I've written about parenting before. With each stage of parenting, there are new and scary challenges, amazing transformations, and incredible insights into our parenting and our kids. Now that mine are 12 and over, I find myself missing the days when the biggest problem was not having a snack, or falling and getting a skinned knee.
Now, the problems seem big. They're complicated. And you can't just fix them with a Band-aid.
I think about my own kids and the various issues we have had. I would say we're a middle class family. We have a certain amount of privilege, being a light-skinned educated Latino family. We have resources, or we know how to access them. We speak English. We have a community, family nearby. We are mentally stable. We can afford therapists if our kids need them. Being an educator, I know the educational lingo used when talking about kids and learning. I can communicate well with other teachers and administrators. And yet, it is still so challenging to be a parent. When our kids have problems, we want to help solve them. When they hurt, we want to take away the pain.
What about the kids whose families can't cope? Don't speak English? Don't have the resources or know how to get them? Don't know how to navigate "the system"? Don't have community supports? Are focused on getting food on the table? If it's stressful for me, how must it be for them? Sometimes, I roll my eyes at the cray things parents throw at as and demand of us as teachers and administrators. But really, when I am able to put myself in their shoes, and imagine their world, I am able to change my perspective a little and build empathy for them. No wonder parents let the ball drop in different ways. No wonder kids come to us so needy. No wonder they have issues with coping, too.
I have been trying to flip my thinking in this way. Even when I do roll my eyes or let my mouth open in disbelief, ultimately, empathy fosters understanding and patience, and sympathy, and that is worth a lot.
Last week at our staff appreciation lunch each staff member received cards written by the students. An exercise carried out by our parent-guardian organization, the ones I received this year made me smile and chuckle. It was interesting to read comments to me as a teacher and others as an administrator for the first time.
This student's spelling is not great but this made me laugh. I think it might be one of my ELL students who wrote it, so it's ok the spelling is off.
Even though it sounds a bit generic and like it's from a student who doesn't really know me, that's ok. I'll take it.
I think this one is from one of the recently arrived students. This is a girl from El Salvador who traveled here with some older cousins. Once she got over the border, she spent 2 months in an ICE detention center. Finally, she made it here and is living with her aunt. She left behind a brother and her parents so she could come get a good education here. In El Salvador her parents couldn't afford to send her to school.
This is the only comment I got that had a student's name attached to it. I wish the others had had names on them so I could thank the students.
Wish I knew who the "we" is in this one.
And then there was this note. I have a feeling I know who this was from.....a young 7th grader who needs frequent (daily) reminders to take off her hat.
All great reminders that what we do every day is appreciated by someone at some point. They often don't tell us out loud, they may even act completely nasty as they push us away, especially in middle school. One thing I have learned over the years is to not take it personally when that happens. It's almost never really about the teacher. It's usually about something else: feeling inadequate, some friend drama, family problems.
Teaching is weird in a way: you put all this work in, and you often won't know the end results. We just have to keep on doing what we do, knowing that we are affecting and influencing kids' lives every day, whether or not we are thanked for it.
March continues to be THE. WORST. MONTH. EVER. for public school teachers. And it's not over yet.
March is long. No breaks, no 3 day weekends. We are preparing for MCAS. The weather got gorgeous, sunny and warm, and all the snow melted, only to cover everything in white the next week with one of the biggest snowstorms of the winter. Too cold to take our students outside every day after lunch, and all that teen energy is simmering, about to boil over.
Here's some of the "fun" we have been having at my school this week:
- I had a student screaming the f-bomb right in front of me
- I saw a student being dragged down the hallway "in fun"
- A student yelled "I don't even like you!" in my face
- A whole table of students looked at me like I had 3 heads because I told them to stop throwing food at their lunch table
- A student told me that 2 different teachers called her annoying in the last 2 days. I didn't ask if she thought it was a pattern and or tell her that she ought to look inward to figure this one out
- Lots of nasty looks and eye-rolling
- Also lots of parent phone calls and emails asking parents to help us remind their children to be respectful and follow simple rules
- Parent complaints about various things
That is really just the tip of the iceberg.
We have also managed to actually have fun this month. We began "Cafeteria Karaoke" in our lunchroom. I made a playlist, we had students sign up, and amazingly, students actually sang. I was impressed - at their age, you could not have paid me enough to do something like that. My co-AP broke the ice by singing the first song, "Don't Stop Believin" by Journey - but so many students joined in, he was not the only one singing for long.
In other fun events, my colleague/co-assistant principal was honored in a fundraiser last Saturday. For his 37 years as a music teacher, he deserves it.
In my own class, we went deeper into our study of Australia by learning about Aboriginal Australians and the Stolen Generation. We watched and discussed the movie, "Rabbit-Proof Fence", about 3 girls who are taken from their homes to a settlement where they are forced to speak English only, and learn British culture while they are made to forget their own. My students were very into it and were able to understand and discuss, and empathize with the Aboriginal girls in the movie.
So, March is hard, and March is long. And even though it is technically spring, it feels a long way off. Just keep in mind that soon enough it will be warmer, we will start to smell and see flowers and feel the warm sun on our shoulders. Then we can start complaining about the heat and the insects.
Happy almost end of March, teachers!
I knew that my school life would be really different this year, when I took the position of half-time assistant principal while keeping some of my teaching schedule. What I didn't realize insight I would gain into the life of an administrator by being in this position. Who knew that so much happened behind the scenes?
I never thought much being an AP, unless it was to say that it was not a job I would want. When people asked me if I would ever consider getting my administrator license, I would say "HELL no!" I knew that I loved being in the classroom and wouldn't want to give it up. This year, I've been able to take a deep look at both sides, I'm not sure which one I'm better at, and I definitely have more years teaching, but I like both.
When it comes to teaching:
- I love that moment when you look at your class, and see a group of engaged, thoughtful students who are at ease in your class.
- I love when I see my students helping each other in genuine ways.
- It is amazing when my students get so interested they ask question after question, to the point where we get a little off track and I can't answer the questions, and I tell them I don't know and need to look up the answers.
- I love researching topics and coming up with new material that is tailored to my group of students.
- Laughing with my students makes me happy.
- It's weird to have the administrative perspective as a teacher.
As for AP'ing:
- I love walking around the school building and checking in with teachers and students.
- Collaborating with my co-AP and principal is amazing.
- Laughing has been an important part of every day. We always make sure some of that happens,
- When things happen that we can't believe happened, we mentally record those things for our future book, You Can't Make this S*** Up.
- I get to see students in a different light - not always good, not always bad - but I get to still have great relationships with many of them.
- I love those moments when I can help a teacher, parent, or student feel supported.
- I love having the teacher perspective as an administrator.
So, right now, it's a toss-up as to which I like more. Luckily, I can say that I not only love my job, but I have fun at it, and look forward to going - almost every single day.
These were the words of a woman in back of me on line at a grocery store in Puerto Rico.
My husband and I were spending two months on the island, the coldest two months of the year in Massachusetts where we live, happy to get away and enjoy the warmth and beauty of my parents’ birthplace. On that day, the store – in a heavily tourist area near San Juan – had customers who were a mix of native Puerto Ricans, Puerto Ricans visiting from the mainland, and native U.S. Whites and African Americans. I had just said something to my husband. The woman asked me, in a surprised voice, “Did you just speak to him in Spanish?”
When I told her yes, I had, she said, “I’m so proud of you!” I guess she thought I was a White woman. I told her I was Puerto Rican and that she didn’t have to be so proud of me because Spanish was, after all, my first language.
When she looked unsure of what I had said, I followed up by saying, “And please don’t tell me ‘but you don’t look Puerto Rican,’ because I’m 100 percent Puerto Rican.”
Shrugging, still unconvinced, she asked, “And what about your husband?”
“He’s from Spain,” I said.
“Really?”, the surprise still registering on her face. “Oh, I thought you were both European.”
“Well,” I said, “he is European. Spain is in Europe.”
“Oh, yeah, I guess. But I was thinking more of England.”
(Why do Americans equate England with Europe? It’s always been a mystery to me).
“England,” I informed her, “is in some ways the least European country because it’s actually separated from the rest of Europe.” I didn’t want to confuse her so I didn’t even mention that Great Britain had recently voted to exit the European community.
“But Spain,” I continued, “is smack in the heart of Europe.”
“Well, yes, you’re right there,” she conceded.
And that was my encounter in Puerto Rico, the land of my heritage, concerning identity, language, and ethnicity.
It’s not that this kind of remark was unprecedented. People have frequently told me, “But you don’t look Puerto Rican,” expecting, I guess, a brown- (but never white- or black-) skinned individual. (Again, I often wonder why people like this think they know what all Puerto Ricans should look like. Where do they get their ideas? Is there a “standard-issue” Puerto Rican? )
And why was this woman “so proud” of me? Because I’m fluent in a language other than English in the most multilingual nation in the world? Actually, on this we could probably both agree: native English-speaking Americans are what Terrell Bell, a former Secretary of Education, famously called “monolingual bumpkins.” Mr. Bell was in the cabinet of President Ronald Reagan, no less, a president who was staunchly anti-bilingual education and a proponent of “English Only.” Reagan was once quoted in the New York Times as saying, “It is absolutely wrong and against the American concept to have a bilingual education program that is now openly, admittedly, dedicated to preserving their native language and never getting them adequate in English so they can go out into the job market” (as quoted in Baker, 2011, p. 189). He made this awkwardly phrased statement with no sense of irony (what is the “American concept” and who are the “they” to which he was referring?). Well, after all, perhaps he was right: Maybe Americans first need to master English before they can take on other languages.
Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism, 5th ed.
I used to think I would be a natural at parenting. And in some ways I am. But there are aspects of parenting that I never thought about. Now I realize that when I thought about having kids, I mostly thought of them as babies.
I used to think that all the rules I had in my head and the expectations I had for my kids would just be followed, no problem. That’s what I did - for the most part anyway. I used to think that a punishment would be enough to convince my child he or she did something wrong and then they wouldn’t repeat it. Now I know that each child is so different, and each situation has to be looked at differently as well, and that all the rules and expectations I had in my head can mostly be thrown out the window.
I used to think it would be easy, with some bumps in the road. Now I know it’s difficult and mostly bumpy, with some smooth sections. The smooth sections are the ones that make you forget about the bumps.
I used to think I would never, ever let my kids ________________. Now I know there is no way I could have known enough to decide that before my kids were born. Example: my son refused to sleep in his bed, and slept instead on the couch, for almost an entire year. I realized a few weeks into it that while I did not like this fact, it wasn’t so important in the scheme of things. Was he sleeping? Yes. Why should it matter so much where he slept? I used to think I would be rigid about those rules because I also used to think my kids would just follow them.
Now I know. Being a mom means making it up as you go along, compromising, rethinking your stance all the time. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t.
Being a teacher is much like this. I used to think that teachers maybe just have a special thing that guides them every day and makes them natural teachers. After 20 plus years of teaching, now I know that isn’t completely true. Yes- teachers are often masters at the content of what they teach, and yes - some teachers are more naturally good at it. But finding what works with our students is a different matter. Teaching involves a ton of trials with failures and successes. Good teachers, in my mind, don’t always stick to something because it’s always worked. Good teachers try new ways and new lessons all the time. Sometimes they work - sometimes they fall flat. But they don’t stop trying. After all, our students are always changing, so we should change with them and learn with them.
Like parenting, teaching involves mostly bumpy roads with some smooth parts. And like with parenting, those smooth parts are what makes you forget about the bumps and keep us doing what we’re doing.
Each of our students is so different also. We can’t pretend to meet all of their needs all of the time, or completely know or understand them always, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Finally, teachers, like parents, are not perfect. Some of us have more experience than others, but all of us are learning as we go.
With all the scary news about ICE raids happening around the country, there are also positive and exciting events happening. People are rising up all over the country to support immigrants. Immigrants are becoming empowered, even as the deportations continue. In my town, actions have been taken to show clear support of our undocumented families.
Our district's school committee has passed a resolution to protect our school from ICE raids. I am proud of our superintendent and the committee for supporting and protecting the undocumented families we serve. Many of them are very frankly scared; the resolution gives clear guidelines on what to do if ICE shows up at our school doors.
Soon, my school will be launching an immigration story project, inspired by my students' immigration story books from months ago, and in collaboration with the Family Diversity Project (familydiv.org/) - more on that in a later post.
Whether or not you have immigrant students and families in your school, it is important that we teach our students about immigration - not only the Ellis Island years, but what it looks like now. Remind your students that everyone has an immigration story - unless they are 100 % Native Americans. Here are some resources in case you are interested - educate yourself, and then educate your students. Enjoy, share, and post in comments if you have more resources.
Actions are illegal, never people
Last year at this time, I was happy only if I enclosed myself in my classroom and focused on my group of students and the ELL program at my school. I felt stifled and micromanaged, and morale and school spirit were at an all-time low.
A year later, and 7 months into new leadership, the difference in the air is palpable. Problems still exist and always will, and there will always be disagreements or people who are unhappy. However, our new leader has breathed life into our school with her art education, enthusiasm, incredibly deep caring for kids, understanding of teachers, and what she calls "Patty Bode's crazy ideas". An accomplished art educator who has extensively taught, presented, and written about art, social justice, and multicultural education, Patty has more energy than most 6 year olds I know; she is the kind of person who gets to work early, having already gone on a 5 mile walk and done 3 loads of laundry.
The transformation in our school is evident all over. The entrance to school has cutouts of many hands that can be seen through the windows with the words "Open minds, open hearts, open ARMS" (also the acronym for our school). The cafeteria is a vibrant place with games, coloring, and puzzles available for students on the days we can't take them outside for fresh air. Classrooms are busy with creative and engaging work.
Some of Patty Bode's crazy ideas have happened already or will be happening. Take the entire school, including the administrative staff AND the custodians to see "Hidden Figures"? Sure! Why not? All grade walking field trips to see dance performances at our local Fine Arts Center? Let's do it!. Be the first public school nationwide to host the Family Diversity Project's "Portraits of Transgender People" photo exhibit, and then pilot our very own exhibit of immigrant families in our school? Yes!! Patty has a "let's make it happen" attitude that makes you think you really can make it all happen.
Other exciting events at our school include a digital citizenship curriculum, led by our amazing librarian Peter Riedel; a viewing of the film "Screenagers", about overuse of screen time and its consequences; more integration across subjects and teams; and the return of inquiry groups, led by teachers, as a cornerstone of professional development for teachers.
Patty has brought a sense of "by any means necessary" for reaching our students and their families. Beginning in the summer, she made home and work visits to reach out to families and make them feel welcomed. This gave me a sense of freedom to be able to say to families, "What time can you meet? We will make it work." I have a group of 6 or 7 Latina moms I text with updates, questions, or concerns, and I would challenge anyone to tell me those moms don't want to be involved in their kids' schools. They text me back right away and often, and they know we care about their kids. It is just this kind of thinking outside of the box that some families need.
But most importantly, I think that teachers at our school feel heard. Most people know that they can stop by Patty's office for a chat any time the door is open, and they don't always need an appointment. Patty goes to team meetings often, and in staff meetings listens to concerns with a patience I admire. Teachers do not feel afraid to make their voices heard, because they know that at heart she is also a teacher. She is also not above donning an apron and coming to my class (or others!) to engage students in a color-mixing/hand-painting activity to follow up on a discussion we had about melanin.
The purpose of this blog post was not so much to show my esteem for Patty, though she is pretty great. The purpose was more to show how important leadership is to a school. There was a time when I thought it didn't matter who was leading our school, because we teachers knew what to do and how to do it anyway. Now I realize how it feels to have an instructional leader who can really influence and change a school for the better. Lucky me, I am able to work with her and my co-AP closely in this process. I'm learning SO much.
This one goes under the category of "you win some".
Yesterday was the first day of Black History Month, and while I could have chosen to not mark the day, or to wait until I had a better, more complete plan to teach, I didn't. Instead, I pulled together a powerpoint in about 40 minutes that did what I needed it to do for my students and me. I wanted to give some context to this group of kids, who for the most part did not have background information on this topic. In addition, I wanted to maintain a social justice focus, and not just talk uncritically about a few famous African-Americans. And, to make it more challenging, I had to make it comprehensible to the wide range of English abilities in my class without making it overly simplistic.
The slideshow turned out to be very effective and interactive. I had students each read a slide, so they all participated - and my student who speaks the least amount of English was the power point clicker. We analyzed some paintings by African-American artists as well as relevant images by using the now familiar to my students "What do you notice? What do you wonder" visual thinking strategy.
My students were totally into it. Maybe it was my energy; maybe they were just interested. Maybe they had all gotten enough sleep the night before and breakfast that morning. Whatever it was, I was able to sustain their engaged attention for about 45 minutes. They asked interested questions, they offered information, they helped each other understand it all.
Who knows why, but it all coalesced into a great lesson. Some days, I put hours into a lesson and it just doesn't click. And there are days where I rush to prepare, and magic happens in the classroom. Yesterday was one of those priceless days.
In case you have ELL students and feel it might be useful, here is the slideshow (I hope it can be easily opened!)
Last weekend I was inspired, like so many of us, to see so many thousands of women marching in protest. Though I was sad I couldn't be at any of the marches, I was grateful to be with an amazing group of women educators from last summer's Western Mass. Writing Project's Summer Institute. Every time we get together, the discussions and the camaraderie re-invigorate me. This time was no different.
We started by writing to the prompt: "In what ways do you feel hopeful or positive about the future - of your students, your kids, the country?" On this important day, I wanted us to think about how we could contribute from our spot around a conference table at UMass. What these women wrote touched me so much, I asked them if I could include their pieces in this week's blog, and they agreed. Here is what they wrote.
From Jenny Speck-Sherson:
I am hopeful because good people are coming together with fire in their belly to make positive change. I am hopeful because good people are coming together with fire in their belly to make positive change. The election of “He Who Shall Not Be Named” has been a call to action in activism for those who see freedoms cherished by all human beings are protected. It reminds me of a post-disaster sense of unity and universal kindness. When we face great hardships, we are often at our best. That feeling emanates, radiates and warms my soul, despite the insanity.
As a teacher, I hear more kind words to students and more inspirational posters going up. I notice more kindness between students and take a moment to celebrate those kindnesses with them. We all need to pave the way for the future. We need to get more diversity novels and writers in our classrooms and have lively conversations about different perspectives as well as common human needs. This shift has started in my classroom and I’m so excited about my new mission.
From Stephanie Singleton:
While it’s very difficult to find specific positives now while so many people seem angry, we have to focus on the positives to keep ourselves sane. One positive that I can find with my students is to know and hear that they care. Yesterday in class, we watched the inauguration, and there was a lot of chatter going on. I think that if it were dead silent in the room, it would mean that the students didn’t care about the country and/or not have a clue about what is going on. Talk can be good. Also, students kept asking me a lot of “why” questions. Not only can this tell me that they care, but it also can bring us closer as a class to share our thoughts and feelings together. One of the initiatives in our school this year is to complete restorative circles in the classroom. Lightbulb! This prompt just gave me the idea that I should try a circle with this exact question. During the restorative circles, there is only one person allowed to speak at a time. It’s supposed to provide a safe space, so this may be good to allow students the opportunity to speak his/her mind unharmed.
As a country, it’s harder for me to find positives when there is so much fear. Again, maybe one positive is that people care now, so they are doing something about it. The first positive that I can think of is that in four more years, we will be happy again. I want to feel hopeful and positive. It’s important to feel that way. When we are faced with something negative, whether it be a comment, something we see, a question we are asked, maybe we can all try and turn it into a positive. I do keep hearing that we need to want “President” Trump to succeed, because if he succeeds, we as a country succeed. If he fails, we all fail. Let us all try to keep that in mind.
From Maria McSorley:
I have been avoiding listening to NPR - I know, it is a cop-out. I get it. But I just haven't been able to bring myself to do it. I listened before the election, I listened on election day and the following day, and since have been withering away from it. But two days ago I finally turned it back on - no more escapism. THis is reality and I, as well as so many citizens in our country, need to process it. To ignore it, to pretend it isn’t happening would merely be worse, it would be giving up. And I am not about to do that. When I was listening, three young activists from the Boston area came on, they were in their early 20’s, bold and exhilarated, despite being disheartened by the results as well. But one of them said this - “we have had the last eight years under Obama to gather our strength, we have had eight years to organize and to learn how to rally for what we believe in better than any other time in our lives.” So now we have to take those eight years of solitude and use them to fight for what we know is right.
I look on my students, many of whom came to me the morning after the election in tears, not having slept (as I had not) all night. They looked grey. They looked defeated. I don’t know how well I kept it together for them, but I know this. They care deeply about their country, about the people who share it with them. They love freedom and equality and human dignity. They give me hope. They are listening. They are awake and alive to the world around them now.
I will gather my strength from them and will try to give them that same strength back because now is not the time to despair. Yet, even as I write those words, I know that I only half mean them. I want to be able to say them with every cell in my body imbibed in them, but as of today I cannot yet. However, I will soon. We have an opportunity to show who we truly are as a country, who we are as people. I have actually never experienced a desire to be involved in this way ever before, but now. Now I have to.
“Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” - Bruce Lee
And my part (Alicia):
I feel hopeful because I think a whole new generation of people is paying attention now, and rising up. I feel hopeful that people are speaking up and uniting. I feel hopeful that there are enough people doing this that we will be heard. I feel hopeful for my children because they are being forced to be more conscious of the political mood right now. Being brought up myself going to protests and marches, I didn’t have the energy or will to do that with my kids. I think they lost something in that process but I am hopeful that now they are becoming more socially conscious and will be active in some way. I feel hopeful for immigrants because more people are becoming aware of the issues around immigration and this can create more understanding. I feel hopeful for my students because my school is becoming once again a place of joy, beauty, social consciousness/justice, and learning that is connected to the world. I feel hopeful and thankful that thousands of women (and men) are marching today to protect women’s rights across the nation and across the world. I feel strongly that we can’t get bogged down in all the negativity. It won’t make us feel better and it won’t change anything unless we turn it into something productive.
From Zevey Steinitz:
I feel hopeful about the future because even though we have a horrible new president, people are rising up and speaking out like never before. This new administration will polarize people, it will be a million times worse than people anticipate, yet I take the long view. I believe in the long arc of history bending towards justice. Here are two anecdotes which illustrate this. I observed this yesterday:
I was working in an elementary school in Northampton. In the afternoon, fourth graders came downstairs to work with their kindergarten “reading buddies.” Most kids selected books and just started reading a range of literature, they were huddled close together, pointing to pictures, talking about the stories. One pair was not on task. They were wandering around the rug together- the older boy looking a little anxious and wearing a parka, the younger one following him around like a puppy. I was thinking about whether to redirect them and point them to the bookshelf so they could get settled, but decided it wasn’t my place. Their verbal check-in was probably just as important as reading.
The older boy, “do you know why I am wearing all black today?”
Amos, the younger one, looking up at him, “no.”
“It’s because of the inauguration, we have a new president-- Trump.”
“Oh…” (Amos looking puzzled)
“Yeah, no more Obama....I’m wearing black because I don’t like him.”
Amos, “Well, my grandparents voted for Trump.”
Older boy, without missing a beat, “Well you can’t change the past, but you can try to make the future better!”
My daughter is deciding where to march. She had offers from lots of friends and her grandmother wanted to march with her. The bus to D.C. was too expensive. Maybe she would go to Boston. Her cousin wanted to go with her, but was feeling sick. Finally, after about two days of indecision I picked her up from the bus home from school and we had a great conversation in the car about politics, feminism; nuanced trains of thought. She decided to march with her friend Amelia and she would spend the night at Amelia’s house. She started reading the newspaper and several websites to get the logistics of the march. She started to pack up what she needed. Of course, high at the top of her list was an outfit. She looked through my drawer of political t-shirts from the 80’s. Rejecting the old UMass women’s studies shirt with the women’s symbol and fist, instead my 16 year old picked, “I vote with my vagina.”
These kids will change the world.
Breathe in fear, breathe out hope.
Breathe in bigotry, breathe out inclusion.
Breathe in ignorance, breathe out inspiration.