16 Sentences

Perhaps I am very late to the party but I see now that capitalism and justice are incompatible.

The longer I write, the more I chafe against established structures in form, in genre.

Maybe it’s something about middle age but I’ve also started to hate my bras no matter how stretchy and temporarily comfortable.

I keep wanting out but without actually wanting to go out.

I wonder what anti-capitalist bookmaking looks like because I might want to do that.

Talking to my bestie on Zoom I just realized that my summer has been about loss and recovery.

After peak experiences my body goes through a phase of recalibration.

I need more rest.

I have an idea that’s so hot and trying to figure out a way to realize it while resisting a capitalist structure is blowing my mind wide open.

Much to my surprise, I may have a literary future in German.

I’ve made a lot of promises in the last 24 hours.

What makes me click on an essay that suggests laughter but is really about suffering?

I seek out evening sweetness as a private reassurance; sugar and rejection are fundamentally at odds.

We broke a family pattern today which was hard, and then fun.

No one tells you that show-and-tell in kindergarten exists to prepare us for adult office parties later in life.

The final sentence dreams of greatness and barely manages closure.

Summer Reading

When I was going into 10th grade at a new school, I encountered my first summer reading list. I believe I had to choose one novel from maybe 5 or 6 options and have finished reading it before the first day on campus. I chose Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have no idea what the other choices were or what made me pick that novel but I do remember reading it and being fascinated.

Reading as an assignment that turned out to be quite enjoyable. Yay!

As an adult, I’m a committed reader who enjoys the collection, discussion and contemplation of books, books, books. In that I am my mother’s daughter. What’s different, I suppose, is that I get to write about some of that reading and share it publicly. It also feels as if I simply read more than usual: more books, more fiction, more hours. Writing it down is more for my own benefit than anything else and sharing can’t hurt. Maybe there’s something in here for you.

4 book covers arranged in 2 X 2 layout: We Will Not Cancel Us by adrienne maree brown, The Fifth Season, NK Jemisin, The Prophets, Robert Jones, Jr.; Dear Senthuran, Akwaeke Emezi.

I started off the summer finishing up my sci-fi streak that had me reading three Ursula K. LeGuin novels in a row and continuing with my first N.K. Jemisin title, The Fifth Season. All of this new exploration of science fiction was set in motion by a single podcast episode, Crafting With Ursula: Social Justice and Science Fiction with adrienne maree brown. I knew basically nothing about LeGuin beforehand and afterwards I rushed to the library and checked out The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. Bowled over by LeGuin’s versatility, I picked one more, The Eye of the Heron, which charmed me maybe most of all three. Imagine, that’s only the backstory for why I picked up The Fifth Season.

While I knew that Jemisin is a Black woman author who has a remarkable track record in her field. I heard one of her award acceptance speeches (really worth your time!) and began following her on Twitter a few years back. Even so I wasn’t ready to spend time reading a genre I was convinced was not of real interest to me. On recommendation from my favorite librarian, I decided I was ready to tackle my first. And I was not disappointed. While I struggle to recall the details of the story line several weeks after reading, what struck me was Jemisin’s capacity for deeply original world building in really every aspect: societal structures, energy sources, languages, transportation, architecture, natural world – truly everything! Just breathtaking! And following adrienne maree brown’s assertion that social justice organizing and science fiction revolve around creating radically different worlds in the mind’s eye, I was able to see the possibility in a genre I had previously shunned. Yay!

Of course, brown’s Emergent Strategy has been on my radar for a while but this summer I felt more urgently drawn to a pamphlet she wrote in response to intra-movement conflict: We Will Not Cancel Us. She referenced it in the interview with David Naimon and it stuck with me. I’ve often felt uncomfortable with the dynamics of what she terms a “feeding frenzy” in response to a reported harm within community. She uses these pages to inquire what’s going on in those instances; to express her “unthinkable thoughts.” I suppose what I was looking for and also found were the kinds of affirming messages about the complexity and value of living and struggling in community. brown writes,

“I want us to do better. I want to feel like we are responsible for each other’s transformation, not the transformation from vibrant flawed humans to bits of ash, but rather the transformation from broken people and communities to whole ones.”

adrienne maree brown, We Will Not Cancel Us, p. 74

Partly in parallel I was reading Akwaeke Emezi’s Dear Senthuran, A Black Spirit Memoir. Now, I cannot tell you what I was expecting but the immediacy of each letter left me shook, rattled and/or moved. There was one passage that I promised myself to hold onto because I need/have needed/will need it:

We never understand how vast we are. We may spend the rest of our lives finding out that we have no borders, no boundaries, pushing into greater sizes, being both terrified and delighted when we discover there’s nothing there to stop us.

Akwaeke Emezi, Dear Senthuran, p. 149

I mean, what? and YES! I hesitate to say more but I felt seen while reading, collected, even. Emezi is a young, dynamic and eclectic artist whose insights on what it means to be alive, to be held on the earth in a particular body sang through me. There was a way that their analysis of self and the world laid bare some realities that I know as a middle aged person but had managed to avoid looking at. All in all, I felt strengthened by Dear Senthuran and need to get my own copy soon.

Imagine following that up with The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr., previously known to me as Son of Baldwin on Twitter. In June Jones announced his departure from social media in an open letter, “To Fare Well.” I kept that tab open for days. The letter felt personal and instructional. I continue to refer back to it. My decision to read The Prophets had to do with me trying to catch up with the culture.

Described as a Black queer love story set in the slaveholding South of the 1800s, The Prophets won me over early on with the rich cast of characters. (“Rich” is really inadequate here, forgive me.) Each one was surprisingly real to me. The story, however, and it’s mutifaceted telling are what sent me. The book is so expertly constructed – every detail contributes to the whole in a meaningful way. It’s not light reading but it is extremely tender in many parts. You just have to read it for yourself to see what I mean but wow, the whole package is simply astounding in all that it contains.

Book covers: EveryBody Looking by Candice Iloh, Painting of young black woman with long braids against background of brightly colored uneven rectangle shapes. Objects of Desire, Clare Sestanovich. Shows painting of several whole peaches and plums with a few cut pieces in between against a dark blue background.

Everybody Looking is a novel written in verse and it was my spontaneous YA choice for the summer. Fairly breezy reading about a young woman entering college and figuring out who she is and balancing that against who she believes she needs to be for various others: dad, mom, friends. Objects of Desire is a short story collection that I read in between other things. The stories worked like palate fresheners – crisp, tasty and fleeting. I should also add Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi here. It was such a fast read that I gobbled up in a couple of days. It’s also YA fiction and the prequel to PET which I adored.

On my Kindle, I worked my way through The Wake Up: Closing the Gap Between Good Intentions and Real Change by Michelle MiJung Kim which I now consider social justice essential reading, especially for the US context. Above all, I welcomed Kim’s focus on the importance of context, positionality and tolerating complexity. The messages are clear, her approach is transparent, and understanding of the challenges lucid. In response to the question: “What’s the point of even trying if we’re never going to be anticapitalist?” she writes,

But what if the answers reside within the trying? What if the tension is the point that breaks open the pathways – not to a simple, singular, and reductive solution but to multilayered, collective, and complex solutioning toward possibilities?

Michelle MiJung Kim, The Wake Up, ch. 4

I also added Patriarchy Blues to my e-reader stack. Authored by Frederick Joseph, this book surprised me with it’s nearly mixed-media approach to looking at patriarchy. Joseph uses personal anecdotes, poetry and essays to illustrate all the ways that we are constrained not solely by patriarchy but all the other systems of oppression that intersect with it and/or rely on its support. There are some choice insights that again remind us of the multiple roads we can travel towards social justice.

Near the end of the summer I took the opportunity to reread Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley Ford. I’m glad I did that because the second time around I got to think more about the writing and what it is that draws me to Ford’s voice. The openness, yes, and perhaps more than just openness, there’s a delicacy and care in the choices she makes in telling us about her family. I suppose I appreciated the struggle it took to get the book done; letting that part also surface felt meaningful for me. I don’t know how else to describe it.

2 book covers: The final Revival of Opal and Nev, white bold letters against red background, with black shadow of guitar in center with side of a black woman's face in guitar. AiWeiWei, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows. White bold letters against background of smaller images of art sculpture models of various colors.

Almost done… The last book I finished is the one I started early on and put aside. Recommended by a dear friend, I wanted to find its charm but it took a minute. The Final Revival of Opal and Nev is like nothing I’d ever read before. A novel, but in oral history form. And it’s a debut by Dawnie Walton. At the end of the summer, once traveling was done and we were back to household lounging, I guess I was ready for this multiperspective story to claim some real estate in my brain. Once I got into the characters and the larger context I was absolutely fascinated by the complexity with such a careful, light touch. Nothing is overdone. Each voice maintains a radical authenticity that strikes me a remarkable achievement. Again, a wonderful revelation of what young authors are bringing into the world already.

Last book on my nightstand is a memoir I picked up at my local bookstore. While I have know the name Ai Wei Wei, I didn’t know much about his art or the source of his prominence. It’s interesting to read his telling of his parents’ histories and recognize the expanse of my own ignorance of Chinese history specifically and of Asian history more generally. I suspect I will be working on this read for a while. It’s very personal, real and for me, uniquely instructional. I’m looking forward to the ways this book will stretch me into new areas on interest and investigation.

This post turned out to be way longer than I anticipated. But that’s ok. It’s only words and time and a record of significant contributions. Once in a while it’s good to look back and remember where we got stuff: ideas, quotes, questions, insights. My reading life keeps me open and curious. That is actually a gift for the ages, friends. Truly.

20 Good Reasons

for spending my adult years in school:

  • People person, socially interactive
  • professional autonomy
  • Regularly scheduled restarts
  • structural predictability
  • Wide but manageable margin of unpredictability
  • tangible appreciation
  • recognizable progress
  • dynamic relationships
  • Huge range and variety of relationships
  • library access (Wild!)
  • Librarian friends
  • Witness others’ growth
  • physically active days
  • music selection of choice
  • experimentation belongs
  • space and time for humor
  • intellectual challenge
  • emotional workout
  • continued learning
  • Possible to show and receive love

This will be the 27th school year at my institution and my 30th year of teaching. I know my why; it’s selfish and social at the same time. My why is multifaceted and contextual, elastic and generous. There’s no one word to capture the whole. No way to condense all the benefits down to a spunky slogan. I keep choosing school because school (and children and colleagues and families and all the energy wrapped in that) choose me. In school, I am, in fact, chosen.

Sherri - Black woman staring into camera, eyebrows raised, brow furrowed. black mask over nose & mouth, wearing a black T-shirt with dotted outline of cat's head with white grin of sharp teeth (Cheshire Cat reference).
Chosen, still, after all these years.

Story and Maybe Not

Debbie Millman says that after years of offering her workshop on visual storytelling all over the world she has found that there are two main stories: of love or of loss/longing.

I have told myself and others that I am not much of a storyteller. That is both true and false. We are, as humans, all storytellers. I do not see myself as someone who relates stories well or with great relish.

A title I do claim, however, is listener. Listening is my wheelhouse and making sense of the stories people share feels like a calling.

So when a loved one I have not seen in several years takes the time to tell me parts of her story I never knew, I listen intently.

I learn about myself when I hear you tell me about yourself. My response to your story tells its own story. What you choose to share reveals another story about trust and intimacy. As I listen I become a part of your next stories.

I notice how age calls us to learn our stories by repeating them over and over. We tell the same story in different contexts to show that we know our own minds. We tell the same stories to confirm not only who we are but that we are. Often, the truth and the story do not need each other as much as we think they do.

Not every situation demands a retelling. That is a blessing.

If you listen, you may be surprised to hear which story your own voice is eager to tell.

To create a story from scratch, to build a world far from my own strikes me as by near impossible. I am grateful to the artists who manage it, who demonstrate what’s possible. I sit close and listen.


I began this post while I was still elsewhere but now I'm here, I'm back, I've returned.
Re-turn, to turn again. Where I find myself without knowing exactly what I'm looking for.
A moment passes and instantly we traffic in the past. What came before is neither news nor novelty,
it's memory - unreliable and fuzzy, a liquid relic in a leaky container.
A jumble of instances, experiences within and without, so much to remember and forget.
Re-member, to piece together again. An instinct with difficulty, this process.

I am back and I remember. I return and tell myself stories.
I am here in the now and it is already past. 
I return and pave the way to forget.


Story requires permission, right? Along the way to becoming it is subject to decision-making. The storyteller makes the rules.

What I hope you’ll hear could not be farther from my control. I release a story to the wind and its landing will always be a form of mystery. Understand: a feature, not a bug.

Author of fragments, assembler of impressions, writer/unwriter.

I’m back, I’ve returned and the exquisite dilemma of expression teases me with its dance.

White feathers displayed horizontally against black background,
image credit

Sololitude

This is the view.

Leafy green view of woods across a greenish lake surface, dry yellow grass and rooftops of houses in foreground.
For a few summer days this place is my own
backwooded insect rich heat resistant spot
A peace
a piece
apart
alone.

Space for writing, reading, cooking, eating
slowpaced, downshifted, nature sounding spot
a gift
a gem
an absence
a departure.

License for imagination and doing nothing both
who I am what I want what I see and don't
a blessing
a curse
a bending
a stance.



I digress

Highlight Reel and Analysis

I recently experienced two major professional successes and feel a need to unpack the what, how and why of both. The first was the elementary school field day that I organized after a two year hiatus and the second was a full faculty professional development event at an international school across town. Although I thought I would look at these events separately, it dawned on me that considering them in parallel could offer some useful insights that I might not otherwise catch.

Painted over photograph of group of children on a blue crash mat being pushed by a few students in the back ground.
The Freight Truck in action! (Crash mat on scooters)

For openers, I need to provide a bit of context for each event:

Field Day took place on the next to last day of our school year. It involved all elementary students who participated in 3 distinct multi-aged shifts (4th grade + PK/KG, 2nd + 5th grades, and 3rd +1st grades). Each large group was divided into 9 mixed level teams which then moved through 9 activity stations together in the space of about an hour.

The all-faculty professional development session was scheduled for an hour and 40 minutes and was designed to get participants thinking and talking about dominant culture in both broad and specific terms. There were over 160 folks on site and it was my second visit to the campus as a speaker.

How do I know the events were successful?

Participants told me!

At field day, it was the smiles, laughter and pure delight among students which provided the telltale signs that the plan was working. Additionally, several colleagues commented on the smooth organization. They marveled at the students’ relative independence and shared how much they enjoyed themselves!

At the PD session, it was the level of buzz during and after the session that wowed me. Several people thanked me individually and there are few words to describe the satisfaction of seeing colleagues so deeply engaged in conversation with each other around the given topic. It was marvelous and wildly affirming.

What contributed to the successes?

In both cases I had remarkable autonomy to build the event that I thought would yield the best results for participants. As my friend M pointed out, I was trusted to use my professional judgment to get the job done. I’m grateful for that insight because it was not at all on my radar. It means I felt empowered and supported already in my planning to correctly assess the needs and desires of my audience.

I applied my specific knowledge of my audience and catered to their anticipated goals. Since Field Day is set up for students between the ages of 4 and 11, it takes some real thought to select activities that will be both accessible and fun to play for all levels. My strategy for addressing this was to include a fair amount of choice at different stations, like building with hula hoops and/or stacking cups, shooting at a bigger or smaller soccer goal, swinging on the climbing rope from a higher or lower platform. Simple options that make a big difference.

Previous to the PD session I met with organizers to hear about their hopes and aims for the opportunity. Those conversations were clarifying and informative for all of us. I was able to reiterate my role as facilitator, not as a DEIJ consultant. I also understood that my session should help prepare the audience for a follow-up discussion of concerns specific to their community.

I planned both events with maximum participant activity in mind. Field day is clearly about kids being active and having fun with each other. Stations were familiar to students and the multi-aged groups allowed for peer teaching and support where necessary. So the teachers supervising the stations could mostly step back and let the kids get on with the game with very little intervention. For the adult PD, I built in two significant chunks of time where they were in dialogue with each other: a 15 min dyad on a walk and then a 6-8 member breakout session for about 25 minutes. My primary message to them: Their listening to each other would be more important and useful than time spent only listening to me. Their dialogue becomes the basis for what happens next and must therefore be prioritized.

What are some foundational beliefs that show up?

  • I trust my participants to do their best.
  • I am conscious of my role as facilitator – one who makes things easier, accessible, worth doing.
  • I love the idea of handing over the keys to the experience to participants. The content is structure we build and/or enter.
  • I plan for my own enjoyment.
  • I design opportunities for participants to learn from and support each other.
  • I apply time boundaries appropriate to the occasion and audience.

I’ve written before about the joys and challenges of facilitating groups. It is work that I continue to prize because of its potential to truly shift perspectives. It’s deeply creative and relational work that in many ways brings out my best qualities. In the role of facilitator I find that I am inherently affirming of the folks in my sphere, I’m able to show up for them in my most authentic form, even if I’m on the stage holding the mic.

That said, I am aware that I have no desire to make it my day job. I probably love it so much because it’s intermittent and highly contextual. It’s the opposite of a grind. There’s a relief in seeing how this work helps me remember who I am and to what ends.

Field Day Before

This is a before post. In a few days I expect there will be an after post. I’ve organized a modified Field Day for our elementary students that will run tomorrow morning. It has been three years since we last had anything comparable. Most kids have no real memory of what “Field Day” actually looked like. Which means that this year is a bit like starting from scratch.

The Past

In the past we had a whole school event involving 18 multi-age teams moving through 16 activity and two rest stations in the space of about 2 hrs 15min. 5th graders served as leaders and would marshal their groups from station to station while playing along within the 6 minute intervals. It was usually a highlight that garnered a lot of praise from students and colleagues after the fact.

Right now

We’re still in a pandemic and although masking is now only selectively required in school (i.e., when there’s a case in a classroom group), taking at least some precautions makes sense. Instead of an all-school, everybody-moving-at-one-time event, I decided to scale the whole thing down to two grade levels (around 100 -120 kids) at a time for about an hour. Tomorrow morning we’ll run Field Day three different times between 8:30 and 12:00.

As a way of building back towards large multi-age groups, I tried to put different grade levels together who normally might not have much to do with each other. I also tried to get the whole groups balanced numerically in order to guarantee manageable group sizes. Having multi-age groups was a kind of non-negotiable for me. There’s something very special about putting children into groups and asking them to yes, have fun together, but to also take care of each other as they go. And the dynamics of multi-age groups changes the games entirely. Few of the games are particularly competitive. If so, the competition happens in pairs or trios and is remarkably short lived. The goal at each station is to play as long as there’s time. When you’re a 4th grader playing alongside a Kindergarten student, you’re going to show up differently than if you’re surrounded exclusively by your peers.

The Games

Planning activities that will appeal to and work for students between 4 and 11 years old takes some practice and thinking. Throughout the year our students have built up a repertoire of games of low organization that are familiar and easy to manage on their own. Field Day is like a greatest hits album of fun, easy to play activities. And even for kids who haven’t played these games often, there are plenty of kids who have and who can explain (often better and more efficiently than an adult). Although there will be teachers available at each station, I’ve asked my colleagues to hang back as much as possible and allow the kids to show how capable they are.

The Organization

An event like this has lots of moving parts AND the kids are prepared. They know the activities. They’ve seen the layout of the gyms and understand how stations work. The vast majority of them are literate and can read signs, pictures, maps. We believe they can manage it and they absolutely will. I’ve asked my best organized administrator and someone from his team to be the timekeepers, to help us stick to our schedule. My classroom teacher colleagues are sufficiently informed and will get their kids to the event in time. Water fountains and toilets are in relatively close proximity to all the different sites. Kids should all be wearing name tags with the number of their starting station, so if anyone gets lost, based on the time we should be able to locate their group pretty quickly. Also, there are only 9 possibilities, and within that range, each classroom group can only be a part of 3 teams, so I’m not worried about kids getting lost.

The anticipation

I’m writing this now to remind myself that my colleague and I put a lot of thought and effort into crafting this event. I’m feeling confident that everything will go as well as it possibly can. Of course there will be glitches. That’s a given. But there will also be a lot of joy and marvel and care. That’s what I’ll be on the lookout for: the smiles, the hand-holding, the new friendships, the adoring looks, the wild fun, the screams of delight and surprise. I’ve been watching these kids all year and tomorrow they will shine again. I know it.

Painted photo in pastel colors, four boys with hula hoops are building a standing structure in a gym space.
Teamwork makes the dream work. (Image by S. Spelic)

Witless Perseverance

Organizational mourning is a thing, I've decided. It's a putting off of what you could do today, could have done yesterday, might have done weeks ago yet still the task goes undone, hour after hour, day after day, week after week. Your organization, that is you, your personal capacity, or in this case, incapacity to do what ought to be done - all of that, is stalled. Your ability to plan and execute has run aground. You are organizationally stuck. In the mud that might as well be quicksand; you are making no progress. That much is evident. Your task immobility has roots, is rooted in an ill-defined sadness: a pervasive, persistent dread that renders you limp and distracted and distressed all at the same time. You are in mourning. You are grieving a loss you cannot easily name, a loss that makes you seek out the difference between lonely and lonesome only to find that in the American vernacular they are said to be the same. Loss that makes lonely, loss that makes lonesome - same, same. There you are, there you find yourself without really having to look, ah, submerged and silent in the throes of your organizational mourning. 

But wait, what about this? Perhaps what you mean is not organizational mourning but procedural grief: the prolonged reluctance to act in accordance with a known number and sequence of steps which stems from residual and cumulative sadness and/or potentially, despair. Procedural grief - a deep sense of loss preventing or blocking forward momentum created by taking concrete action. 

The habit becomes one of pressing onward, groping your way through eventualities while still managing to avert disaster with surprising regularity. The lights stay on, you continue going to work, time passes and you do not dissolve. You keep yourself and the tasks that dog you in a time-worn holding pattern; circling, circling, never landing. 

Calling it as you see it, calling it as you feel it, calling it out, calling it by its name, calling it heads, then tails. Called it. Whether in grief, in mourning, in sadness, in place, you make the call. Call forth, call back, call attention, call home. Do not despair, this fog will lift. You will proceed. You will accomplish and complete. Hold your pattern for now. Let your organization mourn, let your procedures acknowledge grief, accept the task and the disorientation it provokes, you shall not melt.
Photo by Joey Kyber on Pexels.com

Hide and Seek: On Kids, Power and Resistance in Education (OTESSA 22 Keynote)

Image by S. Spelic

Below is the text of my keynote talk for the Open Technology in Education, Society and Scholarship Association given on Tuesday, May 17th, 2022. A recording of the talk will be published later. The slides to the talk are here.

Welcome

I’m truly honored to have this opportunity to be in community with you today. I want to thank the OTESSA organizing committee of Valerie Irvine, Terry Greene, Aras Bozkurt and Kathy Snow for the kind invitation to speak.

Getting to this moment has been a process. Not just for me, I imagine, but for all of us. What have we each done and needed to do in order to be here, be present, right at this current moment?

Pause for a minute and consider all the actions you and I have taken to be in the same time and space together. I’ve closed my door, arranged my lighting and tech set-up, cued up my slides, turned my phone off, closed up all those precious tabs in my browser, had a glass of water… and that’s just within the last hour.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the fact that however we got here, we relied on other people in ways large and small to make it possible.

Introduction

I chose this topic or perhaps I should say the topic chose me. Around the time that I proposed the title I was faced with a problem: several of my students were resisting my instruction in a lot of different ways. And truth be told, I was struggling in deciding how to deal with it. 

So, this title alludes to not only my specific situation but also the never ending context of teaching and learning systems. Even as we pursue our interests and attempt to satisfy our curiosity as learners, we are also negotiating power dynamics. As educators tasked with the responsibility of conveying knowledge and engaging students’ thinking, it’s very common for us to experience learners who resist our pedagogical offerings. There’s hiding and there’s seeking. There’s movement and there’s stalling. There’s clarity and there’s confusion.

What I hope we can do together is consider several of the ways we interpret learner resistance and also acknowledge the both helpful and hopeful means we have to lessen its reach and impact in the classroom without diminishing the personhood of our students.

A necessary digression

One of the miracles of this particular interaction – that is, me, an elementary physical education specialist addressing you, an international audience of educators, scholars, thinkers with a particular interest in open technology and education – is how unlikely it is and would have been 15 or even 10 years ago. 

I am here in no small part because of a collection of networked circumstances that flow through one specific digital platform: Twitter. Without Twitter, I doubt that I would have found the types of audience and community for my writing and thinking that have enabled me to appear before you now as a keynote speaker. This is not simply about follower counts or a niche form of mircocelebrity. Rather, my engagement on Twitter has been life-altering, life- enhancing and often life-giving. The friendships, deep conversations and ongoing connections that have arisen from showing up, showing myself and showing care mean the world to me. These are the connections that I bring to bear here, today. My intellectual world is broader, brighter and emotionally sustaining because of so many connections made on a certain bird app.

That means that the recent talk of new ownership has felt threatening and surprisingly personal. Without knowing exactly what’s ahead, recognizing the frailty and vulnerability of the neighborhoods that we’ve built online has been deeply sobering but not entirely surprising.

I say this as a Black educator of young children.

I say this as a Black American woman writer who no longer shies away from the mic.

I say this as an elementary educator who has formed deep, meaningful connections with colleagues across a spectrum of institutions and disciplines.

I say this as a middle-aged Black American woman contemplating the loss of a well curated, life-changing platform.

We can all still watch, wait and hope and against hope that the worst does not transpire. At the same time, let us have no illusions about the durability of for-profit platforms as reliable containers for our dreams of social justice.

I mention all this to situate my talk in a larger, yet distinctly personal context. While we contemplate learner refusal and resistance, I am also considering my own instances of resistance and willingness to adapt to new situations. 

Throughout this talk, you’ll notice that I have feelings about all of these things.

A note about the images on the slides: several of these are photographs that I have digitally altered with LunaPic to offer an artistic flair and also to preserve the privacy of my students. It means a lot to be able to share my students and our spaces with you in this way. 

About me in PE

As you’ve heard, I am a PE specialist at the elementary level. Telling you about my context must also contend with the overt and covert associations happening in your mind with regard to the topic of “elementary physical education.” Consciously or not, a compare and contrast machine is running in the background. Our sense-making relies on calling forth whatever resources our minds have to offer at the moment. Before I continue, I want to ask you to please respond to this prompt: 

What comes up for you when you think back to your own childhood experiences in PE? 

If you’re willing, please share your reflection in the chat.

Asking adults this question is often fraught. Elementary PE can bring up really awful things for some folks, I know. I regret that but it is a frighteningly common reality: humiliation, physical injury, significant emotional damage. At the same time, it also illustrates a teaching and learning dynamic characterized by deliberate power imbalances, a frequent focus on competition and ranking, and a potentially widespread dismissal of students who do not conform to a specific athletic norm. Of course this is neither the whole nor only story, but it’s the one we are more likely to hear in the public sphere and that matters.

Physical Education as a field has come a very long way and the current mission statements, national standards and recent research, the emphasis on healthy social emotional development within and alongside physical development has become commonplace. Cooperative, team-building activities are firmly embedded in programs around the world. Wider ranges of movement options are being offered to students in the hopes of encouraging lifelong physical literacy and engagement.

The key here and in any conversation, really, is to make space for whatever ideas, perceptions, emotions we may be bringing to a topic first.

My students tend to do this automatically:

Me: Friends, we’re starting our soccer unit…

Them: “ Oh, I hate soccer!” 

“Yay! Can we play a match?”

Add to that the various body language expressions of dread or exuberance. Their messages in such situations come in loud and clear.

That said, it’s important to understand that my students share a few fundamental priorities when they come to the gym. They have expectations and standards.

  • They arrive looking for fun.
  • They want to play with their friends.
  • They want to challenge themselves and be challenged to varying degrees but in the right measure.

[Repeat each with appropriate image]

As their teacher, I of course have choices:

  • I can focus on planning in ways which incorporate these priorities.
  • Or not.

I have learned, often the hard way, what happens when I do not take student priorities into account:

They resist, they refuse, they avoid.

Examples of student resistance

Let me give you a couple of examples:

Several years ago when my training as a coaching professional was still fresh, a group of first graders were sitting on the gym floor watching me put down markers for our next activity. The longer I took, the louder they became. I stopped what I was doing and asked: You all just got very loud while I was setting up, what is it that you want me to understand?

They responded rapid fire: We want to have fun! This is boring! We want to play!

“So with your noise you’re telling me that I’m taking too long, I’m keeping you from having fun. I’m sorry. Let’s fix that!”

I remember the situation so clearly because it may have been the first time that I had ever asked students such a question and actually heard their response on a visceral level. I literally ‘stood corrected’ and we were able to proceed.

More recently among my youngest learners I was finding it hard to get them to participate in concert – meaning that they were all over the place. Herding cats syndrome. Also, my responses were not always helpful: frustration, exasperation, anger. So many individual cases of resistance and outright refusal. 

I clearly needed to rethink my approach.

That’s how I landed on obstacle courses as a possible remedy. I created them for nearly every lesson. Obstacle courses satisfied several criteria:

  • They are fun and exciting.
  • Students can move through them autonomously for the most part
  • It’s a recognizable pattern students can quickly make sense of
  • They provide lots of practice of different movement skills

 Watching students line up on their own without a struggle was the telltale sign that I was onto something.

In that same group I also made story time a fixture at the end of class. I read one or two picture books that I select from the library. Of all the things that I offer these learners in my PE class, nothing has been as reliably unifying and compelling as the read-aloud. I mean, who knew?

Accepting Resistance; Working Around and With It

What I’ve learned from students and experience is that resistance is part of the bargain we enter in education. 

  • Students resist things that they fear, dread or feel they cannot handle.
  • Students resist not being regarded as individuals
  • Students resist when their contextual priorities go unacknowledged.

Now, I’m going to repeat those statements, but replace “students” with “educators”

  • Educators resist things that they fear, dread or feel they cannot handle.
  • Educators resist not being regarded as individuals
  • Educators resist when their contextual priorities go unacknowledged.

See what I did there? I’m talking about student resistance, yes and, I want us to also consider our own instances of resistance. There’s a connection. Just saying.

Please keep that in mind as we go.

But now, back to students.

Resistance (and refusal) are forms of power at our disposal. Children use resistance frequently in my classes. There are plenty of things they are asked to do which, in the words of Bartleby, the Scrivener, they would “prefer not to.”

Their resistance is both physical and metaphorical.

  • When asked to make all gender groups, they drag their feet.
  • When asked to create groups that are balanced in terms of skill and enthusiasm, they take their sweet time.
  • When asked to replicate a skill as demonstrated, they reinvent the wheel.
  • When asked to hustle up and get started, they dawdle …

We have on the one hand, the adult-teacher demand and expectation of certain responses and on the other hand, we have students demonstrating, well … if you really think about it: 

Will, Autonomy, agency, creativity

And it drives us nuts? (ok, drives me nuts)

What I mean is, it rubs my ego the wrong way. What I mean is, I want to have things my way. I resist their resistance. There’s power and we struggle over who gets to hold it.

Let’s take a step back. I offer you this poem to illustrate.

What Is Going On?

Refusal in a world where choices are few
Or not obvious
To say no
To rather not/ also to choose otherwise
Where choice exists but is not advertised.

What happens?
I/we ask
What is going on?
There’s a confusion

An assumption or series of assumptions
Dictates
Our response
Which is an active interpretation of what we believe
We’re seeing
Measured against 
What we thought should be happening.
Ah, a disconnect.

We ask about/for understanding
We are seeking clarity
A way out of the confusion
A way out of the cognitive mismatch.

Again,
What is going on?
A way of asking
Why
Are you not doing what I expected
In the way I expected?

Why 
Don’t your actions correspond to the 
Picture in my head?
Why, I am asking,
Are you not reading my mind
Correctly?

Why 
Are we visibly at odds between
My thinking and your doing?

Why 
Is your aim to be more you
And less me?

Let’s pause here. What do you notice? What do you wonder?

I penned this poem while asking myself what it is I really want to get across during our time together. I’m asking myself (and by extension, us) to take another look at the student behaviors we typically identify as resistance or refusal.

I often ask students: What is going on? 

When I might do better by asking: What is it that you want/need me to understand?

And I would probably do well to ask: What else can I see in my students’ behaviors? 

Towards an Irresistible Pedagogy

Thinking about and through all of these questions has helped me recognize what I’m trying to do in my classes. Some kind of resistance will always be there. What can I do to make this (lesson, class, experience) irresistible to students?

I use “irresistible” as aspirational rather than as fact.

Here’s what I’ve figured out so far:

  • It is deeply relational and requires being our whole selves 
  • It is visibly responsive to student priorities
  • It includes apologies where necessary
  • It is inherently adaptive

Let’s talk about those in turn:

Relational – 

I have to develop some kind of relationship with each of my students. It begins by learning their names and how to pronounce them correctly. I observe them carefully in order to notice their unique access points. This one loves cartwheels, while that one fears balls; another one tends to blurt out during instructions, while their classmate will hardly say “boo” in class. These details form the basis of our year together. At the same time, my students get to know me. That I’m kinda strict, I remember names and I can do a pretty good cartwheel.

Relational also means that I think about my students when choosing my attire for the day: fairy tale hoodie? Fruit shaped earrings? Broccoli or strawberry socks? These details matter. Changing my hairstyle or shoes can never go unnoticed. These can be great conversation starters or just reminders that I’m a person with particular tastes. These are more crumbs on the path of getting to know Mrs. Spelic.

Visibly responsive – 

Along the same lines, I try to plan activities that will appeal to my students. I only make promises that I can keep. Although students will ask me every lesson if today is Awesome Gym Day, they know that it will happen and I’ll give them ample warning. 

It also matters how the gym is set up, what’s written on the board, which equipment is in view? These provide clues that students parse like expert detectives. Reading the agenda on the board allows them to confirm their suspicions.

And of course they press me with further requests which I most likely cannot accommodate on the spot. I note their requests, however, and hold onto them for future lessons. And when I say no, I can cite a good reason.

Includes apologies

The most common injuries in my classes are hurt feelings. When students come to me to share a complaint about a classmate, I often ask if the other person already said sorry. The response is usually “no.” 

Irresistible assumes that we’re going to make mistakes and fall short of our proclaimed goals. 

It means that I model using apologies to start over and acknowledge doing the wrong thing. My students learn that we’re not in class in pursuit of perfection. No, we’re in class to build something useful and interesting with each other. To do that we have to be prepared to stop and unpack what went wrong. And we all practice listening, even when it may feel like the hardest thing to do.

Inherently adaptive

Of course, my students and I have to be prepared for changes during our time together. We may run out of time to do all the activities written on the board. Or discover that we’re missing the skill level to play a certain game. Also no two groups, even at the same grade level are ever the same. Above all, it has helped to let go of my expectations of stasis.

There are some things I can relatively easily identify as “irresistible” for the vast majority of students:

  • First and foremost, Awesome Gym Day,
  • But also the team building activity, Bridges.
  • Choosing their own partners and groups
  • Having music on in class
  • Fun on their terms,
  • Being heard, seeing their ideas put into practice
  • When I wear my Lego earrings.

To capture the conundrum of sharing all this with you while also wondering if it even makes sense or holds value, I offer you another poem: 

“What I mean by irresistible”

Look at me, look at this
Me trying to tell you ‘bout something irresistible
A pedagogy of all things! Pathways to learning, 
Means of instruction
Irresistible, my foot!

On the other hand,
What you know about kids
And movement and play?
Given the chance, kids can make
Nearly anything a game.

What I’m saying, what I’ve learned is
Just not to mess it up
Irresistible respects desires
Irresistible salutes the right challenge
Irresistible knows how to kick it
And have fun

What I’m saying, what I’ve learned is
We make awesome the standard;
We are always aiming 
For satisfaction, this way, then that
Sometimes we make it, sometimes not

Make awesome the standard
So we know what to do with choice
When we have it
 know how to pursue our heart’s desire
Even going solo
We learn how to try and fail
And try again

Irresistible means I have to let go
 means I have to stop resisting
means I have to acknowledge the wealth
Of drive, creativity and self
Running wild across the canvas
Of our class

Irresistible is about making options 
Visible, legible, real
Irresistible is about discovering possibility
In the tiniest thing
Irresistible is about learning the truth
That control is rarely a monopoly

So, no, it’s not an answer
Or a solution, please note.
It’s an aperture to look through
Once, then again
A flight of fancy disguised as work
A chance to see
 as if you hadn’t been looking
All along

What might “irresistible” look, sound and feel like in your context? 

Space for negotiation in our pedagogy?

Irresistible pedagogy has no interest in perfection or some (marketable) manufactured ideal; rather it’s about discovering the things, the conditions that keep us in the game; that keep us wanting to come back and practice a little more. Just enough of the right stuff and close watch on avoiding the worst stuff. From all sides.

Just enough of the right stuff – for our students, for ourselves, for and also from our institutions

A close watch on avoiding the worst stuff – especially in our institutions as well as in our practices.

Irresistible pedagogy tries to hold breathing space for change, adaptation, and sharing power.

As illustrations I want to share two very special valentines that I received from students last year and this year. The first from a 4th grader reads: “Dear Mrs. Spelic, thank you for sharing all the power with me!” 

And the second, from a 5th grader: “Dear Ms. Spelic, You are a great PE teacher and make the best out of terrible situations.” 

These both remind me of the work we, my students and I, are doing with and on each other. Reading each I feel seen, known and utterly understood. I mean, “make the best out of terrible situations…” 

Troubling the waters before we go

Take 3 minutes to think about what we’ve talked about so far. How is it landing? What questions might you have?

One of the questions I have to ask is: Does my notion of an irresistible pedagogy assume a certain level of privilege? Given my particular context and relative positionality, how can it not?  I am a veteran employee in a well resourced institution. I enjoy considerable professional autonomy and feel trusted to use my judgment in implementing our curriculum. I have the space and freedom to engage students in ways that highlight their agency and decision-making capabilities. And this approach is supported in my particular setting.

What if I were not party to these several advantages? Would I still be as open to sharing power and fostering student choice as much as now? I wonder and I cannot say. 

Could it be that it is easier to share power when you feel you have some power to begin with?

As I’ve offered stories from my own experience and attempted to bundle them into a way of looking at my work, these questions about the role of privilege have needled me throughout. It’s no coincidence that the title includes “Hide and Seek”. However compelling the idea of an irresistible pedagogy may seem, we need to be clear about the conditions that support its pursuit and sustainability. What might an irresistible pedagogy hide or obscure? Who is at liberty to seek out or provide what could be deemed irresistible by students or teachers? What happens if hide and seek is not a game but a survival strategy? Does “irresistible” stand a chance?

What if hide and seek is what is required of you to keep your job or to protect and serve students? What good is an irresistible pedagogy then?

Never Done, Always Beginning
What I’m learning, what I’m seeing is that
Just one thing 
Is hardly a thing
Because it cannot serve
All of our needs today
Or tomorrow

Just one thing
Is hardly a thing
Because we need more tools
For many tasks
Both seen and unseen

If I try to build something
I hope my students will want

It doesn’t mean that they 
Should never learn to struggle

It doesn’t mean that they 
Should never learn to protest

It doesn’t mean that their
Wants won’t change shape or direction

If I try to build something 
I hope my students will want

It means I’m striving to
Champion their independence

It means I’m striving to
Help them choose wisely

It means I’m striving to
Let go of my need to control the outcome

If my students and I build something
We find useful

If my students and I build anything at all
We must build imaginations

If my students and I build 
A city of care

A province of justice
A nation of acceptance

We are never done 
And always beginning.

The End

I’m going to stop here and encourage us to rest. I hope that I have sparked your imagination and offered some nourishing food for thought. The theme of the Otessa Conference is Critical Change. My students are living exemplars of critical change. They demand change with their needs out front. They use questions to investigate ideas. When they resist, avoid and refuse instruction, they usually have cause. 

If my aim is to build something irresistible for my students, it is clear that I must also do that with my students. They are fierce, savvy and also caring negotiators. 

If the notion of “irresistible pedagogy” seems far-fetched or unrealistic to you, I imagine that you have reasonable cause. Which is why it is key to interrogate what this concept might be hiding or obscuring? How might irresistible pedagogy be understood as less than inclusive or just?

I raise these questions at the end again as reminders that like our learners,

We are never done 

And always beginning.

Thank you.

Women Writing Nature

closeup of a thistle pods, after they have blossomed.
Nature & The Outdoors by Lafayette Wattles is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
Because I don't know where to start, I will.
It occurs to me that among my readings I am listening to women in nature, women
gardening, bird watching, describing flora, attending to clouds and winds.
Women digging in dirt, discovering insects, rodents and snakes, these women.
they tell me about their insides by capturing the complexity of their outsides
I read and I listen, placing a hand over my heart, hearing my full laugh.
Women outdoors and indoors seeing double
seeing more because they must
seeing twice because it's a habit
seeing over and over because that's how you make yourself sure when you're not.

These women in nature, talking of nature, defining nature
making sense. Sense making women talking nature walking nature stalking nature.
Naming flowers and weeds, breeds and seeds; clocking reasons and seasons
and they tell me all about loss
in ways I understand
in ways that make sense
in ways that tell me I'm not the one who's confused. These women
in nature.

Of feathers, fur, nests and burrows; mating, preying, hatching and losing.
Of blue jays, red wings, yellow tails and cottonmouths
Of chokecherries, gooseberries, honeysuckle, and rambling roses
Of grasshoppers, crickets, spiders and monarch butterflies
Of compost, fertilizer, peat and the true composition of dirt
Of becoming, abandoning, returning, adapting
These women writing on nature
The nature of these women
writing 
on nature
because it's where we are
because it's what we are
yet so oblivious, 
it hurts. 

Dedicated to Margaret Renkl, author of Late Migrations and Antonia Malchik, friend and author.