Conference of Revolution

“Kids can change the world when they are given the chance.”

These are words from the keynote address of Olivia Van Ledtje, otherwise known as Livbits, that set my very first NCTE conference in motion. It was at this moment, that I knew I was in for something special.

The NCTE conference has always been an event I’ve wanted to attend. Thousands of educators from across the country come to this four-day conference to hear the best and the brightest authors and literacy experts. This year, I was finally one of those thousands. Ralph Fletcher, Donalyn Miller, Jennifer Serravallo, Kylene Beers & Bob Probst are just a few of the many “literacy gurus” that I was ecstatic to see and learn from.

However, I quickly learned that NCTE was much more than just literacy conference. For me, it was a call to arms. I arrived in Houston expecting to gain some strategies and best practices that I could take back to my classroom. Instead, I experienced, among the 7000+ attendees, a collective consciousness of equity, justice, and freedom. I entered NCTE ready for professional evolution. Now, I’m ready for revolution.

I find it virtually impossible to share all the lessons I learned and highlights from the weekend. Instead, I wanted to share some of the most profound moments that have changed my thoughts about my students and my classroom community.

Opening Keynotes
Friday morning began with a series of six youth speakers who shared their stories of how they started raising their voices. After Olivia Van Ledjte started us off with her message about “being for humanity,” we were introduced to Jordyn Zimmerman, a student at Ohio University who had previously been unable to express most of her thoughts verbally. Now, using an iPad, she described her schooling with this, “I was desperately tired of being silenced…Every student should be given a chance. Students should succeed by design, not chance.”

Next came, other youth such as Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Marley Dias, and Zephyrus Todd shared their voices that inspired me in so many ways. Yet, when Sara Abou Rashed stepped on stage to perform her poem I Am America, I was profoundly moved. This multilingual poet and author (and student at my alma mater, Denison University), took command of that room and took us to the depths of her soul.

“I am America, oh dear, America, I love you. Even at times when you do not love me…I am not ashamed of you. I am ashamed of what they have made you. America, they do not know you like I do.”

As she walked off stage to thunderous applause, I stood there wiping tears from my eyes completely transported.

I implore you to experience this yourself. You can find a performance here.

Why is Reading Is Important?
This is the question that Kylene Beers asked her fellow panelists Kwame Alexander, Pam Allyn, and Ernest Morrell. What seemed like a simple question turned into a rallying cry to save our democracy. Here are some highlights of the discussion:

Kwamé Alexander – “Reading is a connection with the source. We can access a part of our brain that allows us to imagine what’s possible. TV imagines it for us.”

Pam Allyn – “As a reader, I am changing, but the text itself is permanent. Text is permanence and transience. I can read myself into the world. Reading is about reading yourself into being.”

Ernest Morrell – “Reading provides access to worlds that are beyond your front door. We are lucky to have the texts we have, and reading the master authors…are like Beethoven in words. Reading is an expert describing the human condition.”

Kylene Beers – “If you’re watching something, or listening to an audiobook, what you’re reading is filtered through someone else. Literacy in this country has always been about power and privilege. The person who wrote the words has typically been empowered. Literacy has always been related to power. We are handing that power over to pundits on 1-2 TV stations. Letting them tell us how to think. Our democracy is now about what 4-5 people tell us to think. Reading for information is about saving our democracy.”

How can you listen to this conversation and not be forever changed? How can I not return to my classroom with a new sense of urgency and determination?

Schooling vs. Education
Saturday started off with another general session by Christopher Emdin, New York Times bestseller For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. . . and the Rest of Y’all Too and creator of #HipHopEd. His keynote challenged the audience to rethink and remix our jobs as educators. Christopher Edmin took the entire NCTE audience to church. Every single person in the room was locked into him. As for me, I can honestly say that it was one of the best performances I have ever seen.

Throughout his talk, he floored me with statements such as:

“Our students need to know that the only person better than them is embedded in them.”

“A curriculum that is devoid of the recognition of the genius already in your kids forces kids to perform miracles and resurrect themselves to be present every day. If you don’t recognize that there is genius in me, you will feed me a curriculum that will make me invisible. I will need to perform miracles just be relevant.”

“Be a teacher, not a curriculum follower. Teaching is all about the remix.”

“Our job as educators is to create the conditions to allow for the genius that lies within them to be able to become present.”

Throughout his talk, as my mouth hung agape, I kept thinking returning to this idea that the current construct of “school” and a “classroom” is getting in the way of true education. Emdin states that “our job as educators is to create the conditions to allow for the genius that lies within (our students) to be able to become present.” Is my classroom community getting in the way of the learning? Does our classroom allow my students to feel that they only person better than them is embedded in them?

The theme of this year’s NCTE conference was Raising Student Voice. Having a classroom community is not about rules and structure. Classroom community is about having those difficult conversations. It is about innovation. It is about a disruption of the way it’s always been done to ensure that learning is not impeded by the schooling.

Classroom community is about asking the question to our students: “Am I serving you the way you need to be served?”

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.”

 

Is it possible to have a Daily Connection Community?

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My first post was #pb10for10 list about Relationships.  Relationships foster, nurture, and hold together communities.  I recently read I Love My Purse by Belle DeMont and illustrated by Sonja Wimmer as a #classroombookaday selection.  I read it to foster differences.  I read it to break gender stereotypes.  I read it without realizing I would ponder this story for so much more after sharing it with students.

Maybe it was the multiple reads that let me think deeper about this story.  Maybe it was reading it slower in front of others.  Maybe it was searching for a nugget to share in this space that led me to more pondering.  I truly think it might be the message my student’s discovered about this book that I didn’t see with a quick read.

We and/or maybe just I often think about communities as groups of people I spend time with at some sort of interval.  I think about communities as a group that comes together for a cause, reason, or sliver of goodness.  I Love My Purse helped me see a community might be the same people you see every day on the path of your own day’s agenda.  Charlie begins his day with his dad, his friend Charlotte, Sam, a crossing guard, and Dad ends his day.  We might just call this Charlie’s daily connection community.

Each person questions Charlie’s purse wearing and each time Charlie answers, “Cause I want to.”  I love this response.  It’s truly all that is needed.  Eventually Charlie learns something about something each person wish they did and were hesitant to do.  Charlie takes his purse to school for another day and discovers his daily connection community is trying something small they’ve always wanted to do.  By Friday, his daily connection community is all on board with each of their wishes – embracing their hopes.

I think I pondered this book for longer than anticipated because it really shows how one person thinking for themselves can empower others to be brave and embrace their own wishes and individuality.  Charlie’s daily connection community has forever been changed.  I think what I discovered in my further pondering is how this story is about the unexpected community and how one person offers connection.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Sir Elton John on tour and on the last page of this story, Charlie is looking a little “Sir Elton John-ish.”  May we all experience some of these words from “Sir Elton John.”

There’s an extraordinary healing power of compassion and love between people.                Sir Elton John

The Danger of Comparisons

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About six weeks ago I kept thinking, What is wrong with my this class? As a group, we were consistently behind my other classes, we would interrupt each other in conversations, we weren’t getting work done, we kept making the same mistakes over and over again, we were not as joyful as my other classes.
I thought there were numerous possibilities for the causes of my concerns.

  • It is my largest class – 30 students.
  • There are 20 boys and 10 girls
  • There are 5 students on IEPs and another on a 504 plan.
  • There are some incredibly exuberant personalities juxtaposed with some of the quietest students I have ever worked with.
  • There are students who openly state their disdain for reading and writing.

I kept comparing this group to my other two classes. Why can’t they pull themselves together?
My other classes ‘get it’ and are typically engaged in the work we are doing. Weren’t last year’s groups were much closer-knit than this class?
Thoughts like these grew from a seed of concern to a thriving weed of dismay. What is wrong with these kids? I carried this incredibly negative thought for the better part of two weeks before I realized that the issue was not with the class, it was with me.
I fell into the trap that many of us do. I spent too much time comparing this group to others I have worked with over the years. Instead of enjoying the differences this class brings every day, I brought my negative thoughts about them into the classroom. We were in a self-fulfilling cycle of my lowered expectations. I expected them to not be able to function like my other classes, so when they didn’t function like my other classes they met my deficit-modeled expectations and I became more agitated.
I am not sure the exact moment that I finally realized for this one class that I was setting the tone of disappointment. But when I owned my behavior things began to change. Yes, this class still has moments where I wonder, what is going on? But, I am working hard not to compare them to my other classes or previous classes. I am working to accept the differences and changing how I act around them.
We are enjoying our time together more. We are learning more. We are communicating better. We are moving along a better path.
I wish I would have realized my problem sooner.

Happy Principals Month!

October is National Principals Month.  I can proudly say that I am a principal and absolutely love my job.   

I love that I get to have breakfast every morning with a couple of students to talk about how their year is going.

I love that I get to work with the most AMAZING teachers in the world.

I love that students leave me their artwork to decorate my office walls.

I love that I can change a teacher’s whole day just by bringing them a cup of Starbucks coffee or a Bayne’s cider donut.

I love that I can sneak into a classroom unnoticed and spend 20 minutes reading silently with a class of 5th graders.

I love that I get to see my kids every single day in school.

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I love that I can justify buying as many books as I want from our local bookstore because I know I am going to give them all away to students that will love them as much as I do.

I love that I have a network of principals that push me to be better each day.

I love that I can spend my lunch throwing 16 touchdown passes in one game of recess football.

I love that I have the power to discontinue Accelerated Reader and instead use the money to support classroom libraries.

I love that I get more compliments when I wear my Elephant and Piggie shirt than a suit and tie.

I love that I get to call my teachers parents and tell them how amazing their son/daughter is at teaching.

I love that I get to push teachers outside their comfort zone by nudging them to present with me at national conferences or write blog posts read by educators all over the world.

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I love that I can turn around a crying student’s day by asking them to help draw a book raffle ticket.

I love that I can call a parent at the end of the day to tell them something amazing their child did at school.  I even love the part when they cry because it’s the first time anyone has ever called home with something positive to say about their child.

I love that students slip me little bucket filler notes in the hallway.

I love that we don’t have staff cliques and everyone connected to the school genuinely cares about each other.

I love that my first principal still comes back to visit and see if he can do anything to help.

I love that I can be sitting at my desk and I can hear my secretary tell a telemarketer, “I am sorry, Mr. Bailey is out of the building right now.”

I love that students come down to my office to read me their stories they write during writer’s workshop.

I love the screams I hear up and down the hallways when the March Book Madness winners are announced each week during the tournament.

I love that I can watch teachers try new things, even if they fail spectacularly.  

I love that students aren’t scared to go to the principal’s office.  Instead they rush in with smiling faces to borrow a book from my principal’s bookshelf.

I love that I get to be an elementary school principal.

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Happy Principals Month to my fellow principals!

 

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).