Going Back to School Thoughts

I’m not ready. I’ve never been all-the-way ready.

The first day is always exciting, year, after year, after year. Imagine a career full of fresh starts annually. That’s teaching.

Spending a few prep days with adult colleagues feels comforting.

Yet nothing compares to the arrival of children in all shapes and sizes. Big sisters, little brothers, eager dads and well informed moms – all these people pouring into the building, filling it with life, giving the school a purpose.

We teachers and staff members hold our collective breath in anticipation and then celebrate an enormous exhale as the first hour breezes by, then lunchtime, then recess and already the first day is history and we can hardly believe our luck at the incredible people we will get to spend the year with.

So many smiles and excited conversations, so much catching up to do, so many friendships to renew. The hallways are loud with laughter and questions.

New students have a special look of awe about them. Taking it all in, finding the familiar faces they met the day before – such a relief to be recognized and waved to, encouraged that yes, this school might actually be OK after all.

While I think about routines and first impressions, setting the right tone and helping students feel at home, all it takes is one encounter – unanticipated, spontaneous- I’m helping a misdirected middle schooler find his health class or stop to chat with a new parent who is waiting around (in case of emergency) or meet a former student who stops to give me the most generous hug ever en route to her brand new classroom in 4th grade, not 3rd – one encounter and suddenly I am back. I am immersed in the flow of what we will call a new school year.

There is no agenda for these moments that make up the heartbeat of a school and I am grateful. For all the structures that schools embody and uphold, part of what keeps calling me back is the way young humans consistently resist, refashion and reclaim school structures to create space for their unique ways of being.

Every year I am witness to this 180 day ritual and I cannot imagine a better, more rewarding use of my time.

I’m ready. Let’s do this.

 

 

My Own PWI

A thing happened today and I am still processing. Let me tell you about it.

It’s the beginning of a new school year and we start off with an all-staff meeting led by our director. It’s nice to be back and I feel content sitting between dear colleagues. The meeting includes several announcements, acknowledgements and introductions. A familiar routine to remind us of how we belong together and what we are here for.

Fairly early in the meeting there’s talk of mission and vision and that’s where it happened. Our director spoke about our school being a PWI (predominantly white institution) and considering what implications that may have for our programs and community. He suggested that we will need to look at our curricula and offerings and investigate where we might do more to consider marginalized perspectives. (I’m paraphrasing. I was so bowled over by what I was hearing I was struggling to keep from bawling.)

So yeah, I was shook. I didn’t see that coming and in all my 23+ years at the school nothing like that had ever happened. The director of the school (who is white) openly acknowledged that ours is a predominantly white institution and I have no idea how many people really got that, really understood what he was saying, but I sure did. I know that most of the people that I work with are white; that the vast majority of our student body is white. Yes, we are an international school and we are an American school and even if Europeans among us (Austrians, Germans, Swedes, Dutch, Danes, Hungarians, Swiss, etc.) believe that they hold different understanding of race and racial identity, whiteness carries the day in our school. Without question.

You may know, as I do, that white people generally do not relish being called “white.” It can be uncomfortable for a number of reasons, not the least of which involves acknowledging that there are black and brown folks (among other people of color) whose lives are rarely valued to the same degree as whites in Western societies.

There’s a passage in Between The World and Me in which Ta-Nehisi Coates describes his wife’s upbringing in suburban white America (a major component of what he terms “The Dream”).  He writes:

Perhaps it was because she was raised within the physical borders of such a place, because she lived in proximity with the Dreamers. Perhaps it was because the people who thought they were white told her she was smart and followed this up by telling her she was not really black, meaning it as a compliment. p. 116

Welcome to my life in predominantly white institutions! One of the unspoken agreements of being one of few Blacks on a very white faculty is that I will do nothing to unsettle our relationship by acknowledging any potential gap in our experiences due to race or race coupled with being female. Instead I will behave in accordance with norms I have internalized over a lifetime that qualify me to be a great fit in any PWI. I am going to go out on a limb here but in the eyes of many colleagues it could be that I am black without really being Black (like “Wakanda Forever” Black).

I’m curious what happens when people who might prefer to resist identifying as white are told that they are in fact white and that the institution we inhabit is a very white one. How will that change the daydream of colorblindness many have learned to embrace? One promise I have already made to myself is that I need not become a default spokesperson or trainer in racial awareness and anti-bias strategies. I am thrilled to be able to point to resources and invite people to pick up some great books, listen to some outstanding podcasts, talk to their fellow white folks.

I’m not into foisting guilt onto anyone. I like my life. I appreciate the work I am privileged to do and where I get to do it. I believe that I am good for my institution and that my institution is also good for me. And it looks like this year we may get some deep nudges to grow our understanding of how race and racism work within our walls and without. For that I will be immensely grateful.

Fully Human and Hello, Belongingness

img_20180729_150255

Spotted in Vienna’s First District

On a recent #ClearTheAir Twitter chat discussing themes in the book Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby,  Val Brown raised this question:

And my first response was to talk about the music I use in class:

I also rely on my body to do a lot of my “talking.” The way I sometimes clown during my demonstrations and make silly faces to get my point across, these actions remind me of how much not only my students but also I am seeking connection. This goes beyond being liked, it means being a source of interest, curiosity, trust, care, even surprise and finding those characteristics in others.

When I have struggled with students in class – when their behaviors felt hard for me to handle, when they regularly tried my patience and we got into power struggles that left us only resentful of each other – writing has often helped me step back and see more of that child and my own behaviors. I’ve kept stacks of notes on students and re-reading them reminds me of a few things:

  1. The information at my disposal about a child and their circumstances is always incomplete.
  2. Change is always in progress and my judgments about a child’s behaviors can cloud and confuse my observations of changes because of what I want or am trying to achieve.
  3. My writing only includes my voice (even if I imagine or think of the voice of the other).

That said, I want to revisit some old notes from way back and think about seeing children as “fully human” and what that can look like. I’ve left out the names to maintain privacy.

I feel that I have gotten to know T. a little better this quarter and I’m glad. While we have had our difficulties, I have learned to appreciate her resilient and resolute character. She has had to make some difficult choices in terms of in-class behavior but recently I have noted a significant change for the better. She is far more aware of her decision-making and as a result is making better choices increasingly often. She is no longer indifferent to the choices and their consequences. I also see her enjoying activities more and even when something is not to her liking (which she openly expresses) she has learned to carry on. I am encouraged by the progress I am witnessing and sincerely hope to see it continue.

It’s pretty safe to assume that “better choices” means in compliance with my expectations and that “no longer indifferent to choices and their consequences” means that she has learned to avoid punishment by exclusion. It could be that I’m learning to like T a bit more because she challenges my authority less, so in school we call that progress.

Here’s another:

D’s overall behavior has improved since our last conversation. He is more amenable to following the regular plan and obviously enjoys the positive recognition that goes with it. No day’s behavior is quite the same as the last but the fluctuation between extremes seems to have diminished for the time being. D’s ability to read fluently strikes me as a possible source of some of his general tension. He’s so far ahead of many of his peers on that account that I can understand why he feels a natural tendency to want to speed things up whenever possible.

Again, a greater degree of compliance has obviously been reached although here I am looking for ways to understand what might be fueling this student’s need to “get ahead of the game” in my eyes. That does not mean that my guess is at all correct but it might be part of the picture.

C. is a lively and tireless communicator. He is quick to let you know what’s on his mind either verbally or more frequently with his very distinctive facial expressions and body language. Often his expression tends towards the extreme: he either loves an activity or refuses to participate. He wants to work with one person but will hardly consider and alternative. Thankfully, PE involves lots of movement and opportunities for animated contact so that C. is usually very keen to participate and enjoy the fun.

This last one feels a bit more like the observation note that helps me paint the picture of the child I actually taught. My greatest challenge remains being able to see children as they are rather than how I wish they were. And given that reality of who they are, asking the question sincerely: What can we create together?

When I have asked kids at the beginning of the year what they want from PE, some of the most common answers are:

  • fun
  • excitement
  • games
  • to learn some new skills
  • to get better at…
  • To be with friends

They don’t typically mention being seen, recognized, appreciated, cared for, respected – because these are understood as part of the (at least potential) package of school, of being members of a community, of belonging.

Math educator, Ilana Horn, describes the concept of belonginness in her book Motivated and this blog post and I cannot stop thinking about it:

For most students, alienation can be overcome by teachers who create a sense of belongingness. Belongingness comes about when students experience frequent, pleasant interactions with their peers and teacher. It also comes about with the sense that others are concerned for who they are and for their wellbeing.

My task as the teacher is precisely to insure as steady a supply of belongingness as possible to all of my students all year and that is something we have to develop with each other. I cannot demand or decree it. Nor will it happen organically by itself. It will be something we create. Together. Again and again. This is one way to interpret Carla Shalaby’s call to “be love” in our classrooms with students.

Belongingness helps me get closer to understanding what specifically needs to happen as we build our classroom culture for the year:

To support belongingness, then, teachers need to do more than create strong relationships. In addition, they need to create norms and expectations about how students treat each other.

In order to move beyond compliance and exclusion-avoidance, I will need to involve my students a whole lot more in setting the parameters (and pie in the sky!) for our time together than I ever have.  If I ask them, I also have to listen. If they offer ideas, we need to discuss them. I am convinced we can explore belongingness together. And practice being fully human with each other, with the music on or off.

 

image (c) edifiedlistener 2018

Fitness: My New Terms of Engagement

20140701-131147.jpg20140701-130026.jpg

  • I teach physical education. I advocate for fitness, being fit, leading a healthy lifestyle and enjoying those aspects of being alive.
  • I have a history of movement success from an early age up to now.
  • I have also lived in a body that has largely cooperated with whatever I wanted to do. No significant illnesses or incapacitating injuries. I’ve mostly been able to recover well after setbacks.
  • I have landed safely in middle age with few physical complaints and with the accrued social capital that derives from thinness and a visual indication of relative fitness (muscle definition, ongoing participation in various sporting activities).

Here’s what’s new: after 40, after 50 keeping that extra kilo or two at bay requires seemingly 1) more physical effort and 2) much more restraint in what and how I eat.

My last marathon is 13 years back. The last time I was in the habit of riding my bike to and from school 2-3 times a week over hill and dale is at least 8 years back. Running on a regular basis? 4 years back.

So I’m not doing as much as I used to but during the school year my work schedule means that I’m on my feet a lot, have occasion to work on my strength along with the kids and I feel strongly about being able to model capable movement. I enjoy throwing myself into a steady headstand (or making 4 attempts before I get there). It pleases me greatly that I can pull off a cartwheel without fear of injury.

But. Once that work day is done I want to sit down. I want to write and read and be as sedentary as my schedule will allow. I also now think a glass of wine or some pre-bedtime ice cream is not entirely undeserved. So I indulge.

And here’s what I do now instead of what I used to do:

  • I take myself for a walk/jog around the neighborhood. It’s fairly green and it doesn’t take long to get up some hills.
  • There is no rhythm to this. I go when I can and when I feel like it.
  • I do sprinting drills along the way (high knees, kick butts, soldier walk and several others). The last thing to go will be my flexibility, at least that’s what I’m banking on by keeping up this habit of drills. I’ve been doing them since I was 12!
  • If I decide to run some, I look for a nice incline – not too steep – and do a few strider runs. Not full out sprints but I do focus on good form: strong arm swing, high knees and quick cadence in my footfall. I love these when I do them. I remember who I am.
  • I walk backwards downhill (good for balance, takes pressure off the knees) and uphill (nice strengthening effect for quads).
  • Sometimes I do a few cycles of Sun Salutes at home which also make me feel flexible, capable, not entirely like gone-to-seed.
  • I like to hold the plank (push up plank, not elbow) for 2 minutes or a little more sometimes before I go to bed.

All in all, I’m not ready to give in to the march of middle aged, round the middle softness but I understand that it’s here anyway and how I come to terms to that will be instructional.

I have no desire to lead a fitness cult. To discover 1000 ways to beat the odds of aging. I do want to be able to continue teaching well and enjoy activity both at work and at home. Maybe I’ll choose to compete at sprints a couple of times per year. And I want to savor the time I get to sit and think and write and still stay healthy.

200w_d

 

On Reading, Knowing and Not Knowing

I went on a hike recently with my husband and 10 year-old son. The 90 minute uphill trek proved challenging and after 2 hours we were rewarded with spectacular views of the neighboring valley and an expansive alpine meadow. Hiking is not a frequent occupation of ours. Given that, our shared accomplishment of almost 4 hours of walking completed in the space of about 5 1/2 hours let us all feel satisfied and content by the time we returned to our apartment.

The German word for hike is wandern and in my bilingual mind it’s associated with the English notion of wandering: of moving through a space without a particular destination. Of course, on our family hike we had a series of destinations which defined our route. We hiked but did not wander. We walked and celebrated a series of arrivals on our way. We were in it for the experience, the scenery, for time together.

I woke up thinking about reading. I grabbed the collection of essays currently on my nightstand: Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books 2014) and opened up to a random page. I landed on a heading titled: “Pimping For The Global North” in the essay “Worlds Collide In A Luxury Suite” from 2011. She describes events, people and organizations I hadn’t previously considered: About the International Monetary Fund and how it’s previous head, Dominique Strauss-Kahn met his downfall after being accused of rape and further abuses of women. Solnit tells me a number of things I do not know; things that are news to me: the origins and purposes of the IMF; about it’s largely harmful effects on the economies of the developing world, particularly in Africa and South America. Not knowing, lacking awareness, being clueless – these were all part of this particular reading experience.

In many ways we may read to learn, to find out what we don’t know. But I didn’t pick up Solnit’s essays because I wanted learn about the IMF. I didn’t go on a hike with my family out of a necessity to get from A to B. Men Explain Things To Me offers a virtual potpourri of insights related to feminism, political activism, social histories of violence against women, and the public presence and absence of women. The not-knowing or ignorance that I bring to Solnit’s writing is not something I need to overcome. Rather it is the portal that allows me to discover “what’s new? what’s relevant? what does this text say to me?”

In “The Pedagogies of Reading and Not Reading,” Jesse Stommel suggests that “Not reading is serious scholarly business.” Realizing that even the most voracious readers among us can only absorb a tiny fraction of all that is available to be read helps me in coming to terms with so much not-knowing. Even as I continue to read widely and travel in so many different lanes of interest, I remain remarkably ignorant. When Jesse explains why he doesn’t police students’ reading, he posits that

[l]earning is a series of constant arrivals. And we should be just as willing to talk about and theorize our non-arrivals.
This is my work, increasingly – to encourage students and other teachers to recognize that there is no genuine turn to a text that doesn’t include both not knowing and not wanting to know as potential outcomes.

The idea that not all reading will hold our attention, spark insight or compel us to even get past a few lines or pages feels important to acknowledge. Jesse reinforces the notion of reading as an act of volition where completing a text is not the goal, rather it’s about locating our unique responses. While I cannot claim to grasp the complex operations of the IMF based on a single essay in which it forms the backdrop for a different narrative, I have a distinct awareness of my not-knowing. From there it’s much easier to determine the status of my curiosity; where it might lead me next.

I am fairly certain my next big read will not be a deep investigation into the politics of the IMF. But I will read more about inequality, about human struggles for justice and as I read I will learn more about myself and the expanse of my unknowns. My reading as a form of wandern; moving through a space to see what I can see. Where what I can see will relate to what I know, don’t know, or think I know and change based on the many different ways I continue to become.

I want to close with some inspired thinking from an English teacher making a strong case for disrupting the canon by replacing or supplementing traditional texts with works by authors from marginalized populations. In her blog post: Disrupting Texts As A Restorative Practice, Tricia Ebarvia refers to the need for teachers to “help students reflect on who they are when they read: what are the identities and experiences that have shaped them? Because it’s these identities that we bring to every single reading experience. Because it’s these identities that are the vehicles for bias and prejudice. Unpack those.

Yes! Who are we when we read? Who do I believe myself to be? Literally and figuratively, what do I know? Because as much as I would like to leave you with this happy image of me scrolling through texts connected loosely by serendipity in the same way that I describe me and my family strolling through the Alps like Maria in The Sound of Music, Tricia Ebarvia’s post reminds me and us that our personal bubbles are neither sterile nor pollution free. The not-knowing person I described reading Solnit’s essays is also someone who holds bias and benefits from privilege. That’s me. I may be ignorant about many things but as Tricia makes clear I cannot afford to hide behind not-knowing my identity as I read, as a reader. Knowing, it turns out, likely has a lot to do with who I am and believe myself to be. Knowing myself in order to learn and be able to see the world becomes the hike of countless arrivals but no end.

Dear Tricia: A meditation on a life of reading

address-3368238_1920

Dear Tricia,

Ever since I read through the beginning of your thread last night and finished reading it this morning, several thoughts have been turning in my mind. First of all, let me say how grateful I am for your voice not only in my digital life. Your leadership of #DisruptTexts as an initiative and community has opened up another world for me, one I preferred to leave to the experts until now. But let me get to this thread you shared.

It’s of course a thread so there’s a lot more to this and I’m going to pick out the 3 or 4 that really hit me:

I want to pause here. Already at the first tweet I was shaking my head. My bookshelves are testament to the overwhelming whiteness of my reading diet over years. My children’s libraries are not so different, although their shared interest in Manga series may shift their reading ratio considerably over time.

I second your claim that we adopt the values that come along with reading mainly through the dominant gaze. I’ve been very good at assimilating into the dominant culture. My reading choices over decades have reinforced and bolstered that process. And maybe this is what I woke up thinking most about: The way I read, which naturally bleeds into the way I write, is a function of how those efforts have been rewarded – as a student, colleague, employee, and friend. Since my social circles over decades have been comprised of mainly well-educated middle class white people, the language and literary habits I have cultivated reflect that participation. As a kid, I was told by my Black neighborhood friends, “You talk like a white girl.” They were correct. I suppose in my pursuit to fit in even better as an adult I learned to “read like a pretty smart white guy.”

And this is where I am.

My home library is heavy on non-fiction: sport psychology, parenting, education, cultural studies, sociology, general self-help, psychology, and business consulting and leadership lit. This is no accident. At some time in my early 20’s I found non-fiction to be where I felt more at home, where I could explore my interests often with a journalistic lens. In the course of my adulthood reading, I shoved fiction to the margins. I still read the occasional novel and enjoyed it but when it came to book shopping – I always headed for the non-fiction sections first. This is all still largely the case but my fiction and poetry reading is on the rise thanks to some friendly nudges from friends and colleagues.

OK, so that’s some background. Non-fiction – mostly written by academics who have established their reputations as capable (and sometimes extraordinary) storytellers is what ‘s mainly on my bookshelves. That means a LOT of white men, some white women and a comparably smaller selection of authors of color. I haven’t done an inventory. I haven’t gathered the data. But I know. The spines of my books tell me. There are far more Dans, Davids, Jameses, Alans and Michaels than there are Lenas, Rebeccas or Susans.  The few authors of color are most likely to be among the education texts and in my small stash of fiction titles. Sport psychology (the area of my 1st masters) – that shelf is all white male authors.  Fitness, parenting and self-help books on my shelves have been penned overwhelmingly by white women.

My 10 y-o’s library is full of favorite American authors: Mo Willems, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak and Leo Lioni. We’ve read a number of chapter books by Ann Cameron, Sharon Creech, JK Rowling and most recently Chris Colfer’s series, The Land of Stories. My older son enjoyed similar fare as a child. I am thrilled that they are both enthusiastic, nearly greedy readers. At the same time, I see the lack of color and range of perspectives and work on addressing that. My school library has been a great help so that my youngest and I have read novels by Jacqueline Woodson and Svetlana Chmakova and absolutely loved Sundee Frazier’s Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything In It, which featured a boy like him – brown and biracial. We also read John Lewis’s March trilogy together which sparked all kinds of questions that I needed to research to answer. (Fortunately I was reading Carol Anderson’s White Rage at the same time which provided more context.)

My insight as a result of your thread: How our reading lives develop becomes its own field of research revealing things we might not have recognized about ourselves just by looking in the mirror. Your thread reminded me that there is always time to explore, to step out of well worn habits and seek out what is likely missing. Most recently for me that has meant adding indigenous voices to my reading lists: Robin Wall Kimmerer, for instance, and Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. These are only beginnings but they open doors and windows and help me see new vistas. I’ve made fresh attempts to investigate more fiction as a way of joining new conversations with different people (i.e., #THEBOOKCHAT and #DisruptTexts) This is still so new to me but invigorating and enriching. If not for so many folks on Twitter I would not have read the work of Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, Jessamyn Ward or Elizabeth Acevedo. Now that I have, I am primed to seek out more from these wonderful writers and others who are being brought to my attention.

The way you describe your experience resonates deeply with me:

We’re growing and cultivating intentionality as we go. Witnessing your example and that of others who share this passion for widening perspectives gives me both pause and strength. It’s clear to me that I will continue on this path. It behooves me as a parent, educator and citizen. Sharing the journey, encouraging each other one read at a time makes it all the more doable and inviting.

Thank you.

Sending gratitude, love and admiration,

Sherri

 

image via Pixabay.com CC0