A Few Words About The End

balloon-2697686_1920 you run holding your breath to meet it

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and the exhale that follows is both public and private.

At some point the air is out

the bright balloon that you were that bounced through the last days

so visible, animated and claimable

is suddenly inert, deflated, floppy.

There I am on the sofa

There I am in bed

in the middle of an afternoon

wrapped in a coma-like sleep where the tensions fall away from my body

one after the other

layers sliding off and dissolving into nothing.

What it means to be done.

Finished.

Released.

Into the summer of my independence.

Our Work Is Everywhere We Look

I have extended family who engage in rich conversations about a variety of social and political topics per e-mail. I feel so grateful for these exchanges even if I may not add my voice to the mix very often. I love the fact that at least 3 generations are involved in these dialogues in the most loving and generous atmosphere. Recently, one family member offered the video commissioned by Starbucks on the history of African-Americans in public spaces as a point of discussion.

The written conversation that followed was insightful, nuanced and wide-ranging. While watching the video, all kinds of emotions came up for me. I identified with a number of statements, particularly those of black women. But one impression that has stuck with me since viewing the video almost 2 weeks ago: It’s the white male talking about how he leaves his house, without a care, without a worry about how he will be seen or judged. As he says: “I can just do my thing.” It stuck because that sounds like my life in progress. That’s mostly what I feel like when I leave my apartment in the leafy green neighborhood of this Central European capital which claims to be the city with the highest quality of life in the world.

I have lived here for almost 30 years. Vienna is home. I speak German, my 2 sons have dual citizenship, I work in an international environment that is both financially secure and socially elevated. I have more layers of privilege and comfort than can be named in a single blog post. I am healthy, able-bodied, straight, and married. My immigration status is secure. So the white guy in the video talking about being able to do his thing  most clearly mirrors my own experience far away from the country I grew up in.

And it feels daring to write that. Like I’m not supposed to say that I’m doing alright. I am a Black woman, after all. But that’s just how internalized stereotyping works. Even if I am living the dream in many ways, a second hidden script in my head, reinforced by plenty of mainstream media, suggests that I’ve been falsely cast, I don’t deserve to be here, this scenario is not replicable. The existence of this second script should not surprise anyone. While I can usually usher these idea right back out of my head once they arrive, their steady recurrence indicates a connection to the much greater influence of anti-black and sexist bias in North American society at large. The phenomenon of internalized inferiority extends far beyond my individual experience and I need to understand that.

Meanwhile, on another front, my friend Valeria Brown raised a question on Twitter to White people that stopped many in their tracks.

My first response to the questions was “Uh oh, I wonder how this is gonna go…”  It was the kind of question that made me instinctively hold my breath. Maybe because I know that there is no good answer. One respondent called it “jarring mental exercise.” When pressed for a number, responses ranged from $0 (assumption of futility of being heard in demanding compensation) to tens of millions of dollars. Go through and read the various responses which trickled in over time. It is a sobering experience to say the least.  And Val reposted the question a few times.

I’m sure for many giving an answer felt like stepping into a trap. It could not end well. One respondent commented: “This question. It’s gonna break people.” And Val talks about that when she listed her take-aways a day later. Among them she noted:

and

The whole of this experiment is still working in me so I can hardly imagine the impact it had and must be having on Val. One more observation she makes is that based on several responses, one would have the impression that to be Black must necessarily entail poverty, poor health and education outcomes, extreme violence and so on. It was hard to hear and take in and process and I say that as someone speaking from a remarkable distance in a number of ways.

So on the one hand, I get to be here in Europe living my best life (Hallelujah!) and still be deeply enmeshed in the effects of US specific anti-black racism coupled with rampant sexism. I work in a very White and international environment, where awareness of racism among students can vary greatly. As a topic of formal adult discussion, racism hardly surfaces and if so, mainly in response to a specific incident.  At graduation last night where no less than 5 black or black-presenting students in a class of about 70 received their diplomas, 4 of them mentioned their involvement in the Diversity Club (launched this year to address some racist incidents) as points of pride. (While gathering their diploma, a brief descriptive statement was read about each graduate.) Hearing that was such a necessary reminder that my work, our work, is everywhere we look.

Graduation Day 1983 with Mom

When I graduated high school, I knew all about how to conduct myself in ways that would make White people feel comfortable around me. As one young woman in the documentary video described:

“It’s not like I can mute my actual physical blackness, right? So I just assume that people can see a particular thing when they see the color of my skin, so everything else has to be, like, perfect and clean and as blended-in as possible. It’s really just an arsenal of different masks, you know?”

I know that issue of presentation as a young Black person in a predominantly White setting. Back in the early 80’s, I don’t remember putting much thought into it. I simply followed the necessary rules and codes to stay socially afloat, to be able to run with the friends I valued and it worked. My understanding of those codes and rules have afforded me all kinds of conveniences which stretch into the present. I fit in because I choose to. At every turn I display (and have displayed) those behaviors which indicate to my conspicuously White environment, “hey, I get you and it is highly unlikely that I will put your comfort on the line by talking about race and confronting you with your deeply held biases of which you may or may not be aware.” That’s a rule.

Val’s question fundamentally challenges that rule. Folks are immediately uncomfortable because the truth is so much harsher than tossing around the phrases about ‘doing the work’ on social media. Val put a big stone in our path and our job is to do more than admire it for its magnitude and rough surface. We have to move the stone. Upend it. Or chip away at it, feverishly.  But none of us will move ahead if we can’t answer Val’s question AND bring more folks in to the drive to move this stone out of our path. One way or another.

The layers of privilege which I enjoy right now are not guaranteed for generations, although I will do my best to insure that my children and grandchildren benefit from these as much as possible. Yet the more significant legacy would be for me, my children and grandchildren to go through life recognizing our own privilege and using it to deliberately open doors for others to move up, ahead and forward in their lives.

I’ve reached a stage in my life where I think about the future in terms of what I will leave behind besides environmental destruction, political instability, social unrest and mounting inequality. Realistically, words and ideas will be most of what is left. Words that nudge the stone, ideas that call people to join the struggle. That’s a legacy I dream of.

Radical Listening? Liberation Speaking.

I spent time over an afternoon and a morning to listen to a talk by a Mathemetics Education scholar, Dr. Danny Martin of The University of Illinois at Chicago. He spoke at the Annual Meeting of National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in April 2018. His talk plus the question and answer portion lasted about one hour. The video was brought to my attention by education journalist, Melinda Anderson, on Twitter.

The title: Taking a Knee in Mathematics Education, already says a lot. Much of Dr. Martin’s research is focused on developing responsive, liberatory mathematics education for African-American children. What struck me about this talk was how deeply it spoke to me although I neither teach math nor work with more than a handful of Black students of various nationalities.

Dr. Martin is absolutely unyielding in his commitment to securing the best mathematics classroom experiences for African-American children.  After providing the historical context for specifically addressing the needs of Black children in American public school systems, he provided specific and yes, painful examples of the ways in which Black children are routinely dehumanized by curricula, assessments, teacher attitudes and school systems rooted in white supremacy. He documents how American public school systems were never designed to support or encourage Black students’ brilliance, drive and achievement and how this specifically plays out in math class at all levels.

There were two particular areas where Dr. Martin confronted me with new perspectives I hadn’t considered fully before: the view of inclusion as insufficient for achieving better outcomes and a vision of Black Liberatory Mathematics as a means to create the forms of math education genuinely designed for Black children’s achievement and advancement in the subject area.

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I grew up in a household where integration was held up as the goal towards which we, Blacks, whites and everybody else should be marching. I moved through my schooling believing that gaining admission, adding to the diversity, getting a seat in the auditorium (if not at the decision-making table) in predominantly white institutions best demonstrated my own and my group’s steady progress towards equity. Given that, to hear Dr. Martin claim that inclusion narratives often prove to be pacifying compromises which keep white supremacist structures firmly in place caused me to sit up and take note.

As he illustrated what successful mathematics education that recognizes and fosters Black brilliance could look and feel like, I was alerted to a vision I had not yet encountered. Dr. Martin described a framework, Black Liberatory Mathematics, which draws on liberatory fantasy in articulating an educational approach that intentionally discards whiteness as the primary reference point and measuring stick.

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When addressing the usual critiques of these ideas, Dr. Martin is clear that his focus will remain on Black children and their learning experiences in public schools and reiterates that more moderate attempts to tweak curricula and adjust assessments become tools to stave off the dismantling of white supremacist structures in education systems. And to this end he emphasizes a need for refusal in and of visibly dehumanizing systems as necessary forms of resistance to be practiced by parents, caregivers, students and teachers.

Perhaps what I found so refreshing about Dr. Martin’s address was his insistence on centering Black children and their flourishing in his research and practice. His advocacy is fierce, unapologetic and precise. And his bravery in articulating a way forward that does not aim to first assuage white sensibilities came as a little shock to my system but then as a useful corrective to my previous understandings. While the term ‘white supremacy’ has become a fairly standard one in my recent conversations, Dr. Martin’s talk reminded me of how much work I still have ahead in terms of seeking liberation, in my classroom as much as in the communities to which I belong.

During the question and answer portion, he asserts that “inclusion is not a counterweight to anti-blackness and white supremacy.” In light of media reports across mainstream and social media the evidence of this reality in various forms is staggering. One teacher asked about how to begin engaging in this work and his response was this: “First, just hear me.” He encouraged the teacher to spend time with the ideas presented and see how they resonate, raise questions, find footing. And then suggested that she really engage in the inner work as asking herself: “Why am I here?” and consider carefully what that means for the students in front of her.

As perhaps the sole Black teacher that many of my students may have in their school careers, I too, must ask myself “Why am I here?” and think about what gifts I bring to my works as well as the biases I may be harboring which keep me from offering students the best that they deserve. My gratitude to Dr. Danny Martin is great for opening my eyes to fresh perspectives for my own practice and the field of education in general. I encourage you to listen to his whole speech. It will not disappoint.

 

Screenshots (c) Spelic

Stuck.

As in failing to move forward. Failing to make visible progress.

Stuck. As if plastered to the spot.

Willing and unable to pull the lever, unlock the lock, or do whatever that thing is you do to start something rolling.

Scrolling through social media, clicking and stabbing at so much emptiness. Pausing occasionally to say please and thank you and hmph.

Stuck.

Release. My release when it comes

will be sudden and unexpected as if it had been there the whole time and saying, “what do you mean you were stuck?”

“That’s ludicrous.”

This is no way to approach writing a substantive piece of work that people should read and congratulate me on.

No way at all. Stuck.

Creativity on hold. Backed up communication channels. System blockage.

Remembering: No one is waiting up late for this.

There is no stop watch running.

Tomorrow is another day.

I’m stuck.

And I am.

 

Notes on the day

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We had wind, sun and the smell of hamburgers grilling near the start of the 100. At the last exchange for the 4 x 100, smoke from the grill poured across all six lanes but no one missed their hand-off because of it.

8:40 -9:00. My colleague and I walk some laps on the track waiting for our kids to arrive. We walk and talk about feminism, family, culture and work-arounds. I love her even more for how we can be this way with each other. Side by side, in motion, open and honest.

U., She was my girl in the mid ’90’s. Now she’s a track coach with a team of her own and all the frustrations and joys of building a program worthy of the commitment she brings to kids and the sport. I am honored to be her peer, her friend, her one-time coach. Relationships that last and morph and mature like this one are among the sweetest blessings life can bring.

That moment when my boy who could not put down his phone and ear buds for anything a week ago, hands them to me this morning before warm-up drills with the team. #Winning.

A coaches’ relay? Sure. 2nd leg? Sure. *Runs race, passes at least 1 person*

My athletes afterwards: Hey, Mrs. S. you really can run!

Watching that one girl I had to coax into running the 4 x 400 at the end of a very long day despite her reservations about being fit enough hand off  the baton to her team mate in first position and then pick up that gold medal afterwards. Doubt is what she brought to the start, belief  + proof is what she’s taking home.

In the space of just over 36 hours I flew to another city in a neighboring country, met friends and coaching colleagues for 1 1/2 day track meet, coached athletes, returned home, had the best time. This is my life and it is glorious.

My friend Dan from Munich is retiring after almost 50 years of coaching. He was one of the founding athletic directors of both of our school’s main sports conferences. I have been around for half of his tenure.

Track has been an enduring part of my life. I ran my first races at around 12. Somehow this sport provides a continuity to my story like few other things.

 

image CC0 via Pixabay

Writing My Way Out of a Paper Bag

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I can write my way out of a paper bag.

There, I said it.

“I am large, I contain multitudes” wrote Walt Whitman.

“Me too,” I replied.

I’m trying to pull a book together. I won’t say write a book because not all of it will be from scratch. The goal is to compile, gather, thread and punctuate several pieces of writing with new connective works. On some days I am fully convinced that this is a great idea. On other days, I end up shaking my head and walking away. And here’s where it gets interesting.

When I walk away (or even run away), what do I do?

I go hustle for approval. That’s right, hustle for approval.

I do this at home, at work, in the car, on my phone, in every imaginable context. I make the play again and again, always hot on the heels of some kind of affirmation goodness. Like this:

I run the dishwasher before my partner gets home.

I pull the secret sweets out of my backpack and hand them to my grumpy 10 y-o late in the afternoon when I still have to go grocery shopping.

My students ask, “Is it Awesome Gym Day?” and I think for a moment before saying “Yes, but you’ll have to set it up.”

I return my library books on time and take out two new books. The librarian smiles at me.

I get on Twitter and start scrolling and read two or three blog posts. I quote retweet with a passage from the piece so folks know that I actually read it.

I sweep the bathroom floor after combing my hair because, you know, all those brittle ends go flying all over.

Of course I braid my big puffy hair so that it lays graceful and flat against the side of my head and provides little cause for comment.

I put plenty of cream on my face so my skin looks smooth, even the bags under my eyes.

When I’m talking to others I try to focus on listening even if I’m not all the way in the mood.

I stand at the far corner of the track so that my athletes struggling through the last 150m of a 400 can hear me cheer them on.

So I far I’ve kept my body in about the same size category for about 40 years. People see me and say “you haven’t changed in years.” The effort required is an ongoing accomplishment and never ending challenge at the same time. The hustle is real.

At the end of the school day, I pack up my equipment and drag it back into storage and try to make sure it goes back into the right spaces. My colleagues trust me not to leave a mess.

At home I maintain a particular level of messiness but I can still find things pretty easily. It’s a skill. I may straighten my space up if we have company. (Rare)

I don’t write on a schedule. But someone somewhere always reads what I post and I can’t really quite get over the miracle of how that all takes place.

When I meet parents I usually know their child and have something good to say about him, her or them.

I read to my youngest before he goes to bed. Both of us love this ritual. There’s a special mutuality to this hustle.

Lots of people I know have a hard time imagining me angry. They have simply never seen me that way.

So these are some of my every day hustles. Writing this post certainly falls in that category, too. Hustling for approval is what I do. I want to be seen, liked, appreciated, and loved.

When I am not working on this larger piece of work that is begging for its own future, this is how I am spending my minutes, hours, days. No mask, just the real deal.

I contain multitudes as much as Walt Whitman and I can write my way out of a paper bag while I run around gathering approval points anywhere I can. Truth.

 

  • I am borrowing the term “Hustle for approval” from Brene Brown who uses “hustle for worthiness” in her work.

 

#ECISPE18 Let’s Change the Conference Game

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This backpack is more than the average conference swag. It carries all the right reminders for my learning future.

If you’ve been following me on Twitter and also read this blog, you’ll know that I’m pretty jazzed about my most recent conference experience: Educational Collaborative of International Schools’ Physical Education Conference (ECISPE) 2018 held at the International School of Dusseldorf, Germany. You might be saying, “Enough, already! It was great, you met cool people, went to top sessions, we get it!”

And that could be enough. But of course there’s more. (You have to see the picture in the tweet courtesy of @MrAdamPE)

In my last post I described the collegial nature of the event which thrives thanks to a ‘teachers teaching teachers’ approach to curating workshop offerings. The event is a relatively small one, intimate even, allowing for a little over 100 international PE colleagues to actually get to know each other during those three days. With at least 35  out of 45 workshop offerings provided by teachers attending the conference, nearly half of the delegates were also presenters.

This matters. A lot.

As a structure, ‘Teachers Teaching Teachers’ attracts and sustains participant engagement. We are PE teachers who want and expect to learn from each other throughout the conference.  There’s an unspoken understanding that each of us is expert at something, perhaps several things, and the conference is literally built to facilitate that mutual exchange of expertise.

Think about how that would impact the way you show up in a shared professional space. Imagine what it would feel like to enter a community of your peers, hip to your own awesomeness as you embrace and celebrate theirs. (Thanks, @MelanieG_pl3y) for adding that spice!)

Showing up at this conference meant that I sought out challenge. I headed for the sessions where my knowledge was limited and my experience level novice. Last year it was ice hockey; this year it was judo, soccer goalkeeping and a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout. Believe me, I felt fully challenged in a variety of ways. The point is, I felt encouraged. It felt cool to be brave and also to discover. These are the experiences which generate the deepest and most wide ranging reflections. Not surprisingly, these moments excite and exhilarate me.

Imagine finding yourself in the company of colleagues who welcome both your confidence and your vulnerability. In Dusseldorf it meant that I invested a whole lot more energy connecting with people than in posturing. I engaged as if my learning future depended upon it. When I packed up to head home, I could say that I experienced the conference for all it was worth. And in exchange, my international colleagues encountered me in the fullest version of myself.

I was awesome and so were they and I don’t need to feel embarrassed saying that.

Too often we register for and attend conferences with the intent to receive. We’re primed to be able to articulate the numerous take aways; to be able share what we got out of attending. Being at ECIS PE 2018 reinforced for me the need for a ‘change in perspective’ (the conference theme) in how we understand our roles as participants in professional events. I would like to see us all more actively consider what we bring to the gathering, how we enrich and enliven the space with our presence, words and actions. And live it! Over and over again.

This is how we, as learning professionals (in all the ways that phrase can be understood), will arrive more consistently at the conference experiences we so often crave and unequivocally deserve.

 

image: (c) edifiedlistener