Category Archives: Social Justice

How Does Racism Affect Your Health?

Some of my fellow Worcester Academy teachers are engaging in Dr. Eddie Moore’s 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©. Each day, you learn a little bit in a variety of modes and track what you do and reflect on what you learn. For example, one day you might read an article. The next you might listen to a podcast. Then you might watch a video. To hold myself accountable for my learning both to my colleagues and to myself, I decided to blog my reflections in the open. I am learning, so I’m bound to make mistakes and display my ignorance. My revelations will likely not be any such thing to some readers.

I elected to listen to a podcast featuring Mary Bassett for my first day.: How does Racism Affect Your Health? In spite of the fact that we live in a country that has good medical care, access to that medical care is a persistent problem because we don’t see it as a human right. After I listened to the podcast, I sought out Dr. Bassett’s TED Talk, mentioned in the podcast. You can find the TED Talk embedded above.

I was really drawn to Dr. Bassett’s conclusion in her TED Talk: “We don’t have to have all the answers to call for change. We just need courage.” Not only can this advice be applied to education but also to all facets of our society. I think what stops me, and perhaps others, from using my voice more is precisely that I can’t fix it. Racism is systematic and structural, and it cannot simply be fixed. I was really interested to hear Dr. Bassett’s comment about how “epidemics emerge along the fissures of our society,” given that we are currently in the midst of a global pandemic that is hitting our country very hard, and just as we have done with racism, many people are pretending it is not happening. A distant cousin of mine posted an item on Facebook contending the pandemic was some sort of liberal conspiracy—that it simply wasn’t happening. I did not confront her. I didn’t even report her post because my experience with Facebook is that they do not care much what is posted on their site (as evidenced by Zuckerberg’s cravenness and Facebook employees’ recent walkout). No, I unfriended her. So I didn’t have to see that nonsense. That was silence on my part, and I assume she is still spreading misinformation. I don’t know any longer. There is a balance between taking care of yourself by removing toxic individuals from your life and speaking out when people spread lies. I am still trying to figure out what it is. I know I didn’t use my voice in that instance because I believed I wouldn’t be able to change my cousin’s mind. So I didn’t try.

I wonder: did we decide as a country not to have some form of Medicare for all, some form of socialized medicine or at least more equitable access to medicine because we actually want to see certain groups suffer, because we want them to die? I don’t know how we can resolve issues of access to medical care. Lack of access to medicine is compounded by systemic racism. I, too, have experienced problems accessing medical care. But I have never lived in a food desert, and I have always had access to food, even during his pandemic. I have access to clean water (unlike the residents of Flint, MI). If a hurricane hit my community, I could be assured people would care and try to help (unlike Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico). The fact that I am White and live in a predominantly White neighborhood is a factor in all three.

Here We Are

After the election of the current occupant of the White House, I wrote a post in which I discussed my feelings about it. In the comments on that post, you’ll see a commenter chastise me for bringing my politics into my own blog. Well, the fact is that teaching is political. We all have a positionality and a bias. We have lived our experiences and interpreted them subjectively through the lens of our positionality and bias. Other people do not share those same experiences. However, when people’s lives are at stake, it’s wrong to be silent. It’s just flat wrong.

I was actually raised (or I should say my mother attempted to raise me) to believe that discussing politics was tacky or crass. No joke. Obviously, the teachings did not stick. Nor did the casual racist attitudes of my family. And fighting the racism in which I was brought up takes daily work. I still make mistakes all the time. Racism is so deeply embedded in the fabric of our society. The biggest mistake I think I make on a regular basis is not speaking up to my family or old friends when they say racist things. It’s something I am working on trying to change, but being a bystander in these moments comes from a place of fear, and several years of therapy are helping me grapple with this fear, but it is embedded very deeply in my psyche. Freezing or fleeing are responses to trauma that I have relied on as a coping mechanism. I do it because when I was small, I could not fight.

Fighting does not come naturally to me. I really have to push myself to do it. Even challenging people is very hard for me to do. I struggle with how to do it and have had to learn all kinds of techniques for approaching it. I absolutely fear confrontation. However, I have also realized as I have become older that confrontation and facing these fears are necessary sometimes. Now is one of those times.

I am struggling with how to say what I want to say, so bear with me. This post will likely not be polished. This post will likely ramble.

Racism is wrong. It is just wrong. There is no place for it in our world. It is holding us back as a species. When I think of all we could accomplish in this world if we didn’t spend so much time fighting each other over things that don’t matter, I feel so angry.

Racism is also the lived experience of people of color. And believe it or not, it hurts the people who are racist as well. It twists them and makes them go against concepts they would otherwise believe it—Christian charity, kindness, and love, for example. When you can dehumanize a group of people, when you can see them as the other or as less than human, it is so much easier to devalue their lives. That is what we have done for centuries in this country. We have said over and over that Black lives do not matter. Black lives DO matter. Of course all lives matter, but it is Black lives that are in peril because of systemic, structural racism that our country was founded on. If you don’t believe me, go beyond Jefferson’s writings in the Declaration of Independence (did you realize a passage about Great Britain inciting slaves against the Colonists was struck?) and read his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he says,

Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarfskin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites. Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious* experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it.

Or how about this?

Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar œstrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [Phillis Wheatley]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.

This man enslaved his own children.

My perspective is that people struggle with absolutes. Either the founders of this country were brilliant men who conceived of a radical idea about a new government, or they were horrible White supremacists who wanted to preserve their way of life. Actually, yes, they were both. Being able to hold these contradictions in your head at the same time is the essence of critical thinking, and it is sorely lacking in this country right now. There is no reason why we shouldn’t have learned about Jefferson the man with all his contradictions and problematic aspects in addition to Jefferson the statesman.

Let me be absolutely clear. When I teach my students, I teach this full picture. This includes the inclusion of a variety of voices that our curriculum has traditionally excluded. I am not going to apologize for doing that. I think it’s a moral imperative. I think teachers who DO not do that need to do some hard thinking about why they are silencing certain perspectives. Take a look at Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again.” This poem is not new.

There is actually a logical fallacy called “appeal to tradition” or argumentum ad antiquitatem. The crux of this appeal is that we should not change things because we have always done it that way, so therefore, it’s the best way. While there is nothing wrong with tradition, there is something wrong with clinging to practices and beliefs because they have been held a long time. One of the worst accusations I have heard politicians level at one another is “waffling.” You used to believe something else, and now you don’t anymore, so that must mean that you don’t stand for anything. No, it means that you changed your mind. Or to quote Taylor Mali, “That changing your mind is one of the best ways / of finding out whether or not you still have one.”

I have changed my mind many times as a result of new learning, and changing our minds is something we need to do to save ourselves from the sicknesses in this country. Educating ourselves is critical. We live in a country in which a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Three other officers stood by and did nothing. Police officers murdered Tamir Rice in the park for playing cops and robbers with a toy gun, an activity many White children engage in without being in danger of their lives. Trayvon Martin was walking home to his father’s house from a store with a package of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea, and because a racist man didn’t recognize him and saw only his hoodie and skin, he felt like it was okay to kill him. And he escaped penalty. How many more? I could offer a list.

Ahmaud Arbery

Tony McDade

Breonna Taylor

Freddie Gray

Amadou Diallo

Botham Jean

Dreasjon “Sean” Reed

Philando Castile

Jamar Clark

Michael Brown

Ezell Ford

Eric Garner

Sandra Bland

The sad fact is that I could go on an on and on with that list. I don’t have to worry if my son leaves the house that he won’t come back. I don’t have to talk to him about how to comport himself with police officers so he can avoid being killed. That’s it. Bottom line. Meanwhile, my friends send their beautiful Black sons into the world knowing the world fears and despises them.

Look at your own child, if you have one. Can you fathom being able to do that? For God’s sake, put yourself in someone else’s shoes and learn some empathy. You can’t sympathize with the feeling because it is not your experience, but unless you can try to picture what that experience must be like, we are lost.

And the leadership we have in this country right now demonstrates a frightening lack of empathy. I do not think the current resident of the White House is capable of empathy. That means he doesn’t care about you, either. He is completely morally bankrupt and incapable of any feelings that are not rooted in self-interest.

Make no mistake about where I stand. Black Lives Matter. We are a sick country, and we have always been sick. We are also a country with some pretty wonderful ideals, if we could ever manage to live up to them. As James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” America can be both great and terrible. But it cannot become better unless we have an honest reckoning with systemic racism. As Baldwin also said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

This is a wholly inadequate response to what is happening in our country, but it’s only the start. I’m going to work on doing better. Racism is a cancer. We don’t eradicate cancer by pretending it doesn’t exist. Eradicating cancer takes extreme measures. I’m going to work on learning more. I am going to try to be braver and confront racism and injustice.

Are you?

NCTE 2019 Reflection

One of the best things that my undergraduate professors did for me was to emphasize the importance of joining professional organizations and going to professional conferences. I haven’t always been supported in going to the annual NCTE Convention—my previous school often gave me little to no money and required that I use personal days. My present school supports my professional growth through fully funding my attendance at this conference. As a result, I have been able to go every year since 2014. Prior to that time, I think I went maybe three times.

This year, I made a concerted effort to build in time to reflect. I usually push myself too hard to do too many things at this conference because I want to pack in as much learning as I can. This year, I prioritized sessions and essentialized time in the Exhibit Hall to one author signing (I tried for two, but I didn’t make the line cutoff). It’s a place I generally try to avoid.

I was going to try to wait for George Takei to sign my copy of They Called Us Enemy after his keynote, but in order to make that happen, I had to purchase a wristband. I already had a copy of the book. I understand some kind of gatekeeping needed to be done when a celebrity of George Takei’s caliber attends this conference, but that was frustrating nonetheless. Still, he signed it the next day in the Exhibit Hall, and I was fortunate to get in line before they cut it off at, I think, 100 people. I finished his graphic memoir on the plane and was determined to put it in my Social Justice course curriculum, which I shared with him. He said to me, “We’re partners, you and I.”

Dana and George Takei

As a Star Trek fan since I was a teenager, meeting Mr. Takei was a real highlight for me. He was very gracious. If you haven’t read his graphic memoir, check it out. It’s a wonderful book. He has a beautiful autograph, too.

George Takei Signature

Another real highlight for me was hearing Tommy Orange’s keynote and having an opportunity to meet him. I am teaching his phenomenal novel There There in my Social Justice course. I told him I would be teaching it, and Mr. Orange said, “Thank you for teaching it.”

Tommy Orange

His keynote was critical listening for all English teachers. One statement that resonated with me was “I don’t think I was ever handed a book because a teacher thought I would connect to it.” That is a stunning rebuke, and something all literacy educators should address. How many students like Tommy Orange are sitting in our classrooms, never seeing themselves in books?

The wonderful #DisruptTexts folks Julia Torres, Tricia Ebarvia, Kim Parker, and Lorena Germán shared this graphic in their session. (Click to see a larger version.)

Diversity in Children's Books

It would be more remarkable, given the statistics shared here, if Tommy Orange had been given a book that his teachers thought he would connect to, and that is injustice. Tommy Orange also shared that “We’re so steeped in white male authors, it’s a really exciting time to be thinking about other books to teach in English classes.” It is, indeed, and English teachers should be thinking about it. If you are not sure how, I recommend checking out the resources on Twitter shared at #DisruptTexts, #THEBOOKCHAT, and #TeachLivingPoets. We need to be the generation of teachers that changes this outcome for students. We are fighting issues in the publishing industry, for sure, but students need to feel they can connect to the texts we use in our classrooms.

Tommy Orange Book Inscription

I presented with Sarah Westbrook from the Right Question Institute and Lauren Carlton from Foxborough, MA on the Question Formulation Technique (QFT).  Our presentation was a workshop session, and in order to attend, participants needed to purchase an additional ticket. I believe that participants walked away with some great techniques they could bring directly into their classrooms. I was excited to see we had a cross-section of teachers at all levels because the QFT works for all grade levels, and sometimes I feel that NCTE can be fairly focused on secondary education. This suits me fine as I am in that target range, but elementary teachers might find it more difficult to find sessions that are pitched at the elementary level, and while no conference can be all things to all people, we should work to be more inclusive of ELA teachers at all levels. Resources from our session are available here. I believe that participants walked away with ideas they could implement in their classrooms as soon as they returned. QFT is a great technique, and the Right Question folks are happy to share their resources for free on their website.

One recommendation I have for folks attending for the first time is to think strategically about which sessions to attend. I tried to focus on sessions that would help me address gaps in my curriculum or that would help me develop my Social Justice course. The sessions I attended that I found most helpful:

  • Becoming Readers: Reading to Renew, Repurpose, and Resist. Carol Jago, Robin Bates, Glenda Funk, Carl Rosin, and Jennifer Fletcher presented. Carol Jago said, “We’ve lost sense of what we want students to be… readers.” The presenters graciously shared their slide deck. I wish this practice were more common. I understand people’s fears that their work will be co-opted, and yes, presenters are taking a risk when they share their work at conferences that people will simply steal their ideas. I understand but at the same time, it is much easier to focus and take away the learning if I know I do not need to scramble to take photos of slides at the same time as I am taking notes.
  • High School Matters: #DisruptTexts. The presenters were Tricia Ebarvia, Kim Parker, Julia Torres, and Lorena Germán. This was a high-energy session that included a mix of #DisruptTexts’ philosophy and author discussion. I don’t know why, but I didn’t take down the names of all the authors. I usually take much better notes than that. However, I did jot down some book recommendations. I’m definitely picking up This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi was already on my radar; I have started reading Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and plan to pick up How to Be an Antiracist. I am really grateful to the #DisruptTexts crew. I know I am teaching better because of what I have learned from them.
  • Words from a Bear: The Importance of Native American Literature and Documentary Filmmaking as Inquiry-Based Storytelling. I don’t think a lot of folks realized Tommy Orange was presenting with Kristina Kirtley and Jerry Palmer in a session after his keynote. His name was not in the print program, but it was in the online version. I was interested in this session as part of a unit in my Social Justice course, and I was not disappointed. Jerry Palmer created a film about N. Scott Momaday. One topic that came up when Tommy Orange spoke was the blood quantum. I had heard him mention in interviews before that his son cannot enroll in as a member of the Arapaho and Cheyenne Tribes because of the blood quantum requirement. Orange explained that he avoided mentioning the blood quantum in There There, but said “it’s so the government can track when we run out” because “it’s tied to funding.” I don’t have any words. Jerry Palmer added that “it’s an assimilation policy.” Palmer’s film could make a great addition to my curriculum. I am hoping to figure out a way to view it over the break. By the way, Dr. Debbie Reese is a great resource for those who are looking for indigenous literature at all levels from picture books on up.
  • Creating Queer-Affirming Literacy Classrooms with Teaching Tolerance. Cody Miller and Christina Noyes presented this session. Teaching Tolerance has such great resources, and this presentation was engaging and helpful. I honestly wonder sometimes how many teachers who identify as allies attend these sessions. It has been my experience over the years that allies really need to step it up in terms of affirming LGBTQIA+ youth in our schools and making sure they have “mirrors” in the curriculum (see the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop).
  • A Sense of Belonging: What Ethnography Offers about Ourselves and Others. Josh Thompson and Katherine Lynde presented on a classroom project involving ethnography. As an action researcher, I have done some ethnography myself, and it is a natural for my Social Justice class. I really liked the interactive nature of this session. I felt like Thompson and Lynde did a great job walking us through how to do this work (and demonstrated how they did it). Resources like Humans of New York were an inspiration for their project, but if you are interested in this kind of work, be sure to check out Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture, & Identity by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi.
  • Reading as an Act of Resistance. Sonja Cherry-Paul, Julia Torres, Samira Ahmed, Zetta Elliott, and Ibi Zoboi presented in this session, and it was incredible. Truly. There was a wonderful mix of music, poetry, activism. I took so many notes in this session. It was a can’t-miss session for sure. Empowering students as readers is critically important. This was quite a thought-provoking session with which to end the conference.

I was finishing up a lot of graduate school writing after the conference, hence the weeks between the conference and this reflection. Honestly, this conference has become so important for me not just because of the intense learning, but also because I have an opportunity to see friends I interact with regularly on Twitter but only see once a year. I also had another chance to hear Clint Smith and Elizabeth Acevedo read their poetry. I had on my Counting Descent shirt, which made Elizabeth Acevedo laugh.

Clint Smith and Elizabeth Acevedo

They are both excellent poets, and they belong in your classroom if they aren’t already. Smith read some of his new poetry about being a father. I’m not sure if Acevedo remembered me from the NEATE conference, but she was really kind when I mentioned it.

The first thing I did when I got to my hotel was walk over to Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, and who did I run into there but Susan Barber, who exclaimed something to the effect of “We’re such nerds!” I hope Susan doesn’t mind if I share the selfie she took documenting our geekiness. She has already shared it on Twitter. By the way, it was really windy. This hair has nothing to do with being in the presence of Poe.

Susan and Dana

Next year, the conference is in my home town—or close. Aurora, where I grew up (and was born) is a suburb of Denver. I hope to see you all there. I’m thinking about proposal ideas.

NCTE 2018 Reflections

Each year, I try to take some time to reflect on my learning at NCTE. Last year, I actually did it in three parts, which I don’t think I will need to do this year.

Some perennial issues remain unaddressed. For example, rooms are still over-crowded for certain popular sessions. I know this is hard to figure out, and predicting which size room presenters need is blind guessing, but it’s essential that whoever is making these decisions has the pulse of conversations happening on social media. I could have predicted, for example, that the #DisruptTexts and #TeachLivingPoets sessions would be full to bursting based on chat participation, but neither were in big rooms. On the other hand, my session, which was up against the ALAN Breakfast and some heavy hitters (see below), had scant attendance, and we were in a ballroom. That session should have had better attendance, but it’s hard to compete against the ALAN Breakfast (to say nothing of big-name presenters).

Another issue: We are still an echo chamber to some extent. I tweeted this out twice during the conference:

There are some folks who present every year, and unfortunately, it’s pretty much the same thing every year. I realize not everyone goes every year to hear them, but there are folks presenting multiple sessions, and they do it every year. And they’re selling books and professional development workshops. And some of these folks have great, innovative ideas. But we need to share the floor. Caveat: I have presented several times, too—six times since 2010. Some of the folks I am talking about have presented six times in the last two years or less.

I also know some folks who were in the session in which writer Sarah Cortez apparently said some hurtful, homophobic, bigoted things. Two horrible results: 1) fellow panelist and author Bill Konigsberg was hurt by the remarks, 2) many of the others presenting in the session were also hurt and are preservice teachers experiencing their first NCTE conference. I know in the moment, it’s hard to know how to respond, and it is very easy for those of us who were not there to say what we would have done, but it’s important that this is addressed with whatever agent that helped NCTE book this author and also that this author is not invited back again. Clearly, it was not something the fellow panelists should have had to address.

I had actually marked that session as one I might attend and went to High School Matters instead. I loved getting Carol Jago’s book recommendations at that session, and the two roundtables I attended were great. One was “Taking Writing from the Personal to the Public Minded: Teaching for Social Justice and Global Citizenship,” and the other was “Reading Between the Lines: Using LGBTQ Literature with Middle and High School Teachers and Counselors.”

I’m already out of order with my reflection. I missed A and B sessions as well as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s keynote because my flight landed at 6:00 PM. Usually, that’s not an issue with NCTE, but this year, some sessions were moved up so that Sunday could end a bit earlier (that’s my conjecture, anyway), and I like this change, but I didn’t know it would happen when I booked my plane tickets months ago. Lesson learned.  I hated missing Adichie.

I went to Cornelius Minor’s session, C.01: Raising Student Voice—What is Our Role in Equity and Justice in the English Classroom? He is a dynamic speaker, and I enjoyed hearing from him. We received free copies of Kwame Alexander’s Solo, too! Unfortunately, I didn’t get notes. I was sitting on the floor in the corner and couldn’t see, too, but that’s because I was late. I had gone to a Penguin/Moth breakfast that morning, and it ran into the first session. I’m not sure if Penguin was aware they were running into the next session or not.

I skipped a D session so I could eat and check out the exhibits. I only went to the exhibit hall this one time. The more often I attend this conference, the less interested I am in the exhibit hall. I can’t tell you how much free stuff I’ve taken that I’ve never looked at again. I’m really thoughtful about what I take now (my husband would probably disagree, but it’s true).

I went to Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, and Julia Torres’s session F.65: #DisruptTexts: Dismantling and Rebuilding (Reimagining?) the Literary Canon. If you haven’t been involved with #DisruptTexts on Twitter, you should fix that. We missed Kim Parker, but the group shared a stellar rationale for why we need to do this work and how we can do it—even if we have limited options about changing our curriculum, we can still disrupt it. I do hope they will share their slide deck. It looked like they had linked some interesting things on the slides themselves and also cited some research worth digging into. Josh Thompson took good Twitter notes (see the entire thread):

One big takeaway from this conference and from #TeachLivingPoets: I have a renewed interest in poetry. I admit I had let this interest slide because I was looking in the wrong places. We are in the midst of a poetry renaissance, and we need to be sharing these poets with our students. The picture at the top of this post includes all the books I heard about from #TeachLivingPoets either before or at the conference. I went to two sessions with the #TeachLivingPoets crew: G.34: #TeachLivingPoets: Redefining the Canon to Discover and Develop Student Voice through Living Poets and M.18: The Argument for Poetry: How Poetry Can Help Students Hear Other Voices and Raise Their Own. Both sessions were fantastic, and the great news is that both groups shared their slides and are linked above. I will try to share the book recommendations in a future post once I’ve had a chance to read them all.

My research in graduate school concerns eliminating grades, so I went to J.22: Report Cards that Motivate: Including Student Voice in Assessment. I was hoping to encounter research I wasn’t familiar with, but instead, I walked away with a list of schools who are actually doing this work, and perhaps I can figure out how to visit or how to interview people at these schools as part of my research. I’m glad I went for the sake of my dissertation, and I hope I can bring some of the ideas I learned in this session back to my school.

My last session was N.18: Teaching for Social Justice in the Age of Trump: Exploring Empathy and Vulnerability in a Divided America. This was a panel crafted from separate proposals, I gather. Meredith Stewart and her colleague Laura Price from Cary Academy, North Carolina, shared some interesting ideas about an American video essay assignment. They were great, and the assignment looks really intriguing.

I went to an E session that wasn’t memorable and co-opted the work of others, to boot. Nothing new and nothing to report. Same with the I session, which I attended hoping to get some ideas for a text I am not a huge fan of teaching. I mostly didn’t. I guess it’s time to speak with my fellow ninth grade teachers about this text.

I reiterate the remarks I make every year. Please check your equipment. Bring the right dongle. Make sure it works. Share your slide deck so people can listen to you and do not need to frantically take notes and block everyone’s view taking pictures of your slides. If you’re interested in other advice, you can find it here.

I missed part of Chris Emdin’s keynote but caught the second half. It was powerful! It was the only general session I was able to attend. I wish I had had time to get a book signed. I think it’s important that NCTE is bringing in academics like Chris Emdin and inviting authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to speak at this conference.

It might have been my imagination, or perhaps I was more aware of it, but on the plus side, it looked to me like more teachers of color attended and presented, and this is a step in the right direction. So what can we do to be more inclusive?

This conference remains out of reach for many. Some years, I had to pay my own way. It’s nothing to drop $1000 to attend this conference. I’m lucky my current school supports my professional learning, but many teachers are not in this position, and NCTE can and should do more to make this conference accessible to all. They can start by not charging presenters. I have a feeling they don’t want to do that because they make a lot of money from presenters attending the conference, but I have long thought it seems like a lot of money to shell out for a line on a résumé. NCTE is profiting from the work of these presenters. The least they can do is charge them a presenter fee that is significantly less than the full conference registration fee, but the right thing to do would be to waive the fee altogether.

Scholarship opportunities are also limited. Julia Torres and Lorena Germán coordinated an effort to raise money to send teachers this year, but NCTE should be part of the solution on this one. I know many, many teachers who only go when they can commute to the conference because hotel and airfare cost too much to go every year. And the learning they miss out on is substantial. We can do better by these teachers. I know how they feel because I was in their position, and there were some years that I went to NCTE on borrowed money and ate only fast food or snacks the whole time because it’s what I could afford since my school didn’t support my going. I love this organization and conference for making me a better teacher, and because I love it, I feel like I can tell them they need to work to be even more inclusive.

It was great to connect with friends and colleagues again. Despite some hiccups and fumbles and significant problems, I think this is a good conference that can be GREAT, and I look forward to next year already. The conference theme is “Spirited Inquiry.” I already have some ideas.

#TeachLivingPoets: Introduction to Literary Analysis and Critical Lenses

Books

I’ve been a little bit frustrated by my first unit in AP Lit. since my first year teaching it. Since this year is my fourth, it was time to make some changes or scrap it altogether, and since I felt it had some real potential, I decided to rethink the selections I was using to introduce literary analysis tools and critical lenses. I’m a little embarrassed it took me three years to figure out the solution. Even more embarrassing? I stumbled on this solution by accident after forgetting I was a day ahead of where I thought I’d be in my lesson plans. But after that serendipitous change went well, I knew what I needed to fix the rest of my unit: student agency.

I started peeking into discussions on Twitter at the hashtag #TeachLivingPoets some time ago. I asked which collections teachers using the hashtag recommended, and they offered a great list. I already had Clint Smith’s Counting Descent, which I highly recommend, and Wisława Symborska’s Poems New and Collected. I found Second Space by Czesław Miłosz, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by J. D. McClatchy, and Miracle Fruit by Aimee Nezhukumatathil in a classroom, presumably left behind by a teacher who departed our school.

I ordered the following:

I put all these collections in a box I called my Box of Books by Living Poets. Of course, Miłosz and Symborska are not living poets, but they are at least 20th-21st-century poets. I carried the box with me to class.

The books that generated the most interest were Counting Descent and Citizen Illegal, though students also looked into Calling a Wolf a WolfElectric ArchesAmerican Journal, Miracle Fruit, and The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. To be honest, no one cracked open either Miłosz and Symborska. Some students elected to focus on poems they knew and loved by poets as diverse as Rupi Kaur, Allen Ginsberg, Dr. Suess, Eminem, and Emma Lazarus.

The first thing students do with the poems is learn how to use one of several literary analysis tools to help break down the poem. In my AP Lit workshop a few years ago, I learned about DIDLS, TWIST, and SIFTT (video). Lisa Huff had already introduced me to TPCASTT (weirdly, this TPCASTT post on my blog is the one that consistently receives the most traffic). If you know who invented any of these strategies, let me know so that I can give proper attribution. I do not know who created them, but they’re widely shared.

Students worked in groups to use the literary analysis tool to analyze a poem of their choice, create a presentation using Google Slides explaining how to use the analysis tool, and demonstrate their application of the tool to their own poem analysis.

In between using the literary analysis tools and learning critical lenses, students discussed Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor.

Students created a second presentation using critical lenses to deepen their poem analysis. They could use the same poem as before or a different one. Most students chose a different poem, again from the Box of Books by Living Poets or one of their own choosing. Again, students analyzed the poem using one of the literary analysis tools and added the layer of the critical lens.

Some of my takeaways from the change:

Students were much more engaged in this unit this year. It’s probably obvious, but the reason why I think they enjoyed the unit more was the selection of poetry. They had an opportunity to either analyze poetry they really like or they were introduced to poetry by living poets, with the immediacy and relevance of those voices bring with them. Students were really enjoying Clint Smith’s poetry. They were excited by the fact that José Olivarez’s book had been released just weeks ago, and they were probably some of the first students to analyze his poems.

Students were reading more poetry than they had in previous years. They had to find the poems they wanted, which in itself was a process. Students also shared their poems in presentations, reading the poems they were analyzing before sharing their analyses. Because of the large variety of poems available, students were simply reading more of them.

Students were able to bring in literature that was important to them. One student lamented in a recent discussion that she didn’t feel represented well in our school’s curriculum. She had read one major text by an author with her background, and to quote her commentary, “It was weird.” Because of these projects, she was able to bring in poets with backgrounds similar to her own background and share those poems with her classmates. Another student brought in her own poem to analyze. Two other students brought in a poem by a student their age at another school (video).

Students understand the literary analysis tools better. They are better able to articulate why they selected certain tools. For example, they noted the diction was interesting, and it prompted them to use DIDLS. If tone seemed really important, they chose TWIST. They loved TPCASTT for its versatility.

Students understand the critical lenses better. Purdue OWL has revamped their pages on critical lenses, and they are amazing. Having really good introductions to the critical lenses made a huge difference. Also, I think choosing their own poems asked students to think more about which lenses could be used to interpret the poems. For example, students with experience reading Clint Smith’s poems for the first presentation knew he would work well for critical race theory in the second. A student who loves Eminem knew his song “The Monster” was ripe for a psychoanalytical analysis. As a result of having to select their poems, students had to use higher-order critical thinking skills of application and evaluation to do their analysis as opposed to the past, when I selected poems I thought would be good to use for the critical lenses.

I was more engaged in the classroom, too. No, it’s not about me as the teacher, but I was way more interested during the students’ presentations because their own engagement and interest showed through in their work. Watching the presentations this year was really a lot of fun.

My prediction is that students will use both the literary analysis tools and the critical lenses more this year than they did in past years. I am hoping to grab a few minutes to ask their feedback on the unit in the upcoming week, but one student remarked as she left class Friday that “this is fun English.”

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How I Changed My Mind Once

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

Literature is a powerful means of helping us understand things we don’t understand otherwise. It can offer us new perspectives. It can reflect ourselves, certainly, but it can also help us understand others who are not like us. It offers us an opportunity to see things from a perspective besides our own. It’s incredibly obvious to me that our current president doesn’t read because he lacks that important perspective.

We have all, at one time or another, been blind to others’ perspectives. For instance, I have been thinking a lot lately about homelessness. I have held some beliefs about it that I am questioning, and I’m also questioning why I believed these things when I admit now that I didn’t have certain information. My information about who becomes homeless and why was woefully incomplete. I have had an opportunity to get to know some young people who found themselves homeless, and not for reasons I would have thought.

I was watching some videos last night when I was having trouble falling asleep. Because I went to a U2 concert on Thursday night, my ears are still full of their music, and I’m still feeling that post-concert energy. (I had a really hard time going to sleep Thursday night after the concert.) I was really just clicking through different videos, feeling 80’s nostalgia big time with some of them, and I happened upon this short interview with the Edge in which he describes working on a documentary about homelessness and how he had begun interrogating his feelings about homelessness. It’s fairly candid. It’s hard to admit you were not open-minded about something in the past or that you held political or social beliefs in the past that you now disagree with. Watching that video, in which someone I admire a great deal admits to a certain blindness about a situation—I blindness I shared—helped me figure out what I wanted to say about the current crisis at America’s southern border. We all change. As Taylor Mali says in “Like Lilly Like Wilson,” “changing your mind is one of the best ways / of finding out whether or not you still have one.”

As I have learned from others, I have changed my mind many times. It’s not “waffling,” it’s adjusting based on information you didn’t have before. In order to adjust, you have to be open to that information. Many people reject information that conflicts with what they believe. Cognitive dissonance is not a rare phenomenon. People confronted with information that contradicts beliefs they have held will do one of several things:

  1. Change their mind or their behavior based on the new information.
  2. Justify it in some way.
  3. Ignore or dismiss the new information.

We should interrogate the source and strength of the information, of course, but if the information is both strong and comes from a reliable source or data, we are lying if we do anything except change our minds or behavior. Climate change is a good example. A lot of people are choosing either to justify not doing anything for the climate or to ignore it and say climate change is made up.

A long time ago, I believed every person coming into our country should follow the legal channels. What is the big deal? If you want to become an American, I thought, fine, but do whatever paperwork you need to do. I changed my mind after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Bean Trees. What made me change my mind is that Kingsolver opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of people cannot follow legal channels and come to America for a variety of reasons: their governments are so corrupt that they will never be able to complete the required paperwork and go through official channels or their lives are in danger (often because of their corrupt government). Obviously, there are a host of other reasons.

In The Bean Trees, the protagonist Taylor Greer meets a couple, Estevan and Esperanza, who are undocumented immigrants from Guatemala. Taylor’s friend Mattie runs a sort of “underground railroad” for undocumented immigrants out of her home. Kingsolver allows Taylor to stand in for the uninformed reader. Her naivete about what is happening in the world around her mirrored my own, despite the fact that I watched the news, and I knew about the rampant corruption and violence in Central and South America. I didn’t see it because I didn’t know anyone who had experienced it, and one thing novels allow you to do is live vicariously through the characters.

Getting to know Estevan and Esperanza changed my mind about undocumented immigrants. They were fleeing a civil war in Guatemala. Their lives were in danger. Their child was taken from them in Guatemala. Kingsolver gets at the heart of the issue many Americans have with refugees and undocumented immigrants through Estavan. After the character Virgie May Parsons declares that immigrants should “stay put in their own dirt, not come here taking up jobs” because “before you know it the whole world will be here jibbering and jabbering till we won’t know it’s America” (143), Taylor feels she should apologize to Estevan for Virgie’s comments. Estevan says, “I understand . . . This is how Americans think. You believe that if something terrible happens to someone, they must have deserved it” (157). We blame victims of oppression instead of looking at policies and systems that created oppression.

Later when Taylor learns that Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter Ismene was kidnapped because Estevan was a member of an underground teachers’ union in Guatemala. Esperanza’s brother and friends are also in the union and are killed in a police raid. Ismene, Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter, is abducted as a form of “ransom.” If they will give up the information they have about the union, the government will return Ismene to them. Giving up the information they have will mean death for union members. Taylor is horrified when she finds out that Estevan and Esperanza had to choose to leave their daughter behind, and she says, “I can’t even begin to think about a world where people have to make choices like that.” Estevan replies, “You live in that world” (184).

I lived in that world, too, and like Taylor, I didn’t know. I didn’t know because I had the privilege not to know. The way I handled the cognitive dissonance that came with learning that not everyone can follow the proper channels when they are seeking to come to America is that I changed my beliefs. I don’t feel threatened by people coming to America to seek a better life, but I understand that for one reason or another, many people do feel threatened.

I had the opportunity recently to hear Clint Smith speak as part of the Multicultural Teaching Institute in Weston, MA. I didn’t attend the entire institute; I have attended in the past. The only part of the institute I attended was Clint Smith’s talk. One thing he said really resonated with me. It isn’t indoctrination to teach the truth. Present the information to the students and let them decide what to do with the information. For example, he cited the statistic from a Southern Poverty Law Center study that found that only 8% of high school seniors name slavery as the cause of the Civil War. This, despite the fact that many primary source documents written by secessionists name slavery as their reason for wanting to break from the union. Smith says that it’s not our job as educators to convince students to agree with us. Present the information in its totality, however, and let them grapple. It is our job to complicate the narrative, to show the complexities and contradictions. But the students will need to cope with the potential cognitive dissonance. And they have a few options. They can accept the new information and change their minds or behavior. They can justify it in some way. Or they can reject it. But we need to make sure students have the information they need to make that choice. They need to read books like The Bean Trees. Check out the work in #DisruptTexts on Twitter to learn how to share multiple, diverse perspectives with students.

“Home” by Warsan Shire seems appropriate to share.

Thank you to my friend Glenda for 1) reminding me to write about The Bean Trees, which has been much on my mind lately, and 2) to challenge educators to write about this issue.