simmons about “How students of color confront impostor syndrome”

Oddly, though there are several women of color on staff, not one of us was asked to talk about our experiences with the erasure of our identities.  This was a missed opportunity for some real-world connections and also, another instance of folks overlooking us. The irony could not have been thicker.  I’ve often heard it said that to be a woman of color in this world is to truly know what it feels like to be invisible.  While men of color are “invisible” until they commit one of the innumerable offenses (sometimes, just being in their physical bodies) that draw attention to them, making them hyper-visible, women of color are too often dismissed as “angry” or ignored completely.  This is my lived experience.  After the video, there was a quick reaction whip-around, and then we moved on–for the sake of time.

We got off to a bit of a rough start: several of the white staff members grumbled at having to undergo, “yet another CRP PD that doesn’t align with the district mandates that we prioritize/push testing and test scores over everything else” and the women of color felt heated after having our experience glossed over.  Even so, there was a lot that came from the PD that was good.  I offer up my notes here as evidence of the deeper thinking and discussion that went on:

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Some of the highlights for Close Reading as an Instructional Strategy: Find personal connections, chunk (or number) portions of the reading, stand and read (standing creates a sense of urgency), give a choice about the order in which foks read, give affirmation to “groaning students”.

Some of the highlights for Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: Invite people of color from the community into the school as role models so students can develop a schema for success that includes folks who look like them. Develop community partnerships so students can see their community as a place of pride and intrinsic worth/value.  Teach students to love themselves by centering instruction on their lives, and remind them that you love them.


I couldn’t help but make connections between my student who didn’t feel she had a voice, or a choice in her education for most of her 11 years (she’s a Junior), and the conversations we were having about CRP.  I couldn’t help but imagine what her life would have been like had she seen people of color from her community as role models and learned to love herself in part through seeing her image reflected in the curriculum and instructional methods.

In the hustle and bustle of urban education, so many things happen that are, for lack of a better way of saying it, I’ll use the Portuguese (because that’s what comes most naturally to me) “sem querer” or “without wanting to”.  I ask, if we truly seek change, if we are truly about the business of imagining a better future, when are we going to stop allowing, “I didn’t mean to/I didn’t mean it that way” to be an acceptable response to potentially trauma inducing, marginalizing, silencing, or disenfranchising situations?

Yes, I’m a Black girl.  I’m magic–but I’m also real.  My realness means I have parts of me that might always remain raw, and open, from wounds inflicted– and past wrongs.  My realness means I have been silenced at times, but also, that I have risen up to become someone who rejects the passivity of victimhood in exchange for the activism it takes to fight for a better educational system, experience, and future, not only for girls and women like me–but for everyone.

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“The Plug”

Student: “Miss–you The Plug.”

Me: “If people can’t see that by now, I don’t know what to tell them.”

Student: “Torres already told you she does not play.”

Me: “You already know.”

[hilarity and laughter ensues]

I live my life in service to other people.  I am so grateful for this, because no matter what, at the end of every day, I can say that I’ve made someone else’s life better and/or easier simply by virtue of what I do for a living.  I can think of no better way to spend the days, weeks, months, and years of my life.  Ever since that first lesson I taught in 2005, I have never regretted the choice to become a teacher.  With that said, I proudly accept the title of “The Plug”.

If I am “The Plug”, that means I need to electrify.

If I am “The Plug”, I need to hook people up with power.

If I am “The Plug”, my job is to connect people to resources they need.

It might be a silly nickname the kids bestowed upon me, but it fits.  I accept it.


“The Plug” electrifies…

This week, we discussed poetry as public art form.  Students read “Unknown Citizen” WH Auden, “Sterling Williams’ Nosebleed” David Chin, “Girl” Jamaica Kincaid, “Half-Mexican” Juan Felipe Herrara.  I can’t say that people were exactly “electrified”, but interest was definitely piqued.  People really reacted to the questions in “Unknown Citizen”.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

At the end of the day, these are the questions we always need to consider.  What freedoms do we willingly give up for the promise of happiness–even if deep inside, we know it will be fleeting?

From “Sterling Williams…” students observed that the poem used repetition in a way similar to the old days when one was bad in school and had to write, “I will not…..” over and over again on the chalk board.  My female students really gravitated toward the restrictions placed upon the protagonist in “Girl”  which I like teaching as poetry because of the poetic elements.  My favorite poem of these though, Half-Mexican, really threw people for a loop.  They knew they liked it because of the title.  Many of my students are Mexican.  They joked that if you can tell somebody Mexican by whether they’ve seen Apocalypto or not, which I found quite hilarious.  By their account, if you’ve seen it, you’re Mexican.  I accept this.

At first, people had no idea what to do with this poem, then the energy in the room shifted a bit when we started asking questions and digging deeper into the poem to understand the connection between Indigenous people, colonized people, and Mexican people of the diaspora.  I could tell that there were more questions than answers, as students wrestled with form hidden imagery, and figurative language.  I consider this to be a good thing.  I really try to stay away from giving interpretations of poems, so instead, we have a quick protocol that we use:

TPFASST – Title (1st reading), Paraphrase, Figurative Language, Attitude (tone), Syntax, Shift, Tone.

From there, we talk about the antecedent scenario, problematic vocabulary, dramatic situation, essential question (poetry is the answer, minus the question), and any dominant style device that stands out.

These processes allow folks to struggle a bit, but in the end, they are lit up with a preliminary understanding of a poem from which they can branch out and explore through seminars, discussion posts, etc. I’ve found these protocols to be effective and quick ways to ignite the spark of comprehension.  I really didn’t have to do much other than provide some background knowledge about Einstein, Kant, and Indigenous symbolism/Aztec and Mayan mythology and rituals.  As we make meaning together, as a class, I find providing just a little bit goes a long way.


“The Plug” empowers…

This week, I got an amazing opportunity to have my students design a social-media campaign for a non-profit that offers micro-loans to women in Uganda and Rwanda.  If we are successful, we’ll be able to launch the campaign at the end of this school year.  My students will be empowered by this service learning opportunity, because they will see their efforts generate support for women half a world away.  These women will be empowered because they will own their own lives.  In so many ways, they will have more than your average US citizen.


“The Plug” hooks people up…

This week, the collaborations have been electric.  So many people have reached out with both offers and requests to join their energies and talents with mine in the service of something greater–our kids.  I always say we are a web of interconnectedness and that we are so much stronger, and better together.  It’s true.  It is such an honor to be able to work with other educators on exciting projects that make our world better by enriching the lives of our young people.  So, for all the people I’ve connected to one another, and to all those who have been connected or connected themselves to me, thank you.  Thank you for extending a hand.  Thank you for donating time, sending books, co-planning with me, inviting me to your school(s) to share my message with your community, for supporting my work–for being my plug(s)–for charging up my heart.

charge my heart

 

“For My Would-Be Older Brother”

Our government is currently making decisions that will drastically affect lives for undocumented citizens appropriately called “Dreamers”.  Many Dreamers are my students, my friends, the daughters and sons of my heart, and my soul. This week, I’m taking a departure from my own writing, and sharing student work.  With her generous permission, I share one Dreamer’s response to an assignment for my class called “The Personal Essay”.

To protect her identity, I’ll call her E.C.  I love her dearly.  Hear her.


For my would-be older brother.

It was 1995 when an 18-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl came to America for the first time leaving behind their humble home. My older sister was born in 1997 in Denver, Colorado, becoming an American citizen instantly. My mother later returned in 1998 to San Francisco Tepojaco Cuautitlan Izcalli in Mexico city with my sister. That same year, my would-be older brother died of lung malfunctions, he would be the only one that would have understood what I’d be going through 19 years later, being Mexican born with American citizens as siblings.

I was born in 2000, being the only one born in my parents forever home, it became my patria, I have the vaccine shot or the “Mexican stamp” that leaves a hole to prove it. For the next four years, my father traveled back and forth growing accustomed to the better future he would get for his daughters in America. At age four I moved to the land of the free, the land of opportunity, where all dreams come true.

From San Francisco Tepojaco Cuautitlan Izcalli we took a bus to Sonora, and a coyote was waiting for us. Leaving as darkness overtook the cerro, we began our 370-mile walk toward Phoenix, Arizona, crossing through mountains, deserts, hills, and flatlands. After hours of walking, we rested under a tree, as daylight began protruding over the horizon. We arrived at a house full of families and men traveling alone until blue minivan with a peeling paint job and a rusty hood picked my family and it took us to our new forever home. We arrived at my first white Christmas with snow covered trees, and cold wet white drops falling from the sky, and a bunch of gringos.

At age 8 I realized I was not like the other kids, my friends would find my native tongue “like so exotic” and bug me until I repeated my sentence and sounded “like a hot tamale” and I would laugh at myself intentionally to be American. I was an “illegal alien” who didn’t belong in America and should “go back to my country”, but at this point, I had no memories of this so-called country I was to be sent back to.

American has always been known as white and if you aren’t white, you are a trespasser. John Leguizamo once said, “Growing up Latino meant that your parents had an accent and worked three times as hard as everybody else’s parents, and you were supposed to be the great brown hope.”

At age 10 my second brother was born.  He was an instant American citizen who already had a simpler life than me even before coming out of the womb. Already having health insurance and the dreamland magical nine digits, he would be raised without fighting two identities that are constantly fighting like the devil and angel on each shoulder, whispering the mistakes I do throughout the day. He would live to dream of attending universities of his dream where he will soon commute in his own car he buys under his name. He will have plenty of experience working under his name. My brother will have the life I didn’t know I needed before.  Now, I would do anything for this life.

At age 15, the epitome of every teenage Latina girl, I came to the realization I was never going to be like every blue-eyed girl from a gated community. At this time I became embarrassed of my heritage. I wanted to try so hard, yet I was never right for the look. I wanted to wear stylish flannels like the pretty American girls on Tumblr, but I remember being mistaken as a “chola” with my black hair in a messy bun and hoop earrings that were in style. I remember told that my slang was so “ghetto” or wearing the puzzled “what did you just say” look, because I didn’t understand the subtleties of the English language. Eventually, it transitioned to where I noticed my friends were able to travel to faraway lands but I could not. My friends could get a driver’s license and I could not, my friends would be able to apply for FAFSA and afford college and I could not. My friends would be able to drive 5 minutes away without any fear of their life drastically changing from the red and blue flashing light on their rearview mirror and I could not. My friends would be able to apply for a job with what I call “The Nine Magical Digits” and I could not. But my friends won’t have to be told to keep fighting and keep faith through the tough teenage years, when all I  wanted to do was give up, completely leave behind my dreams and begin to question every goal I had accomplished. The question, “Is any of this worth it?” was on constant repeat in my overfull conscience. My friends won’t acknowledge that I have to work twice as hard to show people what I am capable of and still not be appreciated or meet the criteria.

At age 17, my senior year is filled with migraines. While everyone is applying for FAFSA and traveling to college visits on an airplane with dreams on high, I am applying for colleges–at least trying to, but I have no one truly understanding my frustration. I have lost any drive and I am in robot mode.  I just don’t care, and especially don’t dream as big as I did when I was 4.  I don’t want pity.  I want people to realize just how much-unnoticed privilege they have. I’m drained from the constant playback button of my friends telling me, “Oh my god you’re so smart” when they can be just as educated.  They’ve just never had to try as hard as I have to because they don’t have to prove to anyone that they aren’t a “rapist or a drug dealer”. The pressure is overbearing. I want to scream into oblivion for people to stop telling me to, “stay strong” or “have patience”. I’m done with the sorry faces people present when the idea of fighting to change things comes up. I’m tired of fighting and being scared and having other people joking about something they can’t even imagine. I want to hold my fist to the air and yell “We are here to stay”, but I feel defeated. DACA, the designation of having dreams, being a “Dreamer” where anything is possible, the thing that was supposed to protect us just put us in the spotlight. From the clever words of Selena Quintanilla, I quote, “We gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are, we gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time.” It’s a constant tug-of-war game between my identities. I don’t remember much from Mexico, but it’s still in my blood. All I know is in America, I will never be American in the eyes of those who bleed red, white, and blue.

My older brother, the only one who would have shared my life, would have understood, and agreed.  This is for my would-be older brother.


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Double Consciousness

This week, in an after school discussion, two students and I had the best chat about the divided or “double-consciousness” of the American people–especially, people of color.  I argued that society forces it upon us as a means of psychological survival.  They argued that it’s a natural part of the maturation process, that as we grow older, we shed the need for a divided-self.  It was amazing.

Like so many of our conversations, I can’t remember how it began or ended, but the middle is where the truth really was for me.  We were free of concern for all the other students who might be waiting for help from their teacher.  We could challenge each other’s thinking, and basically just vibe, without worrying that the bell was going to ring and cut the conversation short.  We asked open ended questions of each other, and laughed a lot.  It was the perfect storm of being with these two particular students–who humble me every day with their greatness–and it being that time in the world where quality extended conversation is a rarity, therefore rendering it even more precious.

In any case, the after school chat sesh turned to WEB DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, and the divided consciousness of the American people.  Somehow this traveled to a discussion of the “hidden curriculum” and the ways that students don’t really have to be learners, or true seekers of truth and expansion to “win” school.  They just need to know how to play the game.  Many students get belligerent when teachers mess with the rules of the game as they know it.  As I’ve said before, they just want to show up, fill out the worksheet, and get their “Easy A”.  We have programmed them to be this way.

If the goal was to create the perfect educational system that churns out the perfect worker to feed the perfect Capitalist economic need for ever more workers to produce ever more products for ever more consumers; we have succeeded.

This success may end up costing us everything.


There are a lot of experimental educational models being developed, invested in, and implemented every day.  The majority of these put a new spin on old ideas by filtering the learning through fun apps, iPads, or Chromebooks.  Though we are trying to reach 21st Century learners or the iGen “on their level”, more and more students are becoming disillusioned with school and do not feel it is a place for them.  This results in students, teachers, and entire organizations, developing a double consciousness–the “student” or “teacher” self they present to the world, and the learner or seeker they truly are.

WEB DuBois says that “double consciousness”, “is a peculiar sensation…this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

If this is so, I would argue that we in education are going through just such an identity crisis.  We do not yet have a clear vision of what we are, or what we want to be.

Ideally, students would show up, they would have learning goals that they set, I would facilitate the learning with tools and whatever knowledge/expertise I can provide, perhaps challenge them with some questions, and they would have at it.  I know there are some schools that work with models similar to this, but still, the majority of our schools don’t.  Even so, in most teacher evaluation tools, the mark of a “Distinguished” teacher is that they have made themselves obsolete.

Paulo Freire, in his work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, discusses at length, the notion that education as the practice of liberation means that teachers no longer see themselves as the keepers of all knowledge.  The teacher becomes the student, and the student the teacher.  In the role reversal that takes place, both teacher and student, are liberated.

In order to free ourselves from the current identity crisis we are in, from the “double-consciousness” we currently inhabit, we are going to have to do some re-imagining.  We can’t continue to present a front to the world of educational reform without sustainability.  We can’t continue to lie to ourselves and say that training students to internalize dogma and regurgitate it in ways that we deem acceptable–is learning.

The world, right now, does not look favorably upon our American educational system. We know it is deeply racially segregated, inequitable, inconsistent, and largely failing to do what it should do–elevate the collective consciousness, inspire creativity, and increase economic productivity of our society.  If we want to reconcile the educational system we think we have with the one we want, we have to take an honest look at our educational “consciousness”: the way we are seen, and the way we see ourselves, the way we want to appear, and who we really are.


For Our Students

Seek support in thinking about the real ways you are encountering information, and what you are doing with it once you find it.  Look for ways you can apply information to solving real-world problems.  My experience tells me that young people growing up today have a sense of confidence that they can get answers to just about any question by, “searching it up”.  This confidence is a good thing.  We can leverage that.  However, many of you are also so used to getting AN answer quickly, that you no longer feel comfortable with a quest for deeper knowledge that doesn’t have an immediate answer.  In other words, you aren’t comfortable asking questions and leaving them open-ended for the sake of encouraging ongoing conversation and thought exploration.

What WAS the quest for knowledge may now be transforming into the quest for DEEPER knowledge, and developing the skills to evaluate/sort information which leads to the formulation of further questions.  Don’t be afraid of the open-ended question.

For Us

Let’s check the urge to think that we have to have all the answers, or even that we should.  It can be intoxicating to stand in front of a room full of admirers, filling them with your particular brand of wisdom.  And, it is difficult to let go of control in a classroom full of children with differing abilities and with different academic, and socio-emotional needs, when you have been taught that children like control and crave structure.  Lots of research has been done about the way we have done things, but who is imagining what has not been tried before?  Let it be you.  Let it be us.  My experience tells me that today’s students know how they like to learn, and they know what they are curious about.  Many of them also have a great sense for what will be applicable in their actual lives, so let’s seek their input in the process.

What WAS a prescribed course of study to ensure all learners received a basic set of knowledge and skills may now be transforming into students developing solutions for the real world in real time, with authentic learning experiences they co-create with teachers as mentors.


I struggle for the day when the after-school conversations can become THE conversations, the ones we make time for, and the ones that we allow to matter.  It is then, and only then, that the two sides of our divided “double consciousness” will be reconciled.  The future begins now.

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Intentions

So it’s officially two weeks since I’ve been on winter break.  I’ve caught up on sleep, done some damage to my reading stack, and done a lot of thinking (and writing) about what I want to put in place this year.  For my first blog post of 2018, I don’t want to get too long-winded, because there’s plenty of time for that.  What I do want to do is set some intentions.

Last school year, at the end of the year, life handed me some challenges to overcome, and a friend of mine said to me, “At the end of the day, we all have to learn to take responsibility for the fallout caused by our actions, regardless of our intentions.”  His words have stayed with me.  In thinking about the many times that I as a woman (especially a Black woman) have made excuses for folks–given them the benefit of the doubt–I realize most of the time I’ve done so on the assumption of the benevolent nature (so they say) of their intentions.

Generally, I prefer to be the one to see the best in someone, and perhaps get hurt, over being the cynic who doesn’t believe in anyone or anything without proof.  Despite the occasional hardships life has handed me, I remain relatively optimistic at heart.  I believe it is that optimism that keeps me resilient, resolute, and remaining in this profession.

With that said, 2018 is most definitely a time for action.  If we learned nothing else from 2016 and 2017, I hope that we have finally learned that it matters not a bit what you say if you continue to act in the same ways that subject those around you to emotional, physical, and psychological destruction at the hands of a status quo that you uphold–and benefit from.

At the same time, words matter.

Our words often shape how we think, and vice versa.

We are all wise to the conversations about the perils of deficit language in the delicate ecosystem that is our educational landscape.

So what do we do?

Part of setting intentions is realizing where we have come from, and believing in where we are headed.  You’ve heard it said, “You can’t teach people you don’t believe in.”

It’s true.

So I’ll start there.

I intend to show my students that I believe in them by encouraging them to create a personal definition of success–and persevere until they reach it.

I intend to remove all traces of deficit-language from all professional settings I am in by calling out such language as harmful and counter-productive.

I intend to transform the educational experience for my marginalized and disenfranchised black and brown students by seeking their input in what is important to them, and what sparks their curiosity.

I intend to promote radical, and permanent change in the field of education every time I am invited to work with educators to further develop our practice.

I intend to challenge thinking and demand better actions from those at the highest levels by speaking my truth to the powers that be in education so that they hear me.  They will know that I am not tolerating any decision making that ruins lives, keeps children behind bars (physical or psychological) or dooms groups of people to a prescribed course that is so much less than they deserve.

I intend to bring libraries, librarians, passion for reading, and a culture of literacy back to my region that no longer has any of these things, by actively seeking partnerships and affiliations with those who are doing the work and showing their commitment through concrete action.


My hope is that by setting these intentions, my students–who mean the whole entire world to me–will know my love for them.

I accept the challenge and responsibility of delivering actions rooted in these intentions.

❤ JET

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