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. 

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.

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?

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 Art and Empathy: Teaching China

I am very excited to share a project that I have been working on for the last year: Teaching China with the Smithsonian. This website represents a rich collaboration between curators, teachers, museum educators, and web designers. It was an incredible honor to be named a teacher-in-residence by the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art and to have so much access to the Freer Sackler galleries. It was also one of the best professional experiences of my career. On the site you will find a range of (awesome) teaching materials, including object specific lesson plans written by me and my colleagues, like this one about a summer chaofu.

People might be wondering about my interest in working with an Asian art museum. One, my masters degree is actually in museum education, and museum based teaching is originally what I thought I would do. Life being life, I ended up in the classroom and this was a glorious opportunity to check out the road I didn’t travel. Two, I have had a number of opportunities to teach and learn about China throughout my career.

When I taught 4th grade at The Dalton School, we studied the immigration of Chinese workers in the 1800s, as well as the xenophobia, discrimination, and detention they faced when they arrived. We learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act and the experiences many had on Angel Island. There is a lovely museum in New York City, the Museum of Chinese in America, that I recommend. These were not topics I studied growing up, even in California, and my perspective on the Asian-American experience was greatly widened.

When I taught 4th grade at Sidwell Friends School, we did a year long study of Ancient China. We learned about the dynasties, oracle bones, bronzes, and terracotta warriors. We compared Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism and made a lot of beautiful art that I wish I still had pictures of. Modern language and culture were also taught. Sidwell Friends actually has a tragic story behind its China studies program. Because of the program, I have been to China twice and visited many different parts including Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Guangzhou, and Yunnan. An incredible array of landscapes, food, and displays of artistic expression were intertwined with complex histories, politics, and beliefs. What little I understood from teaching was brought alive and made more complex by traveling there.

A highlight was three weeks at Qinghai Lake in Central China where I supervised students partnering with Machik, an organization devoted to social innovation in Tibet. They helped run a summer camp for Tibetan youth from around the country. There were joyful moments with circle dancing and yak butter tea, as well as stories of oppression and discrimination that resonated deeply.

Since those trips, the relationship between China and the US has only grown more complicated, and in the midst of all of that, I joined Whittle School and Studios, which opened campuses this year in both countries. The goal is for students and faculty to freely flow, interact, and exchange ideas, which has already begun to happen. Circumstances keep bringing me closer to China so I keep processing, learning, and trying to understand. As I seek to build that understanding, I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to see things for myself.

People also wonder why billionaire white men like Arthur Sackler (who collected and donated many of the objects we wrote about) and Mansfield Freeman (whose foundation funded the website and teacher education project) focused their attention on Asian artifacts and cultures, specifically those from China. According to Mapping Cultural Philanthropy, “Sackler…sought to promote an understanding of Asian civilizations through analysis of their artistic expression.” Freeman, who lived, taught, and began an insurance company in China, also wanted to nurture a better understanding between the United States and Asian countries. He instructed the foundation to fund projects that would “strengthen the bonds of friendship between this country and those of the Far East…and to stimulate an exchange of ideas in economic and cultural fields which will help create mutual understanding and thus lessen the danger of such frictions and disagreements as lead to war.”  In their own ways, they hoped their vast and valuable assets could be used to make the foreign more familiar. They hoped it would help build empathy. Current events tell us that the mutual understanding and peace they sought to foster still needs that support. This, I believe, makes our work even more relevant.

Art, like books, nurtures empathy. It sparks curiosity, which draws you in for a closer look. You become proximate. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative talks a lot about promixity as a pathway, perhaps first to intellectual understanding, and then, if the heart is open enough, to radical empathy.

It is only by empathy being aroused that we change. ~ Alice Walker

Museums can play a powerful role in facilitating this journey from object to empathy by sparking our curiosity and bringing us into proximity with new objects, places, people, and stories. Both museums and travel have transformed me. I hope our lessons allow teachers and students to go on a journey together and through that journey better understand themselves, each other, and the world.

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.

Onward.

Confessions of a Secret Luddite

I first heard the word “Luddite” my freshman year of college.  I was taking a course on media history with our infamous department chair, Neil Postman, who is often associated with Neo-Luddism movements. He hated being called a Luddite.  He would clarify:

A take-away from the class was that computers were no more advanced an invention than the pencil.  They were both revolutionary.  Or something like that. At any rate when I heard the term “Luddite”, I had to admit that even if it didn’t describe him, it was kind of describing me. 

The official definition of a Luddite is “a person opposed to new technology or ways of working”.  I do not look like your typical Luddite.  I regularly post on Facebook and Instagram.  I Tweet out blog posts.  I built my website.  I know how to screencast and mute myself on a Zoom call.  On the surface, I appear to be modern and with it. But I have a paper planner.  A “bullet journal”. I invest more in markers than I do in apps and just can’t get the hang of digital calendars and to-do lists. I also still have an iPhone 6.  I tell people it’s because of the insidious cobalt mining industry, but really, I don’t want to give up my home button or audio jack, even though I’ve finally figured out how to work Bluetooth headphones. I just don’t appreciate technology the way some of my more connected friends do.  I get everything late – Nintendo 64, Blackberry messenger, touchscreen, a stylus. I’ll never be an innovator or an early adopter.  I am a comfortable laggard. 

Like Dr. Postman, I have long been suspicious of educational technology and overreliance on digital tools to provide “modern” learning experiences. I am from the revolutionary pencils camps. I fear a school day that contains too much screen time and just because it dings doesn’t make it progressive or relevant.

On the other hand, I am trying to provide a distance education to my students during a pandemic of indeterminable length, and our computers are pretty much all we have.  While I used to be able to whip out post-its, build giant graphic organizers, pass out real books, and call on kids at will, everything is different now. 

Over the last two months, I have begun to dabble in a wide array of technological platforms so that we can recreate some of my favorite routines, activities, and strategies. A few of these have been around for a decade or more, and I knew about them, however I’d never used them.  (Early adopters, I already know.  I am late to the party. It’s practically over. And yes, I would like to sign up for your webinar to learn more).

But someone out there is probably even more of a luddite than I am.  This post is for you.  Here are the applications and websites I am finding the most useful and how they are helping facilitate collaboration, conversation, documentation, and assessment in the distance learning classroom.

Padlet » Arlington ISD

Padlet is super user friendly for both teachers and students.  You can easily post questions or a topic.  There are many designs to build virtual “bulletin boards” full of your student’s ideas.  I have used them both synchronously and asynchronously.  Everyone can write at the same time, read each other’s work, and comment.  Padlet can help facilitate visible thinking routines or organize collaborative research processes.  Sometimes I post a math problem where multiple answers are possible and collect the responses.  It is easy to project a Padlet and summarize the conversation.   You can also print and save Padlets as a record of student thinking or participation. 

I thought Desmos was for too old for my Grade 6 math students, but a lot more has been built for them since I last looked at this resource.  The site has pre-made activities, but it also lets you design your own and share them with the community.  That should probably be an aspirational goal of mine – we’ll see.  This blog was very inspiring. So far, I use the search function to find activities that match our current topic.  This week we did inequalities and there were several pre-made options.  These activities are especially great for my early finishers who need to be productively occupied while I work with other students.  The few I used were self-directed and self-checking. If you link it to a class code and have students sign in, the individual answers are collated and displayed so there can be a group discussion about an activity students did independently or asynchronously. 

Canva is an infographic maker, but this week I used it to create graphic organizers that students can type in as PDFs or as word documents. They have a ton of templates and ideas. I love a good GO so I have a feeling this will become a staple. Students can also use Canva to demonstrate their learning as an alternative to a slideshow.

I made my first PowToon this week – it was an explainer video giving a definition of Ethical Citizen.  It came out so cute!  I don’t know about you, but quarantine life has made me super reluctant to video record myself doing anything.   PowToon made it possible to use my voice without having to do my hair.  It also wasn’t completely obvious that I was trying to avoid being on camera.  The interface could be intimidating if you’ve never played around with video creation apps before, but otherwise it was pretty straight forward.  There were quite a few options in the free version and, of course, more with a subscription.  You can upload and post them to various platforms, so they are easily shared.  I could see using these to review directions on a big project or give a unit overview.  If we open online in the fall, I might record a weekly organizational video to highlight our priorities.  PowToon seems like a tool to use sparingly and deliberately, but it makes otherwise mundane or joyless topics a little more fun. Here are some more ideas from the app.

Flipgrid seems to have a lot of potential. My coworkers love it.   I love the mottos about social learning and empowering every voice, and I can see how this platform could support a wide array of students who learn and express themselves differently.  It is a great resource for collecting many videos without clogging up your inbox or storage.  There are a lot of customizable settings.  I really need to dig into the feedback possibilities.  I am always looking for more efficient ways to assess students and offer comments.  Flipgrid lets you grade, score a rubric, offer written notes, or record a video.  Another potential use is portfolio creation and this blog has other great ideas like inviting guest speakers to drop a line asynchronously, something that might support our project based learning.  It is also easy to share student work with an outside audience like administration or parents. 

Whether I every become completely comfortable with them or not, my recent forays into new applications have made me more empathetic towards struggles reported by students and parents. We are all having to innovate and adapt.  Too many widgets and gidgets can be overwhelming, but thoughtful integration of the right ones can improve teaching and learning. I secretly can’t wait to use my Bali collection Post-it stack again, but in the meantime it’s nice to have an authentic reason to test out some of these well designed platforms.