Category Archives: Life in the Classroom

Extra Eyes to See and Ears to Hear

You know how you don’t know what you don’t know until you realize you don’t know it?

Today I stepped into a role as “instructional coach.” My principal is trying a new thing with several of the leaders in the building—-getting a sub on Wednesdays to cover our classes so that we can support new teachers, conduct informal observations, and provide feedback to any teacher who want an extra set of ears and eyes in their classroom.

Non-evaluative, peer observation are what so many teachers beg for. Yet, with the except of instructional coaches, or a pop-ins by a dept chair there is little time for this type of collaboration. To contend with time constraints, many of the teachers I know are using #ObserveMe as a way to get the peer feedback and informal coaching they crave. This summer, Nate Bowling and I led in-school professional development where we shared the vision behind #ObserveMe. Teachers created their evaluation goals in conjunction with their #ObserveMe goals. I was #stoked.

Fast forward, due to some life stuff, our instructional coach is on hiatus and many of the teacher leaders in our building are stepping in to fill the large hole he left. So there I was, armed with flair pens, a clipboard, a schedule, and an observation tool. I left my students in the capable hands of my student teacher and I marched down to the first classroom.

Over the course of two and a half periods, I observed three full-time teachers and one student teacher. Each teacher had emailed me asking if I could come observe for x, y, and z. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect to feel as emotional as I did through this process.

First, I was honored that these teachers wanted me in their classroom. They wanted to be better. They wanted an extra set of eyes and ears to see what they weren’t seeing and hear what they missed.

Second, I was moved by the passion I saw from these teachers. The love that they have for their students, their content, and our school motivates them to ask for help from a colleague.

Third, I was inspired by each of these teachers who were putting in work to make their classes more engaging, more relevant, and more real for their students.

I honestly struggled to complete my teacher moves/students moves chart because I just wanted to write things like “I love how the kids look at your with respect in their eyes” or “Even though the students were reluctant to do the song in Spanish with you, they all did it–and that’s a sign of respect for you, their peers, or at least resignation that they need to play along”. I tried to stay in the template and write benign questions like “how do you think blah blah blah”.

What stands out the most is my last visit of the morning. I popped into a Science classroom where the teacher is building a program modeled after the GRuB School. I kind of knew that there was a group of “at risk” young men and women working with this highly effective and passionate teacher to develop social/emotional skills that translate into academic skills such as being on time, attending classes, and doing homework. I knew that some of the students in this program were in my English classes. But I hadn’t put two and two together–I didn’t realize just how many of them I knew. I sat on the edge of the circle listening to students giving each other advice on real life issues from dealing with parents to handling annoying teachers or friends, I wanted to burst into tears. Actually, I did…later when I was alone. Although each of those students struggle to control their actions and choices in a world of chaos, I watched them respond each other with thoughtfulness. I saw them respond to the firm but loving redirection from the teacher. I saw my students in a new light.

Later, when they came to class, I felt like we had a secret. They knew that I knew something about them that I hadn’t known before. They also knew (I hope) that I would listen and support them in a way I might not have before.

I left school today unsure if I made a difference for the teachers I observed. I do know however, that these teachers made a difference to me.

Losing Touch with the Classroom

I made it through September.

I may have nearly crested the salary schedule, but I feel a little like a first-year teacher again… In many ways I am: Same district, but a new building, new curriculum, new pace, new students.

After being a classroom teacher for 13 years, I spent the last two years on full-time release building and launching our district’s new-teacher mentoring and induction program (plus a plethora of other teacher professional learning design and facilitation, from training principals on TPEP to supporting PLC collaboration, and other duties as assigned). Those two years were fulfilling, educational, and an important step in my personal professional trajectory. My heart, though, was always in the classroom.

Now I’m teaching again, and it didn’t take me long to realize just how much I had lost touch with the realities of the day to day work of teaching. For me personally two years of shifting into the policy world, system design, and facilitation of staff PD…all without responsibilities to a roster of kids…was enough for my mind to disconnect.

Oh yeah, this is why it sometimes takes teachers a few days to reply to emails: they’re not at their computers all day or “multitasking” around a meeting table. Oh yeah, this is why those teachers who came to my after-school PD sessions dropped into their chairs, sighed, and slowly slid into an exhausted heap. Oh yeah, that theory about pedagogy and practice is fantastic up until you walk around the room and realize that what you’re tasked to teach isn’t actually at all what the students need.

Cognitively, I assured myself I remembered this and everything else. Back in it, though, I realize that there were some realities of teacherlife that my memory had somehow put into soft focus over the course of my two years outside the classroom.

I’ve had a few people ask which job is “harder,” the central-office systems work or the in-the-building work of teaching. For me, it was probably the systems work in no small part because I so rarely had the chance to see the direct results my efforts had on students. That left me in a perpetual state of uncertainty: were my actions working? How did I know?

Now I get to see the impact of my decisions daily as I listen to kids talk or read, or watch them write or create. I can respond in the moment to shift course, try something different, or push just the right way. Nonetheless, I have enduring respect for the complexity and challenge of central-office systems work having seen behind the curtain now for a couple of years. (Example: I hate dealing with budgets and the associated rules, restrictions and reporting… intense, profound hate.) For my skill-set and for what makes me happy? The classroom is the place.

One more thing I can say after two years straddling the line between teacher and administrator: The administrators I was able to work so closely with are not a secret quasi-illuminati set on building one more meeting-that-could-have-been-an-email agenda to ruin a teacher’s life. They genuinely want what is best for both teachers and students. And don’t get me wrong: I’m just sharing my own story… I’m not implying that they have lost touch as I did. I see many administrators working overtime to walk alongside teachers, and in many cases, teach lessons or units to groups of kids, in order to stay connected with the realities of planning, assessment, feedback, and classroom management.

What my experience transitioning into teaching again has reminded me is that it is so important that we teachers find the right way to share the impact of policy decisions…whether they be a change to the hall pass routine or a change to the state testing regime…so that rather than being shrill complainers we are vivid storytellers.

Stories are the most fundamental way that we can communicate our reality to others, especially if those others are like me: whole-hearted for public education, but perhaps just far enough removed to have forgotten what day-to-day teaching is really like.

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.

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?

 

 

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.

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

Small Policies: Implementation Matters

Lately our attention has been on state and national education policy and how these connect to our practice. Those policies, however, are not the only ones that have an impact on our practice, and no matter the source of the policy it is the implementation that really impacts us.

A simple policy implementation example I have been witness to over and over again in my career: A school’s “no hats in the building” policy. I contend that how a school handles its hat policy is as important, if not more important, than how we implement most policies DeVos or our Legislature foist upon us.

Scenario: You see a middle school kid walking down a crowded hallway toward you, and of all horrors he is wearing a hat.

Policy Implementation Option #1: “Hey buddy, remember you can’t have hats on here in school, go ahead and put that in your backpack,” accompanied by a “I’m taking my hat off my head” hand gesture.

Policy Implementation Option #2: “Take that hat off. Give me that hat. If you want it back you need to come get it from the principal’s office,” accompanied by a stern voice and an extended, stiffly open hand with an aggressive “give me” hand gesture.

By the way, I am making no attempt to hide my bias on this issue.

The things “banned” in the schools I’ve worked in have included discmans, headphone/earbuds, hats, hoods, iPods, iPhones, water bottles, flip-flops, laptops, snacks… all of which had valid policy reasons. To me,  these “student management” policies, or other truly minor behavioral controls, are the kinds of policies whose implementation makes or breaks the culture and climate of a school. I’m not necessarily opposed to rules around these things. I concede very valid reasons to control these student behaviors. It all boils down to how we choose to implement these policies.

Critics of Option #1 above will point out that the student might just put his hat back on later, and therefore the problem has not been solved: The better solution is to take the hat (as if that permanently solves the problem). The rationale: The kid has to learn that if he breaks a rule in life, there will be consequences, in this case the loss of his property and potential disciplinary action. In fact, in this exact scenario (which I’ve been part of innumerable unnecessary permutations of in my career) I often hear about teaching the student lessons like “understanding the impacts of your own behavior” or “natural consequences.”

Whenever I teach simile and metaphor to my 9th graders, one of our practice similes is “School is like ___.” In 16 years of this exercise, the first answer called out is always “a prison.” Every. Single. Time. Some of that is our cultural narrative about school, but that has to come from somewhere. I don’t think that comes from federal policy: it comes from how we implement little, ultimately insignificant rules like the “no-hats” policy.

Having my hat taken away is not a “natural consequence.” Breaking my arm because I jump off the barn roof is a “natural consequence.” Losing my hat to an aggressive authority is very much a contrived consequence. Other than being subject to strong winds or ending up with wonky hair, there is no “natural consequence” associated with wearing a hat.

If I forcibly wrestle a hat away from a kid because the policy makes me think I should, there is a different natural consequence: The disempowerment of the student to control his own behavior. People want to say that taking the hat “teaches a lesson.” What lesson? This one: “I wear my hat, that [creative new expletive] takes it away.”

I say that if I actually teach the desired behavior (put your hat in your backpack), yes I may have to teach that same lesson several times, but here’s the lesson that gets learned: “If I forget to take my hat off, I need to put it in my backpack.”

In a place where learning is supposed to be the goal, it is obvious to me which “lesson” I ought to try to teach my students.

Waiting to be told?

By Tom

After our new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, stepped into a public school last week, perhaps for the first time, she told a journalist that the teachers seemed to be “waiting to be told what they have to do.”

Maybe they were, but I doubt it.

If they’re anything like me, they have a pretty clear idea of what to do.

Last week, for example, while DeVos was visiting a school, I was teaching in one. And I spent most of the morning helping my fourth graders finish their reports and come to logical conclusions.

Their reports were about Native Americans in Washington State. From the early days through the settlers. After a short discussion the consensus was clear; the only logical conclusion was that America stole Indian land.

It was hard to argue with that conclusion.

Later that day I was working with the afterschool “ELL Homework Club,” a free service we offer to our many recent immigrant students. The last kid in the room was picked up at 5:10 by a mom who was born in Pakistan and fled to Thailand, where she had kids before moving to the U.S.

The mom was apologetic. Her appointment with a refugee counselor ran late. We talked for a while and I told her about my experience working with some teachers in Pakistan a few years ago. We agreed that her daughter stood a much better chance of getting an education here in the U.S. than back in Pakistan.

That said, she was worried about recent events.

After listening to her concerns I felt the need to apologize, “Please know that I, along with teachers everywhere, welcome you and every other immigrant. We’re glad you’re here and we value the diversity you bring to our school community.”

She seemed glad to hear that, and a little surprised.

No, Mrs. DeVos, I’m not waiting to be told what to do. I know why I’m here. I’m here to explain the dissonance between past and present; the contradiction between what we should have learned and what we aren’t doing. I help ten-year-olds understand how a nation that barged in and took land from people who lived here for “Time Immemorial” now arbitrarily denies access to legitimate refugees.

My job is to help them understand our nation’s sad, sloppy slog toward progress. How a nation that had slavery fought itself to end it. How a nation that imprisoned Japanese-American citizens liberated Europe and shut down Auschwitz.

But there’s more. I work with America in the present. The America I see in my classroom. Kids whose families long ago came from England, Ireland and Italy, and kids who came last year from Libya, Vietnam and Pakistan.

I know exactly what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to teach.

Bully Culture

Next year I will be returning part time to the classroom after a two-year hiatus as a new-teacher induction mentor (plus other duties as assigned). I will be returning with new strategies and ideas I’ve amassed from being able to observe and coach so many colleagues. More than that, I’ll be returning with a new mission, so to speak.

Many people have claimed that the election of President Donald Trump has given validation and permission for aggressive, disrespectful, and bullying language and behavior. Schools all over the nation have cited an increase in behavior where individuals in positions of real or perceived power have exercised this power to oppress, humiliate, intimidate, or undermine those over whom they felt somehow superior or powerful.

These power dynamics have a history far deeper than the 2016 election cycle. While Trump’s election took many in my own little echo chamber people by surprise, if we deconstruct the segments of the electorate who supported Trump, level headed thinkers of all political persuasions can acknowledge that a fundamental sense of powerlessness drove at least some proportion of the population to see Trump’s bravado as a means for reclaiming power. Powerlessness of one group or another is unfortunately woven into the very fabric of our history, and it just so happens that the current cohort feeling powerless actually turned out to be powerful enough to buoy someone into office who spoke directly to that void.

Through my years as a teacher and coach, in nearly every instance that I’ve responded to bullying language or behavior, as I’ve engaged with the “bully,” I’ve learned about their deep sense of powerlessness in some place of their life. Generalizing from real examples here, but the 9th grade bully always picking on the scrawny kid eventually reveals to me that he is frustrated by his own inability to succeed in school; the 10th grade girl known for vicious online peer-evisceration ends up revealing that she feels she has no sense of personal power because of what her parents say about her and do to her.

This is no profound new idea. It is Interpersonal Dynamics 101 and in each child psychology textbook. Bullying behavior is often an attempt to fill some personal power void.

As I look at how schools have attempted to deal with bullying over the years, much has been focused on the “don’t bully, be kind” approach. That’s great, but it is only part of the answer. I think we need to also talk more openly about power and powerlessness.

That’s the great thing about being a literature teacher: Literature lets us study humanity as a third point, and in doing so we can better understand ourselves and our society. Every work of fiction I’ve ever taught (and in fact even much of the poetry and nonfiction) has clearly visible in it dynamics rooted in a differential of real or perceived power.

I will say that the events of our presidential election have rekindled my sense of urgency in helping students consider deeply the inequality of power that is so entrenched in our society that. My mission is to help adolescents peel away a fundamentally flawed assumption that we often make about ourselves, bias and our society: As Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald describe in the book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, we assume that inequality and power differentials are simply an inevitable and unalterable law of nature, and that these differentials exist because of some deep truth about those who occupy different stations of power.

Through my teaching of literature, now more than ever I believe it will be important to examine how power and powerlessness contribute to a story’s central conflict so that perhaps we can better understand how it also exists as the core of nearly all of our society’s central conflicts. I believe it will be more important than ever to help my adolescent students explore where in their own lives and in our broader culture they are bestowed or refused power, even if they don’t necessarily recognize or want to acknowledge it (the very blind spot at the core of the book linked above).

I hope to help my students consider those stations where they have power how they use it, as well as how their sense of powerlessness ripples inward or outward toward other moments of their lives. I do think we’ve always lived in a bully culture. Like any pattern of human interaction, it has ebbed and flowed. We in public education have the opportunity to arm young people with the knowledge and skills to turn the tide.


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