Holy Hybrid: November Reflections

As of 2020, I have decided I never want to be a school administrator. 

A lot of people assume becoming a division or school leader is what most teachers aim to eventually do.  Being an administrator is related to being a teacher, but it is actually a very different  job. The best administrators spend several years teaching, but they also possess and enjoy employing other skill sets in the realm of organizational communication and management. It is admirable work, and I am delighted to be working with a talented leadership team who truly understand their roles and are capable of executing all that is needed at this time. 

Meanwhile, I have never been a ladder climber, and I really only like taking responsibility for myself. Most administrators I know miss the day to day interaction with students and spend most of their time in meetings occupied with the management of adults and money (I am NOT to be trusted with a supply budget). In the era of COVID-19, they are also busy managing spaces, protocols, and germs. They hold literal lives in their hands now, not just minds. No thanks. I prefer to focus on the kids and play the role of an experienced, supportive, sometimes ornery, faculty member ready with an idea and an opinion if you need two more cents. Instead, I’m going to leverage my 15 years in the game by pursuing a claim to the title of Master Teacher.

This is part of the reason I am back on campus teaching hybrid.  I know I said I did not want to teach in person.  In July and August, I didn’t.  But I actually started feeling a little FOMO as other schools went back and colleagues talked about the struggle. Virtual teaching was getting a little…comfy. I began imagining strategies and solutions and wondered if they would work. Of course safety comes first, and I am taking many levels of precaution. There is more research now, and to be honest, I am in a school community where there has been enough partnership, transparency, and communication so that I generally do feel safe.  I am not being asked to do things I am not comfortable with, and if I was, I know how to get in my car and go home. For now, accommodations are being supported, and there is a team mentality to getting all of the work done within the constraints of our different situations. And today, when I watched one of my students, a new kid, make strong inroads on a friendship, I knew that for him our opening was a gift. 

As I examine this perverse desire I felt to be a part of the madness, it dawned on me: a master teacher is a master learner, and this has been the professional development of a lifetime. I have absolutely felt gratitude for the professional challenges I’ve faced over the last eight months.  When this is all over, I will be better at what I do. Iron is forged in fire and diamonds are created under pressure.  We don’t grow when we are comfortable; we grow when we are placed into situations that require our transformation.  The pandemic has required me to adapt everything that I do in ways I could have never imagined. It isn’t that my methods are perfect or that they even work half the time – it is the effort that feels the most gratifying. I am more flexible, more nimble, more experimentive, and more willing to put myself out there in front of everyone while the record light flashes, and that would have never happened if everything hadn’t fallen apart. 

As a master learner, I must demonstrate not just my outcomes, but my process. My approaches, my attempts, my risks, my errors, my failures, my questions, my resilience, my persistence – the whole damn journey.  I hope to write more about the things that work in due time.  I need to try them out more before I make any recommendations. Most days I feel like I am winging it, and that’s okay. When KAMI has a bug or Zoom goes out or the HDMI cable is bent, I just tell the kids the truth. I think they appreciate the honesty and hopefully they are taking away the real lesson – that it’s alright to try, that it’s alright to fail, and that we will figure out how to succeed together. 

Photo by u0410u043du043du0430 u0420u044bu0436u043au043eu0432u0430 on Pexels.com

On Teaching: 2020 Elections and Voting

So you know what makes an upcoming Election really exciting?  Going back to school in a hybrid model the same week.  I mean challenge IS my middle name.  Wait, no it’s not.  It’s Tommeseau. 

Depending on who you talk to, this Tuesday, November 3rd is either the end of our democracy, the second coming, or Kendall Jenner’s birthday. No matter which way they lean politically, this is the time for teachers to engage.  I get the reluctance to touch this election in the classroom with even a ten foot pole.  I was seriously tempted to duck and dodge the whole shebang.  I did a large project in the spring with my former 6th graders around the primaries, but I was feeling overwhelmed this fall and secretly hoped someone else would do it.  Then I was invited back to The Kojo Nnamdi Show to talk about elections and civic education, and as with all reflective experiences, I was reminded of my duty as an educator to serve my students first, even when it is uncomfortable or hard.  

In the past, to prepare students for elections, we probably assigned the debates as homework or made electoral maps to keep track of results as they rolled in on election night. We wrote pro-con papers about the issues and compared candidate positions.  There was something authentic about modeling civil discourse and polite ways to disagree with people.  

This year feels different. Our country has returned to a time of deep divide. The debates were disturbing. Headlines about potential vote suppression are disturbing. Everything needs to be fact checked because people are lying, and that is disturbing. We pray there is still time to right this ship and hope our relationships and Thanksgiving dinners will survive the outcome, but even the grownups aren’t really sure this is going to end well.

Meanwhile, our kids need to be engaged and inspired to have civil conversations, develop critical thinking skills, and formulate knowledgeable opinions.  What to do?

Here is where I think we teachers can be really helpful: 

Demystifying political processes

With so many mail in ballots and lawsuits on the line, this election is unlikely to be called on election night.  Process is going to be so important, and ours is confusing in a normal year.  I love the free lessons, infographics, and games from iCivics, which was founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. There is a great selection on everything from deciding Supreme Court cases to running for President to passing a bill through Congress. This site syncs with Google Classroom and they’ve curated a selection especially for this election

Last spring I assigned these games for homework, and then students brought their experiences to fuel discussions about how these processes work and fit into ideas about democracy. They were also useful for illustrating how exactly critical bills like the Voting Rights Act or Americans With Disabilities Act were fought for and passed.  This year, iCivics has teamed up with Peardeck to offer several ready to teach slide shows.

Ensuring students are digitally and media literate 

Media literacy is a topic close to my heart, since I majored in media studies during undergrad and worked in advertising.  I have been fortunate to partner with talented librarians and educational technology teachers over the years who shared a wide range of tools and strategies.  ISTE is a great organization that has years of research and standards for digital literacy and citizenship that schools can reference.  

We used to use fun examples like the website about the tree octopus to talk about credible sources and doing real research. I think the 2016 election made it clear that misinformation and disinformation are global industries, and that not being able to differentiate real information from false information has serious consequences for our democracy.  It’s not just a nice to have skill – it is an essential literacy. Media literacy education now has to keep up the creators of this content who are using technology in incredibly complex ways.  It’s gotten so much harder to tell whether an article or video is based on fact or has been created to deceive us. Give this game from factitious a try and see where your skills land.

It feels really important to include emotional intelligence and self-regulation in critical thinking skills. ISTE suggests that when there are no obvious clues that something might be misleading, we can use active listening and reading skills to check in with ourselves.   Refining our gut reactions can help us feel less overwhelmed and inundated. Questions I want students to ask about information they encounter include: 

  • How did I receive this information?
  • Who is delivering this message?
  • Who is creating this message?
  • What words are they using?
  • What is their purpose or intent?
  • What is their tone and what does their tone indicate in terms of perspective or bias?
  • What effect is this message having on me?
  • If I am feeling a strong emotion, where is that strong emotion coming from?
  • What about this message confirms, challenges, or changes what I know and believe? 
  • What am I going to do with this information? 

While the Newseum is closed now, it was such a wonderful resource and I am glad they are continuing their educational programming that supports learning about first amendment rights and media literacy. This lesson from NewseumEd is a terrific tool for putting political ads into context and giving an open framework for analyzing ads running now. 

The New York Times has put together an open ended Bingo game/scavenger hunt format to help students scan the news that comes to them on any platform. A class can use the game prompts to spark discussion or additional research. 

I also think it is important to talk about journalism as a career, with particular attention to the code of ethics professional journalists agree to follow.  If a writer, blogger, or show host isn’t following these rules, then their work might not be news, and that’s an important distinction.  

Emphasizing voter empowerment

The numbers in this election will be epic and getting out the vote is one positive message that seems to be louder than ever.  It is wonderful to see lines forming and a steady flow of cars leaving the parking lots of schools and community centers around the country.  The Choices Program from Brown University has a great lesson on voting, values, and policy during a Pandemic.  

Teaching for Change and the Zinn Education Project have so many interactive resources (many repackaged for virtual teaching) on the history of voting rights in the United States. The role plays are especially recommended because they feature so many students, a narrative that is really inspiring to young people. I used this lesson from Teaching Tolerance to launch a study of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that connected to the spring primaries. All students should have an accurate understanding of the ways women and BIPOC fought (and continue to fight) for their suffrage. 1919 was NOT the year all women received the right to vote. These facts are really appropriate to bring up in a major national election year, but also during smaller local or state ones as well.

I really enjoyed this Throughline/Up First podcast about Frederick Douglass. Voting was very important to his concept of freedom. Lucretia Mott was a really interesting suffragist and abolitionist, and the National Women’s History Museum has a set of four lessons on her, other suffragists, and the Seneca Convention. I’ve written before about Fannie Lou Hamer; her speech is a riveting primary source on the lengths white supremacists went to prevent Black people from voting. These three individuals had very different journeys gaining access to the polls. Examining them together weaves a powerful narrative about obtaining and protecting a truly inclusive right to vote.

This slideshow was created to lead a virtual activity on voting for my son’s kindergarten playgroup.  They really enjoyed learning about our local leaders, doing the scavenger hunt for issue related items, and hearing the read aloud from Sankofa Books. 

My colleague, Krystle Merchant, Director of Community Engagement at Maret School, designed this awesomely engaging and comprehensive Peardeck for our middle school students.

However you choose to do it, however hard next week might be, we need to lean into opportunities to talk about the election with our kids, EVEN if our schools request that we not make it too “political”, whatever that might be code for.  Our students are tomorrow’s voters, and what we do now sows the seeds for future generations of engaged citizenship in our democracy. 

Ago, Ame: Speaking and Listening in 2020

I am not a very good listener.  It’s something I have been working on.  Of these 13 good listener qualities interrupting, listening to respond, and giving advice are probably my most offensive habits.  It actually takes a lot of work to hear someone else’s narrative without simultaneously creating my own in my head. How rude!  

There is an Afro-centric children’s activity chant that uses words from the Twi language.  Someone, usually a teacher, says, “Ago” which is a call for attention and the group responds, “Ame”, which indicates a willingness to listen. When Kamala Harris said “I’m speaking” during the debate this week, she was essentially saying “Ago”.  She received no “Ame” in response. Millions of women recognized this perpetually disturbing pattern of communication with men.  I also paused to reflect on whether I had ever been steamrolled in a conversation.  No.  Because, typically, I am a steamrollER.  

Kamala Harris GIF - Kamala Harris Im - Discover & Share GIFs

I could blame it on being a first born, alpha, big sister.  Or a commanding, no nonsense teacher.  But more likely is that I began mimicking the traits of people I perceived as noticeable (powerful?) and learned to assert myself accordingly.  These traits are often presented as masculine forms of communication, but I’ve seen them apply to all sorts of bossy people. What is more certain is that the reception of these traits and the consequences for exhibiting them vary depending on your intersectional identity and the relationships involved. Context always matters. Being a Black woman, sometimes my assertiveness is expected and welcome and sometimes it is a problem. Knowing and accepting myself for myself, I deliberately try to choose environments that support the former.  

During an educational training this fall, The Wells Collective, a group of fabulous equity and justice practitioners, presented their set of communication norms.  Educational activities usually start off with a set of norms: be present, share the air, step up and step back, everyone’s voice must be heard, listen respectfully and actively, refrain from judging etc.. One of the first classroom activities is usually to establish such norms to guide communication practices amongst students and teachers. One struck me as particularly powerful simply because I had never heard it before: Listen as though you might be wrong. 

Wrong? I might be wrong? As in not right? Whoa. This little nugget has been transformative. 

Speaking and Listening are actually skills we are supposed to be teaching in school.  The Common Core Standard for English Language Arts includes a whole section on them. You start off in Kindergarten with the expectation that children will “speak audibly and express thoughts, feelings, and ideas clearly”.  In 2nd grade you move to “gaining the floor in respectful ways”, “listening to others with care”, and “building on others’ talk in conversations by linking comments to the remarks of others”. By the time students are in 7th grade, they are practicing how to “acknowledge new information expressed by others and, when warranted, modify their own views” and “work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussions”.

In schools, we basically expect and assess the opposite of the behavior being shown in the national debates the last few weeks.  Imagine those conversation patterns taking place between two students or two teachers in a classroom.  What would we think? What would we expect to happen next?  How are the consequences so lopsided?  Poor conversational skills will get you sent to the principal’s office in middle school.  But being a horrible listener can also get you elected president? Make it make sense! 

Many of us are terrible listeners because listening is not valued very much in American Capitalist culture. We are praised far more for the words coming out of our mouths than the ones going into our ears. “I hear you, but…” is a commonly accepted response to any perspective or opinion. Articles about listening better are usually focused on improving romantic relationships and friendships – si charmant.  If you want to perform better at work, you focus on speaking – more loudly, more clearly, more assertively – just MORE.  We worry about the quiet people. The ones sitting back, withholding their ideas, not voicing their opinions, probably judging, being so suspicious with their listening

The academic area of feminist process has been helpful in understanding the roots and consequences of communicating to dominate.  I first heard about feminist process through a facebook group that aspired to operate via its principles.  We were going to take a feminist approach to group dynamics by valuing cooperation over competition and conjoining the goals of our group with our relationships. (Full disclosure: I did not understand what any of this meant at first).  The idea was to disrupt the patterns that usually control life in our United States – squeaky wheels getting grease and what not. I was asked to question why women are usually socialized to adopt male patterns of communication by demanding to be heard and respected (“I’m speaking”), but men are rarely expected to demonstrate that they are, in fact, listening. Feminist process shifts the expectations and centers the means over the ends.  How we communicate is as important as what we communicate.  Novel! 

Another disruption to my understanding of appropriate communication was working at a Quaker school.  Quaker schools deeply value silence.  There is a lot of it.  I can still command a group of children to be silent for an indefinite period of time.  Even with children unfamiliar with Quakerism it only takes three tries.  Some people experience Quaker silence as a form of emotional oppression.  I personally love it. Even though I no longer work at a  Quaker school I find myself still using the norms I learned there.  During a Quaker meeting there was no expectation that you speak. It was perfectly normal for 30 or 40 minutes to pass where no one spoke. When someone did speak the expectation was that you were listening.  And you demonstrated this listening by not speaking immediately after they spoke – you gave their words space.  A meeting with no space and too much mindless sharing was called a “popcorn meeting” and a popcorn meeting was a sign of failure.  One of my efforts to improve my listening skills involves giving people’s words space.  I deliberately pause and reflect on whether I heard them. Sometimes I thank them.  It comes off weird to some, I suppose, but hey – I’m listening! 

Senator Harris’s moment reminded me of one other I heard about this summer while participating in the Girl Trek Bootcamp: Fannie Lou Hamer’s appearance at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. I encourage you to listen to or read her entire speech.  

People were scared of Fannie Lou Hamer talking.  President Lyndon B. Johnson was scared of Fannie Lou Hamer talking.  So scared he scheduled a press conference in the middle of her speech so that news outlets would have to cut her off and air his remarks instead.  But later that night, the news outlets aired her entire speech.  Mrs. Hamer asserted her right to keep talking and America responded, “we are listening”.  

Ago.

Ame. 

More of that, right?

On Teaching: Cornell Notes

Ay. It’s been a week.  I experienced the Breonna Taylor “verdict” while reading Caste by the illustrious Isabel Wilkerson. It explained everything to me (not that I felt better and, in fact, it made me feel worse).  While Warmth of Other Suns better showcases Wilkerson’s beautiful writing, Caste showcases the depth of her thinking. I am glad I read both. Clearly in her research there were ideas that would not rest, and she found a way to give them a home.  It is admirable to try to explain what she does to the masses.  That might turn out to be a futile effort, but is having a great impact on me nonetheless.  Additionally, I began listening to the New York Times/Serial produced podcast Nice White Parents.  It’s a trip.  Some thoughts are forming, but I am not ready to share them yet.  


Hence I am turning back to a topic I have been meaning to tackle more on this blog – actual teaching ideas! I don’t just ruminate, I promise.  

This week I launched Cornell Notes in my grade 6 math class. I was introduced to Cornell Notes by my learning specialist friend, Jane, who has lots of great strategies for supporting all learners.  I had been resistant to notetaking because I associate it with it lecturing and I never really gave tests for which students needed to study.  For the longest time,  I couldn’t find a way to reconcile getting off the stage and still teaching kids to take notes.  Cornell notes offered a solution.  I was really drawn to the simple, reliable structure that could be easily formatted onto any kind of paper.  They can be used for any subject at any level of education so I feel like I am teaching something really useful.  Because learning the Cornell structure is a skill in itself, I feel less self conscious about the content of the notes or their future use in my class. 

There are many templates available to download online, but they all pretty much look like this.

I initially experimented with Cornell notes in a 6th grade humanities class, but I really saw their effectiveness last year when I was teaching about the Civil War in 7th grade humanities and wanted students to prepare to write an essay based on a series of primary and secondary resources.  The consistent note format helped to organize the various sources in a coherent way.  

I then tried them during a 7th grade math camp after I found really cool templates with graph and dot paper.  These templates came from the AVID program, which has great materials on teaching and using Cornell notes.  I looked at a lot of their examples and that is where I realized they could be very useful in the math classroom.  There are a few friends from high school who are AVID teachers and I look forward to connecting with them to learn more about how they use them with their students.  

Below is a video of a screencast that summarizes how I taught my 6th graders to take Cornell notes.  I currently give them the essential question, the concept questions that go in the left hand column, and a closing summary to paraphrase.  Over time I hope to release those pieces to them as they become more meta cognitive about their math learning. 

Cornell notes are helping me reconcile important pedagogical and philosophical beliefs.  I look forward to experimenting with them more and am definitely open to advice and tips.

A Patriotic Education

Earlier this week, the president made the following remarks about history education. 

On this very day in 1787, our Founding Fathers signed the Constitution at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. It was the fulfillment of a thousand years of Western civilization. Our Constitution was the product of centuries of tradition, wisdom, and experience. No political document has done more to advance the human condition or propel the engine of progress.Yet, as we gather this afternoon, a radical movement is attempting to demolish this treasured and precious inheritance. We can’t let that happen. 

The left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. It’s gone on far too long. Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts, like those of Howard Zinn, that try to make students ashamed of their own history.

The left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies. There is no better example than the New York Times’ totally discredited 1619 Project. This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.

Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed. 

Patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country. American parents are not going to accept indoctrination in our schools, cancel culture at our work, or the repression of traditional faith, culture, and values in the public square.

It’s the audacity for me.

The president would have you believe that I, as a teacher who includes a multitude of voices, who strives to decolonize my curriculum and bookshelves, who teaches about the ways in which enslaved labor built and sustained this country, who uses The 1619 Project and The Zinn Education Project in her classroom, who teaches real American history, am part of the problem.

I am here to assure you I am part of the solution. 

Last year, I developed my dream humanities curriculum.  We examined American history solely from the perspective of marginalized communities. I called the course “Conflict and Cooperation” and the focus was on using American history to examine the options for engaging with people we perceive as “other”.   Units included Immigration, Borders, and Identity; Early American History through an Indigenous lens; Resistance and Agency during Enslavement; Abolition and The Civil War, and World War 2, The Holocaust, and Japanese American Incarceration. It felt really good to teach American history this way.  We talked about the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, The Civil War, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Pearl Harbor, and all of the usual required topics, but we didn’t focus on rehashing fairy tales.  

Instead, with a diverse group of students from many different backgrounds, our class looked at all of the ways that diversity can make life complicated.  It is hard work to communicate well and compromise across cultures.  They see this in their own lives, relationships, and interactions.  Humans are tribal by nature.  We want to protect “our own”.  What does it mean to widen one’s tribe, one’s circle of compassion, one’s nation?  They saw that the racism, colonization, subjugation, violence, terror, exclusion, and oppression that are a part of America’s legacy were not necessary, inevitable outcomes.  People – groups and individuals – made choices and those choices either led to moments of injustice or justice, war or peace, conflict or collaboration. There continue to be opportunities to make those choices. Right now is one of them. 

True love means seeing and embracing someone wholly, including their flaws.  It means wanting better for them than they might want for themselves.  So it is with true patriotism.  The Constitution was part of an imperfect beginning, not an impeccable end.  On a historical timeline, America is specks years old.  1776 was as good as it got? To limit our peak and our promise like that is sad and the true affront to the multitude of founding folk who planted seeds with the expectation later generations would do better. 

I love teaching kids that the American experiment is far from over. I love teaching them that there is still work to be done and that they are the ones who will do it. I love participating in the creation of a knowledgeable and invested citizenry activated and ready to do their part to make good on the idea that we are all created equal. The president and other weak people think we are teaching hate. To the contrary, we are teaching hope.

The goal of materials like The 1619 Project and The Zinn Education Project is to amplify those who have been rendered voiceless by the “traditional” curriculum.  They lift up new heroes from the shadows and complicate known narratives.  They teach students to look at events from multiple perspectives and to think critically.  It is understandable that the president and his advisors don’t want our kids to know this information. This information is empowering, and it is especially empowering for people who are not supposed to have any power.

Clearly, the president is particularly concerned with suppressing the voices of Black people. Well, too late. We are taking control of the narrative. Slavery happened and without slavery, America wouldn’t have happened. Black people built this country and remain here to collect what is still owed – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No more and no less. The facts are what they are. Erasing them from schools won’t change that and if your students don’t know the truth, my students will be correcting them in classrooms and boardrooms for years to come. 

I suggest checking out the following resources for yourselves since the president often has his facts crooked. These are the kinds of ideas he is against. This is the information he does not want our young people to have access to. These are the ideas he considers dangerous.

  • The Pulitzer Center provides these engaging ideas and activities on The 1619 Project. 
  • The Zinn Education Project is adapting their materials for remote learning, including many of the interactives and mixers.
  • Densho is my go-to for materials on Japanese American incarceration, which is undertaught but critical history. 
  • Pollyanna has a terrific set of lessons for racial literacy grades K-8.
  • Facing History has great ideas for teaching current events from a critical thinking stance.
  • Teaching Tolerance also has a wide variety of materials like this set based on the book The Color of Law.

In the end I have nothing to fear from the president and his attacks on knowledge, information, and history. He and his 1776 commission can go on ahead and create their little curriculum. I feel certain that what I am teaching is more accurate. I feel confident that teaching it is the right thing to do. I know that it is good practice, good pedagogy, good education, and good trouble. I feel very clear that if history has its eyes on me, I am proud of what it will see.

November 3rd can’t come soon enough. 

Rich Teacher, Poor Teacher

Hurray! The first week of school is over and we have officially launched the insanity that will be the 2020-2021 school year.  My virtual classes went well.  Even when my son climbed on top of my head while I introduced myself to 19 sixth graders.  He’s pretty cute, so it works.  I am in the right place for this time, and being with students again is wonderful – they really do make you feel more resilient, more hopeful, and more dedicated.  

This week marked another big milestone for me – I made a key payment on my credit card debt, and it signals that I have turned around what was once a mighty ship. There is a common perception that teachers are poor. It’s practically presented as inevitable and the reason no one ever really suggests it should be your career. When I tell people what I do, the first reaction is usually pity, maybe covered in a veneer of admiration for my martyrdom. Sometimes there is a shift when they learn I work in private schools – not as bad and maybe I know the Obamas. (I don’t, by the way.) It is true that there are many places where teachers are undervalued and undercompensated. There are definitely people who make twice as much as we do and work half as hard. This is bad governance and hopefully COVID-19 will add a necessary layer to national and local conversations about what teachers deserve due to our apparently essential economic and civic work.

It is also true that when a survey of 10,000 millionaires was conducted, TEACHER, was among the top five careers. When I first heard that my jaw dropped. I hadn’t ever imagined that was possible for me, and thus I had become quite the self fulfilling prophecy. There was a point in time when I didn’t properly understand or value the money I was making. My money issues were not due to a low teacher salary. I was undisciplined and failed to manage what I had appropriately. I am not unusual. Americans accumulated 1 trillion dollars in credit card debt a few years ago and that has only begun decreasing since the social shutdown caused by the pandemic. As a self-identified shopper who loves clothing, concerts, and food, quarantine has been a financial silver lining. I am also grateful that in 2019 I began an intentional journey to pay off my debt and redefine financial freedom. Because for teachers, being financially healthy is more important than ever.

Teacher attrition is high. There are many reasons highlighted in copious videos like this one and articles like this one. 30% of people who enter the profession leave after five years, according to this report from the Economic Policy Institute. That is a lot of lost talent, and it is expensive to replace us, especially since less people are interested in becoming a teacher in the first place. COVID-19 will stretch many of us to the max. To a long list of grievances, there is so much added stress in feeling pressure to choose between physical and financial health, being asked to take on unreasonable amounts of work, managing community trauma, and navigating a steep and ever changing learning curve while tending to our own families and bodies.

I personally do not intend to leave this profession.  I have already tried my hand at several other careers – TV show host, music industry publicist, advertising exec, non-profit program director, cheer coach – I suck at all of them.  Teaching is my spiritual gift and ministry in this world.  It is my “ikigai”.  No one is going to run me off this ranch. I am here to stay. 

Over the last few years, it has become clear to me that in order to stay a teacher, I need to make sure I am in a financial position to leave any job that threatens my ability to remain one. This week, I received confirmation that my strategies are working.  As I work my plan, I have had to develop confidence.  Some of my actions run contrary to beliefs other financially savvy friends hold.  This is not one size fits all.  I have found what works for me and that is my wish for everyone in my circle.  The only life I can change is mine.

Here are some of the lessons that I have learned:

  1. Focus.  

Where you put your energy is where you will see momentum and momentum is motivating. Drowning in credit card or student loan debt? Focus on that. Want an emergency fund to cushion the blow of a job loss? Focus on that. Need a down payment for a house? Focus on that.  Worried about retirement? Focus on that. The typical American dream will have you running around on a hamster wheel trying to accomplish everything all at once.  No wonder money feels stretched too thin. It is. It’s okay to pause some goals to focus on certain others that are more urgent.

  1. Cultivate satisfaction.

The less I want, the less I need and the more I have. I am doing a lot of work on myself right now.  I used to purchase things to soothe myself during hard times. Then I purchased things to treat myself because I had successfully worked through hard times. To be honest, I don’t need a great reason to shop – just a sale sign in the window because when it comes to bargains, I am a skilled hunter.  Alas, saving 30% is still spending 70%.  (I’ve tried using “new” math to change this, but it isn’t working). I am trying to find ways to lessen my emotional dependency on things by investing more in simple experiences, resting to alleviate emotional and physical exhaustion, and finding ways to make what I already have more than enough.  Another trick is paying for everything in cash instead of a credit card.  Totally changes my decision making process since the money disappears immediately.  It’s a psych game, but what isn’t? 

  1. Diversify the skill set. 

Being a teacher means curating learning experiences for people. There is typically one version of this that comes to mind, but I am discovering so many more. I am now firmly off the administrator track. I do not like managing people, and I no longer climb ladders. I have always worked in independent schools, but lately I have ramped up tutoring and begun consulting with museums and other cultural institutions. I love curriculum design. I teach multiple subjects and grades and maintain my skills in each so that I am available for different opportunities. I have a growing desire to teach in public schools or potentially work with people who are incarcerated (I just read Punching the Air). I am discovering a passion for presenting to other teachers and would love to get into instructional coaching, especially for newbies. I had an incredible team of mentors my first year, and they are no doubt why I am still here. One of the reasons I am writing more is to build the stamina necessary to complete a book. This broadening of my vision will allow me to refresh my career whenever it feels stale, but I will always be a teacher.

  1. Network, but build real relationships. 

I have an incredible professional learning community of people I have taught with and worked for over the years.  We share news and ideas. We commiserate and collaborate.  Occasionally, we recommend one another for jobs and other opportunities.  I have found it is important to tell other people my interests and goals.  They can’t look out for what they don’t know about. When we share our dreams with other people, they are more likely to manifest.  “Putting it out into the universe” is a legit strategy.  It is also necessary to leave a good imprint on the people and places you touch.  This includes being a good teammate, setting clear boundaries, and creating enough space in your practice to do things well and with joy.  Principals, colleagues, families, and students remember how you made them feel. 

  1. Dream in High Definition

Chris Hogan always says this, and it has always been hard for me.  I am much more attuned to the present, both by nature and as an intentional result of meditation.  I never had a five or ten year plan.  I believe in fate and ways opening and staying nimble enough to take advantage of something just outside my current view.  Like many women and BIPOC I deal with imposter syndrome and worry about biting off more than I can chew.  That said, when I do decide what I want, I go after it with a vengeance.  Time, experience, and age have made me more resilient and more confident.  My dreams for myself and my family are beginning to crystallize.  I absolutely know that teaching is a profession that can get us there.  

Here’s to fifteen years and counting. 

40 Acres & a Beach: A Kwanzaa Story

‘Twas the weekend before school started and all through the town, The teachers were fretting – it was about to go down! 

Well not me.  I got out of town. Well, actually across town.  To a little city near Annapolis called Highland Beach.  My definition of vacation has expanded greatly during this pandemic.  I used to scoff at staycations and domestic travel.  Now any window with a different view offers respite. Any change of pace or perspective is welcome.  And the less time it takes to get there, the better.  

This is especially true this weekend because school starts on Tuesday, and this is basically my New Year’s Eve. Kwanzaa, the Black holiday I am committed to bring back from 90s purgatory, is typically celebrated between Christmas and New Year’s, so it seems fitting that I am spending this time here in this place because Highland Beach is Kwanzaa Incarnate. If you are looking for the Kwanzaa spirit, it is found right here – all the Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), and Imani (faith) that you could ask for. 

Towns along the Chesapeake Bay are generally delightful, mixing laid back southern easiness with northern aspirations and conveniences.  Waterfront, but crab, not lobster. Don’t forget the Old Bay. 

The Town of Highland Beach is 127 years old and was the first African-American incorporated town in Maryland. It was founded by the third and youngest son of Frederick Douglass and his first wife, Anna Murray Douglass (who was a badass in her own right), a man named Charles Remond Douglass. He was apparently the first African-American man to enlist in the Civil War and then served as a clerk in the Freedman’s Bureau.

The story goes that in 1892, he and his wife, Laura, came to the area and had a well – racist experience. They tried to go to the Bay Ridge Resort and Amusement Park but were sent away. They went for a walk and stumbled across some beach front farm land that was owned by members of the Brashears family, who were also Black. That family had been free and landowning even prior to the Civil War, but since some of the heirs had moved away, they were open to a conversation. Charles and Laura inquired about buying it, and the sale was negotiated. The $1,000 investment was substantial and a bit risky. Their intention was to create a vacation community where Black people could relax and spend time with their families without fear of discrimination. Ultimately they would acquire over 40 acres including a lovely stretch of sand that to this day is the private property of the town. Before Oak Bluffs and the Inkwell, there was Highland Beach.

When I first came here, I was struck by this community’s sense of itself – its history, its purpose, and its legacy. The streets here are named after famous reconstruction era Black people like John Mercer Langston, Blanche K. Bruce, John R. Lynch, P.B.S Pinchback, and Reverend Alexander Wayman. You can still visit “Twin Oaks” the home that was built for Frederick Douglass himself. He died before it was finished and it is now a museum. One can easily envision the man looking across the Bay at the land where he had been enslaved with a “look at me now” smirk. Many illustrious DC families have lived or vacationed here. One notable resident was Dr. Henry McKee Minton, a Black doctor and pharmacist, who co-founded The Boule. Another prominent property owner was Dr. John R. Francis. He was also a physician and owned the first private hospital for people of all races. Booker T. Washington stayed here, as did Paul Laurence Dunbar who in 1901 wrote:

“Here the very best of three cities gathered this summer, Annapolis and Baltimore sent their quota and our own capital city did the rest. It was such a gathering of this race as few outside of our own great family circle have ever seen. There is perhaps, exaltation about any body of men and women who gather to enjoy the fruits of their labor upon the very ground, which their labors have secured to them.  There was, at any rate, a special exaltation about these people, and whatever was done went off with class.”  

Today, people here still stroll and take in bay breezes.  They also joyride around in golf carts, kayak, and bike.  They relax at the end of piers and fish at sunrise and sunset.  They sit on porches, listen to cicadas, and watch the trees move.  They breathe. Freely. And it is a glorious thing to experience. 

A story about a group of Black people purchasing property in Georgia with the intention to build a city recently hit the news, as did the uncovering of the historically Black beginnings of Manhattan Beach in California. While much is made of the Black community’s low net worth due to a lack of generational wealth, we have always tried to own our own stuff. Sometimes it is stolen from us, sometimes a highway is put through it, and sometimes it is burned to the ground.

Sometimes, though, it lasts, and multiple generations of Black people are able to revel in the success of preserving their own joy. When we find these pockets of resistance, it becomes a communal obligation to make sure they last forever.

See you around the Mkeka. 

For more on Maryland’s Black Beaches

For more on Highland Beach

Standing Together

We are nearly one week away from the start of school.  My private school in Washington DC will be starting the year virtually.  Our theme for the year is “Standing Together”, and I appreciate the call to think and act like a community during these uncertain times.  My son’s public school in Montgomery County will also start virtually.   As I last wrote, our family decided to stay home together this fall and made choices that supported that decision. Yesterday we picked up his backpack full of supplies along with a chromebook.  I am impressed with the organized roll out so far, which has included several instructional webinars and multiple phone calls, emails, and texts to check-in.  Luckily we live in an urban area in close proximity to our school with excellent internet. If I lived in a rural community with less access,  I might feel very differently.  I understand how our country has come to this level of division over what is best for children, what is best for teachers, what is best for families, what is best for economies, and what is best for communities. I just think it is unfortunate that the decision to stay home or not ever became an individual choice. 

In Maryland and the DMV at large, the school opening debate has been contentious, with administrators putting forth various plans, soliciting feedback, waffling, being defiant, caving to teachers, ignoring teachers, caving to parents, ignoring parents and all myriad of ridiculousness. Meanwhile, families are enrolling, withdrawing, filing lawsuits, forming pods, hiring tutors, panicking, and sometimes acknowledging the inequity of it all.  Meanwhile, our governor held a press conference that basically threatened schools, saying there would be financial penalties for not opening by the second marking period. Meanwhile, the science evolves as more research is done and there continue to be “surprises”. 

Everyday we learn more about this disease from how it spreads to whether people can be reinfected.  Several vaccines are underway.  The treatment protocols and procedures have changed drastically since the early days in March when Governor Andrew Cuomo did press conferences in front of a pile of ventilators.  We are just now learning about the patients with lingering effects and long term recoveries, the young ones who weren’t supposed to succumb to strokes or need double lung transplants.  No one has had COVID-19 for a year yet…or five.  Answers to the many questions will take time, and we should be sure that we have enough information to proceed without regret. I see delaying the schools reopening as an effort to buy the scientists a little more time.  It is too early to get back to normal, and when people say they want to reopen schools they are imagining what we will offer will be normal.  

Instead, children are arriving at school and lined up for temperature checks, prepared to be admonished constantly while kept 6 feet from their nearest friends, no shareable snacks or passable notes in sight.

Instead, teachers are putting up plexiglass and shower curtains and ordering scrubs.

Instead, classes that can’t be done without sharing materials or instruments or close spaces are being canceled. 

Instead, families are having to choose between school activities and outside ones that would widen the circle of exposure. 

Sounds like a blast. 

Now teachers are going to make whatever needs to happen, happen. Across the country we are preparing for a wide range of scenarios. Whether in person, hybrid, or virtual, I see colleagues making the best of their situation, even as they all come at a cost. To be honest, I prefer virtual teaching to the necessary sterility and inevitable anxiety of in person teaching. I don’t want to hound children all day about their masks.  I don’t teach kids to work silently and alone. I rarely stand at the front of the room and certainly never behind plexiglass. I won’t be able to control my face if someone sneezes.  And while virtual kindergarten isn’t ideal at all, neither is the thought of my gregarious child being yelled at for various forms of noncompliance while the carefree play and hugs he is used to become impossible. What is all of this for? 

It has become clear that the United States, its culture, and its economy are heavily reliant on teachers.  Just conceptually people are having a hard time imagining what happens if their kids cannot go to school.  I suppose many had children with the imperative caveat that they would be occupied from 9am – 3pm, Monday through Friday, September through June, from age 5 to age 18.  Certainly protestant work ethic and capitalism held hands during the birth of the public school system at the height of the industrial revolution.  We do not know any other way and have refused to address the crushing childcare needs of women and poor families for decades. Meanwhile teachers are caught between explaining how vital our function is to society and advocating for the right to protect ourselves and our families.  We know we are essential, but in a pandemic what does that even mean?

I know for sure that I touch lives.  I expose and inspire and coach and encourage. Over a series of weeks and months I can have a pretty big impact.  But the day to day is more mundane – fractions and fragments, geography and geometry, and any other number of necessary but perhaps not exactly critical  pieces of information.  I cannot point to a single lesson that I will do this year that makes me say, “Now that’s worth it!” when I imagine an outbreak taking hold and being passed on to a more vulnerable party in our community.  It would be devastating to learn that even one staff member or parent or elder relative or (god forbid) child had died because we decided to be in school.  No one seems to have an answer about how to handle that.  We either naively expect it not to happen or expect that it will happen and that everyone can find a way to deal. It is clear that our economy doesn’t work when our youngest members have no place to go outside of the home. But is that a good enough reason to put lives at risk? 

I used to imagine how if a school shooter broke in I could do everything in my power to protect my students even if it meant endangering myself.  Somehow this doesn’t feel like it requires the same level of martyrdom.  Of course we all want this to be over.  But acting like it isn’t happening or that we can will it away with our determination is not the answer.  

Last Saturday we met friends outdoors for a masked playground playdate.  Many precautions were taken.  On Thursday,  I received a text that the family was testing positive for COVID so even though we had all worn masks and stayed outdoors, we might want to take precautions as though we had been exposed.  So far we all feel fine and are awaiting results from our tests, which were provided for free by the county. They won’t likely come until next week. I am really grateful for this family’s transparency.  I am really grateful that our county has an organized system for free and convenient testing.  I am really annoyed that a definite answer is not immediately available. We will responsibly stay inside until we hear back, but how does that work if I need to report to school on Monday.  It turns out that most essential workers show up unless they are exhibiting symptoms so I guess that is what would be expected.  Imagine a school full of families on this revolving wheel of exposure. 

If we really want to open schools then we need to become much more unified and much more compliant.   We need to empower our community governments to put systems in place for frequent, wide spread, rapid testing and contact tracing which means less privacy.  There needs to be a standardized system of reporting and information sharing with the public.  We need to set aside selfish desires and change the way we live our lives to protect each other, with mask wearing being the minimum requirement.  We need to prioritize the needs of BIPOC, the medically vulnerable, and the elderly.  When schools do open widely we need to prioritize resources not for the wealthy who have other options, but for the families and students who suffer the most when schools are closed. We need to take strides to truly stand together. Basically, we need to become less American and more…something else. 

Pivoting in a Pandemic

The past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form.  Both are illusions. 

~ Eckhard Tolle

I recently read a tweet that described this moment as a “perpetual present”, one where we cannot rely on the patterns of the past or the hopes of the future.  We are trapped in a constantly evolving now.  There are some upsides to this for sure – more presence, more gratitude, more appreciation for the mundane.  Meanwhile we have families, careers, and lives to care for and we must make important decisions with only the information we currently have.  And that is really hard. 

It is no longer a secret that I will be at a new school this year. And yes, I was at a new school last year too. The part of the story that is mine to tell is I was building a sandcastle – a pretty elaborate one. I knew that at any moment the sea could rise and overtake it. I wasn’t building it with any assurances of permanence. It was a risk, but I hoped it would stand for a while. Maybe a few tourists would come through and take pictures. Maybe some other kids would add shells. But a yacht named COVID sailed past and increased the swell unexpectedly. The waves were too high, so I grabbed my sand toys and ran. Then someone pointed at a surfboard. That seemed like a safer activity, so here I am, paddling out. At the beginning of the summer, I didn’t know things would end like this. I have been surprised by my own life. When faced with a choice to teach virtually or in person, our family decided we wanted to stay home together. All other decisions became based on that one.

I want to share this video that was posted by Whittle School & Studios before I announced my departure. 

The teacher in this video has never been so clear about her focus, pedagogy, and purpose.  My year at Whittle gave me that.  It was a great gift.  I am STILL filled with so much pride and gratitude.  I grew immensely and had a lot of fun. I taught what really mattered and provided an education FOR THIS MOMENT.  I met wonderful teachers, parents, and families. It was a hard and glorious year.  I am sad that experience is over. 

At the same time, I am thrilled about the opportunity before me. Maret School has long been on my radar.  I love that Joy is a part of their mission. Several students of mine left my previous school and went on to thrive at Maret.  It was always a bit curious that so few jobs opened, but it meant people rarely left. So far I have been impressed.  It is becoming clear why I have been placed in this particular community at this particular time.  I love that my first professional development activity was a weeklong mandatory workshop on anti-racist teaching. It is highly ideal to have such a training in place during this particular moment in the fight for racial justice. They have the format down and the result was an extremely meaningful series of conversations.  I really appreciated being asked to reflect on WHO I want to be in this school space before thinking about WHAT I do.  Putting my humanity first is a great model of how to approach relationship building with students. 

The greatest lesson of this experience is to continue nurturing the resilience of my career. I am entering my 15th year of teaching. I am by all accounts, a veteran. I didn’t get this far carelessly – my moves have been intentional and divinely directed. It has paid to stay nimble. There is a fine line between committing to a community and either being a martyr or getting too comfortable. Life is weird sometimes and the only constant is change. One must always be prepared to pivot. Even in a pandemic. “Stay ready and you don’t have to get ready.” This past month has been a whirlwind.

Onward.

On Teaching: The Great and Other Migrations

As a teacher it is hard to stay uninspired as I go about my daily business. I knew I needed to read The Warmth of Other Suns last year when I saw the excellent exhibit of the same name at The Phillips Collection. It was truly groundbreaking and a gathering of artwork that will likely never be seen together again. If you missed it, you missed out.

The book that inspired the exhibit turned out to be just as captivating. I loved traveling with Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster out of the South and into their new lives. My own family was part of the Great Migration. Robert Foster actually reminded me of my two grandfathers. One was a doctor who graduated from Meharry Medical School and one was a veteran who fled Louisiana. Both came to California in search of their dreams. Reading this book felt very personal and while The Warmth of Other Suns isn’t a new release, its ability to resonate and teach so profoundly a decade later is evidence of its timelessness.

While The Warmth of Other Suns is a adult book, it would fit well in many high school classrooms. For middle schoolers, the text is too long (although young reader editions are very popular right now – putting it out into the universe that this would be a great set of stories to translate!) I think I will select a few passages to read, most memorably, the beautiful description of the first time Ida Mae Gladney votes in Chicago. This passage is structured enough to be a stand alone short story, and it captures what it would have been like to vote for the first time after living somewhere voting could kill you. The upcoming election is a great opportunity to talk about topics like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and (the truth about) women’s suffrage, particulary if you need to avoid “politics”. Teaching Tolerance has a great series of lessons for conversations about the past and the present.

There are a few picture books about the great migration for younger children, including this collection of poetry by Eloise Greenfield. It is beautifully illustrated.

Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series is an important American text and should be viewed by all. This picture book is a precious part of our family library.

This set of books by Linda Williams Jackson features a relatable middle grade character with a complicated family. As she becomes more aware of the oppression around her, she tries to make up her own mind about the South, moving up North, and joining the emerging Civil Rights movement. I’d recommend them for Grades 7 and up. The n-word appears as do violent descriptions of lynchings.

If the South isn’t a central topic in the curriculum, there are other migrations it relates too. Tie-ins might include migrant workers and the fight for farm workers rights. It seems I try to teach Esperanza Rising, The Circuit, Cesar Chavez, and Delores Huerta wherever I go. I’m from California after all.

Of course the worldwide refugee crisis and the migration of millions fleeing war and economic oppression continues and warrants our attention even with so much competition in the news. Many middle school students are not aware this is happening and it’s important to bring them up to speed.

This interactive map from The Refugee Project sparks powerful observations and conversations.

The selection of books for middle school students that include refugee stories has grown, with several options for connecting with characters from Syria and Central America. And I love teaching the poetry of Javier Zimora. His personal story is incredible. His work in Unaccompanied humanizes the experience of crossing the border and makes understanding the perspective of undocumented refugees accessible. Highly recommend!