Crashing through Comfort Zones: Trusting in the Unknown and Rallying Relationships

paint

Yesterday got me.  A husband out of town.  A week full of back-to-school presentations. Two kids resisting the alarm clock daily and coming home exhausted each evening.  I had very few thoughts yesterday, and even fewer words prepared to articulate them.  So, today you get a double dose which actually works out perfectly because these two topics are so closely related.

Trusting in the unknown is cliche, I know.  We see it all over the digital landscape through memes and inspirational Pinterest boards.  This is not the “trusting in the unknown” that I’m referencing.  Not really, anyway.    Trusting in the unknown often refers to situations; going to try something new that you’ve never done before.   What I’m referring to is self.  Trusting in yourself to not know, and being vulnerable enough to admit it to others.

Margaret Wheatley says it best in her remarkably honest text, Turning To One Another:

“We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time.  We weren’t trained to admit we don’t know.  Most of us were taught to sound certain and confident, to state our opinion as if it were true.  We haven’t been rewarded for being confused. Or for asking more questions rather than giving quick answers.  But the world now is quite perplexing.  We live in a complex world, we often don’t know what’s going on, and we won’t be able to understand its complexity unless we spend more time in not knowing.”

In a time where I find myself feeling like I need to be everyone’s everything, it was an incredibly revealing experience to say to others, “I don’t know.  I need you.  I need you to be my something this time–my guidance, my mentor, my answer to this question, my eyes that haven’t looked this direction before.”  I had to get comfortable saying, “I know I’m supposed to be leading you, but to do that well I need you to lead me. I need you.”  In doing so, two-way dialogue reached new depths and my listening skills sharpened.  More importantly, unlikely relationships formed.  Everyone has a skill set, assets, they feel strongly about.  Many times we are too busy to notice them.  When you stop someone and tell them you are in need of what they can offer, a seed sprouts.  An incredibly profound seed.

Often times as leaders we feel we have to have all the answers.  People look to us for that, and expect it.  What also has to be recognized is that no one person has all the solutions, nor is there a single one to to varying situations we face.  They are complex, layered, and confusing.  They are not simply resolved.  We are always going to be faced with limited time.  But we don’t have to always present ourselves as satisfied to quick, easy answers that don’t truly satisfy us.  Doing so perpetuates passiveness and honors nothing beyond the surface.

I went in to my summer school role as a blank canvas, allowing myself to be newly fashioned.  I let people see beyond my exterior.  What I would become was unknown. Each day,  I was built up and created in new ways.  New strokes were added, and bold colors scattered. Those who held the paintbrushes have forever left their mark.

Thank you.

 

 

Stories: The Untold Data

if-a-story-is-not-about-the-hearer

Today, as educators, we embark on testing season.  For the next 3-4 weeks, daily schedules will implode and the educational routines students have found comfort in during the last 7 months will cease to exist to make room for The Almighty Test.  Likewise, your social media feeds will be inundated with articles and viewpoints regarding the ridiculousness of this practice.  I likely agree with all of those.  It’s barbaric.  It’s asinine.  It’s centered on governmental power to control where state and federal education dollars get funneled.  It’s dehumanizing.  So, this post is not going to be about that.

It’s going to be about changing it.

This is our world, educational and otherwise, right now:

world of numbers

Separate.  Apart.  Number-driven.  Everything is a number– A price, a time, a year.  We want the hottest gadget, now and on sale.   Everyone is a number–literally, by way of social security, but also a birth date, a weight.  You’re too old.  You’re too young.  You’re overweight.  You’re too skinny.  That thigh gap you’ve worked for?  You’ve gone too far.

You’ll never be the right number.  Whatever “right” is.

And our students feel this, too.  They become scores associated with labels that, if allowed, become ingrained in who they believe they are as learners.  This is where action must come in.  It does not matter if your score is high or low or right in the middle.  We cannot allow numbers to dominate a student identity.  Because  numbers and labels can never define us, but our stories do.

Since, I do not have the answers to breaking down entire political systems driven by money and power, I have to go a different route.  I have to think about how to bring stories into the numbers to humanize the data.  I have read Steibeck’s quote, and think,

If this is my ideal world–one connected through stories (real data), how do I bring that into my smaller, educational world?  Who is the hearer?  How can I make my students’ stories matter so it lasts beyond today and this meeting?  How can I make my student’s story about everyone?

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  1. Know the stories!                                                                                                                   This one seems obvious, right?  But it is the most important, thus worth the moment to pause and reflect.  Who am I about to be in a room with to talk about this student or group of students?  What’s their story?  How can I connect them with my students and the experience I want to provide to propel them forward?  In my last post I spoke to the power of listening.  Have you done that?  If not, that’s the first step.  We have to connect the people in the room!
  2. Bring your students to the meeting!                                                                                    Hear me out on this one before you roll your eyes or skip over it entirely! I always spent the first part of the year taking pictures of my students as they worked in the classroom.  This helped me get to know them as learners.  As we set up Writer’s Workshop notebooks, students would share (or not share) stories about their families.  They would decorate their notebooks with what mattered to them.  It was always telling if families were or were not present on those.  Then, in  meetings about those students I’d bring a few of those pictures.  If only to set them in the middle of the table to make sure they, too, were present in the meeting about them.  It also told the adults in the room that our charge is to not forget the student–who they are as learners and people, and what their life is outside of school.  What matters to them?  We must know the kid to develop a workable plan.  When they are looking back at you, it’s a much easier thing to do.
  3. Let stories lead, not excuse!                                                                                 Sometimes sharing stories leads to conversations laden with excuses about why students can’t or don’t do x or y. “They’re lazy” or “Their home life is horrible.” If this happens, we’ve missed the mark.  Stories should empower.  They should allow us to see people for all they are, not are not.  Knowing stories should develop empathy, not excuses.  Circumstances, just like labels, cannot define our students. The purpose of knowing circumstances is to provide insight into understanding each other.  And from there, to honor their current place in life with all that has brought them here, and then get to work to build, to grow, to succeed.
  4. Bring student work!  Don’t let the data being looked at in the meeting be the only piece that is considered.  No single piece of data can serve as the point from which to make all decisions.  When we consider multiple pieces of student work we acknowledge all the the work student does, and are more likely to see how they have developed in this content area, therefore not minimizing them to a single score.

Right now, public education means testing.  If we are a part of that system we have to find ways to rise above it, for the sanity of ourselves and the self worth of our kids.  I will keep seeking ways to do that until this is my data shelf.  Will you?  ideal data room 2

The Demise of a Dismissive Mentality, Part 2: Resisting vs. Dismissing

resist

The other day a trusted friend said to me, “I really struggled with your last post. It spoke heavily to white privilege for me.”

I was taken aback.  I tend to be hyper aware of how my words and actions impact others.  My automatic response was, “Really?!  How so?”   Her words were this:

It’s easy to tell others not to be dismissive when you haven’t had real and scary shit happen to you.  People actually burning crosses in your yard.  People actually spewing hate at you in public and school.  People actually wishing and carrying out ill will against you and your family just because of your skin color.  When that shit happens to you, you dismiss.  You dismiss out of anger.  You dismiss out of safety.  You dismiss to honor and protect your individuality.

As she said these words my stomach hurt.  Yes, of course.  My white-washed privileged world had dominated the message I’d hoped to send.  I understood her reasoning only as much someone who has not lived through those experiences can, and I felt such immense pain for it.  I couldn’t even begin to comprehend her pain.

So, I want to that this time to clarify a couple points.  

One, I am in no way supporting the work of Trump or DeVos, and even hesitated in using them as examples.  But the point I wanted to make through their examples was that they are, in fact, leaders for our country and will be making decisions for us now and in the future.  We cannot dismiss them.  They have been given power, and if we are going to be in tune with our country and community we must be informed on how they plan to exact that power.

The second, we must listen to one another for two reasons at the very least-healing and being informed. In reflection I can certainly see how my post was perceived as this: If we just listen to Trump and DeVos we’ll be enlightened and refreshed by what they have to say.  Maybe you will, maybe you won’t.  I don’t know. Regardless, that was not what I wanted to convey.

This is the message I’d hoped for:

If we ever hope to get back to honoring humanity we have to listen to one another.  Slow down and really listen, face-to-face.  Maybe we’ll be refreshed by what we hear and happy for giving the moment to listen to another.  Maybe we’ll be pissed.  And if we’re pissed, we resist.  But we don’t dismiss without ever trying to understand.  We don’t become single-minded individuals that can only see others and ideas a certain way. This is what minimizes people to a single story, or no story at all.  And it’s happening all around us.

I have been writing this blog in my head for several days, hoping to be more articulate this time to get my message right.  Then this appeared in my inbox saying all the things I needed it to.

https://pernillesripp.com/2017/03/23/small-steps-to-become-a-better-advocate-for-social-change/

I recognize, too, that I am not an expert, nor will I ever be.  No matter how much reading, and listening, and learning I do, I know I will simply never understand what it is like to be marginalized in the way that so many groups in our country feel every day.  I recognize my limited scope, and I work diligently to educate myself on what it’s like to be cast as an “other” so my scope can be enlarged.  More importantly, an enlarged scope allows me to advocate intentionally for the “others.” Not in a let-me-be-your-hero kind of way, but rather a let’s-build-a-community-and-do-this-right kind of way.   This will always be an ever-evolving process.

And so I want to close reflecting on the beauty of this moment.  Often times a blog is one-way dialogue.  You read it, agree or disagree, and move on.  But this wasn’t. My friend felt angst against it and shared her resistance to it with me.  She did not dismiss me.  She took that moment to educate me, to help me see another side. I saw a new layer to her story and she added to mine.

Yes.  That was my message.  And it came back to me in the most perfect of ways.  Thank you, Ashley.

Why I Write

I spent much of December 2016 thinking about my “one little word” for 2017.  And as much as I tried, I could not get it down to one.  Presence and Radical rang in my ears during the busyness of December, and every time I tried to leave one for the other they barked at me.  I’d decide to go with Presence, and Radical would get pissed, screaming in my ear, “You gonna leave me just like that?  Ain’t that some ish.”  (Yes, Radical is my gangster alter ego).  So, then I’d pick up Radical again, apologizing and thinking, “Yes, this world needs more Radical, but in a good way.  What is Radical goodness?  Let’s find out!  Until…”Psst…,” Presence began to call. “It seems a bit oxymoron-ic that you leave me behind.  Kinda goes against everything we believe in.”   Ugh.  Yes.  I’m sorry to you, too.

And so I let the dual die and adopted them both as my two little words for 2017.  Radical and Presence.  Radical Presence.  This is a tall order.

I decided to lead with Presence (less screens, more actual voice; less FB groups, more community activism with my neighbors) then follow with the idea of Radical.  What is Radical about this moment?  Why am I here?  Does this moment need change, a voice, an advocate, or just Presence.  And then, I write.  I take George Orwell’s advice, and I give these ideas a hearing.  A space.  An existence that is real.

All this mulling of words and moments got me thinking about why I write.  When I give these moments their permanent space in my notebook, what do I really want my words to do?  Blackout poetry with Terry Tempest Williams’, “Why I Write” gave me my answer.black-out-poetry

4:00 A.M.
I cannot control a world that often appears black.
I meet my ghosts.
Begin a dialogue.
Nightmares shatter my sleep.
I forget the pain.
Language allows me to confront that which I do not know.
Death.
Anger.
Passion.
I soothe the words shouting inside me, outside me.

I believe in words; a dance.
A bow to the wilderness.
A path in darkness.
Grace and grit.
I am starving. I am full.
I write for the children,
for the love of ideas,
for the surprise of a sentence.

I will always fail.
I can be killed by my own words.
Embarrassment.
Exposure.
Indulgence.
Madness.
Doubt and humiliation threaten.

Pick up the paper.
It doesn’t matter.
Words are always a gamble.
Dangerous; a risk.
Form the words, say the words,
touch the source.
Be vulnerable.
I am whispering in the ear of the one I love.

And so my year of Radical and Presence and Radical Presence begins.  My #paperandpassion movement has begun.  Stay tuned.

#pb10for10-Social Justice + Young Learners

 

I have been working diligently over the past year to develop a social justice curriculum for elementary students that uses reading and writing as a process for interpreting this information.  Last year was our first year of implementation, and as I work to refine what we have put into place I find my mind buzzing with ideas to raise an awareness that will make our students activists in their communities. We often find it difficult and intimidating to bring these issues into the classroom, especially when the minds are so young and the life experiences so limited.  These books have made issues accessible in a way that allows our kids to learn and grow in a safe place, and they have been pivotal in my brainstorming sessions.  I’m excited for what’s being developed, and want to thank these authors for putting their words and ideas in the hands of our youngest learners.  Now, we just have to make sure they are heard and ignite fires in their little bellies!

 

the-other-sideThe Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

The Other Side tells the story of Clover and Annie, two young girls who live next to each other but are separated by the literal and figurative fence between them.  In an era of racial divide both girls have been warned by their mothers to “not cross the fence to play.”  As the story unfolds each girl watches the other from a distance, longing to connect.  Annie watches as Clover jumps rope with her friend, and Clover watches as Annie dances alone in the rain.  When Annie finally comes to the fence and asks Clover her name, a friendship forms and they find a way to overcome the “fences” that separate them.

 

blue-boy

Courage of the Blue Boy by Robert Neubecker

This colorful tale follows the blue boy and his blue cow, Polly, on an adventure to find other lands that aren’t just blue.  Along the way they come across a purple village, orange hills, and a great green ocean until they land in a place so vibrant the blue boy can hardly believe his eyes!  The streets are checkered, he hears maroon sounds, sniffs olive scents, and stumbles upon lavendar mosques.  But, he notices, there is no blue.  Frightened, he runs home and wonders how to put himself in this world where it seems he shouldn’t exist.  He finds a way, and realizes that no matter where he goes he belongs, and that place belongs to him, too.

 

Chocolate Me! and Mixed Me! by Taye Diggs

Chocolate Me! and Mixed Me! help readers learn about stereotypes that face people of color and multi-racial families.  From funny names, to “dirty” skin, big hair and wide noses, the boys in these two books have to learn to love themselves for who they are and help their friends to do the same.

 

the-skin-im-inThe Skin I’m In: A First Look at Racism by Pat Thomas

This book introduces the terms ‘racism’ and ‘racist’ in a way that helps students to see that people’s differences should be embraced, not as a judgement against them.  While these heavy issues can be difficult to discuss, this nonfiction text addresses them in a way that students can understand and think differently about the their world by considering their words and actions.  The ultimate message is that of understanding and honoring differences to create a world of peaceful humanity.  Getting to know each other is really what it’s all about!

 

the-skin-you-live-inThe Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler

This playful, poetic story dances through each page as the reader considers all the things activities and shades our skin is accustomed to.  Your skin has nothing to do with being rich or poor, smart or dumb, weak or strong.  “It’s not any of this, ‘cause you’re more than you seem.  You are all that you think and you hope and you dream.”  Our skin holds inside the true people we are each day.  That’s all that matters, and we should each be grateful for this.

 

one-family

One Family by George Shannon

If one ideal has changed the most over the past generation it is certainly that of which makes a family.  One Family, a book of numbers and so much more, depicts families of one all the way to ten, and how wonderfully unique each one is.  Who’s a part of your family does not matter. We are still one–one individual, one family, one world.

 

 

real-sisters-pretend

Real Sisters Pretend by Megan Dowd Lambert

This endearing tale reminds us all that even though we may not be blood related we are still family, still “real sisters.”  Tayja and Mia love to play pretend and when Mia mentions they have to pretend to be sisters too, her older sibling Tayja tells her there is nothing pretend about being sisters.  “We are sisters.  Real sisters.”  As the book plays out the girls recall all the things they do and say to one another just like real sisters and families do.  Even though others from the outside might not see them this way, they know in their hearts this is true.  The two girls are adopted by two mothers, also of different races, one again reminding us that families come in different shapes and sizes.

 

shades-of-peopel

Shades of People by Shelley Rotner

This nonfiction text shows pictures of children with skin color of all shades.  The shade of their skin is described using food items and hue adjectives.  From “almond, pink, and rose, copper, bronze, or brown, the skin we are in is just like wrapping on a candy’–it’s what’s inside that counts.  We see new and different shades everywhere we go because that is the beautiful world we live in.

 

lets-talk-about-race

Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester

This book reminds the reader that each of us is a story waiting to be told and there are many aspects of life that make up our story.  It’s not just about race.  Our stories overlap and connect in innumerable ways. But some people think their story is better than someone else’s because of their hair, the color of their skin, or their gender.  Let’s Talk About Race helps us remember that beneath all of those external characteristics we have bones, and my bones look like your bones.  When we imagine a world where all of us exist just as our bones we must decide which story we want to believe–the one that says I’m better than you or the one we just discovered beneath our skin, the one where we see we all look the same.

 

 

colors-of-us

The Colors of Us by Karen Katz

Karen Katz does a beautiful job correlating the many shades and colors of our skin to yummy, delicious foods. As you read The Colors of Us you wonder how could anyone think that any skin color is ugly or less than?  Each of us represents a wonderful, rich color that brightens the world.  We are wise to notice the different hues of color that surround us each day.

“Just Right” Books: So Much More than a Level

reading

 

I recently worked in an intermediate classroom helping students understand what it means to have a “just right” book in their hands.  Before beginning the lesson I asked them to share how they knew a book was “just right” for them, and received the following responses:

  • “It’s on your level.”
  • “If you are a 3.1, and the book is a 1.4 it is too easy and if it’s a 4.4 it is too hard.”
  • “It’s from the blue bin.”
  • “If I take a quiz on it and get all the points I know it was on my level.”
  • “It’s on my level.”
  • “It’s on my level.”
  • “It’s on my level.”

Every single answer the students gave was related, in some form, to the book being on their level.  And each time it was stated, my heart broke a little.

When I left that classroom I began to reflect on my own school days, realizing I could not recall a single teacher ever telling me my reading level.  As a child, I just read.  I consumed Dear Mr. Henshaw, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, and The Giver with the voracity of a hungry lion.  Before I ever started school there was not Berenstein Bears book that I could not recite.  And no one ever told me not to read those books.  No one.  No one ever tapped me on the shoulder to tell me a book was above or below, or even right on, my level.  Granted my schooling days took place during the time of the Parrots, Peacocks, and Canaries reading groups and the testing demands were much less than what teachers face today.  Regardless, my weekly trips to the local library and daily trips to the school library left me looking only for beloved authors, breathtaking tales, and brilliant pictures.  Books that had annoying older sisters, and girls with no grandparents, and families with a thousand pets, because we never had a single one.  Books that I had my nose in before it was even checked out in my name. And if they weren’t available in the library I became insistent that my mother just purchase them for me to have forever. I simply could not wait for them. The urge inside me to read them was so intense that I knew myself it was a “just right” book.  

I reflect on my elementary experience for one reason alone–I have come to realize that the vast majority of kids today don’t know this.  They don’t know the joy of perusing an entire library, feverishly looking for a book that speaks to them.  They don’t know their favorite authors because books have always been placed in their hands by an other.  They don’t know who they are as readers because they have never been given the opportunity to shape their own reading identity; it’s always been done for them.  Sadly, the experience most students today will look back on will be one of their teacher directing them to a certain section of the library that has books on their level, while the student hopes from within one will be waiting there that they are excited to read.  Most times they walk away disappointed.

Many articles and much research have been published regarding the unintended consequences of making students aware of their reading level, because by doing so we allow it to deeply shape their identity as a “good” or “bad” reader.  We would also be wise to recognize the role this number plays in limiting our readers.  Boxing them into parameters in which they feel they cannot operate outside of, further perpetuating misconceptions about what it means to live the life of a reader.

After our initial conversation in my lesson that day, I knew my mission for the next 55 minutes.  We began to draft a list of all the ways we knew a book wass “just right” for us other than its level.  I shared with them that as an adult, no one has told me my reading level in years.  I asked them to think about how I know a book is “just right” for me when I walk into the library.  This idea was mind-blowing to some, but as we began to talk through it the conversations became spirited and enthusiastic.  And I left them with this challenge:

“This year, when someone asks you why you are reading the book in your hands, your response is not, ‘It’s on my level.’  But rather, something that sounds like this:

  • ‘It’s by my favorite author and I just have to read all of his/her books.  They’re the best!’
  • ‘This book has my favorite scene in the whole world!  Do you have a minute?  I’d like to share it with you.’
  • ‘Oh, this book.  Well, I’ve read this one six times already, but it just keeps getting better each time. This time I noticed how the author did ________.’
  • ‘I just had to know more about the character in this book, because he/she seemed a lot like me.’”

This is how our students should know they have a just right book in their hands.   It’s visceral.  It’s a feeling in their heart that creates an instant connection to the book–not a number on a report.

Fame: First Day of School Thoughts

fame-logo (1)

“Famous” is not a word generally associated with education.  When we chose our profession as teachers we knew this, but today I wish to challenge that notion.  Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, Famous, brings to mind so much that we are embarking on as we welcome a new year of students.

Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

 

The loud voice is famous to the silence,

which knew it would inherit the earth

before anybody said so.

 

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds

watching him from the birdhouse.

 

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

 

The idea you carry close to your bosom

is famous to your bosom.

 

The boot is famous to the earth,

more famous than the dress shoe,

which is famous only to floors.

 

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it

and not famous at all to the one who is pictured.

 

I want to be famous to shuffling men

who smile while crossing streets,

sticky children in grocery lines,

famous as the ones who smiled back.

 

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,

or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,

but because it never forgot what it could do.

_____________________________________________________________

This job we are in was never meant for fame.  At least not in the way society and politics project it.  Because loudness, and grandeur, and “look at mes” simply have no place in our profession.  Our fame finds itself playing by a different set of rules.  Fame that is instead found through the meaningful, and the quiet, and the purposeful.  In the connections.  In the moments where we never forget what we can do and what we are truly capable of.

Because, really, each of you is famous.

Famous to the kid who speaks no English, but hears you greet him in his native tongue.

Famous to the kid, who, for the first time in months entered a space today where people were excited to see him.

Famous to the kid who was scared until he saw your smile and welcoming learning space.

Famous to the kid who thinks he won’t succeed this year because you’ve already told him of the potential you see within him.

Famous to the kid who hates to read, because today he walked to a desk holding a stack of books just for him and knew his teacher has already started to learn about his as a reader.

Famous to the kid who never speaks out because today you found time to tell him much you hope he finds his voice this year.

Famous. Famous for a million more reasons we will likely never know.

Yes, fame looks a lot different here.  And so the question is: How will you be famous to your kids this year?  Let each of us never forget no only what we can do, but also what our students can do.  There’s so much waiting inside of them to grow and explore. Our mission is to find, bring it out, and celebrate it.  That’s when we can get loud.