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Dear Joelle: One

Dear Joelle, 

Your mother and I agreed to write you a letter every year on your birthday. This letter is a little late, but that’s okay because you can’t read yet! I’ve hemmed and hawed over what to write and how to write it. I settled on a “slice of life” post. By the end of this letter, you should have a decent idea of what life was like for you and your family during the summer of 2019. 

Right now I’m sitting in my old room in Nana’s basement surrounded by crumpled up gum wrappers and stained coffee mugs, each filled with varying levels of caffeinated sludge. I can hear your small and sweet giggle coming from upstairs where you’re playing with Nana and Papa. 

The summer of 2019 will be ending soon. Your mom got a new job working at a place called ManTech (what a silly name!). I’ve been teaching middle school English for the last ten years. Since I’m a teacher, I got to spend the entire summer hanging out with you. It has been one of the most fulfilling chunks of my life.

Let’s run through a typical in the life of Daddy and the Bean. Daddy is BIG into routines and schedules, so most of our days followed the same format. You would wake up around 6:30 AM, eat breakfast lovingly and graciously prepared by Mommy, then play with your toys until around 9:00 AM. That’s when I would pack our things into the car and drive to “soft play.” Soft play is a big room filled with squishy equipment for kids to crawl on, over, and under. You always charmed whoever was there with your playful demeanor and friendly disposition. We would spend an hour at soft play. 

After we got home it was snack time. I would spoon feed you from a single serving packet of baby food (always a fruit + veggie combo). Then the two of us plopped down on the floor to watch some Sesame Street videos. When you read this, find me and say “This is a song about Elmo, who likes to sing and…” I am 100% positive that I will answer with “YELL-MO!” 

Lunch was always at noon. Me: burrito. You: squishy vegetables and some sort of protein. Normally you would be getting sleepy at this point. I always knew because you would rub your tiny eyes with your tiny fists and take off take your tiny glasses. The two of us got so good at this that by the end of summer, I could take you upstairs, change you, and put you to sleep in under thirteen minutes. I timed it! 

You’d nap until 2:30. While you napped, I exercised, cleaned the kitchen, and read. Always in that order. The time between 2:30 and when Mom returned was often a grab bag of activities. Sometimes we stayed home; sometimes we went to Nana’s; sometimes we went to another soft play session.  

After a family dinner around 5:30 the three of us would play in the living room. Your favorite game was (and still is!) to be chased. You would stop every few feet to turn around and make sure someone was chasing you. The closer we would get to you, the more you would giggleshriek. When we got to you, we would snatch you up and tickle you under the arms or under your chin. Around 6-6:30 we would bathe you, read you a story, and tuck you in for the night. This pattern repeated for the entire summer. 

And then you came down with a stomach bug. The next seven days were scary. Our beautiful routine that ensured a healthy combination of play, rest, and nourishment collapsed as your fledgling immune system struggled to keep up with what must have been one heck of a bug. You were inconsolable. I spent hours cradling you in the dark as you cried and bucked wildly against me. I wanted you to know that I loved you and that I was with you in the darkness. You couldn’t keep anything down, so your mother and I took 30 minute shifts holding you and squirting micro doses of Pedialyte into your mouth with a plastic syringe. We literally nursed you back to health. I became convinced that you would never smile again. But after ten days or so, your sweet self finally returned.  By the time you healed, our summer together was just about over. 

I wonder how old you will be when you first read this. What is life like? Are bananas still your favorite fruit? Do you still like to pull on Daddy’s beard? Is Lola still alive?

Love you always, 

Dad

P.S. If you’re having a hard time reading this letter, that’s okay! You will become a strong reader as you get older.

Until then, here: Hi, Joelle! I love you so much. The two of us spent your first summer playing, eating, and laughing. You are the best thing to ever happen to me. You are funny, smart, curious, and playful. I am writing this in 2019 and you are 14 months old. Bananas are your favorite thing to eat. You love being chased, caught, and tickled. You also like to dance to music and to pull on doggy’s ears and tail. I love you I love you I love you.

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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.

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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Beyond Work

“You just wait until that baby comes! Then we’ll see what happens to that routine you love so much!” 

When folks at my school found out my wife was pregnant, they had a lot to say. I was continuously befuddled by the amount of joy folks appeared to take in telling me how hard I would struggle. They know I need routine and structure to keep my life manageable. They also know I used to spend most of my free time tweaking lesson plans and spitballing different classroom activities.

The process of detaching myself from my workaholic identity has been progressing with predictable slowness. I use the term “workaholic” seriously. I’m addicted to the predictable rhythms of spending the majority of every day engrossed in the familiar world of lesson plans and education. Fridays used to be my favorite day of the week because it guaranteed hours of work at my computer unfettered by distractions. There’s also the perfectionist aspect. My brain remains convinced that the harder it works the fewer mistakes it’ll make.

My transition into a life defined by something more than work has three stages. Stage one is the initial uncoupling. This stage began when Joelle was born. Stage two is the replacement of what used to be work with new, family oriented activities. This is where I am now. This weekend, for example, I helped my wife look up activities that would accommodate a four month old infant who likes to eat and two adults who love to eat. I’m also trying to spend less time on work when I’m at home.

Stage two is the hardest stage for me to manage. Habits calcified over my lifetime will require more than a few weekend outings to break.

The final stage of my transformation will be the ability to gain physical, emotional, and spiritual sustenance from family oriented activities. To embrace the nourishment that my family provides. This is an almost impossible rewiring of my circuity because the life of a perfectionist revolves around outrunning failure, not pursuing joy. But every second I spend with baby and wife are incredible. This child is everything.

My desire to keep my child from inheriting this toxic work obsession is almost overwhelming. I will do everything in my power to make sure they won’t need their own three point plan for embracing themselves and those around them.

I’ve never wanted a work/life balance because work has been my life. It’s been the most important part of who I am and how I want others to see me. I just don’t possess the imaginative capacity to envision a life where work is anything other than everything yet. But it’s happening.

This is how you’re able to look your students in the eye and tell them you’re a writer.

This is how you begin. Anxiety wakes you up at 430 every morning. You sit in the darkness, paralyzed by the knowledge that any sound above a whisper is likely to alert the twelve week old baby in the bassinet next to the bed. Waking the baby tacks on at least fifteen minutes to your morning, meaning you won’t have time to meditate in your car.

This is how you get to work. Sometimes you listen to music, and sometimes talk radio keeps you company, but most of the time you just want quiet. The muscles surrounding your rib cage tighten. You forgot to add in sentence starters to the warm-up. You also forgot to read Alex’s story. You’ve had it open on your internet browser since the first day of school when he eagerly asked if you wanted to read it. I’ll do it this week! You’ll tell him. You said the same thing last week. You’ll turn away before seeing whether or not he looks disappointed.

Outside in the parking lot, you track your breathing in and out as a calming voice tells you to lean into your anxiety and observe it. You watch it bloom inside your chest and radiate out through your central nervous system. Your fingertips tingle.

It takes you fifteen minutes to unlock your door, micromanage the placement of your desks, and unload the small banquet you bring with you every day.

This is how you start off the school year. In these first weeks, you need to:
-introduce students to the myriad routines and structures employed in your class
-introduce students to each other and to you
-learn their names
-set the groundwork for a safe and democratic learning space
-manage conflicts that have remained from last year and spilled over from last summer
-manage students who are suffering from unseen trauma
-induce students to begin (or hopefully continue) a passionate love affair with literacy
-run students through the multiple tests required of them by the state/county
-keep students engaged because school can be incredibly boring and draining
-attend a stupefying amount of meetings

This level of planning takes time. So this is how you try to keep your ADHD in check to maximize your efficiency during the day. The sign posted over your classroom door requests that colleagues keep pop-ins to a minimum. You do this because keeping your mind focused is like fishing a broken egg shell out of a cooking mix. Your thoughts squirm around under your finger. The harder you press, the harder they are to grasp. And once you finally manage to dig them out, you can’t help but feel it wasn’t worth the effort.

Colleagues come in anyway. You don’t hold this against them. To teach is to operate in a state of continuous distraction. There are always forms to fill out, signatures to get, questions to answer, assignments to respond to, behaviors to redirect, counselors to badger, meetings to attend, and lessons to plan. Many of these tasks require other teachers, teachers who are being similarly drawn and quartered by bureaucratic errands.

This is how you play roulette with the tabs of your internet browser, spending a few minutes on whichever tab you land on.

Anxiety has a way of keeping every moment vital and alive. This is how you teach the same lesson five times a day.

This is how you decompress on the ride home from work. You try to lean into your anxiety without engaging it. Tomorrow is another chance.

This is how you compose your blog post. You scrawl jagged notes on every available surface throughout the day, forgetting to bring them home after work. You mentally compose paragraphs and draft framing devices, trying to figure out something to say as you sweat through one of the three exercise videos you try to complete every day after school.

You cut off your exercise video as soon as your wife leaves on a walk with the baby. Your work laptop boots on. You tab over to your email. Already a screen’s worth of messages from parents, facilities managers, education publishers, and colleagues. You’ll get to them first thing tomorrow morning.

You’re too sweaty for the furniture, and you’re too tired to get a towel. The floor suits you just fine. You crumple onto the rug, cradling your laptop on your sweat soaked knees. You have fifteen minutes.

This is how you continue to tell your students that you are a writer.

 

* This was inspired by Matt De La Pena’s How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium

An Introduction to Teaching for Liberation

“If schools are ever to be truly “safe spaces,” we will need to build our capacity to defend each other. Whether from police, white supremacists, ICE agents, or climate disaster, this will require social justice work inside and outside the classroom. As we return to our schools this fall, we need to rededicate ourselves to building an education system and a society that values Black lives.” –editors of Rethinking Schools

This is the year I commit to becoming a social justice educator. Up until now, I’ve limited critical pedagogy in my middle school ELA classroom to two main approaches: (1) asking students to examine privilege and bias and (2) incorporating texts written by authors of color. Both of these approaches can be problematic.

While asking someone to examine their privilege is important, it can send the message that anti-racism work starts and stops at the inter-personal level. That if we think hard enough about our unearned advantages, our society will somehow rewrite itself into a more equitable form. Exposing students to marginalized authors and perspectives is also important. However it ignores the form and function of school. Asking students to read more authors of color doesn’t necessarily build spaces for students to critique and change the white supremacist nature of society.

So this year I’ll be going all in on a social justice curriculum. Social justice pedagogy is rooted in community, and relationships are key. I put together the following presentation to share this work to my colleagues and administrators. The ultimate purpose of the presentation is to solidify a shared commitment to liberation and vulnerable teaching. I lay out some of the basics underlying a social justice curriculum. Then I link it with the mission and value statements of my school and public school system. Lastly I provide some specific examples for a middle grades ELA classroom along with links to where those resources can be found.