I used to think…

berry-blue-blueberries-70862

I used to think that I understood children and that therefore I could become a good teacher. Now I see that my understanding of children is only partial, and with regards to individual children, actually illusory. I think I understand them but really I’m just applying rough proxies which don’t work for this child. Or this child. So for some children I need to go back to square one and rethink everything I thought I knew about children and learn some new things about this child and break down my myths about understanding children and becoming a good teacher. I used to think I knew kids and now I see that my purpose is to learn kids, one at a time, always ready for a surprise.

 

I used to think that my strength as a teacher required standing my ground in the classroom; being firm and confident. Now I believe that my strength as a teacher requires being firm and confident in my capacity to be imperfect. I can admit mistakes. I can ask for help. I can do things over. I can apologize and ask how to be better. These things don’t just help me teach more effectively, they allow me to become a better colleague, friend, adult.

 

I used to think that in order to lead, you needed to have a title and get paid more. Now I see that it is possible to lead effectively by example; that people often find it easier to emulate and follow behaviors that they like and appreciate in others. I also see that leadership by example can go either way; it doesn’t have to be positive and constructive. Negative leadership is equally possible. That’s the conundrum. (Although few would admit to liking destructive behaviors, every time that we tolerate and accommodate them, we demonstrate where we really stand.) Given that, I try to set the example I (hope to) observe in others. I envision leadership less as a tower of relative importance and more of a circle of engagement with added facilitation responsibilities. There are no titles or formal recognition in this mode of leadership and it has the potential to have influence in some of the most unlikely places.

 

image CC0

I have some thoughts about parent-teacher conferences

As a teacher I enjoy the opportunity to sit with the parents of my individual students and to talk about their accomplishments their challenges and our relationship. There’s a similar structure to each of my conferences and although I teach about 130 students on average I feel like I know each of them well enough to speak to parents and say some things about each child individually.

First of all, I thank parents for coming.

Next, I ask: what have you heard about PE so far?

Whatever the response, the question puts the parents and their child in the spotlight. My task is to listen carefully.

Based on their responses I can begin to share my observations about their child or children with them. Most often I have plenty of good news to share with a few anecdotes of recent wins.

When I have difficulties to share or describe I spend a considerable amount of time providing context. I tell parents about the structure of our class: what the expectations are, where their child shows signs of struggle and I always emphasize the expectation of change over time. It’s vitally important to me that parents understand that each child is working on something; each child faces or will face a challenge of one kind or another. As will their teacher. Process, process, that’s what we’re about.

While it seems that conferences are built up as a sort of reporting structure where teachers prepare a sort of ‘show and tell’ about students and their progress to date, it’s also an opportunity for teachers to learn about families. In my case, parents are often eager to share some information about themselves and their child’s sport enthusiasms and disappointments; previous injuries or wonderings about potential areas of brilliance. In fact, parents often want to know if I perhaps have a hot tip as to which activity might offer their child the greatest joy or opportunity to shine, or both.

In these listening moments, I find all kinds of inspiration. These are the windows which allow me to envision a student more fully and accurately with plenty of light and the proper shading.  This is where the conversation becomes animated and we’re no longer focused on the nuts and bolts of Physical Education but the blossoming of a wonderful young person. I enjoy exploring possibilities with parents by asking about previous sports experiences and learning more about how students see themselves in various physical contexts.

swimming-course-619088_1920

“So what does your child enjoy doing?”

10 minutes. That’s how long I have to talk with parents about their child in my PE classes. For new parents I often focus on my observations of the child seems to have landed in their new school and how this seems to be playing out in PE. For veteran parents we can talk about new demands in the program and how their child is adjusting. What I love is the back and forth, the element of surprise for either of us at learning something new, the chance to put a concerned parent’s mind at ease about a difficulty.

This round I hosted about 40 conferences over two days. In the spring there will be more students in the mix as student-led versions become the norm. In these bursts of dialogue, I feed my calling to listen and respond with care. Honesty is at the forefront of my mind along with compassion and good will. I want us all – students, parents, teachers – to be successful because of each other.  Conferences are a chance for me to truly “use my words” and lay the foundation for student successes that stretch well beyond the gym and gallop all the way home.

 

image CC0 via Pixabay.

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

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.

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.

Screenshot (42)

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.

Screenshot (43)

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