Be the Lighthouse

“Be the lighthouse, not the storm…” — Anonymous

Over the last few weeks since school started, I’ve struggled to find words to explain what it is to be in a new role this year.  To, for lack of another way of describing it, live another life.  For the first time in thirteen years, I don’t have huge rosters of students to plan lessons for.  I don’t have weekly lesson plans due.  I don’t have over 100 names to learn by the end of the first week.  I don’t have grades due every Wednesday.  I don’t have to create a perfectly worded CLO…

But…

I do have grants to write and book lists to compile. I do have students from previous years wanting help with assignments.  I do have community members and students asking me fairly frequently, “Why isn’t the library open yet?” I do have to come up with a response that is both satisfactory and apolitical so as not to fire up the already fired up community that does not understand, nor at this point care, about the inner workings of the district that made it impossible to have the library open before school started.

So, I find myself in a central and very public position.  I technically work for the district now, so schools do not have to provide me with things like: the yearly staff shirt, a desk, an office chair, a computer, an office, or a key to said office.  I now have all of these things, but what had to happen in order for me to get them is a key example of why so many things do not happen in urban schools without a fight.

A vignette: The librarian’s office is situated in the library.  It technically belongs to one of the schools in the building, not the library or librarian, as there has been neither for so long.  The folks who designed the library planned on the circulation desk being my “office”.  The circulation desk was not scheduled to arrive until this week 9/21.  School started one month ago.  Therefore, there was nowhere for me to work unless I pulled a table into the open and unfinished library undergoing construction.  The tables all belong to schools, so I, as a district employee now, do not have to be provided with one.  Fortunately, I am friends with the person scheduled to be in the office space.  We talked, and it was an easy solution to scrounge two chairs and tables and set up our office.  The school scheduled to occupy the office did not want me to be in there, so there was no key provided to the office for me.  The custodian, with whom I have a great relationship, assisted by giving me a AA key–the key that opens all doors in the building.  There are still people trying to tell my office buddy that I don’t belong in her office and that she doesn’t belong in my library–though they are in the same space.  Since there are five schools in one building, and space is at a premium, the fight for physical space happens every year.  It is complete insanity.

These are the stories they do not want told.

Imagine if I had said, “Library not finished?  Okay.  I’m working from home.  Let me know when you all have your act together.”


As they say, the devil is in the details.  For me, the most important detail is making sure children are not forgotten in all the shuffling, re-shuffling, and adult chaos that bubbles up at the beginning of the year.

So, I got to it, and built the library a website so that students could begin to check out ebooks right away.  I am very much learning to be a librarian for children in grades 6-12 as I go.  I’ve never taught 6th grade.  I haven’t taught middle school since 2005.  I am not good at it.  I don’t know all the best middle grades titles to suggest!  Changing lanes will force you to realize your limitations.  Moving beyond the classroom will help you to see the ways you have played it safe for a long, long time.  Being a teacher-librarian who needs to be a lighthouse for everyone to find safe harbor, rather than just a select few, is challenging….

But, I had Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, Nic Stone, and Elizabeth Acevedo to help me.

I’ve done more than 30 classroom visits in the last two weeks.  For each one, the objective is clear–get children who haven’t had a library for as long as (for some of them) seven years–to at least consider giving reading a chance.  I am in the library to help students find their way to developing rich, varied, and full reading lives they can use as guiding lights through their time in the school system, and beyond.

 

When I saw the way students responded to the read-alouds, nudged one another and said, “Miss, do you have any more copies of that book in the library?”  I knew the library, though not physically open yet, was well on its way to achieving its goal.

During each visit, I take classes through the website, and ask them to tell me honestly whether they enjoy reading.  Predictably, the older the children are, and the longer they’ve gone without a library, the smaller the amount of hands raised stating that they do enjoy reading.  Most classrooms have just 20-30% of students answering in the affirmative.  After taking them through the website and showing them how to check out ebooks, I talk to them about Project LIT and the exciting events we have coming up this year.  I also read aloud from The Hate U Give, Long Way Down, Hope Nation, or The Poet X (they tell me which one they want to hear).  I’ve read from each of these books so many times, but it never gets old, because the response is the same every time.  Children love to be read to, and I love reading to them.  They especially love it when the books speak their language–tell the stories of their lives–which sometimes, in some ways, is my life too.  After the read-aloud, I ask for thumbs up, to the side, or down as an answer to the question, “Based on what I’ve read so far–would you keep reading?”–each time, over 90% of students give an emphatic thumbs up.

When I pitch Project LIT Montbello, I do a short book talk for each of the nine books we are offering this year.  As I type this, we have over 45 students signed up to join, which is a testament to the greatness of Project LIT and the books that have been selected this year.  I have raised money for 50 copies of each title.  I still have eleven more classrooms to visit this week.  The students don’t know it yet, but I’m going to find a way for every single person who wanted to join us to be able to.

 

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In order for the library to be successful, I have to work hard to gain these students’ trust.  They need to know that reading is fun, not just something adults try to get them to do to earn a score on a test–they’re too smart for games like that.  I need to remove labels like “non-reader” “not-proficient” or “low-level” from our vocabulary.  My most important job is to help students reclaim their reading lives and know that somewhere among the stacks, both physical, and virtual, there is a book waiting just for them.  I want them to know that reading poetry, manga, graphic novels, song lyrics, Instagram photo captions, all of it counts–that they are not “non-readers” just because they don’t like to read the things schools and adults tell them they need to.

Too many folks assume that because we pour love, resources, and money into literacy in early childhood, once children have a firm foundation, they no longer need support in developing or maintaining reading lives.  Let me assure you that is not true.  I am one of just five secondary education librarians in my district, and there are many districts that have none at all.  I am new to this.  I do not know details of what it will take to change conditions that result in the removal of secondary libraries from America’s schools, especially urban school districts (the first to have libraries removed).  But, I know that the accompanying work is to remove the shame and stigma too many children feel about their reading habits, that reading that reflects their tastes, lives, languages is not good enough–an unfair burden for them to carry, placed upon them by adults.

Libraries, and librarians are the lighthouse by which so many children find their way through the storm.  It benefits all of us when we value, preserve, and protect them.

At our first Project LIT Montbello meeting, we talked about what we were willing to bring to the group, and what we hoped to get out of participating this year.  One girl said simply, “More words.”

For me, that was everything….

lighthouse

 

Hold Fast to Dreams

“I may go, but I will leave behind all my thousand & one lives–a bookmad girl never dies.”

–Amanda Lovelace

I have been called many things–among them “well-spoken”(what does that even mean?), “mysterious” (only to those who don’t take the time to uncover my secrets), “savage” (my students call me this–and I love it), “unfettered” (definitely), “fiercely independent” (my mother calls me this), and “wild” (my hair certainly is)….

I suppose I accept these labels, and yet, my nearest and dearest know why I am Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  I am Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie.  I am Maya Angelou’s “caged bird”.  I am Nella Larsen’s Clare.  I am Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni….and a thousand more.

Every child, every person, deserves the chance to find themselves reflected in the pages of their favorite book, to get so lost in a story that time disappears, and the only pursuit that matters is reaching the bottom of the page so that it can be turned, so that a story can unfold, so that the invisible thread between reader and author, past and present, imagination, and reality–strengthens and tightens to becomes an unbreakable cord.

But, for too many people, for far too many children these days, books are objects to be left behind on desks, thrown onto roofs on the way out of school on the last day–thrown off shelves in the ghost-town that the once library has become.

Books have become objects from which children feel alienated because they do not see themselves reflected on the pages, they do not identify with the authors who wrote them, or see a connection between the time periods in which the books were born and the times we are living in now–sometimes even the language in which the books were written.

But this is changing….

Even so, for several years now, in many urban school districts, libraries, and librarians, have begun to disappear.  “Disappearance” is a euphemism for what is really happening.  The deliberate underfunding of school libraries has caught on like wildfire–especially in communities with high populations of immigrants and/or families and students labeled “low-income”.  Stealing books and access to them from children has been a deliberate choice.  How do I know?  This is exactly what happened in Montbello.

When I first started working in Montbello, we had a working library and a librarian.  Granted, she was a Pera-librarian, which means she was neither paid, nor expected to provide services or programming teacher-librarians provide.  She did not have a budget to buy the latest high-interest novels for our students, so she worked with the old inventory and did the best she could by the students, until they cut back her hours.

It wasn’t long after they cut back her hours (which obviously equated to less pay) that she quit to go into another line of work, for which I cannot blame her.  It is unreasonable to expect adults with degrees to do jobs that do not keep up with the cost of living.

Her story was the same as other librarians in the area.  It didn’t take long for the district to move to a model where one part-time librarian was serving several schools–a model that is neither realistic, nor sustainable.

In a surprisingly short amount of time, we had no librarian and nobody to check books out to the kids, so the books sat on the shelves and the children began stealing them–because they wanted to read.

The following year, the school needed space for Teach to One which was an absolute abysmal train wreck on our campus–nevertheless, because there was no other space allotted for the program, the classes had to be held in the library.  This would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that 60% of the library stacks and inventory were removed from the building to make room for the math lab.

The following year, a student was left unaccompanied in the library space.  This student took it upon themselves to throw every single book off of every single shelf in the ghost-town library onto the floor.  The custodian had the task of putting them all back on the shelves-by himself-which he did, because nobody else would.  He put them back in a random order because his priority (and the job he is paid for) was to have the space look clean and tidy.


Fast forward to Spring 2018

A heated debate over the desire for a traditional high school in far northeast Denver boils over

A viral video with over 10k views spotlights the Wild West conditions in the library that has become a space where anything goes…except developing a love for literacy.

Amid public outcry, the board voted.  Tax money was “re-allocated”.  A new library remodel, inventory, and librarian position were funded.


Because I am known as the book-mad lady on campus, I was asked to design library programming for all five schools on campus in late April of 2018.  By May, I was asked to apply for the position as campus librarian.  Within five days at the end of May/beginning of June, I resigned from my position as Language Arts teacher, got hired as the campus librarian, moved everything out of my classroom, delivered the commencement address at our school’s graduation, and saw 90% of the library’s outdated inventory removed from the building to make way for what is to come.


And so…I’m here to testify that sometimes, just sometimes (despite all the odds and to spite all the naysayers who would choose the easy path of cynicism and disbelief in miracles) dreams do manifest into reality.  It takes hard work, and hope, and support from those who share a vision, but it is possible.  Teaching in a school with no library has been a challenge, to be sure.  At times–when students asked me why people didn’t care enough about them to give them the library back (a question for which I had no answer)–it was the stuff of nightmares.  For a woman like me, who has been reading passionately and fluently from the age of three, it was absolutely infuriating, and heartbreaking.

But now, we have come full circle.  I have the chance to live my dream–to help kids fall in love with books, and with reading again.  It is my intention to keep teaching, reading, growing, and learning beside the children in my community and perhaps (if I am really fortunate) to set a model in place that catches fire in more cities around the country and world that are experiencing this same disturbing trend.

“…a bookmad girl

never dies.”

Her love for ideas

words

language

just multiplies

(and so)

let the journey

begin.

 

Lessons in Love, Compassion, Truth (from our youth)

Denver School for International Studies at Montbello Graduation Ceremony

University of Denver

May 31, 2018

Seniors, class of 2018, I can tell you honestly that when they told me you chose me to be your graduation speaker, I had to take a pause because I really didn’t know in that moment whether you choosing me meant that you loved me….or hated me!  Is this payback for all the times I had you do seminars in my class? Because if it is, you win! Can I sit down now? No? Okay then, I guess here we go…

You all know I am no public speaker.  What I am is a teacher who loves teaching, and who loves you.  What few people know about being a teacher is that it is soul food.  It is a soul enriching experience, and as your teacher, you all have fed me–and our community well.  People think that children come to school to be taught, and to get tools they need for their futures, and to some extent, that is true.  But what they don’t know is that you all are teachers too. You teach lessons in love every day when you rally around your classmates in times they have struggled.  You teach compassion when you put your own academic progress to the side to help your bilingual peers with class work in Spanish when English won’t do the job. You teach truth when–in a society that claims to value multiculturalism in theory but elevates monolingualism in practice, you have unapologetically carved your own path, and I respect you so much for it.  What you may not realize is that all this time, you have taught the adults around you so much. If I have learned nothing else in my time with you, I have learned the importance of standing tall and being proud of who you are–no matter the cost. I have learned from you that with love, compassion, and truth, all things are possible.

It was my privilege to travel halfway around the world with some of you, watch you build vertical gardens, play with orphans, and pour love into painting a balcony at a pre-school in Brazil.  Even there, so far away from home, when you could have been more concerned with tourism and sightseeing, you carried with you a defining spirit of showing love and compassion, through concrete action, as your truth.  You feed the souls of those around you well, staying true to the warrior spirit that lives within you, and the tradition of your ancestors that came before you.

One of those ancestors, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” and it reminds me of the time when not long after the most recent election, when our country fell into chaos the likes of which I have never seen, hate-fueled messages that ICE was coming to our school descended upon us–as the coldest winter frost, making so many of us feel vulnerable and victimized.  You could have scattered. You could have fled. You could have let your hearts harden over with hatred for those who would so cruelly and hypocritically rescind the promise of liberty and justice for all that America so brazenly offers and then systematically steals away. But you didn’t. You stood together in love. You rallied around your friends who justifiably felt betrayed, those whose hearts were laid bare.  You fed their souls with love, compassion, community–and together, we pulled through it. In doing so, you taught me and many adults around you (in these troubled times, where cowardice is all around) the truth of what it really means stand up for one another–to drive out hate with love, and light.

You stand up in the tradition of Cesar Chavez who said, “Students must have initiative; they should not be mere imitators. They must learn to think and act for themselves – and be free,” and fight you have against those who would reduce you to a statistic, a robot that is only as good as a score on a standardized test written by those who lack any knowledge of your culture, stories, language, or community–because you know you are so much more than a number.  Your unshakeable faith in yourself is your sword of truth. You have been to board meetings and spoken back about what it means to build community only to have adults disagreements and discord attempt to burn it down. You have rejected the narrative that our school, our community, is less than. You have competed in cheer competitions and soccer matches carrying with you Montbello Warrior pride. You have rallied against gun violence in schools, marched for peace on MLK day, and united in the largest Women’s March to take place in the history of this country, because you know that despite the limitations many would try to place upon you, you are free.  You will not be boxed in by anyone’s limiting definitions of you. You know who you are and where you come from. It is from you that I have learned the importance of self-awareness, and holding on to one’s identity at all costs, because without knowledge of who we are both collectively and as individuals, we are as lost as our current government which, in the eyes of the rest of the world, is a sinking ship, adrift at sea–alone.

But I who have lived and learned beside you, been nurtured and taught by you, know that with you at the helm of this ship, we certainly will not be alone for long.  You who stand so firm in the knowledge of who you are, you who love boundlessly and faithfully, you who stand tall in your truth and are the best of us–will usher in a beautiful, bold and brave new world.

I know this because I have seen some of you spend days in hard physical labor on the Blackfeet reservation in order to make sure their youth had a place to escape the harsh realities of life in a country that has commited mass genocide of Native people, and continues to do so (to this day) while refusing to acknowledge that fact–or offer any kind of reparations–as if there could be any that would be sufficient.

I know this because when people say #BlackLivesMatter, you have pushed back and demanded they show it–in all places, especially at school–with concrete action.  You know to demand more, and better, from institutions designed to protect you when [as James Baldwin once said] you can’t believe what people say because you see what they do.

I know this because I have seen many of you come together to recognize International Women’s Day with messages of love and empowerment for all people regardless of gender, protecting and affirming everyone’s right be whomever they choose to be, and to love whomever they choose to love.  You have met wave after wave of painful revelations of sexual misconduct that came forth in the #MeToo movement with compassion, truth, and love for one another, protecting and standing up for each other as you always do.

I know this because I have seen you bravely and openly write and talk about your experiences as DACA recipients and Dreamers who have learned to live every day as though there is no tomorrow, because the promise of tomorrow and the freedoms that so many others take for granted–you cherish above everything.  You know that true freedom is a gift, one worth fighting for. So, you prize your intellectual freedom above all else. With all of your academic achievements, and despite, or maybe because of, all the systemic inequities we face, you make your families, your community, and your teachers proud. You have taught us that there is no excuse for not bringing your best to any task, and that through perseverance and hard work, all things are possible.

And so, when J.Cole says there are, “No role modelz” I see you right here right now.  When Cardi B says, “I’m the hottest in the street know you prolly heard of me” I picture each of you saying those words– you can be whoever you want to be. When Kendrick Lamar says, “We gon’ be alright.  Do you hear me? Do you feel me?” I believe him. When Banda Tierra Sagrada says, “Ojalá que lleguen a tu puerta solo puras bendiciones Ojalá que nunca te arrepientas de las malas decisiones.”– I know that when you do, because everybody does eventually, you’ll pick yourself up, keep it movin’. And when Drake says it’s, “God’s plan [you] hold back, sometimes [you] won’t. [you] feel good, sometimes [you] don’t– I just hope you know, that it’s a lotta good things that we wishin’ and wishin’ and wishin’ and wishin’ and wishin’ on you.”

You who teach us–will go on to be immigration lawyers, nurses, mechanics, social workers, and so much more.

You who inspire us–will go on to speak truth to power and refuse to stand by in silence while others, even the leaders of this country, would use their voices to oppress us and call it “freedom”.

You who love one another–will go on to be leaders in your communities and the world at large proving with selfless actions that love is the only truth there is.

You who know your worth–will refuse to stand by in silence while those who show blind and ignorant obedience to the unjust laws of this land would try to make you feel inferior.

“The revolution will not be televised,” it will come as a quiet storm. It will look like each of you with right fists of resistance raised high.  To teach you, to be taught by you, and to be a part of your story has been one of the great blessings of my life. Those of you that know me know that I always say, “I love you too much to lie to you.”  The adult world you are going into is one often fraught with woeful ignorance and chaotic confusion, contempt for all that is good and a bizarre fascination with all that is wrong with humanity. But Glória Anzaldúa has said, “Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar./Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks,” and I know that you are the change we seek.  You will build the bridges we need to cross into a better future, a brighter tomorrow. This world needs your love, your compassion, your strength of spirit to sustain us, now more than ever.

So, kids…my hope for you is that you: Carry our love with you wherever you go/Lleven nuestro amor donde quiera que vayan/Remember that we will always be here for you when you return./Estaremos aqui siempre cuando vuelvan/Go into the world and make your mark/Ojalá que hagan su propio camino/We believe in you/Nosotros creemos en ustedes/The world is waiting for you/Y el mundo los espera/May you be blessed/Que sean bendecidos

And now, one last time, please rise and join me for In La’kech

Tu eres mi otro yo/You are my other me/ Se te hago dano a ti/If I do harm to you/ Me hago dano a mi mismo/I do harm to myself/ Si te amo y respeto/ If I love and respect you/ Me amo y respeto yo/I love and respect myself

We love you.  I love you. Congratulations, class of 2018.

Beginnings (Our Endings) Are Beginnings

“We should learn to accept that change is truly the only thing that’s going on always, and learn to ride with it and enjoy it.”

“Fear is real, but so is love.”

Alice Walker

Saying goodbye is something we protect ourselves a lot from in this society.  Just the commonality of the phrase, “See you later” indicates that we like to leave things unfinished.  We like to leave people with the reassurance that the conversation and connection will continue, it’s not over.  Generally, we run from endings and closure.  There is a collective and very human fear of the unknown, and the future is not yet written which, if you think about it, can be scary.

A student of mine said to me this week over our Senior lunch outing as we were talking about growing up, and life, “I know that I have to grown up, Miss.  I just don’t like the idea of it.  I’m scared to graduate.”

I get it.  Change is often scary because we lose the false sense of security and control we have built around ourselves in most situations in order to feel safe.

But what if, rather than avoiding, fearing, or dreading endings, we learned to see them another way?  What if we saw endings as beginnings, as the chance to have a fresh start, to begin anew stronger, bolder, better–with all that brought our last conversation, adventure, relationship, situation, to it’s finish.  It’s never easy to say goodbye to someone if a part of us fears we will never see them again, but what if we knew that separation is an illusion, that everyone we’ve ever loved is just a thought away at any time?

This is the way I’m choosing to see the end of this school year.

This year, throughout the year, students from all eras of my teaching life have come back to visit which I just love.  I’ve received surprise DMs with photos of a yearbook note I wrote five years ago.  I’ve been asked to officiate weddings for kids I taught so long ago they are now approaching their mid-twenties and rapidly moving toward a phase of life where they know who they are and how they want to serve humanity.  I’ve gotten late night requests for homework help from students on the verge of graduating college–and I’m honored that of all the people they could ask, they would choose me, that teacher they had that one year (or in some cases several years) in high school.

All of these encounters remind me that the love I have for them and the memories that we’ve shared don’t ever die, that our relationship, though no longer technically that of teacher and student is a reciprocal exchange that will go on infinitely.  I know that my students, and the experience of being their teacher, will be a part of me wherever I go, and forever.  I know that for many of them, the feeling is mutual.

This isn’t going to be a long, or complicated blog post because

  1. I’m in the middle of an INSANE amount of projects and collaborations that need my attention and energy.
  2. The message is simple.  I don’t need a lot of words to say it.
  3. Whatever reading this post does for you will be your own medicine.  I have no simple tips or tricks for this lesson in letting go, because I’m still learning it.

I will say that as we finish the school year, and all kinds of feelings of nostalgia descend on our hearts, making them tender, let’s just remember that endings are beginnings too.  As our relationships with our students transform into whatever they are going to be, we serve ourselves and them best by being open to transformation and by remembering to express gratitude for all the lessons we have learned through being a part of their stories.

It’s a strange thing to meet someone, pour all that you have into nourishing, loving, hoping for, challenging, cheering on, mentoring, and doing your best to inspire them.  It doesn’t take long for that connection between teacher and student to be forged.  Then, (I’ll use the Portuguese because I like it ‘de repente’) suddenly, the year is over.  It’s time to say goodbye.

I cannot think what my life will be like every day without Karely, Oscar, David, Juan, Daiana, Bethany, Nayellie, Emily, Christian, Noemi, Brian, Joseph, Maria, Daniel, Carolina, Monica, Giovanni, Ingrid, Julio, Gisel, Lizette, and Katya in it.  I’ll be honest.  I don’t even like thinking about it.  I don’t like it at all. My Seniors.  My people.  My lovers of Macbeth and WingStop #hiphoped and procrastination. My 2017-18 school year Period 9/10 class– met for the last time today.  I have learned so much from them.  We have shared each other’s sorrows and triumphs.  When one of us got suspended, we all were willing to go down together in order for things to be made right.  We’ve stayed after school for hours just to prolong the time together.  We’ve traveled half-way around the globe both on the pages of books and in the real world.  We’ve created a classroom community, complete with shared jokes and shared pain that belong only to us.  This is what teaching is made of.  This is the good stuff.  This is why this work is the best work, the real work, the only work.

So I leave you with this: May your beginnings that turn into endings become new beginnings.  May you find peace in transformation that comes when we learn to let go or say goodbye perhaps with a little sorrow, but with more joy and gratitude for all that has passed and with even greater optimism for all that is before us–the wonders of which we cannot yet know.

kristopher-roller-110203-unsplash.jpg

 

A Labor of Love

“When I had nothing to lose, I had everything.”–Paulo Coelho

Dear Teachers,

I can’t remember the precise moment I fell in love with teaching, can you?  If you really think about it, do you really think falling in love with teaching is something one decides to do?  Those of us who have made it past those tumultuous first five years when (statistically speaking) our chances of quitting are far greater than our chances of staying, know that teaching isn’t what we do, it is who we are.  I come from a long line of teachers. My grandmother, two great-aunts, and both of my parents were teachers. So, you could say that I was cultivated in conditions that would make this path undeniable, unavoidable.  I like to believe it was written in the stars, that my intuition, the circumstances of my birth, and timing placed me in just the right position to find my life’s work.  I knew, from the very first class I taught, that I belong with the children.  I belong with you.  So here I am, and here I will remain.  

Not a day goes by that I am not appreciative of the gift that teaching has been and still is in my life….

This love is constant – There isn’t really a moment when teaching isn’t on my mind.  I think about my students when one of them has had a particularly hard day, or had to leave my classroom in tears.  I feel the love for my community when Seniors or other alumni come back to visit with their babies or stories from college, or good news about trips they have planned.  I show love for teachers by writing blogs, joining Twitter chats, and doing my best to capture small moments of the agony, and beauty that characterizes the mood in many classrooms these days.  There is no moment in which I am not thinking about how to make things better for teachers and the children we serve.  At this point, I don’t think I could stop thinking about the work if I tried.  It has become a part of my life, and my identity, and I feel I am better, stronger, able to live more fully because of it.

This love is true – I tell my students often, “If you are going to write something, make it from your heart, and make it true.”  If you read something I’ve written, I can promise you two things –  it will definitely be from my heart, and I can promise you that it will be MY truth.  You may read echoes of the student you once were, the teacher you once had (or are), and you may come away with a better understanding of how we’ve gotten ourselves into the current mess, but what I hope most that you will come away with a sense of empowerment and conviction at the fact that we can and ARE changing this educational landscape for the better–by standing, and acting, together.  When I share my truths with the world, it is with the goal of opening up a space for conversation and transformation, to remind folks that the job of educating a child is a responsibility that belongs to all of us.  When we  do it well, the truth of that is very evident–just as it is when we do it poorly.  I am here for the truth, and I’m here for you, however long it takes us to get to the heart of things…and to begin healing. 

This love is a force – In order to reclaim education, the future, and our intellectual freedom from forces that would willfully contribute to our miseducation, and that of the children, it is essential to speak, but more importantly do the work, letting actions speak for themselves.  I am a black female educator who stands in front of our children every day.  Yet I am well aware that I am one of many voices.  Due to the inequities regarding who gets recognized as an “expert” in educational spaces, I am well aware that there are others, from all walks of life, who do not get heard, who do not feel seen.  Sometimes the inequities within education are enough to make me feel knocked over.  But, I know that together, we are a force equal to, or greater than those that are in opposition.  I know that love is the most powerful force in existence, and when it is applied with passion to a given cause or situation, it can work miracles.  So I stand beside you.  All of you.  Listen, if you see me out there in the world, know that I give hugs.  Hugs are miracles, laughter is a miracle, teamwork is a miracle, and I am here for all these miraculous events.  We are better and stronger, together. Together with our students, and other allies and advocates, we are a force for change.  


But these are strange times…Never before, has the world seen a group of students like those in classrooms today.  Fluent in most forms of technology, multicultural, multilingual, multiethnic, able to travel the world via YouTube, Google cardboard or Oculus, they are able to find introductory information on anything in an instant using Wikipedia–these children are learning all the time.  In an age where information belongs to everyone, and no-one, do we really still need teachers?  This is the eternal question, isn’t it?  When politicians and policy makers get together and make decisions that affect us, yet leave us out of their conversations, they try to make us feel that we are not worth discussing.  TV shows and movies reduce us to our worst stereotypes.  Large, for-profit corporations tell us what to teach and how to teach it, then publicize our inability to produce uniform results in a country that claims it values diversity.   Teachers’ unions are being systematically disassembled.  Tenure has all but disappeared, yet school calendars, bell schedules, and core class selections have stayed the same.  It sometimes feels like society does not trust us–as viral videos of ‘bad teachers’ float all over the web.  Yet, most people have no problem leaving their children with us for hours every single day.

In all honesty, this calling isn’t for everyone.  The insulting trope that, “Those who can’t do…teach” had to have begun with somebody who never set foot in a classroom.  Being an educator is a humbling way to spend the day.  Almost every teacher I know has, at some point or another, been brought to their knees with frustrations about educational inequity, systemic dysfunction, lack of communication, lack of funding, teacher pay, or a host of our other “educational family” problems. 

We regularly say that, “The struggle is real”–because it is.  With cell-phone culture giving birth to a society of insatiable voyeurism, there is the potential for a window into every classroom, and criticism of every teacher.  Each of us, sooner or later has to wrestle with antiquated notions of “professionalism” and an educator “double-consciousness” wherein the self is divided into public, and private.   And so, I have questions: What does it do to a person to have to split oneself in order to survive emotionally, or to maintain job security?  Why can’t society accept us being our true and whole selves?  Is it because we are supposed to be role models for the children?  Why are we held to a higher standard than those leading the country?  What could possibly serve as a foundation, helping us to survive all of this?  Love.  All things are endurable when we, ourselves, are the source of the love for this work.  We are the fountain from which hope springs eternal, along with the courage, talent, and endurance necessary to continue the fight, despite the odds.


We know that teacher enrollment programs across the nation have experienced a staggering decrease in the number of people willing to sign themselves up for the often gratifying, sometimes soul-crushing life of a public servant.  Perhaps the biggest consequence of this is that most high school students will tell you readily and openly that they would rather do anything than sign up to be a teacher. What does that mean for their children, and future generations?  Though Google has made information available in a way that has never been known before, contrary to popular belief, one cannot learn all that one needs to know in life from the Internet. We do more than deliver content. We forge relationships, and help young people navigate the often troublesome waters of childhood and adolescence (think about seventh grade for a minute–yeah–that happened).  We give students a home away from home, with each classroom in every building, in every school acting as a mini-ecosystem, a microcosm for the world, a family of sorts.

So this post is my love letter to teaching, but it is also my love letter to every educator who knows what it really means to dedicate one’s life to the betterment of our world by investing in its children.  This is my tribute to all who are about this messy, chaotic, demanding, frustrating, uplifting, and eternally hopeful life.  I hope that my words, my work, and my love, will uplift, sustain and strengthen you.  I hope that you will feel my eternal optimism–my faith in the power of transformation that comes from minds and hearts meeting each other in spaces where we learn and grow together–willing a better world into existence. I hope that next time we have a presidential debate, education won’t be completely left out of the conversation. I hope those whose path is made a little easier because someone else receives a little less will consider that the true cost of their privilege may be much greater than it initially appears.  I hope we in different communities, states, and regions can work together to re-invent our system of education so that students develop a love of learning that lasts a lifetime.

At its core, education is love in action.  All love requires some kind of an investment, and sometimes, a multitude of sacrifice.  To depart from a system of indoctrination and conformity to one that prizes authentic learning experiences and intellectual exploration above all–is an enormous undertaking.  I always say that children know the value we place upon them by those we place in front of them.  It is always an aspiration of mine to represent the best of us, and to deserve the love, trust, and respect that has been extended my way.  I stand before the children, and before you with a determination to always do better, an unquenchable thirst for more knowledge (always), and a fierce desire to make sure the children, ALL children, are provided with the education they deserve.  The children deserve the best.  May we come together, each with our own flame, and start a fire in the heart of the movement to take education into its next, beautiful stage of transformation.  Happy Teacher Appreciation Week 2018.

Yours with love,

JET ❤

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See what I heard…

Listen, folks.  I may seem like I’m on 10 all the time, and a lot of times I am, but as soon as I sit down, I remember that I am tired.

So, because it is May…

…and because I’m still living and breathing (for the moment).

Here are some of my favorite #heardinclass moments and why I love them so much.   I’m here to let my children speak, be seen, and heard.  Each one of these little anecdotes represents the reason I love what I do, why this work, and being with these kids all day every day means so much to me.  And I know that it means so much to you too.  May these moments bring you a smile, laughter, just a little bit of joy when you need it.  May they remind you of why it is wonderful to do what teachers do and to make what we make–spaces where learning, love, exploration, and magic, happen.  Lord knows laughter really is the medicine that’s best.


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The priorities. The exceptions that get made.  The charity that gets begged for.  For a high school teacher, especially one teaching Seniors, this is what May is made of.

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This is Carolina keeping it real about the workload Seniors face.  She also kept her grades all the way up in spite of how “horrible” things were and is graduating at the top of her class.  She is fierce, loving I don’t think I’ve ever seen her be grumpy, not even when a certain teacher kept falling asleep on her shoulder during that 13 hour flight to Brazil.  Her classmates respect her for always speaking her truth.  I respect the way she unselfishly helps anybody who needs it, in Spanish AND English.  She’s definitely a soul daughter of mine and I will miss her terribly when she graduates this year.

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These days, there’s a lot of emphasis placed on writing a CLO, and not enough on empowering students to be curious, to find their own unique paths to satisfying their curiosity.  I believe in supporting students by having and identifying a targeted way for them to access class content.  But, I also believe that it’s impossible to encapsulate all that happens (or could happen) in that esoteric and beautiful exchange between learner and the whole wide world–in one sentence.  I will not write this blog post incorporating relevant text evidence using content vocabulary from my internal word wall.  I’m sorry but that’s just not how it goes down inside my mind, or how it has ever gone down, if I’m really honest.  The students tell me they like my honesty.

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The endless debate between Christian and Oscar about which of their employers is better–Wal-Mart or Target–is a never ending source of amusement for me.  It literally never gets old.  I cannot even begin to tell you all the roasting that has transpired on this topic, but these two never fail to make me smile or laugh until I cry, and I’m so thankful.  Beyond that, Oscar has an encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop that I appreciate, and Christian has had my vote for President of the World ever since he wrote the most FIRE essay connecting “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” and the American (in)justice system.  I don’t even like thinking about graduation this year.  I’m going to be a complete mess.

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I have so much respect for the way my students navigate this digital world they are growing up in.  This will be the only time in history when our students who are digital natives are being taught by teachers who are not–and those who learned in a school system using tools that are DRAMATICALLY different from the tools students use today to access information.  Their independence, ingenuity, and curiosity astounds and impresses me every single day.  It is a wonder to watch.

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…until something like this happens and you realize you’ve been put in CHECK.  The days of the “jigsaw activity” are gone, folks.  This lesson changed course SEVERAL times throughout the 90 minutes as I saw that they were one step ahead of me at every stage.  This tweet captured the apex of it all when they kicked the teacher OUT of their back channel conversation and proceeded to collaborate in a shared document and learn ANYWAY.  My CLO and instructions didn’t mean a thing.  They found a way that made more sense to them–so I let them do it.  I have no regrets.

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One of my favorite classes ever.  It was magic.  It was a battle of poems, and I don’t remember which one won.  I do remember what it was like to sit back and listen to them talk about why specific poems were more “culturally relevant” or less “syntactically varied” or more “difficult to understand because of missing historical context”.  Yes, they used that language, and no, I didn’t give them a word bank.  My children are something else.  I was and am so proud of the work they have put in to get to this place.  I don’t really have words to describe how happy this 90 minutes made me, but I’ve got a picture.

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Then you have the philosophers…“Deep Thoughts”, remember those?  I used to know a person who started every class period with them.  The children drop wisdom on the daily and I just try to be there so I can listen and pick it up.

 

Few things get me in my feelings more than when the students help one another and take care of each other.  We have a smaller school community, and these kids have gone to school with one another since forever.  It follows that they’ve loved, and lost together.  They’ve fought one another over many things…and everyone has dated everyone.  But in the end, they have shaped a school climate with love and care at the center, the likes of which I have never seen before–and I’ve taught at 3 other schools.  It is beautiful, and inspiring, and I’m lucky to be surrounded by it every day.

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Quotes from THE READERS

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The NON-READER(S)

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Who are sometimes unprepared…but at least they are honest about it.

Quotes from the writers…

A few just for fun…

One from the class that just gets it done…

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…and I think I’m gonna end with that one.

Strike?!

Everyone knows, in bowling, a strike equals a win.  In life, (and in baseball) if you’ve “struck out” you’ve lost.  When it comes to the state of public education right now, man are we ever–losing, that is.  I’m not really sure where to begin, but it seems, superintendents, privatizers, and tech giants are the only ones in this current climate winning.  So what about the teachers?  What about the kids?  At present, I feel like teachers in my state, and at least two others are that slow bowling ball that slipped off fingers accidentally, the one that lost speed, but still might get a strike–I’ve seen it happen.  You’ve seen it happen.  It’s possible.

When it comes to the service oriented field of education, unlike some other industries, the word, “strike” is and should be an alarm bell for the public who have trusted federal and state governments to: handle their tax money appropriately, decide what their children will be learning, and ensure that professionals deliver high-quality instruction, and prepare our young people for an uncertain future.  On the other hand, news of a possible strike looming also causes some folks to question teacher dedication to students.  I’ve heard more than a few times, “What will happen to the students, their education, their futures, if you stop teaching them for days, weeks, or even months?”  “Do you even really care about the kids if you would abandon your post just because you want more money?”  Such comments sting, but also get straight to the heart of the dual nature of civil servitude in a country that does not know how to show that it values us, by investing in us.  This country needs us, wants the services we provide, but does not respect–or sometimes even realize what it takes–to be us.

Truly investing in us has to mean more than throwing tax money at school districts, trusting it will be handled appropriately.  It has to mean more than that.  It has to mean including us in conversations about us, trusting us to know what good teaching looks like and rather than hiring outside “consultants” with little to no classroom experience to train teachers–empowering us to lift up one another–and paying us accordingly.  It has to mean that average citizens know how crucial it is to vote more than once every four years–especially in elections when school-board and city council members are chosen.


If people only knew, in some places “investing in education” today ACTUALLY–

  • looks like tech giants funding technology grants and not following through to make sure systems are implemented in a way that enhances, rather than replaces interpersonal interaction.  Do we really want the classroom of the future to just be about coming in, opening a Chromebook, and not talking to anybody?
  • looks like funding mid-level positions that may or may not produce immediate and clearly measurable results.  My district has “curriculum partners” –look and see for yourself how many of them there are (90+).  Some of their job responsibilities are to create professional development, design assessments, and provide push-in support for the many teachers who come into the classroom unprepared after attending brief and insufficient teacher preparation programs.  Designing curriculum and assessments, and supporting new teachers are all jobs teachers (and experts in such things) used to do–and be paid for–while teaching.  The results of the millions invested in funding this one department within the district remain inconclusive after several years.  The teacher shortage is real, so hopefully these folks will return to the classroom soon.
  • looks like increasing discipline and police presence in schools.  What can be more hopeless than telling our students we don’t trust them, they are violent, they need to be controlled, and policed, and therefore, we will create conditions in which they do not feel at home–or that they belong?

Unfortunately for those of us on the front lines mandated to implement all the technology pilots, attend all the PD sessions facilitated by folks who are not currently (and some have never been) in the classroom, and given directives to enforce the discipline structures, “investing in education” DOES NOT mean increasing our salaries.


The main reason Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association has stalled in negotiations with the district over pay–and a key reason behind the walkout for teachers in DPS is that ProComp incentives are inconsistently, sometimes never, paid out.  Try to navigate understanding the ProComp website.  Let me know if you can figure it out.  I’ve been trying for five years.

Additional incentives are supposed to make teacher life in my district seem so much more desirable than working anywhere else.  That would be true, if the following things weren’t also true:

One year grant money ran out, and leadership decided to get rid of the “extended year/extended day stipend” which we received to start work three weeks early during first semester, in August.  The A/C never worked, and the district really wasn’t prepared for students to come back that early, so everybody just accepted that one.

Another year, state testing changed from CSAP to TCAP to PARCC, the results about growth were “inconclusive” so nobody got the incentive teachers were told we would get for demonstrating teaching excellence with the groups of students we taught.  That stung a little bit, because the message was, “Work hard, deliver results, but we can’t measure the results, so though we have performance based pay–we can’t really do it.”

The next year, the SLO (Student Learning Objective) measurement tool was found to have some “inconsistencies and errors” that made measuring student growth wildly variable and inaccurate, so bonus distribution was inconsistent and answers about when and how much folks would get were never clearly given.

I have been hung up on by payroll several times when calling to ask about payouts for being rated “Distinguished”–that never came.  Navigating the incentive payouts schedule is confusing and one can never be certain of receiving anything.  Excuses and evasions are plentiful, apparently the money for the district to pay what it claims it will pay, is not.

If neither the public, nor teachers themselves can trust that money invested in education has been spent wisely, or economically on technology integration, teacher pay, teacher training, facilities (do not get me started on the state of the 30+ year old building I’m teaching in), or numerous other things, what happens?


You get teacher walkouts and the potential for a strike.

We obviously want our strike (if we have to have one) to signal a win–for us, and for our students who stand with us.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say….

I know that I DON’T want increased police presence in my school or any schools.  I do want an organization like Chicago’s No Cop Academy in my city to fight back against moves to increase police presence in neighborhoods that have historically been marginalized and robbed of resources, like Montbello, and so many others across the nation.

I know that I DON’T want more money spent on mandated PD from curriculum partners or specialists hired to make up for lack of education and training in teachers.  It is insulting and a tremendous waste of resources to assume that everyone, teachers and students alike, is operating from a place of deficiency.  With such an obvious and desperate teacher shortage, hiring under qualified staff, promoting qualified people into middle-level management positions so they can then train the under qualified people who will then want to be promoted to middle-level management makes no sense to me–it seems the kids are the ones who lose in that scenario by constantly being subjected to folks who are still learning and perhaps not yet at the top of their game.

I know that I DON’T want more unsupported (or sporadically supported) technology integration billed as “help” from the tech industry to try and make learning more relevant for 21st century learners.  Folks come in with devices and programs and grant funded positions and apps.  Then, the power doesn’t work, so students can’t charge their chromebooks.  Schoology doesn’t talk to Google Classroom which doesn’t talk to Infinite Campus, so one winds up navigating all of the systems separately, or not at all.  The grant funded positions are for folks who are spread thin, running between three (or more) schools–and they are usually two to three year positions, tops. The apps are cool, but my students need a library…


So, tomorrow at noon, I, along with all other educators across the state of Colorado, will be walking out in solidarity with educators in other states who know that we want, and what we deserve.

First of all–and I am still in shock and disbelief about this one–we deserve so much more than to be left out, completely, from the presidential debates (past and future).

We deserve so much more than to have major conversations about the future of education held without the involvement of folks who’ve been in the classroom, and to have a Secretary of Education who was never a classroom teacher.

We deserve so much more than to have to teach in buildings without heating in the winter, and cooling in the summer.  Learning is affected by the environment.

We deserve so much more than to be told that things like an increased police presence and clear backpacks are the only way to decrease violence in schools when in actuality, increased discipline and surveillance in schools creates conditions that empower those with privilege and bias to commit violence against, further disenfranchise, and oppress Black and Brown students.

We deserve to be paid consistently, fairly, and competitively for our efforts to serve our communities.  Almost every teacher I know has one or two side jobs and the teachers I know who have taken international teaching positions that offer perks like grocery stipends, private drivers, paid housing, airfare to see family twice a year, childcare, etc. do not want to come back–I can’t say that I blame them.

We deserve to be seen as professionals who have dedicated our lives to a cause and to the betterment of this country because we love the youth, have passion for our content, and craft, and believe in the future.

Though many of us are blamed for our deficiencies, so many haven’t been in the profession long, others have been in it for far too long, but their dedication and love for kids keeps them from leaving even in the face of tremendous oppositional forces.  This job is not easy for anybody these days.  It would help if people respected that, without us having to take to the streets to demand it.

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