Honoring Identity

Sara Ahmed is an educator who I am fortunate to call a friend. As much as I value her friendship, I value her role as a mentor to me even more. Her two books Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry (co-authored with Harvey Daniels) and Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension have pushed my thinking and encouraged me to do better for the kids I learn with every day. I highly recommend reading these books and if you ever get the chance to hear Sara speak don’t miss that opportunity.

I opened this school year with her thinking in the back of my brain. One of the lessons she shared in Being the Change is an activity an Identity Web. Sara explains Identity Webs as “personal graphic tools that help us consider the many factors that shape who we are.” Middle school is definitely a time and a place where our students wrestle with their identity. I know I did. Many factors that shape who I am today can be traced to middle school. My lifelong love affair with both soccer and art were cemented in middle school. Middle school teachers I had were adults who shaped both how I act with seventh graders now and how I will never act with those same seventh graders. And I sill remember the name of my first girlfriend. I wonder what happened to her once we both left our hometown.

So the idea of leading students to recognize what or who has shaped or will shape how they view their lives and the world definitely appealed to me, so I jumped right into it. But first, I did one myself. In Being the Change, Sara strongly recommends that teachers do the work she recommends for teaching students social comprehension because “this examination is just as adults as it is for kids.” Doing the work we expect our students to do is time-consuming, but it opens our eyes to a more empathetic stance.

Here is my Identity Map:

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When I was working on this, it amazed me how some of my identity came easily. Filling in the area around sports was easy. However, I realized I hesitated a great deal with the family section. I kept second-guessing what I should share. I love my family, but like many families, there are difficult memories flowing next to the wondrous memories. I wondered when it came time to share my identity web as a model for my students, how would I handle this section. Honesty drove me to be very candid about some of the difficult factors that have shaped me. It may not have helped my students write down any of the tough things on their webs, but my hope was they would quickly know that I am a person who will be very honest with them. 

While my students were working on their identity webs, I had mine in my hand and looked for connections I had with my students. I sat with them at tables or on the floor and named the connections we had like reading, sports, or living most of my entire life in Central Ohio. But, I also delighted in seeing things that were very different than me. I celebrated the students who immigrated to the United States, students who loved dance, and the student who plays five, yes five, different instruments.

The time I spent chatting and connecting with the students was the second best thing I did during the first few days of school. The best thing was the next day. The students met in small groups to compare and contrast their webs. They looked for connections and delighted in finding differences. As I bounced around the room, I could see them appreciating who they were at the same time they were appreciating each other. We were learning to honor our identities.

As the year progresses, we will add to our webs and look for more ways to celebrate our own identities as well as each others’. We will also be led by the many other ideas Sara shared in Being the Change. The work will be challenging, but I am certain the communities we are creating in Room 229 will be stronger if we rise to the challenge.

Student samples

Enough

I am.

 

I am struggling.

 

I am struggling to write this post.

 

I have known I was on the schedule to post on May 3, 2018, for months now. I have begun a post at least 5 times in the past week. But when I go back to reread or revise I know my writing is awful.

 

I am.

 

I am struggling.

 

I am struggling with stress and worry.

 

I have had too many restless nights. It is impossible to focus when you are consumed with uncertainty.

 

I am.

 

I am struggling.

 

I am struggling because I can’t control the cause of my stress and worry.

 

I am struggling because I want to scream out into the void – all the time – but I can’t.

 

———————————————————-

 

I am.

 

I am learning.

 

I am learning that it is ok for me to be stressed and worried.

 

I am learning that I am not quite the extremely rational and logical thinker I thought I was.

 

I am learning a great deal about humility and empathy.

 

Since the cause of my stress and worry is something I am not ready to share to share with my fellow writers and readers of Classroom Communities I feel like I am being a dishonest member of this community.

 

However, while I know that I am struggling, I am learning a great deal about myself. I am realizing that it is not so easy to compartmentalize when something out of your control is taking up so mental energy.

 

I am struggling.

 

I am learning.

 

I am enough.

What Changes

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Over the past few weeks, I have rediscovered reading and enjoying poetry. Most mornings before I get moving into the day, I read at least one poem. The act of opening my phone and searching online “poem about ______” or grabbing a favorite volume of poetry from my family room or classroom shelf has created a place and time for me to reflect.

This beginning of this practice started in a failed attempt to try to plan something for National Poetry Month for my seventh-grade students. A classroom study of poetry still hasn’t happened yet. And to be honest, it might not happen this year. However, I have been really enjoying these two to three-minute adventures into a form of communication I adore, but often ignore. Spending some time thinking about the words of Maya Angelou, Czesław Miłosz, Anna Akhmatova, Naomi Shihab Nye, Billy Collins, Kwame Alexander, Justin Runge, Jacqueline Woodson, Alan Dugan and others have given me the chance to slow down for a moment or two each day.

The time I spend reading a poem is short, but most days thinking lingers throughout the day. About ten days ago, I read “What Changes” by Naomi Shihab Nye.

 

What Changes

My father’s hopes travel with me

years after he died. Someday

we will learn how to live.  All of us

surviving without violence

never stop dreaming how to cure it.

What changes? Crossing a small street

in Doha Souk, nut shops shuttered,

a handkerchief lies crumpled in the street,

maroon and white, like one my father had,

from Jordan.  Perfectly placed

in his pocket under his smile, for years.

He would have given it to anyone.

How do we continue all these days?

 

“Someday we will learn how to live” was in my mind for the rest of the day and into the next several days. The line also inspired this post.

For me, there is a juxtaposition of hope and frustration in that line – like the coming end of the school year. The hope we have built learning communities that were worthwhile for our students combined with the frustration that we don’t have the time to accomplish everything we intended. The hope that our students will finish the year better than they started combined with the frustration of state testing windows. The hope of seeing students act kindly toward each other combined with the frustration of students ostracizing each other. Hope and frustration are typical partners in the last weeks of school.

During the end of your school year, take the time to look for the hopeful places. I know I will get stuck in the frustrations. I will need to consciously search for the evidence that the 180 days spent with my seventh graders were good. The moments like seeing two friends recommend books to each other, a student complimenting the writing of another, the class groaning a little when our independent reading time is over, the eager smiles when it is time to discuss a shared text.

If you have the time, try reading poetry daily or at least give yourself the opportunity to reflect. Find the hopefulness and good.

Knowledge Versus Behaviors

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I have been struggling with the idea of shifting what we know about empathy into consistent actions that show empathy. After 22 years in education, I consistently observe the knowledge of what empathy means is more developed than consistently acting with empathy. My struggle is not just because I see kids “saying the right thing” but not always “doing the right thing” – it is my struggle, a teacher-in- general struggle, a parent struggle, a human struggle.

Over the course of my first year in a middle school setting, I have witnessed numerous opportunities for students to say and do the right thing. Sometimes the word and actions are very little, like a student saying thank you to another; sometimes they are big, like a group of students voluntarily helping to work with special needs students.

Sometimes I witness the perplexing situation of students being able to say the right thing, but do the wrong thing within the same class period.

About two weeks ago, I read aloud the book Nerdy Birdy by Aaron Reynolds to my classes. Nerdy Birdy is a fabulous book. It tells the story of a bird who is invited to a community of birds after he has been excluded by a group of “cool” birds. Nerdy Birdy is later disappointed when his new community excludes a bird that doesn’t fit in with their norms. Both during and after the read aloud the discussions of this book were fabulous. The seventh graders saw some of the humor in the descriptions of the birds and they explored the hypocrisy of the group of birds that welcomed Nerdy Birdy. We also talked about how these moments of inclusion/exclusion happen in the real world. They shared ideas about immigrants, cliques in schools, and the gap between the rich and the poor in our city as well as our country. They said all the right things.

After the read aloud and discussion, the students moved into an individual work time that gave me the chance to work with a small group and confer with some individuals. After about 20 minutes of this individual work time, I asked the students to find a partner to share some thinking about what they accomplished that day. We have a sharing norm, that when I say partners, it means two people in a discussion. If based on attendance, we have an odd number of students in the class, I will ‘claim’ a partner so everyone is involved in a discussion with one other person. In all of my classes that day, I witnessed several students actively avoiding others. There seemed to be a desire to not get ‘stuck’ with a partner who was not perceived as a friend. Even though they could say the right things less than 25 minutes ago, they struggled to do the right thing.

Once I gave a gentle reminder of the expectations of a partner share, everyone eventually found a partner for this two-minute chat, but there were some eye-rolls and tangible sighs before everyone had someone to listen to his/her thinking.

I feel like I put forth a great deal of effort into community building. I believe that the kids I work with could identify characters in stories who show or lack empathy and compassion. I believe that if asked, “What would you do in _______________ situation?” they would all say the right thing. However, I am still troubled when I don’t see them act in a way that shows they understand the right thing to do.

It could be easy to dismiss the ideas I just shared with the notion that my students are 12 or 13 years old and over time they will learn how to control impulses (like actively showing frustration when you are disappointed with an outcome) that could make others feel unwelcome or excluded, but I see the same problems with myself and other adults. I am definitely guilty of not consistently doing the right thing. When I reflect upon my actions, I get frustrated with myself, but I can’t seem to break the cycle. I fail to include colleagues, family members or a neighbor. I cringe when I am expected to work or be around people I have had difficulty with in the past. I struggle to entertain ideas that might challenge long-held beliefs about a variety of topics.

With role models like me, is it any wonder that students in our schools have difficulty doing the right thing? 

The statement above was not written in a state of self-loathing or as an attempt to dismiss the thoughts of anyone who knows that I definitely do not walk through my life as a teacher by yelling at kids, shaming kids, or actively show disrespect to others. That statement is an honest statement. I believe I am a work-in-progress in regards to consistently acting compassionately and with empathy. To be honest, I also believe we all are works-in-progress. However, if we want our students to grow into the future adults we hope them to be, we all need to do better.

For now, I will continue to work at being a better version of who I am. I will also continue to give chances for my students to both say and do the right thing. Maybe next year if I read Nerdy Birdy, I won’t see the eye rolls or hear the audible sighs later in the class period.

photo credit: MTSOfan Legalize Empathy via photopin (license)

If-then

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Fill in the blanks:

If I didn’t have to ____________, then I ____________.

If my students were____________, then I ____________.

If my class size was____________, then I ____________.

If my salary was____________, then I ____________.

If I had more ____________, then I ____________.

If the parents ____________, then I _________.

If the standards ____________, then I _________.

If my room ____________, then I _________.

If my contract ____________, then I _________.

If the community ____________, then I _________.

If my colleagues ____________, then I _________.

If I had ____________, then I _________.

If the __________ teachers ____________, then I _________.

If my administrator ____________, then I _________.

If I could just remove ____________, then I _________.

 

Check yourself. How many of the if-then statements above we positive?  How many were negative?

Positive or negative answers to hypothetical statements don’t have much impact. But the way we frame our verbal and written language to our students, colleagues, families does have a huge impact.

I constantly am checking myself and my language. I make mistakes, but I work hard not to fall into the trap of ‘if-then’ negativity. And when I step into that trap, I feel the bite of its teeth. So I work to get out of it immediately.

The Courage to Teach

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When I heard the news from the Parkland School Shooting last Wednesday afternoon, I was numb. I didn’t have much time to process due to the busyness of my schedule that day, I just felt an overwhelming sadness for the community that is and surrounds Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. My wife, son and I had plans to go out to eat for Valentine’s Day after we all met at a doctor’s office to get an update on my son’s broken finger. As I rushed through my afternoon and early evening, I pushed down the sadness and anger because I wanted to just be with my family and appreciate the time we could spend together.

Finally reading the news about Parkland later that night horrified me. I put my phone down and ignored social media completely for a few days. I assumed Parkland dominated my feeds because about 90% of my online connections are teachers or news agencies. I needed time to think without the constant barrage of tweets, facebook posts, images, and articles.

When I felt I was ready to emerge from my cocoon of avoidance, one of the first things I saw was the video from a rally where a survivor passionately called for us to act. Emma Gonzalez shook me to the core.

Because I have lived a relatively comfortable life, it can be easy for me to look away and shield myself from the bad things because the bad things rarely happen to me. With the exception of cancer killing my first wife at the age of 33, just about all my bad things have been temporary setbacks at best. It took me two years to get a full-time teaching job, but I know plenty of teachers which that journey took far more time. I occasionally get into arguments with family, but who doesn’t? There are days that work frustrates, but if you are a teacher and haven’t been frustrated at some point then I may need to drink what you are drinking. My current struggle is dealing with a shoulder injury caused by a car accident this past summer. Which isn’t fun, but it is legitimately my first injury since high school. I have never been the victim of a crime, sexual harassment or racial profiling. Nor have I ever had to worry when I would eat next or stress about paying my rent or mortgage. I can afford numbness because while I work very hard at what I do, I have it very easy compared to at least 95% of the world.

I have watched Emma Gonzalez’s video several times. I get teary-eyed, I get angry, I worry about the safety of my son at his high school, my daughter at her college, my wife at her school (she is also a teacher) and I worry about my middle school. And I ask myself, why would any young person want to be a teacher? If the 20-year old Tony Keefer was an undergrad now I know he would have never considered going into education. He would have said, “Why would I want to go into a profession that is under attack – both literally and figuratively?”

If we want stronger communities in our schools, we need to become better at many things. One of the things I feel we need to do better is not hiding from the issues that can break down attempts to build strong communities. I know I need to be more visible and vocal about what I think needs to change. I need to be more like Emma Gonzalez.

When I started teaching, somebody gave me the book The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. It was one of the first books that inspired me to connect more with my students. When I leafed through it while trying to write this post, I came across this, “The personal can never be divorced from the professional. “We teach who we are” in times of darkness as well as light.”

Sadly, as I write this post, it is yet another time of darkness. Back in the front of my brain is the disbelief of how we, myself included, have become observers in a dystopia that sends ‘thoughts and prayers’ after a mass shooting, but can’t figure out how to take action. I am not sure if I completely know what I will do differently yet, but I am not hiding anymore. The professional in me will make things more personal. And I won’t keep my personal thoughts to myself anymore.

photo credit: arjan.jongkees Broken Hearts and Broken Promises via photopin (license)

How We Respond

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A few years ago the idea that teachers make hundreds, maybe thousands, of decisions a day bounced around the internet. A remember reading posts like this Larry Cuban’s “Jazz, Basketball and Teacher Decision Making” and thinking something like, “No kidding – I am usually exhausted at the end of a day and it isn’t because of the physical labor.” The idea of teacher decision-making sparked my curiosity for a while. I looked for more information about teacher decision-making. Read a lot about it, talked to people about it, thought about my own decision-making, read some more, talked some more, thought some more.

I muck into metacognitive swamps like this often. I overanalyze the decisions I make in the classroom. One good side effect of my thinking about decision-making in the classroom is I narrowed the focus of my daily reflections. I shut down a great deal of internal noise to start with one consistent question. How am I responding to students? Then, I check myself frequently when I think I might be causing shame.

Justin Stygles, a friend/mentor, who teaches in Maine started pushing my thinking about the role of shame in education at the 2015 NCTE Annual Convention. Our discussion about his passion of working to counter the impact of shame in teacher-student relationships challenged me to learn more about shame. Shame is something we all deal with, but we are very unwilling to discuss, especially in public conversations. I am pretty sure that Justin’s thinking led me to Brené Brown’s work. If you don’t know her work, a good place to start is the videos page of her website.

My learning and thinking about shame, which led to more understanding about vulnerability, empathy, connection, and guilt, is the reason my thinking about my daily decision-making always starts with how I responded to students during the course of the day. Sometimes I feel like I had a great day, sometimes I know I screwed up a few times, but I am getting better at understanding that how I respond to students has a profound impact on not only my relationship with them as individuals, but the entire classroom community.

Brian Wyzlic shared a moving story about a response he had to a student transgression on this site last week. To be honest, his post reminded me of the thinking I have done the last few years. I had another post ready to go, but his ideas of grace and mercy and choosing to build connections rather than tear them down kept running through my brain.

I am not sure how I would have handled a student saying, “Oh, f***” in my room. Depending on the student I may have been disappointed, concerned, surprised or maybe I would have laughed out loud (because I love a well-placed obscenity as much as anyone I know). That being said, I am sure, like Brian, I would not have ripped into the student. Rarely, maybe never, does a verbal lashing help diffuse a difficult situation in the classroom.

We need to be honest with our students, we need to hold them accountable, and we need to let them know what is acceptable and unacceptable while at the same time showing compassion and empathy. When a student is not respecting the norms of the classroom or the school, we need to be able to respond to students in a way that lets them know that their behaviors are the problem, not that they are the problem.

I believe too many of our students feel they are wrong or they are awful. I have too much hope to think that any child is wrong. Behaviors can be wrong, but a child? I don’t think so.