15 titles and not nearly enough time

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline arrived in the mail today. I already read the library copy and decided I needed to have my own copy to underline and reread at will. It was that spectacular.

In the same shipment, my second copy of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo also arrived. This will be my loaner, the one I allow friends to borrow and receive enlightenment. That perhaps they will finally see what I see. But first I have to get my original underlined copy back.

On my nightstand I have a ridiculous stack of books from which I just returned Dear Martin by Nic Stone to the library, while Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Ayedemi rests on top, bookmark about a third of the way through. I’ve been reading more and more young adult fiction – to mix things up but also to rekindle a connection to fiction I thought was lost. Reading young characters who are brave, resilient, hopeful and a strange kind of wise helps me. I sleep better after surviving their travails and recovering their losses.

That pile has been accumulating for a while where a thick sturdy volume of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning patiently awaits my return. But it’s certainly not alone. Cathy Davidsons, The New Education is waiting its turn to be continued and as is Paying the Price by Sara Goldrick-Rab. Robin Kimmerer holds two spots in the pile with Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass, both of which offer me green space in the form of words and sentences. And balanced and open near the top is some theory and practical wisdom for my teaching: What If All the Kids Are White? by Derman-Sparks and Ramsey. Anti-Bias teaching with young students. I used to think my presence was enough – as that one, quite possibly the only black teacher a child may have in their school career to have a crucial impact. And it may be the case but it seems unlikely. I need to help teach anti-bias along with the rest of my colleagues. So I have more reading to do. Sandwiched somewhere in that pile is also my own skinny volume of poems in German that I published in February this year, Die Sprachbürgerschaft.

Meanwhile I have a stash of books I have read and reshelved but have not yet had a chance to really share or discuss; among them, Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks. This was a book that astonished and saddened me. Eubanks is a gifted reporter who conveys both the human tragedy at hand but also the faulty logic of those who would have us believe that more tech rather than less will benefit the greater good, when actually profit the greedier investor appears the more likely scenario. As the poor and vulnerable are subject to greater surveillance, scrutiny and deeper inequalities through algorithmic sorting, programming and predictions, the already weakened safety nets are at risk of being phased out or becoming downright inaccessible. I need to re-read and finally put more thoughts together on it.

Of course, I’ve also read a bunch of articles and blog posts that have also helped me want to do and be better. Jess L. wrote this blog post “Someone, Somewhere,” about LGBTQ safety for students in schools and I immediately shared it with counselors and administrators in my school. While I read Troublemakers with the #ClearTheAir group on Twitter, this podcast interview with author Carla Shalaby felt helpful in the aftermath of putting thoughts into practice.

Of course there are so many more good and necessary things to read. These are my snapshots today.img_20180806_122616

 

SOL Tuesdays: Some thoughts on The Marrow Thieves

It was my librarian friend who pressed the book into my hands. I wasn’t sure I had time. We just started the school year.

She knew.

I began reading The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline.

Fiction often throws me into disorientation which I somehow resent. I feel feeble-minded for not being able to keep up with the cast of characters and imagine them, each distinctly in my mind’s eye. Fiction can make me feel ‘less than’ sometimes: less than a strong reader, less than an attentive reader.

I read this story anyway which begins with the opening of a big bag of Doritos.

The fiction of The Marrow Thieves takes us into a dark, vicious future not very far away and every inch fathomable. That is both its magic and its grip. The tale it tells of another wave of destruction of indigenous populations across North America by none other the white colonizers. It’s a pillaging of a population which still maintains the ability to dream by those who have lost that same capacity. The native people are hunted for their bone marrow where their dreams are held.

I think it is the comprehensive idea of destruction that grabbed hold of me and did not let go. The narrative takes place in a time when climate change has wrought irreparable damage and environmental devastation defines landscapes more than anything else. Migration, resource scarcity, disease and insanity become the norm. And these are related as “The Story” told by the leader of a ragtag group of children and teens moving north through the bush evading “Recruiters” and others who might harm them.

One passage blew me away: “Soon they needed too many bodies, and they turned to history to show them how to best keep us warehoused, how to best position the culling. That’s when the new residential schools started growing up from the dirt like poisonous brick mushrooms.” (p. 89)

It’s often necessary to read about the struggles of others to understand what struggle even means.

I cannot remember reading a book and feeling so much fear, hope and kinship with the characters. While I prayed for resolution, I hardly expected it, though Dimaline’s writing which weaves story lines so gracefully offered reward enough regardless of the outcome.

My library friend knew I was ready. This was the fiction I needed to better see reality.

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