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

What I would tell you about #ECISPE18

I want to tell you about my last couple of days at a PE conference and it’s late and I imagine sleep would be a good idea about now.

I want to tell you how invigorating these days have been, how busy my mind has been, what a high it is to spend time with people who share the same kind of work and love it. What it’s like to be chatting with someone at the break and then crawling between their legs 30 minutes later in a volleyball drill.

Or what it feels like to meet an old friend whom I first met 13 years ago in Budapest at this conference, and who has taught on 4 continents since and yes, came here to Dusseldorf from Shanghai because she likes this conference better. Joy.

I could describe the apprehension I felt arriving on the first day, hand luggage still in tow, heading into the first session with nary a clue what to expect. And then how that hesitation melted away within minutes of moving gently to music with a roomful of men and women who also work in gyms and pools and on fields with kids.

Maybe I’d share a little bit about having Amanda Stanec walk up to me and give me the warmest welcome ever and how cool it is to be acknowledged and appreciated by someone whose work I sincerely admire.

I would definitely tell you about the morning I spent in a session on judo where I really, really wondered if I made the right choice. But then, Greg, our instructor playfully and gently led us from simple partner games to a couple of technique exercises to sparring. by the end I was twisting, turning, grabbing my partner; pushing, pulling and rolling to defend and attack. I laughed as I struggled to flip my partner, laughed even more when she lifted and flipped me like a hamburger. I learned more about myself in 40 seconds of full on sparring than in hours and hours of school organized professional development.

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And that’s the thing: this whole conference is dedicated to professional development. We are physical educators working to improve our teaching practice by practicing teaching, learning, demonstrating, discussing, and observing. This conference is professionals’ development – the kind we create for ourselves, the kind that sustains us for the long haul, the kind that invites us to question and re-evalute our practices, the kind that makes us leave loving our work, the kind that makes us come back for more year after year, if we can.

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Oh yeah, and maybe I’d tell you about the workshop I led and how well it was received and what great people showed up to share that time with me. But you know it’s late and all and it would take another blog post, but in the meantime here’s a link to a padlet which has some pics and the handout.

I’d tell you what a fantastic time I am having but instead, I think I’ll turn in.

#MarchForOurLives Speech

Vienna, Austria joined more than 800 other cities around the world in holding a solidarity demonstration with The March For Our Lives in Washington, DC on March 24th, 2018. Below is the text of my speech.

 

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Many people will say they fear public speaking more than anything. If we were to ask American school children about the things they most fear, by now it would not surprise us to hear them say they are afraid of being shot. At school. Because school shootings in the United States happen too often to remain abstract.

Thank you to Democrats Abroad Austria for inviting me to speak today. My name is Sherri Spelic. I am an American citizen, an educator, parent, and blogger.

We who live here in Austria enjoy the incredible privilege of relative safety. Gun deaths are rare here and when they happen, they quickly become headline news.

Today I want to share some of my own views along with some words from middle and high school students in the US who have responded to the latest incident of a mass school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14th of this year. I owe a special thanks to five of my Twitter colleagues who are teachers in public schools in Vermont, Georgia, Colorado, California and Oklahoma who supported my effort to feature student voices above all.

A high school student in Georgia wrote:

… gun control has always been a point of concern and debate for myself and my peers. I was born after the Columbine High School shooting, but I am old enough to vividly remember the day of the Sandy Hook shooting as well as the Parkland shooting.

I recently participated in the Druid Hills High School walkout as part of the national movement here in Atlanta. I surely can’t speak for every single person who participated at my school, but I myself felt a wide mix of emotions…

He goes on to describe apprehension, anger, determination and pride he felt as a result of protesting.

A sixth grade student in Vermont, Tess, writes about the purpose of their school walkout:

Our goal is to raise awareness about gun violence in schools and work to stop this. This isn’t just an excuse to get out of school. We really care, We want to be safe. We deserve to be safe.

It’s time for the adults in power to start listening to students. We walk into schools and we want to know it’s safe…

Listen also to an 8th grader, Orionna, who talks about her history in the shadows of school shootings:

I remember when I heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook. I was 9 and I remembered I cried and cried because those kids would not be home for Christmas with their families. … It’s not right that kids are going to school, scared that they might not go home that night, or that they might lose their best friend, or their siblings.

 

Imagine marking your time in school by the shootings you recall and where you were at the time. That’s exactly what many of these students have: a personal timeline of mass shootings in schools. And instead of enacting stringent gun control laws, we have subjected kids to more frequent lockdown drills while our lawmakers talk about arming teachers.

When Tess says, “We want to be safe. We deserve to be safe.” With our words we as a nation say, “of course, you do!” But kids quickly learn that the adults don’t mean it. The laws do not change. School shootings keep happening. The interests of the gun lobby are placed ahead of children’s immediate safety.

And while we’re on the topic of safety, remember please that our kids, our students, our grandchildren need more than tighter gun regulation to feel safe at school.

Every school needs counselors, special education teachers, English As Additional language teachers.

Test scores will tell you nothing about the wellness of a student body.

Every school needs adequate funding, resources and staffing.

There’s much more to keeping kids safe at school than reducing their risk of being shot at. And I can’t believe I have to say that out loud.

The fact that our legislators are scratching their heads about the connection here blows my mind.

If you’ve been following the Parkland teens closely you will  know that they have, in a remarkably short time, joined forces with young people in Latinx, Black and Native communities who have been combating gun violence for much longer. They are learning how gun violence plays out in poor neighborhoods, in urban areas, on reservations. There are significant differences. Among them the fact that police shootings of unarmed black and brown people likely pose a larger threat to teens of color than the prospect of a mass shooting.

Yesterday in response to the latest police killing in Sacramento, I tweeted: “what about those who are given guns but have NO control?” This is also gun violence affecting our communities that cannot go unaddressed. This, too, is gun violence rooted in toxic masculinity and corrupted power structures.

And the Parkland activists have opened their eyes to it. In an article for Teen Vogue, Emma Gonzales describes the approach they have taken:

“We Stoneman Douglas students may have woken up only recently from our sheltered lives to fight this fight, but we stand in solidarity with those who have struggled before us, and we will fight alongside them moving forward to enact change and make life survivable for all young people.”

These young people are showing us how it’s done. This is how you build bridges.

This is how you create a movement that is both focused and inclusive.

I want to close with some real talk for our legislators from an 8th grader, Harlan, who asks some tough questions:

Why do we keep letting these people murder innocent children when it is our LAWS that allow them to die?

What are you so afraid of, Congress? Why do you never do anything unless it’s hurting you? Or your husband or wife or child? Or are you afraid that the NRA will cut off your cash flow? There’s more to this country than just you! You need to stop being selfish and take action!”

I am hopeful that my own children and grandchildren will look back on this political moment as the one where our young people led us in the fight for safe schools and safe communities. And they won.

Thank you.

 

I delivered this speech at the March For Our Lives demonstration in Vienna, Austria (March 24th, 2018) organized by Democrats Abroad Austria. Student voices included in this piece were taken from speeches and letters forwarded to me by Christie Nold and Marian Dingle. Further thoughts regarding the conversation around gun violence protests in different community contexts provided by Shannon Carey, Jennifer Williams and Julia Torres were invaluable in pulling this speech together.

image (c) Spelic