I Am Thankful For You

Halfway through November, the leftover Halloween candy in the school office still tempted the staff as the realization set in that the holidays were approaching. Thoughts of report cards and running records, defrosting turkeys and holiday shopping ran through our minds simultaneously. Was it really time to plan for the last days of school before Thanksgiving break? How could it be? Didn’t the school year just begin?

Every morning, teachers hit the “go” button, jumping into the usual rush to
write the morning message
run one more copy
check out a library book
track down the tech guy
grade writing pieces
plug in the iPads
drop off papers with teammates
grab the mail
rehearse the day’s minilessons…
But on that Monday morning, our rush came to a stop.

That Monday morning, we arrived at school to learn that one of our middle school students had passed away over the weekend.

He had taken his own life.


Blank space. Because there are no words to adequately fill it.

We stopped. We listened to the news. We stood with our mouths agape, our eyes pooling with tears. He was a young man none of the elementary teachers knew, as he was new to the district this year. According to his mother, he had experienced bullying from a young age, but this loss was a shock to everyone.

As we absorbed the news and struggled to comprehend this horrific reality, there were only questions to fill the heavy silence.

How could this happen?
What will his teachers think?
How will his classmates handle the news?
What else could have been done?

That evening, on a group text with my third grade teammates, we asked each other those very questions. Desperately wanting to dissolve our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, we asked ourselves a new question:

What can we do now?

Like dry kindling to a newly lit fire, ideas began to spark, bouncing back and forth, until we had a plan. Our response. Our refusal to let this tragedy be unanswered.

Grand scale change always starts with a small act, a kind word, a good idea. “This is what kindness does…Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world,” the teacher in Jacqueline Woodson’s book Each Kindness tells her students. How many people have their day changed for the better by a smile, a compliment, a thoughtful word?

This got us thinking…how often our children are told to be grateful for things, yet how rare it is for them to hear that others, especially adults, are grateful for their existence.

Our big plan would be, in practice, a small gesture. A little kindness that we hoped would reverberate within each of our students, perhaps becoming infinitely meaningful to some. We wanted to let each of our children know that we are grateful for their existence.

The last day of school before Thanksgiving break, before the children arrived, my team printed out a template that read: “I am THANKFUL for you because…” and wrote a personal note to each of our students. We admired their talents, highlighted their unique personalities, and encouraged them to shine. Like secret kindness ninjas, we hung each note on their lockers and waited for the buses to arrive.

One by one, our 8 and 9 year olds strolled down the hallway, catching glimpses of the notes, and rushing down to their own lockers to see what treasure awaited them.

One by one, they discovered their notes, and stood reading, backpacks dangling from their arms. What followed were
smiles
blushed cheeks
curiosity
amazement
second and third reads
“Thank you Mrs. Werner!”
squeals
hugs
gratitude
ripples of kindness.

At the end of the day, each student carefully peeled his or her note off the locker and took it home with them. I figured some of the notes would be waved excitedly in parents’ faces at home, others silently cherished and saved, and others soon to be lost or forgotten. But what mattered most was that each child got to experience a moment reading words that let them know that we, their teachers, are grateful for each and every one of them.

*****

Back to work Monday morning after a restful break, I leapt into the usual rush once again. Checking my email, I noticed a parent had written one over our break. It read:

“Thank you for your kind words that you wrote on A’s locker. He showed me the note and we proudly displayed it on our fridge.”

In the rush of preparing for a full, busy week, I took a moment to stop and be grateful that my words had a ripple effect on this student. Thanksgiving may have passed, but it is never too late to tell your students directly and sincerely how thankful you are for them. You can never know how deeply that may affect them. It just might send ripples straight through their hearts.

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Can You Dab?

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“Can you dab?”

A fourth grade boy sitting twenty-some rows back from the front of the auditorium asks. Eyes sparkling, face beaming, perched on the edge of his seat, he waits.

“Can I dab?!” grins award-winning author Jason Reynolds, wearing a knowing expression that humorously reads ‘how-old-do-you-think-I-am?’

“Yeah! Can you dab?!” the young boy repeats.

Jason walks up the aisle, dragging the microphone cord, as middle school heads whip around to follow his every move. He is dressed head to toe in black, his dreads tumbling over each other. Reaching the boy’s row, Jason looks over to him. This fourth grade boy, now standing, is
enraptured
engaged
enthralled.

This fourth grade boy, who is black, gazes up at this adult black man who says:

“Yeah, I can dab.”

One heartbeat flutters. One breath exhales. One boy wonders…

He need not ask for proof. Jason bows his head into his elbow. He dabs. The crowd goes wild. Clapping. Smiling. Cheering. Dabbing back. It’s a response, a conversation, between 450 middle school students and a man who, through one seemingly simple question, let them know that they were
seen
heard
acknowledged.

* * * * *

For several months, I had been co-organizing an author visit to our school district with Jason Reynolds. We were lucky beyond measure to get the opportunity to host him. If you’re not familiar with Jason, visit his website, read his poetry, hear his story. His literary accolades and honors are stickered across the covers of his books for young people:
Coretta Scott King
National Book Award
NAACP Image Award
Kirkus Prize
Schneider Family Award

Jason’s good fortune as an author of children’s literature was a long time coming before it was finally realized. Way before the awards, the book tours, and the bestselling novels, there was his childhood in Washington, D.C. A childhood that drives him to create authentic characters, stories, and voices for his books, putting the “real” in realistic fiction. He stood in front of our students and told them stories, his true stories about
eating ramen noodles and generic peanut butter
dying hair with kool-aid
popping cassette tapes into Walkmans
playing basketball

And then there were stories that made us gasp, laugh, sigh…think.

He told them that he didn’t read until he was 18 years old. Our reading workshop trained, book loving kids were horrified. This was unthinkable. Why, they asked. WHY didn’t you read?! Because the only books that were available to kids like me were “classics” like Moby Dick…and I couldn’t relate, because there weren’t any whales living in my neighborhood, he explained.

He told them that one of the first cassette tapes he ever bought was a rap album by Queen Latifah, and it changed his life. The more he listened to her, the closer he grew to realizing that her words, her raps, were poetry. This epiphany began a daily practice of writing poetry, as he told himself, “I’m going to be Queen Latifah when I grow up!”

He told them that he moved to New York to pursue his writing dreams.

He told them that he was living in his car a handful of years ago.

He told them that he was working in a clothing store a couple of years ago.

He told them that through all of this, he was writing. Two pages a day. Squeezing in time to write in the edges of his days.

He told them that he was on the verge of giving up his writerly dreams, but was prompted to start writing stories and characters who
looked like him
talked like him
acted like him
lived like him

He wrote through a lens of “everyday diversity”, showcasing characters with authentic
voices
families
challenges
interests
stories,
creating books to read about black people outside the oeuvre of “boycotts, bondage, and basketball”, because “black kids do more than play basketball”, Jason told them. He knew children of all kinds needed to be able to hold up a book as a mirror and see themselves in it. And he was determined to tell those stories.

* * * * *

“Curry or Jordan?” another black student asks Jason, challenging him to name the greatest basketball player of all time.

“Ooooh, you’re asking me difficult questions,” Jason plays along.

After a long pause…

“Jordan.”

And the crowd goes wild.

* * * * *

While Jason was presenting, I was kid watching. Scanning the faces of our very diverse district, I saw one face after another light up, engage, and connect. That was when I realized the profound impact this author visit was having on our children.

When our student raised his hand to ask if Jason could dab, he wasn’t really asking “Can you dab?” He was wondering
Do you see me?
Do you hear me?
Do you know that I have stories, too?

And Jason, a man who mirrors him in many ways, wordlessly responded, in one gesture
I see you.
I hear you.
I am writing my stories for you.
(Jason Reynolds is the author of When I Was The Greatest, The Boy in The Black Suit, All American Boys, As Brave As You, The Track Series (Ghost, Patina), Miles Morales: Spider-Man, and forthcoming Long Way Down.)

Confronting Anti-Semitism

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We need to talk about anti-Semitism.

We need to talk about how Nazis, swastikas, and outstretched “heil” arms are direct embodiments and symbols of Jewish genocide.

We need to talk about the history of oppression, racism, marginalization, and degradation of Jews in the United States of America.

We need to talk about our lack of awareness and understanding of Jewish-American identity, and how the white privilege many American Jews experience today is a recent phenomenon, only two generations thin.

And right now, we need to talk about how the dialogue in response to the events in Charlottesville has, so far, minimally included discussions of Jews and the blatant anti-Semitism that was on display this past weekend. Talking about Nazis without acknowledging Jewish suffering is forgetting, and possibly condemning us to repeat, history. As Jews, we are aware, more than ever, that modern day Nazis will readily use us as a scapegoat for their dangerous agenda again.

Many Americans have been lulled into a comfortable complacency, a false sense of security, believing an atrocity like the Holocaust could “never happen again”. There exists a feeling that anti-Semitism is something that happened “back then” and “over there”. We’ve been looking beyond our fences for long enough now, that we have forgotten to see the evil that has not been fully eradicated from our own backyards. When conditions are favorable, the long-ago planted seed of anti-Semitism germinates and burgeons, radiating toxic hatred, one swastika, one salute, at a time.

Never in my life did I imagine I would have to legitimately fear for my safety because I am Jewish. Growing up in an interfaith household, my sisters and I were raised Jewish. I attended Sunday School and Hebrew School, had a Bat Mitzvah, was consecrated and confirmed, participated in the synagogue youth choir and the B’nai Brith Youth Organization, and attended Jewish summer camps. My public school teachers always happily obliged my mother when she asked for permission for me to share with my class about Chanukah as the winter holidays approached. The day I brought in a picture book about the holiday, our family menorah, dreidels, and gelt (chocolate coins) to share with my classmates was special, a source of pride for our unique culture. Never did I feel fearful because I was Jewish. Never. Until now.

My own direct experiences with anti-Semitism are rare and isolated incidents. I was once told by someone I considered to be a friend that I was going to hell, since I had not accepted Jesus as my savior. He had the gall to say “No offense, it’s just a fact”. I have wrestled with my Jewish identity my whole life, asking myself questions about faith and practice. Do Jews have to believe in God? Is Judaism a religion or a culture…or both? Am I Jewish enough?

As American Jews, many of us walk precarious lines of identity. We are our own individual melting pots of overlapping identities, Venn diagrams with multiple points of intersection, assimilation, and cultural preservation. Unlike identities more easily observed externally, Judaism can be invisible. A yarmulke adorning a head or a Star of David dangling from a necklace can make our identity visible. The reason that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jew may have survived the Holocaust, is also what allows many American Jews to assimilate with white America, post-World War II. Invisible identity is both the reason for our survival and the cause of our assimilation. Judaism can blend into the background, slide behind other identities. It can even become so transparent that we are erased from the story.

Last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, a crowd of white supremacists, armed with guns and torches marched onto the University of Virginia’s campus. The hate-filled rally encouraged hurt and harm of non-white people. The Confederate flag that people carried is a symbol of enslavement and oppression, our shameful history and the racism we have not yet resolved. Keep talking about this. Acting on this. Be unrelenting.

But please turn around and look. The target of a Nazi organization is the Jewish people. And we are standing right here, desperately needing your alliance and support. We need you to see us. We need your awareness. We need you to embrace us in your defenses and discussions. We need you to cry out against hate, consciously denouncing anti-Semitism, as you rebuke other forms of racism and bigotry. We need you to include us in every resource you share and conversation you have. We need you. Now. Amplify our voices, undertake our plight, too. We are notably underrepresented in the narrative of the Charlottesville Nazi rally. We have been interjecting, waving our arms wildly, trying to insert ourselves back into the story. We are asking you to see the hate as anti-Semitism, name the hate as anti-Semitism, and fight the anti-Semitic hate.

Here we are in 2017, witnessing white men and women, red-faced with hatred, waving swastika flags and flaming torches, punching the oxygen out of my lungs with each extended arm, heiling Hitler and Trump. Every chant of “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” marches us one step closer to the history most of mankind has vowed never to repeat. There is a history of oppression and otherness stretching back through our entire existence, to the very first moment someone drew a line, pointed, and said “you are not us”. Right now, you have the ability to interrupt that history. Step over that line. Stand with us. And vow, “you are safe with us”.

Teachers and parents, take a look at all the resources you’ve collected, articles you’ve saved, and links you’ve shared over the past few days. Check the hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum. Check the crowd-sourced Google docs. Analyze each one and ask yourself: Does this resource acknowledge the anti-Semitism of the Charlottesville rally? Does this resource help me and my children/students learn more about anti-Semitism and how to combat it? If the resource discusses Nazis without acknowledging Jews, it has missed the mark. It is erasure, whether purposeful in its omission or not.

Now that we know better, let’s do better. Here are some resources to learn and teach about anti-Semitism, and articles that address the anti-Semitism witnessed in Charlottesville.

Resources:
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Global Jewish Advocacy
Anti-Defamation League
Teaching Tolerance
Yad Vashem

Southern Poverty Law Center

Facing History
USC Shoah Foundation

Anti-Racist Resources (Crowd-sourced Google doc)

Articles:
”We Need To Talk About The Anti-Semitism At The Charlottesville Protest” (Refinery29)
”Why the Charlottesville Marchers Were Obsessed With Jews” (The Atlantic)
”What Jewish Children Learned From Charlottesville” (New York Times)
”In Charlottesville, the Local Jewish Community Presses On” (Reform Judaism)
”State Department’s Anti-Semitism Office Will Soon Have No Staff” (Huffington Post)
VICE News Documentary Charlottesville (VICE HBO – film)
”Not In Our Town” (Facing History)
”Hate in America” (Slate)

The United States has a stormy past in regard to American Jews, but we now have the knowledge to say “we have seen this before”. We have the power to make good on our promise of “never again”. We have the ability to cultivate only peace and love in our backyards to drown out the howls of hate. I am hopeful. The conditions are favorable. One teacher, one student, one voice, at a time.

The Elephant in the Room

On Friday night, hundreds of American white supremacists had a rally in Charlottesville, VA. In the violent aftermath, dozens of people were injured, and three people died, at least one of whom was a victim of this racially-motivated domestic terrorism. On top of that, people around the world were reminded that racism is alive and well in the United States.

Every single person in that latter group looks just like those who put on the rally.

White people, such as myself, have the unique ability to forget that there are those who wish we didn’t exist. I have been reminded time and time again by people of color that they do not have that luxury.

But right now, it is on all of our minds.

Including the minds of our students.

What do we do? How do we help the next generation be better than our current generation? How do we help make sure the next generation lives long enough to actually become the next generation, and not the last generation?

What I know is that I don’t know.

I’m not going to claim to have the answers. But I have some ideas and some resources that I think can help.

But to begin with, we must shed the notion that our classrooms — our communities of learners — are not able to handle this sort of discussion. Again, for those of us who are white, we are at times able to ignore this, even when it is shoved in our faces. The same is true of our white students. But we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to all our students — regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity — if we make the choice to ignore this or pretend that it is not important to our students. They’re all thinking about it. Our silence on the matter would speak louder than anything else we could say.

This is their world. This is the world they are going to need to make better. It is our job to help them do so. So we need to do some work.

Be properly informed.

Students will be looking to their teachers as thought leaders and will often take their word as bond. So if you start spreading misinformation to your students, that will do one of two things: 1) cause them to lose faith in you, or, more likely, 2) cause them to believe and perpetuate the falsehoods you accidentally proclaimed. Do your research on the events before you share about them.

For this particular act of hate, I have found this resource to be fairly reliable. It appears to have a slight bias, but does not in any way alter the facts that are presented: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/08/state-of-emergency-in-va-after-white-nationalist-rally.html

Survey your own biases in the classroom.

Pay attention to the way you are teaching your students. Are you consistent in your demeanor to all students? Do you have different expectations for different students? Probably. Many of us do, and often times, it’s for a good reason: different students are at different levels, and may need different expectations.

But what about when it’s not a good reason? What if you have higher expectations of the boys in your room than you do of the girls? What if you are short-tempered more often with students who are of a different race than you are?

Obviously that’s a problem in terms of fostering a positive learning environment, but what about the unintended lessons that teaches our students? If you are a white teacher and you are quicker to discipline your black students, what is that really doing? The message to the black students is that they are more likely to be discipline problems, based on their race. The message to their white classmates is the same one.

Imagine you make that mistake often. Imagine it happens for our students year after year after year. Hopefully the students being taught they are less than have other sources in their life that remind them that no, they are just as worthy of respect and have the same level of dignity as anyone else.

But what about the majority students? If they receive the message from school that their minority classmates are less than they are simply because of their race, religion, ethnicity, etc., what happens if they don’t receive a message that says the opposite? Who do they become?

“They sat in our classrooms. Let’s do better.”

The full quote to the above is from LaNehsa Tabb, @apron_education on Instagram. Here’s the full post:

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A lot of teachers like to talk about how teaching is the profession that trains all others. Well, if we’re going to take credit for doctors and artists and lawyers, we also need to take credit for our white supremacists. Many of us back down from these conversations, as we are not the parents of our students. That doesn’t mean we can’t provide a model that is perhaps drastically different than what they see at home. Yes, if you speak up against white nationalist viewpoints or Trump’s rhetoric, you might get some phone calls from parents angry about you bringing your politics into the classroom. You might cause some of your students to lose faith in you. You might lose your job.

You might also get a call 15 years down the road from a former student thanking you for showing them there was a different way to be an adult. You might have a student stick back at the end of the day to tell you they are glad someone said something. You might have a student choose to speak up against racism when they see it. You might cause a student to second-guess a rally they were going to attend. You might cause there to be one less white supremacist in the world. And, as many teachers know, if you know for sure that one person was impacted by your teaching, there are probably dozens you don’t know of.

Be mindful in your curriculum choices.

Keeping in mind what LaNesha Tabb mentioned in her post, we need to consider the future of our students when we decide what to teach them. We know that diversity breeds empathy (see here, here, and here). What are we doing to bring that to our students? What actions can we take? I reached out to Kathy Burnette (@thebrainlair on Twitter), and she had some wise words:

It is hard to put into words actions we should take because I’m sidetracked by my own alternating feelings of of rage, sadness, and despair. Trying to work my way back to hope. But it’s very difficult right now. As a book nerd, I believe that books, and the way we use them, can provide us some of this hope. But what we have to do is move the literature conversation forward. When we are posting our book lists, deciding what we are reading to our classes, picking books to share with other teachers – take a few minutes. Check that book. What kind of message does this book send? Have I sent that same message to this group before? Is this a book that’s written about people of color but not by people of color? Is this “social justice” book only looking at Jackie Robinson or Rosa Parks?

How are we using books to advance humanity? Are people of color shown as, well, people? Is it like When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon where the main characters are two teenagers who are funny and passionate but happen to be Indian. Or The Sun is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon where Natasha and Daniel meet and Daniel is sure he can convince Nicole to fall in love with him and the main characters happen to be Korean and Jamaican? Is it about twin brothers who go to school and play basketball but aren’t in jail or do drugs? We need to make sure we are sharing stories where people of color are living everyday lives. That’s what should be “normalized”.

Consider that. As teachers, we can help prevent future racists from existing simply by making smart choices in the stories we share with our students.

“If our shelves are diverse but our lives are not, we have missed the mark.” — Chad Everett

I think that speaks for itself. See Chad’s full Nerd Talk text here.

Read Lynsey Burkins’ post on this blog.

Then go read it again.

Own your own racism.

Our students suffer from an epidemic of adults in their life being portrayed as perfect. Their teachers make no mistakes. What they say is always correct.

I will probably write an entire post just about the need to apologize to our students, but let me give you a preview here. And it has to do with owning your flaws.

I am not perfect, though my students sometimes see me as such (and other times, I leave them no doubt that I am not). But I am not and never am. This includes my views on race.

There are parts of me that are racist. Parts of me that act as a white supremacist.

It may seem that I am one of the “good guys” because if I were in Charlottesville this weekend, I would have been protesting the rally, not being a part of it. But do I racially profile? Per above, do I discipline my students differently based on race? Do I assume my good intentions are all I need?

Sometimes, yes. And more.

I have seen this image bouncing around social media for a few months now. I can’t find an original source, but it’s important for us to look at again:

Here’s the thing. If I pretend that I am perfect in terms of my views on race because I don’t do the top of the triangle, it does harm to the students in my care. It does harm because it means that the stuff I do in the bottom part of the triangle is acceptable.

And it’s not.

It’s important that I own my failings, and do so in front of my students when appropriate. If you are having conversations with your students about racism, it’s okay to talk about your own failings. In fact, it’s vital. Many of your students will have the same flaws and failings.

It’s not okay to be racist. But it’s also not okay to pretend that you’re not. The best thing to do is acknowledge your shortcomings, and publicly talk about how you’re working to be better on it. This gives the students in your classroom permission to do the same. To say that they are working on being a better human being, because they’re not perfect.

Check your feelings.

Your students’ feelings are important, because they are developing the capacity to understand them and act on them. Your feelings are much less important. You’re an adult and can find healthy outlets that don’t sacrifice what your students need.

If we wait until the next major hate crime to talk about it with our students, we are complicit in fostering the attitudes that led to that crime. If someone comes through our classroom and we made a choice to NOT talk about the obvious evil that is in our world, and they go on to continue that evil in the world, we deserve part of the blame for their actions.

The community at stake here is more than just your classroom.

That being said, it starts in your classroom. Yes, we’re talking about the world at large, but right now, you have the students in front of you. Be the teacher they need. Don’t brush aside tough conversations because they’re tough. Have them for precisely that reason.

Let’s build a future of empathetic, free-thinking leaders. Ones that recognize white supremacy and similar ideologies as the evil they are. And let’s start that work now.

Final thoughts

Jen Vincent, who tweets at @mentortexts and was a leading voice on this topic at Nerd Camp Michigan along with Kathy Burnette and Chad Everett, offers her closing remarks.

After the act of terrorism in Charlottesville this weekend, you might have seen the hashtag #thisisnotus on Twitter. I think the sentiment intended is that we, as a country, as people, as citizens, can do better. This should not be us. I wish it wasn’t us. But it is. As much as we need to move forward and do better. Better at being informed, at speaking up, at discussing social justice with our students, we also need to understand how we got here. I implore you, if you have not seen the documentary 13th from Ava DuVernay, go watch it before you do anything else.

Before watching 13th, I knew how deeply seated racism was in America but I didn’t realize how people and their specific actions have overtly contributed to the pervasiveness of racism across our country. Truly, across our country. Here is a map from Southern Poverty Law Center that shows hate groups currently in the United States.

It is important that we check our biases, that we are well informed, that we have discussions with our students. Yes to all of this. But we also need to take time to know how we got here so we can make connections between the past and now. If we don’t understand the scope of institutional racism, I fear we will continue to stay in denial and claim that this is not us, when clearly it is and it has been for a very long time.

Additional resources:

A Google Doc of teaching resources
#CharlottesvilleCurriculum on Twitter
Teaching Tolerance has a wide range of resources
NPR has a compiled a list of resources
The Early Childhood Education Assembly of NCTE has two resources that may be helpful: here and here.