Aug 13

What Do We Teach When Kids Are Dying? #MichaelBrown

[After the trial where the man who killed Jordan Davis was not found guilty of his murder, a group of amazing educators and education activists (I was lucky to be one of the folks involved) came together to create a teaching guide for talking about Jordan Davis’ killing and the trial that followed. Many of the resources — and equally as important, the frameworks for thinking about creating curriculum — are equally applicable for creating conversations and curriculum around talking about Mike Brown. And we need to talk about Mike Brown.]

When I heard that Mike Brown was shot – unarmed, multiple times – by a police officer, my thoughts immediately went to the many stories I have heard over the years from my students of color about their experiences with the police. Their stories are not monolithic, and I have students of color who are the sons and daughters of police officers who often bring a different lens to these conversations, but overwhelmingly, the conversations I have heard have spoken to a deep level of distrust and fear between students of color and the police.

With the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s death, with Michael Dunn not getting convicted of murder in Jordan Davis’ death and now with Mike Brown’s death, many of SLA’s students of color have come to the understandable conclusion that the systems of American justice – from the police to the courts – are not there for them. Clearly, there are too many statistics that support that conclusion.

And the reaction of the authorities in Ferguson, MO since Mike Brown was shot by a police officer despite being unarmed has looked more like a police state than anything I can remember in America in my lifetime. All over the country, students are on social media asking – what kind of country does this to its own citizens?

For me, both the shooting of Mike Brown the actions of the government to Mike Brown’s killing has made me think of my grandfather. My grandfather escaped Germany in the 1930s, because he saw the writing on the wall and saw that his country was no longer safe for him. When I was young, I remember my grandfather saying to me, “You must remember that you are a Jew before you are an American, because when Jews forget that, Jews die.”  And I think about the many parents and students of color who have talked to me about “the talk” — what to do if a young black man or woman are ever confronted by the police. And I think about how we live in a country where — especially if you cannot pass for white (which I, for example, can most often do) — the rules you live by are different. You are not simply American, you are a Hyphen-American, and for you, the rules are different and not as just. And, much like my grandfather said to me over thirty years ago, if you forget that fact, you can die.

So what do we do as educators? What is our role? For to pretend that this does not enter our classrooms, our schools, is to run the risk of allowing ourselves to be complicit in the system that left Mike Brown’s body in the street for hours. How we teach, how we frame this issue with students is incredibly difficult and complex, and so many of the resources, ideas and suggestions created after Jordan Davis’ killer was not convicted of murder are appropriate again. It is incredibly daunting to think about how we frame this issue in our classrooms, but that cannot be the reason for educators to shy away from it. And, if nothing else, now is a moment where educators need to listen deeply to students who need to express what they are feeling.

And what I have learned in my time at SLA is that when I am struggling with hard questions myself, that those questions are the ones we can ask as a community. Perhaps now is a moment for educators to ask hard questions about our country. Some questions I’ve been asking myself, without great answers lately.

  • What happens to a society that seemingly has one set of rules for one race and another set of rules for everyone else?
  • What happens when too many people lose faith in the government’s ability / will / desire to actually keep people of color safe?
  • What happens when too many people feel that the dream is not accessible to them?
  • What is the role of the police in a civil society?
  • If a society becomes more militarized in the name of “safety” and “security,” is it any wonder that those who were already feeling the effects of disenfranchisement and racism would bear the brunt of the increasing militarization of its police force?
  • How do we get better than this?
  • How do we become a more just society?
  • How do we not lose hope?
  • How do we close the gap between the best ideals of America and the reality that we see around us every day?

I have had to say much the same thing before. I will keep saying it until I don’t have to say it anymore. Mike Brown’s death must serve to remind us that there is no such thing (to quote SLA teacher Pia Martin) as passive anti-racism. His death — and the police state that Ferguson, MO has become since his death — must remind us that institutional racism is the norm in this country and therefore we have to actively work to do better. This must remind us that we are nowhere near being the country we need to be for our citizens of color — and, therefore, for all of us.

Aug 11

The Teaching Life – They Grow Up

SpiritFamilyOne of the wonderful things about the teaching life is that – when we are very lucky – we get to see the adults our students become. This past weekend, I got to see Spirit Family Reunion play a concert here in Philadelphia. They are a wonderful “Roots Music” band out of New York City, and three of the musicians are former students of mine from my days at Beacon.

The show was amazing, and I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire time. And it was a blast to see some Philadelphia folks who were at the concert as fans of the band, and since I was — ahem – a bit older than the average concert-goer, there was some surprise from these young Philadelphians that I was there. That gave me the chance to brag that “I was friends the band…” which is not exactly something I expect to say often in my life.

More importantly, I relished the chance to spend some time after the show talking to my former students. It was simply lovely to hear about their lives, to hear about the band, and I was touched that they were excited that I had stayed up late enough to come out and hear them play.

Mostly, I was thrilled to see the adults they have become, and I was honored that they wanted to share their adulthood with me, their old English teacher.

I’ve been teaching for eighteen years now. My first seniors are in their mid-30s. I have seen students become parents. I have seen them become PhDs. I have seen students become teachers and lawyers and doctors and programmers and police officers and artists and musicians and more. I have written letters to them in prison. Some former students are now some of my very dear friends. I have celebrated at their weddings, I have met their children and, sadly, I have mourned at their funerals.

And this is more than just an ancillary piece of the teaching life. The perspective of seeing students become adults can powerfully inform the way we teach. Knowing that we can play a small role in helping students on the pathway to adulthood is something that teachers are taught to understand from early on in most pre-service teacher programs, but the reality of knowing the your students as adults is different somehow.

There’s a humility needed to really see them as adults. If you don’t merely want to be part of their past, you have to learn who you are to the person they are now. And you have to see all that they are now, not only the student they were then. You do see the person they were as part of their adult self, but you have to see all that they are. On one level, you feel a little like Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, seeing two people at once – the young person you know and the adult in front of you who you now get to know. And seeing that journey can — and maybe should — inform the way we work with the kids we teach now.

As teachers, we get to play a role in the development of the lives of our kids. More often than not, the role we play is small but, if we do it right, the role has meaning. And when we are lucky, we get to know the adults our students become.

Mar 04

The Wisdom of the Room

This is related to EduCon, but it’s also just about pedagogy.

I was sitting in a session at SXSWedu where a panel of educators were talking about how they had achieved a new initiative for their school. It was an hour-long session, and really, after about ten or fifteen minutes, it was clear what they had done — it was cool — but after that, the panel quickly got into the weeds about some very specific details about their implementation. I was sitting next to a friend, and we were quietly challenging each other about how this idea could work in our schools. And I realized that what I wanted was the chance to sit and talk about that idea with a few folks around me – in short, I wanted a more “EduCon-y” session.

I wanted this group to challenge the folks in the room to think about how the idea would work in their worlds. I wanted to be able to consider the stumbling blocks to the idea. I wanted to be able to collaborate.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t ever a place for panel discussions – there is. If you follow my twitter stream, you’ll know that I was in seventh heaven watching Randi Weingarten, Peter Cunningham and Valerie Strauss debate assessment and accountability. But when you have an idea about how to make schools better, letting people have the discussion and debate and engage fully in the idea will greatly enhance the probability that those ideas will stay with the folks in the room… and even better… you greatly increase the probability that some really novel ways to think about the idea will come out.

When it comes to playing with ideas, we need to remember that the wisdom of the room is something that needs to be respected. And when it comes to our classrooms, we need to remember that honoring the wisdom of the room also — and importantly — is a powerful way to ensure that students will more willingly engage in the idea itself.

Feb 13

Teaching Kids: Good For Teachers Too

[One of the cool things about being willing to talk through what you actually think about teaching is that sometimes you stumble across new ways of thinking about the things you think. This post stems from one of those conversations.]

Anyone who has ever heard me talk about what I believe about teaching has probably heard me talk about the difference between the statement, “I teach English,” and “I teach kids English.” It is at the core of what I believe about how we can make schools more caring, human places. Most of the time, we talk about this in terms of how this can make school so much more powerful for kids, but it’s also an idea that can make school so much more powerful for the adults as well.

One of the things that we worry about in our profession is teacher burn-out. It’s real. The job is exhausting, and there are any number of factors that can cause teachers to lose their effectiveness and lose their passion. One of those reasons is that it can be very difficult to keep finding the energy to teach the same thing over and over again for a forty-year career. And if you think of your teaching as “subject first,” not “student first,” maintaining love of the subject can get really hard. But our students are forever new, often (to me) fascinating, and as infinitely variable as we can imagine. When we focus on always learning who are students are as the first and most important thing we do, we can find one more way to sustain our energy for the work we do.

 

Sep 22

Kurt Vonnegut, Facebook and the Teaching Life

 

SLA Ultimate

SLA Ultimate

 “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Slaughterhouse Five was one of my favorite books when I was younger – and it probably deserves a re-read now – and I was always struck by the idea of being able to live and relive the moments of one’s life at all moments of one’s life as the Tralfamadorians do, seeing life across four dimensions rather than three.

I am starting to think we all have become unstuck in time.

The other day, I posted a photo of the SLA Ultimate Frisbee team warming up before our first game of the year. Within an hour or two, there were “likes” and comments from former players, folks I used to coach against, former students and, of course, members of the current SLA community. What is incredible about that is that it connects the generations of my coaching and teaching life in some really amazing ways.

The teaching life is a strange one… as educators, we have these incredibly powerful relationships with kids at a moment in time in their lives and then they go on their way… and we do that over and over again. And over time – at least for me – it becomes harder to remember who overlapped with whom in the time they spent with you, especially because the time line is less important than the time spent.

And now, with Facebook, the teaching life overlaps more. Former students interact with current students with comments on photos like, “I remember 6:30 am…” and such.

My teaching life has become unstuck in time, and all of the students of my life can interact regardless of the moment in time we were teacher and student.

What a wonderful evolution of the teaching life.

Apr 22

Educators Are Lucky

[This post is in reaction to the incredible pain we are feeling in the School District of Philadelphia right now. We are facing down massive cuts to our schools, and with those cuts will come layoffs, and teachers and students both stand to lose unless things change very soon. But despite that, school ran today. The kids showed up. The teachers honored the trust placed in them and taught well. Learning happened. On some level, it was the best reminder to what we do and why we do it as I can imagine.]

At 6:30 this morning, I was on a field with fourteen young men, practicing a sport we all love.

At 9:00 this morning, I watched a group of students work with a teacher as they worked on a robot they were building.

At lunch today, I sat with a student and her advisor and looked over financial aid packages from the various colleges she was accepted to.

And this afternoon, I watched a group of kids performing Shakespeare in an 11th grade English class.

In between those events, there were emails answered, phone calls made, a memo or two written, but more importantly, there were lots of conversations with students and teachers, some light and fun, some serious. It was, in other words, a typical day at school.

We need to understand how precious that really is.

Most people don’t have the kind of days teachers have. Most people don’t have a chance to pull a student aside and make them think or care or wonder. Most people don’t laugh as much during the days as we do. Most people don’t cry as often as teachers do. Most people simply don’t feel as much as we do.

And many people have to sit in offices, which I did for a few years — school is more fun.

This isn’t to say the job is easy – it’s not. The point isn’t that we get our summers off or anything like that. Teachers work hard at an incredibly emotionally and intellectually challenging job every day. But we need to remember a few things:

  1. No one made us do this.
  2. We don’t have to keep doing it.
  3. We aren’t the only people in the world who work hard.
  4. We get to hang out with kids all day long.

We need to keep these things in perspective, because we do no one any good when we perceive ourselves to be victims or martyrs. We need to own that we made the decision to teach and keep teaching. And it was a good decision to make, because as hard as we work, and as ridiculous as some of the policies being imposed on schools are, we stay the lucky ones.

We get to teach.

Jan 07

Take the Work Seriously, But Don’t Take Yourself Seriously.

When I was sixteen years old, my three best friends and I decided to see how many tissues we could shove in our mouths. There was no reason. It was after school one day, and it was something we could compete over. I was “winning” this contest when the gag reflex kicked in and I came closer to choking to death than I’d like to admit.

I tell this story to say this — no matter what I do in my life, I am still the same moron who nearly died in a tissue-mouth-shoving contest. That’s important.

Think of the most ridiculous thing you did in high school. You are still that person. You will always be that person. It doesn’t matter how much wisdom you have accumulated in the intervening years, you are still that person.

And that’s a good thing for so many reasons.

A career in education is a powerful way to spend your life. The work we do is important, meaningful, and incredibly challenging. We should take the work of helping children learn incredibly seriously. But we should remember to never take ourselves all that seriously. Because, to quote the kids, “It’s just not that deep.”

When we have the humility to remember all the twists and turns in the path that got us to where we are today, we are more likely to be understanding of the twists and turns in the paths our students take.

When we don’t fall in love with our own ideas, we remain open to change and grow. We are more likely to allow our ideas to be influenced and made better by our students and our colleagues.

When we remember to laugh at ourselves, we display an openness to students that is so important to model.

When we have enough sense of the long view of our lives, we laugh more easily, smile more broadly and are more likely to share a sense of joy with the people around us.

When we are not overly invested in our own seriousness of purpose, we remember that we are the lucky ones – we get to spend our working lives teaching and learning with our students, and really, that’s a pretty awesome way to spend our time.

When we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we remember that the work isn’t about us. It’s about the kids.

So let’s find a reason to laugh with the kids and our colleagues every day. Pick up the guitar and play with the kids, even if we sing off-key. Play basketball with our students – even if they cream us. Let’s let them see us as whole people, so that they might let us see them the same way.

And, then when we can really all talk to one another without the view of each other’s egos in the way, we can ask them what they think about our schools, and we can listen deeply to their answers and let their ideas change our own.

Oct 29

The Teacher We Are, The Student We Were

I was speaking at the School Library Journal Leadership Conference on Saturday when I accidentally stumbled upon an idea that was a real evolution of the stuff I think. (It’s one of the really good things about public speaking – especially when you only have an outline, not a ‘speech,’ talking about what you believe to different audiences can really cause you to examine what you actually believe – out loud and for an audience to see. But I digress.)

Much of the conference was focused on the need for the role of libraries to evolve, and I asked the following questions:

“How many of you were A and B students in school?”

And around 95% of the room raised their hands.

And I asked, “How many of you, when you were in school, really just wanted a quiet place to read books?”

And about 80% of the room raised their hands.

And I asked, “How many of you have built the library you wanted when you were a student… and who is excluded from your vision?”

And the room was quiet.

Now, I talk a lot about the need to unlearn, but I usually talk about it in terms of our own evolution as educators, but the more I think about it, the same holds true for thinking about our own evolution from before we became educators.

Most teachers I talked to were good at school, and I’d argue that much of the effort we undertake is to help kids be good at the same kind of classroom we loved the most. And while we want all kids to be good in that classroom, we have to ask ourselves — who do we accidentally value most in our classrooms?

When I started teaching, I hated silence in class discussions, so I called on the first person to raise their hand. And not shockingly, that was the kind of kid I was in class (when I liked the teacher.) It took me time to learn to appreciate the silence as more kids thought of something to say. It took me time to learn to let kids write out ideas before opening up class discussion. It took me time to discover ways to create a classroom that wasn’t just the classroom I wanted when I was in school.

It makes sense. Every teacher walks into their own classroom with the ghosts of the experiences s/he had as a student. And most folks, just by human nature, would want their classroom to be a place that the younger version of themselves would enjoy. That’s not a bad place to start, but it cannot be the end.

The teacher we are today is, without question, informed by the student we were. But we have to make sure that we create a vision of our classrooms — and our schools — that include all students in that vision, not just in ways to “make them fit,” but to create spaces where all students can find themselves and find success.

Sep 11

What I Learned from 9/11

As befits a day of remembrance, it feels appropriate to not only think about what we lost on 9/11, but what I learned.

I was teaching in New York City that day, so 9/11 is and always will be an intensely personal memory for me. But today, I want to focus on one lesson I learned.

As parents came to my school from downtown, covered in soot and ash, they only wanted to have their child in their arms. When the planes hit the towers, it was as if a homing beacon went off in their heads, and the only thing that matter to them was being with their child. Parents didn’t stop to wipe off their face; they just started walking. You could look at them and see it in their eyes, “If I can get my child in my arms, it’s going to be o.k.”

That day completely changed how I understood the parent-child relationship. Jakob and Theo weren’t around yet, so I only understood parenting from the perspective of a teacher. So for me, it deepened my understanding of the deeply visceral nature of parenting, and that – along with being a parent myself – deeply informs the way I do my job. After 9/11, I can never look at the concern or fear or love in a parent’s eyes and underestimate how deeply that parent is feeling that emotion.

That’s how I make sense of 9/11 and how I try to take something from that day that allows me to move forward.

Sep 07

Mrs. Morello and Making a Difference

As we enter a new school year and the next phase of the 2012 Presidential Election, let’s remember the difference we all can make in a child’s life with a scene from my favorite fictional White House:

Have a wonderful start of the school year everyone. May we all be lucky enough to have a phone call like that some day.