We Teach The Girls

We teach the girls.

We teach the girls
with braids in their hair
curls down their backs
and perfect pigtails

Purple hair
shaved skulls
and frizzy ponytails.

We teach the girls who wear
flouncy skirts
glittery tees
and fuzzy big boots

Basketball jerseys
hand-me-down shirts
and baggy blue jeans

We teach the girls who love
double-dutch
dancing
ponies
and princesses

Football
skateboarding
dinosaurs
and superheroes

We teach the girls who color with
pink
purple
and sky blue

Black
orange
and royal blue

We teach the girls who dream to be
ballerinas
actresses
and fashion designers

Firefighters
engineers
and monster truck drivers

We teach the girls who feel
shy
introverted
and unseen

Confident
bold
and strong

We teach the girls with
scrapes on their knees
paper cuts on their fingers
and sore texting thumbs

Wounds on their wrists
bruises on their back
and pain in their bellies

We teach the girls who have been told
what it means to be a girl
as if sugar and spice
and everything nice
could define it

We teach the girls who have been told
they need pink Legos to build castles
they throw like a girl
they must greet relatives with a kiss
that dressed up means wearing a dress
that cute is more important than curious
that sentences should always be qualified with “I’m sorry…”
be nice
be polite
wait your turn
stop being bossy
you’re emotional
you’re sensitive
you’re inferior
you’re less than
you’re not worthy

That people exist only in binary systems
female, male
rich, poor
straight, gay
black, white
missing the millions of shades of gray, and brown, in between

To wear shirts that read
“Allergic to Algebra”
“Future Trophy Wife”
“I’m Too Pretty To Do Homework”
(Can a girl get an empowering message or stegosaurus shirt, please?!)

We teach the girls who have been told
love is conditional
affection is earned
it’s probably their fault
“No” is a fluid term
their body is not their own
not to tell…

We teach the girls. All of the girls.
We have the opportunity to teach the girls to
demand apologies like Serena
reclaim their time like Maxine
speak out like Malala
sit down like Rosa
stand up like Gloria
play like Billie Jean
organize like Fannie Lou
face challenges like Helen
influence like Oprah
write like Maya
speak like Emma
create like Coco
express like Beyonce
lead like Indira
tell their truth like Christine

We teach the girls
and we teach the boys, too

They all need to know that girls are
complex
capable
powerful
and more than worthy

Because someday
soon,
even now,
the girls will teach us.

 

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On Struggling

A 2-day PD I was part of last week and some Twitter conversations over the weekend got me thinking about some of the ways we label our students, especially those who require different supports than we might prepare for on a regular basis. Specifically, I was thinking about the word “struggle” as used in education.

When we talk about the struggles encountered with various students of differing abilities, we often use the adjective “struggling” to describe a person, or the verb “struggles” to describe their work. And that person is almost always the student.

“I have a struggling student.”
“One of my students is struggling with their behavior.”
“Several students struggled with this concept.”

Go ahead and Google “struggling students.” You will find page after page of sites that look, at first glance, to be good and useful sites for teachers and parents to find ways to help students.

And on the surface, the use of this language is both accurate and appropriate. But underneath the surface, I would argue it is neither of those things.

Because yes, a student who had a hard time paying attention in class might be struggling with that. They are struggling because they’re trying to improve.

But also, they then become a “Struggling Student,” which is a stone’s throw from “Difficult Student,” which very quickly becomes something that is a problem with the student, and not a problem for us to tackle.

In this profession, however, the problems are ours to navigate, not to be placed on the shoulders of children.

Notice the difference:

“Olivia is struggling with decoding” vs. “I’m struggling with finding ways to help Olivia with her decoding.”
“Mark is struggling with paying attention” vs. “I’m struggling with how to help Mark stay attentive.”
“Brian is struggling” or “Brian is a problem student” or “Brian is a problem” or “Oh, you have Brian? Good luck” vs. “I’m struggling with Brian. I need help with Brian. I don’t know what to do for Brian.”

Imagine one of your students who is not understanding a concept. Needs help with a skill. Is constantly displaying behaviors not appropriate for a classroom.

Where are they going to get help with those concepts/skills/behaviors if not from you? That’s our job. It’s the first 5 letters of our job title. It’s our job to teach them.

If we take it upon ourselves to recognize that it is our job to do these things, then we will be working to help our students with these things.

The reality: we all know this. We’re teachers because this is what we’re called to do. But the other reality: it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to disassociate with some of those tasks. It’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming the student for their deficiencies rather than helping them navigate their way to success. Our words play an important part in that.

Ultimately, the struggle lies with us. It’s our professional job to struggle with the challenges presented by some of our students to find what works for the student. It’s also our professional job to struggle with how to help the student accept what they need to do and put in their work. As I heard Mike Mattos say at a conference a year ago yesterday (thank you, TimeHop), “We have the degrees. We are the professionals.”

It is not our students’ job to struggle. They’re children.

Who should be struggling more: the child who is forced to attend school, or the adult who has 1-3 degrees in this field and chose to do this work?

Of course, this is part of the larger picture of the community of a school. If all the students are the students of all the teachers — all “our” students, not “my” students and “your” students — then it’s okay for teachers to struggle. It’s okay because we have each other. We can brainstorm solutions. We can work together for the betterment of our students: all of them together as well as individuals.

So please, join me in the struggle. Let’s struggle together so that our students — our children — don’t have to.

A Teacher’s Promise

          “Ms. Laverne said every day we should ask ourselves, ‘If the worst thing in the world happened, would I help protect someone else? Would I let myself be a harbor for someone who needs it?’ Then she said, ‘I want each of you to say to the other: I will harbor you.’
          I will harbor you.”
Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson (p. 34)

My students, this is my promise to you…

I will harbor you

I will welcome you to
our school
our classroom
our space

I will teach you
to multiply
          your kindnesses
to write
          your story
to read
          your world

I will show you
how to crawl inside the pages of a book
          so you can stand outside of yourself
how to raise your voice
          by lowering one sharp pencil to paper
how to be brave
          without a cape or armor

I will ask you to
think deeply
reflect thoughtfully
question boldly

I will listen to you
when you speak confidently
when you whisper timidly
when you say nothing at all

I will see you
in beaming rays of sunshine
under heavy gray clouds
between the silent stars

I will be honest with you
that good people can do bad things
that life is full of unfairness
that grown-ups think making war will lead to peace

I will challenge you
to seek a million answers
          but ask a billion questions
to be intolerant of injustice
          relentless in reform
          persistent in peace
to understand that every day is an opportunity
          to be a friend
          to learn something new
          to be an agent of change

I will comfort you
when wicked words sting
when reliable routines change
when the world tumbles off its axis

I will help you
ride out the storm
stand your ground
find your balance
find your calm
find your home

I will guide you as you
navigate the waves
hoist the sails
dock your ship

I will harbor you.

I will harbor
you.

This poem, this promise, was inspired by award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson’s newest novel, Harbor Me, published August 2018.

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Some Summers

The summers of my childhood were filled with
Hawaiian Punch popsicles and
Lemonade stands
Polka-dot ruffle-butt swimsuits
Leaping through sprinklers
Inflatable kiddie pools filled with icy water from the green garden hose
Sundresses and pigtails
Scraped knees and
Care Bear bandages
Watching Mom’s soap opera
Digging in the garden with Dad
Petting worms
Itchy grass
Potato bugs
Tree climbing
Hill rolling
Bike riding
Roller skates and jump ropes
Singing on the back stoop
Sidewalk chalk dust up to my elbows
YMCA Day camp
Girl Scout equestrian camp
JCC Jewish camp
Neighborhood block parties
Burgers on the grill
The ice cream man. THE ICE CREAM MAN!
Wiffle ball with the big red Mickey Mouse bat
Sweltering Brewers baseball games
Frigid put-your-sweatshirt-on-in-the-house air conditioning
Road trips to see
Mountains
Deserts
Canyons
Parks
Prairies
Oceans

My summers felt endless.
I felt carefree, creative, busy.
I couldn’t wait for summer to begin.

As teachers, we quickly learn that many of our students do not look forward to summer at all, the way some of us did as children. While some miss the companionship of their classmates, daily routines, and their teachers, others know that summer brings uncertainty, anxiety, disruption, and instability.

Their summers feel endless.
They feel anxious, bored, overloaded.
They can’t wait for summer to end.

Some children, anticipating change, need extra hugs, reassurances, and positive mindset coaching.

But for those who dread summer because they do not know where their daily meals will come from, cannot afford summer camp, return to respite care as foster children, worry for their safety, lack books in their home or a library within walking distance…these months away from the insulation of schools only raise anxiety instead of inducing relaxation.

These are the children who have started to cling. To worry. To whine. To act out. To cry. To argue. To resist. To build walls. To withdraw. They push away so the leaving doesn’t feel so hard. They fall apart because their million separate pieces feel safer at school than their whole, anywhere else.

Notice them now. Acknowledge them now. Help them with how to move on. Tell them that it may not feel like it, but summer will eventually come to an end. Show them that they will always be in your thoughts.

Send them into their summers with hope.
Love them now.

Spend your time now until the last day of school to
Read more aloud in class
Build summer TBR (to be read) lists
Check out classroom library books for students to take home and return next year
Teach families how to keep summer reading love burning
Talk about the value of a library card
Connect with your kids on Goodreads
Embark on literacy passion projects and studio time to pursue writing ideas
Give students the gift of their very own book (Scholastic Reading Club $1 books!)
Share your school or personal email so your kids can reach out over the summer
Decorate new Writer’s Notebooks: blank, fresh, and full of possibility
Build idea jars with writing prompts, thoughts, and inspirations to take home
Remind students that a good book can take them to
Mountains
Deserts
Canyons
Parks
Prairies
Oceans
And beyond, in their minds, in case they want to go somewhere, but need to stay here at home for the summer.

On the last day of school, they will leave your care, and know that they were, and are, loved.

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Oh, the Humanity!

Last week, I wrote a post that ended on a low note. A sad note. Some responded and said it was realistic. I think it’s all of this. I do want to take a moment to say that the most extreme examples given were hypotheticals, and fortunately not a reality I’m facing right now. But many of the other examples were real situations from my teaching career.

The notion that sometimes, we act in ways that, from the perspective of some students, appears to disenfranchise students. In ways that actually harms the community we try to build and protect.

I charged myself with writing a post about hope in these situations. Perhaps a post about moving forward.

I don’t know if this post will do that. But I will try.

This week, the President of the United States of America said, referring to undocumented immigrants (and likely specifically MS-13 gang members), “These aren’t people. These are animals.”

The internet, as the internet does, exploded. “He’s calling people animals!” “Are you really defending MS-13?” And what was lost in all the divisiveness was every aspect of humanity: ours, those we disagree with, and yes, the gang members being referred to.

But the truth of the matter is that every human being is a person. While there are reasonable disagreements over when personhood begins and when it ends, I think we can all agree that, at the very least, once a baby is born, they are a person until they are brain dead. There isn’t anything they can do to change that.

To repeat: there isn’t anything we can do to no longer be people.

But this isn’t a morality blog. It’s not a religious blog. It’s an education blog. But for me, those are all wrapped up in each other. Because what I know is that every single human being who comes into my classroom, my school, my community, is a person.

Even those who deny or repress the personhood of others.

That we are people is the thing that truly brings us all together. That is the essence of our communities.

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Photo by DrewMyers – Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License https://farm3.staticflickr.com/2286/2211382500_60061ce422_b.jpg

So. What does that mean when it comes to situations where student groups declare supremacy of race, gender, or sexuality? When students are actively oppressing other students?

It provides us the basis of the conversation. But the conversation cannot go “hey, Student A, you’re dehumanizing Student B, and I can’t allow that.” Ever been told you’re dehumanizing someone? I haven’t, but I can’t imagine it gets taken very well.

The conversations need to start with understanding. “No, I cannot let your group meet on school campus. Yes, I realize you’ll be talking to the administrators. Yes, I understand you want to hire a lawyer and you feel your free speech rights are being trampled upon. But what I really want to know is why you feel so passionately about this cause. Tell me what it means to you.”

Listen. Converse. Humanize the student with whom you disagree. Stand firm in your decision, but talk with them. It’s easy to protect your students from attacks. They’re our babies. But it’s also important to respect and treat as people our students doing the attacking. Because they’re our babies, too. And no matter what, they all have to learn. And all means all.

Now, as I said, these most extreme examples are hypotheticals. So let me make this real.

2016 US Presidential campaign. I had a group of students who would chant, in the middle of class, “Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!” It was easy for me to have them stop, because it was inappropriate to chant anything in the middle of Statistics class, let alone what had been used as a divisive, racist chant in schools elsewhere.

But I also talked with them. I wanted to know: why did they support Trump? What was the appeal? I wanted to know, but I also wanted to let them know that I hear them. I disagree, and there are things I won’t allow, but I hear them. I see them. I value them as people. So we talked. Mostly, I listened. The chants mostly stopped, and the learning continued.

After the election, a student tossed a word I’d rather not say here around in the hallway. A blend of a political leaning and a slur for someone with a cognitive impairment. The discipline was easy: that’s not an appropriate term to use, and it therefore had consequences. But I talked with the student. I let him know why I felt that term was not okay, and I asked him why he used it. What motivated it? I wanted him to know that I hear him (literally, in this case). There are things I won’t allow, but I hear him. I see him. I value him as a person. We talked. He apologized, and I didn’t hear him use the word again.

I could not do those things were it not for the community that I had spent time and effort building first. But humanizing those I disagree with and those I was disciplining also helped build the community.

So maybe that’s the trick. Maybe that’s the hope in all of this. If we remember we’re all people, we can heal and continue to move forward together.

Asterisk

2 weeks ago, I published a post about the importance of supporting all of our students as they engage in various levels of activism. My rallying cry of the post was that we support all our students, and that all means all.

But, as is often the case, there are exceptions. There are asterisks to catch-all phrases. This post is about that asterisk.

I stand by my words from the first post (I mean, they’re only 2 weeks old; humans change and evolve, but usually not that fast). But I think there’s something that needs addressing that may seem obvious to some, and may not to others.

I gave examples of supporting students regardless of the activist position they were taking. The examples I gave were perhaps loaded with emotion, but also were all of a certain type. The examples were for/against 2nd Amendment/gun owners’ rights and for/against the banning of books.

While there are certainly powerful responses to those topics, and a lot of passion involved, they all are opinions socially acceptable to hold (though certainly each carry their own set of consequences).

So let’s push the issue.

What opinions are no longer socially acceptable to hold? What opinions infringe upon the rights of others? When is holding a particular opinion actually harboring hate speech?

How do these examples fit in the “support the student regardless of their views” thought?

  • A student group opposing the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage
  • A student group supporting the NRA
  • A student group supporting the building of a wall along the US-Mexican border

Those are all political stances that exist in the US, but carry with them much more weight than the previous examples.

What about these?

  • A student group that declares homosexuality is an abomination and supports gay-to-straight conversion camps
  • A student group that declares the superiority of one race above another
  • A student group supporting Richard Spencer and the rallies he has organized

Do any of these push into the asterisk zone where you cannot support the student because of the opinions they hold?

I cannot answer that question for every individual teacher. But I do know that the last three bullet points would be an absolute deal-breaker for me.

I can be a teacher who supports a trusting community by supporting my students in their opposing views.

However.

I cannot be a teacher who supports students in actions that tear down the very fabric of that trusting community. I do draw a line. I do dwell in that asterisk. When a student supports a message of hate, I can no longer support that student, because hate has no place in a community.

Let me repeat: hate has no place in a community. And it doesn’t matter if the hatred is directed at members of the community or not. Directed hatred cannot be allowed to be a part of the communities we build in our schools.

Most countries have free speech laws. But many countries also have laws that limit that speech when it turns into hatred of others. And regardless of the level of those laws, we have an obligation to support our students and defend our students. When it comes to a point where I have to choose between supporting my students or defending my students against their peers, I will defend them.

And I will also let my students know why I cannot support them. Why I cannot give them space to meet. Why I cannot give them advice on how to get their message out. Why I cannot provide them with any assistance. Why I believe their message is one of hate, and why I believe that has no place in our schools.

Those will be incredibly hard conversations, and those students will likely lose all respect for me, as they very likely disagree. They will feel as though I have failed them. They will feel as though I am a hypocrite. The community will be damaged, and it will not be likely to recover.

I have to stop here. This post is getting too difficult to continue right now. The hardest thing I have encountered as a teacher is when I have been faced with a choice, and all options lead to a fractured classroom community. All options lead to fracturing the thing I value the most for my students. But sometimes, we are faced with just those sorts of choices. I am in tears thinking about it, and I must take time to recharge.

Next Saturday, I will attempt to have a post about hope in these situations, as well as what administrators can do to support their teachers who support their students.

Mission Seek and Uplift

Several weeks ago our superintendent challenged all departments and grade level teams to come up with a series of goals around the idea of creating a “generous and welcoming” school community. We were asked to create thirty and sixty day goals, and goals for next fall. The notes from my department included the phrase “Mission Seek and Uplift” under 60 Day Goals. Someone added “Can someone clarify this?” to our shared doc. I’m not sure what we meant we originally wrote this, but here’s what I added:

Between now and June 1, we will seek out and reconnect with students who are currently getting a D or an F in our classes and develop a plan with the student to raise the grade to at least a C by the end of the marking period. This will include the ability for students to show proficiency toward essential standards to earn credit. We will exercise grace and exempt failed or missing work from early in the semester if the student can demonstrate proficiency now. We will give full credit for makeup work during this period.

I once sat in a meeting where third grade teachers argued vehemently that their students should not get full credit on a spelling test unless they can pass it the first time. They taught itthe kids should have learned it. A fifth grade math teacher and I disagreed with them; students earned full credit even if it took them longer to master material or a new skill.

Each week I print a grade check for my advisory students and we have the same conversation about any low grades: “Have you talked to your teachers? Do you have the missing work? Can you retake the tests?” In my AVID class we also do weekly grade checks, and I suggest that students bring questions about the classes they’re struggling in to tutorial. With some students I offer to talk to the teacher, but for the most part the burden is on the student to figure out how to raise their grade.

But what if we, as teachers, took on that burden instead? Of course, many teachers already do this, but what if the mission of an entire department, or an entire school, was to seek out struggling students and help them succeed during these final weeks of the school year? Not because an administrator is hounding you about graduation, or because you don’t want to deal with that one awful parent, but because our students need our help.

We all have students who have given up. Maybe they’ve missed so many days that they don’t know how to rejoin. Maybe they fear students calling attention to their return. Maybe you’re the problem. Have you ever greeted a returning student with a sarcastic, “Hey, nice of you to join us?” Maybe that’s why they don’t want to come back.

It takes courage to ask for help when you’re struggling, courage to try to pass a class that you’re currently failing. It’s much easier to act like you don’t care.

What are you doing to seek and uplift your students who have given up?