We All Have Work To Do

Killer Mike’s Emotional Speech

I had a lot of conversations yesterday about the looting, the uprisings, and the expression of black pain. All the black people I spoke to, while certainly not wanting to get involved themselves because we’re all in our 40s or older, all had the same thought: Burn the s**t down.

Of course, I don’t want to live in a world of rubble and the destruction of buildings. But at the same time, I don’t want to live in a world made of the rubble of the systemic destruction of lives.

“But how will the white supremacists and unfeeling people in power respond?” my white friends asked. “The destruction will just make them behave worse!” But will it? What is worse than killing black people in their homes, in the cars, asking for help, going for a run, or just being alive? What’s worse than that, exactly? What’s worse than thousands more black people than white people dying from a pandemic because of having low- wage jobs where they can’t work from home, or from living in close quarters with many others because rent is skyrocketing and folks can’t afford to live in decently priced homes?

Killer Mike clears it up it out: what’s worse is having nothing when it is all over.

Part of my pain as a black woman during this time is shame and regret. I haven’t done enough to support my students in my school. Yes, in my class, I made sure to be an anti-racist as I could consciously be, by talking about race and class in class, by reading books by black and brown authors, by encouraging then to know their history, by incorporating rap and hip hop into my curriculum (I rapped in front of my kids, and they were both embarrassed and impressed), by showing movies that showcase black actors as leads and not background characters, by trying my darndest to figure out a TikTok dance (and failing), by reading as many books by black authors as I could.

But, here’s my secret: I don’t have very many black friends. I don’t hang out in very many black spaces (except, now, virtually), and often times, I feel as if my history as a black New Yorker isn’t “black” enough. Of course, that’s ridiculous. But it’s a feeling that I have sometimes, and that is also part of the shame. How can I support black and Brown people if I am daily steeping myself in whiteness and, indirectly, white supremacy?

I think that my doubling down on the “Burn the S**t Down” talking point is perhaps my way of trying to make up for my past failures to call out the racism, classism, ethnocentrism, ableism, and ageism I have seen all around me. I think I wanted to my s**t down.

I’ve been taking the easy way out.

What I love about Killer Mike’s speech is that he acknowledges the anger and he acknowledges the desire to destroy. He acknowledges the failures of the federal government. He acknowledges the racist history of his hometown. But he also recognizes that there are police officers in his family. That there are cities that have prosecuted police officers. And, most importantly, that you gain nothing from destroying your own “home,” even if you feel like destroying everything.

“Home” can mean all sorts of things. Your actual home. Your community. Places that provide jobs to your community. A sense of safety. The ability to believe that tomorrow could be better. These are things that you don’t want to destroy.

Now, There are those who are annoyed and don’t think that Killer Mike is doing Atlanta any favors. And as a New Yorker who pays scant attention to Atlanta politics, I don’t have the insight or research to fact-check Killer Mike or writer Devyn Springer of The Independent, but I can fact-check my own motivations behind telling people that I support destruction at this time. I don’t support destruction in any other situation. It’s strange that I would even say I support it now. It’s a form of acting in, and I’m taking this time to acknowledge it. It’s shame.

I want to be an anti-racist educator, but I’ve got to do better and let less slide when I see and hear casual injustice in the faculty room and at happy hour. Every faculty room in every school has it. Every happy hour at every school has it.

I’ve got to actively join and participate in a black community without fearing that I won’t be accepted (I’m still re-living can’t-fit-in trauma form the 80s, when it black folks who listened to rock or spoke Standard English without being called a traitor to the race or an oreo cookie or some nonsense). I’ve got to allow the black community an opportunity to accept me. It’s an old story, that I’m not good enough, and I need to toss it into the trash. Times have changed. We’ve had a black President. Everyone listens to rock and rap and whatever category XXXTENTACION and TeaMarr and Joel are. Ain’t nobody gonna call me out for “talking white.” Not anymore.

My email inbox is flooded with organizational manifestos promising to “re-dedicate” themselves to “being anti-racist” and “committing to supporting the community” and all sorts of conveniently vague action items. I hate vague. It’s lazy thinking.

So, as an educator and as a black woman, I specifically pledge to:

  1. Call it as I see it. No more protecting fragile egos from my frustration when I hear racist, sexist, homophobic, ethnocentric garbage in casual conversation with colleagues. Even if I love you. I refuse to erase myself. No me without we.
  2. Re-embrace the black community and actively join it. I love my people, but I haven’t been joining them as much as I should have been these past years. I see myself as a part of it by blood, but I need a black crew around me, and I need to support some black adults. I need someone to process all this life stuff with (from dating to books to shows to political uprisings), and I’m going to actively find those people. I have some already, but dang my current posse likes to travel. I need some folks near me so we can talk in person (from six feet away and with masks on). No me without we.
  3. Do the Work. While my primary mission–to help me develop my own solid footing in my own racial identity and history–is to deepen my understanding of my blackness. I am a teacher of all different ethnicities and backgrounds of children, and I need to have a stronger understanding of the literature, arts, and cultural expressions of ALL the children in my classroom, and yes, this includes white children. But also non-binary children, gay children, children with disabilities. We all have deep and important histories, and I need to investigate those more deeply. Right now this means reading literature or consuming media from PR, DR, and Central America and from their emigrants to NYC. This does not includes posting slogans on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook or whatever new thing comes along. No me without we.
  4. Be humble. I need to bring a child’s mind to this work. Some white folks look at me and see expertise in race work. Ha! I can’t be seduced by that. I’m learning and must always be learning about this work. I need to acknowledge that I am no expert, just a learner who might be a little further along, but not by much. I need to learn from those who came before me in the anti-racist struggle. No me without we.
  5. Take care of myself. All of this stuff is difficult emotional work. So sometimes I have to let myself take a break and allow others to do the work without feeling like I’ve failed. I can’t push myself until there is nothing left of my emotional resilience. No one benefits from an educator who is too tired to be kind. So this means taking a break from the news when I need to. Not staying informed about every new injustice at every second of every day. Choosing my battles. Allowing myself some moments of humor when I’m in pain. Remaining steadfast in my belief that even if progress is slow, it’s still progress.

What work do YOU pledge to do?

Eyes Wide Open: Looking In, Looking Out

Just finished participating in a virtual seminar by Paula Scher, one of the most influential graphic designers in the world. I won attendance at her virtual seminar through the Academy for Teachers, which is a membership organization for teachers that aims to provide teacher community through intellectually stimulating conversations and events. Through them, I have been lucky enough to do in-person workshops with Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish, Professor Joshua Katz, spoken word artist and poet Taylor Mali*, Professor Jeff Nunokawa*, and (hopefully, if I win the lottery) with author Karen Russell*.

After watching a documentary about Paula Scher on Netflix (season 1, episode 6 of “Abstract: The Art of Design” on Netflix), I got a chance to hear from Scher herself about her creative process and some of the projects she created.

Here’s what I took away from both the documentary and from her talk:

  1. Creativity requires keeping your senses open. There’s a wonderful opening set of sequences in “Abstract” during which you see NYC though Scher’s eyes. She sees herself primarily as a typography expert (because, as she said in the seminar, she is not a very good illustrator), and the camera focuses on all the different kinds of type you see all over New York. Manhattan (and, to a much lesser degree, Brooklyn) is a city of signs and letters that all present different ways of presenting ideas. Serifs on words tend to imply an old-world, classical, upper class approach to things (thus, the multiple revamps of the masthead for The New York Times) and a lack of serif tends to imply something new and creative or (oddly enough) European. In the video sequence, Scher talks about how sometimes fonts out in the world are mismatched and she has an impulse to fix them. I love seeing the world through her eyes. At another point in the “Abstract” episode, Scher mentions that she will often go to the city to get ideas. Looking around fills her mind with new thoughts and new patterns she can incorporate into her design ideas. For instance, in designing the logo for The Highline, Scher used a capital “H” with two lines through the middle to imply railroad tracks (which is apt, because The Highline was originally an abandoned elevated railroad).
The logo for The Highline, inspired by railroad tracks

2. Creativity can require an attention to detail and a willingness to just trust your gut. Sometimes simultaneously. One of my favorite details about the creation of The Highline logo is that Scher created it quickly, in couple of minutes on the back of a business card she had handy. During the seminar, she said, “Time doesn’t make design better.” That is to say, sometimes going with your gut can create the right feeling you need in a piece of art. Though, I would add the caveat that developing strong gut emotions that connect to a very strong visual sensibility was also the results of having done A LOT of work and study in visual arts. At the time of the Highline rebranding and creation, Scher had been a working designer for over 20 years. I’m also reminded of the book Sources of Power by Gary Klein, in which Klein finds that all of the amazing “intuitive” and split-second moves made my emergency room nurses, firefighters, pilots and the like comes from thousands of hours of lived experience. Perhaps that’s the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell popularized or the 728 to 16,120 Hour Rule. Whatever the exact number (and really, I don’t care about that number. The number is this: many), that split-second of amazing choice-ness or gut feeling is actually the end results of an uncountable amount of time putting in what the folks at 6seconds.org call practicing “deliberately in the smartest way you can.”

What all am I getting at? Well, I suppose that I’m thinking in terms of what is means to become a very good teacher. I have been practicing all this teacher-y stuff for 16 years now, and some stuff I’m still working on, like classroom management. My particular approach to classroom management has mostly involved making engaging lessons. But that isn’t enough, sometimes. With the help of blog posts, books, and mini courses from educational thought leaders Dave Stuart, Jr., Angela Duckworth‘s Character Lab, and Angela Watson’s The Cornerstone for Teachers, my classroom management is getting stronger and stronger. But it’s not yet at the gut level. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Trainings around group dynamics through the Center for Group Studies, workshops with EGPS, and classes in my Masters in School Counseling have helped me see that at least some of my struggles in classroom management come from my background. All those thousands of hours of being a young person in my household have had an impact on me. I have a hard time not channeling my mother whenever a kid misbehaves. And my mom was great for ME, but I tend to be a rule follower. My goal is to help my students be rule followers when following rules is to their long-term benefit. I’d also like to help them be better at simply communicating about what isn’t working for them.

Perhaps this is too much to ask, but I don’t think it is. I continue to mull it over. by teaching them to look at themselves and the choices they make, and using that information to help them create academic work. Still doing my WHOKNOWSHOWMANY hours to figure this out.

Other things on my mind:

  1. Priya Parker‘s The Art of Gathering Newsletter introduces me to new ways to think of remote learning and remote connection in every post.
  2. I watched the George Floyd video last night before bed and wept.
  3. I’m considering attending this workshop from the Othering and Belonging Institute on how to use narrative to help us connect to others.
  4. Trying to think about using Kialo to facilitate online debates. Weighing that against giving my students yet another site to learn to navigate.
  5. Trying to decide if I want to spend my precious mind time being amused by a live magazine or an arthouse film on mubi or reading on my kindle or grading or just staring straight ahead into nothingness and sweating because THE HUMIDITY in NYC is UNBEARABLE.

Darlin’ I doon’t know why Iiiiii go to extreeeemes!

Please forgive the Billy Joel reference. I recently turned 44, and I’m reliving both my junior high and high school years pretty intensely these days, often through music (thanks, Prime Music Unlimited). All this time at home, exploring the internet in search of new resources and opportunities to help my kids connect with the world in healthy ways, is bringing me back to my own schooling, remembering how hard it was to find out new information without resorting to (egad!) TALK to someone.

Now you can find out almost anything–even FROM AN EXPERT–without speaking to them, without risking any vulnerability, whatsoever!

And yet… and yet… so many students don’t take advantage of this, are too afraid to take advantage of this. It’s AWKWARD or WEIRD or, some other word in UPPER CASE LETTERS.

All of that preamble is to say, that I started out the shelter-in-place teaching with an arsenal of products, and now I’m down to just one or two (or three) that I use consistently.

A picture of monochrome code in a spiral.

I was using too many apps!

But, to start out, I was using, on a weekly basis, the following programs:

1. Google Classroom
2. Google Docs
3. Google Forms
4. Quizizz
5. Gimkit
6. Kahoot
7. Youtube
8. Brainpop
9. Zoom then Google Meet
10. IXL
11. Flocabulary
12. Google Slides
13. Flipgrid
14. NewsELA
15. CommonLit
16. Screencastify
17. Plus the tons of other things that I signed up for, tried out, then discarded.

I had the kids doing the equivalent of about 20 minutes of work a day–usually watching a 2-3 minute video, then answering some multiple choice questions. Then, as my co-teacher and I worked on creating new curriculum, we had the students work on specific reading and writing skills using IXL.

But the students complained that it was too much. And, frankly, it was too much for me, too. The actual grading wasn’t too bad, but switching back and forth between 17 different programs and Skedula, the school’s gradebook program, was taking a toll on my eyes.

I realized that, for the first time, students were honestly doing the exact amount of work they could do. They weren’t distracted by noise and misbehavior and millions of requests to go to the bathroom, and they weren’t trying to trick me into thinking they understood the work by getting answers from peers (while pretending that they were actually just misbehaving and talking about non-school related things), so I could more acutely  and understand what was really going on in the classroom. So I pulled back.

I realized that Project Based Learning (PBL, to those in the know) was now the way to go. Maybe it was always the way to go. But it seemed like this was the right time to help kids learn to pace themselves and to face their emotions in a way that would help them now and for the rest of their lives.

And then I found the online course that has changed my life: How to do PBL online.

It’s a free course!

More to come.

Corona Teaching – Month 2

So, it’s been a while, and a lot has changed. I’m no longer teaching 8th grade, for one. Instead, I’m teaching 7th grade. And now, instead of being the SpEd Teacher and the English teacher, I’m now the Humanities teacher, and I have a lovely co-teacher, who mostly pulls kids out and helps with one-on-one work and building beautiful relationships with the kids, and a para who officially only works with one child in the class but occasionally lectures everyone when the students are behaving poorly.

Or rather, that was the way things were a couple of months ago, before all of this Corona mess began. I really should have been keeping up with this blog the whole time, but I didn’t because frankly, I was burned out.

This year has been a difficult year. Not only was this particular seventh grade class incredibly creative, interested, and social, but they were INCREDIBLY creative, INCREDIBLY interested (but not really in the content, unfortunately), and INCREDIBLY, UNCEASINGLY social. And often mean to one another. And sometimes to me. I was burned out and tired everyday. I was frustrated a lot, too.

But that was all pre-COVID-19. Now, all has changed.

First, rumors of a virus started going global, and right in the middle of sickness season. I was very proud of myself because I was right in the middle of a mass hysteria unit, and got to relate everything we read about in the news to “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and the “War of the Worlds” broadcast. “Are we overreacting to this news of Coronavirus?” I asked my kids, hoping that I was being provocative enough that they would stop talking for a moment and engage with school. For once, they seemed moderately engaged!

In those last two weeks of school, as NYC teachers and parents petitioned Mayor DeBlasio to close schools, a microcosm of what would soon be happening in the outside world was already happening at school. Non-Asian kids were jokingly accusing perfectly healthy Asian kids of having Coronavirus (as a joke, but things go really quickly from joke to threat in middle school, sometimes even within one spoken sentence). Then students started accusing everyone who was wearing a mask of having Coronavirus, and then, finally, schools went remote. Then standardized tests were cancelled, then shelter-in-place, then city-wide mask requirements.

At first, I was frankly glad of the rest. January to March are the burnout months, when the weather is cold, everyone is stressed out about upcoming standardized tests, flu season is wrecking everyone, the chlidren begin to smell, teachers stop getting enough sleep, and summer feels years away. Students start getting irritable, which makes teachers irritable, which makes students even MORE irrritiable, which makes parents angry, which makes admin frustrated, and everyone just spews anger, irritation, and frustration at each other until allergy season, when the students start taking allergy medication and sleep in class. It’s a tough time.

So this year, I got to skip all that. But with standardized testing gone, I realized that I’d lost my way. Without the pressure of having to force kids to make arguments, and with the added pressure of looking for ways to engage students’ minds without traumatizing them (this is ALWAYS my aim, but it’s much easier for a kid to feel traumatized in the midst of a pandemic), I had to take a  good, hard look at what my teaching had become: uninspiring. I’d been trained into this.

I was interested in my content but not inspired, my kids were occasionally interested in it but never inspired, and I’m not sure I did a good job of selling the usefulness of the skills I was teaching.

After 16 years of teaching secondary school–11 in high-poverty settings–I realized that I’d lost my way. For years, I’d been wondering where the great ideas I’d had as a new teacher had gone, and I realized that my strict adherence to the Common Core (though, a lot less strict than many other teachers) had more or less destroyed my creativity as a teacher. I’m not against Common Core, not a bit, but in my desire to fully master that sort of teaching, I eliminated the other, creativity-sparking kind.

I had to re-learn what it is one can teach a student when the ultimate goal isn’t necessarily an essay or a multiple-choice test designed to confuse and trick you. Over the next few entries, I’m going to bring anyone who is reading this along on the journey I’ve taken to rediscover my teaching love while in quarantine.

I’m still mid journey, but you’re welcome to come along!

Wow, 3 years of 8th grade

So I started out loving to teach middle school, and I still do.

But I’ve learned some things along the way that you didn’t get to experience with me.

The first thing:

  1. 8th graders are intense
    for all the reasons that you already know. They’ve just gotten the hormone infusion, they are incredibly narcissistic (which is developmentally appropriate), they want desperately to be liked but are too obsessed with their self image to show others how much affection they have for them, they need lots of sleep but get precious few hours of it,  current middle schoolers  have super high rates of anxiety.

The second item on my list will come tomorrow. But firs I want to talk about how I’ve dealt with this big, first realization.

The more you can find ways to connect with them and help them see that you are not against them, the better. I dealt with this some of their volatility by encouraging them to write in journals about their feelings. They had twenty minutes to write every Friday. Some found this frustrating, and some found it relaxing. In any case, after they wrote, I would respond in writing to what they’d written to me, and they would see my response on post-its in their journals the following Friday when they wrote again. Some didn’t bother to write much, and others loved to write. Some would draw. The boys struggled to come up with what to say, I noticed, and I think this is because, generally, they arent as comfortable expressing themselves in words. Whether this is constitutional or because society specializes them this way is not my concern. Of course, there are always exceptions to generalizations about “how boys are” ad “how girls are,” but in this case, I’m talking about my students, not boys or girls in general. I saw journaling as an opportunity to get to know the students better and as a way for them to create space in their day to delve into their minds. Students don’t have nearly as much time as they used to for recharging, staring at the ceiling, etc. which Cal Newport refers to as “solitude deprivation.” Many students look forward to this time to empty the randomness of their brains onto the paper.

Tomorrow, or the next time that I write, whenever that is, I will address the second major thing I have learned about 8th graders in these three years: they don’t want you to be exciting, no matter what they say.


Middle School, How I Love Thee!

In September, I started working at a new, technologically focused middle school. I still co-teach US History and English, but now my students are younger.It’s only been about 1.5 months, but already, I’m in love with my new school. Mostly, I’m in love with teaching 8th grade. Wow. What a fun age! They look like teenagers (well, some of them do), but they are tiny like elementary school kids. Their emotions constantly change. One moment they are excited and happy, and the next moment they are depressed and inconsolable, and the moment after that they are angrily screaming at an ex-friend (from ten minutes before).

Here is what I’ve learned about them so far:

  1. They love structure. Love love love.
  2. At the same time, they generally have no idea how to create their own structure, so they must be constantly reminded to walk in, sit down, and take out their notebook.
  3. A sense of urgency is easy to create. A timer does wonders.
  4. They like to pretend they want to be treated as fully capable young men and women, but really they find that freedom frightening. They really want you to take ownership of your authority and tell them what to do without hesitation.
  5. They are so playful!
  6. They still really care if you call or email home. Even though many of them barely talk to their parents, they desperately want for their parents to love and admire all that they do.
  7. If you frequently contact parents, the parents will be grateful. 8th grade is such a hard time to understand your child. I’ve had some parents tell me that their 8th graders are like strangers living in the house.
  8. Oh my god, the socializing never ends.

I’m adoring every moment of it!