TKAM: I See (white) People

The primary lens through which we will teach To Kill a Mockingbird is that while it is a book about race and injustice, it is really a book about white people. We introduced the book with this clarification.  A lot of people think that because it is a book about racial injustice it is a book about Black people and therefore checks the box for “diverse curriculum” or “teaching about racism”. Pieces have been written about why this is not true, and there are SO MANY BETTER books to choose if that is the goal.  The beginning chapters are pretty dull unless you are mining them for information about white, southern Alabama small town culture. There is little to learn about Black people’s lives, joy, or even pain from this book.  They say we write what we know (or we should), and it doesn’t feel like Harper Lee knew very much about us. 

A lot of people also think it is a book about white anti-racist heroes.  We also clarify that, too, is not true.  Atticus Finch is a white widowed lawyer dad raising his two kids in a small south Alabama town. He does his job, upholds his family’s legacy, and makes choices he thinks align with his moral universe.  He is no one’s savior. Tom dies anyway. The town closes back in on itself, white supremacy intact. The system beats them all. 

Why am I convinced it is important to teach about whiteness? Because we cannot even begin to contemplate ending racism, particularly in schools, unless we do. If you are not familiar with white racial identity development, I recommend checking out the following resources.

Teaching While White podcast with Dr. Janet Helms

Ali Michael, PhD, Ted Talk

Ali Michael PhD – “What White Children Need to Know About Race”

The big picture is that white people do experience racial socialization and form racial identities.  There is a process for this racial identity development and it is composed of several non-linear stages. Without understanding this process and making intentional moves to develop a non-violent white identity, we get what we have always had – individuals, well meaning or not, who uphold a white supremacy that wreaks havoc on the world as it seeks to control and dominate people of color and resources.  To Kill A Mockingbird is proving to be an authentic text for introducing these ideas and making space for a necessary dialogue. I should mention that I teach in predominantly white independent schools where students of color are tired of having to carry the weight of these conversations. They find their classmates ill-equipped, and the white privilege and fragility exhausts them. I might not center this conversation if I taught primarily students who were Black, Indigenous, or People of Color. The needs of my students would be different and so would my curriculum. The context, as always, matters.

Recently, a New York City school came under fire for using the work of Dr. Barnor Hesse on The 8 White Identities.  These charts were posted and shared widely.  I won’t argue about the validity of this framework; it’s based on research and the progression lands for me.

The 8 white identities are a really interesting way to look at Atticus and the white people around him.   He is MAX a 6 at the height of his “heroism”, but he really doesn’t stay there very long. 3 is probably his comfort zone.  The town is definitely a 1. Young Scout is clearly a 2. 

Atticus actually loses Black readers early on in the book when he tells Scout not to say the n-word because it is beneath their class and to simply ignore her classmates who do say this racial slur. His advice does little to affirm the humanity of Black people and has much more to do with how he sees “their kind” of white people. The case was further sealed for me with Atticus’s later statement that “there’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance”, a patronizing statement that indulges racist beliefs about Black intellect while upholding the presumed superiority of white men within the system of oppression.  Young readers don’t learn anything useful about how respond to racism in real time from To Kill A Mockingbird. We can, however, learn about the motivations a white widowed dad raising his two kids in South Alabama might have for teaching his kid not saying the n-word as they relate to his family’s class and educational privilege among other white people. We can learn how a successful white lawyer doing the unpopular thing of defending a Black man can still fail to see that Black man as anything but less than him.

Rev. angel Kyoto williams has a really provocative teaching on the suffering that oppressive systems inflict on oppressors, in addition to those being oppressed.  She says, 

It is only when you find your story—when you realize the way you think and how you are has been utterly conditioned—that you will understand that even if on the surface you get to do all kinds of things, in truth, you have absolutely no choices at all. You have no choice at all other than to abide in this location and uphold it and be complicit in it for fear that to disrupt it will destroy who you are. 

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus fails to become an anti-racist hero when it matters most – in the quiet moments at home while raising his children. His platitudes about empathy fall short of him really wanting to challenge the status quo and use his privilege to improve life for the Black citizens of Maycomb. Placing too much emphasis on the ways in which he fulfills his tax funded work duties encourages mediocre racial justice work.

It is often argued that the Finches are confined by their circumstances, surroundings, and a set of perceived limits that require them to ultimately preserve the rules of whiteness they are conditioned to believe in. If so, then my students are blessed to be children of these times. By learning about the choices the white characters in To Kill A Mockingbird fail to make, I hope my students learn to create space for those choices in their own lives.

When we know better, we do better. 

To Kill A Mockingbird: Teaching While Black

So a Black teacher walks into a new school…and they hand her a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird

That’s it. That’s the punchline. 

Cover of the book showing title in white letters against a black background in a banner above a painting of a portion of a tree against a red background

I’ll admit I was shocked to hear I had to teach this book.  I had kind of decided to avoid it all costs. I hadn’t read it in decades. I did not remember the characters, the plot, or anything about it. Also I was teaching 7th grade. Didn’t this book belong in high school? Could we at the very least avoid teaching it during Black History Month? So many questions. So much dread. 

Books like To Kill A Mockingbird are no longer in vogue at urban, liberal, independent schools like mine. They are vestiges of traditional curricula we are supposed to have moved past through all of our professional development and DEI trainings.  To Kill A Mockingbird itself just carries a lot of baggage. Some people love it and think it is a truly “good” book, but a lot of people don’t.  There are dozens of critical articles examining the flaws from every angle.  There are horror stories about educators who have killed their careers teaching this book, perhaps by having superficial conversations that danced around the hard history  or perhaps by saying the n-word (which appears over 90 times) a little too casually.  Parents might have complained.  Students might have protested.  Librarians might have spent a summer reading replacement recommendations.  But there is usually someone hanging onto it, arguing for it from the corners.  The scary thing is I might become one of those people. 

In preparing for this unit, I have surprised myself.  I am actually REALLY looking forward to teaching this book. I have included all sorts of books about racial identity and racial justice in my curriculum over the years, many written by Black authors. Earlier this year we taught a beautiful unit based on Brown Girl Dreaming that centered Black history, activism, and art. Including BIPOC voices is not the issue; that is done easily, regularly, and with great joy.  Still there is something missing. Even using those texts, I have never been able to ask students to think about topics and questions like the ones that emerge so organically from this book.  And we are about to dive in deep.

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Earlier in the year, I thought I knew where I stood in this debate.  Now I am not so sure. My co-teacher has done a helluva job coming up with a framework that strips away traditional presentations of this text. I am adding in my own important connections, which I will talk about in subsequent posts. I’ve been having a lot of conversations about To Kill A Mockingbird with other teachers. Beyond mandates, I am not satisfied with the arguments for keeping this book in the curriculum.  Beyond the traumatic memories of bad teaching, I am equally unsatisfied with the arguments for throwing it out.  I guess I still need to see this play out for myself.   

Over the next few weeks, I hope to explore questions that don’t have easy answers right now, such as:

  • Why would two Black educators bother teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps even choose to do it again?
  • Have we sufficiently prepared ourselves to teach this book in an anti-racist, trauma informed way that accounts for our diverse students varying experiences and needs?
  • Why might it be advantageous and appropriate to view racial violence, white supremacy, and systemic racism through a white lens and a white voice?
  • What will this experience actually be like given we are doing this work in a hybrid learning environment during a pandemic?

What I know for sure is that teaching this unit will challenge me to do my very best work. And if I do it right, my students will walk away with an understanding of the world that better prepares them to make just choices and fight racial bias wherever they may find it, ESPECIALLY in the Pulitzer Prize winning darling of the American canon.

Digging Deeper into Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming is a middle grade classic and truly a work of art.  A memoir about how the South shaped her life and how she came to dream of being a writer, Jacqueline Woodson beautifully portrays her childhood in a powerful verse novel.  She touches on many relatable themes such as family, friendship, home, change, and education. There are tons of literary devices to notice and enjoy.  While it is specifically a story about her family, the magic of Brown Girl Dreaming is how Woodson captures the fullness of the Black Family Experience – the joy, the resilience, the love – all of it. Her family was nothing like my family and she is of a different generation, yet I found myself connecting to her experiences anyways. 

This book is one I recommend for every home and school library.  However, this year I teach 7th grade English, and honestly, I was surprised to see it on our booklist.  It is typically read in 4th – 6th grade and I wondered if it wasn’t a little young. 7th graders ride a fine line between middle grade and YA, with the tilt depending on the time of year.  However, I also know that once they cross over into YA-land, it is really hard to get them back.  This 7th grade year is the last year they will be interested in many middle school books. We have one last opportunity to squeeze certain books in and the key is to avoid shallow studies.  I wondered how we would deepen the experience for those who had already read it or for students who read above its level. 

Enter The Research Project. 

The other thing that Jacqueline Woodson does masterfully is weave in references to Black History, Art, and Activism.  She is a child of the 60s and 70s and watches both the civil rights movement and Black Power movement unfold around her.  These references are sprinkled in throughout the book. Some are just the drop of a name.  Others are a whole ode, like the poem “Say It Loud”, about the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. 

What our English team brilliantly realized was that these references were flying over the heads of even our best readers. While Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington are generally familiar to all students at our school by this age, other heroes and events are lesser known. Most did not yet have an opportunity to hear stories of The Great Migration or to read James Baldwin. They probably didn’t grow up listening to Sam Cooke. Even modern celebrities like John Lewis and Angela Davis are far more nuanced than they know.  To fully grasp the messages in Brown Girl Dreaming, students needed these names and events to resonate. By the end of this unit they would. 

(Full disclosure – this curriculum idea came from the previous English team at The Maret School in Washington DC. I was just fortunate enough to teach it.  Also I think it would be a great family or summer project.)

First, we compiled a list of references that could become research topic.  We assigned one iconic figure, group, or event to each student.   

Then we partnered with our librarians to create a research portal with suggested sources:

Students used Noodletools to cite sources and make notecards:

Then each student designed a google slide that incorporated important information about their topic:

Then they used Flipgrid to make a screencast where they verbally narrated the story of their icon. As the references appeared in the book, students would watch their classmates’ screencast to learn more about that figure, group, or event:  

Students teaching students (and me!) – it was awesome. 

This Black History Month has been pretty relaxing because we completed this project last quarter and have no need to stuff anything in just because it is February. This truly feels like a best practice because:

1) We are  incorporating Black History into our curriculum in authentic ways.

2) It is very easy to bring any one of these topics up again because we all have the same background knowledge now.

3) We have made it clear that Black history is full of empowered joy and agency, not just trauma. 


My co-teacher said Brown Girl Dreaming was her favorite unit.  I think I will remember it as mine too.

Black History Month Refresh

Today is Monday, February 1st. Such a neat and tidy beginning to Black History Month. 

Hopefully, there is already programming in place in your classroom, school, or organization to commemorate it.  I hope even more that this month is not the first time Black History is being taught nor will it be confined to the next 28 days.

Beyond teaching the identity calendar, my overall priority is to make sure my curriculum includes multiple perspectives and builds the cultural competence of my students, with the goal of creating space for each of them to be seen and represented in some capacity. This means my curriculum must be dynamic and able to adapt to the new groups of students I get each year. Equally important, I am always challenging myself to learn more and dig deeper, then bring that back to the classroom. If the lessons are stale for me, they won’t ring authentically important to my students either. 

*EDITING TO ADD: I recently talked about this topic and many of the resources below on The Kojo Nnamdi show which also featured Dr. Greg Carr.

If you are first starting out or are less familiar with Black History, definitely rely on tried and true resources from justice centered teaching organizations. A few suggestions include:

Here are a few other fresh and inspiring ways to teach Black History Month.

Teach the Collective

There was a terrific article by Imani Perry in the New York Times called “Do We Ask Too Much of Black Heroes”?  In it she argues that:

Heroes, as historians and activists have noted for generations, are often made mythic in ways that are troubling. Social change is never wrought by individuals. Movement is a collective endeavor and the romantic ideal of the hero obscures that truth. Recent social movements like the Movement for Black Lives have been deliberate about describing themselves as leaderless or “leader-full,” in order to emphasize the importance of collective organizing while rejecting the model of the charismatic male leader. 

Perry also quotes the words of Ella Baker: “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” This is the lesson our children need in this moment: that they do not need to wait for a hero to lead or even wait until they feel like a leader themselves – they can band with a multi-talented group of others right now and get started on the work that concerns them.  Rejecting this individualistic view is in itself a rejection of white supremacist culture.  Definitely apropos. Some heroic groups to consider depending on the curricular focus and age of the students:

  • Montgomery Bus Boycott
  • Freedom Schools
  • Freedom Democratic Party
  • Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)
  • Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee
  • Black Panther Party
  • Cohambee River Collective of Black Feminists
  • National Association of Colored Women
  • Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
  • Tuskegee Airmen
  • Harlem Hellfighters
  • Black Wall Street
  • Black towns and settlements

Teach the Truth

I really appreciate the following articles which emphasize “unlearning white supremacy” as the primary goal of Black History Month. If our lessons merely support false narratives about Black people and our place in this country, it truly would be better to not teach them at all. 

Additinally, part of telling the truth is lifting up stories of activists and organizers who have contributed, but may be left out of the known narrative due to multiple levels of marginalization, which can include being female, queer, disabled, or poor.  In search of “perfect heroes” we overlook incredible ones or erase the nuance of complex lives.

If we are going to single out people, let’s make sure the hero canon is representative of the ENTIRE community. Kids should know that women like Claudette Colvin, Diane Nash, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer also steered the course of history.  They should be familiar with the work of LGBTQ activists like Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, and Marsha P. Johnson. Some of our heroes  had physical and mental struggles that we don’t talk about enough. Widening our perspective will allow for more connection. Here are some terrific resources for teachers who want to strengthen their knowledge about Black history, learn from Black perspectives, and make sure they are getting the narratives right.  

  • In Class With Carr is an awesome Youtube show and podcast with Karen Hunter and Dr. Greg Carr of Howard University. I recommend the YouTube version because he magically pulls books from a vast and intriguing library.
  • Black Past is a helpful encyclopedia style resource with global and African-American entries.
  • The GirlTrek Black History Bootcamp Podcast is great fun for the mind and body.  It will have you walking and learning at the same time. 
  • The Equal Justice Initiative Calendar presents a History of Racial Injustice and is a heartbreaking catalogue with an entry for every day of the year.  Posted casually in the classroom it elicits lots of questions and conversations. 
  • The Great Unlearn with Rachel Cargle is a self-paced curriculum. Follow them on Instagram for daily topics to research. 

Teach the Future

You cannot teach about Black history and not support today’s freedom movements. The Black Lives Matter movement was just nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.  It is growing stronger and clearer in its purpose and goals. It is accomplishing incredible things in local communities. NOW is the time to engage this modern iteration of the freedom struggle as classroom material.  This week is actually The Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools.  

There are four primary demands, 13 guiding principles, and so many resources and ways to incorporate the messages.  One year my social studies class focused on learning about the school to prison pipeline and writing persuasive essays about the impact of police in schools.  Another year, the Black affinity group adopted the message of being “Unapologetically Black” and explored what that looked like in our predominantly white independent school.  Last year, I ran lunch groups to talk about the four demands and how we were connecting them to current events and the books we were reading.  All of those experiences were powerful.  Get creative, use the time that you can, and don’t doubt that these topics will be interesting and relevant to a wide range of students. There is even a coloring book.  Mindful art moment, anyone?

Afrofuturism is another way to talk about the future of Blackness while incorporating current artists, authors, and activists.  There are incredibly talented people engaging in this renaissance to imagine a future for Black people outside of white supremacy. Black Futures by Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham is a great primer and work of art in itself.

Additionally the Movement for Black Lives declares this Black Futures Month and has released this gorgeous and powerful short film:

However you choose to engage this month, do it with love, solidarity, and authentic interest.  Our students know when we are just checking boxes and Black History is too important for that. 

3 Picture Books for Suffering Times

Last night was terrible.

Today I am exhausted.

It wasn’t that anything changed. Everything outside my window looks exactly the same. I had to remind myself that this is the same suffering that happens everyday. Last night it was just a spectacle. Today it is just tiring.

It is times like these I am glad to be Buddhist because it is the only way to make sense of the violence that escalated into a white supremacist terrorist mob riot overtaking the Capitol building. I need this kind of suffering to be normal. It is actually easier to process this level of suffering if I remind myself that something like what we witnessed is always happening. Maybe not outside our window. Maybe not in a national capital. But somewhere. The unusual days are when I forget. I need this kind of suffering to have a cause. I need to touch into the anger and fear and despair and deep confusion and sorrow that continually feeds cycles of violence. I need to know there is something I can do to end this suffering, both inside myself and in the world, and I need to know how to do it.

So last night and today I took my seat. I cleared my mind and asked for right view. Now is a time to see, to really see things for how they are. Not as we want them to be and not as they are for just those in our circle. Now is a time to bring whatever hovers on the periphery to the center. To focus on that which most needs our care.

I admire the Buddha because even though his life was comfortable, he recognized that things were not okay. And he left it all behind. He let it all fall apart because it was broken anyways.

He envisioned something new.

What Do You Do With a Chance? — New York Times best seller: Kobi Yamada,  Mae Besom: 9781943200733: Amazon.com: Books

One day, we can be asleep, forgetting about the suffering that needs to be worked on. Or we can be working on it and feel weary and alone. The next day we can be awake and aware. We can find ourselves surrounded by others who are just as activated as we are.

On that day we should begin. Everyday is an invitation to begin again.

The Day You Begin: Woodson, Jacqueline, López, Rafael: 9780399246531:  Amazon.com: Books

2020: Still Processing

There isn’t much to say about 2020 except it was a helluva year. 

There isn’t much to say about 2021 except I am glad I will be here for it. Over 300,000 Americans and almost 2 million people around the world won’t, and that is worth remembering. 

Yes, it was a helluva year.  

Lately, I have been spending a lot of time on the meditation cushion, just feeling the sensations in my body and creating more and more space in my head. I recognize this as an “input” time, which makes it hard to write, and that is okay. I want to say all of the deep things, but I am still peeling back the layers and discovering more. There will be one post marked “December”, and so I am checking off that goal and letting the aspiration go. More of that moving forward, eh?

It will take me awhile to process all of the tragedy and tumult, as well as the parts that were sweet, inspiring, hilarious, and full of love, for there were moments like that too. Just last night, I laid my cheek on my son’s head and breathed in the scent of his shampoo while we looked at a book about trucks.  He can almost read it himself and that feels like a miracle. I can’t say everything is terrible because we still have each other and we are still here. 

In time, it may turn out to be that for many of us, 2020 was actually a gift, albeit one that came at a great price. Perhaps, the true legacy of 2020 will be what we do with all of the hardship.  If it opens us up to greater connection with and compassion for our families, our neighbors, our communities, and a future where we collectively care for one another, then maybe it was necessary and even worth it. I am optimistic that this outcome is possible and it is something I look forward to being a part of.  

In the meantime, I am still processing.  

May you and I both be at ease and touch joy in the simplicities of another day.

Photo by Xi Xi on Pexels.com

Teaching the Teacher: November Selections

I don’t teach because I know everything; I teach because I want to know everything.

~ Teacher Lesley

I’ve figured out that the moment you cease to be curious about what you teach, you cease to be of use to your students. 

In my commitment to becoming a master teacher, I am also committing to becoming a master learner.  I am intentionally looking at the world and identifying those people, places, texts, and experiences that I need to lean toward in order to grow. As I connect with those resources, I will share them. Here are my favorites from November.

Moving Writers

This is my first year teaching middle school English – I have primarily taught “language arts” as a partner to social studies and through the lens of interdisciplinary humanities.  As I become more discipline focused, Moving Writers has been a wonderful blog to follow.  A high school classmate introduced me to it when she began writing about her very cool work incorporating environmental activism into AP Literature courses.  The posts come frequently and document implementable strategies from Kindergarten through 12th grade.  Whether you work with English language learners, emerging writers, middle school analysts, or adolescent poets, there is something with which to connect and be inspired by. Also, you can apply to write for them, which is a cool professional development opportunity. 

Soulforce Non-Violence Workshops

Growing up I attended Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, CA.  We were there many days a week for service, youth group, and choir.  Our pastor was the Reverend James Lawson.  He was a powerful leader and speaker. I had no idea he was a civil rights hero, even though I recall him mentioning knowing Dr. King several times. It was only while reading March: Book One with my students that I realized Reverend Lawson knew him, knew him.  

Like sat with him –  marched with him – taught him about non-violence – called him to Memphis where he was killed – knew him.  Yeah.  

Anyways, Reverend Lawson is still alive and still teaching non-violence as a justice practice. He holds monthly workshops which are now online. You, too, can be a student of an icon and join the ongoing movement for civil rights and non-violence in the world. I highly recommend. You can visit Holman’s website for more information and registration, as well as recordings of past workshops. 

Radical Dharma as Compassion Practice with Lama Rod Owens

This teaching by Lama Rod Owens from Nalanda Institute’s Offerings for Uncertain Times was truly lovely.  The talk was titled “Radical Dharma as Compassion Practice” and includes a practice and lecture. Lama Rod Owens completed a traditional 3-year silent retreat program and was officially recognized by the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. He also completed his Master of Divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School.  Additionally he released a book with Rev. angel Kyodo williams (left) and Jasmine Syedullah  entitled, Radical Dharma, Talking Race, Love and Liberation. I especially enjoyed his practice “The Seven Homecomings”.  It was an excellent reminder that in this time of hard things and darkness, we have so many resources we can tap into for strength.  Learn more about Lama Rod and his newest book, Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger on his website, lamarod.com.  I am now wondering if his name is Rodney.  I would know SIX Rodney’s, including the one I am married to. 

Liberation and Compassion with Reverend angel Kyodo williams

As my colleague and I prepare to teach To Kill A Mockingbird to our 7th graders, I am finding this article, “Your Liberation Is On the Line”  by Rev. angel Kyodo williams very helpful. It was published in February 2020 and was adapted from a talk given at the NYC Shambhala center in May 2018.  I began studying Buddhism at that center in my 20s and spent a lot of time there, so I enjoy picturing Rev. angel in that spaceThe main reason Mockingbird is still in our curriculum this year is so that there is an intentional effort to teach whiteness.  I am wrapping my head around that and will share more about that effort and my journey to do it later.  Meanwhile, I am grappling with my own feelings about whiteness and this quote is centering:

Many people in positions of dominance don’t know their own story. They don’t know their story in the way that when you’re marginalized, you are forced to know your story, to understand that you have a story, that you’re affected by a larger story, and that you’re working with all of it…people need to hear testimony that reveals how patriarchy has limited them in their white male bodies, how it has limited their ability to feel and express love. Something got stolen from them. Something got stolen from all of us. So you have to have compassion for the voice of the heart that has been lost or obscured, whether in others or in yourself…

This call to meet the oppressive experience of whiteness with compassion is a hard one, but I think it actually aligns with the encounters I have had and the ways in which I want to approach justice work.  I recently did Rev. angel’s “Really Big Sit” a divine event where I ended up practicing for four and a half hours. 

I originally thought I might last maybe two.  There was a BIPOC breakout session where people of color from around the country sat together and many expressed this was their first opportunity to do so.  It was a powerful event and then gifts of daily emails began to arrive. I am diving into many of Rev. angel’s past teachings and so many resonate that they will probably continue to be featured in this space. I’ve bought both of her books, Radical Dharma and being black. There is a half day sit coming up on December 19th. 

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. 

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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?