Feeling Connected

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Communities foster connection.  Connection fosters communities.

This past Sunday both of these statements were confirmed for me and then I took this confirmation to my classroom today.  I was leaving church at 8:20am on Sunday and he shakes my hand, “Thank you for worshipping with us this morning.”  I reply with, “thank you (read that again with a confirming tone of voice).

I already felt at peace with the homily and guidance for the day and yet at this moment I felt something else.  Maybe it was a sense of joy.  Maybe it was a sigh of relief I survived shaking his hand.  Maybe it was letting go of a worry thought – do I really belong to or in this large congregation.  As I exited the church, I was glad I shook his hand.  I think the verbal and physical touch was an invitation to return.  I felt grounded a bit.

I’ve read a few pieces on social media lately about greeting students at the door and all the benefits this simple act can foster.  I learned this while studying to become a teacher. I wish I could tell you I’ve pulled it off every day for my twenty some years of teaching.  I haven’t.  There’s been something to set up.  There’s been a meeting to attend.  There’s been a classroom chore to do.

It’s a new year; I’ve missed my students, and I wanted them to feel how I felt leaving church on Sunday – content, welcomed, and noticed.  So, there I was this morning standing outside the classroom door waiting for my first arrival.

“Good Morning Jackson.  It’s so nice to see you this morning.”  Arms outstretched wide waiting to see if he takes the bait and comes in for a hug.  Score, my first hug of the day!  Twenty one hugs and two handshakes later my heart was full.  Each squeeze released happiness.  Only one grumpy face walked through the door.  After being off for two weeks, we had the best first hour of our day ever!

That morning greeting created a connection and embraced reentering our community.  We had a great first day back and I hope your return to school as gone as equally as well.

 

When Santa Claus Doesn’t Come To Town

The TV ads
Have been telling me
Since October,
Since I was born,
That Christmas is
Snow covered
Evergreens with
Glittering ornaments
Families happy together in cozy jammies
Hot cocoa in hands
Fires crackling, embers aglow
And
Gifts — Latest. Greatest. Batteries not included.

You may believe it’s the most wonderful time of the year
Or dream of a white Christmas
You may rock around your Christmas tree
And, gosh, I hope you do!

I was told in a folk song
This land is your land
This land is my land

Our shared space
In the city
Is draped in wreaths and holly and twinkly lights
Like stars that fell to Earth
To amplify the season
It is truly beautiful
Luminescent
Nostalgic
Joyful
What has been ours, together,
Is more yours for now
But we can all benefit from the light

At school,
I am expected to clap and sing to
“Santa Claus is Coming To Town”
With passion and spirit
Though the lyrics don’t apply to me

Because the truth is
Santa isn’t coming to town
Not for me
He never has
I don’t miss his absence

He doesn’t know if I’ve been bad or good
I try to be good
Anyway
Are we not a combination of both
Over time?
For goodness sake!

I am expected to clap and sing
To appeal to their melody
To appease their comfort
I am expected to clap and sing

When your comfort
And melody
Matter more
Than making space for
My identity
To harmonize
It is the very definition of
Privilege

I always thought
Words were best shared
Honestly

When I sing of Santa
The words are
False
For me
I’m happy they bring joy to you

I am Jewish.
I am Muslim.
I am Buddhist.
I am Hindu.
I am Sikh.
I am Jain.
I am agnostic.
I am atheist.

I celebrate
Rosh Hashanah
Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr
Vesak
Diwali
Vaisakhi
Holi
Kwanzaa
Solstice
…Nothing

It is possible
You may not have noticed
Our new years
Our harvest festivals
Our revelations
And revolutions

Amidst those twinkly lights of Christmas
Look closer
Throughout the year
And you will see
The lights of
Chanukah menorahs
Kwanzaa kinaras
Buddhist shrine candles
Diwali diyas
Chinese lanterns
Piercing the dark
Illuminating us all

Together, with Christmas,
Each holiday, celebration, festival
Turns a single melody
Into a
Harmonious tune
We can all sing
To light up our world

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Beyond Thanksgiving: Indigenous Books Anytime

A minute ago, it was summer. Now, the leaves have all blown away, the garden has been put to bed, the sun only works part-time, and the snow dared to arrive in my part of the world. We are eyeball deep in the season of assessments, report cards, and parent-teacher conferences. We are all exhausted. But we have a break in sight. Despite Christmas commercials insisting we should have been shopping since the beginning of October, it’s Thanksgiving’s turn next.

 

The Thanksgivings of my youth were spent at Nana’s and Papa’s house in Indiana, family and friends crowded around folding tables, eating the turkey Dad carved with Papa and the noodle kugel Nana made for every gathering. Before the long road trip there, we celebrated and did activities at school: paper hand turkeys, coloring pages of cornucopias and Pilgrims and “Indians”, writing about what we were thankful for, and once, a feast that included venison stew made from the meat of a deer my teacher had hunted.

 

As I have grown more aware of how simplified, inaccurate, and white-washed my school experience was of Thanksgiving, I will work to do better as I teach this generation of children. We will not color stereotypical portraits of Native people. We will not teach that the Pilgrims and Native people lived in harmony or in an equitable symbiotic relationship. We will not talk and read about the Wampanoag or any Native peoples ONLY for a day or two…on the contrary, we will continue to talk and read about indigenous people in ways that challenge biased perspectives of history, invites critical conversations of Native peoples’ experiences, and centers them accurately in their own stories. We will be inclusive of Native voices in our read alouds, our classroom libraries, and our shared reading.

 

November is officially Native American Heritage Month. Much like Black History Month, and other recognized cultural spotlights, they were created to draw awareness and attention, as well as, to make space for celebration and recognition. These designated months are a tremendous opportunity to educate ourselves and others about cultures, ethnicities, and identities that deserve our time and undivided attention, and intended to encourage awareness and education all year long. But they can be a double-edged sword.

 

A highlighted month does not permit us to relegate diversity to a determined frame of time, a curricular unit, or as a means of comforting the majority. If as educators, we save stories by and about Native people only for November, if we don’t include representation outside of the month, then we guarantee that they will always be “othered”. What happens when Native children see books by and about indigenous people disappear from their educational experience after Thanksgiving? They disappear, too. However, if those same children hear books read aloud and find books in their classroom and school libraries by Joseph Bruchac, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Tim Tingle, Monique Gray Smith, Julie Flett, and more, they find their stories and people. They find their mirrors, their representation. Representational literature effectively communicates to its readers that they are worthy, their stories are real, and who they are is valuable and whole. For the many children in our classes who are non-native, these books serve as windows, glimpses into another’s experience, a way to grow education and empathy towards those different from ourselves.

 

This November, if you are making a point to read books about America’s first people, ensure you are sharing culturally accurate, truly representational texts, and elevating #OwnVoices texts created by Native authors and illustrators. Then, be sure to read, share, and shelve them throughout the year. Make that promise to yourself and your students that the stories and experiences of indigenous people are valid and normal any time of the year. Buy some for your classroom or get them from the library. Your library doesn’t stock it? Ask them to purchase it for circulation. Research, reach out, and read. Here’s a picture book resource list from Cynthia Leitich Smith and few of my recent favorites to get you started. Images and descriptions courtesy of Goodreads.com.

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Picture Book: “A look at modern Native American life as told by a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.”

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Picture Book: “…encourages children to show love and support for each other and to consider each other’s well-being in their everyday actions.”

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Picture Book: “Go on a Mission to Space with Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington, as he shares his flight on the space shuttle Endeavor and his thirteen-day mission to the International Space Station.”

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Picture Book: “Nimoshom loved to drive the school bus. Every day, on the way to and from school, he had something to say. Sometimes, he told the kids silly stories. Sometimes, he taught the kids a new word in Cree.”

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Picture Book: “Set in the Okanagon, BC, a First Nations family goes on an outing to forage for herbs and mushrooms. Grandmother passes down her knowledge of plant life to her young grandchildren.”

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Picture Book: “Circles are all around us. We just have to look for them. Sometimes they exist in the most unusual places.”

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Picture Book: “When Uncle and Windy Girl and Itchy Boy attend a powwow, Windy watches the dancers and listens to the singers. She eats tasty food and joins family and friends around the campfire. Later, Windy falls asleep under the stars. Now Uncle’s stories inspire other visions in her head: a bowwow powwow, where all the dancers are dogs.”

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Picture Book: “As a young Navajo boy, Chester Nez had to leave the reservation and attend boarding school, where he was taught that his native language and culture were useless. But Chester refused to give up his heritage. Years later, during World War II, Chester—and other Navajo men like him—was recruited by the US Marines to use the Navajo language to create an unbreakable military code. Suddenly the language he had been told to forget was needed to fight a war.”

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Middle Grade Picture Book: “When eight-year-old Irene is removed from her First Nations family to live in a residential school she is confused, frightened, and terribly homesick. She tries to remember who she is and where she came from, despite the efforts of the nuns who are in charge at the school and who tell her that she is not to use her own name but instead use the number they have assigned to her.”

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Young Adult: “#NotYourPrincess presents an eclectic collection of poems, essays, interviews, and art that combine to express the experience of being a Native woman.”

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Young Adult: “thoughtful story of a Native teen navigating the complicated, confusing waters of high school – and first love.”

 

More Than We Will Ever Know

My grandpa passed away yesterday.

I’ve been fortunate to not have too many family members die — I have a large extended family, but can count the deaths on one hand. Which means my grief is unrefined. I don’t have a road map for this.

So I ask your pardon in this post, as it comes from that place of grief.

I was thinking today about the man my grandpa was, from many different perspectives.

From one perspective, he was a devout Catholic worthy of admiration.

From another, he was a loving parent worthy of respect.

From yet another, a WWII veteran worthy of honor.

A wood worker worthy of study.

A man who loved fishing with his young grandkids.

An American autoworker.

A 2nd generation immigrant.

A lover of homemade Polish food.

Someone who helped seniors with their taxes (even when they were 15 years younger than he was!).

A man who crocheted afghans for each of his 18 grandchildren. I still use mine often, and remember fondly when he taught me to crochet.

I knew all this about him, and more. And yet, there are things I only recently learned. Stories from the war. His life as a new father.

There are, no doubt, innumerable things about my grandpa that I will never get to know. I loved him for who he was, the man I knew, but he was also more than what I knew.

Which brings me to the classroom.

We see our students for a limited time, from a limited angle. And from that angle, we find ways to work with them. To help them become better learners, friends, and people.

We may also find that, from that angle, we agree or disagree with them. They may be our favorites or they may be the reason we take a mental health day. They might fill our buckets or empty them.

What a disservice.

What a disservice to the people our students are, and the people they can be. Our students, no matter how much we know them, how much we learn about them, how much we love them…they are more than we will ever know. And they always, always, deserve to be treated as better than we can imagine.

My grandpa was likely a better man than I knew. Than I will ever know. So are our students. Let’s treat them like they’re better than we can possibly imagine while we still have the opportunity. Don’t they deserve someone who will treat them that way? Why shouldn’t it be us?

Creators Create Community

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Last week I had the pleasure to listen to author Cleo Wade speak.  She wrote Heart Talk: Poetic Wisdom for a Better Life and is an activist.  This year I’m doing some thinking around creating and was surprised to hear her start talking about creating.  My notes included these thoughts; creating is in our DNA, individuals have the capacity to create, and “creators create community”.  My ears perked up even more because I knew I wanted to find some moments to reflect on community and share in this space.

She gave us a question to ponder, “Where have the ambitions of building community gone?”  She urged us to think about the act of this question a sacred task.  Other notes I jotted included

  • communities give us opportunities to choose to unite
  • communities bonds of spirit
  • communities help us rise above our concerns

My students don’t get to choose to share a classroom with each other.  Their class placements is done for them.  I realized reflecting on the first thought, they do get to choose to unite with each other.   I believe one of our roles as a teacher is to help our students make that choice in hopes of creating a spirit of cohesiveness.  If we have a feeling of cohesiveness perhaps we can rise above our own concerns and make a difference for each other and beyond.

I would respond to Cleo’s question and ask her to look within classrooms for ambitions building communities.  May our work help carry to spaces outside our schools and help people connect in person with others.

 

No Rules

The start to this school year has been one of the most fulfilling and rewarding starts in recent memory. There could be many reasons for this, but I want to believe that a significant cause is that we have no rules in our classroom. That’s right. No. Rules.

A community is more than just a group of people living and working in a common area. It is a group of people who have shared interests, share a set of values and work towards the collective goal. In order for our classroom to be a true community this year, I feel it is necessary to engage students in a discussions about the clear and specific behaviors that would produce the kind of classroom they want. So far this year, our conversations have not been about how students comply and behave for me, but how we behave towards each other. Our behaviors can strengthen or demean our culture. “If you want the classroom to be a positive place, then you have to contribute positive behaviors.”

Over the past few years, my district has spent a great deal of time and professional development days establishing a clear cultural blueprint. Our district calls this the VBO. The VBO establishes a clear set of values, behaviors and outcomes that we want from each student and staff member. Our school district has three values: Stand Up & Own It, Power of the Team and Passion For Growth. These three statements have become a common language throughout our district and school. As students move through grade levels and switch schools, these remain the constant.

In my last blog post, I explained that on the first day of school I asked students to complete the following statement: Our classroom should be ________ every day. My students responded with “happy,” “clean” and “kind.” With that, it was time for students to recognize how Stand Up And Own It, Power Of The Team and Passion For Growth would create a happy, clean and kind classroom community. It is crucial for students to see the connection between the school’s values and our behaviors within our learning space. I wish I could tell you that I planned some fun, collaborative, inquiry-based activity to achieve this. I didn’t. We just talked. And we are still talking. And we will keep talking.

Almost every day for the past six weeks my class and I have shared time and ideas about our classroom community. We finish each day in a circle sharing our highs and lows and playing icebreaker games. My students will tell you some of my favorite questions to ask are:

  • “What worked in our classroom today?”
  • What went well for you?”
  • “How can you do better tomorrow?”

I am finding that making conversations like this part of the daily routine will only strengthen our classroom culture.

For the past few days, my students and I have created a display to summarize our conversations. Borrowing an idea I saw in the classroom of a colleague, Anita Norris, we created the following bulletin board. Each phrase on a sentence strip was suggested by a student. We feel that this clearly reflects what our classroom community holds dear.

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As I said, this has been one of the best starts to a school year I can remember for a long time. Even my principal, on a recent visit to my classroom, mentioned how she could feel a different energy from previous years. Yes, classes have different personalities from year to year. Yet, I firmly believe that taking the time to discuss how our values, behaviors and outcomes are all linked has made a large impact on the success of our learning community.

PS – I lied. We do have rules in my classroom. But only ONE rule.

Absolutely. No. Doritos!

(That’s the subject of another blog post).

We Teach People by Sarah Krajewski

When I was a first-year English teacher 17 years ago, I thought my job was to teach the literature I loved. I believed that if I shared my love for The Call of the Wild, my students would love it as much as I do, and many did. Some, however, didn’t. There were heads down on desks, and failing grades showed up on report cards. Looking back on that year, I cringe. I put the book before my students. Now, my priorities have shifted.

Now, I observe.

His eyes are up more than down. Her eyes look to her lap where her phone is hidden. When I ask students to mark their spots, I note who shuts their book without a marked page. Two boys don’t lift their pencils during the first quickwrite. Another doesn’t even open her notebook when asked to. I watch this all without saying a word, and store it away for conferences.

Now, I comfort.

Frustration and anxiety appear on faces. I smile. I take out my pencil and write too. I share my mistakes. When I see a boy’s head in his hands, I kneel down to quietly share some suggestions to get started. This notebook is for mistakes. It’s where we can take risks, I say. I’m an awful speller, he replies. I reassure him that spelling doesn’t count here. This is where he has the freedom to explore. No need to worry about perfection.

Now, I listen.

Miss? I came to get that book, remember? The boy’s hands shake as he sits down and looks up at me as I get the book he requested. Can I tell you something? he asks me nervously. I immediately sit next to him to confirm. I’m not a good reader. My last school told me I read like a 4th grader, and my Lexile is too low for an 8th grader. My teachers and classmates mocked me. They told me I improved, but not enough. I can’t go through that again. I want to get better.

Now, I reassure.

You are not a level or Lexile, I reply. Don’t let those people define who you are. You are a reader, and I’ll help you realize that this year. He shares his frustration with staying focused and his concern that he’ll forget to read at home, and I share my recently-discovered love for audiobooks and the value in having reading partners. He states that his father would be a great reading partner. By the time he heads home, he has The Hate U Give and a reading plan.

Now, I create safe spaces.

Miss? Can you look this over for me and tell me what you think? She opens her Chromebook and I read about the night she told her parents she’s gay. Her father and uncle did not handle it well, and it hurt her deeply. She shared her pain and disbelief that they could feel this way about their flesh and blood. I admire you, I said. Thank you for sharing this piece with me. I can only hope that someday your family sees the incredible person that I do.

Now, I show my true self.

She enters my room after school, and immediately checks to make sure she’s the only one here. When her hope is confirmed, she walks over and sits down. Over the next hour, we share stories about the girl we both lost in an accident. A best friend and a mentee. A confidant and a budding artist. Tears are shed more than once as we watch a butterfly appear outside the window.

As the second week of school ends, more pencils are moving along the paper. Conversations revolve around writing topics, and more students openly share favorite lines. When I see these buds begin to emerge, I am reminded that this comes first. I don’t teach texts. I teach the amazing human beings that enter my classroom each day.

Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 11th grade English and Journalism at Cleveland Hill High School near Buffalo, New York.  She is currently in her 17th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to help her students enjoy learning, reading, and writing. At school, she is known for dedicating her time to helping students become lifelong readers, and for being a devoted reader herself who “knows her books.” At home, she is a proud wife and mother to three readers.  You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at https://skrajewski.wordpress.com.