“Caminante no hay puentes…”

Since this is my first “end-of-year” blog post, I figured there are probably few or no expectations, and I can do what I want.

So, to use a phrase my daughter is extremely fond of these days, “See what I’m not gonna do is…”

–rehash gruesome details about what it’s like surviving [because we have to call it that, don’t we] today’s socio-political landscape.

–go down a list of all the books I read this year and tell you why I liked each one [we have Goodreads for that].

–reveal divine secrets to person/teacher-hood that will elevate all readers to a higher humanity [sorry if that disappoints].

I am going to let 2017 rest by remembering it (and its seasons) with poetry.


Winter

It’s funny how much

a sunset

looks

like

a sunrise.

I hate saying, “When you died,”

because for me

that’s not what happened.

 

When I say your name.

When I think of you,

I always, always remember

(however much it hurts)

that

I

must

rise.


Spring

howmanytimesmustigivethisgothroughthisputthemthroughthisredothis?

theblindareleadingtheblindareleadingtheblindareleadingtheblindareleadingtheblind


Summer

I was everything

and

nothing,

Everyone,

and

no one.

What a relief it is to feel one’s individuality

melt

away.

I felt connected to all of humanity–more so then, than I have since–

even in this very moment, this hour,

today.


Fall

I.

I fell.

But, it was a controlled fall.

The kind you take when the sidewalk that was wet, turns icy.

You know what’s ’bout to happen, don’t you?

(I knew)

But, that doesn’t keep you from

protecting all parts,

automatically.

Not only, but especially

the head

and paradoxically (because it’s in a cage, what can hurt it?)

the heart.

II.

Things fall apart,

and then slowly, carefully, methodically

we pull them back together.

We have fallen apart so many times,

then come together to gather the scattered pieces.

We have re-written the story so many times,

then come together to re-tell the tale.

We are about the business of re-building it all,

after

your

complete, and utter destruction.

We know what it is to build bridges as we walk them.

and you walk over us as though we won’t move

              beneath your feet…


Inspiration for 2018…

“Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar.”
(Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks.)

Gloria E. Anzaldúa

If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!
If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution!
If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.
A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.
If there won’t be dancing at the revolution, I’m not coming.

(all attributed to Emma Goldman)

“My silences had not protected me.  Your silences will not protect you…We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.”

Audre Lorde

“The more radical a person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it…This person does not consider himself or herself…the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

Paulo Freire

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On False Truths…and Freedom

Of the many false truths we tell ourselves every day, which are the ones that most limit our potential?

When I was first introduced to the SCARF Model of Human Development, it struck me as a really fascinating way to think about rewards and threats in the classroom.  From the very beginning, when our children enter school, they learn to think of school as an environment where they will either be accepted, or rejected, included, or excluded, and feel freedom, or oppression.

SCARF Model

1 – Status*

My high school, and undergraduate GPAs were both 3.85.  My graduate school GPA was a 4.0, both times.  I know those numbers allow judgements to be made about me.  Just the fact that I revealed those numbers, which are often kept so secret, gets the mind working.  You measure them up against what you’ve gotten, and that makes your mind work even more.  There you have it, the makings of a false hierarchy.  We are taught, and we teach students to believe, that these numbers communicate something to the world about “hard work”, “perseverance”, and one’s standards for oneself.  Another truth could be that these numbers show how well students know how to do school.  My numbers show that “I, (as I’ve heard it said) …came to win, not to play,” and there you have it, you can award or withhold status from me because we both believe the GPA represents the same things.

2 – Certainty

I know that certainty is important for a lot of my AP English students, because by the time they get to me, they have been placed on a track that often involves a lot of other accelerated courses.  They usually take on a sort of persona that goes along with taking the course and are certain that what has always worked for them will work in my class too.  They expect to do work and get good grades.  They have been rewarded in this way for 12 years, before they even set foot in my class.  When I disrupt the false truth they have learned–that doing all the “work” gets them an A, regardless of the quality of said work–when I push them to think of learning as expansion and exploration, rather than work to get done for a reward, it causes a lot of upset during first quarter.  My students eventually get over it, but it happens every single year.

3 – Autonomy

When I went to school to become a teacher and learned about classroom management, I remember a lot of books and articles recommending strict routines and structures to help students feel a sense of order and predictability.  After all, they are children, and children like routines, right?  I am a mother.  I’ve raised babies.  I know the cost of not having a nap and/or feeding schedule.  It never really occurred to me that older children might benefit from having input into how the routines and structures work until much further down the road in my career.  We encourage autonomy by co-constructing meaning and co-creating routines and structures in the classroom.  The SCARF model indicates that people desire to have a sense of control over their environment, and sharing power in the classroom is one of the most important ways to show students we understand that need.

4 – Relationships

Working in an urban school with students from marginalized (even erased) cultural and ethnic backgrounds has helped me to expand my thinking about the importance of building relationships.  Often, I spend more time with my students than their own parents do.  We talk a lot about the oppression that happens when the mind is accustomed to thinking of self as inferior, and unimportant.  What better way exists to help reverse this thinking than to build authentic relationships with our students, and show them we know their worth, by giving them our undivided time, and attention?  We live in a world where there are near constant distractions, and claims on our attention, so the time we take and dedicate to each other is even more valuable.

5 – Fairness

Most students place a lot of value on grades.  No matter what I say, every year, I have to have the conversation with someone about how the grade does not indicate how I feel about them and/or their abilities as a learner–their value as a person.  I tell my students I know they have been indoctrinated to hold certain beliefs about what a “C” or “A” student is, but the beliefs they hold do not apply to me.  In my class, grades correlate to proficiency bands, and the skills and knowledge you have proven you have through completed assignments done for the class.  Ideally, we would co-create these proficiency bands to enhance transparency, and fairness about how grades get calculated.  Students should be co-creators in a process of evaluation.


I’ve used the SCARF model as a helpful tool to evaluate how students percieve status, whether my students feel certainty, how I provide opportunities for autonomy, whether I am keeping the focus on relationships, and to evaluate my fairness.  Additionally, working in an urban school, I very much see it as part of my job to help students recognize false truths that distort their thinking about themselves, and what is real and true in this world.

So let’s connect the two.


False truth number 1

“Students with higher GPAs are smarter, and work harder than anyone else.”

Today’s students compete for GPAs that are higher than 4.0.  I didn’t even know that was possible until a few years ago.  There is a tremendous amount of pressure, and huge amounts of money (in the form of scholarships) tied to one’s GPA.  Every year, since we have a relatively small school community, I hear talk about who is at the “head of the class”.  Every year, I give comfort to someone in tears whose sense of self has been tampered with because of a bad grade.  When a student’s identity as an academic “winner” or “loser” is determined by GPA standing, grades becomes a very real part of who they are.  This should not be.  Too many of us are kept from knowing or exploring our full potential because of the idea that someone else–even if it’s a mythical someone else–is better than we are.  Too many of our students “work” for “grades” rather than learning for self-advancement and to satisfy curiosity.  What does it say about those of us working with marginalized youth if we only reward or celebrate folks who have learned to win a game that was designed for them to fail?

 

False truth number 2

“Students will only learn if there is a reward, or grade to motivate them.”

This is learned behavior.  We teach children to learn in return for grades in the later years of elementary school when they start connecting status with numbers they receive on assignments, and rubrics.  What if we stopped doing this?  Would children cease being curious?  Stop seeking answers to their questions?  I doubt it.

Unfortunately, the system I am working within has taught too many of our students to value outcomes over process and input, with the rigid way we “measure” or “commodify” learning.  A lot of adults think that there has to be a system of measurement, otherwise it would be a free-for-all.  Furthermore, I am working within a constant deficit framework that doesn’t allow for flexibility with grading policies and procedures.  We haven’t even proven we can do what everyone else is doing sufficiently, so why should we be trusted to think outside the box?  This is limited thinking; thinking that has been perpetuated by a male-dominated, Western European colonizer hegemony that, for clear reasons, put their own views of how educational systems should work at the forefront as the drumbeat to which everyone else must march.  When we set ourselves up as The Keeper of All Knowledge and employ systems, and structures that reinforce dominance, we make students more, rather than less dependent on us for learning.  We set them up to learn as a way of proving their worth to us, rather than striving for the best for themselves.

 

False truth number 3

“I have to maintain control in the classroom, or no learning will take place.”

Power dynamics in the classroom are inextricably connected to the desire for control.  When working with students from marginalized communities it is imperative that folks understand the deliberate and pervasive systems in place that rob our students of control–on a daily basis.  It is an act of resistance and radical love to put some of this control back in the hands of those from whom it has been taken by any and all means necessary.  This may mean we have to think in new ways about how we share power and control in the classroom.  This may mean being vulnerable and accepting that the “teacher-as-head-of-the-classroom” model may not always be necessary and is often counter-productive.  This may mean that in order for our students to truly become liberated, we have to give up some of the control we assume we should have, the right to  power we feel we have earned, merely through the process of maturation.

False truth number 4

“Students don’t have to like me, they just have to learn from me.”

It’s a hard truth to accept about this world.  I’m not going to like everybody, and everybody isn’t going to like me.  For me, it is true sometimes, that we are put in situations with unpleasant people to learn from them, and about ourselves.  However, classrooms are a strange sort of ecosystem in which students have to feel safe to take risks in order to stretch themselves, explore, and grow.  We cannot help students to engage in discomfort if they do not feel safe. They have to trust that if they fall, somebody will be there to extend the hand, and help them back up.  How can students feel safe if they don’t have some sort of trusting relationship with the adult who is expected to hold everything together?

False truth number 5

“You don’t think this is fair?  Deal with it.  Life isn’t fair.”

Sometimes, life isn’t fair.  Or at least, it doesn’t seem to be.  We find ourselves in situations that feel beyond our control, and allow ourselves to become victims of circumstance.  In school, the goal is for students not to feel that being educated is something being done to them.  The goal is to enhance conditions that promote fairness, not teach students that unfairness is a cross in life we all must learn to bear.  We have to be partners, my students and I, in creating a space for empowerment, risk taking, emotional, psychological, and intellectual expansion.  When I make all the rules, create all the punishments, and dictate the rewards, I set up a microcosm of “The Real World” we often tell our students about.  The real world is full of those who oppress and exploit–intentionally, but also those who are forgiving, and just.  The real world is a place of great suffering, but also beauty, joy, forgiveness.  The real world teaches us harsh lessons that often force a loss of empathy, self love, and love for others.  When we forget to prepare students for the best, along with the worst, we forget to be loyal to the naturally hopeful selves we once were in childhood and adolescence.

Is a harsh, and unforgiving real world the way the classroom should be?

In looking at the false truths beneath so much of what we speak (and believe) in education, we can become more than we are by using the SCARF model to help us return to what we know we, and our students need.  When we allow our students to co-create the future of what learning looks like–that is when we will all get free.


*It makes sense to me that we would think of ways in which we award or withhold status from students, and the ways in which we teachers are encouraged to seek it.  This piece, “The Principal’s Pet: A Cautionary Tale” really works well for examining status and our often unhealthy relationship with it as adults in educational spaces.

Mind to Mind

 

 

On Reading…and Grading

When I think about reading, a lot of positive emotions fill my head, and my heart.  I grew up in a time without Netflix, cell phones, Snapchat, and a lot of other distractions.  This is a world my students do not know.

Last week, my students chose books to read after a quick book pairing activity.  They were meant to narrow down choices from the classroom library by taking into consideration: setting, plot, characters, text complexity, among other things.  But, for some, it really just boiled down to a satisfactory answer to the question, “How long is it?”  They know they will get a few assignments (learning opportunities) to undertake with their book.  Of course, they will also have a chance to earn a grade for these assignments.

I told the students I didn’t want them choosing books that were significantly below grade level with regard to Lexile level, but then I had to re-think that, because some books, like Milk and Honey, use uncomplicated language to convey complex ideas.  So in the end, everyone was paired with a book they chose, and theoretically “wanted”.  These are some of the books: The Diary of Anne Frank, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, The Secret Life of Bees, The Boy in Striped Pajamas, American Street, Long Way Down, All American Boys, Hunger, The Color of Water, Always Running, Milk and Honey.  That’s quite the variety, isn’t it?  Still, for two students, not a single book, in my classroom library with over 200 titles, held any appeal.

One of these two students, we’ll call her Crissy, chose Paper Towns by John Green.  Her reason?  “There’s a movie, and I don’t read books, so…”  In that moment, I didn’t push, because choice, and agency are key components of this unit.  I hoped, worst case scenario, she’d watch the movie and then want to read the book.  Another student, we’ll call him Rick, looked miserable, then picked a random one, as one would pick up a dirty diaper, so he could fulfill the directive to “get paired with a book”.   I inferred from his body language, and the way he threw the book around, that he wasn’t into it.  So, while the other students settled in to read, I tried my best to “sell” him on a book other than the one he chose at random.  He asked me questions about the authors (one of whom I have met).  He had me read my favorite page.  He asked me what it was about, to which I replied, “Read the back, then let’s talk.”  I respected the way he showed curiosity, and tested how much I really believed in the book I was offering.  Slowly, but finally, we turned a corner and I got him to agree to give the book a chance.  I find it helps never to seem too eager.  After all, they are teenagers…

When I was about 12 or 13, I became addicted to various books written as a series.  First, it was feel-good adventure in The Babysitter’s Club, then gritty-realism mixed with fantasy and Julia Sets (of course) in Piers Anthony’s Fractal Mode series, then painstakingly detailed history and a kick-ass female protagonist in The Clan of The Cave Bear series.  To this day, I love a good book series.  Reading is my escape, my mental exercise, my relaxation.  In short, tell me to read a book, and I’m instantly curious, perhaps eager–ready for adventure.  I’m aware that for many students, that is not the case.  They feel about reading the way I often feel about grading.

For too many of my students, reading is a painful chore.  There are many reasons for this, which include: lack of reading material that reflects their interests and lived experiences, no family culture of reading for pleasure, living in a book desert, no library and/or librarian at school (we have had neither for the past three years), multilingualism–which has not been respected, valued, or nurtured in our educational system.  In short, tell them to read a book, and they feel instant dread, distaste, or just plain overwhelmed.

I teach AP English.  So, I believe it goes without saying that my students know how to do school.  Many of them are used to being “A students” and getting “easy As” in all their classes.  I have had students who are at the top of their class brag to me about not ever having read a book in high school.  A lot of students growing up in this digital age really believe that reading is not fundamental for success, and that it is rarely, if ever, enjoyable.  Not every student feels this way.  Just as there are many teachers who love getting in to a stack of papers to grade because it allows them to collect data, and dive more deeply into what’s needed to better serve students, there definitely some of my students with developed reading identities, who read for pleasure.  Unfortunately, of the generally disenfranchised students I teach, these are a distinct minority.

I get it.  Our feelings are often tied directly to life experiences we have had, creating associations with positivity or negativity, threats or security, punishments or rewards.

When it comes to grading, in our current system, my associations are mostly negative.  I don’t like commodifying learning.  Assigning a percent value and/or letter grade to everything, in my opinion, diminishes the value of what happens in that esoteric space of radical reinvention, also know as the classroom.  I see far more students become obsessed with how much assignments are “worth”, and refuse to learn unless a “reward” is attached to a task, than I do who are inspired or motivated to learn to enhance their lives.  Still, no matter how I feel, every week, for the last decade or so–every place I have taught–the professional expectation is that teachers export grades for “eligibility purposes”.  The punishment for not doing so has been anything from my name (listed among others who didn’t export grades) sent out to all staff in an email list of shame, to emailed appointment “requests” for follow-up meetings about why I didn’t export grades on time.  I have learned to avoid punishment and/or embarrassment by exporting my grades on time.

I won’t get into the train wreck I experienced this year when an “oversight” resulted in my having to keep six separate grade books for one of my sections, but there is a part of me that really resents the rigid way that teachers are asked to track and report student achievement.  I also think it is a mistake to make grading something teachers control alone and absolutely.  This inevitably results in too many students feeling like grades are rewards or punishment, and something being done to them, rather than a tool for measuring achievement.  There is a real, emotional and psychological cost for commodifying learning the way that we do, which embeds itself in the psyche of learners, can distort their image of themselves–and limit their potential.

Shout out to Sarah Zerwin and The Paper Graders for their revolutionary work in this area.


So, when I encounter reluctant, or disenfranchised readers, I do understand where they are coming from.  Still, as an avid reader, and someone who loves all things literacy, I feel like it is a hollow life indeed one lives without books.  I also believe my students without reading identities will be at a disadvantage that some folks in power are banking on.  It is hard not to let my bias toward reading impact my approach to the situation.

I told this to Crissy, and the look on her face told me that her block to reading had everything to do with never having had a good experience with a book, and perhaps doubting her ability to do so.  Rick’s face, words, and body language, told me the same story.  With both students, their test scores indicate they know how to take tests.  They know how to do school–to play the game, and perhaps win.  My observation was that both students took books, and were unable to begin reading them during sustained independent reading time–I watched.  Still, both students have been programmed to believe that to get good grades, you have to do what the teacher tells you to do and maybe, fake it til you make it.

So how do I help remove these emotional blocks?  How do we, the students and I, shift our thinking?  Experience tells me that the best way to confront situations like this is, paradoxically, head on, and one step at a time.

This year, I am introducing and tweaking the idea of grade justifications so students can grade themselves and present their best evidence for why they should receive such a grade.  We will also collaborate, as a class, to really understand what grade marks and levels correspond to learning and skill mastery levels.  We will actively work to decolonize our thinking around how we measure and evaluate learning.

Catch some of my thoughts on this in this Twitter Moment

In my mind, a similar process can happen with regard to students in urban schools reinventing reading identities toward the end of their 13 year school experience.  A reading identity should be formed, and nurtured much earlier.  But, teaching in this landscape of digital natives has taught me that my expectation often does not match reality.  We have to reimagine what reading looks like for our students who have all the challenges and considerations I mentioned earlier to wrestle with.  We’ll have to begin with students deciding how they most enjoy encountering text, what kinds of reading they like to do, in what languages, and what real (and online) spaces.  Perhaps most importantly, we’ll have to ask a question only they will have the answer to; how is reading necessary for health, and happiness in your lives?

I’m going to have to be open minded.  I’m going to have to consider new possibilities.  I’m going to have to depart from the idea that I, as the adult, know what is best for everyone.  I’m going to have to grow, and so will they.

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Her name is Azeb

A little more than a year ago, I decided not to go to Starbucks anymore.  It was partially because I was tired of drinking burnt coffee, and partially because I got sick of paying $5.00 for each cup of burnt coffee.  We are a wasteful society.  We think nothing of the fact that $1 can buy a homeless child a winter coat.  $20 can put a child through school in Zimbabwe for a year.  I try to do my part, in ways large and small to reduce this wastefulness.  So much of it, after all, comes down to a mindset, and the question, do I really need that?

So this particular day, I decided I didn’t need Starbucks.  Instead, I pulled through the Shell gas station to get some gas, and decided to get my coffee there.  I had noticed the Shell station before.  I pass it twice a day on the way to and from work.  The Shell station is about half way between my home and my school.  It lies on a frontage road just after the waste treatment plant and just before the several literal and figurative train tracks I cross.  My commute is 30 minutes, one way, on a good day, 45 minutes on a bad one, and I don’t mind.  I listen to audio books, sit in blessed silence with my thoughts, take phone calls.  Sometimes, it’s the only time alone I have all day.  My drive always serves as a nice transition between home, where one piece of my heart lives, and school which holds the other.

When I walked in to the Shell station that day, I’m not ashamed to say that all eyes were on me.  Apparently they didn’t get a lot of folks in there that look the way I do.  Apparently not too many school teachers know the secret of the $1.04 gas station coffee.  I’ll share it.  It’s delicious, always hot, never burnt.  There is unlimited hazelnut creamer.  Sometimes, it’s free.

That day I noticed the attendants were more friendly and less frenzied than a Starbucks barista.  There was no line.  I could make my coffee the way I liked it, so my order was never wrong.  It didn’t take me long to determine this was my new spot.  I am, in general, a creature of habit, so after that first day, I went every day to the gas station. It became something of a daily ritual.

  1. Pull up
  2. Grab keys, phone, and wallet
  3. Go inside and greet the folks behind the register
  4. Rinse out my mug
  5. Refill
  6. Pay/or don’t (as I said, sometimes, it was free)  The phrase indicating free coffee was coming up was when the attendant would say, “Just a refill?  That’s it today?  No charge.”
  7. Wish everybody a great day.

After doing this every day for almost an entire school year, I developed what I would definitely classify as a sort of friendship with many of the attendants there.  I asked about their children.  They asked me about teaching.  They made fun of me when I bought donuts anticipating that it was going to be a rough day, and said, “Only one donut today?”

One day, I noticed one of the attendants had a name tag that said, “Azeb”.  It was familiar to me because I had a student named Azeb from Eritrea, a small East African country many Americans know nothing about.  My Azeb was an 18 year old refugee who wanted nothing more than to be a nurse.  My Azeb was divorced at 17 years old from an abusive husband in an arranged marriage.  We had formed a bond when she came to my school and entered the system as a high school Junior with little to no English speaking, reading, or writing ability.  In spite of, or perhaps because of all of this, My Azeb worked her ass off and graduated high school in two years.  When I told the Azeb at the Shell station that I liked her name, she smiled, thanked me and replied, “Everyone from Eritrea is named Azeb.  It’s a really common name.”  We laughed about it.

From then on, we made it a point to ask about the things that mattered most to us.  She found out I was a high school teacher.  I discovered she had a daughter who was a high school student.  Though I know there was an immediate bond because she is a Black female, and so am I, there was more to it than that, and we felt it.  We appreciated it.  A bond of mutual respect was forged.

Though there are other attendants at the Shell station who know me by face if not by name, Azeb is my favorite.  That is why, when I witnessed her dehumanization today, I felt her pain as acutely as if it were my own.

I was third in line when I heard the word “Trump” and my ears perked up.  I assumed it was someone going off about what a horrible so-called President he is.  Instead, as the conversation developed, I slowly came to realize it was the opposite.  The men were at the register.  Azeb was ringing them up.  I’m sure she asked them how they were doing.  She asks everyone how they are doing.

“….I’ll be so much better once they get that Donald TRUMP in office for another four after these first few years.”

He was taunting her

“Trump’s going to fix everything.  He’s kicking those immigrants out on their asses right where they belong.”

“He’s building a wall that’s sure gonna fix a lot of problems.”

“‘aint no wall high enough to keep them out.”

“Just one look at the cashiers will tell you that much.”

It happened so fast.

I wanted to drop my things and chase after them.  I wanted to demand they apologize.  I wanted to hug her and make sure she was okay.  In that moment, within earshot of the conversation there was myself, Azeb, a hispanic man, an African American man, and another cashier.  We were all people of color.  The two men having the conversation were outnumbered.  Yet, we all stayed silent.  I don’t know if our silence was the result of shock that someone could be so unapologetic with their hatred, or if it was the result of hundreds of years of social conditioning not to “cause trouble”.  Either way, I, along with everyone else in that line, became a bystander.  The conversation was over, and the men were out the door before I realized what happened.  I know from experience, all it takes is a moment to diminish someone’s humanity.

When I got to the register, I saw there were tears in Azeb’s eyes.  I asked about her daughter, which made her smile.  I told her I’d be back soon, which I will.  I’m going back tomorrow.  But I couldn’t shake the anger, the rage that pricked just behind my eyes, making them burn, threatening tears.  I still can’t shake it.

If only she could have refused them service.

If only I had dropped everything and confronted them about their hateful words.

This was not subtle racism.  It was outright, flagrant, ostentatious hatred directed at the innocent.

Azeb is one of millions of immigrants who take positions of servitude working at gas stations, as custodial staff, as nail technicians, agricultural workers, for a country that has built itself on the foundation of white supremacy.

She does not deserve to be disrespected.  Nobody does.  Sometimes, something as simple as learning a person’s name can be the bridge we all need to cross to make social, economic, and cultural divides smaller.

So what can you do?  For me, it always comes down to the questions.  How can you use whatever privilege you have as a man, as a white person, as a native English speaker, as a citizen, as a person whose religion is not vilified, to make the world a more tolerable place for those who do not share your privilege?  What amount of your safety, comfort, power are you willing to give up so that someone else can be liberated? If you become a bystander, what is next?  Until all of us are free, who among us truly can be?

Her name is Azeb.  Say her name.  Learn how to pronounce it correctly.  Take the time to read up about where she’s from.  Carry the story with you.  Don’t let those around you who serve you be nameless.  Learn their stories.  Make them a part of yours.

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Wired to Love

I believe children are wired to love.

Today I sat in a training that focused primarily on developing relationships and establishing classroom environments that foster and cultivate growth mindsets.  The way it came about was interesting.  The training is centered around Chris Emden’s book whom most educators of color, at this point, have heard about and read.  I’ve read parts of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…And the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality, Pedagogy, and Urban Education but for some reason, I’ve never had the chance to do an in-depth study of its message.  It is like many books on pedagogy that I’ve been exposed to, read parts of, but not really fully committed to.  It’s not for lack of wanting.  It is like so many other things, I make time for escapist reading, and escapist TV, but when it comes to reading books that have the possibility of improving my practice, I convince myself that dipping my toe in, and getting the “good parts” will be enough.

A few weeks ago, at a meeting, my principal told all grade-level leaders (I am one) that she wanted us to be part of a cohort that was going to study the book, among other readings.  At first, I was resistant, because few things, in my mind are worth missing a day in the classroom with my students.  I was also resistant because, in my experience, the majority of the professional development from my district is geared toward people with virtually no teaching experience, and taught by people who have left the classroom “to have greater reach, or impact”.  Most of the time, and this is a judgement, I see this as abandoning ship.  The trainings are not engaging, not generally very helpful, and lazily delivered.  Due to the fact that there are hundreds of middle-level management positions in my district, I am extremely cynical of most trainings developed to justify these positions.  It is hard for me not to wear the #ReclaimingMyTime t-shirt to every instance of forced professional development.  You can imagine the way I immediately went in to excuses mode about how I didn’t have time, couldn’t afford to miss class etc.  My principal said to go to the first one, and see how it goes.  She knows me.

This morning, I dropped my kids off at school and began the trek to downtown Denver to get to the training.  Google did something very strange, it quit on me, mid journey and kept trying to re-route me to Boulder, CO where I was last time I used it.  This was inconvenient.  I had to rely on my old-fashioned map skills and read things like signs, work with numbers posted on buildings.  I wondered, what would my students, so reliant on technology for everything, do in this situation?  I worked my way in to a very, very small parking space, which stressed me out (what did we do before backup cams?) and as I paid my $11 daily rate (un-reimbursed) I realized, SHIT, I was going to be late.  Welp.  Nothing new there.  My mother always said punctuality was a Western concept.  I wandered in about 15 minutes late, sat down, and introduced myself. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I am, 98% of the time, the only educator of color in trainings.  I have to decide whether to use my voice, or let it be silenced.  Right as I walked in to the room, I saw that there were three other women of color, two men from my school, and a copy of Chris Emden’s book at my seat.  This made me feel a bit more at ease.

We began with this TED talk about school push out by Victor Rios

It was an engaging way to start the day, but raised several questions for me, the preeminent one being, how old is this TED talk, and has anything changed since it happened?  The answer, is 2 years, and not a lot.  Perhaps it’s too soon to tell, or TED talks are more for making people think, than producing actual change, but I digress…

Through the course of the day, we talked about ways to make our classrooms and instruction more “learning centered”.  I thought a lot about how many things we do in education out of habit and tradition, like prizing work completion over ongoing thinking and wrestling with tough questions.  We read articles on cultivating a culture of “learning” vs. a culture of “working” in our classrooms, but I couldn’t help but think about how many students I know see school as a factory style exchange where they produce a product for me, the corporate manager.  We talked about moving away from a system of rewards and punishments for completion or the lack thereof, and more toward supporting real creative and critical deep thinking.  We discussed ways to make our classrooms and lessons better through 8 Cultural Forces that shape learning environments: creating opportunities, co-creating inviting physical environments, managing time, modeling work and behaviors, setting and holding high expectations, developing effective routines and structures, cultivating relationships, and leveraging the power of positive, supportive language.  These were all really good things that I felt good about passing on to the team members I support.  However, I still feel that all we discussed will only take us so far if the people in charge still need their numbers and basically think that compliance and conformity means learning is happening in a classroom.

I agreed to the norm that, “What happens in here [the room] stays in here,” though I disagree with that, because I think in most cases, you should really take care to say what you don’t mind being repeated.   Because I agreed to the group set norm, I won’t divulge too much of what went down in that room, though most of it was really positive, but I will say that I was the only one who mentioned that there are systems all around us that are reinforcing exactly the opposite of what the PD was preaching.  One article stated findings from a study saying that, “Under pressure conditions, teachers [are] more likely to use more controlling teaching practices, and this coupling of pressure on teachers with controlling practices led to impaired student performance,” (Creating Cultures of Thinking, 46) Even knowing this, we STILL create environments of extreme social, psychological, and emotional pressure, unreasonable expectations [given known limitations], and overall organizational dysfunction.  School and classroom segregation, the school choice movement, privatization, over-testing, lack of engagement, antiquated practices, the school to prison pipeline, school closures, lack of culturally responsive practices and curriculum, teacher shortages, deficit language, institutional and personal biases…the list of problems goes on and on.  However, I do believe that there can be no true change until we change ourselves, and that internal change drives deeper systemic transformation toward education for liberation.  

When we free ourselves, we free our children for a better future than the one we foresaw when we were young, which is now.  It’s not yet great, but it could be.  Children are wired to love each other, learning, the world.  We must do everything we can to protect that.  Our current system, though extremely dysfunctional at best, is the one we’ve got.  Though we know we must change, children are still regularly pushed out, disenfranchised, alienated.  There are still videos of teachers telling children to “speak American” surfacing on the internet.  There are still places where pre-schoolers are regularly suspended and/or expelled with no regard for the familial consequences of such decisions. We have to do better.  In every PD, the question should be, “How is this work helping us systemically to disrupt what is wrong with education, and make it right?”

As the adage goes, “I am not free until everybody is free.”

I can’t rest, or be quiet, and my work will go on, until things improve for everyone.


Children are wired to love, to love education, to love each other, to love themselves, to love their fellow human beings, and to be curious about the world.  We must protect and defend this with everything we’ve got.  Doing so starts with pushing back against a system that would push millions out.  The kids deserve it.  We must, and we can do better.

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