My relationship to knowing has changed over time. I used to think that I had to know how a thing worked, almost in its entirety, before attempting to try it myself. I spent a lot of money on personal and business self-help during my 3os and early 40s. I thought I could learn how to
parent well and wisely
understand people by understanding corporate cultures
prepare myself for leadership by reading about business management
train more effectively as a runner
allocate my time effectively without sacrificing relationships
be a better capitalist and become more lovable.
I thought books could tell me, instruct me. And some of them did. Some of them helped me recognize a few things about myself. It was not all time and money spent in vain.
I worry less about not knowing enough these days. Instead, I have to think carefully about what it is I need to learn and with whom I might do that best. I’m into learning more than knowing. I have eyes on experimenting and trying, rather than the fool’s errand of perfecting. My interest in self-proclaimed authorities has waned, however targeted and invasive their marketing has become.
I’ve become more open to my own experience and its gifts. I worry less about the value of my offerings for others and instead take heart in the layers and depth of discovery that still await me; in myself and in the world. I choose words to do that more often than not and am curious about other kinds of representation.
One of the things that happens as I read more scholars across a range of disciplines is a fleeting unease at not having read other authors referenced or not recognizing the titles mentioned. It can be intimidating. As a reader I have at times felt excluded, placed at a remove from the author’s insights. Over time I’ve learned not to take this personally. It’s not a failing on my part, it’s simply that my time and energies for reading or other related activities have been spent elsewhere. Plus, each referenced work creates an opening, a potential.
Again, there’s that contrast between feeling obligated to know versus developing an interest in learning. The former feeds my sense of shame and unworthiness, the latter encourages me to make choices that may expand my horizons. The upshot is that I now read far more texts that stretch my thinking; that invite me to feel a little out of my depth for a bit. Successful authors are the ones who seed my curiosity and allow it to bloom as I read. Venturing into someone’s narrative becomes a co-created path. Yes, the author makes their case sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter while I as reader come along in my own tempo, following my own tangents where needed. No two readers are required to travel on the same reading trajectory of a given text. Nor can they entirely.
It’s freeing to realize this both as an impassioned reader and enthusiastic word wrangler. It’s fine and expected to not know loads of stuff. Even better, as adults in particular, we frequently get to choose what it is we want to learn more about as well as how, when and importantly with whom. That’s worth knowing.
Tell you what, try to decide what’s fair and you cannot get around asking “for whom? Under which policies/laws/structures? To what end?”
By now more of my attention runs in the direction of injustice because we’re surrounded by it. (Whether we know to acknowledge it or not.) Yet my picture of what justice is, does, sounds and feels like is so ill-defined as to be nearly illegible.
The immediate association with the courts and therefore the state prompts grief and bone-deep distrust. I do not trust the state to deliver justice to anyone really.
When we see the crime with our very eyes, on our devices, through 100 media outlets, we call for justice. We demand accountability. We expect the perpetrators to receive punishment. We speak of charges, sentencing, damages, jail time. The process is usually long and deeply uneven, depending on whose life, whose honor, whose reputation, whose money is at stake. Right and wrong are not necessarily the measures against which all crimes are actually measured.
How can I be an aspiring abolitionist if I desire to see certain people serve impossible jail terms? How can I say I dream of community repair while lusting for the punishment of vigilantes, terrorists and insurrectionists?
Abolitionist Mariame Kaba references Oakland organizer Morgan Bassichis’s idea that
“basically the very systems that we’re working to dismantle live inside us. And that really stuck with me when I first read it. It forced me to acknowledge my own complicity in forms of violence that I may not even personally be perpetrating in a intentional way… When you’re always in a position of seeing everything as outside of you, then you’re always on the outside looking in, which isn’t necessarily the best way to address forms of violence. We have to do both. We have to be on the outside looking in but also on the inside looking out.” –
Mariame Kaba, “Accountability Is Not Punishment” in We Do This Til We Free Us, p. 140
Cultivating a different, more humane understanding of justice requires a level of unlearning that I do not always feel prepared or equipped to take on. Sometimes the prospect of vengeance suggests an eventual relief. But I’m also sure that’s an illusion. I want to be in right relation with others
But hesitate to give anything up for it.
“If my focus is on ending harm, then I can’t be pro-deathmaking and harmful institutions. I’m actually trying to eradicate harm, not reproduce it, not reinforce it, not maintain it. We have to realize that sometimes our feelings – and our really valid sense of wanting some form of justice for ourselves – gets in the way of actually seeking the thing we want.”
“Accountability Is Not Punishment” in We Do This Til We Free Us, p. 155
“[S]eeking the thing [I] want” means holding this tension between my rage-adjacent feelings and my lofty hopes for a better, more just society. It means looking for how I practice justice in my day to day. How am I acknowledging harm, seeking repair, rebuilding trust?
Unlearning will tire a body out. Uprooting mental models that are so deeply ingrained requires support and community. Where will we open up space in our minds for justice to move and breathe? When will we become the sowers of justice in our communities? How shall we prepare the soil for forms of justice that allow us to grow in right relation with each other and our planet?
Knowing more is not always the answer I need. Some things require action – doing more, while saying less. Paying attention. Observing closely. Reflecting. Justice moves, a workout.
I remember learning on a cross-country road trip. Every hotel on our AAA Trip-tik route had a swimming pool. Evenings, my aunt took me out, held me up and by the end of summer and our long trip I had become a swimmer. I was 5 years old. My mother watched, laughed and stayed in the shallow end. I didn’t know it but she was not yet a swimmer like me.
Really only at the very end of this short film did all of these memories come flooding back. I only remember that learning to swim was a family non-negotiable. Decades later I can piece together where some of my mother’s urgency came from.
Dance exploration is what I’m offering, I told them. We’ll be listening and responding to different types of music and asking ourselves ‘what makes a dance, a dance?’ Those who chose to stay at least brought their fair share of curiosity which was actually a brilliant start.
We began with crosstown traffic. Half groups line up facing each other several meters apart. The goal: to pass to the opposite side without bumping into others while also responding to the music. An easy on-ramp. I ask them to use different pathways, to try alternating levels as they go. How are they using their arms? What kinds of shapes are they making as they travel? In the process, I vary the music from West African drumming, to a lyrical romantic soundtrack, to workaday pop, to a high energy Bollywood tune. They move, they adapt.
Next, we learn to imagine our own box that is as tall as we can jump, as wide and deep as we can reach. Here is where we can experiment with non-locomotor movements: twisting, turning, curling, stretching, kicking, extending. I say we, because I find my own box and play inside it. Some students turn to watch me. And I catch them wondering. But I continue and they, too, discover the possibilities within their own boxes.
I ask them to pick two or three movements they tried in their box and really liked. They then shared their moves with a partner and found ways to combine their ideas. Again, I offered two slightly different selections of music to experiment with. Depending on the vibe, pairs were asked to share their work in progress and often we had a couple of pairs share at a time to reduce performance anxiety. Some pairs also chose not to share.
If time was left, pairs could join forces and continue to build on their creations.
In the space of 4 days of classes, seeing each grade level group two times, I learned so much about what’s possible in short time frames. Opening the door for individual discovery and creativity to then creating a shallow on-ramp for simple collaboration with the option to add complexity if students chose…
If students chose… Students experienced many, many opportunities in the 40+ minutes to choose, choose, and choose again. Which movements to each kind of music, which partner, which group, which combinations, what kind of performance? All possible because…still playful. No grades, no evaluation; instead appreciation, fun and surprise.
And it mattered that I provided guidance while also participating. I was not as separate from them as they might have expected. By modeling discovery and fun in my own box, I gave a taste of what’s possible. Even the most hesitant movers found an in to exploring their response to the environment.
My loose ideas for structuring a dance exploration workshop for elementary students evolved over the course of the week. I learned to adapt to my audience. With Pre-K I quickly found out that storytelling provided a useful frame for channeling their energies. With tough customers I had to remind myself to not take it personally and to simply ask what might help their engagement: different music? Working alone or with a different group? In most cases we were able to locate a positive solution.
I write all this now as a way to remind myself weeks, months and years later what was possible, successful and worthy. Our MADD (Music, Art, Dance and Drama) Week provided occasion for me to prepare differently. To provoke and receive students’ invention and creative energies in ways that humbled and surprised me. I gave myself and my students license to genuinely explore, test and develop our own approaches not only to dance but to collaboration and community. So much more than any lesson plan could ever articulate.
Speaker, speaker on the mic
help me understand you right
What's your point, make it clear
show me that you've earned my ear...
One speaking opportunity, several insights
You may know that I have mixed feelings about public speaking. Now that I have a little more experience, I can safely say that it is still a fraught undertaking in my mind. I enjoy being part of a panel. Facilitating groups I consider to be a fundamental calling. But the singular speaking gig still feels weird and I’m learning how to make it a far less lonely enterprise than it might be.
I was recently privileged to give my first in-person keynote talk at the ECIS (Education Collaborative of International Schools) Physical Education Conference, held at Frankfurt International School. I was last to bat, following three action-packed days of facilitating, dancing, playing, and learning. This was not my first ECIS PE Conference but it was the first in-person gathering in four years. I last attended the event in Düsseldorf in 2018, in Vienna 2017 and a couple of others before that.
Something you need to know: our PE conferences are built for active learning. The teachers-teaching-teachers model is central and we use all sorts of movement spaces to share games, techniques, and approaches over the course of our time together. That means we physically interact with each other, learn from each other; block and outwit each other. There’s laughter and listening, confusion and competition, composition and camaraderie. So giving a talk to the folks who are still with you after those many hours of active engagement feels less daunting; you know who you’re talking to.
Given that, I knew that I wanted my “talk” to feel more like a kind of focused debrief with movement interludes. In January, I already announced that I would zero in on PE teacher identity and came up with the title: “Who We Are Is What We Teach.” What I had to acknowledge was that I could not ask participants to do what I was not willing to do myself. So the talk became surprisingly personal.
I opened with a quick energizer. We did a short body percussion routine which is something I’ve always wanted to do with a group:
Next I asked the group to think about dominant culture of the PE departments in our respective international schools and identify salient characteristics. Surprise, no surprise: white, western, cis and male turned out to be the most widely represented attributes.
We turned our attention to the purpose and value of identity talk; what we gain by articulating layers and intersections of identity:
I used this as a springboard to share a bit of my own story, noting that although I am a Black woman who experiences racism and sexism, on almost all the other dimensions on the power/privilege wheel I am closer to power than not. And in my school context, I enjoy privileges that derive from being on staff for over 25 years, for instance. If nothing else, I hope people leave prepared to look beyond assumed and visible sources of power in considering the role of identity in all sorts of interactions.
How do we talk about our teacher identities and how those have come into being? We need to look back and think about what and who shaped our pathways into teaching and then specifically into Phys Ed. Here’s what I came up with for myself:
This was of course prelude to inviting my audience to think about their own experiences and then share at their tables. As I walked around, I heard folks talk about their parents, siblings, coaches, teachers, teammates -people who were significant in helping them discover who they might become. These conversations created a warm buzz in the room that I actually had time to take in and appreciate.
I chose to wrap-up with some insights I gleaned during my preparation, one of which I dare to call my purpose. I said,
In principle, very little of my writing, teaching, parenting, coaching, – you name it, is done alone or in isolation. I depend on communities and networks and other ways that folks come together to act on my purpose. My purpose is with other people.
To demonstrate how that plays out for me, I came up with what I call “Relational Standards.” These are phrases/concepts that name my priorities in working/sharing/living well with others.
Collaborative joy x 3
For each idea, I provided an image and elaborated with a few words. Loving non-negotiables connects with my parents and their laser focus on education and independence for me and my siblings. Mutual responsibility shines through my relationships to my two sons but also to the communities to which I belong. “How do we care for each other?” is a question I try to pose in every community context. For responsive accountability I chose a photo of my PE team and explained how we regularly negotiate a range of topics and that our priority must remain: student well being and learning. In order to do that we need to be able to address concerns with equanimity and care.
The final 3 slides show forms of collaborative joy: 1st graders playing with the parachute, a smiling selfie with my CEESA DEIJ co-collaborators, Meredith Klein and Kathy Stetson, and a 30 second clip of my elementary school doing a line dance for Fasching. What I realized is that I get to experience A LOT of collaborative joy: at home, at work, online, in class. There are actually many, many moments of delight and satisfaction I derive simply from teaming up with others. That’s why it shows up 3 times instead of just once. Collaborative joy is often what I’m steering towards without always recognizing it.
In closing, I offered a short recap of the main points and of course, got everyone on their feet to finish up with the line dance!
I could not have asked for a more responsive or generous audience. It mattered that we share a professional identity. It mattered that I was not speaking to a room of strangers. It mattered that movement and conversation were integral to how we spent our time together. It mattered that I shared more of myself than I am usually inclined to do. It mattered that I was able to bring my full self to the task.
Many thanks to the #ECISPE2023 team for inviting me and putting on an excellent conference from beginning to end!
March: a month and also a command. I Marched. I marched.
Three conferences in three cities between March first and thirty-first. More travel than I am accustomed to. More school days missed than normal. More public speaking than ever. Today marks the end of a streak and it’s time to come down.
Here are some thoughts:
Conferences can be sites of professional learning but they don’t have to be. Meaning that, both how folks show up and decide to contribute (or not) is contingent on too many factors to count. Conferences are collected, curated offerings. Participants choose what they will do with the information and experience.
I’m not convinced that speaking is my jam. Facilitation definitely is. That means I make every speaking invitation into a facilitation opportunity. That’s how I roll.
Of all the types of vigorous social interaction that I participated in, attentive pair or small group dinner/lunch conversations are my faves. I call myself a situational introvert and I tend to feel the need to withdraw quickly after lots of large group activities.
Shout out to my physical education colleagues who really know how to make conferences joyful learning experiences! We talk and PLAY! It’s really what sets PE conferences apart from other educator gatherings. We practice, share, and laugh. We open ourselves to each other in session after session by doing the thing. Having #ECISPE2023 at the end of my conference run felt like a genuine reward.
At two of the three conferences, students were visible and involved in a number of sessions. More, much more of this, please!
Meeting my online friends and colleagues in person continues to be one of my favorite genres of conference delight.
Conference attire can vary. Comfort, warmth, functionality trump all the other stuff in my book. I’m getting better at focusing on my needs, rather than imagined public expectations.
Carry-on travel requires practice but I’m getting the hang of minimizing my volume of clothing.
I got to do two movement things in one talk and the thought of that makes me pretty happy.
Throughout the month I also took part in the Slice of Life Challenge. It’s a blog-every-day-for-a-month event hosted by Two Writing Teachers (a website team, by now, of about 8). This was year five for me and although I had lots of other things going, I didn’t want to leave it out. So I wrote a little something every day and commented on at least 3 other blogs in the community. It was lovely and fortifying and a welcome release valve on occasion. The positive comments received, as well as the steady community building that ensued, provided reason enough to keep that commitment and enjoy it.
Tumbling into April there’s plenty to celebrate and also a need for recovery. A break is right around the corner. I’ll need the time to process March as noun and verb.
Haven’t been blogging much lately but that’s not for lack of thinking!
In many ways I’m very much back on my BS. Still on Twitter, still putting out my newsletter, still engaging in my school and regional #DEIJ efforts. Oh yeah, still teaching full time. And parenting; all while living in the world as it is. Adequately engaged and not yet overwhelmed. Fine. Feeling privileged to have most of the day to myself to read, write and think.
Something I notice as I accept opportunities to speak or contribute is a certain accompanying ambivalence. What do I gain from occupying the spotlight? What can I contribute to the context into which I’ve been invited? How am I adding value to the event and participants’ experiences? Am I really the best person to be speaking/writing here? I will not call this imposter syndrome because there are reasons I said yes to invitations in the first place. Before accepting every invitation, I try to be as transparent as possible with organizers about what I feel best poised to offer at a particular gathering. I will not volunteer to do something that I can’t deliver. So, no, I don’t feel like an imposter. I know who I am and what I can offer.
The ambivalence I experience seems to have more to do with questioning whole systems of assumptions under which most events and major projects are operating. What is the role of a keynote speaker? What kinds of hierarchies are we buying into by elevating certain individuals as worthy of holding the floor for an extended period? How do we position our particular levels of expertise and understanding as participants/listeners in those contexts? What options do we have for disrupting our ideas of what a keynote can and should be, given the particular context?
This last question is the one I am taking into my planning for upcoming events. Every time I show up as a featured voice on a stage, in a publication, on a podcast, it feels vitally important to point out who else is with me/part of me as I speak. If you are listening to me at all, then that may be due to my role as an impassioned and eclectic curator of the world as text. My greatest joy is to gather whole orchestras of ideas and share various compositions with all of you.
Recently, I pulled a beloved book off my shelf: Sabotage In The American Workplace: Anecdotes of Dissatisfaction, Mischief and Revenge, edited by Martin Sprouse. (Who, I’ve just learned, is thriving as a designer in SF/Oakland area.) At any rate, this was the very first book that I ordered through the mail. It came out in 1992 and I caught wind of it in the “Readings” section of Harper’s Magazine, which typically pulls together a wild mix of texts and images. Exposure to that format on a regular basis was huge in my development as an eclectic reader. Delving into the whole of Sabotage proved to be absolutely delicious in its range, reach and mission. In its own way, the compilation of stories, statistics and labor-related quotes read a bit like Twitter way before Twitter existed.
So here I am, here we are 30 years down the road and I realize that my mind was built for Twitter: the reliance on text punctuated by clever and often pointed images; the potentially-but-no-longer semi-random flow of information from a range of sources; the opportunity to curate, collect and respond as desired. Harper’s Readings formed the gateway; Sabotage lit a fire, and Out of Twitter, I’m able to cultivate my own particular nest and networks of stories, tendencies and possibilities.
With a mental excursion into my literary roots I give myself some credit. I clarify my foundations. I remind myself that I am a product of time and opportunities thus far. Clearly, I wasn’t born yesterday.
When it is my turn to step to the mic, I’ll remember that I’m bringing a full combo of voices and instruments to accompany me. My assessment of various contexts draws on varied sources. My dedication to participants’ growth and well being remains central. Joy and fellowship justify standing up at all. These are the tools I need to create an experience that builds community and song. That features many voices rather than just one. That celebrates the emergence of new sounds of our collective making.
I have a draft post that’s still waiting to be finished. Perhaps it will never be completed. I wanted to write about Twitter and user migration, about the tension between staying and leaving, about anticipated loss and diminishing returns and I stalled out. No great insight was revealed to me in the placing of words on the page. I’m reminded of the first months of 45’s term in the White House. How we hissed and scratched against his wanton disgrace of the office. We were not just upset with the awful policy decisions. Those of us who could afford to protest loudly without ever having to feel the immediate effects of said policies, could barely contain ourselves over the gaudiness of each new affront. So much of what was uttered by that ill-mannered and seemingly inarticulate brute was just plain dumb. Logic and reason were not required protocol. The country chose a chump as its leader and our embarrassment was unbridled.
And here we are again faced with the reality that another chump is gobbling up all the airtime, because he bought it. The point is that we as a public are not wiser. We continue to conflate wealth with intelligence; power with inherent value. Our media structures, harnessed as they are to capitalism’s logics, support these confusions. Actually, many amplify and promote them. And do so widely for the benefit of clicks, which is apparently the only way to stay alive among the conglomerate media sharks.
The chumps are winning. They are having their way. With us and then without us, they are having their way. And please let’s be honest that it truly galls us that they do it with zero attention to style or sophistication. If only they were clever about it! we lament internally. It pains us, with our multiple degrees, elevated humor and lust for nuance, that these loser dudes are dominating the attention wars. That their branded cruelties continue to find supporters across time zones and income registers, still appalls and confounds us. Think pieces, explainers and primers flow generously from various platforms promising to illuminate the obvious for the non-believers: The chumps are winning – here’s why.
If I seem angry it’s because I am but also kinda done. The accompanying theatrics of a media landscape as corrupt and jaded as the villains they report on leave me cold by now. We are caught in a spin cycle of billionaire power plays and we, the public, are not even collateral anymore, not even pawns. That’s maybe my most significant takeaway from this: Neither this billionaire nor that cares one whit about my micro platform, or communities, or political leanings. My existence does not register for them. It simply does not.
Given that, I feel a bit freer. I can stay on my BS with abandon. I can plant seeds, fertilize ideas, cultivate cultures with or without billionaire controlled platforms. I really want more of the so-called liberal elite to get wiser, but that’s a fool’s errand, like waiting on white folks to eradicate racism, or for the West to unhitch itself from neoliberal doctrine. I will do what I have done until now: Write into the wind. Speak as if someone, somewhere might be listening. Read alongside readers. Become an illustrator who paints big pictures with words.
Anyway, I think everyone should listen to these smart things that Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom has to say about the current state of affairs. She has a habit of making sense, even when the chumps are winning.
Where I am could be where I am also not
My boundless ignorance offers the negative space of my knowledge
How I seem continues to vary even when I am still so much the same
Off one platform while hanging onto another
salt will dissolve in water until the sodiumnity of it takes over
and the water becomes something else no longer potable
How I consume becomes the feature
and I let the bug consume me
I am an animal, a creature not lost but amply surviving
Instinct matters as much as genius
especially when I have neither
Creativity sparks interest but is actually an
uneaten crust of who I might be
You cannot trouble me
If I flock I am open to flounder
do I need wings or gills or legs
when I come to my senses
which ones will be denied
Knowing that to fit
magnifies the jest of our striving
In the saltiest sea, one cannot swim