Friday, January 12, 2018

Privilege and Raising Our Voices

Monday my students and I will enjoy a day off from school. While they do celebrate their time without me, I took the time to remind them today why we were off. To them Martin Luther King Jr. is akin to a president from the past, someone that was famous for doing something important. If pressed they can murmur phrases like Civil Rights Movement or that 'I Have a Dream' speech. They haven't given much thought beyond that.

This quarter my class has a nonfiction genre requirement. While my seventh graders read multiple books a quarter, there is one book required in a certain genre each marking period. This allows them to explore genres they might be unfamiliar with, but still allow for choice reading the majority of the time. For the first two weeks in the quarter I book talk books from that genre daily. Today I shared these two books with the holiday approaching on Monday in mind:

I've lost track of how many times I've recommended the March graphic novel series to people since I first read it. It should be required reading. I've book talked it before to my students, but shared it again today. 

I hadn't book talked Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer before, but knew this picture book biography in poetry format would be appealing to many of my students. I shared with my fabulous kids that one of the poems stopped me in my tracks. I know history, it was my major in college. I love learning about our past. I truly believe that a knowledge of where we went wrong can help us to improve the future. Yet when I reached the poem Motherhood, I slammed the book shut. It seems that while Hamer was having a small tumor removed (in 1961), a doctor went ahead and performed a hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent. Mississippi law at the time allowed poor women to be sterilized without their knowledge. In reading this, my breath disappeared, my heart ached, and my mind spun. How was this was only thirteen years before I was born? Only fifty-six years ago? And we wonder why people are angry.

This afternoon while home for lunch I read, and shared, the following article on Facebook. (HERE) Immediately I had some friends who I love ask me why I had to keep reading these things that upset me so. They reminded me to ignore the news. That I don't need to pay attention to our government to the degree that I do, that I can just focus on all of the positive in my life. I thanked them for their concern as tears welled in my eyes.

Friends, they said that from a point of privilege. To be specific, white privilege.

I could ignore the news. My social media feeds could be filled with photos of my boys, my dogs, my husband, books, Starbucks, and sunsets. And it is, at times. 

But I am angry. I cannot be silent. I don't speak up all the time because, to be honest, it is exhausting. And I know that is me using a privilege that I have no right to use. Others don't have a choice, they can't remain silent. These actions are impacting them. Every. Single. Day. So I try. I truly do. I try each and every day to be kind. To be compassionate. To show my love for everyone I meet. 

And I raise my voice. When the President of my country uses the word 'shithole' to describe the countries that some of my students used to call home, I speak up. That is not ok. 

Politics will always be about debates. One side will never agree with the other and that's ok. But there should be a level of decency. When we fall below that level, it is my belief that both parties should rise up, should speak up, should shut that down. In my dreams we do. Lin-Manuel Miranda said it in one of my favorite songs from Hamilton, History Has Its Eyes On You. As a teacher, I'm reminded every single day that not only does history have its eye on us, but our children do too. And while I don't share my political leanings, or beliefs, in the classroom; my students know what kind of person I am. They know I would never allow name calling to happen in front of me. They know that I would never allow racist remarks to fly by unchecked. I won't for them, and I won't on social media. 

Remaining silent, ignoring the hate, is a form of privilege. I have friends that don't have that privilege available to them. I have students that don't either. And these horrible remarks in the news are directed at them. For them, for these kids I love, I will raise my voice. I can't do anything else. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Shielding Our Students from Darkness

This past November at NCTE I stood in the exhibit hall with tears rolling down my face while standing at a publisher's booth. I had heard about Matt de la Peña's new book that Loren Long illustrated, but I hadn't seen it yet. Reading Love in that booth, that exhibit hall, was one of those moments that I won't soon forget. The noises of the exhibit hall melted away. I felt like I was in this quiet space, the words whispered in my ears, the illustrations all I could see. I knew it was a book to share, a book to find yourself in, a book to comfort, a book to know that you are not alone.

Only a few hours later I spoke to a friend who said that a major player in the world of children's books had decided against carrying Love because of an illustration in the book. Matt describes the illustration in his beautifully written article which appeared in Time yesterday:

"In the scene, a despondent young boy hides beneath a piano with his dog, while his parents argue across the living room. There is an empty Old Fashioned glass resting on top of the piano." (Click HERE to read the full article.)

This notion of protecting children from darkness isn't new. Kate Messner wrote about it in regard to her book The Seventh Wish last year on her blog (HERE) when she was uninvited to a school visit. I'm currently reading S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders with my seventh graders. In an interview I listened to with Hinton she talks about how people took issue with The Outsiders for being dark, violent, but that was what she was seeing in her own school. Was she supposed to change her own truth to make others comfortable? 

I've been in teaching awhile. I know there are times to shield our kids. I also know there are times to be there, with them, discussing the hard stuff. I remember September 11, 2001 like it happened yesterday. I absolutely shielded my students, my beautiful nine and ten year old kids, from the horror of that day while it was happening. But on the 12th? We talked about it. Some of my colleagues across the country didn't have that luxury. For some, the events unfolded outside of their windows. What I have learned is that kids are resilient, often more so than adults. 

As we began The Outsiders this week we looked at the background of Oklahoma in the 1960s. Looking at the economy of Oklahoma, students noticed that the oil they had profited from began drying up during that time. We talked about how the loss of jobs in the oil fields and how it would create problems for families. When one student suggested that a family could just move to find another job, another student pointed out that they were saying that from a point of privilege, that moving requires money that often times, families don't have. Another student pointed that the loss of jobs in the oil business reminded them of the loss of jobs in regard to factories, to coal we see today. My seventh graders and I discussed the problems with automation, but also the advantages. We looked at why companies decided to leave our country and build factories elsewhere. One student pointed out that they now understood why I kept saying education was important - it often gave more opportunities for you in terms of career. 

As we dove into The Outsiders, reading both together and on our own, we talked about the different characters. How Darry had to step up and become an adult, putting his own dreams aside for the sake of his siblings. We looked at Dally's life, what leads someone to make the choices he made. Yesterday our hearts broke a bit when we learned what Johnny went through with the Socs, what his home life is like. One student spoke up quietly that this book made him rethink what life is like for some kids, what judgements we make about others without realizing it. Another student quoted Pony when he said, "Just don't forget that some of us watch the sunset too." Kids nodded as I looked at their serious faces.

Life is hard, harder for some than others. My favorite part of teaching Language Arts is that we get to examine our own lives while learning about the lives of others - fictional and not. Reading makes us more empathetic people, if we let it. After twenty-one years of teaching I am still convinced that the world would be different if we all read, if we all soaked up stories that are not our own. Just as important is that reading allows us to see our own stories inside of books too. Some of our stories are "dark". I wish I could change that, but I can't. 

What I believe is this... we don't need to shield our children from the darkness, but instead we need to walk into it with them, hand and hand, and ask them what they notice. Through that we can all grow and maybe find just a bit more love to share. One good way to do just that? Check out Matt and Loren's new book, the trailer is below.


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Powerful Quick Writes

I started using quick writes in Language Arts class years ago thanks to Linda Rief. I purchased this book and the ideas started flowing. As I grew comfortable with the concept, anything became an opportunity for a quick write: images, videos, songs, poems, picture books, or bits of text. This week I had my students do a quick write off of an image from my camera roll:

Then my advisory class did a quick write for the New Year after watching two videos from Hank Green:

This gave my middle school group the chance to talk about what Hank meant when he said, "You make you..." or the notion that they were always changing, they didn't have to be who they were right now. Important and deep conversations.

Looking at Facebook this morning I saw this video shared by Kristen Ashley. I haven't seen The Greatest Showman yet, but this moves it to something I really need to do. Wow. What a powerful video. I plan on printing off the lyrics for the song (which I'm pasting at the end of this post) and handing them out to my students to paste in their writing notebooks. Then we will watch this video, I will try not to cry, and we'll fill out notebooks with our own words or sketches in reaction to this beauty. I can't wait to talk about it with them. 

[Verse 1]
I am not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
'Cause we don't want your broken parts
I've learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one'll love you as you are

But I won't let them break me down to dust
I know that there's a place for us
For we are glorious

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I'm meant to be, this is me
Look out 'cause here I come
And I'm marching on to the beat I drum
I'm not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me

Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh, oh, oh

[Verse 2]
Another round of bullets hits my skin
Well, fire away 'cause today, I won't let the shame sink in
We are bursting through the barricades
And reaching for the sun (we are warriors)
Yeah, that's what we've become

Won't let them break me down to dust
I know that there's a place for us
For we are glorious

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
Gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I'm meant to be, this is me
Look out 'cause here I come
And I'm marching on to the beat I drum
I'm not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me

Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh, oh, oh
This is me

And I know that I deserve your love
There's nothing I'm not worthy of
When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
This is brave, this is bruised
This is who I'm meant to be, this is me

Look out 'cause here I come (look out 'cause here I come)
And I'm marching on to the beat I drum (marching on, marching, marching on)
I'm not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me

(Oh-oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh-oh)
I'm gonna send a flood
Gonna drown them out
(Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh, oh-oh-oh, oh, oh, this is me)

Friday, January 5, 2018

Kids These Days...

I'm assuming if you've been in education for any length of time you'd hear a conversation that began with, "Kids these days..." Or maybe you don't need to be in education, isn't that a perennial comment? The older generation lamenting pitfalls of the younger generation. I've been thinking a lot about that of late. It seems that everywhere I turn, people are decrying that this generation of kids are not what "we" were. This is especially true when I look at Facebook. Friends share that their children have been treated poorly at school, kids are vicious, they have no manners, etc. When I talk to teachers across the country, friends that teach in urban settings and rural, they say the same. So is it true? Have kids changed?

I'm not sure. I'd say we all change, in some fashion. Technology has changed how we connect. Kids are addicted to the screen, but my teachers said that about us and TVs and the first gaming system. Kids today can be cruel, but I remember the things said to me when I was in school eons ago. Cruel doesn't even touch it. Kids can be lazy for certain, but so could we. Students fall back on the idea that they are entitled to things, yet I saw that from people around me growing up all the time. So why do we feel kids today are so different than we were?

I think the answer might be two fold, but both answers point to adults. One, from what I can tell from my students and from some of my friends on Facebook, parents seem to know far more about what is going on in their kid's life than my generation's set of parents did. Teenage years are filled with drama. Kids will have unkind words said to them, or said about them. Hearts will be broken, friendships will end, betrayals will occur. While I'm basing this on my own teen years, watching my oldest enter high school, I think it still holds true. They say that to be a parent is to have your heart walking around outside of your body. That seems to be an apt description. Watching your child hurt is so hard. You want to take over, right the wrongs, and smooth it all out. So far, what I've done instead is to step back and watch. I'm guessing this is all the training they need for life. No life is without bumps, I just have to trust that if I'm needed, they know I'm here. I don't know everything that goes on, and I don't think I should. I try to achieve the delicate balance of being involved, but also being removed. It is hard. When we know more about what goes on in our kids lives, it can be easier to lament the issues that are wrong with other kids, but if we reflect back, we might have seen some of those same "issues" with kids when we were growing up.

The bigger problem I see with kids and parents is kids not being held accountable. As I said before, I truly don't think kids have changed much since I grew up - there were problems then, there are problems now. The difference, I believe, is that when I was growing up if a parent was told their child wasn't behaving at school, the follow up at home was immediate. Don't get me wrong, I have been blessed with amazing parents of my students in teaching. But I've also wished I could whisper advice at some times. My parents, I am certain, didn't agree with every teacher I had. Heck, I don't think they even liked every teacher I had. I never would have known that. They might not have liked how I was taught a certain lesson, or the way a teacher treated me, but they taught me that the teacher was to be respected. Far too often, I'm seeing that slip. Or that parents want schools to enforce rules that they aren't willing to enforce at home. This is where the breakdown in norms is happening, I believe. I worry about my amazing students. If they aren't taught to respect authority, if they aren't taught to respect each other, if they aren't taught what work ethic is and how good it feels to do a job well, will they be successful? 

Being the "bad guy" is no fun - I know this as a teacher and a parent. But the problems with whatever term they are calling this generation aren't really the fault of the kids. Kids will push boundaries, make poor choices, frustrate us, be lazy, and more. They always have, they always will. The question is what the adults will do. Can we get back to being ok with not being liked? Can we see the fault in our children, know that those faults are normal, and not put our kids on some pedestal? Can we just value them for who they are and the amazing people they are become? I think we can.

My students astound me every single day. Middle schoolers get a bad rap, but I love them. I said to them today that I know they will change the world for the better, and I truly believe that. They are the most caring, kind, loving, and considerate people I know. They are also the funniest and most sarcastic. And they can, at times, be the most cruel. That dynamic is what it is to be a teen. I am firm, I tell them I love them. I correct them when they are wrong and lay on a huge dose of mom guilt. They accept it and grow. The problems with our kids do not lie with the kids, but with us. We need to change and allow them to grow.

Now, if they'd just get off my lawn.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Starting Over

I love the new year. I think that's one of my favorite things about teaching, that I get this feeling of starting over twice a year - with each new school year and each new calendar year. And while I'm absolute rubbish on resolutions, for the past six or seven years I've picked a word to live that year by. Last year it was the word "present". I explain why in this post HERE

I struggled this year when thinking of one word to move forward with in 2018. I think that the reason I was struggling was that my word for 2017, present, was still calling to me strongly, but I'd already had that word, right? And then I read this post from my new BFF Kristen Ashley, the Kristen Ashley from my romance book obsession. Check out her post HERE

And while her post is long (but amazing), this part made me feel like she was looking right at me, or maybe right into that window into me...

1) Let go of the past.

2) Do not worry about the future. 

3) Be where your feet are. Be as present as you can be in the NOW.

To say I struggle with this would be an understatement. Most of you probably know I struggle with anxiety. It can be traced to #1 and #2 above. I still remember sobbing in the confessional at my church about five years ago, explaining to our priest how the anxiety overwhelms me. He told me that I needed to pray the Serenity prayer ten times a day until I thought of it first as the waves of anxiety came on. 
With Ashley's blog post in my mind and the Serenity prayer on my heart, I thought of my one little word again. Present was the word I had lived in 2017 and it had helped, but I wasn't where I wanted to be yet. Looking up the definition of present, I knew it was my word once again.
Because that anxiety, it isn't gone. When I have a quiet moment at bedtime and contemplate the time before Luke leaves for college, my heart begins to race. When I think back to some stupid mistake I made years ago, I can dwell. I need to embrace the present. I need to get rid of the things that stand in the way of that. I've made progress, but I still have room to grow.

So my word for 2018 is present. And while I don't have "resolutions", I am looking at Ashley's list and embracing many of the 10 Most Important Things she learned in 2017 because they are just great reminders to live your life by. I made this image of her words on Canva, maybe they will be good reminders for you too? 

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

How We're Wired: On Notifications, Desktops, and Lateness

I've been thinking a lot about brains lately, how we're wired, what the impact of that is on each of us. It started when I saw this photo the author Jason Reynolds shared on Instagram a few days ago of his computer desktop.

I'm not exaggerating when I share that just looking at his desktop gives me some anxiety. For comparison sake, here's mine:

I saw Jason's desktop image as I was headed to the pool with Chris. As I dove in to swim laps, it popped back into my mind. Then another image from a few years ago came to my memory. It was shared around social media a lot then and I had shared it, truly thinking it was a joke:

There was no way anyone would have over 10,000 unread emails, right? I think I shared it with the comment that I was the icon on the left. To my shock many friends began commenting that they were the one on the right, but their unread emails were numbering around 20,000 or 30,000. Seriously, I got shivers.

As I swam, I considered this. Jason's desktop. My friends' unread emails. I thought of my dad, how he and I both hate the red notification bubble on our apps on our phones. I have notifications only turned on for my email and texts as a result. If I have notifications in any social media apps, I will know when I go to said app. I don't want to see it calling to me. 

So what does that mean? Is it just the way our brains are? This made me recall a text conversation with a friend recently. Her son commented that when I picked he and my oldest up, I was always on time while she was always late. She apologized in case Luke was upset. I explained that being late gives me massive anxiety. As a result, I'm always on time to five minutes early. But I thought more about that. I have friends who are always late, you just plan on it. I could care less if anyone else is late as long as it doesn't make me late, you know? But if that's their default, and mine is to be on time or early, how did we get that way?

I swam, and swam, and swam and the laps racked up. I thought of all the idiosyncrasies we all have. At forty-three I am perfectly comfortable, for the most part, with who I am. I know what causes me to get anxious, I know how to feel relaxed. I know how I learn best, how to be my most productive. I know I'm surrounded with people who think like me, and others who have opposite tendencies. We are all successful. I don't think that my habits of keeping a clean desktop, no notifications, or being on time are "right", and the opposite isn't wrong. We all figure out what works for us.

That being said, as my pool laps were drawing to a close, my mind turned to my classroom. How do we set up learning so that everyone can work in a way they are comfortable? With the habits that work best for them? I think choice is a huge part of this - choice in what they read and write, choice in where they sit, choice in working for long periods of time or breaking that chunk of time up and doing several tasks. But what am I missing? I'm not sure. I want the environment in my classroom, in our classroom, to be one that works for all students, whether they share my tendencies or not. This isn't something I've figured out, but something I'm still thinking about. If you have any ideas on this topic, please share with us all. One things I do know is that my friend Donalyn is right when she often says, "The smartest person in the room is the room." This new year I plan on returning to the classroom and thinking about this more with my students. I'm curious to see what they notice about how they are wired. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Lessons from Romance Novels and Kristen Ashley

Hmm, my reading life has undergone a bit of a change since this summer. I update Goodreads sporadically, adding a bunch of books at a time, dates inaccurate. I miss many that I've read, maybe remembering to add them later. And then, there are the actual books I've been reading. Definitely not reading for my seventh grade students right now, no way. As a matter of fact, if you were to look on my Kindle reader on my phone, you might notice some commonalities among the books I've been reading. Let's look...

Lots of books by Kristen Ashley. Lots of romance. Nary a young adult or middle grade book in sight.

It all began this summer with the recommendation from a friend of Ashley's book Breathe. I read it, was a bit surprised by the amount of "romance", having not read anything written for adults in this genre for about twenty years. That being said, I loved the book. I loved the quirky characters, the small town, etc. When I found out that I had accidentally read the fifth book in a series, and ever the completionist, I went back and read the series from beginning to end. And then the next series, and the next, and a stand alone book here and there. So while I've not been reading for my students this semester, I have been reading for me. While doing so, I've learned some lessons along the way. So, in no particular order, here's a few of the lessons I've gleaned from Kristen Ashley's books this semester.

Never Say Never
In the last few years I've had great friends who have given me some grief for my single minded devotion to reading for my students. I love middle grade and YA books, so I'd tell them it was no hardship. Truly, it isn't. I do love those books. But when they'd tell me to read romance, to read something for adults, I'd say no, romance wasn't my favorite genre. Now, I've reconsidered. Reading these romance books has reminded me not to box myself in, but try all sorts of books - and remind my students to do the same. You never know when you will find a favorite book or author that you wouldn't have "met" before.

Series Reading
I love reading books in a series and I remember being appalled when a friend's daughter was told "series reading" was not allowed to "count" in their middle school classroom. I'm not sure if that teacher is a reader because that makes zero sense to me. Kristen Ashley writes a lot of books that can stand alone, but are part of a series. I have always hated finishing a book because I grow to care about the characters and don't want them to be done. Seeing them appear in other books not only gets me more attached to the new book, but makes me fall into that world faster. The same is true for my students. 

While I'm the teacher who totally cheers on series books, I also am a huge advocate for rereading books. This is why I buy so many books vs. checking them out from the library. My favorite books are ones I return to again and again. I read crazy fast the first time through. As a result, I will go back and read an entire book (or series) again. And then I will often go back and read parts of books - especially if I'm bored and standing in line somewhere. These books are on my phone, so I can pull up sections and read while I wait. (Speaking of never say never, I hate reading on an e-reader..., but not for these books.) 

Character Driven
Another colleague and I have talked about plot driven vs. character driven books. This colleague is a plot driven reader, while I often say if I love the characters, I'm hooked on the book. Ashley's books reinforce that notion for me. I told my husband that her characters reminded me of Gilmore Girls, with super racy romance thrown in for good measure. I love quirky characters that I can completely visualize. I feel like I know these people - their likes, favorite foods, clothes, etc. My students know that I cannot stand a long exposition in a book (a term I only learned when moving from 5th to 7th grade last year.) No fear here, Ashley jumps right in at the start of every book. The character's voice pulls me in immediately. Through these books I've learned more about myself as a reader.

Pop Culture
When I was in high school as a freshman, the mini series Lonesome Dove was on TV. My sister and I watched it many times. I bought the book and read, and reread it, until it fell apart. We mapped out the cattle drive on an atlas. I looked at where they'd be at certain points in the book/ show. I immersed myself in the story. 

Ashley's books allow me to do that too. She talks about restaurants the characters go to, clothes they wear, songs they listen to. For the most part, they are real places, real songs, real items. I can look them up, check out some images, listen to some music, and the character's world is built even stronger. On Ashley's website she even includes recipes from some of the books. She also adds many images that inspired her to her Pinterest page. In this era of technology, I need to remind my students of these resources. I want them to realize that they could look up things mentioned in their books, if they'd like, and that might give them a more immersive experience while reading. 

Life Lessons
I joked with my classes the other day about romance books. Many of my students are currently reading YA romance. After a book talk from one student, a boy said he wouldn't read "x" because it's for girls. I reminded him that there are no boy books, no girl books, just books. I also pointed out that YA romance books might teach you some lessons about how to be a good partner in a relationship.

After coming home to begin my break, I read Ashley's newest book, The Hookup. I laughed when one character explains to another what it means to women when a man will come in, hold a baby, change a diaper, etc. She says, "Men don't get it. If they knew how much women like it when they took care of babies, the moms wouldn't get anywhere near their child." See, even husbands could learn something here. Maybe then they'd quickly grab the crying baby in the middle of the night, or take the dogs out in the morning. Life lessons indeed.

Oxygen Masks
Overall, my five month reading binge of forty-seven of Ashely's books (many over 500 pages) have reminded me of the lesson from the flight attendants when you get on the airplanes - we need to put on our oxygen masks first. For at least the past seven years my reading life has been completely geared toward my beautiful students. This doesn't, by any means, mean I need to stop reading for them. The constantly tell me that the reason they read so much in our classroom room is because I read what they read, I can talk to them about the insanity of the end of a book, the pain of waiting for the next one, the love (or hatred) of a certain character, etc. So yes, I'm still planning on reading YA and middle grade. But I'm adding back in books just for me. Books that I can become addicted to. Books that I wait for, impatiently, even though Ms. Ashley writes at a crazy fast pace. My oxygen mask is firmly back in place and not going anywhere again.

And I need to plan a trip to Colorado.
Or maybe move there.
Oh gracious, what fun reading.

If you want to try any of Kristen Ashley's books, I highly recommend starting with The Rock Chicks series and reading them in order.
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