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.
They're just in our classrooms to learn, and we are just there to teach, right? Wrong, I think.
Today at an activity at my school for ALANA (Asian, Latino, African American, Native American) staff, we discussed our best and worst teachers. My best, favorite teachers immediately came to mind - I've mentioned them in previous blogs: Mr.Hansbury (high school social studies), Madame Christian (high school French), Monsieur Tetart (college, art history), Mrs.Edwards (1st grade), just to name some of them. Here's what they all had in common: they were empathetic, they were firm but very kind, they had high expectations without making me feel I couldn't reach those expectations, and they bothered to learn about me, to know me. They took that extra step to find out about my background, to appreciate it, to build on the knowledge I brought to the class. In addition, they did not try to change the shy, introverted person I was (yes, I once was!) but they accepted me for who I was. They knew my story.
Knowing a student's story can change everything. Imagine this: a Latino middle school student, hangs out with other students who keep getting into trouble for little things in school, often wears a hat in a setting where it's against the rules, seems resistant to adult direction, and smiles a smirky smile when people question him. A teacher gets frustrated with him because he has to remind him to take his hat off over and over. Another teacher can't understand why he hangs out with a group of misbehaving kids.
Then imagine that we find out this student's backstory Let's say we find out that he grew up with a relative, not his parents, in a Central American country where boys as young as 7 and 8 are being recruited into gangs. The gangs create a sense of belonging; after all, the student's mother has left him behind, off to the US to find work and send money home. Eventually, the student's mother sends for him. He makes the long trek to El Norte, with other teenage boys, riding on the tops of unsafe trains, risking being robbed, beaten, or worse. He makes it over the border after several tries, only then he has to spend a month in an immigration detention center with thousands of other teenage or younger Central American boys. Finally, he is reunited with his mother. It is a bittersweet moment; while happy to be with his mother as he had pictured in his mind for years, he is heartbroken to be separated from his relative, who raised him. There are other changes. Suddenly he has to follow new rules - the rules set by his mom. More freedom, yet less at the same time. He misses his relative and knows he may never get to see her again.
Registered in school, he must learn this difficult new language, and yet he doesn't read or write well in Spanish. Everything is hard, everything is new. Yet, he goes to school every day, never missing a day unless he really has to. He tries to sustain his attention all day; he tries to understand, to follow along, to understand the new rules. School is very different - it is way more serious, the days are longer, and there is a lot of homework. All the effort he makes is for his relative back home - he wants to make her proud. But, he gets angry quickly, he feels dumb and inadequate. He stays out too late at night, avoiding home and the new, strict rules. He is tired at school.
Would knowing this student's story change how teachers respond to him? Would they try to be more positive with him, encouraging him to do well and do right by his relative? Would they guide and coax instead of yell at him? Would they de-escalate situations with him, instead call him out for small infractions?
As teachers in the US we are often overwhelmed and overburdened with work. Paperwork, planning, meetings, grading, IEPs, differentiating, parent communication, student clubs and activities and so on. Still, I would argue that getting to know our students is one of the most important aspects of what we do and that we need to make time for it. Easy for me to say with my 8 person class, right? But any way to learn about our students in any amount is useful and helpful, and will give us more leverage, hopefully, with our students. Do what you can, however you can. Learn as many stories as you can, and then share those stories with other teachers. Create empathy and understanding.
Today as I was driving, "Poker Face" by Lady Gaga started to play. My mind immediately went to my student, W. An 8th grader with Down Syndrome, W. was one of 10 students in my morning advisory. Every Friday we would watch funny videos or play students' favorite songs. And every Friday, W. would ask for the same song: "Poker Face". He had an elaborate dance that he had made up that went with the song, and he would make every move very seriously. At the end of the song, the look on his face was of pure joy. He never got bored of the song. Years later, every time I hear "Poker Face" I can't help but think of W.
There are those students we always remember. Sometimes they were the ones who drove us crazy. Other times, they were the ones who shone in class. Each of them leaves us, their teachers, something when they move on. A memory of them upon hearing a song; seeing someone who reminds us of a student; seeing students years later when they are grown up.
S. left me with a memory of a whole lot of sass. She was one of my favorite students, though she was known around the school for her attitude and loud voice. She often got in trouble for mouthing off. However, she liked my class, and did well in it. It was a rowdy class, and it was a large class - and typical of my Spanish classes, there were many challenging behaviors in it. Lucky for me, I had S. to help me keep everyone in order. When the class got too loud or chatty, S. would yell, "Everyone shut up!! Ms.Lopez is talking!!" You better believe the others would quiet down right away when they heard her. Thanks to her, the class was mostly manageable most of the time. Recently I saw her graduate. I told her about how much I appreciated her loudness and respect in my class, and she smiled.
That same year, I had a supremely challinging student in another class - possibly one of my most challenging students. K. was a ball of energy and could sway the dynamics of the entire class in a nanosecond. He was funny, silly, and likeable most of the time; some of time his energy could become negative. K. left me with a funny jingle in my head as I was teaching the Spanish word for pencil sharpener: "sacapuntas", He found the word hilarious, and began rapping it, complete with beatboxing and all: "Sacapuntas, sacapuntas, saca, saca, sacapuntas....." The rest of the class was of course very amused, and to this day, every time I look at a pencil sharpener, I think of K. I recently saw him: a mature young man, looking fantastic, getting on the bus out of town to go back to his college (most of them do eventually grow up!).
I smile when I think about these and so many other students who have passed through my classrooms, all leaving their mark in some way. What have students left you with as they have passed through your classroom?