Hard Lessons

Today was tough.

It was a busy day, full of classes (some Window/Mirror lessons, plus Sewing). The lessons went well. The library was active. It was a very happy day, on the whole, but for one incident.

I don’t want to say too much about what happened, for the students’ sake, but someone made a homophobic comment on one of my anonymous Padlets (see previous post), of the sort that middle school students can impulsively make, with the intention of being funny but the likely reality of being quite hurtful. Other kids noticed right away, and called it out (“Who wrote that? Don’t do that!”), and I had them all close their computers. And then I pretty much lost. my. mind.

I mean, I was calm and firm, not insane. But I was so incredibly upset. I can only imagine how challenging it is for a kid to be gay in middle school, and if you add to that this idea that other kids see it as a joke? Nope. I just can’t even. And during a lesson whose main purpose is to build empathy?? REALLY?

I’m about as laid back an educator as you can get, so I’m sure the kids didn’t know what to make of this version of me letting them know, in many many words and from many many angles, how incredibly important it is to be decent to each other and how incredibly painful it is to be on the receiving end of humor that is at your expense. I have never in my life delivered a message so clearly. Then I just had them sit there for about 5 minutes in silence–I was too angry to do anything else, to be honest.

There was absolutely no wiggling around; no whispers. You never saw such a quiet group of 6th grade boys. I think they were shocked. I also think they were actually reflecting, some of them. I had no idea at all who had posted the comment, so they all had to listen to me rant, and to their credit, they were listening, and then they were thinking.

Then, once I was breathing again, I thanked the ones who had called it out when it happened. I said that I didn’t think whoever did it intended to be hurtful, but that it was hurtful. I said that we’re all learning. And then I asked if anyone had anything to say.

And this is where the learning was really happening, friends. Because, in those final minutes (and at one point the bell rang, but not a single person moved–we kept talking, and there was none of that restlessness you usually get after the bell), a number of kids spoke up in defense of their gay peers (or their gay selves). They were fierce about it, too–calm and firm, but passionate. I felt hopeful. They can hear it from me all day long, but when their peers are saying it? That’s the magic. And the ones who weren’t talking were listening, taking it in. I hated to send them away while they were still processing, but another class was coming and they had other classes to get to. We were in that magical land of the teachable moment, where the shock of the unexpected takes you to a vulnerable place (me and them–they had seen me upset and emotional, and I was seeing them either ashamed or stunned or ignited with a sense of justice). I wanted to grab onto it, while at the same time wanting it to end because it was not easy. I suspect many of them felt the same way.

Then, this evening, I got an email. A gentle confession. A true apology. Maybe he was afraid I’d end up tracing the comment to him; maybe he just wanted to get out ahead of it. But if you could read it, you would see that it was authentic. He is sorry.

I wrote him back and said he should ask me some time about the time I got in big trouble in 6th grade. My story: I wrote a note calling my absolute favorite teacher a bitch, all to impress some boy she had reprimanded. I got caught. I hurt a teacher I adored. Another teacher called me at home that night to tell me it would be okay, and that phone call is one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me.

I would like to tell my young friend this story because he is feeling the pain of his own actions. The young friends he might have hurt got some very real support today from me and, more importantly, their vocal classmates. All our young people need our support and love.

So maybe it was a tough day, but it was also a productive day. I love my job. I love my students. I love this adventure we are on of learning together and becoming better people together.

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Settling into the New Year

Now that we’re back in our first full week of school since break, things are feeling normal. The end of last week felt kind of like a dream!

Over the course of Friday and yesterday, we had almost the entire 5th grade come (in class-sized groups) to check out a nonfiction book. They are starting a nonfiction unit, and each kid has to read at least one book cover to cover–no length or topic requirements, just a nonfiction book that interests them. I had pulled out a ton of books and spread them out on tables all through the back half of the library. Some kids chose really short books with a lot of pictures; some chose longer narrative works with hardly any illustrations. Both (and everything in between) were celebrated, because the idea was for kids to find something that clicked with them. Books about sports! About history! About fashion! Science! Music! Dance! Disgusting things! Beautiful things! Weird things!

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It was a ton of fun. The kids were excited, as evidenced by their conversations with each other as they picked books and their immersion when they sat down to start reading their chosen texts. I had a good time pulling the books, but the real joy came in seeing the kids so engaged. Out of about 100 kids, only one said they were having a hard time finding something. I’m grateful for the collection we have and the teachers’ willingness to partner with the library on this unit. Next up, in a few weeks, will be a writing project on a topic of each kid’s choice, where I hope to help some teachers with employing Visible Thinking routines during the research process. More on that if/when it happens!

With 6th grade, I’m continuing the Windows and Mirrors lesson, but I’ve added Jason Reynolds to the mix of what I talk about, showing clips from interviews where he talks about his disinterest in reading as a kid; how rap is like poetry; and how he wants to write books for kids like him. It’s interesting to contrast the heaviness of a book like Long Way Down with the overall optimism and lightness of Front Desk. Both titles really served as window books for me, but Long Way Down gutted me in a way that few books ever have.

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In other news (and maybe a separate blog post soon?), I’m playing around with Scratch 3.0 and having a ton of fun with the translation and text-to-speech extensions. I’ve ordered some Microbits as well and hope to have time to goof around with those extensions soon, as time allows.

Windows and Mirrors

First, a quick book review:

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Front Desk by Kelly Yang

I read this in one shot (took a short break to fix food, but ate said food while reading), and pretty much loved every bit of it. Yang talks in the back matter about how much of the story is based on her life experiences as an immigrant, helping her parents run cheap motels in California in the 1990s. That authenticity takes the book to a whole new level. It’s not a highly dramatic book–I’d call it a quiet read for the most part, maybe because the narrator is looking back instead of reacting in the moment. (Although the book mostly reads as taking place in the present, there is a reflective tone about it, and it is set in the past. So the narrator isn’t technically looking back, but it felt that way to me anyway.) And though it is dealing with some heavy issues (such as poverty and racism), the flow of the book, and maybe the distance of time, keeps it from being overwhelming. We can empathize with Mia and get a fabulous window experience (or mirror experience, depending on the reader! it was window for me!) without feeling frightened or crushed by the very real struggles Mia is facing. We know she makes it out okay because she is here telling us the story, years later. Ultimately, a moving story (with some heartbreaking moments as well as triumphant ones) that kept me wanting to find out what was going to happen next at the end of each chapter.

(end of review)

Reading this book over break got me thinking again about windows and mirrors, and reading without walls (which I posted about a few years ago). Also, about the #ownvoices movement of supporting books about diverse characters written by people who are part of the diverse group being written about. A shift for me since that previous post is that I want, in lessons related to windows and mirrors, to be sure to emphasize the fact that some of us (me included) find ourselves in loads of books, while others find ourselves in very few. One of our 7th grade teachers assigned a Window Book project recently, but made a point of saying that it could be a Mirror Book project for kids who don’t find a lot of mirror books. That got me thinking.

So, today, with a 6th grade class, I did a quick booktalk of Front Desk, then showed this video of Grace Lin talking about her own experiences of not finding mirror books and how, as a writer, she tries to write those books for kids like her.

Then I had the kids write a short paragraph, to be displayed anonymously on a Padlet, about a book that they found powerful because of how it served as a window or a mirror. The anonymity felt important, and I like how Padlet makes that so easy (I can just give kids the bit.ly link and they don’t log in or anything). It also felt important to me to give them a choice between window and mirror (although some kids ended up doing one of each!), so that I wasn’t forcing them to share their own experiences.

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Our Padlet

Most kids wrote about window books, and it was clear that they were moved by learning about other perspectives. Much of our discussion after the writing was about how reading window books helps you be a better person–more empathetic, more aware. It was reinforcement of the idea that reading without walls is incredibly important, and our curriculum should really focus on supporting this. One student wrote about how reading Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli helped her see that being gay is just “a different experience with the same feelings about it.” Romance is romance! The book was a window because the student isn’t gay and doesn’t have a secret like Simon has, but it ended up being a mirror as well because feelings are feelings.

The kids talked about how a book can really put you deeply into the shoes of someone different from you, in a way that reading the news or watching a show or even talking with someone often can’t. It changes how you interact with people; it changes your heart.

And oh my, the power of finding yourself in a book! I found myself most moved by the mirror responses, maybe because those were the most vulnerable ones, the most surprising ones. One student wrote about how the book Small Steps by Peg Kehret reminded her of a time when she was seriously ill. Another wrote about Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, which centers on a girl with dyslexia, being a mirror book. In the discussion, a few kids talked about how mirror books that focus on going through something difficult not only help you feel less alone, but also can give you hope that things might turn out okay or help you see something about yourself that you didn’t already see.

It all comes down to this: everyone needs mirrors, and everyone needs windows. In the curriculum and in the library.

I’ll be continuing this lesson next week with the rest of 6th grade, and I’m really looking forward to it!

 

2018, 2019

I was at a conference a few weeks ago (VSTE), and one of the speakers talked about how blogging helped her be a better educator–kept her conscious of her choices, gave her an opportunity to reflect, and helped her connect with other educators. So, here I am, with a goal for 2019 of reviving this space!

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View from my hotel at VSTE conference

2018 was a crazy year, as they all are, I guess.

We lost both Malcolm and Lucky (beloved cats), which was (and is) rough. Malcolm had been ill for several years, and his passing was as calm and gentle as it could have been, but Lucky’s death came as a huge shock. We miss them both and their sweet natures. We did, however, gain two new kittens, Chicken and Gracie, and they are both incredibly sweet and gentle and fun. We have been extremely lucky in the cat ownership department.

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Malcolm
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The kittens

I had the best summer I’ve ever had–didn’t do any camps, so I had a lot of time to read and rest and write and do therapeutic work that is difficult to do during the school year. I started exercising regularly and eating slightly healthier, and while the last month has seen that all slide away, I think I can pick it back up in the new year. It felt good to be taking better care of myself.

Dan and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary in May. !!! We had a fun night out on the town, playing pool at a cool little place and spending the night away from home. Dan has been my rock since pretty much the day I met him. His humor and thoughtfulness are a light.

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Paintings on the wall of the nifty pool bar

 

I read a fair amount this year. Goodreads tells me I read 74 books in 2018, but that includes a number of graphic novels and middle grade books, so isn’t as impressive as it might sound. These were my top titles (ones I gave 4 or 5 stars and that stuck with me; the starred ones are the ones that I liked the most):

Books for adults:

*There There by Tommy Orange. I learned a lot from this book, on top of being blown away by the writing. I want to re-read it at some point because I know I missed things.

*Heavy by Kiese Laymon. Such a brave story, so well written. Laymon’s honesty and vulnerability in writing this book are a model for me with my own writing.

Fight No More by Lydia Millet

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The Nix by Nathan Hill

The Witch Elm by Tana French

Books for kids/YA:

The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon. This is just a really fun read!

Sanity and Tallulah by Molly Brooks

Emergency Contact by Mary Choi

Beavers by Rachel Poliquin

*Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka. So well done, and so moving and real. Captures the complexity of family life.

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin. This is a bizarre book that I resisted at first but ended up being totally enamored with.

*The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis. I want this one to win all the awards. Curtis is a masterful writer, and I just can’t even express how much I loved this book.

 

Work has been good. My days start at 7:30 a.m. with a pile of kids waiting at the door because they want to use the Makerspace or get books first thing, and I just haven’t gotten immune to it. I’m moved every time I see that crew waiting, and often the day just flows from there. I’m happiest when I’ve got a lot of classes coming and the library is humming with activity and just a touch of chaos.

I feel like I’m in transition, or the library is in transition, as the curriculum changes in the English department and I’m trying to find the best way for the library to support and integrate with the new curriculum. I’m also trying to better integrate visible thinking routines into research instruction, which I think I am making harder than it needs to be. To a great extent, I feel like I am getting in my own way sometimes by wanting to perfect things in my mind before trying them out, when I know that the only way to make progress is to just get out there and try things. When we come back from break, we are starting a new unit with 5th grade that will be a chance to try out some of these ideas on a large scale, and I’m hopeful about how it will go. Part of my goal to blog again is because it’s a motivator for me to try new things–it gives me something to write about and reflect on!

On the home front, we have a senior in the house, which is so bizarre! An adult! The college process was easy–one advantage of a stubborn kid? She applied to two schools, got into both, got scholarship from her second choice (U of South Carolina), and is going to go there. Fairly simple. Paying for it will be less simple, but we’ll work it out. This last year has been challenging for the kid in a lot of ways, but she continues to make us laugh pretty much daily, she’s got a great group of pals, and she is making her own way in the world. I used to think I had a clear sense of what she’ll be like as an adult, but now I think I have no idea. It’s an adventure, parenting this strange creature who is so much like me in many ways and yet so incredibly NOT like me in many others.

Mostly, I feel blessed. I have interesting, fun, and supportive friends and family. I have a job I love that continues to provide challenge and room for growth. My health is good. I have love in my life. My country is falling apart around me, and that can’t be ignored or minimized, but my corner of the world is a blessed corner. For today, that is what I will focus on.

Goals for 2019:

  1. Push myself to take more risks (in my writing, at work, in therapy).
  2. Figure out the financial picture in light of college expenses.
  3. Be more generous.
  4. Listen and think before speaking.
  5. Assume best intentions before reacting.

Some Thoughts

Anything I have to say about Charlottesville will have been said better by someone else already. I’ve been reading various responses and arguments and reflections, and I feel angry and sad and overwhelmed and inadequate.

What I need to write about, if only for my own processing, is being an educator right now. This shit is hard, people, when you have to remain calm and neutral in the face of what is, at best, ignorance, and at worst, evil.

Something I have struggled with for pretty much all of my career in school librarianship (12 years!) is the fact that our young students, primarily white and privileged, are growing up in what they see as a post-racial society. I may be totally wrong about this, so maybe “fact” is the wrong word, but it definitely seems that way to me. They can talk about racism, but they talk about it as a historical event. “Way back in the 1800s, there was racism!” “During World War II, there was racism!” I think I wrote about it before, how powerful it was when one of my 6th graders came out and said, “Guys, this stuff still happens today,” during a conversation about racism. She knew that our society is still messed up because she had experienced it herself, and her voice did more to educate her peers than any textbook or lesson.

There is a chapter of the KKK in my city.

This is not historical. This is now.

I do think that things are shifting in terms of awareness. Black Lives Matter is on our radar, and their voice is clear. Responses to Charlottesville are all over the place, loud and clear.

But then there’s the whole “both sides were wrong” argument, which I can sort of maybe wrap my mind around intellectually but cannot even come close to grasping emotionally.

It’s defense vs. offense. The counter-protestors were only there because the protestors were there first.  BLM only exists because our society says again and again that black lives don’t matter. The evidence is there, all over the place.  The KKK exists because some people can’t handle the idea that lives other than white lives matter.  Defense vs. offense.

I don’t condone violence. I do choose love. But if you are going to speak out against a bunch of white supremacists carrying guns and torches and sticks, then I can’t argue against you being able to defend yourself.

And I DO think it’s important for people to speak out.  Just meeting bigotry with silence is not going to work. Letting these people walk through a public university without any protest is not going to work. Silence just sends a message that we don’t care about the people being harmed. And if you think people aren’t harmed, you are dead wrong. This is not just an isolated little group. This is a movement, and it’s scary, and it can’t just be ignored in the hopes that it will go away.

So what do we do as educators? Seriously, this is my question. I don’t have an answer. I know that as a librarian, I can buy and promote books that educate kids about these realities. I can model empathy and inclusion and kindness and respectful discourse.

But I feel overwhelmed right now. And scared for my friends and students who are targeted by these idiots. I want to help make things better, but damn, we have a long way to go, people. If the last several years of news coverage haven’t shown you that, then probably nothing will.

Reading/Living Without Walls

In my reading classes last week and today, I’ve been introducing Gene Luen Yang’s Reading Without Walls challenge. In short, the challenge encourages kids to read books outside their comfort zones–read about someone whose life is different from yours, or about a topic you wouldn’t normally read about, or a book in a format you don’t typically read.

Like most lessons, this one has sometimes been successful, with kids talking about a wide range of books and really tapping into the concept of empathy gained from reading, and sometimes a bit flat. Although I think the kids have all appreciated the Comfort Zone comic, which is brilliant!

In one class, the conversation veered away from books and really became more about living without walls. The boys wanted to talk about people they had met who they hadn’t understood at first. After one kid said something about someone seeming ordinary, another kid said, “There’s no such thing as ordinary.” (I love it when statements like that come from the kids!) We talked about books, and we talked about people. We talked about autism, gender identity, criminal behavior, disabilities, survival–all through the lens of empathy and trying to understand others by putting ourselves in their shoes.

This is powerful stuff, friends, when you hear it coming out of the mouths of children. It’s messy sometimes–they might say something that makes you gasp a bit in shock as they try to articulate something that is, at its heart, an attempt to figure out this whole humanity thing, but oh wow, it’s not there yet. They might laugh at something you wish they would cry at. They are fumbling their way along. What they are doing, as 5th and 6th graders, is really starting to see that the world they experience is just a tiny sliver of all that is out there. They are curious about the rest of it, but also a bit scared. Who wouldn’t be?  There is some crazy stuff out there.

And so what a gift books are!  They can show us that wider world while we are safe in our homes and schools. Wake us up to different experiences, and hopefully awaken our empathy and our ability to be a positive force for change.

 

 

2/21/17: Birthday

So, I kind of don’t like birthdays. At least not my own.  It highlights for me the fact that I am disconnected from much of my family of origin, which isn’t a bad thing and has been my own choice, but can still be a tender spot. I don’t mind at all getting older–I’m pretty much loving my 40s to pieces–but the day itself is something I do not look forward to. However!  In spite of my eternal resistance and dread, I tend to end up enjoying my birthday every year. Because I’m surrounded by a lot of good people who send love my way and let me know they are glad I was born. Who doesn’t like to be told that people are glad they were born?  Plus cake! By the time evening comes (which is when I’m writing this), I have typically gotten over myself and come to appreciate all the wonderful things I do have, the family that has always been there for me, plus the one I’ve created with Dan and Claire and my friends. I am deeply lucky and blessed.

Coincidentally, today was also the day my kiddo passed her driving test. Big milestone for any kid, but for a family that lives 45 minutes away from the kid’s school, this is HUGE. She’s not getting a car, but she’ll have the use of one of ours on the weekends, and words cannot express how lovely that will be for everyone! I’m sure I’ll have minor heart attacks for a while every time she pulls out of the driveway on her own, but WHEW, we made it!

Today was fairly quiet in the library, so I made some stuff–some little LED robots made with hot glue and a snack bag.

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Snack bag that is actually more like a pencil pouch

Cotton laminate is wonderful, but was too thick for my machine/needle once I was doing more than two layers, so I had to switch to hand sewing to pull it together. The snack bag was a prototype for a service project, and unfortunately wasn’t easy enough to work as a mass student project, but we’ll keep tweaking and try a bigger needle in the machine to see what we can come up with. I by mistake bought a TON of cotton laminate fabric (ordered online, had no clue how long the bolts were; I got a great deal!), so I’ve got to figure out something that the kids can do with it.

Making stuff feels good. I’ve been writing some, doing some rewarding lessons on media bias, and now, today, making stuff again. When this old world starts getting me down, I need to go back to the things I can count on to lift my spirits.

If my 48th year on this earth is as rewarding as my 47th, I will be able to handle that. Maybe at some point I’ll even stop dreading my birthday.