Business or Busy-ness

I didn’t post in the month of May. Ironically, last month marked the one month anniversary of this blog. I should probably feel a certain way about that, but I don’t. Over the last year, I have learned to trust the ebb and flow of my energy more. Sometimes I have a lot to give to a particular area of my life, and sometimes I don’t. Forcing it never made anything better. 

I am DEEP into these rest practices, ya’ll, and I have never felt more whole. 

Now that I am vaccinated all sorts of things feel like a possibility again. Except being too busy. Before the pandemic my personal and professional lives felt very chaotic. Things looked pretty good on the outside, but all of the scheduling and details and logistics were making my mind a messy place to live. A gift of the stay-at-home orders was a hard reset. At work, I was over involved in committees and initiatives and projects and professional development. If there was a pot lying around my hand was in it! My to-do list was never ending, and I always felt like I needed to be working.  Even when it was late.  Even when it was the weekend. Even when I was exhausted.  I relaxed by doing way too much too! I ran all over town attending concerts and book talk and dinners and happy hours and networking events and conferences and work groups. I did not manage the resulting stress in healthy ways. I developed Grave’s disease, an autoimmune disorder. I tore my meniscus. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I am not sure any of this would have stopped.  

This pandemic has taught me that so much of the BUSY-ness of American life is self-imposed. And what does need our immediate attention – like climate change or global hunger or reparations or our health – rarely gets it. I can see now how much of the activity of the Before Times was just momentum or ambition or performance. Start running because everyone else is. Well, I don’t want to do that anymore.

It would be a mistake to just get back into the swing of things and business as usual. That swing often felt like a wild ride. In the After, I want to embrace the spaciousness of an unbusy schedule. The kind of schedule that allowed me to start this blog and dream of writing more. Time to rest. Time to think. Time to get bored. I want to be more discerning and more ready to decline. I recently told someone I was anti-urgency. As I watch people start to travel and dine out and BBQ again, as kids activities open back up, as birthday parties and weddings get scheduled, as we start to look towards the future again and plan, plan, plan,  I am reflecting on how to say “no” to busy-ness with zero guilt, thus honoring the joy that creating space brings.

How does this impact my students? Well for one, I am thinking about how to avoid assigning work that I am not actually interested in, that doesn’t relate to important projects or allow me to assess their growth. I am done with the busy work. You know, the stuff that was more about time management or “rigor” or honoring a relic of the past or another teacher’s interest. This year, we simply didn’t have time for it.  When we gain back instructional hours in the fall, I want to be super careful about what we do with the added time. How can there be more choice time and more exploration? If we start to go off on a intriguing tangent, I would love to be able to say, yes, there is time for that. If there is something urgent going on in the world, I would love to be able to give space for response.

I also no longer penalize work that is turned in late. If work shows up before my grades are due, I will usually give it full or almost full credit (sometimes there are extra points available for turning it in on time).  The truth is I rarely grade assignments the day they are due anyways. And kids are busy too! Teaching them to prioritize means allowing them to tell me that my essay simply isn’t as important as the national Latin exam or the math final or a big science project. As a grownup – I should be able to hear that. Of course, I also tell them that our next unit and more work is on the way. A natural consequence of letting things pile up is having several items to take care of instead of just one. For most kids, this is enough to stay on top of things. The ones who don’t do their work usually need further support in some capacity anyways, and they shouldn’t turn the work in until they have received it. Allowing students to experience organic deadlines has become an important part of building an intrinsically motivated classroom, which is my ultimate goal. Plus, when I say, hey I need that – they know I mean it. 

As we consider the ways in which a more normal version of school will return in the fall, I hope there are parts of this big life lesson that we will keep. For me, it is about the connection between time spaciousness and a mind that is more creative and at ease. As monk and Buddhist teacher Haemin Sunim says:

We know the world only through the window

 of our mind.

When our mind is noisy, the world is as well.

And when our mind is peaceful, the world is, too. 

Happy Holidays

Happy Juneteenth! If today is the first time you wished someone that – don’t worry.  You are not alone. Today is Juneteenth, but more importantly it is Juneteenth 2020.  No longer confined to Texas or woke Black communities, it is now a national thing. Very different from Juneteenth 2019.  The number of virtual and in person events seems to have risen exponentially since last year. Companies small and large gave their employees the day off.  There is a proposal in the Senate to make it a federal holiday.  Certainly, this too is the influence of the last few weeks.

The problem with holidays is that they tend to simplify complex historical situations into neatly packaged narratives. Take Thanksgiving, otherwise known as a Day of Mourning (lesson plan if you need one).  The history of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag is not simple.  They were real people with real interactions that had real consequences.  Neatly packaging Thanksgiving into a holiday has diminished those specific people and those specific interactions, but not those consequences, which remain very real for Indigenous communities across our country. Rosa Parks is another example of a simplified story (and holiday! February 4 in California and Missouri; December 1 in Ohio and Oregon; nothing in Alabama).  No, she didn’t just wake up one day, go to work, get tired, and decide to start a movement.  Her actions were planned and calculated and behind her was an army of people ready to get the boycott party started.  Of course, she deserves recognition – it’s just not the whole truth.

I love teaching American History so this year I was delighted to develop a 7th grade course devoted to the topic.  Our 7th grade theme is Others and the course title is “Conflict and Cooperation”.  I might change that next year to “Conflict, Cooperation, and Co-responsibility” – more on that next week.  We had three major units looking at US history from marginalized perspectives: Indigenous experiences in early America; the evolution of freedom from enslavement to the Civil War; and xenophobia during WW2 focusing on the Holocaust and Japanese American incarceration.  It was such a powerful class to teach, and I learned so much along the way.   When our national conversation on racism, policing, and began to heat up, one of my feelings was relief because I had prepared my students to understand it. We had been doing “the work” all year long.

A surprisingly successful unit was on the Civil War.  I thought it would be pretty dry, but it felt like a key topic to include.  We ended up skipping over chronologies, strategies, and generals (though I pointed out the wide array of local battlefields their families might visit).  We focused instead on the lead up to the war and why legal compromise didn’t work; on Lincoln and questioning his legacy as “The Great Emancipator”; and on whether or not it was a war “for freedom” and if so, freedom for whom of what kind (no question it was “about slavery”).  These were not topics I explored deeply as a kid or as an adult so much of the thrill was allowing my students’ ideas and perspectives to shape my own.

I am loving our collective renewed interest in this time period, but it is important we get the details right.  Here are some historical “facts” I have seen shared – mostly via social media memes:

  • Juneteenth is when enslaved people in Texas finally heard the Emancipation Proclamation had freed them.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery.
  • Juneteenth is when the last enslaved people in America became free.

All of these contain kernels of truth…and kernels of not truth.

Growing up, Juneteenth was a lesser Black holiday than Kwanzaa, but well placed between Memorial Day and July 4, and therefore a good date for a get together.  In California, they only happened sometimes. In my kid mind Juneteenth seemed to prove that old timey Texans were really stubborn and that mail traveled really slow.

Later, I disliked suggestions that enslaved people in Texas simply had no idea what was going on for four whole years, until someone showed up to inform them. Talking drums, anyone? There was an entire war going on. A lot of people had been brought from other states by owners fleeing the encroaching armies. It was probably pretty clear what was up. Simple stories take away so much.

For a more accurate version of what Juneteenth might represent, I suggest this article from the always-on-time and good-at-explaining-the-complicated Equal Justice Initiative.  It was the beginning of a long road to secure inalienable rights owed to an entire population of people.  Andrew Johnson couldn’t officially end the Civil War until Texas stopped holding out on certain qualifications to rejoin the Union, including ratification of the 13th Amendment.  And then there was reconstruction and post-reconstruction.

My takeaway as a teacher is to incorporate more nuance into the narrative:

  • The Emancipation Proclamation was issued after the Civil War started and after much internal and external debate for Lincoln.  He personally favored recolonization in Africa – the moderate liberal position at the time. 
  • The Emancipation Proclamation only freed some enslaved people living in some parts of the Confederacy – 10 states in all, none of which Lincoln had any control over. It did not make slavery illegal. Excluded were enslaved people living in slave-holding border states that stayed with the Union: Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri and, my current state, Maryland. It did not apply to Tennessee.  Additionally, there is a whole section listing Union-occupied Virginia Counties and Louisiana parishes that were exempt. It wasn’t that Black people in Texas didn’t know about the Emancipation Proclamation; it was that white people in Texas didn’t care.
  • Sidenote: When did those enslaved in the border states get free?  According to this article in The Washington Post, Maryland declared its enslaved people free on Nov. 1, 1864, way after the Emancipation Proclamation and only a few months before Congress approved the 13th Amendment and Lee surrendered at Appomatox. It was a mere seven months before those enslaved in Texas received the big news. There was a vote that “tipped in favor of abolition only after the absentee ballots of soldiers fighting for the North were counted. The final tally was 30,174 in favor of freeing the slaves to 29,799 against.” Oh, Maryland.  
  • In the records, General Granger (sent down 10 weeks after Lee surrenders) doesn’t read the Emancipation Proclamation, but a “General Order 3”
  • The National Archives only recently found the handwritten order (so much of historical discovery rests on someone being interested enough to go through a box).  Granger’s statement reads more like, “The war is over, we won, and all ya’ll are free.  For now, just keep working though.  Yes, for the people from which you were just freed.  Try to get paid.  Don’t come down to the base and don’t let me catch you sitting around”.  The Freedman’s Bureau was going to come help…eventually. 

Slavery was a messy affair lasting over two centuries.  Freedom has also been a messy affair lasting over one and a half centuries.   If we want to truly understand, honor, and use history in the fight for justice, we must first learn to understand and honor complexity.  Otherwise we fail before we even begin.

I am glad the Black community’s microphone is turned way up right now.  So many demands are being heard.  Even things we forgot to put on the list are getting taken care of (here’s looking at you, Aunt Jemima).  But this moment isn’t about just fixing ad campaigns.  We want real justice.  And real justice comes from understanding real injustice and understanding real injustice comes from understanding real history.

As far as Juneteenth is concerned, I am always down for a reason to rest or celebration BBQ.  I am also glad we have a new holiday that forces us to return to the research stacks and reckon with the ghosts of the past.  There is sure to be a showdown over Fourth of July (hint: it means nothing to the slave). Let’s use these next two weeks to get comfortable with primary sources, facts, and long stories.  Then we can have a real conversation.

Why I Chose Whittle

One of my ancestral stories goes like this:

In 1891, my great-great grandfather Jordan Young (no relation to YoungeE) decided to move from his home in Columbia, South Carolina, where he had previously been enslaved, to Fowler, California. He and his three brothers received a letter from their sister, Julia Bell, who told them they should come. Jordan took the train out west, found the dusty land to his liking, and started a farm. A few years later, he sent for his wife, Louisa, and seven children. Eventually he would own a 160 acre ranch and several lots in the growing city.

I am a descendant of pioneers.

(Jordan and Louisa Young)

In 2018, I made the decision to leave my cushy job at a prestigious and historical independent school to join a new, for-profit, global school network. Why? Well, why does anyone join a start-up – for an adventure, dahling!

I was good at my job, but I saw an opportunity to be great. Whittle School and Studios came to DC with marketing banners blazing. They promised to be a modern school that prioritized global, interdisciplinary, and experiential learning. Those words are literally at the top of my resume. Instead of fighting to validate those things in a school community, I would simply get to teach them. This move would baffle DC Urban Moms. No one could fathom it.

The 2019-2020 school year is turning out to be an insane year to have gone rogue. A pandemic; civil unrest to end racism; impending cicadas, locusts, and murder hornets…we just keep asking, “What’s next?” So how it is that this June I find myself not limping to the end of the finish line, but skipping? Why am I not squeezed, fried, exhausted? Why do I have even a twinge of excitement for the fall? Why does my summer PD and project list fill me with joy?

Because. This. Was. Awesome.

(I did not say perfect.)

There have been massive ups and downs. But wow. It has always been important for me to teach as my full self, and Whittle is a space where that is welcomed. I brainstormed and co-taught with incredible artists, mathematicians, historians, writers, and scientists. I have colleagues from around the world on our campus, as well as in New York and China. I went to nearly every Smithsonian and connected students with the city in new ways. I taught things that would have been impossible elsewhere. I centered marginalized voices and real American history. I chose books I love and a diverse group of children saw themselves reflected in their pages. I learned to differentiate my math class so kids who would otherwise be labeled as needing support simply got to take their time and others, who wanted to accelerate, were able to fly.

The problems we tackle are exciting. What counts as an experience? What real world problems are developmentally appropriate? Is there such a thing as too interdisciplinary? How do we put the “authentic” back in authentic assessment? What reporting system effectively communicates student progress to parents while reinforcing our core values? It has been extraordinary to work on these dilemmas with a team of people dedicated not just to innovation, but smart innovation that learns from previous experiences and draws on best practices. While it is brutally hard work building a new school, we have a chance to get things right, and that is something in which we are all invested.

During my students’ final reflective presentations this week, they highlighted three pieces of work that showed their progress. They based their reflections on our Graduate Profile, which provides a framework for thinking about the goals of a Whittle education:

Our middle schoolers spoke with great vulnerability about mindsets, frustrations, setbacks, comebacks, and triumphs. They spoke about being whole children who loved growing in math AND art AND basketball AND Chinese. Not a single one said, “I know I did a good job because I got good grades.” Instead, they knew they did a good job because they were proud of their work. They were uninterested in comparing themselves to their classmates. They were focused on who they had been and who they were becoming. Before, a truly intrinsically motivated student seemed as rare as Sasquatch. Now, I believe it is possible to engage children in work that is meaningful and relevant and to see them respond with curiosity, tenacity, and joy. At Whittle, we are slowly uncovering the secret recipe, and it tastes good.

My year at Whittle School and Studios has changed me. A student speaker said at our closing ceremony that this roller coaster of a year has made Whittle the special place that it is and also helped to prepare all of us for the uncertainty of these times. I couldn’t agree more. My ability to adapt and be flexible has increased ten-fold. I am absolutely a better teacher. A better curriculum designer. A better advisor. A better advocate. A better colleague. A better leader.

Faith is the hope for things unseen. 130 years ago, my ancestors set out for a land they’d only heard of. Their journey took courage, guts, and imagination. I’m sure there were days when they wondered if they had made a big mistake. If life would have been better back home. Perhaps on those days, they thought about those of us coming along, just down the road a bit. Perhaps, because of us, they decided to keep building. They had come so far and were just getting started.

As we close this remarkable 2019-2020 school year, I never want to forget how it feels to have taken a risk – a BIG risk – and arrived at the destination knowing the road ahead was totally worth it.