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.

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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!

 

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.

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!