Vulnerable but Invincible

Way back on August 22, educator Steve Kukic spoke to our faculty during our August Professional Development. I have a few pages of notes from his day with us, but one particular set of information has guided my thinking about my work with students these last few weeks. (I’m basing this on my own incomplete notes, so any mistakes are mine.)

Quoting from the study Vulnerable But Invincible: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood, Kukic cited three factors for the resilient kids who succeeded despite the roadblocks in their way:

1. High expectations from home, school, or community,

2. Future orientation (not focused on past or now), and

3. “Unconditional positive regard” from an adult.

2017-09-12 09.53.48
Sophomore reading with kindergartner.

Reading conferences are often tough during the first few weeks of school, especially with students who are new-to-you. You feel like you’ve recommended the same book twenty times. A new English teacher lamented the number of times she’s asked “What’s your favorite movie or video game?” when students say “I don’t read” when she’s helping them find books.

When this has happened to me this year, especially with juniors and seniors, I’ve asked what they want to do after high school. A counselor I worked with used to mention how surprised she was that no one ever asked students what they want to do after high school. Many students have tough and even horrible pasts and presents, pasts and presents that are utterly beyond their control. The future, however, can be within their control, and we can help them with that.

This year, a student told me he might want to join the military, and when I asked him what he would want to do there, he said he didn’t know. He thought that flying sounded cool after I listed all the things that one could do in the military. Since my brother is a pilot, I then told him every possible thing that I know about learning to fly airplanes. Did my student run out and sign up for flying lessons? Of course not. Does he now realize that flying is actually something that ordinary people can do? That he can sign up and take lessons and learn to fly before he graduates from high school? He knows all that now. The more interest we show in our students’ futures, the more likely they are to turn their focus in that direction.

I’m still thinking about how high expectations play out in my classroom. I don’t think it means academic rigor, or strict expectations for classroom behavior, or inflexible grading policies. High expectations isn’t “We all must read William Faulkner together” when 40% of the class is still working on decoding and academic language.

I think that when it comes to high expectations, what we really need to communicate to students is a high level of belief. It is not that I expect you to read at this level; instead, I believe that you can read at this level. I believe that you can write this narrative. I believe that you can pass Algebra.

I believe in you.

In a meeting this year, someone said “But he can’t—” and one of our instructional leaders interrupted with “He can’t yet.” An English colleague repeated it later, and I remind myself to remember the power of yet. He can’t read that yet. She can’t do that yet. But I believe that my students will do it. It’s not that he can’t read single and double consonant words, it’s that he can’t read them yet. Even better: “He is working on single and double consonant words.” You can learn to do this, I say to my students, and I know that it is true.

And, of course, we work to practice unconditional positive regard every day. On this blog a few weeks ago, Angie Huesgen wrote “Be damn nice to kids. All of them. Every single day.” This isn’t as obvious as you think. “Don’t smile until Christmas,” people say. “You’ve got to be tough, make them respect you,” others might add.

But I agree with Angie. Be nice, damn nice, every day. Even to the mean kids and the kids who ignore you. You might say hi twenty times before students respond, but they do notice when you say hi.

At my school the secondary teachers supervise buses loading while our elementary colleagues walk the little ones to their buses. A lot of the time this means walking around while students work hard to talk to anyone but a teacher. I know from personal experience that walking around saying “Get on your bus, get on you bus” does not work. So last year I started saying “See you tomorrow” if I didn’t know a student. If I knew their name, I said “Good-bye” and their name and that I would see them tomorrow. That works better.

We then stand by our stadium and wave at the buses as they pull out, all twenty-four of them. The little kids wave and shout good-bye, smiles huge. The high schoolers ignore us, and sometimes they even give us a school-inappropriate finger.

But they know we’re there.

And they know that we’ll be there tomorrow.

2016-11-08 15.45.16
(Yes, that is our view. When it isn’t raining.)

Confronting Anti-Semitism

IMG_0046

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.

Bigger, Stronger, Wiser, and Kind

I didn’t know very much about trauma-informed practices until I started at my current school. While I’d taught in both public and private schools, I’d spent most of that time in a school filled with very fortunate children and their families. While trauma can (and does) exist in all communities, it’s far more prevalent in some than in others. Many of my current students, unfortunately, have experienced a great deal of trauma, and since I now teach in a tribal school, the intergenerational trauma is also in their very DNA.

At the start of last year, I handed out index cards so students could ask questions about me. It’s a pretty typical get-to-know-you sponge activity for the end of a class period (“What is your favorite ice cream flavor?” “Do you like the Seahawks?”). This time, though, I was asked a new question.

“How long are you staying?” many wrote.

“When are you leaving?” one student continued to ask as fall turned into winter.

“Are you coming back next year?” an advisee asked for the fifth or sixth time during the last week of school.

My students didn’t think that I would stay because a lot of teachers hadn’t stayed in the past. So I told them, every time they asked, that I would stay, at the very least, for the entire school year. When things got hard, and they did, I reminded myself that I would not be one more person who left these kids. Later, when they started asking if I was coming back the following year, I told them that I wasn’t looking anywhere else, and that I would come back if it was within my power. I told my 9th grade advisees that I wasn’t going anywhere until they graduated (“and everyone is graduating!” I added).

I did my best to miss as few days as possible. When I went to visit another school to see our then future curriculum in action, I told them where I was going, and yet some were still suspicious that I was visiting another school. “Where were you?” they asked accusingly when I had jury duty and later missed a day for a family gathering to honor my grandmother, even though I’d announced it weeks in advance. I took to posting my weekly schedule of meetings and other commitments on my door so that students would know why I was late opening the classroom or why I couldn’t meet with them after school.

To earn our students’ trust and build relationships with them, we have to be present. The most important thing that we can do is to show up every single day. Obviously this isn’t always possible; new teachers will be especially susceptible to every single germ that walks in the door. A few pieces of advice: Get your own stapler and keep it separate from student supplies. Invest in hand sanitizer. Wash your hands a lot.

One winter when I still lived in Chicago, the flu was so bad in my building that I sprayed down my classroom and all the lockers and door handles with Lysol almost every day. People complained about the smell, but eventually we had to close down the entire school for a day because so many teachers were out. I never got sick. Now, my recommendation is to get as much sleep as possible and take a double dose of Emergen-C daily, especially if you’re a new teacher. Super Orange mixed with Tropical is my favorite. (Seriously, every day.)

Some people call this self care, and it is. But students who have been exposed to trauma need consistent, caring adults in their classrooms, and we can’t be that if we’re sick and tired, and we definitely can’t do that if we aren’t there. Students might not understand why you hand them a new pencil instead of sharing yours, but they will notice when you come to school every day.

Thanks for staying
A sophomore wrote this in my yearbook last year.

In the introduction to Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, Kristin Souers writes that strategies are “a reminder that as the adults, we should, to use a quote from the Circle of Security project (Marvin, Cooper, Hoffman, & Powell, 2002), be “bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.” (3). Even as I set the book aside for a few weeks, those four words continued to run through my mind.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

We’re asked to be a lot of things to our students. We’re teacher, coach, mentor, friend, taskmaster, fashion consultant, alarm clock. We provide lessons, books, supplies, lunches, snacks, band-aids (so many band-aids!), tissues, bathroom passes. We teach students to read, to write, to think, to calculate, to measure, to dance, to sing, to trust. It can be overwhelming, especially when you’re also trying to be the safe, trustworthy adult that Souers is writing about.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

Teaching students suffering from the effects of trauma isn’t easy work. Many students don’t enter the classroom ready to learn; my students don’t do compliant. It can be a struggle every day, and it’s discouraging when students push back at every opportunity.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

I’m excited for school to start in two weeks; I wouldn’t want to do any other job, and I wouldn’t want to be teaching anywhere else, but I don’t fool myself that the second year will be easy. My new 9th graders, especially, will surely want to test their new teacher.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

These are the words that I’ll use to guide my work this year. This is how I’ll build relationships with a new group of students. Every day, I’ll strive to be bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

Building a Trauma-Sensitive Learning Environment

I struggled with how to introduce this list without telling stories that aren’t mine to tell. Last September I asked the new principal of a local high-needs school about her new job. She said it was “good work.” I used that phrase whenever someone would ask about my new job. “It’s good work,” I would answer. How to explain that in a blog post?

I finally realized that it doesn’t matter if your school is high-needs or not. As Kristin Souers writes in Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, “Because the statistics are so overwhelming, I encourage you to view every student as though he or she has experienced trauma or is exposed to chronic stress” (2). Here’s my incomplete list of how to begin to build what Souers calls a “trauma-sensitive learning environment.”

1. See students as more than their story.

In Fostering Resilient Learners, Souers writes that we should focus on the effect that events have on our students rather than on the details of the events themselves. This shift in focus encourages us to “see students as more than their story” (16).

What does it mean to see our students as more than their story? Aren’t we building relationships? Isn’t it important that every single student in a school be known?

Yes, we’re building relationships, and yes, it’s essential that every student in a school be known, but we don’t have to know every detail to teach the student. Nor does the student have to reveal all of her or his life story to every single teacher. While a student’s story is important, it can also be shorthand for a set of assumptions that might or might not be true for that student.

It is helpful, for example, to know that a student suffers from crippling anxiety, or needs kind words, or doesn’t get support outside of school. In some cases, I am the teacher who knows the story, the one the student confides in. Just as often I’m not, and that’s okay too, because the changes I make for the crippling anxiety or the need for kind words or the support someone isn’t getting at home? Those are changes that benefit all my students, whether I know their story or not.

As much as we believe otherwise, the more we tell the story, the less we see the student. My students are more than their ACEs.

2. If they can, they will.

Many of us, as Souers writes in Fostering Resilient Learners, “associate behavior with choice” (32). If you only read one more book between now and the start of your school year, it should be Ross Greene’s Lost at School. Greene writes that behavior is a matter of lagging skills and unsolved problems rather than a decision by a student to misbehave. For me, the key change is to think about challenging behaviors as a problem to be solved rather than a choice that a student has made. If they can, they will.

When we see challenging behavior as a problem to be solved rather than a choice made by a student, it completely changes our relationship as teacher and student. Imagine that a student walks out of my class without permission every day. If I view this exit as a choice that the student is making, then the solution is obvious: the student needs to stay in class. On the other hand, if I view this exit as the demonstration of a lagging skill, a sign that my student is facing a problem that he or she lacks the skill to solve, then the situation is very different. I still want my student to stay in class, but if I remember, as Greene repeats, that “Kids do well if they can,” then I’m more likely to work with my student to identify the problem and master the lagging skill. (I’m only touching briefly on the content of Greene’s book. You can learn more about his work with Collaborative and Proactive Solutions here.)

3. Every student, every day.

File Jul 21

Sometimes, simple is better. When we returned to school after break in January, I set a simple focus for myself each day. Greet every student by name. Look and see their faces. Ask questions. A few weeks later, I wrote Connect in my planner on a Monday and Connect again on a Tuesday. At the very end of the school year, one of our instructional leaders tasked us to meet with every single reader before the year ended. It seemed an impossible task, but I met with as many students as I could. Tell me about the book you’re reading. What are your plans for next year? What do you want to do after high school?

I know we can’t confer with every student every day, but how many students do we stop and talk to each day? Do we take a minute to really see every student in front of us, or do we simply launch into our lesson after a cursory glance so that we can take attendance? I know that I can look without seeing, especially after I’ve taught a few periods in a row. I know that I need to stop, breathe, observe, connect. I might not get to everyone, but the goal remains the same.

Every student, every day.