I’m Right Here with You

A flash storm blackened the sky and pelted us with rain as we scampered down Nana’s front steps towards the car. Although you’ve never been a big fan of car rides, I knew something was off. You were fussier than usual. 

If I wanted to maximize my chances of putting you to sleep successfully, I needed to calm you down ASAP. With one hand on the wheel I fished around in the back seat for Kitty Kitty Meow Meow, a stuffed cat that lived in the car for just such occasions. 

I propped Kitty Kitty up on the top of the passenger seat so that it was facing you. Meow Meow! I squeaked, fiddling with the cat’s head and limbs in a way that I hoped looked comical. Meow Meow! It worked. Your plaintive mewling turned into exquisite giggling. You thrashed your arms and legs with glee and cackled in the back seat. This distraction technique, like all distraction techniques with babies, yields diminishing returns. I had to keep the puppet show up to keep you satisfied. MEOW MEOW PEEK-A-BOO MEOW MEOW! I shouted, lifting the cat up and down to mimic your favorite now-you-see-me/now-you-don’t game. 

With my other hand I navigated through blacked out intersections and block after block of darkened store fronts. Nothing along our street was lit, so I knew we would be going back to a hot and dark house. 

I parked the car and hopped into the back seat with you to wait out the worst of the rain. Your ratio of cries to giggles began to even out and I knew I had to get you inside soon. Thankfully the two of us only had to wait a few minutes before the worst of the weather was over and I could ferry you inside.

Doggy greeted us as soon as we entered. I plopped you down onto the floor, took off your glasses, and corralled the dog outside. I looked back from the backyard door to see your face crumple. Your cry rose up and pierced the silence of the house. 

You weren’t normally this upset. My brain wracked itself trying to figure out what was wrong, but I had no idea. Thankfully, doggy dislikes going outside as much as I do, so she was quick to come back in. I scooped you up off the floor, got your bottle ready, and snagged a clean binky. 

You’ve always hated getting your diaper changed, so I wasn’t too phased by your back arching and binky chucking. The real problem began when I sat down on the rocking chair with you to administer your bedtime bottle. You finally committed to the complete and total explosion that you had been flirting with for the last hour.  

You thrashed, bucking against me, clawing and pawing at everything within reach. Your terror wailing blocked out my vision and overloaded my circuits. You didn’t stop screaming. I had no idea what to do. I was afraid to move you too much too fast. I quickly lifted you up and did a 360 degree spot check. No blood or strange marks. I checked your fingers and toes but every digit was in the right place. The only thing missing from our normal bedtime protocol was a story. I’m pretty sure your explosion wasn’t caused by not hearing about how the pigeon doesn’t need a bath for the gillionth time.

Sweat poured down my face in rivers, soaking my beard and your polka dotted pajama onesie. I held you in place with my body. You roared and contorted, doing your best to escape my grasp. I tried to strike the right balance between giving you enough inches to move while still keeping you contained. You were deafening. You seemed to be in so much pain and I was helpless before you.

I remembered hearing a story once about a Buddhist monk who found himself feeling nervous before giving a talk to a large group of students. The monk stood in front of the audience, closed his eyes, and began naming his anxiety. He shut everything out and tuned into his experience. By the time he opened his eyes, the entire audience was in meditation with him. I couldn’t fix what was wrong with you, but I could hold you and be with you.

So I started talking. I verbalized everything that was going through my head. I needed to get my brain back online and refocused. Like writing, speaking forces me to put one word in front of the other. 

okay so joelle so right now you are screaming really loudly and i don’t know what do and i’m we’re sitting here and it’s raining and the power is out and i’m sweating you seem to be in pain maybe i don’t know what’s wrong everything is going to be okay everything is going to be okay i’m right here with you i’m so nervous oh god what do i do everything is going to be okay i’m right here with you 

Tremors moved through you in waves. I held you through the aftershocks. Finally, the only one shaking was me. Once you were still for at least five minutes, I put you down in your crib. Your hair, drenched from banging and rubbing against my arm, was plastered to your scalp in coils and curlicues. You were asleep. 

I sat on the rug and watched you sleep. I don’t know how long I sat there. Finally the various electronic beeps of electronic machines turning on signaled electricity’s return. I felt confident enough to tip-toe out of your bedroom and into our bedroom. The exhaustion of my frayed nerves belied the early 6:30 hour. I closed my eyes and waited for sleep.

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Blog’s Not Dead!

Hello! Writing will return ASAP. Who knew a baby would make it so challenging for my ADHD brain to sit down and write? (everyone. Everyone knew.)

Thank you!

Be Curious, Not Furious: On Student Behavior

James* bursts into my classroom late, singing at the top of his lungs. “WHAT ARE WE DOING?” he shouts to no one in particular. I point to the SMART board where the warm-up instructions are posted. He stomps to the middle of the room, stops singing, and starts dancing. “WHAT ARE WE DOING?” he shouts again while gyrating. And again I catch his eyes, point to the warm-up instructions (read independently for ten minutes), and pantomime opening up a book. “WHAT DID WE DO IN SCIENCE CLASS?” James yells out to no one in particular. Most of the class continues to read. I bring over 3-4 books I think James might like. “I HATE READING” he shouts at me. I continue to breathe deeply and slowly, paying special attention to keep the muscles in my shoulders, face, and hands relaxed. James picks up one of the books and then puts it back down.

“HEY WHAT ARE WE DOING IN SCIENCE CLASS?”

This moment has played out in some form or another since September. Sometimes James has in-school suspension. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I breathe a little easier on those days. Without James I can spread my energy around to other kids in the class. Kelly for instance has awe inspiring impulse control issues. With James gone I can park myself next to Kelly. It’s the only way I’ve found to decrease her ceaseless flow of colorful commentary.

I’ve met with James, his parents, other teachers, and the counselor in a variety of configurations. His grades are in the tank and he floats in and out of various detentions and suspensions. It’s obvious that James needs a lot of support. The meetings always end the same. We tell James to go to homework club. We tell his parents James can get make-up work from his teachers and have extra time to complete it. But a couple of weeks later everyone is back where they started.

I have a lot of kids who struggle like this. They might not be as disruptive to the classroom, but they’re floundering the same. These are the kids teachers and schools often pathologize as “lazy” or “undisciplined.” Schools and teachers are much better equipped to deal with a “lazy” student than they are a traumatized one. Kids who aren’t doing their work can go to homework clubs. They can get help before, during, or after school. They can get make-up work from teachers. Their progress can then be monitored by parents and counselors via online gradebooks.

In a way, the availability of these resources can make it harder to respond to a child with compassion. You can have a million different hammers, but you’re still out of luck if you have to do anything other than push in a nail. And with students like James and Kelly, it’s obvious there’s more there than a kid simply choosing to ignore their studies.

A Twitter exchange between Shana V. White and Daniel Torres-Rangel sums this up:

BCNF

Social Psychologist Devon Price recommends we respond to a person’s behavior with curiosity instead of judgement. I know how hard this can be. We’ve explained the directions, had a student repeat them, projected them on the wall, and yet some students remain absolutely clueless about what they’re supposed to be doing. The meritocracy that permeates our air often speaks through us. If only these kids would try harder. Concentrate. Behave. Follow directions. The problem is that these demands might outpace the student’s ability to self-regulate.

Executive functioning, the umbrella term for cognitive mechanisms related to self-regulation, can take a big hit when someone experiences trauma. And we know from various studies that a large percentage of children experience some sort of trauma. Trauma can keep the body’s nervous system in a perpetual state of fight or flight. The effects of constantly elevated stress hormones can lead to memory and attention problems

So how can we reorient ourselves, our pedagogies, and our schools to better help students who have experienced trauma? Alex Shevrin Venet suggests starting by sweating the small stuff. Build our capacity to live in the moment and offer individual therapeutic moments to our students. Express kindness and unalloyed compassion. Look beyond the behavior to try and figure out what’s really going on.

There is no quick fix. Schools are filled with hurt and traumatized children. And so many of us teachers were those children. We can refuse to take part in a culture of academic shaming and begin to construct communities of healing that understand and honor the connections between mind and body. Get curious, not furious.

 

* James and any other student mentioned in this post are not real kids, but a composite of multiple students I’ve had at multiple schools across multiple years. This is to preserve anonymity while keeping the spirit of the events true.

 

Asserting Basic Dignity in the Classroom

Last week was Black Lives Matter at School week. All across the country, teachers delivered instruction based on the movement. On Friday I talked with kids about affirming queer and trans Black lives, two of the movement’s 13 guiding principles. While I’d spoken about trans and queer lives before, the subject matter was always secondary to whatever content area skill we were focusing on. This lesson put the subject front and center.

We watched a short video of people talking about their experiences being both Black and queer. We read the horrific statistics behind transphobic and anti-Black bullying and made connections to what we experienced in our own school.

In every class period a handful of students explained that their religion and/or home cultures looked down on being gay, trans, etc. I told them emphatically that while that’s their business, there was nothing wrong with being gay, trans, etc. They made faces, protested, and told me I was wrong. I repeated myself and reminded them that our classroom was no place for any hate, prejudice, or bigotry. I tried to push our conversation away from individuals and towards the social structures that reinforced certain beliefs, but it was tough.

I was pulled aside a few days later to have a conversation about what I had said in class that day. Specifically that I needed to be more careful about letting my own beliefs influence the things I said and the ways I reacted to students. The conversation wasn’t threatening, but it wasn’t ambiguous, either.

I was making value statements about what some students heard, felt, thought, and said. I was explicitly stating that some of the things my students heard at home, in their churches, and in their communities had no place in our classroom. But if basic dignity was truly axiomatic, I wouldn’t need to assert these ideas. I wouldn’t receive push back against absolute bare-minimum messages of equality. And I wouldn’t have felt a minor shudder of cognitive discomfort when I said it.

The conversation reminded me just how insidious and pervasive white supremacy and heteronormativity is. There is nothing revolutionary about asserting someone’s basic dignity. Yet doing so was enough to alert the systems that continuously reinforce and reinscribe ideologies of discrimination and hate.

This is why it’s essential to assert and proclaim that Black, queer, and or/trans lives matter. To speak these truths into existence bluntly and without equivocation. And for teachers like me to use our privilege to break white male solidarity. Lesson by lesson we can work with students to carve out the spaces that everyone deserves.

“This Class is Easy” Some Minor Thoughts on Rigor in the Gradeless Classroom

I hate grading things. I have a lot of students and it takes too long and it doesn’t increase anyone’s ability to read, write, speak, or think critically. So I don’t do it. I haven’t done it in five years. Since my district requires a letter at the end of every quarter, students assign themselves a grade as part of their quarterly portfolios.

Most kids give themselves B’s. No one wants a C because that makes honor roll impossible. Families often hitch rewards and punishments to report cards. Other students are nervous about giving themselves an A because they think I’ll challenge it. Rarely do I give out anything lower than a C. First, it feels icky to go nine weeks without mentioning grades and then suddenly become tyrannical about them. Kids would feel sucker punched.

Second, low grades also don’t increase student learning. Kids who aren’t turning in assignments or engaging with the content aren’t doing so because I haven’t dangled enough carrots from the stick. Everyone wants to do well and find success. Students struggling with this need things like strategies, compassion, consistency, and support. Not grade shaming.

Don’t misunderstand me. High expectations can and should exist without grades. I’ve found that maintaining the expectation of excellence is harder to do in the gradeless classroom. This comes from students telling me that my class is easy. They say the lack of grades lowers their anxiety. They don’t have to cram for unit tests or drill Kahoots to memorize terms.

That makes sense. We tend to equate intellectual rigor as something that can only happen if a student is stressed out and anxious. Something is only hard if it threatens our grades. This is a totally rational response to a system that prizes extrinsic rewards above anything else.

My ability to engage students without relying on grade-related threats will probably always be a struggle. It’s a Sisyphean goal. Yes, I work to cultivate meaningful relationships and build a classroom environment that fosters intellectual risk taking. I try to locate authentic audiences for student work and articulate clear purposes for every assignment. But at the end of the day, not everything can be fun and work stinks.

Grades aren’t going anywhere. They’re too baked into the system. There’s no way to move massive numbers of students up and down grades and in and out of different schools without some sort of standardized reporting. The inertia behind standard grade reporting feels insurmountable. Besides, there are more pressing issues to focus on such as educational inequity and structural racism. While grades can be understood as a manifestation of oppressive assessment systems, a focus on removing grades can easily miss the forest for the trees.

I don’t plan on returning to grades. It’s on me to engage students through my curriculum and instruction while leveraging as little extrinsic motivation as possible. If students are only working for the grade, then I haven’t done my job. That’s my favorite part about going gradeless. It forces me to fight for my subject matter and my discipline. I get to spend every day making the case for why this stuff matters.

Do You Enjoy This Class? Using Anonymous Surveys for Feedback

“This classroom is not a place where I’m able to learn because of the noise levels.”

“A group of students make it hard to work because of giggling and talking.”

“I do not feel respected by my classmates because of how some people act.”

These statements greeted my sixth period students as they entered the room two weeks ago. After everyone was seated, I asked them to reflect on what they saw. Did these statements accurately reflect what was going on in the room? After a brief discussion, I told students that I would make sure that they always knew what the expectation was. If an activity called for them to be silent, we would take ten seconds to practice what that looked like and sounded like. Students who struggled to meet the expectations would meet with me to talk through strategies and work on self-awareness. Not as a punishment, but as a chance to figure out what’s going on and how to work towards improvement.

The talk (and a couple of reminders since then) has led to a drastic improvement in the classroom environment. And it’s all thanks to the feedback of three anonymous students.

As teachers we’re inundated with feedback. Most of it comes through bureaucratic channels such as checklists, official forms, Likert scales, missives, spreadsheets, and percentages. This sort of feedback can be hit or miss. It’s often tied to faceless initiatives and whatever mandate is big in the edu-sphere at the moment. The feedback that matters most, the kind at the top of this post, can be the hardest to find. What do my students think about what’s going on in our class? Does my instructional style work for them? This type of feedback is built on trust and reciprocity between teacher and student.

There’s different ways to collect this kind of data, and each method provides a slightly different take. Meeting with a core group of students over a period of time, a la Chris Emdin’s cogenerative dialogues, helps you tap into how students experience your class on a day to day basis. What lessons worked? What discussions fell flat? Writing back and forth with students and their families in a notebook can provide a comprehensive portrait of how everyone is doing inside and outside of the room. Unfortunately it requires a dizzying amount of labor to pull off on a consistent basis.  Luckily there will always be some kids who will just tell you when the lesson sucked. Like most teachers I rely on a combination of these methods.

I also like to do a simple “State of the Class” survey. I prefer to use an anonymous Google Form. Here’s a past example if you’re curious.  It gives me a snapshot of how kids feel about me, my instruction, and our class. Some of the questions have to do with classroom environment (Do you enjoy English class? Is English class a place where you can focus on learning?) while others focus on instruction (Which of the following activities helped you improve as a writer?) My favorite answers come from the open response questions about how Mr. Anderson can improve. The answers mirror the period. I must admit, I put a couple more questions about classroom environment on my last survey because of sixth period specifically. In this case the feedback confirmed my own perceptions.

Going through the survey responses, I often get the feeling that I’m working too hard. That the time I spend massaging fonts and presentation slide syntax probably isn’t worth it. Do I want every unit to be a panoply of epiphanic activities and brilliantly sequenced lessons? Of course! But for a lot of kids, it’s just class. And that’s okay. I’m not going to lie and act like I don’t go home and agonize over every survey that reveals a kid doesn’t absolutely love my class. But it’s a necessary reminder. I also enjoy sharing the data with students. That way if anyone groans about reading, I can remind them that 73% of students asked for more independent reading time.

Whether you give a survey, write back and forth, or meet with kids during lunch or after school, the feedback you receive is invaluable. Do kids like your class? Do they feel respected? Do they feel like they’re learning? This sort of feedback cuts through the noise and hierarchies and gets at some of the most important questions to any teacher.

The Case of White Male Privilege and Identity (Ep45)

Empowerment Starts Here

Empowerment Starts Here with Chris Thinnes, Peter Anderson, Dr. Paul Thomas and Justin Schleider (click here to listen).

Scroll down to access links and other resources mentioned in Episode 45- “The Case of White Male Privilege and Identity.”

Slide1

In this episode, four ESH returns come back to the show to talk about being white, male and privileged: Chris Thinnes from Ep03 (The Case of Allyship in Context); Peter Anderson from Ep09 (The Case of Gradelessness); Dr. Paul Thomas from Ep10 (The Case of Critical Literacy) and Justin Schleider from Ep24 (The Case of Learning and Moving).

These four individuals give us an update on what they have been up to since recording their previously published episodes and they tell us how their thoughts have (have not) changed regarding the standard life, liberty and pursuit of happiness question (Question 2).  They also talk about their recognition of…

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