There is only hope in community.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt comfortable writing. Computers used to be tools for work and entertainment, but now looking into a screen literally nauseates me, scrolling on my phone nauseates me. I feel it on the floor of my stomach, rolling around and roaring like hunger.

Today’s learning:

I went to the inaugural event for Inheritance, a project from The Atlantic Monthly with the aim of amplifying and honoring Black history and Black stories. We’ve lost so many stories, which is why the ultra conservative right can make up so many stories about what Black people want, what Black people experience, what Black people deserve.

I learned that Anna Deavere Smith attended a pwi (primarily White institution) college (Beaver College at the time, now Arcadia University) where she was one of very few Black students. Of what I learned in the presentation, that is what really stuck. She was there when MLK, Jr. was murdered, and it wasn’t until that time that that Black women there began to see themselves as a group, the self-named “Beaver College Blacks.” They got some stuff changed at that school. Learn more: Here’s the article.

from artEquity’s For the Love of Justice Campaign

I’m thinking about what allyship looks like when only the-one-to-be-allied-with feels pain. I’m thinking about what allyship looks like when everyone is feeling pain, but different kinds of pain about different things. I’m thinking about what it means to be alone in pain.

I think, and I think, and I think, and then nausea. I realize that the nausea is emotion: helplessness, loneliness, overwhelm, and I have to lie down for a bit. I realize that I’m alone, that I’m thinking too much instead of feeling and working through my emotions in community, and that THIS is the problem.

When I ignore my feelings and get stuck in my brain, I’m hiding myself from myself. I end up wearing “the mask” that Paul Lawrence Dunbar reminds us “grins and lies.” The mask can be protective when we wear it at work, as Jodi Ann Burey points out in her TEDx Talk: “Why You Should NOT Bring Your Authentic Self to Work,” but when we wear it at home, by ourselves, we risk our lives.

I must remember to take my mask off sometimes and just allow myself to hurt, to rage, to do nothing sometimes. I’m drawn to Saundra Dalton-Smith’s ideas about the 7 Types of Rest in her TEDx Talk: “The Real Reason Why We Are Tired and What to Do About It. Sometimes, I just need to turn off my brain, write in my journal, sit in silence or listen to my space heater. I need ALL of the types of rest right now.

According to what little I know of Internal Family Systems theory, we are each one of us a community of selves. All of those selves need a chance to speak with each other, need to listen to each other, need to support and learn from each other, and need to learn when to let each other go. I’m talking to my internal selves and realizing that The Answer To Racism does not need to and cannot come from just me alone. It’s to big a monster to tackle.

I need to occasionally take off the mask of systems-changer, of world disrupter, and spend some time just being Nkomo: teacher/college counselor/group therapist in training. One thing at a time!

Day by day, my stomach is feeling a little better. Time for lunch.

How I Failed to Avoid Thinking About September This Week

Me typing or zooming as my cat keeps me company.
  1. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about NYCDOE school reopening plans. While my mind still haven’t gotten my mind around the fact that there is a lethal, airborne illness that could kill me, I am very aware that my family, my students, and their families are susceptible. So does this mean we should all be remote? What, then, of the families who need someone to look after their kids while parents work? What, then of ELL students? Or of students with special needs? Should we all go back to school (part-time at most)? What about the fact that NYC public school buildings are old, and that even during bull markets when NYC is flush with cash, our public school buildings have poorly functioning bathrooms with no soap? And many of our students attend classes in rooms without windows? How will we fix these issues while broke and understaffed, if we can’t do it in the “best” of times?
  2. I’ve attended so many zoom workshops/webinars/meetings this week. Here are the ones I attended:
  3. There are also quite a few that I meant to attend but didn’t have the capacity for on that day:
  4. I have so much to say about all of these events, including the ones I could not attend, but for now, just know that my brain is breaking open with all of the knowledge I’m currently accumulating. More to be shared soon!

The mind is a self-cleaning organ

Today, a friend of mine texted, asking what I’ve been doing all summer. My list was long, but it wasn’t exhaustive. I’m trying to de-fetishize my anxiety-driven busy-ness. Instead, I chose to emphasize all the learning I’m doing, which has created some really grounding and inspiring moments in this crazy, C-19 time.

Today I experienced 4 separate wonderfully joyful moments. First, I attended (through the absolutely wonderful Academy for Teachers) a workshop on using music to connect to activism and self-worth in the classroom.

Second, I attended a workshop led by folks at my new school–oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that I have a new job!–around creating a more inclusive and course planning document.

Third, I went with a colleague and new friend at my new school to see the 5 p.m. porch concerts, which was a neighborhood Charles Mingus-style jazz jam with musicians that looked to range in age from 14 to 70.

Click to learn about the ongoing music-making, music-teaching,
and community in Ditmas Park.

Fourth, I hung out for a short bit with my beautiful mother. We looked at photos from an old photo album (how analog!), and it was so nice to see my mom looking young and vibrant and beautiful. She is still vibrant and beautiful, but her hair is white now. I’d forgotten how dark her hair was, and how cool she looked with dreds.

Finally, I spent some time today skimming through Ideas, Arrangements, Effects, a book that aims to unpack this idea: complex ideas like racism, capitalism, Marxism, and all the other big ideas) manifest in how spaces (literal, figurative, and/or social) are arranged, and those (literal, figurative, and/or social) spaces affect people.

So much of what I see online attempts to use step-by-step, one-size-fits-all approaches to explaining how one goes about dismantling racist policies, as if fixing institutions that have been designed to maintain classist, racist, and elitist hierarchies is as easy as disassembling a piece of IKEA furniture. That’s ridiculous. It’s like saying that one can fix an abusive family dynamic by agreeing to hug one another once a day. To fix a harmful family dynamic, you need a framework. Fixing a harmful societal dynamic requires AT LEAST that much.

Here’s a quote from the book that is sticking with me (pg. 46):

As humans, we are prone to thinking “I-P-E” or Ideas-PEOPLE-Effects. That means we tend to look for whom we can blame when we experience negative effects. This leads us to believe that effects emerge from the deficiencies of individuals, rather than flawed arrangements. Think about when you are waiting in line for a bus that’s late, and everyone gets a little mad at everyone else. It is really easy to get irritated with the person who is talking too loud on the phone, or pushing, or who smells bad. But we tend not to ask the bigger questions about why there aren’t more buses, why the roads are so crowded, or why more people can’t walk to where they need to go.

Emboldened emphasis is mine. “Arrangements” appears to be a friendlier version of the word “systems.”

As I think about the exclusive ways that many schools are run, I’m hoping that reading this book (perhaps with this book group!) will help me get my mind around dismantling racism in schools and in my new, virtual classroom. There’s so much to unpack within my understanding of school and within myself.

Tomorrow, I will attend the last installment of the BIPOC in PWI series put on by ArtEquity. I learned about that through someone I met at the (virtual) Step Up 2020: Moving Racial Equity Forward Conference in Snohomish County, WA. Sharing resources is the BUSINESS. Lift as we climb.

Speaking of which, while listening to a recent playlist on Spotify (I keep looking but can’t figure out which one), I came across Burna Boy. Yes, I’m late to this particular pop star party, but I was moved. I mean, literally moved. I was dancing. It’s been so long since a pop song made me feel COMPELLED to dance. It didn’t make me WANT to dance. I just found myself bopping along while listening, dancing in the street, singing along (to the degree that I thought I knew the words, which I see (according to the video below) that I most certainly DID NOT).

Here it is:

Now you try sitting still!

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.


Why I Embrace My Messiness Even Though I’m a Teacher (And Maybe You Should, Too)

I’ve never been neat. When I was a kid, I had a typically messy teenager’s room. But, unlike many folks my age (thirty coughcoughcough), the messiness never really went away. And my messiness has always been  more than just PHYSICAL messiness.

I would forget to eat.

I would lose my keys. Regularly.

I would walk out of the house with TWO DIFFERENT SHOES ON.

I wouldn’t complete homework assignments (unless I was obsessed with them, in which case I would finish them to the nth power).

I probably would have been late to school everyday–if I didn’t live there (thanks, Putney)!

But I didn’t really notice. That’s the funny thing about being incredibly disorganized–as long as no one is depending on you, your disorganization will probably prevent you from noticing your disorganization. Catch-22.

I mean, I got lots of things done. I did well in all of my  high school classes (ok, not in Calculus, but we won’t talk about that). I discovered a love of music. I discovered that I could write really well and that I loved to discuss big ideas.

It wasn’t until college (go Cardinal!) that I started to see that I had organizational issues. I was very good at getting involved in activities (running the entertainment section of the school paper, creating film festivals on the student television station, holding down a job), but I wasn’t always so good with following through or showing up places on time. I did what I could, but the many student organizations of which I was a member found me frustrating, to say the least. The product I created was always good, but I was a living tornado. I thought it was just the stress of college.

That is, until I started working in the financial services industry and was in charge of *gulp* PROJECT MANAGEMENT.

I couldn’t just write inspired words. I had to send the inspired words to be scrubbed by legal and by compliance. They’re the folks who make folks write things like “past performance is no guarantee of future results” and the like. They had their deadlines (no deadlines!) and I had mine, and my job was to nag, nag, nag until I got everything I needed. Even with a spreadsheet I was abysmal at it. That’s not why I left, though. I left because I was bored.

So I became a teacher. Bwa hahahahahaha! Little did I know how much organization THAT would take! I was a mess at first.

Then I switched to teaching special education. And everything changed.

First of all, because it was my job to keep my students organized, I started researching all the different tools available out there to help them do it. And as I researched more and more tools, I started using them.

And the more tools I used, the less disorganized I became. And the better I became at helping my students. Especially the ones with ADD.

Then kerpow! Light bulb. I realized that I had it. I had ADD. I was 32 years old, and suddenly my life made sense in a way it never had before. A psychiatrist confirmed it.

– I understood why folks always thought I was so random in my observations (they couldn’t follow my train of thought).

– I understood why I always had such an easy time tying together incredibly unlike pieces of information and LOVED interdisciplinary studies (I take in a lot of info and see lots of connections–I’m more of a big picture thinker than a detail-oriented thinker).

– I understood why sometimes I couldn’t accomplish even the simplest tasks and sometimes I was so focused that I could work on something for 10 hours straight, voluntarily (this is called “hyper focus” and folks with ADD have a hard time controlling it, though it tends to come when we are really interested in something).

– I understood why relationships were sometimes SO HARD to maintain (I’m at the mercy of my emotions in a different way than many others, though I’m getting better at dealing with this; and sometimes my all-over-the-place way of thinking makes others feel unheard and misunderstood).
– I understood why I was soooo messy and preferred it that way (I need to SEE everything I want, or I’ll forget where it is, so I spread out).

– I understood why consistent classroom management was (and is!) so difficult for me to maintain (I’m easily distracted by every. little. thing. so I struggle with ignoring the tiny distractions meant to take me off course and stop the lesson).

If you look closely at that list, you’ll see that there are useful and not-so-useful skills/handicaps in there. For every negative impact, there is a positive one.

I’ve been lucky enough to have the educational pedigree that allows me to see myself as 2E — Double Exceptional. This means that I have ADD but I’m also very, very smart. I know that Special Ed doesn’t mean dumb. Because I know I’m not dumb.

And that’s why I love my messy apartment, my messy hair, and my cat-fur covered jeans (okay, maybe I’m not so into the cat fur part). These are tangible pieces of proof to the world and to my students that it’s possible to be messy, to be a little out of control, and to still be scary smart, financially stable, and incredibly happy.

I’m just teaching by example, my friends. Just teaching by example.

I know myself. I know my habits. So I can work with them and use them to make myself better.

What are your big realizations about yourself? ow have they helped make YOU stronger?