I’m at a conference; at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference, held this year in the heart of Seattle’s downtown.
I’m also 9 hours away from home. I’m not sleeping particularly well or let’s say, not enough at the right times. That said, my head and my heart are on fire. I am here for a feast.
I feast my eyes of the multitude of beautiful skin tones, the bounty of hair textures, styles and expressions. I feast my ears on the stories we share with one another as colleagues of color, as parents of black and brown and multiracial children, as aspiring leaders, as conference veterans, as old friends, as trusted allies, as people who need each other and who desperately need all of this.
It’s the this I cannot draw well with my words because language falls short.
It’s the this that keeps me writing in my head as I listen and digest; that compels me to look around whatever room I’m in and sigh with a satisfaction that says, “Yes, just this…”
It’s the this that makes me reach out with both hands to shake the hand of someone I’m meeting for the first time. It is me saying, “Thank you for reminding me that I have a place here and a purpose. Thank you for confirming my belonging.”
It’s the this when we open up with each other in ways that defy the logic of individualistic and competitive norms we experience in other contexts. We bring our whole selves to the conversation because, for once, here, we can.
It’s the this in acknowledging each others’ accomplishments and ambitions with encouragement and pride. The way we rally around each other and also hold each other up when we have to contend with our demons.
It’s the this in being accorded a fundamental benefit of the doubt about my competence, my expertise, my positive intent and willingness to learn. It’s in being valued and seen as valuable.
It’s the this of being warmly welcomed and in turn extending that same welcome to others; a deep abiding kindness that permeates this whole space in its incredible mass and complexity of moving parts.
On a recent #ClearTheAir Twitter chat discussing themes in the book Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby, Val Brown raised this question:
Talk about a time you were able to be “fully human” with someone. What were the conditions that made that possible? How did it feel? What can we do to replicate those conditions in our classrooms? #ClearTheAir
And my first response was to talk about the music I use in class:
A4: A teaching blessing: I get to play music during most of my teaching day. Mostly music that i want to hear, that my Ss and I enjoy hearing. The effect is huge on how I can truly *be* with my students. Fully human a lot of the time. #ClearTheAir
That means kids are used to seeing me dance a bit, sing along, and catch some good feelings by having that acoustic backdrop for our time together. Never thought about how central this is to my teaching life. #ClearTheAir
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:
The information at my disposal about a child and their circumstances is always incomplete.
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.
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.
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:
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 Motivatedand 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.
Today is my last day at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conference. Home beckons. My 8 year old is finishing up his school year and our family’s summer plans can officially get underway. My stay here in Denver has been outstanding in so many ways. I will be leaving with a lot of gratitude in my heart for the wonderful friendships I have had affirmed and broadened.
I’ve never been a fan of the selfie and of the broadcast culture that it implies. And now after ISTE I will wonder if I have changed my stance because throughout my days here I have become a willing participant and in some cases instigator of a group or partner selfie. What shifted?
The numerous pictures that I have gladly shared in my Twitter timeline are expressions of joy in friendship, community, and presence. To be able to see myself in person alongside people who have welcomed me into this space with such encouragement and warmth means much more than I ever imagined. In those pictures I can identify love and that’s clearly the source of the shift.
I woke up thinking about hospitality because a great deal of my well being over these last few days has been dependent upon the quality of hospitality that I have experienced. I used AirBnB and my host has been over-the-top generous and kind. He even loaned me a bike and helmet to travel between home and the convention center. (His name is Bob and I’ll gladly share his info if you contact me!) This has given me a great opportunity to get to know a small part of the city, to get in a little exercise, to feel autonomous in my arrival and departure decision making and generally look pretty cool for toting around a helmet all day (like I might be a local! ;-))
Then there’s this other layer of hospitality going on. Think about it: I am at this ginormous convention essentially on my own. But I only felt that way for a hot minute which I uncharacteristically shared on Twitter.
Not handling the magnitude of this conference well. Missing the comfort of my tribe. Also #ISTE2016
And guess what happened! My Twitter pals in the UK and South Africa chimed in and sent me virtual hugs! Then, as if they had been summoned, (which I suppose they had been) two members of my tribe appeared directly in my path and we touched base. It was really just a moment of clarifying directions and intentions for the next couple of hours but it was exactly what I needed: confirmation that I belong, that I have buddies, allies, friends in this sea of individuals. Think, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
After that I was able to carry on with confidence and seek out learning opportunities which nourished my need to feel connected to others. My afternoon choices turned out to be perfect: a demoslam put on by a group of Colorado educators followed by the life- and work-affirming session on digital equity.
When I walk through the convention center alone and find myself wondering if or how I will ever find my tribe members again, I notice how many people, although sitting in close proximity to each other, are engaged with their devices and not with the people around them. I observe this and wonder: What is isolation? What is alienation? What is Fear of Missing Out? What is relaxation? What is regeneration? Who are we with our devices and who are we without?
I have no answers. I do realize, however, in my own case, that my overall conference experience has everything to do with the very real, more-than-a-series-of-clever-emojis-can-express love and hospitality. Love and hospitality. Love and hospitality.
So as I take in my final day onsite, I want to think about how I invite those two abstractions into being for others. How do I show hospitality in a conference setting of over 16000 people? How do I enact love in the midst of strangers?
This is the conference for the International Society for Technology in Education where we’re big on tools and leverage and achievement. Sure, those terms ring the necessary bells. Yet we know that in our classrooms and communities, positive transformation derives from other sources. We cannot build community without love. We cannot move from stranger to friend without extending some hospitality. Love and hospitality. We can make these happen: here at the ISTE conference, in the corridors, into our online spaces, all the way back home.