Talking Colorblindness with my 12 yr old

What do you say to your almost teenager when an author you both love experiences something neither you nor she will ever experience? That’s the time you open the box called “white privilege.” Today was that day.

To understand just why we had to have this discussion, reader, you need some context.

She wants her mostly white suburban middle school friends to read Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi. She’s just as excited as I am that Jimmy Fallon chose it as his #TonightShowSummerReads. She declares that even though the book is YA and will be a part of our #ProjectLitBookClub at the high school, her middle school book club she started just this summer will read it too.

Yes, reader, she started a #ProjectLitBookClub. You see, I took her with me to #ProjectLitSUmmit18 in Nashville this June. At this event, we heard Kwame Alexander talk about the importance of great books for kids. We heard Nic Stone give tips on writing. In fact, we even had Mr. Alexander and Ms. Stone autograph books for us. Mr. Alexander spelled her name right on her autograph, asked her what grade she’ll be in next year, and told her “Eighth grade is cool.” Needless to say, we bought a huge pile of books to take home.

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She was so excited about the event, she decided then and there that she was going to start her own #ProjectLitBookClub this summer. She wasn’t going to wait till school started like I was. So we came home and settled in, and starting reading the books.

One book we bought was called I am Alfonso Jones, by Tony Medina. It’s a graphic novel that I picked up because it’s one of the @projectlitcommunity midlde grade books and because I thought her brother would like it. She read it first. We talked a little about it, mostly her telling me she thought her 9 year old brother might be a little too young to read it and that it was sad. After I read the book and realized that it dealt with police brutality and after I cried, I let her brother read it, too. It’s our world now. We have to learn to live in it.

She shared her experiences with her friends. The book club grew by one, and they got together to decide which to read first: Wishtree by Katherine Applegate or Rebound, by Kwame Alexander. Here they are, deciding.

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They decided on Wishtree. She made a blog. After a few weeks of futile texting, where no one showed up, she added one to her club.

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They were having a blast. Until today. When Ms. Adeyemi shared her story, and my kiddo overheard me talking about it with her dad. She wandered into our bedroom, where I sitting there rage crying, and asked me what happened. I read the tweet thread Adeyemi had shared. She started crying, too, and said, “But the police are supposed to be people who protect us. Why were they so mean? And what does colorblindness mean, anyway?”

So we started talking. I explained that, when people say they “don’t see color,” they are speaking from a point of privilege. That although on the surface it seems they are being fair, what they are really saying is, “Your story is not important. I don’t believe you.” I explained that although neither she nor anyone else in her family is ever likely to have police threaten us in our home, for people of color, every encounter with the police is one where they have to be afraid. And reader, I brought up Philando Castile.

She had never heard Mr. Castile’s story. She didn’t know that even when you do everything you’re supposed to, you can still die after an encounter with the police. And she got mad. She asked, “What can we do about this?” And we talked about the difference between empathy and sympathy.  That sympathy shuts doors between people, and empathy is making a connection, reaching out and saying, “Me, too.” That the only way we can feel empathy for others is by hearing their stories.

Reader, I explained that as white people, we are like goldfish in a fishbowl. Ask goldfish how water feels, and they’ll never say wet, because they don’t know what water is. It’s just there, all around them, protecting them. Just like white privilege.

Reader, our family talks like this all the time. Behind closed doors, and, let’s be honest, behind the closed door of my classroom, I have these conversations with young people. But we are deep in Trump country. To have any chance of understanding the world outside our tiny town, our kiddos must know the stories of others.

So she says, “We are going to have to read I am Alfonso Jones next year. We need to have these conversations.” And I agree.

If you made it to the end of this post, and you want to help the high school students I’ll teach next year to have these hard conversations, consider donating a little to my donor’s choose project.

If you’re super poor like me and want some resources I’ve used with my students,

  1. https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2009/colorblindness-the-new-racism
  2. https://jarredamato.wordpress.com/2016/10/08/proud-to-announce-project-lit-community/
  3. A description of how I convinced my principal to let me start our HS book club
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
  5. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/06/21/what-the-police-officer-who-shot-philando-castile-said-about-the-shooting/
  6. https://bookriot.com/2018/07/02/tonight-show-summer-read/
  7. http://theurbannews.com/lifestyles/2017/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack/

 

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Amplifying Student Voice

Three years ago I started teaching College Composition to juniors at my school. The curriculum was designed to mirror a local college’s expectations, which meant that the genre and number of papers were set ahead of time. Don’t get me wrong, I love the papers we write and think they are meaningful and connected to workplace and career after college. The problem is that they limit the voice and choice of my students. Something had to give.

Thanks to my time with the Ohio Writing Project, I knew that voice and choice improves student writing. I also knew that authentic audiences and real world problems help students to see the purpose behind the projects. My solution: blogging.

In this third year of student blogs, I have fine tuned many expectations. Students know how to find and cite Creative Commons licensed works so they don’t plagiarize. They know how to tag and categorize their posts so others can find them. They know how to write meaningful comments so they can interact with other writers. They have followers outside of our school that read and comment on their posts. Some, in fact, even blog when it’s not assigned. By teaching them the ground rules and opening the door to whatever they passionately want to write about, I have solved my conundrum.

If you are interested in teaching your students to blog, below are two playlists I wrote for LRNG, a local nonprofit.

Blogging part 1: media literacy

Blogging part 2: creating your blog

I also highly recommend the Student Blogging Challenge over on Edublogs for some great “how to” challenges to help students learn the skills they need in order to successfully blog.

Shout out to some of my favorite student bloggers:

https://creatorcorner.wordpress.com/

https://krcwriting.wordpress.com/ (this one started blogging in Creative Writing in 9th grade w/me)

A previous year’s blog

https://greenteatuesdays.wordpress.com/

Blog” by airpix is shared under a CC by 2.0 license.

NCTE Reflections

First of all, if you have never been to NCTE, it is overwhelming. An abundance of choices, voices, options, all of which push you to decide where you will spend your time. My first few choices were teacher-led sessions.

Session 1 was Empowering Student Voice, which fits in with my 2017 One Word Resolution.  I love writing workshop-style classes, but I don’t love a focus on grammar and punctuation. I liked some of the ideas, however, and can see incorporating some of their ideas into my Introduction to Literature course that starts in a few days.

Session 2 was Folger’s Macbeth. After some language play, we broke up into acting companies and tried out 15 minute Macbeth.  I can definitely use this strategy with my sophomores this spring. It sounds like a great start to reading the play. I also heard about Forsooth, a member only group that supports teachers. Needless to say, I joined. I’m not sure it’s worth it, yet.

Session 3 was the Global Kindness Project. I loved it. I definitely want to sign my sophomores up for 2018, beginning on January 15 and ending on Feb. 15. It should fit right into our research project. The steps of the project are:

  1. Kindness
  2. Gratitude
  3. Empathy
  4. Action

Session 4 was supposed to be gamification, mixed with #breakoutedu. The ideas were sound, but sound like you’d need professional actors to pull it off.  My big takeaway? To gamify deeply, you must have a storyline, to provide purpose.

Next, we had our presentation: Using Digital Tools to Level Up the 21st Century Writer. I joined three other teachers to talk about digital tools and how we use them to improve student writing. I use Goobric to track data and Screencastify to provide individual explanations as to their Goobric score on rough drafts, rather than “grading” those first drafts. When students wrote their final reflections, my feedback videos were the number 1 thing students mentioned as most helpful to them.

The last session I attended was Kylene Beers, Robert Probst, and Penny Kittle. I loved the rainstorm metaphor Kylene shared to parallel Notice and Note: as readers, we first see the clouds, then we use prior knowledge to determine it will rain, and then we act on that information by getting an umbrella. Notice, note, and so what? Perfect! And Bob’s slide, that explains why we might get pushback from society by teaching students to defend their ideas with evidence, was perfectly timed. I also loved Penny Kittle’s question, “So how are you getting started today?” I think this was the first time I understood what writing conferences are supposed to look like.

The biggest takeaway I have from NCTE 17-the people. Connecting with educators, with authors, with folks excited about teaching, really made my week. Every day, I ate with different people, dug into the teaching profession with others, wandered the vendor hall with more, and networked. I came back refreshed and ready to take on the world.

I highly recommend attending NCTE. I hope I get the chance to go again!

Generation Z Comes to KR

No, Generation Z does not mean Generation Zombie, although to the misinformed, watching students zone out with phones in hand might give that impression. But these students are not passively consuming media or mindlessly texting their friends. They are creators, innovators, entrepreneurs who see digital media as their way to share their thoughts with the world.

Recently, I attended a district provided professional development. The keynote speaker, Dr. Corey Seemiller, shared her research with what she sees as the latest generational shift. It seems that this generation, which she calls Generation Z, is just now entering colleges across the nation. According to Dr. Seemiller, this generation encompasses not only my own children, ages 8 and 11, but also the students that I am currently teaching in high school.

After hearing her talk, which confirmed many of my own beliefs about the young people with which I interact every day, I knew some general truths. Here are my revelations:

  1. Student agency is key. This generation craves the power to make their own choices, including how and when they learn.
  2. Be the guide, not the sage. Students still desire support from their instructors and enjoy meeting with them face to face. They want teachers to support their interests, not require them to be in lockstep with their peers.
  3. Connect learning to reality Learning should not be solely because “it prepares you for next year,” but have real world connections to adult life.

To implement these ideas, I am moving from a whole class approach, where everyone does everything at the same time and sits in an assigned desk chair, to flexible seating and flexible planning.

Flexible seating, lite

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How we like to ACT

I wish all of my seats allowed for student agency, but this corner is where I keep my flexible seating. Pillows, a carpet, some plastic chairs, and letting my students be the ones to choose: will they read or practice online for the ACT? In addition to 16 traditional desks, I have a standing desk (created by adding bed risers to a table), a round table, and a trapezoid table.

Digital Badges & Microcredentials

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LRNG is a nonprofit company that focuses on student engagement and learning. Learning is organized by playlists, which are made up of XPs, or experiences, that students must complete in order to earn badges. These badges, along with the evidence to which they are attached, are visible evidence of their learning.

In my classes, I have created several playlists in lieu of direct instruction. In this way, I hope to allow my students some flexibility in when and how they learn. In addition, I am adding some real world connections. For example, students are interviewing a professional in the field they wish to pursue, instead of interviewing a family member. LRNG has helped by connecting my students with mentors in the professional world.


As the year progresses, I hope to share more of my adventures in connecting with Generation Z.

“Gen Z” by  Abhijit Bhaduri is shared under CC by 2.0 license.

#OneWord Focus

To be focused, to converge a wave of light into heat, to have a center of heat or intensity, these would be a major change in how I live my life. I have always been diffuse, spread out like a thin film of water vapor, like a planner with its first commitment in that five year plan somewhere in year 3.

You see, in a typical year, I am planning about tomorrow. No, the day after tomorrow. No, two months from now. There is nothing wrong with planning ahead, nor is there anything wrong with having many avenues to pursue joy. There is a problem, however, in rushing through life, unable to see the delicate bluebell before smashing it under heel on the way to the future. I need to be able to stop, to focus, to feel the earth holding me up, the air filling my lungs. To be in the  moment, this moment, with a purring cat heavy on my lap and my family asleep.

As 2017 moves forward, I will use this focus to remind me to be mindful of the now, to know that it’s okay to say no to that which does not further my purpose. Even as I plan for November’s NCTE conference, so much must I realize that today is a gift, and I cannot waste it.

Focus” by Mark Hunter is free to share or adapt under a CC 2.0 license.

Mosaic of Broken Pieces

Pathways to Social Justice: it sounds inspiring, right? A six day journey into identity, into connecting my broken piece of soul with those who were once strangers. Since I often find writing to be a way to gather my thoughts and hold them close, to make the intangible visible, this blog post is dedicated to some of the wisdom I learned.

Rather than a long post, where I might trivialize the power of what I learned, here are my takeaways:

  1. We must make connections to show the complexity of the story that everyone has, and without a deeper understanding of self, no connections can be accomplished.
  2. A mosaic is made up of broken pieces that must be carefully fit together, much like a learning environment.
  3. The edges of each mosaic piece holds its own jagged pain, which cannot be compared the pain of others. Pain is pain; you cannot compare it to say which is worse.
  4. Empathy is taking steps to alleviate the pain of others, to imagine yourself in their skin, and be moved to action. Sympathy is merely pity for others.
  5. A story is transformed when begun at different points. Better to acknowledge that Jews are more than victims, Africans more than slaves, and Native Americans more than casinos.
  6. Vast numbers are incomprehensible; we must put a face on tragedy to make it tangible, and wherever possible, meet face to face to learn the stories of others.
  7. Focus on life, on story, on connecting to others, rather than tragedy and sorrow. When we feel connected, we are moved to make a difference.
  8. We are not merely good or evil; we are a cloudy mixture of both.
  9.   Humanity is flawed, and we must deal with it the best way we can.

I found this week exhausting, invigorating, inspiring, and life affirming. My thanks to Sue Fletcher and Rose Sansalone, who led this amazing week, and to the Memorial Library for making it possible. If you’d like to spend a week that will echo in your life for a long time afterwards, see this site: The Memorial Library.