Small Lesson Learned: Raised Hands

On the third day of school, everything kinda stalled.

My 9th grade English class and I had plugging along quite nicely the first two days, and that day was no different. Then it happened: I asked a tough question about the story we’d just read.

No hands went up. Silence.

Nothing new to a teacher. We’re used to that awkwardly long silence when we ask a question to the class. “Think time,” right?

After enough “think time,” I tried my first trick: “I won’t call an anyone until I see five hands.” Usually that works, and a hand or two will shoot up, confident that I won’t call on them right away.

No dice. Continued silence and no hands. I tried a few more tricks: jot down your answer (which they did) and share what you wrote (nope, lips were sealed). I reworded the question at a lower level of abstraction. Nada. Zip. Not defiance, just silence. Before long, my toolbox was empty. I refused, though, to just give the answer to them and move on.

My 2nd period class is a quiet but wonderful group. The high school I now teach in is a smaller school-of-choice in our district. There is but one hallway, a more intimate environment, and the students we serve choose our school for a variety of reasons. For some, they are re-entering public schools from other institutions. Some are in Running Start at the local community college and need a flexible home base. Others face struggles with anxiety, depression, or other personal or family challenges. Still others are like any prototypical teen, but for whatever reason found the smaller environment a better “fit” than the other high school (where I used to work), which has about two thousand* more students than we do.

So instead of waiting out the silence, I asked them this: “When a teacher asks you a question, and you raise your hand, what are you communicating?”

That we know the answer, a student replied (without raising her hand, it is worth noting).

“Then what does it mean when you don’t raise your hand and you stay quiet? What does that communicate to the teacher?”

That we don’t know, a different student replied. No, another interjected, It’s that we don’t want to say the answer. Sometimes I know the answer but don’t want to be called on.

“Makes sense,” I agreed. A hand finally went up, and the young man attached to it said Besides, if we wait long enough, most teachers just tell us the answer anyway and move on.

So I tried this: “Okay, I’m going to ask you all the same question. I want anyone who thinks they might have a response, whether right or wrong, to raise their hands. I promise I will not call on anyone.” I asked the question again, and this time about three-quarters of the students raised their hands.

“So all of you think you have an idea that responds to my question?” I made eye contact with kid after kid, who nodded.

“But sometimes you don’t want to say it?” More nods.

“Alright then… keep your hand up if you are willing to share your answer.” A few hands went down, one by one, but most stayed up…including several students who had yet to speak up at all in class….and by far more that who raised hands the first time I asked the question (if you recall, the number of hands that went up that time was exactly zero).

A new, simple routine was born.

The act of raising your hand as a student in my class no longer means I want to be called on. Now it is a signal: I think I might have an answer. Now instead of asking for answers, I say “show me your hands…” after I ask a question. Then, I say “keep your hands up to share.”

Since adopting this little change, I consistently have more (and different) students keeping their hands up, bringing more voices in to the room than just the ones who have the confidence to throw that hand in the air, end the awkward silence, and give the answer so the rest of us can move on. No longer is the Q-and-A about “getting through it.” Less and less do I sense that students are afraid to make their voices heard.

Later, with a smaller group of kids, we talked about how schools condition students to give right answers. They each talked about how, through their whole academic lives, they’d sat in classes where they were truly listening and learning, but were afraid to risk raising their hand and having the teacher say as they pivot away “no, not quite, does anyone else know the answer?” as the wrong-answer-student is left to stew in embarassment.

I know, maybe they’re just raising their hands…how can I really know whether they are playing the game or actually have an idea in their minds? I’d rather know they’re engaged enough to play the game, even if that’s all they’re doing…something that certainly wasn’t happening when the same three kids were the only ones raising their hands to answer questions while the others just waited us out, watching the clock.

For me the proof of this practice is in the fact that kids who I don’t usually hear from are keeping their hands up and giving us insight that before now they had been reticent to risk sharing.


*Not an exaggeration.

The Kids without Lug Nuts

I live in a rural area. I have been teaching here for many years—same classroom, same job assignment. In July I left my teaching job, and started a new job—still in education, but out of the classroom.

I have been in my new job about two months, and am definitely enjoying it! However, last week I had the first serious tug at the heart I have felt since leaving my longtime school.

My two sons and I were running down the road, enjoying the summer. On the way back home, not too far from my house, I see a car pulled over. Two people get out, look at their tires, and just kind of stand there. My younger son notes a cat in the car. I note the car is full of items, mostly packed in trash bags.

As we came up to the car, one of the people says, “It’s Ms. Johnson!” I see that it is two former students, a young man and a young woman, who left school a handful of years ago. They are now in their early twenties, and they look incredibly relieved to see me.

The girl says, “The tire just came off my car–I think someone stole my lug nuts!” I don’t know a lot about cars, but even I could see the rear wheel hanging off at an odd angle. I leaned over to look—where lug nuts should be, there were none.

She said they were camping last night, and there were some unsavory characters at the campsite next to them. The young woman suspects her car was vandalized.

Someone had removed the lug nuts from the car of my former students–this is not something that would happen by accident. In addition, the boy doesn’t have a cell phone, and the girl’s phone battery had died.

I offer to run back to my house, get my phone, and then run back so they can use my phone to call for some assistance. I also spend more time talking to my two former students.

The girl tells me that she is feeling lucky. She says just a few minutes ago she felt unlucky–their lug nuts had been stolen, and they broke down in the middle of nowhere. Now she says she feels fortunate: they didn’t get into a major accident when the wheel came off, and then I came by.

More phone calls. It becomes clear they need a ride somewhere. The plan is I will drive the girl into town, and the boy will stay with the car and the cat. The girl will get her friend’s mom to come back and bring some lug nuts.

I go get my car and come back to pick up the girl. She said they lost their apartment and had been homeless since June, living out of their car in local campgrounds and in the woods.

She said it hadn’t been a good week. She recently started a new job, but then had gotten food poisoning, likely from something she ate while camping. Given their lack of access to refrigerator, this seemed a good possibility. She called in sick, but her new boss had said she couldn’t call in sick so soon after starting a new job, so then she lost her job.

The girl told me this morning her boyfriend had become very frustrated. He had tried to go fishing at the lake they were camping at, but he only had a handline. A handline, for those of you not familiar, is literally just that—a hook on a line. No pole—you just throw the line out with your arm. Usually her boyfriend had good success, but this morning he had been stymied. Another person had come along, fishing close to him with a pole, and that person got all the fish.

Being outfished by someone because they have a pole and you don’t? That is rural poverty.

I drop the girl off at her friend’s place. Thinking about what their breakfast must have been like without any fish or much other food, I head to the grocery store. I buy sandwiches, cat food, and a few other groceries.

I drive back down the road, and bring the food to the young man, who is very appreciative. I tell him I will be back in a while to check on how things are going with getting the lug nuts on once they get them.

These young people were already living on the edge, and I wanted to do what I could to make sure they didn’t go completely off a precipice.

I was pretty shaken up by the day’s events. These two former students had only left school a few years ago, and now they had almost nothing. I felt as though we may have failed them in school, yet I remember numerous care teams, interventions, and services provided for both.

There were a number of issues here: paid sick leave, low income housing, unemployment.

Education was also an issue. One of these young people had graduated from high school, and one had not.

Teachers are at their best when they care individually for students. That is something that is difficult for us to measure with our certification and evaluation systems, but it doesn’t make it any less important. I do remember caring for these students in school, and I know my colleagues did as well.

My former students did not have the money for a tow, and if their car were to be impounded, along with everything they own in it, they would not be able to afford to release it. It would be devastating for them. Setbacks have a disproportionate impact when you are poor.

As educators we work to support every student, and sometimes we do not succeed. Efforts that combine caring for individual students with systems that support families and communities should continue and expand. We can do more.

After some time, their friend’s mom shows up with the girl…and lug nuts! My former students introduce me.

“She’s our teacher,” they say. I never felt so proud.

I bring tools and more water to drink. Soon my former students are off. They were going to make it into town.

On this day, they were both very gracious and appreciative for the little I provided: some food, the loan of some tools, and a bit of human kindness.

Maren Johnson, NBCT, is a longtime high school science teacher who recently left the classroom. She now works for a state agency on policy related to educator certification. She lives in a beautiful area of rural Washington state with her husband and children.

What I’ve learned about the first day

Tuesday marked the beginning of my eighteenth year of teaching. While the school year is filled with a variety of excitement and wonder, the first day of school seems almost magical.  Yet, having done the “first day” eighteen times, I’ve started to develop some observations about this special day of school.  Some of these observations are more like advice while others are basically predictions.

1.No matter how many extra copies I think I’ve made I will inevitably be short by at least 1 copy.  I might count them ahead of time.  I may have made sure that I added together all of my students scheduled for 1st and 3rd period but nonetheless, I will be short on copies.

2.I have to retrain my stomach and my bladder.  No longer do I have free reign of when I can eat nor when I can leave my room.  Welcome to monitoring liquid intake over the next ten months.

3. The technology application I’ve practiced 10 times will not work or will crash when I need it. Naturally my lesson is based all around the use of this app. However, here’s the good news– because I’m a teacher, I know how to punt and create a workaround.

4. A senior who knows his/her way around our building (he/she’s been attending for years) will suddenly forget how to navigate the hallway and will be late to 2nd period.  Somehow they’ve figured out that we don’t count tardies on the first day of school.

5. The day is best spent getting to know your students instead of teaching content.  Save that content for the next 179 days of the year.  Building the foundation for a positive class climate will make teaching the content far more manageable and enjoyable.

6. Those heels I thought I could pull off- nope. One of these days running shoes will be fashionable with dresses.  I’m patiently waiting on this fashion trend.

7. No feeling can ever match how it feels to look out at your room right before the students walk in.  Teachers spend days, even weeks, preparing for the first day.  It’s exciting to think of all of the learning that is going to happen in our classroom over the next ten months.

8. Students want to feel successful from the very start.  The first day is the silver lined cloud. Our relationship with students helps determine how long that lining remains.

9.  I have a better afternoon when I’ve had lunch with my colleagues. Spending some time talking about topics unrelated to our work helps shift my brain and allows me the opportunity to have a break in my day.  I am more effective when I take a break in the middle of my day– even if it’s for just thirty minutes.

10. I can never have enough pens and pencils.  The 40 Ticonderogas I bought before school started and placed in the extra pencil cup will be gone within two weeks.

11. I have to retrain my hand on the size of an Expo versus a Sharpie. I am incredibly thankful for those newly formulated white board cleaners.

12. Meeting students at the door generates a sense of hospitality.  This is their classroom, not mine. I just happen to spend more time in it than they do.  

13. I create opportunities so students can laugh. This is a big one, folks.  If we can laugh on day one we’ve begun to build a positive environment where students can let down their guard. I know that my students see me as an expert.  I have degrees and awards on the wall.  They’ve heard stories about me.  But I also want them to see me as approachable.  We inherently feel more comfortable working with people with whom we can share a laugh or two (or many).

What observations have you made about the first day?

 

Welcome Back to School, Parents!

Every year my school has a Back to School Night for parents the evening before school starts. Children and parents move freely from room to room, greeting teachers, checking out the gym and library, signing up for the PTSA. We end the evening with some food out on the playground. And we start school the next day.

Every year I have my own Back to School Night for the parents in my room sometime in the first week of school. The children are not invited. For one thing, there isn’t enough room, and for another, they’ve already heard everything I’m going to say.

I tell the parents all the details that I’ve already told the students about rules, policies, and procedures, including how I communicate with parents during the year. I tell them about the curriculum and grading. I seek out classroom volunteers.

Then I talk about how important I consider parents to be. I have taught since 1977, and I’ve taught gifted since 1983. I have the MA plus 90 plus I’ve lost track of how many credits since then. I just keep taking classes. (I went to a great set of classes this summer!)

I have a wealth of experience and expertise in my field.

But I see students for, at most, about six hours each day. I am educating their child for a year.

Parents have their children for their whole lives.

Parents have the wealth of experience and expertise in their own children.

I tell parents I see us as partners, and, in many ways, I see myself as the junior partner as we work together.

I can help them understand the demands of the educational system, but they can help me understand the needs of their child.

Having that kind of attitude toward parents helps build collaborative relationships, as well as mutual respect.

Sometimes I need to do more. One time a parent was trying to have her child placed in the self-contained gifted class—in my classroom. The teachers who knew her came up to me and warned me about her, how pushy she was, how hard to get along with.

The day she came to my classroom to tell me her son had been accepted into my class, I threw my arms wide and said, “Welcome to my room!”

I made her cry. From that moment on I could do no wrong.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do wrong all the time. I made mistakes and screw up with the best of them. But I have a good working relationship with my parents. So most times they come to me to talk to me about what I did.

Last year at spring conferences, at the end of the conference, one mom took a deep breath and said, “Jan, I have to tell you, you said something that really bothered me.”

“Oh, no, what did I say?”

She told me, and I responded, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.” I apologized thoroughly.

(I was probably 40 years old before I figured this out: Don’t explain. Don’t defend yourself. Just apologize.)

We talked some more and on the way out I asked, “Do you forgive me?”

She laughed and said, “Of course!”

Light and easy.

Having a collaborative relationship really helps with dual identified children, or with children who are gifted and have other social-emotional needs. I had so many of those last year. I was in daily contact with several parents, just to keep them abreast of how things were going in the classroom. I would hear back about how things were going at home. Between us, we tried to keep all those little ships on an even keel.

Every year I look forward to greeting my new students. But every year I also look forward to greeting my new team of adults—who will help me work with those students—the parents of my students.

Building Relationships With Legislators – Sharing My Stories and Changing the Message

The year I graduated from high school, 1994, marked the introduction of the phrase “failing public schools.” This phrase grabbed hold of society and took off, leading to twenty-plus years of rhetoric on “bad” teachers, union thugs who protect “bad” teachers, and schools which are not meeting the needs of our children. This led to the standardization of classrooms, curriculum, and teaching via governmental regulations. Today, in 2017, we still hear this phrase, and continue to feel the destructive consequences left in its wake, most importantly the increasing lack of respect for educators.

Most recently, over the past several years and particularly with this new federal administration, we’ve seen a huge push for privatization and independent charter schools. The message is that public schools are failing our children and that private and charter schools can provide students with more attention and individual instruction. As an educator and a parent with children in both public and charter schools, I can honestly say that public schools have the ability to offer much more than charter schools, provide more diverse learning opportunities, and are far better at differentiating instruction. Imagine for a moment if all schools had to fight for local funding, via fundraisers and other money-making endeavors. Which schools would have the most money? Which schools would be able to offer the most opportunities? Which schools would your child be able to attend? Which children and which zip codes would be left behind?

The key to changing the rhetoric on public schools is to take charge of the messaging. For far too long, private corporations, government officials, and the media, who by and large have no experience in education, have controlled what the public sees and hears about public schools, and therefore, control the mindset of the masses. It is time for us educators to take that influence back and teach our communities how great our public schools really are, and that with their support, they could be even better.

Over the past two years I have worked to communicate with the state legislators in both the district in which I work, and also the district in which I live. I would periodically contact them via email and phone, and would invite them to my classroom. Repeatedly, I did not hear back. During that time, I puzzled over this problem. How could I be a better messenger and get these decision-makers into my school and into my classroom to actually see and experience what we do? It was at a National Board Hill Day in February 2017, that my ideas finally came together. As I visited many senators and representatives throughout the day, I realized that much of what they hear focuses on what public schools lack, not on what makes us succeed. That’s when I decided to start a letter writing campaign.

After some planning, I sent my first newsletter – “April Update – The Great Things Happening in Our Public Schools.” In it I outlined some incredible activities and experiences educators in my school and in my district were providing their students. I was specific. I told stories. I painted a picture of the everyday in our schools and I immediately got a response. Mostly, our state leaders thanked me for the update and encouraged me to continue to reach out. It was much more than I’d received in two whole years. I had begun to build real relationships with the individuals directly responsible for creating laws for funding our schools.

It was after my second update in May that there was real movement. Two legislators, Republican Senator Baumgartner, and Republican Representative Volz, agreed to come to my classroom. We immediately set up dates and times for June, as they were between special sessions. With it being such a contentious time, as legislators were working to meet the demands of the McLeary decision, I was shocked and so excited. My focus on success was working.

Both visits happened within a week of one another and at a time when the testing season was coming to a close and the school year was wrapping up, but things had not slowed down in my classroom. Both legislators had the opportunity to meet my diverse student group (I teach Newcomer English Language Learners), to learn about what we do in our classroom, and to help my students, new to our nation and our school system, practice their math skills. Watching the interactions and answering the questions that followed was exhilarating. Both Senator Baumgartner and Representative Volz asked insightful questions and showed genuine interest in my class and in my students. Both agreed to visit again in the fall when they would have more time. Since then, I have had commitments from both Senator Billig and Representative Riccelli to also visit in the fall and Representative Volz and I are collaborating on bringing my class over to Olympia for a tour and to meet with the House Education Committee.

It’s a simple thing. Each month I gather stories about what’s awesome about our schools and send an email to my elected officials. It’s not hard. Our schools are great and I have a lot to share about the good work we’re doing! By focusing on our success, it is easy to convince decision-makers to continue and expand their support for our public schools. We live education every day. We must control the messages our communities receive about what we do and how much we care about their children.

Join me in this effort. Write up a story about your classroom or work with your colleagues. Find out who your legislators are that represent where you live and where you work. Push send and see what happens.

This will make all the difference.

Mandy Manning experiences learning with English language learners in the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Washington. Nearing 20 years in education and as a teacher-leader, she endeavors to spread Cultural Competency to students, educators, administrators, and the community at large. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in English as a new language and the 2018 ESD 101 Regional Teacher of the Year.

Small Shifts, Big Difference

One of the simplest lessons I’ll be taking into the new school year came from a small interaction with a student last spring.

I was covering several days of classes for a colleague of mine when this gregarious and clearly outgoing ninth grade student bounded up to me, said their name, then shared “and I prefer the pronoun they.”

I immediately thanked them, saying how appreciative I was that they told me, because I didn’t want to inadvertently be disrespectful. Then, mere moments later as I was calling for the attention of my students…

“Ladies and gentlemen, can I get your faces toward the front please?”

I paused. For all the students knew, I was just waiting for the class to settle. In my head, though, I felt the impact of an important, albeit small, new lesson learned.

Given our political and social climate in this country, matters of gender identity are certainly a hot-button topic. It is easy to fall into an argument about whether alternative pronouns are “okay” or whether gender is a binary or a spectrum. People hold strong opinions on all sides. When I shared this story with a colleague, her reaction was at first “that’s stupid, were ‘they’ a boy or a girl?”

Unfortunately the conversation swiftly devolved, as often happens, down a slippery slope of ridiculousness: “So if a student says they prefer to be called ‘Your Highness’ you’ll just go along with it?”

No, for a simple reason. If a student asks to be called “Your Highness,” they are likely being punchy. It is a bid for some sort of attention. I will not be referring to any student by “Your Highness” unless it is their legal name (which does happen). If a student asks to be referred to with a different pronoun, what sort of asinine power play am I engaging in if I, a grown adult, refuse to comply?

I cannot pretend to imagine what it is like for any person, young or old, to have a pervasive feeling that the identity in their minds somehow is a mismatch with the identity the world expects based on their external, superficial appearances. As we head back to school in the next few weeks, these little but not-so-little things about my teaching are what I am focusing on. I’m at that stage where the lesson planning and delivery could happen on autopilot and kids would still be getting a good enough product. I’m also at that stage where passable practice is no longer permissible… especially if I know better.

We all know that in order for enduring learning to happen, certain needs must be met, not the least of which the need for physical, emotional and intellectual safety. If I turned to that child and said “No, you’re going to have to choose ‘he’ or ‘she,'” what good would it do? What would I actually accomplish other than some purposeless assertion of control? Even if I did for some reason “disagree” with concepts of gender beyond the binary and passive aggressively insist on still referring to them by ‘he’ or ‘she,’ why?

For that gregarious student who introduced themself to me, perhaps me saying “Ladies and gentlemen…” to get the class’s attention wasn’t even a blip on their radar. Or maybe it was. Maybe it was one more little way that they were reminded of being excluded, pushed out, not invited to the conversation we as a class were about to have.

Will anyone notice that instead of “Ladies and gentlemen, please turn your attention the front” I now say things like “Room 101, thank you for giving me your attention”? Probably not. It is a simple shift that requires next to nothing from me. By week three I’ll have a new habit, and the old “Ladies and gentlemen” will be gone.

Some could call this political correctness run amok. I say nope. It is as simple as this: If it is in my control to do such small things to prevent even one student from feeling excluded, why wouldn’t I?

 

 

We Need to Be About The Work: NNSTOY 2017

Educators are hungry for real professional learning opportunities. For fresh, relevant, and timely content. For ideas that can be applied tomorrow. For a community of professionals, like-minded educators who cause us to shout “amen” and to suck in our breath with an “oh snap”.

This is why I concluded my summer conference tour with the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) event. You don’t need to be a state teacher of the year or finalist to attend (my review from last year Professional Interloper) so I recruited two teachers from my school and joined the WATAC representatives. I spent five days in sweaty DC because this is a conference that doesn’t just talk about the work—NNSTOY tries to be about the work. A member driven organization, NNSTOY focuses their programming around issues of social justice and equity.

This year the conference focused on four strands; each with a guiding question. It was strand 1 “Elevating Our Voices for Educational Equity” and the essential question “how can we support the type of schooling (and society) that values, rather than marginalizes” that stayed with me all week. It followed me like campfire smoke I couldn’t wash out of my clothes.

In the last few years we are seeing more and more programs slap on the word “equity” (it’s the new “diversity”) but many groups don’t actually know what it means or make effort to try to understand what it means. This conference actively seeks to include a variety of perspectives and voices from the planning team down to the sessions offered. While last year’s program was solid, I noticed several changes this year. First, I noticed that more people of color were presenting as keynotes and in sessions. Second, I noticed there were more people of color attending. In fact, there was a concerted effort to include Black male educators as participants and as presenters in a way I’ve never seen at an education conference. Third, I noticed more folks engaged in conversations about race and equity (and it wasn’t only the people of color).

What’s the big deal, you may be asking. I’ve attended countless professional development opportunities where the presenters and participants were all white. In the same way I have concerns about a conference where mostly men present their ideas to a roomful of women in a profession dominated by women (yes, both of these really happen), I’m troubled by the lack of effort to counter homogeneous professional settings that lead to groupthink and spread of a dominant culture that isn’t reflective of the diversity within our classrooms. Understanding equity starts with intentional organizational reflection about what creates inequity.

We can create and support the type of schooling and society that values equity.

It starts with the teachers. Don’t be afraid to interrogate the demographics of our school and professional learning communities. NNSTOY is by no means perfect. It was still full of interchangeable white women (as is the profession), but it’s trying to be a model for what true inclusion might look like. It’s intentionally creating a professional learning space where white, black, and brown educators come together to wrestle with what it means to teach for social justice, racial justice, and equity. Get in the habit of looking around the room–who’s at the table? Who’s even invited to participate in the conversation? What’s the ratio of men to women, young & old, black/white/brown? These details matter. We need to learn from people who have lived a different life than we have. We need to learn with others who don’t live where we do, dress like we do, speak like we might, or racially identify as we do, but who are working on behalf of all our students.

It flows into our classrooms. We continually need to examine our curriculum. Do your students see themselves in the texts? Are they reading about experiences other than their own? Wesley Williams, II (watch the video on his home page) framed the entire conference he asked us to consider “And How Are the Children?” If we frame the work we do with this question in mind, our student would actually be at the center of the choices we make. I have to ask myself how are the children in room 200? I want to answer–they’re good. The children are talented. The children are brilliant. The children are beautiful. Concurrently, I have to face the less comfortable answer. The children are homeless. The children underfed. The children are hurting. Dang it. I’m back to the question.

It moves through our system. When was the last time you looked around your school? How is the leadership structured? Who gets hired? Who influences the decision making? What do we believe about our students? How do we talk about our students? For more on this point, listen to Nate Bowling’s interview with Jose Vilson “A Conversation Worth Having,”

One of the most significant takeaways from NNSTOY 2017 was that it doesn’t really matter if you’ve earned a teaching award or other recognition– we all have the power and the responsibility to lift our voices about educational equity and support that type of schooling and society that values equitable access and opportunity for all our students.

Share Your Stories

“Oh you’re a teacher!  You guys have it made.  Paid summers off where you sleep in every day–what a cushy life.”  These words, uttered by my dentist while his hands were in my mouth drilling a tooth, caused far more discomfort than the actual dental procedure.  So after he was done (and yes, the novocaine still had half of my face numb) I shared with him that I spent most of my summer at conferences and in classes. I also explained how the pay structure works.  And, as these conversations typically go, it ended up with, “I really had no idea.”  

A year ago I felt a fire light inside me. I can’t remember what started it all to build, but the result has been an overwhelming desire to advocate for the teaching profession.  Maybe it was the need to address the misconceptions that people have about this lifestyle (I consider teaching a lifestyle, it’s far too encompassing to just be a job) or perhaps it was the oversimplification of this work by the media, tv shows, and movies that show burned out teachers, but either way, that fire started and it keeps burning brighter.  

So last week, when the airplane pilot standing next to me on the shuttle to our plane started asking me questions about my work, I was happy to share the dynamic nature of teaching. I also made sure to note that I was flying back from a week long class on constitutional law.  The pilot didn’t realize that teachers participate in summer coursework to strengthen their knowledge and skills in the classroom.  He was curious about this and we had a great conversation (our shuttle was stuck on the tarmac for 30 minutes) about professional development for teachers and pilots, thus shedding light on both of our professions.

I have spent the past eight months talking to policymakers and stakeholders about the impact of legislation in the classroom.  While I go in with a game plan, inevitably the conversation always turns when I tell a story about my students, my colleagues, and my own children.  Last month I met with my US Congresswoman in Washington D.C., and while my ask was to retain Title II funding in the budget, my story was specific to how we use that funding in our schools.  This story provides insight into policy impact and also constituent needs. Her job is dynamic, too, and I do not expect my representative to be an expert in all facets of life.  So if I can be a resource and share my experience with her, then perhaps that experience can shape her thinking on an issue.

I’ve come to see these interactions as opportunities to educate and advocate for this work. We can control the narrative.  It’s easy to sell an anti-teacher message when the public doesn’t have a deep understanding of what our work looks like.  Worse, if people rely upon their varied past experiences as students without recognizing how that skews their vision of what schools look like today, the picture that’s created may likely be inconsistent in practice and unrecognizable to those of us who do teach.  So instead of dismissing ignorant remarks about our work,  it is imperative that we seize the moment as an opportunity to teach.  We must teach others about our work so that they can see the intricacies of this lifestyle.  We must share our stories, our experiences, our successes, and our struggles. Only then will the larger public begin to see who we really are.

Vacay-On: The Aspen Ideas Festival

For every completed book I post on Instagram, I add a new novel to my stack. For every workshop I attend, at least a handful of tweets and sixty minutes of happy hour discussion ensue. This is my summer vacay-on. An adios to the grading is a bienvenidos to the reflecting, thinking, and planning for next year. A typical teacher’s summer–whether we like it or not–follows the National Board cycle of plan, act, reflect.

Two weeks ago I found myself learning and reflecting in the mountains suffering from altitude sickness and allergy attacks. My husband, Nate Bowling, was invited to speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival. He slayed (recordings can be found here).

The Aspen Ideas Festival is known as a place where brilliant minds meet, theories clash, and plans are hatched. I had no idea how incredible it would be or how dumb I would feel. I definitely didn’t recognize Katie Couric sitting next to me. Even though I know and love Melissa Block from All Things Considered, I’d never seen a picture. I didn’t recognize David Brooks and Thomas Friedman when they walked past me. I tried not to geek out completely when I met Rabia Chaudry of the Undisclosed Podcast and Serial fame.

Here are some of the sessions I attended:

  • The America Women Know
  • Being Muslim and American in 2017
  • Hate on the Rise–And What We Can Do to Stop It
  • Guns And State Rights: A Loaded Weapon?
  • Creative Tensions: The Responsibility of Identity
  • When Color Blindness Renders Me Invisible to You
  • Building American Talent (Making it in the US)
  • Leadership Through Inspiration
  • Deep Dive: Rural America
  • On Being Latino In America

At first glance, my choices might look like a strange exhibition at the art museum. With a closer look, you’ll notice that each session is like an episode of an epic podcast series (think Serial or S-Town) working to form a complete story. Here’s what I imagine each episode to include.

Episode One: Who are we?
We live in a country comprised of different languages, cultures, values, and perspectives. Yet, as a nation, we struggle to find a sense of identity. Are we a Superpower? Are we the creators of the American Dream? Are we Big Brother? Are we the defender of democracy and justice in the world? Do we have a national language? Are we religious? Are we white or black or brown or multiracial?

We are all of those and none of the above. Because our identity is ever changing, ever evolving, we continuously wrestle with our sense of national identity. Voices press from all sides wanting us to be this or that, praising the merits of color blindness and telling us to ignore our differences.

At the Festival, Haris Tarin (Senior Policy Director for Homeland Security) shared a story about his father who emigrated from Afghanistan. His father always said, “I moved to this country because I would not be accepted for who I am [in Afghanistan]. I think my children will be able to find that acceptance [in America].” While this family found that acceptance, today many Americans can’t find a place to fit in and don’t feel a sense of belonging anywhere. Our culture affirms certain identities and rejects others.

Our students are bombarded by conflicting messages about their identities and place in our world. They bring whatever they’ve internalized into our classrooms and it’s our duty to address them.

Episode Two: Haters Gonna Hate
Yes, it’s official. Hate is on the rise. Say what you will about the reasons for that. Maybe it’s the election. Maybe it’s that we have more technology at our fingertips and therefore are able to document and report these occurrences. Maybe it’s because we’ve moved away from accepting the “kids will be kids” excuse for bullying and harassment and have consequently implemented Student Life departments to prevent and manage cases. Maybe we are more sensitive because we realize it’s not about being politically correct but about not being a jerk. We may be “better off” than we were in the 50s but we still have white supremacy driving the increasing acts of hate. We–especially those of us who are part of the dominate culture, language, or power structures–must stop ignoring this.

In particular, educators must learn how to shut down acts of hate in our schools by identifying symbols of hate and facilitating “table talk” about these issues. We have to stand up for the kids in our classrooms who are systematically pushed to the edges of society.

Episode Three: The Invisible Costs
Throughout the week, I thought about the young women in our schools who are looking at a future where they continue to be paid less than men and have yet to see themselves as presidents. I reflected on the thousands of Muslim children who are carrying the weight of a conflicted identity because we say that in America you can be both, and; however, these kids aren’t allowed that luxury. I wondered about the young Black men in my classroom who pursue their dreams but constantly worry about being stopped by the police for wearing a hoodie and carrying some Takis. I pondered the attacks on immigrants, the ease by which immigrants are targeted and fear of the “other” is whipped up.

Educators, we have to see our students. Start by dropping the assumptions. Examine the expectations we have for our students. Listen to what they share with us. Accept who they are and support them.

Episode Four: A New Hope
As Jonathan Greenblatt said, “The best antidote to hate is knowledge.”

We have the power to stop hate in this country, but we have to intentionally fight it through knowledge and education. Wherever you are, whatever you are blessed to be doing, you have a responsibility to do something with your platform. That might mean doing what Camille Jones, 2017 State Teacher of the Year does with her blog, Farmtable Teach or what teacher leaders are doing over at Corelaborate.

Of course we can’t do this alone but can as a community. Join a network such as #EduColor or create your own network of like-minded educators. We need to work together and collaborate. Even if we don’t agree 100% on everything we have to find a way to organize around the most important 75%. Our children cannot wait for us to stop bickering over nonsense.

Epilogue:
Okay, so maybe this is an extremely short season of your new favorite podcast, but you get the point. Over and over, speakers challenge the audience to see both the beauty and the pain, to challenge our fears, to share our stories, to get uncomfortable, and to grow.

Summer Reading: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

I should be reading the new budget and writing about that, I know. That’s for another day.

Instead, I spent my Fourth of July family trip getting sunburned while reading Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by Zaretta Hammond. A much better choice, as I walked away with far less frustration than a close read of the budget likely would have offered me.

I have to admit that I rarely look forward to my summer “work reading.” Typically, my reading is more of a skim, dipping in when something seems to connect to my work. This book, however, seemed to connect at every turn.

I read this book with a specific purpose: When I and the other thousand-or-so staff return for our August kickoff meetings, we’re taking the idea of culturally responsive practice to scale. Specifically, the district Teaching and Learning team is working to design a common experience for the adults in our system to open us to more frank and meaningful conversations about race, inequity, privilege, and what culturally responsive practice should look like.

The challenge I’m facing, and which this book helped me with, is the reality of being a white male teaching is a largely white (generally affluent) community, and in this context trying to find the right way to communicate with my fellow white teachers that culturally responsive teaching isn’t about using rap music to “connect with kids” or putting up posters of famous nonwhite scientists or changing John to Juan in a story problem and checking the “culturally responsive” box. Further, saying “but I’m not racist” and “I treat every student the same” isn’t an excuse for not learning about and adopting culturally responsive practices (and I think such statements constitute a neon sign pointing at someone who probably needs more than anyone else to read this book).

At the August kickoff, that common experience will help establish that as a district our focus for the 2017-18 school year will be on “seeing and serving every child.” Why? Simply put, the data over the last few years communicates it without question: We’re serving some kids exceptionally well, others well enough, and some not well at all. The dividing line is crystal clear and let’s just say the students on one side of the line are are more linguistically and culturally diverse than those on the other.

But our test scores are high and our graduation rates just fine!

That’s good, of course. However, my assistant superintendent shared with me the field-trip analogy: if we take 100 kids on a field trip and only return with 93% of them, that’s a problem. Yes, we can celebrate our successes, but we as responsible educators must make sure we do all we can for each child, not just most kids. Continue reading