The last few weeks of school are typically some of the best few weeks of school. This is when we get to enjoy all of our hard work and efforts together through writing celebrations, field trips, poetry slams, sharing our favorite reads, and reflecting on the year we spent together while looking ahead at our futures.
So as I sit here separated from my students by a computer screen, I’m not only mourning the loss of our in-person connections but I’m also pondering how to honor the community we built with an asynchronous goodbye.
First and foremost, I know I need to give my students choice with how they close out their school year. I realize this school shut down has presented a vast array of challenges for my students. While most deal daily with the boredom and loneliness of social isolation, others have become full time workers, some are trying to navigate online learning while sharing a computer with siblings and a home with 10 or more people, and a few are grieving lost or sick family members. With this in mind, I want to honor the school year we’ve had together while respecting the various hurdles they each have to jump in order to finish it. Accordingly, the following is how I plan to invite students, in their own ways and on their own time, to celebrate the community we’ve built before saying goodbye to it:
Virtual poetry slam: Since we’ve spent the few last weeks reading and writing poetry through our online learning platform, I want to take some time to communially celebrate the creative work we’ve done by inviting students to participate in any or all of several sharing options.Read more
Happy Black History Month! Although we know that good practice is to teach accurate history every day of the academic year, Black History Month is a wonderful time of year to highlight the contributions that Black people have given to the United States and the world. This year, during your school’s preparation, I would advise you to gauge the degree of crazy behavior or avoidance that could ensue.
Every year as February approaches, I see very caring teachers become crazy with trying to get Black history month bulletin boards up in the school. In some cases, the precision and focus involved with making sure things are colored, cut, and mini-lessoned is unmatched. Sadly, we feel accomplished, but the level of understanding that the students have about the importance of such contributions as the pacemaker (invented by Otis Boykin) is dependent upon if the students paid attention during the thirty second speech on the morning announcements or if they noticed the facts on those strategically placed bulletin boards. We don’t teach any other aspects of history with such disregard. I would like to recommend that you take some time to think through your presentation of our shared history because there is actually no Black history, only history. However, our curriculums don’t reflect this fact so we need to continue celebrating the month for now so our students can see and celebrate heroes of every race.
There are also schools that are so uncomfortable with discussions about race that they choose to avoid any story related to Black History that isn’t sweet or does not have an ending that ties a pretty bow on the way we “should” remember the past. It’s predictable that the same story of Dr. King’s dream, Harriet Tubman’s railroad trip, and Rosa Park’s seat will be on repeat in classrooms all over the country throughout the month of February. Many versions of these stories lack depth and in many cases are not shared accurately at all so that the teacher and our organizations can remain comfortable. Another form of avoidance is the “family heritage” approach. In these schools, teachers assign all students a project that requires them to research their family heritage in celebration of “Heritage Month” or “International Food Day”. This way, we can say that we looked at Black history as we looked at the family history of all our students.
In case no one else told you, I will be your Black teacher friend that is going to tell you a bit of truth that will improve relationships and the authenticity of your practice. Crazy last-minute bulletin board frenzies and avoidance are not respectful. Your Black families are often inferring their significance to your school community based on many interactions, and this is one of them. This opportunity is important to connect with families. We need to approach Black History using professional reflection and excellence. For example, do educators ever discuss with students the fact that Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony lived during the same time period? Black history is American history; it must be intentionally integrated. If teachers understood the importance of taking the time to find meaningful resources to engage students in rich conversations about the contributions of Black people throughout the year and also highlight this learning during the month of February with students and families in mind rather than remaining in the personal comfort of the repeating last year’s lesson, it would be so impactful. Our relationships can be strengthened by the amount of effort that we put into community building work such as respectfully and authentically celebrating people. This will be a process, but in the meantime try to remember… it’s not about the bulletin board.
I arrived at the Baltimore Conference center on Thursday morning and happily bumped into Pauline Schmidt, PAWLP director, who had invited me to join PAWLP fellows to lead a roundtable the next day. This was my third NCTE conference and, by far, the most transformative, because of how much I felt a part of communities of educators.
One of these is an on-line community of educators. Through @ValBrown’s #cleartheair and #disrupttexts, I began learning from educators of color and reading books such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and White Rage by Carol Anderson and Being the Change by Sara K. Ahmed.
At a Thursday workshop on Identity, Inquiry, and Equity, Jess Lifshitz, a 5th grade teacher who I followed on Twitter and through her blogs (https://crawlingoutoftheclassroom.wordpress.com/) shared how she teaches a critical reading process. “We can give them a critical reading process that they can apply to the reading they do in the world and the ways in which they live and interact with others in the world” (J. Lifshitz, NCTE 2019). This is something I am striving to do with my students constantly and year round.
Another presenter, Sara K. Ahmed, shared the importance of examining our own privileges as well as helping our students to recognize their privileges. On Saturday, I was able to speak with Sara in between sessions in the hall and thank her for her book, Being the Change, that a year ago, gave me the courage to start to explicitly bring identity into my classroom with my fifth graders through choices of texts, topics we study, and discussions we have.
Tricia Ebarvia, a PAWLP fellow and #disrupttext founder, led us in creating our own timelines and explained how our students’ time lines can be shared and discussed. Tricia shared Beverly Daniel Tatum’s (2000) work, “Who I am? The answer depends in large part on who the world around me says I am” (Tatum, The Complexity of Identity: “Who am I?”).
In addition, I grew closer to the PAWLP community. I became a PAWLP fellow two years ago. I had the pleasure of presenting at last year’s PAWLP day and am a part of the Anti-Bias Book club. Hanging out over dinners in restaurants, sharing pizza in a hotel lobby and talking long after the pizza had gone cold, enjoying s’mores and finding more books to buy, and diving deep into our passions and worries as educators, wives, mothers, and citizens, we connected and I felt lucky to be part of the PAWLP community.
And that was even before the Sunday brunch when PAWLP directors, Mary Buckelew and Janice Ewing, authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019) presented. I had attended their workshop the previous day, along with other PAWLP fellows, and loved being guided by Mary and Janice and Liz Mathews to creatively reflect on my research question through sketching and poetry and sharing. At the brunch, in addition to hearing Mary and Janice talk about action research, we also got hear from Brian Kelley about his use of sketching to help slow down kid watching and noticing, and from Courtney Knowlton who shared her discussion with a colleague that helped her refine her action research, and Liz Mathews’ use of art to reflect. I felt lucky to be a part of such an incredible group of educators and grateful I had been able to spend time with fellow PAWLP educators.
“Before choosing The Glorious Heresiesby Lisa McInerney for my self-selected book, I figured that I’d be reading aesthetically as I wanted to read for entertainment. After reading, I can say I read mostly with an aesthetic lens, but I did read efferently at times to soak in new information regarding my major.” (Ethan, undergraduate criminal justice major)
“I wish I’d known about the different stances of reading long before this, and I wish my high school teachers hadn’t focused solely on the efferent aspects of reading and books. I only read books in high school to pass tests, write required papers, and other test oriented stuff . . . I don’t think my teachers knew that the aesthetic stance existed. Even summer reading was always selected for us and then we were tested – efferent all the way.” (Sarah, undergraduate biology pre-med major)
“I now like to think about how I am reading, why I am reading, and I even apply efferent and aesthetic to other classes and life in general.” (“Honest Anonymous Feedback” from the end of the semester evaluations, Lit. 165 2:00)
Sarah, Ethan, and the anonymous student were enrolled in my Literature 165 classes this past spring semester. They shared these ideas in their final reflections and in final evaluations.
The theme of the 2016 National Council of Teachers of English was Faces of Advocacy. A theme that couldn’t have been more timely. NCTE’s call for proposals included the following: “Many times as educators, we feel defeated and incapable of making change of any sort. This [NCTE] conference is your opportunity to rise to the challenge of who you are as a teacher or teacher leader – celebrate and discuss the possibilities that lie ahead of us.” There was definitely celebration in finding a COMMUNITY of educators dedicated to a shared purpose – literacy, freedom, and agency for all. Advocacy. What are we doing to advocate and to inspire advocacy in our classrooms, buildings, community, and the world?
L to R: Mary Buckelew, Lynne Dorfman, Rita Sorrentino, Janice Ewing, Tricia Ebarvia, and Kelly Virgin
In this post, PAWLP Fellows Rita Sorrentino, Janice Ewing, Pauline Schmidt, Kelly Virgin, Patty Koller, and Tricia Ebarvia share some of their takeaways from this year’s NWP and NCTE conferences. We encourage readers to respond. Please share your strategies for teaching and inspiring advocacy and service. We also urge teachers to attend and present at local, regional, and national conferences to renew the professional spirit.
A few years ago, I started to rethink my classroom space. I wondered, What does this room say about me as a teacher, or my students as learners? Is the space working in the best ways it can? Here are 16 ways we can reimagine our learning spaces - with pictures!