Category Archives: Reflection

A Long-Running Scam

Some of my family stories are sad. My grandfather was given up for adoption by his mother after his father committed suicide. The story has become muddled over time. I actually only know my great-grandfather committed suicide because I ordered a copy of his death certificate. The story his children were told is that he was murdered but no one ever did anything about it. I’m not sure why my great-grandmother told that story. There are rumors of my great-grandfather’s violence. I have reason to believe he was a boxer and that he also abused his children physically.

My grandmother’s mother gave birth to her out of wedlock in 1929. They lived in a tiny town called Quicksand in Breathitt County, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia. My great-grandfather was in prison when my grandmother was born. As far as I know, she never knew him. Again, I only know this because I ordered my grandmother’s birth certificate. Her baby brother, born after her mother married her stepfather in the midst of the Great Depression, died of dysentery and malnutrition as an infant. Again, I have seen his death certificate, which is how I know.

As far as I can tell, access to money and education was somewhat scarce in my family. In “How White People Got Made,” Quinn Norton wrote, “To this day poor whites are the most intransigent racists—left by an exploitative and violent system without education, access to food and medical care, or even the basic necessities of life in the developed world.”

I can’t help but see some of my family in this description.

The concept of Whiteness, Norton explains, is an invention. Biology tells us that race is a social construct, and my DNA may be more similar to someone considered to be of a different race than it may be to that of other White people. In the top highlight from the article, Norton writes

The Virginians legislated a new class of people into existence: the whites. They gave the whites certain rights, and took other rights from blacks. White, as a language of race, appears in Virginia around the 1680s, and seems to first appear in Virginia law in 1691. And thus whiteness, and to a degree as well blackness, was born in the mind of America.

I had read some of the background covered in this article elsewhere, but I’m not sure where. It was in this prior reading that I learned about the story of John Punch, who ran away from his indentured servitude in Virginia along with two other indentured servants, both of whom were what we would call White. The two White men were given more time in their indenture as a punishment, but Punch was sentenced to slavery.

if you think about Norton’s argument, it should make you angry. A little bit of power is an awful narcotic. It has numbed generations of people into accepting racism so that they can perceive themselves as better than others rather than directing their anger at the rich and powerful who don’t care about them.

I am, perhaps not terribly coincidentally, reading a YA novel set partly during the French Revolution right now. One of the novel’s messages is the way that history works on people, the way it repeats, the way it is never resolved.

I was really struck by this 1899 cartoon from Harper’s Weekly that is included in the article.

You might have guessed without my saying that I have Irish ancestry. My first honest reaction to the picture is that Irish people don’t look like that! Only second did I think that no one looks like these stereotypes, which is because of racism. I recognize I have work to do on my own racism.

Then, I started digging around and found things like this.

If you see the caption, it reads “The King of A-Shantee.” This is clearly supposed to sound like “Ashanti,” and is therefore meant to denigrate the poor Irish, also known as the “Shanty Irish.” I had never heard this term until today, probably because the Irish eventually became White, so it’s not something I have heard directed at me or my family. However, it’s hard not to read the description of “Shanty Irish” without recognizing it’s describing my family.

I’m not here trying to make some argument about my ancestors being treated poorly therefore White privilege isn’t a thing. I believe quite the opposite. In fact, I’ve been a beneficiary. But I know also that my ancestors probably suffered a great deal from the harm that their racism did to them.

Norton says in her article

White exceptionalism runs to both negatives and positives. Whether whites are seen as intellectually and spiritually superior or morally abhorrent, the argument that whites are intrinsically different from the rest of humanity has all the same flaws as any such argument. There are no intrinsically innocent and wise peoples of the earth, we are all the same wonderful and terrible creatures. Every community produces gentle geniuses and violent monsters. If we accept the normality of white people—and this proposition has in its favor overwhelming evidence: circumstance, (the arbitrariness of whiteness) history, (the universality of both human crimes and genius) and physiology (the genetic difference among “white” is pretty much the same as any group of white and non-whites)—this leaves us looking to social systems and systems of power for the sources of our social problems, which seems pretty sensible, when you think about it.

Just as American exceptionalism has been used to prevent sensible change—“Americans have the best healthcare in the world! We must retain the present system to keep that!” (Hint: America does not, in fact, have the best healthcare in the world)—white exceptionalism has been used to keep whites and non-whites from asking why society doesn’t work in obviously more sensible ways.

It’s hard to see the message recycled yet again. And to see it work yet again. This long-running scam has us all getting in our own way when we could be making some positive changes for the good of all of us. But as long as we are distracted into scapegoating people and buying into the notion that they are inferior, we are going to remain victims of this scam.

This post feels rambly, and I don’t think I’ve really got much coherence to offer other than it did help me figure out why racism is so entrenched in families like mine. It’s hard to resist the allure of feeling superior to someone when you are in the lowest of circumstances. This is no excuse. Just an insight.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.

To Kill a Mockingbird and Me

I am reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. In the book, Dr. Kendi mentions To Kill a Mockingbird. I captured the screen from my Kindle book and sent the following tweet:

I didn’t start my day thinking I was going to get involved in a massive Twitter discussion about TKAM. I have mostly been silent about the debate I’ve seen online as I thought about my own experience with the novel. Reading Dr. Kendi’s words, however, helped me figure out what I wanted to say about the book.

In the accompanying Twitter thread, I talked about how I devoured this book when I read it in high school. I actually read ahead of the required reading homework, which I really never did. I was a huge reader, but I didn’t like much of anything my teachers asked me to read in school. Sometimes I didn’t read and faked my way through. But that was not true of To Kill a Mockingbird.

When I had my own classroom, my first year as a teacher, I asked for a class set of TKAM. My students were predominantly Black, and I could tell they didn’t love the book. I taught the book for several years, however. I thought it was antiracist. It is not.

I cringe so often thinking of my early years as a teacher. I want to apologize to those students every day. Not that I’m finished growing, but when I think of all I didn’t know and the harm I did in ignorance, I have so many regrets. However, I need to be honest and say that my teacher preparation program, while it was amazing in many ways, was seriously lacking in teaching social justice. Lisa Delpit and Beverly Daniel Tatum were writing when I was in undergrad. So were bell hooks and Geneva Gay. We were not exposed to any of their writing. I went into a classroom with no idea what I was doing in terms of culturally responsive teaching, and yes, I blame my English education program for that. They must have known we needed this background. It should have been woven through our entire curriculum.

In the Twitter thread, I explained that I would not teach the book again.

Electing not to teach a book is not the same thing as banning it.

I have been thinking about this book for a little while. I haven’t read it in years, but it kept cropping up in discussions online. This seems to be the book that teachers, especially White teachers, really get upset about when someone suggests maybe we move on and teach something else.

If you have to teach it, you really need to interrogate it. The Black characters in the book are props for White children to learn about racism. They are not centered. They are silenced. We can do better. If someone is making you teach it, share your concerns. Open a conversation. And definitely disrupt it (thanks #DisruptTexts!)

Think about your purpose. If you are teaching TKAM in order to teach about racism, this book is not helping you reach that goal. In fact, it’s getting in your way.

I have been recommending Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy instead. Bryan Stevenson is actually a real lawyer doing some amazing work. If you’re teaching TKAM to middle schoolers, then you might see if the version for young people suits your student population better.

There are so many options before you! What about Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give? Samira Ahmed’s Internment? Jason Reynolds’s books? Ibi Zoboi’s books? We have so many options, and if our goal in teaching a book is to discuss a text about racism, we need to center the voices of people who actually have experienced it.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.

Boston Globe Hosts Dr. Ibram X. Kendi on Juneteenth

I am not sure if the Boston Globe will publish this video elsewhere, but if you missed their discussion with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, they have posted it on Facebook. I tweeted observations as I watched, so I will embed those tweets below rather than attempt a recap.

As a follow-up to my post yesterday, as of right now, no family members, aside from my husband, have reacted to my invitation to join the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.  Ten people have liked or loved the post (my husband “loved” it). My brother-in-law is on Facebook but left a kind comment on LinkedIn. I left a comment, especially given the large number of people who reacted to my other post about being close to finishing my coursework in my doctoral program. The silence on the post inviting friends and family to join me in the challenge was pretty loud in comparison to the reactions to my other post. As Dr. Ibram suggests, I’m calling you in out of love.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.

Allyship and Me: A Tale of Two Social Media Accounts

I tend to be two different people depending on whether I’m on Twitter or Facebook. On Twitter, I am more myself. While I maintain professionalism, as I first established my Twitter account for professional reasons, I am much more open about my personal political beliefs there than I am on Facebook.

My family is a big reason why.

I suspect the same may be true for many White people, no matter where their families are from. I regret not speaking my mind when hearing racist remarks from family members. It was a big deal for me to share the post in the screenshot above on Facebook, just as it was a big deal when, a few years ago, I “came out” on Facebook as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.

It was interesting and informative to see who “liked” and responded to that post. It will be interesting to see who “likes” and responds to this post.

The invitation is there.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.

The Haudenosaunee Influence on the U. S. Constitution

Something I never really learned in school whenever I studied the United States government was the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) influence on the U. S. Constitution. In fact, I don’t think I learned about this until I was a high school English teacher, teaching American literature. I am fairly certain the Prentice-Hall textbook I was using had excerpts from the Iroquois Constitution in it. And that was my first exposure to the notion that the U. S. Constitution wasn’t born fully formed from the heads of our Founding Fathers, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

The [Haudenosaunee] constitution, also commemorated on Wampum (beads fashioned from the shells of whelks and quahog clams), included more than a few familiar concepts: a restriction on holding dual offices, processes to remove leaders within the confederacy, a bicameral legislature with procedures in place for passing laws, a delineation of power to declare war, and a creation of a balance of power between the Iroquois Confederacy and individual tribes, according to later transcriptions. Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin were in regular contact with the Iroquois Confederacy, and Great Council leaders were invited to address the Continental Congress in 1776. (Wali)

You can read the Constitution here, along with commentary by Gerald Murphy, who remarks, “You will find it very difficult to keep in mind that it survives after some 500 or 600 years, and was originated by people that our ancestors mistakenly considered as ‘savages.'” PBS also has an article about how the Haudenosaunee Constitution influenced the U. S. Constitution.

We have even used the ideas of Native people against them. We really don’t learn enough about what our country’s founders thought about Native people or what their dealings with Native people were like.  Take, for example, the myth of the first Thanksgiving, which has become enshrined in our curricula for elementary school. I asked my students this year how many of them played the parts of Pilgrims and Indians in a school play. Most of them did. Most of them had learned the story that Native people helped the Pilgrims, and everyone was so friendly that they sat down for a meal together in commemoration of their gratitude.

I dressed up like an Indian for a play in fourth grade called How the West was Really Won. My grandmother made my costume, and I remember going barefoot because of my lack of education about Native people. The costume was made out some kind of felt, but it was meant to look like animal hide and had fringe meant to mimic Native dress (read: a White person’s notion of Native dress). In fact, it didn’t look too different from this outfit, which you can purchase for $19.99 from Party City.

Can someone please explain to me why it’s okay to dress up like this in 2020? This is so racist.

In the play, I had a solo in a song called “The Iron Horse,” and the lyrics were essentially about how the White man was coming to destroy the Native way of life. None of this was seen as problematic.

The United States has perpetrated a genocide against Native people. The erasure is compounded by the fact that we do not bother to teach the truth about Native people and Native history in our schools. I highly recommend Rebecca Nagle’s podcast This Land, which is available in a variety of formats linked on their website. Also, David Treuer’s book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present (reviewed on my other blog) and Tommy Orange’s There ThereThere are so many amazing passages, but this metaphor for systemic racism stands out in light of the subject of this post.

This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff. Then someone from up on the yacht says, “It’s too bad those people down there are lazy, and not as smart and able as we are up here, we who have built these strong, large, stylish boats ourselves, we who float the seven seas like kings.” And then someone else on board says something like, “But your father gave you this yacht, and these are his servants who brought the hors d’oeuvres.” At which point that person gets tossed overboard by a group of hired thugs who’d been hired by the father who owned the yacht, hired for the express purpose of removing any and all agitators on the yacht to keep them from making unnecessary waves, or even referencing the father or the yacht itself. Meanwhile, the man thrown overboard begs for his life, and the people on the small inflatable rafts can’t get to him soon enough, or they don’t even try, and the yacht’s speed and weight cause an undertow. Then in whispers, while the agitator gets sucked under the yacht, private agreements are made, precautions are measured out, and everyone quietly agrees to keep on quietly agreeing to the implied rule of law and to not think about what just happened. Soon, the father, who put these things in place, is only spoken of in the form of lore, stories told to children at night, under the stars, at which point there are suddenly several fathers, noble, wise forefathers. And the boat sails on unfettered.

I do not think the fact that people are toppling statues of Columbus at the same time as Confederate Monuments are coming down is happenstance or coincidence. Both are symbols of White supremacy and the erasure of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). It is our responsibility to uncover whose voices we are missing in our education and listen to those voices.

In one of the most stunning passages of Yaa Gyasi’s phenomenal novel Homegoing, her character Yaw, a teacher, says the following to his class:

So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©

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.

What Can Educators Learn from the Great British Bake Off?

gbbo
©BBC, Fair Use for Educational Purposes

I know I am really late to this party, but I just discovered The Great British Bake Off. I have been catching up on each of the seasons available on Netflix. It’s rare for me to actually be able to binge-watch something, but I can watch The Great British Bake Off all day. I find it helps me destress a bit. I love seeing what the contestants come up with. I admit I haven’t watched the American versions. If you have, feel free to chime in here, but my feeling is that it couldn’t quite work the same way with American contestants because one of the best things about The Great British Bake Off is the fact that even though contestants are competing against one another, they support each other, show each other kindness, and even seem happy for others when they are named Star Baker or win the competition and sad to see contestants go. I’m not sure Americans are like that in a competition.

I don’t have this idea fully formed in my head yet, but for the past couple of weeks, I have been wondering what educators can take away from this show. I don’t mean the competition aspect, necessarily, but the structure of the show intrigues me as a learning model.

If you haven’t seen it, each week has a different focus: Bread Week, Pastry Week, French Week, etc. Some of these themes repeat each season, while others don’t necessarily. For example, the most recent season available on Netflix included a Vegan Week. Bakers have to display a wide variety of skills and apply what they know about baking to several challenges.

The first challenge in each episode (or week) is the Showcase Challenge. This challenge sets a goal, such as making 24 identical buns, that allows contestants to demonstrate their skills. They know the Showcase Challenge in advance and are allowed to practice recipes at home. The second challenge is the Technical Challenge. For this challenge, contestants do not know the recipe, and often, the judges set really difficult baking tasks for the contestants. They must apply what they know about baking to the challenge because in some cases, they are not given full, precise directions. It’s not uncommon, for example, for the baking directions to just say “bake” without offering baking time or temperature. The final challenge each week is the Showstopper Challenge. For this challenge, contestants must impress by going all out to create something truly amazing that fits the theme. For example, if it’s Cake Week, the judges might ask for a landscape cake with a whole scene in edibles.

I am a bread baker, somewhat new to baking bread as I had always thought it too intimidating. I’ve been baking bread about a year and a half or so. Not too long. I love baking bread. It tastes good, and it provides just the right amount of challenge coupled with simplicity—after all, it’s mostly just flour, water, salt, and yeast. I have had a sourdough starter going for about 15 months.  I started watching The Great British Bake Off thinking I would find it entertaining since I like to bake. I didn’t really expect to learn anything from the show, and not because I’m an expert or anything, but mainly because I don’t usually learn much from television or video. I generally have to read books. I actually will read cookbooks cover to cover. However, aside from learning a few things about baking that I didn’t expect to learn, I also noticed the show teaches a few important skills and competencies that it would be good for all students to learn.

First, the show asks contestants to apply their knowledge about a variety of baking skills, from cookies (or biscuits) to cakes to bread to pastries. All aspects of baking are important: the appearance, the flavors, the ability to follow instructions and deliver what is asked. Each week’s three challenges offer an opportunity to demonstrate different skills:

  • What can you produce within the confines of certain expectations with time to practice?
  • What can you produce bringing to bear what you know about baking when you are giving a challenging task?
  • What can you make that will really impress?

These skills could be applied to other kinds of learning. What if an art class tried these three different challenges? A Showcase with a chance to paint something you know well? A Technical that challenges you to apply a skill, such as stippling, to create a painting? A Technical that challenges you to apply an array of painting skills to create something.

What if a writing class gave students a Showcase challenge that allowed them to write in a genre of their choice about a topic? A Technical that gave a topic and challenged students to write in a specified genre? A Showstopper that asked students to write in several different genres on a topic?

These ideas are obviously not fully formed, but I must admit when I watch this show, several things impress me. The contestants take feedback really well and learn from it. They demonstrate a great deal of resilience and dedication to learning. They have to display a wide array of baking skills, probably far more than the average home baker usually knows. As I mentioned before, they are really supportive of each other. I have actually seen several contestants help others when they’re struggling.

I can’t help but wonder what might happen in a classroom that looked a little bit like The Great British Bake Off.

Reflection on Grades: A Student’s Perspective

stress photo

Tomorrow I start the second quarter of my doctoral program, and I’m reflecting on last quarter. I am studying assessment, particularly grades and why they are not effective. I believe they reduce motivation, increase anxiety, and don’t actually tell us what students have learned. We can absolutely assess student learning without grades. I know many schools have gone gradeless, and I am hoping my research will help me explore the best ways to assess students.

My experience as a student being graded myself for the first time in a while was interesting. Though I was studying assessment and grading and knew what was happening intellectually with my anxiety and motivation, I couldn’t prevent myself from focusing on my grades. I will not go so far as to say I was motivated by my grades. Quite the opposite: I was terrified of my grades. For me, they weren’t a carrot, but a stick. And the strange thing is that I did very well last quarter. I did as well as I possibly could do. And the better I did, the more anxious I became because I felt like I had to maintain it. At a certain point, I was incredibly anxious just a single point would be taken off. That’s just ridiculous.

One night, I dreamed that one of my professors told me she would need to give me a bad grade on an assignment, and she also said I wouldn’t be able to revise. I remember feeling frustrated because each assignment seemed important for my learning, and if I really hadn’t done well, I needed to revise. Otherwise, what was the point of the assessment?

My dream never came true. I really enjoyed what I learned in my courses. I was able to have rich discussions with peers, and the assignments were really helpful in focusing my research and teaching me what I needed to know in order to move forward. I received good feedback from my professors and peers. I enjoyed the readings.

I’m writing this reflection for a couple of reasons. The first is that I need to be kind to myself and not focus as much on my grades from now on because the stress I put on myself was harmful. My back stayed clenched just about all quarter. I just need to remember the grades are not as important as the learning. I know they are not. They are meant to be feedback, even I believe they are imperfect feedback at best and incredibly harmful at worst.

The second reason I’m writing this is I might be just like a student in your class. When one of my students expressed anxiety over a small grade drop, I was much more empathetic with her than I might have been in the past because I was anxious about the same issues. I understood it wasn’t about a couple of points. The problem is deeper than that. And yet we call students “grade grubbers” and tell them not to focus on the minutiae, but at the same time, we tell them over and over how important grades are. And some of us, and you know who you are, insist the learning is important, but make no provision for revision.

I feel much more empathy for my students in general after going back to school. I would never characterize myself as lacking empathy, but the quality of my empathy has changed. One day my students came in stressed out over grades, college applications, graduation projects, and I don’t know what all. I asked them if they wanted to do a meditation exercise, so we used my iPhone app and did one. One of them gave me a shout out in morning meeting for “taking care of” them.

My goal is to prevent, as much as possible, causing undue stress. For the first time this year, I added a section to my course outline, which I adapted from my colleague Matt Miller:

Taking Care of Yourself

As a student, you may experience challenges that interfere with your learning—strained relationships, increased anxiety, feeling down, difficulty concentrating, and/or lack of motivation. These mental health concerns or stressful events may diminish your academic performance and/or reduce your ability to participate in daily activities.

It is important that you take time to take care of yourself. Do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating well, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting enough sleep, and taking time to relax. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help you achieve your goals and cope with stress. If this class is the result of undue amounts of stress on you, please come discuss your concerns with me so that we can work on a solution to help you better manage your stress.

If you or anyone you know experiences serious academic stress, difficult life events or feelings of anxiety or depression, I strongly encourage you to seek support from a parent, teacher, advisor, coach, or counselor. Please let me know if I can assist you with this any way.

Be kind to your kids. And if you’re not being kind to yourself, fix that, too.