Reflection Time

It’s the first official day of summer vacation, so the perfect day to reflect on the year behind me.

I’ve been following a teacher on Twitter (and sometimes on his blog), @MonteSyrie. He has a mantra: “Do. Reflect. Do better.” (I don’t know if he created it, though, so apologies for any misattribution!) The thing about following Sy is that I am both inspired and alerted to my own areas for growth in ways that feel overwhelming.

I’ll start with what I feel good about:

-The biggest change for me this year has been working on my goal of advocating for LGBTQ+ kids at my school. I did a training last summer with this goal in mind, and that led, in a roundabout way, to being the adult presence for an informal (for now) group of about 10 queer kids that met once a week for 50 minutes. I’ve posted some about this, or related to this, so I won’t say a whole lot, but basically, these young people have rocked my world in the best way possible. I have no idea what will happen to the group next year, or what my role with be, but what I can take away from the experience is a sense of the true power of safe spaces, real conversation, supportive peers, and desire for justice. It felt like I was a witness to something I had no idea could even exist, which I guess says a lot about my introversion and my avoidance of groups in general up to this point. What these kids gave each other, and their vulnerability with me and each other, was pretty stunning at times. Sometimes they were completely silly, but when things were serious, there was a level of empathy and care that astonished me. I haven’t ever been part of a group like that, and as I sat there–sometimes as a part of it but mostly as a presence on the periphery, guiding when needed and answering some tough questions when needed, but mostly listening and observing–I started to wonder, week after week, whether I couldn’t create something like that for myself and fellow faculty. Which leads to my next thing I feel good about!

-I put out a really awkwardly worded call to faculty about the idea of a kind of support group, or discussion group, like a book club where you constantly talk about stuff that has nothing to do with the book. A safe place for teachers to connect with each other and talk about our school and our lives. And people responded! We have about 15 people on the list, and some weeks we have a big group and some weeks we have 4 or 5. We didn’t start until fairly close to the end of the year, so it isn’t entirely clear yet what it will look like, but it has been wonderful. We’ve talked about our hopes for the school; we’ve talked about our families; we’ve talked about who we were in middle school; we’ve reflected on our years. This is stuff that happens in my conversations with friends, of course, but what’s different about this group is that it has pulled in people who, for various reasons, are looking for something different, some kind of connection that extends beyond who we normally seek out at the lunch table or the faculty meeting. It’s not that we don’t have support or good conversation with our friends, because we do, but there’s something different about this kind of group–not better, just different. Scratches a different itch, I guess.

-I gave a presentation at a conference this year, and that felt good. I’ve been trying to use Visible Thinking routines in research projects at my school, with some success (I’d say I feel 50% good about it and 50% like I wish I had done more), and it was fun to give a talk about that at the AISL conference. I was nervous as hell about it, but it went well and was maybe a bit of a confidence booster.

Things I want to do better:

Oh man, there are so many. But I’ll try to just pick the most important ones!

-We are going to try to be a ProjectLIT chapter this year, and I’m hoping that will spark me to do a better job with reading classes and with promoting books. Our kids read a lot without me pushing it, but the ProjectLIT books are really a chance to do several things: diversify their reading selections; connect with them over books; get them excited about the possibilities out there. So, while this year I dropped the ball pretty horribly when it came to promoting Virginia Readers Choice titles, I’m hoping that next year will be better. I struggle with the fact that I no longer see kids on a regular schedule in the way I used to, and I really really REALLY need to let that go and just go 100% with the classes I do see and not worry about the fact that some kids won’t have that lesson or booktalk. I get too caught up in trying to make it “worth my while” to prep a lesson, as if giving it to half the sections in the grade isn’t worthwhile. Which is lazy thinking and excuse-making on my part. I know this, and I too often let myself get away with it.

-I want to be a better manager. My co-workers might read this, so I don’t want to be too awkwardly open here, but I have various weaknesses that I am highly aware of and working on. They know of what I speak, I’m sure!

-I want to find some daily things to do that will help kids connect with the library and the librarians. If you followed the link to Monte Syrie above, you can see he has a daily message on his whiteboard. I think I want to try something that next year–our own version of it in the library. I’ve noticed that there’s something really magical about early mornings in the library, because there is a group of kids who always come before school, and they have their rituals around when they arrive and what they do and who they hang out with. The rhythm of it is one of my favorite things about every day, and I’m wondering how to extend that kind of rhythm throughout the day. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s a goal.

-I want to challenge myself more, across the board. I want to stop letting fear and inertia get in the way of making amazing things happen in the library. I want to stop being complacent with the way things are–which is pretty good, but could always be better. It’s easy to be happy with our program because we have a good program, but I’d be lying if I said we couldn’t do more (or at least I can do more).

-I want to learn more about behavior management, and find a system that works for all of us in the library. We have different approaches, and one of my goals for the summer is to do some reading and try to find something that has strong research support but also feels good to all of us. I never took a class in classroom management or discipline, and it really shows sometimes! It’s a definite area where I can learn and grow. (I tend to be too easygoing, and I want to maintain that to a large extent because it’s who I am, but also improve at providing loving boundaries before things descend into chaos.)

Alright, that sounds like the bad far outweighs the good, but it was actually a really good year. I think so much of what I love is the stuff that doesn’t make it into a reflection post–the little interactions, conversations, insightful comments made in a class, a kid asking a question that takes the discussion to a level you could never have anticipated, a kid making you laugh in spite of yourself.

What I most take away from this year is that I feel more connected than I ever have–with kids, with fellow faculty, and I guess with myself as well. I want to work to continue on that path. Connection brings new perspectives and ideas and awareness, and that’s what education is all about.

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Yes!

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It’s the last day of exams for 7th and 8th graders, so today is kind of the first last day (last day for 5th and 6th is Thursday; middle school graduation is Friday; faculty work days all next week).

The photo above is of a button made this morning by a few 8th grade goofballs with whom I have had a running joke for the last several months. They wanted to play Magic the Gathering in the library during study hall one day, and I said no, and it started a trend of coming up with new ways for them to say yes and me to respond with no. (Of course, the game we were playing was just as distracting as Magic would be and meant they still weren’t studying, but they know my weak points.)

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately about discipline, and expectations, and rules. It’s an area of growth for me, trying to find the right place for myself and the kids. Sometimes I’m too flexible; sometimes I’m cranky and lose sight of the kid behind the action and am not flexible enough. A string of “no”s comes out of my mouth and then I think about it later and wonder, Why couldn’t “yes” have worked just as well? Or is there a middle ground somewhere? Or sometimes I say “yes” too readily and find myself surrounded by chaos that I’m unable to squash.

For me, though, the chaos is preferable to the feeling of regret over having shut something down too quickly. Those “yes!” button kids have required a firm tone a few times to get them back on track, and they wasted a huge piece of posterboard at one point, and we probably didn’t set the best example for the 5th graders who were in the library one day while I was going back and forth with them in a sticky note war. But it was 10 minutes of a day that they spend most of in desks, working. It was laughter. It was connection. On their last morning in the library, before their last final, they still wanted to play, wanted to win and get the last word with that button.

That feels right to me. I don’t know if it should, but it does. It feels good.

 

Thoughts for parents of queer kids

So, your middle schooler tells you they are gay, or nonbinary, or trans, or bi, or questioning, or some combination thereof. What next? Of course, you tell them you love them and accept them. If you don’t already believe that, the odds that you are reading this are slim. But then what?

I’m in a weird position. My own kid didn’t talk to me when she was in middle school. I mean, it wasn’t silent treatment, and we got along well, but she had a whole secret life I had no awareness of. When she was in 8th grade, she unloaded about all of the stuff she had been through in 6th and 7th grade, stuff that blew my mind and that I had been totally clueless about. I wonder what adults she was talking to at that time! Because the odds are, she was talking to someone!

While my own kid told me almost nothing, kids at school do sometimes talk to me. And the more I listen, the more I feel compelled to write this post, because I think a lot of loving parents who are doing their best don’t know what their queer kids are thinking/feeling.

So here’s some advice based on what the kids have said:

  1. Don’t say, “It’s a phase.” This is the most common thing that the kids complain about, and it’s a really common response from parents (at least in my limited sample size). And let me tell you: the kids HATE this response. Yes, their identity might not stay where it is right now. Yes, they might be confused (as one of my kids said, “We’re middle schoolers. We’re confused all the time.”). But this is their reality right now, and they need validation of that reality. Not assurance that it will change or might change, or questioning about whether it’s real, or dismissal of how important it is to them. On this day that they are speaking to you, they are experiencing being queer, so they are queer. Be with them in that space. Tell them that you accept them in that space, and that you will accept them if it shifts and changes, and that you will accept them if it doesn’t. They don’t need you to project into the future. They need you to love them for who they are, right now, and to validate their identity, right now. “It’s a phase” says, “I know you better than you know yourself.” And it hurts.
  2. Use their preferred name and pronouns. Let them decide how to express whatever gender they identify with. Again, even if you are thinking in the back of your mind that this is a phase, honor who they are. Because who they believe they are IS who they are at this moment. These things can change, and for some kids they will change, but the gift you can give them is to accept their sense of who they are at any given point in time. If you shut down the exploration of identity, which is a totally normal and healthy part of being in middle school, you risk losing their trust. If you embrace it, you remain a safe place for them to talk about whatever questions they have. They might not ask you those questions, but they’ll know you have their back.
  3. They want to talk about it. They want you to ask about it. This might not be true for every kid, but it is for many of them. Many say they came out to their parents, and their parents were, on the whole, accepting (with “it’s a phase” comments, but “I love you in this phase” on top of it). And then it never came up again. They worry you don’t want to talk about it, so they don’t bring it up, but they want you to bring it up because they want reassurance of your acceptance. You might not be bringing it up because you think it was a phase and it’s over, but the odds are decent that it wasn’t a phase and that they are nervous about telling you that. Ask about it. See what happens.
  4. Advocate for them. This is more from me than the kids, but as an educator trying to advocate in my school for these kiddos, I would love to have more parent voices in the conversation. We need you!
  5. Believe in their strength. We know that some parts of society are not kind to these kids. We worry about the hate they will endure. We want to protect them. They are so young! But their message is, “We want to be part of the fight for justice, not protected from it.” They don’t want to be invisible in the interest of safety; they want to be visible in the interest of education and change. Help elevate their voices. They will find strength in the community and in being heard and seen. They will experience discrimination, but they know that. They would rather you be by their side in fighting that discrimination openly than asking them to hide from it. I think this is the hardest one, because we just want them to be safe, but this is what they are saying.

Those are the biggies. You love your young people. I know you do. You want what’s best for them. And I know I can’t speak to anyone’s specific situation, and only you know about what is safe and okay in your family or community. This, though, is what the kids are saying, over and over and over. I think they want you to know.

Update: I’ve reached out to some of my kids, telling them about this post and asking what they would want their parents to know, and will add their thoughts. I’m curious to know if I got it right or not!

Update #2 (yes, I’m crying as I add these; the kids always say it way better than I can):

  • “I want to talk about it, and I don’t want it to always be the elephant in every room.”
  • “I want you to speak just a little differently. I want you to say, ‘boyfriend or girlfriend, any future spouse, IF you have a child.’ It means a lot to me, even if it doesn’t to you.”
  • “We need support, and to talk about our sexuality in a comfortable and positive way, like talking about someone’s interest in a book or video games . . . it shouldn’t be cast aside in the corner of stuff we never talk about.”
  • “Parents should talk about the LGBTQ community, openly, and it shouldn’t be a conversation full of awkwardness, just talking, sharing an article.”
  • “They shouldn’t assume that their child always want to be grouped with the group that is the same as their assigned sex.”
  • “It is important to not make it seem less important, i.e. ‘it’s just a phase,’ or ‘you’ll grow out of it.’ Maybe [it is a phase], but what will happen will happen with or without your opinions.”

Processing

So, if you follow me on facebook, you know that a few people contacted my boss to complain? express concern? advise caution? in response to my last post and/or a facebook post that said a lot of the same stuff. I don’t know who complained; I don’t know the exact nature of their complaint; I don’t know exactly what hit them wrong in what I wrote.

This puts me in kind of an awkward position.

This blog, and my facebook account, are places where I let things fly. I’m not in the hallways at school, and I’m not speaking for the school. My school isn’t identified on this blog, and my facebook account is not public. I use these spaces to process my thoughts and feelings about things that happen in my life–at work and at home and in life in general. I process through writing–it helps me figure out what I think and feel. When I have a strong emotional reaction to something, writing through it is a way to bring me back to a calm place. I have done this for much of my life, and it’s just how I roll.

I’m not upset with any specific person (and wasn’t when I posted my last blog post). I’m not upset with whoever complained. If you are reading this, I’m not angry for what you did, but I am confused by it. If you feel that I am hurting the cause of inclusion in our school, it would be so much more helpful to me if I could understand where you think I’m going about it wrong. If you disagree about timelines for appropriateness of the introduction of certain materials in the curriculum, I’d love to sit down and chat about it and get your perspective. If you feel that expressing these kinds of concerns on social media is inappropriate because it’s publicly criticizing my employer and undermining the very place that gives me a job, you can tell me that. I can see how you might feel how you feel. But as it is, I have NO idea which, if any, of these concerns are yours.

Here’s how I feel about that last concern (criticizing my employer). I’m really trying to critique a much larger system, that my school is just one teeny tiny piece of, and that my school is really working hard to figure out its place in. Excellent work is happening. I get impatient and ranty, but work IS happening and change IS happening, and I acknowledge and celebrate it. It makes me very happy and hopeful, actually! I just want more change, and I want it faster, and those are my feelings about it. My feelings and thoughts don’t dictate what the school does, and of course they shouldn’t! (What a bonkers school that would be, amiright?) We are much bigger than just me and my opinions, and we are much bigger than the kids I am currently trying to advocate for. I get that society is deeply divided on the issue of LGBTQ+ rights. I get that changes have to be made with care and concern for all of the children in our care, and I trust my administration to prioritize the needs of the kids. If anything I have said doesn’t give that impression, let me make that clear now. I love my school. But it’s also true that I feel deeply that part of my job, as an advocate for kids, is to raise my voice and say what I think. If I think we need to change things, I have a right and responsibility to say so. I think I do the kids a disservice if I shut up.

You might feel strongly that I am dead wrong and that my perspective is harmful to children, and you have a right to your feelings, and I support your right to post them on your blog and facebook wall to your heart’s content! Or to post them in the comments on mine, if you so choose (but you will have to handle the responses as well). Or best of all, to talk to me about them in person!

So that’s what I’m processing right now. How to balance what you, people who have a problem with my posts, might be thinking with what I, as a person with legitimate feelings and the right to express them thoughtfully and considerately, which is what I try to do, would like to be able to do in this space. I need to have a safe place myself.

When kids are hurting (and we could differ on what we think is causing that hurt, and I do get that), the adults around them who see that hurt and who care about them should make it a priority to make things better. I see the hurt, and my ONLY goal is to do my part in reducing it. I can’t eliminate it. I can’t fix society and remove all hate and discrimination. But I can, and should, do everything in my (limited) power to make things better in my corner of the world.

Please understand that that is all I am trying to do. And that I would really, really like for you to come and talk to me if this post has once again raised concerns. I think I’m a pretty good listener.

Rant/Rave

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on this blog are mine and mine alone, not a reflection of my employer’s beliefs or positions. My interpretation of my employer’s beliefs and positions is also, of course, filtered through my experiences and emotions and what is certainly a lack of big-picture knowledge.

I love my school. I really do. We do SO much right, and we have an amazing faculty and an amazing population of kids. I seriously can’t believe how lucky I am to do what I do, where I do it, and with such an incredible community of folks. The commitment to doing what is best for the kids is deep, and my trust in my boss is also deep.

I need to say all that up front, because I have a rant.

We do so much right, but we are failing in a key area, and we need to really look at it and address it and fix it. And I think we are doing that, slowly but surely. I know we are. But we need to do it faster, and more assertively, and let the chips fall where they may. Yes, we might lose families, possibly some with a long history with the school. Yes, I realize that is a big deal and that risks need to be considered and the future of the school needs to be considered and ALL perspectives need to be considered. I get that. Probably not as deeply as I could, but I do get it. I also get that some within the school’s administration and faculty might not agree with me about what we should do at all. That’s probably the most difficult piece to wrap my mind around, but I need to acknowledge and accept it as a piece of the puzzle.

Our mission statement says that we strive to create a “diverse and inclusive” community.

We added that to the mission several years ago, but we are still working on truly honoring it in our practice. Or at least, that is my opinion.

My opinion is that we are failing our LGBTQ+ students and families. There are many pieces to this, and I won’t go into them all here, but in the end, we are failing, and my heart is breaking over it.

We have separate dress codes for boys and girls.

We have separate lunch seating for boys and girls in 5th and 6th grade.

We don’t include gender identity and sexual orientation in our health curriculum until 7th grade (a little bit) and 8th (more fully). The reason (as I understand it) is that we don’t want to introduce it before it’s appropriate. We don’t want kids being mean to each other as a result of learning about these aspects of identity. We want to wait and do it correctly, instead of too early and too quickly.

If we don’t include gender and sexual orientation in our elementary and middle school curriculum, we are basically pretending that whole categories of people (people our kids know and love! people our kids ARE!) don’t exist until 7th or 8th grade, which is so damaging. How damaging to see the identities of you, your parents, your siblings, and/or your friends ignored until suddenly, in 8th grade, the taboo is lifted. How hurtful to see people you love “othered” by your school’s curriculum. How harmful for those identities to be erased during some of the most important years of a child’s development.

I would argue that inclusion in our curriculum of different identities, from a young age, will reduce the mean teasing rather than aggravate it. It is ignorance, and the idea that these things are taboo, that is at the root of much of that behavior. Normalizing a range of identities is the most powerful weapon we have. Not just in a unit on discrimination or a sex ed lesson, but throughout our curriculum, as a celebration of the wild diversity that exists among and around us. Gender and sexual orientation identity is NOT about sex. It is not inappropriate for kids to learn about. It’s about identity. I think it becomes taboo because people assume it’s about sex, but for kids in particular, it’s so much more about identity.

When kids ask about homosexuality in sex ed, everyone laughs because it’s a joke. It’s a joke because that’s the only way anyone is going to bring it up–it’s not part of the curriculum. It’s a joke because the teacher has to refer the kid to their parents to answer questions about that. Any teasing that follows is at least in part because your homosexual identity is so weird, the teacher isn’t even allowed to discuss it.

Our school mission is one of inclusion, and we have to back it up.

But here’s my rave, and it’s a big one.

The kids are finding each other. The kids are connecting with each other and empowering each other and caring for each other. They are building each other up. They are being safe spaces for each other. And best of all, they are demanding change. They are determined to be visible. They refuse to be excluded. They are tired of awkward conversations; tired of being the ones in the room that have to raise these issues; tired of being told to be patient. As tired as they are, though, they are not going to stop. They matter. Their voices matter.

They don’t insist that you agree with them. They don’t want you to lose your seat at the table if you think being gay is a sin or you don’t understand what being transgender is all about. You can be you, in all your glory, in your seat. They just want to be able to sit at the table as well, in just as good a seat as you, without having to pretend they are someone they are not. They want you to treat them with respect, and they will do the same. They don’t want who they are to be some big, scary, mysterious, unspeakable thing. It isn’t!

They are not too young for this. Young kids know about marriage. They know about gender roles. Insisting that the heterosexual and cisgender options are the only valid ones out there, which is what we do when we pretend the others don’t exist and make them taboo, isn’t about them being too young. It’s about us being scared.

Scared of what?

What are we so scared of that we let these kids be hurt to avoid it?

 

Waiting

I haven’t been posting like I had planned to, but not because I do not have things to say. I just am in a situation where I need to hold back a bit for now in terms of writing in a public space. It’s making me a bit crazy, to tell the truth, because I process so much through writing. But I think I can say this: wonderful things are happening for some of our most vulnerable students, and I’m lucky to be able to be a small part of them and a witness to them. When voices that haven’t been heard are finally truly joining in conversation, with each other and the administration, it’s . . . well, it basically makes me cry with joy. And I’m not a person who cries with joy! I keep tearing up and I’m like, “who AM I?”

So, it has been an emotional time, and a powerful experience for me, and I can’t wait to be able to really write about it!

But other stuff has been going on that I can write about:

I’m digging this nonfiction unit for 5th grade. One day, two girls came in, one wanting “more books about women” after having read Rad American Women and the other wanting “more books about disgusting history” after having read How They Croaked. That was some fun reader’s advisory time! I love how nonfiction RA gives a different glimpse into the mind of a kid.

I totally bombed on my Newbery predictions. I was rooting hardest for The Journey of Little Charlie and was consequently bummed that it didn’t get any recognition at ALA. My honor choices were Hey, Kiddo and Sweep. I didn’t read Sweep until last weekend, so some of my love might have been from having just finished it, but wow, what a beautiful, tender story.

I also read This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel, which was 4.5 stars for me. I loved the vulnerability of this novel. I learned so much and felt so much while reading it. I also was thinking the whole time of our trans students, who have varying levels of parental and peer support. There’s one kid I would love to give it to because of how it would validate their experience, but I think reading about parents who are so supportive would break this kid’s heart. But I also would love to give it to that kid’s parents, because it also validates their experience and captures how even if you try to do everything right, you can’t keep the kid from hurting, and sometimes you just can’t know what “right” would look like anyway. Highly recommend the book.

What else? I haven’t been working with Scratch 3.0 yet. I did poke around some, but got sidetracked by the stuff I can’t write about yet and also just regular old work.

So things are going well and I hope to write something more meaningful soon! I don’t think anyone is reading this besides my husband and like two friends anyway! 🙂

Out of step

A snow day, a migraine, a long weekend: all have contributed to me feeling a bit off my game. I think second semester officially starts tomorrow, so maybe I’ll try to use that marker as a motivational tool.

I really want to dive into Scratch 3.0 and micro:bits, but I keep getting distracted every time I get going. We had some technical issues (needed to update our OS, but it took some time to figure out that that was the problem), and there’s some clunkiness with it that I’m trying to sort out, but I do think it’s going to be a lot of fun once I get into it a bit deeper. That’s my main goal for the coming week.

So anyway, I don’t have much to report from the past week, but here are some tidbits:

Books I read:

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The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Okay, this was pretty amazing. I loved the story, the writing, the energy. Truly moving story. I was especially struck by the “rough draft” assignments compared with what was handed in–as a person working in education, it was such a powerful reminder of how what we see is often just a tiny sliver of the whole kid’s self, even when you have a good connection with that kid.

Someone Else’s Shoes by Ellen Wittlinger

I wanted to like this more than I did. I did enjoy it, particularly the character of Oliver and the adventure aspect, and I appreciated the tackling of difficult subject matter, but I never got out of the mindset where I knew I was reading a novel. I couldn’t surrender to this book. I’m curious to see what kids think, though. I can think of some who would probably really like it.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is the one I’m in the middle of now, and so far, so good.

Television I watched:

True Detective Season 3! It’s so good! I wish I’d waited until the whole thing was available because waiting for new episodes just might kill me.

Other news:

A group of my students are working on starting an LGBTQ+ affinity group in the middle school. I’m helping out with that, and it has been an emotional experience already. I need to sort out (with their input) whether and to what extent I will post about that. (I mean, I obviously wouldn’t post their personal business, but I want to be especially careful with this because it is so important for them to feel respected and safe.)

And that’s all, folks! Have a great week!