A Week’s Journey

Click the arrow to listen

I clicked ‘publish’ on last week’s blog, jumped in my vehicle, and drove to school. By the time I got there I had a text message, “I want to feed your students!”

At the end of last week’s post about my developing freshman readers, I had mentioned that they eat a ton and had invited my readers to a) support any teachers they know with gifts of snacks, or to b) help me feed mine. A close friend and fellow educator was the first to raise her hand and say, “pick me, pick me!” It’s such an encouragement to me when any of you reach out — you read my blog, you ask me about my students, you send cash for feminine supplies, or you buy snacks, and I feel encouraged to keep going.

Within a couple of hours, two retired teachers (who taught some of my children!) reached out with a very generous gift of support and another educator who got connected to my blog through a mutual friend, emailed to say “snacks are on the way!”

Monday night the Amazon trucks started arriving. By Tuesday morning, I had a large tote to carry in to school full of protein bars, fruit snacks, and candy,

Why do I need so many snacks? Because I have 80 students of my own who come into my class most days and many more who have become aware that “Mrs. Rathje probably has something.” Students come to me to borrow chargers, to get a bandaid, or to ask for feminine supplies, deodorant, or something to eat. Our school provides breakfast and lunch to all of our students, but breakfast often looks like a juice box, a granola bar, and an apple — hardly enough to hold a teenager until lunch time. Lunch might be pizza, “walking tacos” (taco fixings piled inside a snack-sized bag of Doritos), or more standard school lunch fare like chicken with mashed potatoes, all of which sound decent, but each of these arrives in large insulated boxes which cafeteria workers open up before distributing the food through a window in the gym where the teeming masses fight for a place in line. It’s loud and chaotic. You get one choice, and if you don’t like that, you are, as they say, out of luck. Many kids do eat what is provided, but some check out in a “quiet” corner, where they mind their own business and scroll on their phones.

Whether they’ve eaten or not, teenagers are always persistently hungry.

I don’t give snacks every day, but students know that if they missed breakfast, if they are going straight to work after school, or if they are just plain hungry, they can ask, and I will have something.

So, I hauled snacks into school Tuesday morning, and Tuesday afternoon, instead of going back home, I drove north for a two-day conference. The Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) was having its annual conference at a casino in Mt. Pleasant, MI, and I had received a scholarship to attend on behalf of my school and the Michigan Teacher Leader Collaborative (MTLC), of which I am currently a fellow.

When the conference started Tuesday morning, I learned about state funding for students like mine that has been made available in the wake of Covid and a disengagement in postsecondary enrollment. We’re talking millions of dollars! As the director of MCAN said, we have right now “unprecedented funding for unprecedented impact.”

Over lunch, I learned about LA Room and Board an organization that provides housing for the 1 out of 5 community college students in Los Angeles who are homeless.

The next day, I learned about the Digital Equity Act, a bi-partisan $2.75 billion initiative that provides funding for building out Internet infrastructure, providing devices, and increasing digital literacy so that “everyone – no matter where they live – can fully participate in our society, democracy, and economy,” and that means college access, job preparation, and, ultimately, increased financial freedom.

I was surrounded, for two days, by individuals who were aware of and leveraging resources that have the potential to transform the lives of my students and others like them. In the midst of this, I found myself at a table with three complete strangers. I was catching up on notes and eating my meal, when one of the others introduced himself. I told him I was a high school teacher in Detroit and then asked him what he did. He said said he was a gifts manager at a major agency in Detroit; his main project is funding the post-secondary pursuits of Detroit students.

I perked up. “Do you have a card?”

He handed me one.

I made it my job for the next few minutes to invite him to speak at our career day and to “sell” him on the mission of our school. Whenever I shared a fact or detail about the lived experiences of my students, he replied, shaking his head, “I already know. I already know.”

We parted ways to go to separate sectionals, but I found him again at lunch, and continued our conversation, sharing specific stories like the one about the brother (a freshman) and his sister (a senior) at my school who have dealt with homelessness and are now trying to navigate into more permanent living situations. I shared that one obstacle they’ve had is finding transportation to school since their new address is no longer on our bus line. I shared, “I do a little grass roots philanthropy, enlisting a small group of friends who help me out from time to time. One set of friends right now is financing Lyft and Uber rides for these two while we figure out a longer term solution. Their gifts are small compared to what you are looking at….”

He interrupted me and said, “but they add up to big wins.”

They do! I cant tell you the impact it has had on my relationship with these two students and the senior’s boyfriend, who is currently arranging all the rides because the siblings do not currently have a cell phone. The boyfriend, who had previously not wanted to engage in my class — who would barely speak to me — is now greeting me in the hallway, texting me on the weekend, and leaning in a little harder to academics. The freshman is trying to be just a little less squirrel-y (bless his heart), and his sister is growing up before my eyes, advocating for herself, navigating difficult waters, and trying to emancipate herself so that she can provide a space for her and her brother until he, too, is of an age to do for himself.

I was sharing this with my new friend, when he said, “Can you imagine what it would look like if my organization set up a fund to cover expenses like these?”

“I can!” I said, and I promised to email him the next day.

I returned home Thursday night to find an enormous pile of Amazon deliveries waiting for me — trail mix, more candy, beef jerky, cheese and cracker packs, an enormous box of potato chips, feminine supplies, deodorant, and on, and on, and on.

Big wins for my students, for sure.

Saturday, I participated in a small virtual conference put on by the MTLC. One of the speakers, Silver Moore, said she likes to picture each of her students as a hero on the hero’s journey, traversing through challenges, receiving supernatural aid and assistance from mortal helpers, on their way to transformation. She said, that “if indeed they are heroes on their journeys, they need us to tell them they are amazing.”

And I thought, “they really do!” They need my little group of friends to spoil them with snacks and Uber rides for their journey. They need the state of Michigan to provide “unprecedented funds” to overcome their challenges. They need the federal government to fund access to the technology that will help them navigate their paths, and they need philanthropic agencies to commit their resources in a way that signifies that they are truly heroes.

This is a message that is unfamiliar for students like mine. They don’t often hear that they are amazing. Instead they hear through both words and actions that they are simultaneously too much and not enough, that they are loud, wrong, and unworthy of a hero’s life.

So this week, I’m gonna haul a bunch of snacks into my room to celebrate my amazing students who are on various points of their hero’s journey. I’m going to tell them they are amazing, and I’m going to let them know that you are cheering them on.

We are the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that might enable them to ‘run with perseverance the race that is set before [them]’.

Doing Fine

Click the arrow to listen.

Last spring, my supervisor asked me to take on the role of Reading Interventionist at our school. I’d been pointing out students’ low reading levels since the minute I walked into the building, so I knew there was a need.

She said I would continue with my main responsibility, teaching senior English — building literacy skills by way of career and college exploration. I would also continue to sit on the Leadership Team as the Master Teacher, offering support to other teachers, attending meetings, and managing a few additional responsibilities like once-a-week lunch room duty, hallway supervision between periods, and occasional projects like helping to plan career day.

My initial thought when she asked was an inaudible but nevertheless deep sigh — could I handle more responsibility? I was just finishing year two in the great experiment called, “Can Kristin really teach full time without triggering autoimmune distress and ending up back in bed?”

The first year, 2020-2021, I was alone in my classroom the entire year, meeting with students only in the zoom room. The tax on my body was minor. Yes, I had to drive 30 minutes each way, and yes, I had to plan for instruction and manage the grading stack for the first time in six years, but those things seemed fairly easy without the day to day drain that the management of student bodies, behaviors, and attitudes can be.

The second year was a bit more draining. To effectively manage a classroom full of kids, I had to relearn the strategies that I’d used in the past along with some new practices that are part of our culturally responsive model. The preparation and grading stayed mostly the same, but teaching in physical proximity with students, while much more effective and far more gratifying, is exceptionally more taxing. The fact that we moved in and out of virtual instruction provided me with intermittent periods of rest that probably allowed my second year back in the classroom to remain flare-free.

I’d made it two years with very little physical consequence, how much more responsibility could I add?

“We don’t have it in our budget to hire a full-time reading interventionist, but we know the need is there. You’ve got the background in reading from your time at Lindamood-Bell, so we’d like to eliminate your elective and give you that time for reading intervention with a select group of students who need the most support,” she said.

“Well,” I responded, “the need is definitely there, I do have some experience, so let’s talk more about what this would look like.”

A couple months later I started a continuous cycle of training in a program called the Accelerated Adolescent Reading Initiative (AARI), and we selected a group of freshmen. I rearranged my classroom to accommodate the design model of the program, obtained a whole bunch of materials, and prepared to meet my students.

They’re a lively little bunch — the eight I ended up with. They went into the Covid lockdown in March of their sixth grade year, and stayed there all the way through seventh. Last year, their school — the elementary building in our network — was virtual even more than we were. They were short several staff members all year long, and often didn’t have enough adults to safely open the building. Describing our freshmen as feral might be taking it a bit far, but all freshmen since the dawn of time have lacked maturity and self-control, and this group, having missed a great deal of school-provided socialization and having endured the societal trauma that was/is Covid-19, has even the most experienced of educators shaking their heads and digging deep into their training and experience to creatively manage their erratic, impulsive, and sometimes volatile behavior.

I only have eight of the them — the freshmen I affectionately call “my babies” — and even that small group has challenged me. It could be that 75% of them came into my classroom reading at a third to fourth grade level, and the other two came in reading at a first grade level.

What would you do in high school, if you were unable to read the materials that teachers were putting in front of you? Would you be quiet and compliant? Or would you find a way to entertain yourself?

Yeah, me, too.

Anyway, when I tested each of them individually in September, each acknowledged that reading had been “hard” and admitted that learning to read better is something that they’d like to do.

I have to remind them of that — when they won’t stay off their phones, when they are talking during instructional time, or when they are distracted by someone walking by in the hallway. I have to say, “Guys, why are we in this class? What is our goal?”

They respond almost in unison, “to be better readers.”

“What do we hope to find on our retest in January?”

“Higher reading levels.”

“Exactly. And if we want that, we’ve got to be together. We’ve got to do this hard work.”

And hard work it is. I tell them we are “dusting off the cobwebs” and remembering information they likely learned long ago — the sounds that letters make, how to break words into syllables, how to sound out words in chunks, and how to recognize sight words — and that part isn’t even AARI! That’s all Lindamood-Bell!

The core of every day is reading informational text and discovering the author’s purpose, the text structures, the evidence, and the organization. I document our process on giant sticky notes as we read each book and then, together, we map out the text. Finally, each student writes a summary and we take a text-based assessment.

For emerging readers this is very difficult work, but this week we got a pay off.

After a two-day effort to reset expectations after I’d been out of the building two days the week prior, we were back on track when the principal popped in for a visit. I say these students are my babies, but our principal has actually known most of them since they were in kindergarten. She is their strongest advocate. She fought for our school to offer this class; she’s actually still fighting to hire a full-time reading interventionist. She loves these kids with her whole life. Let me show you what I mean.

When she came in quietly, my students took note, and sat up a little straighter.

I asked them, “You guys wanna show off for Ms. Few?”

“”Yeah,” they said trying not to seem excited.

I took out a stack of cards to show her how quickly they can decode multi-syllable words like intersectional, combative, and defensively. Some are quick, but when they are not, we demonstrate how we identify the vowels, how we break the word into syllables, and how we sound out the chunks. One of my students — one of the two who tested at first grade level — demonstrates how he has learned to sound out a word like ‘drawn’ when even a word like “hat” was difficult not long ago.

She watches. She says, “Wow!” and “I don’t even know that word!” when one of my students decodes a nonsense word like prediptionally. Then she puts her hand to her forehead, covering her eyes, and says, “You’re gonna make me cry.”

My feral little freshmen beamed.

“But wait,” I said, “that’s not even the program! Do you have five more minutes?”

“Yes, I do.”

And she watched while we read the last page of the book we’ve been working on for three weeks. I ask, “What is the author doing here?” and one young man — a 6’3″, 120 pound baby — looks at his book and says, “He’s taking us right back to the first page of the book.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“The words on the last page are almost the same as the ones on the first page,” he answers.

“Yes, they are,” I say. “Why is he doing that?”

The student struggles for a moment. The other kids look at the first and the last page. They think. They struggle. And then they have it.

“He’s going back to the introduction.”

“He’s repeating the claim.”

“He’s making his conclusion.”

And the principal applauds. She says, “I can’t tell you how proud I am. I want to offer this class to the whole school, because when kids struggle with reading, they begin to get into all kinds of trouble. I can see how hard you are working. Do you feel like you are learning?”

And almost in unison, they say “yes!”

It’s been a hard nine-week journey to get to this point, my friends.

Is it a drain on my body? It is.

Does it energize my spirit? Unquestionably.

Am I beaming as brightly as my students? Obviously.

Do I think I can continue to manage this load? I think I’m gonna be fine.

For you make me glad by your deeds, Lord;
    I sing for joy at what your hands have done.

Psalm 92:4

**Freshmen are the most famished humans I have ever met. If you know a teacher of freshmen, offer to provide her with some snacks to have on hand. If you’d like to feed my freshmen, email me at krathje66@gmail.com and I’ll send you my wishlist.

of Death and Resurrection

Nadia* came to my desk the other day. The other students were working on an assignment, and she had a question about something she had missed a few days prior.

“I wasn’t here the day we did this,” she said.

“Yes, I remember. You missed a few days. Is everything OK?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she answered, “first my grandma died and we had all the arrangements for that, then my uncle died.”

“Oh my goodness! I am so sorry! That is a lot of loss all at once. I am impressed that you are working to get caught up. How can I support you?”

It’s not uncommon for us to hear about these kinds of losses. I myself lost a much-loved uncle last month, and many of us lost loved ones during Covid. However, it always shocks me when I learn of the amount of death my students have faced in their young lives.

Bianca* was sitting near my desk this week working on a college application. She was hoping it wouldn’t require a social security number because her mother had been reluctant to share hers with her when we had been getting FSA IDs, the first step in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) .

“If it’s required, I’m just gonna call my mom and tell her I have to have it,” she said.

.”Does your mom want you to go to college?” I asked.

She shook her head no.

“Hmm. What would she like you to do?”

“She wants me to keep doing hair.”

“That’s right, you do hair. Is that what she does, too?”

“No, she doesn’t work, because my dad was a firefighter who died, so she is taken care of.”

“Oh my!” I said. “When did that happen?”

She held up three fingers and said, “Three years ago.”

“I am so sorry! I had no idea.”

And while we were chatting, her mom texted her the number, and Bianca completed her application.

Working with high school seniors, I see that kind of subtle movement all the time. One week a parent refuses to let their child have her SSN, then suddenly, nonchalantly, she sends it in a text two weeks later. Parents are ready to release when they are ready to release and not a moment sooner.

And it makes sense when you know that the mother and the daughter have already experienced devastating loss.

I’ve been listening to Anderson Cooper’s new podcast, All There Is, which is his examination of his own grief through conversations with others who have also experienced loss. Cooper lost his father to heart disease at age 10, his brother to suicide when he was 21, and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, just a few years ago. As he navigates the packing up of his mother’s things, he is struck by all the unprocessed grief from the previous losses and how raw the hurt still is.

As I’m listening, I hear his voice crack as he recalls a detail, and my throat tightens, My eyes well up and my chest feels heavy. I have not experienced much physical death among my immediate family and friends, but I have definitely experienced loss — the loss of my parents’ marriage when I was seven, the loss of some dreams for our family that were taken away, some by circumstance, some by error, and some by violence, and the loss of my health and career before I was even 50.

We all experience loss. We all experience death.

Cooper posits, and I agree, that we don’t make enough space for discussions of our losses and the hurts that we carry with us. Instead, we try to pack them up, put them away, and function in a way that seems “normal” when we will never feel “normal” again.

In one of his interviews, Cooper speaks with Stephen Colbert, who lost his father and two brothers in an airplane crash when he was 10. Colbert says it was the worst thing that happened in his life, but he has grown to be grateful for it — not the deaths, of course, but the opening it created in him that has allowed him to see the devastations in the lives of others and the ability to have compassion for them.

I resonate with that. For many years I have said that while my parents’ divorce was — for a long time — the biggest blow to my life, it grew in me an understanding of brokenness that prepared me to marry a man who had been divorced. Having stepparents prepared me to be a stepparent. Having experienced trauma and devastation in our own family has opened a chasm in my heart that has space for the brokenness I see in my students and my friends.

Because I have written about loss, and because my husband and I have explored our losses in depth with our therapists, with each other, and most extensively with a small group of friends who we meet with every week, we were prepared last spring and again this fall, to share our story with a small group of others like us who are in the midst of devastation and who are looking for shreds of hope. We believe, like Anderson Cooper, that we don’t talk about our losses — especially not in polite company, and even less in the church. Especially if those losses involve estrangement, divorce, sexual assault, alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, or crime.

So when we stand in front of a group of church folk (last spring) or church workers (this fall) and tell our story, we do it as educators. We model — this is how you can be vulnerable and tell your story. We provide safety — you are in a room full of others who also have a story. We give space — take a chance, and share a piece of your story with someone next to you.

And they do.

And the tears flow.

Strangers touch hands and are no longer strangers.

It looks like resurrection.

Theologian and writer Jeff Chu asked in his opening talk at the 2022 Evolving Faith Conference** last weekend, “What does resurrection matter except to those have tasted death?”

What does new life matter, until you thought that life was gone forever?

When you have sobbed on your pillow knowing your family will never be whole again and then you see a connection, you receive an invitation, you embrace someone who has felt the rending of the flesh as deeply as you have and somehow what was dead seems to breathe new life,

Resurrection isn’t witnessed in isolation, is it? I find I see it most in community — in the sharing of stories, of tears, of understanding. I see it in friendships that walk through the valley of the shadow of death together long enough to get to the other side.

This fall I’ve had a student in my class, Monique*. Her attendance has been intermittent — she’s pregnant. When she comes, I greet her without judgment because I don’t know her story.; I only know that she has one. For the past week or more her seat has been empty. She didn’t appear to be full-term, so I didn’t expect that she had had the baby. I expected her to walk back in any morning, just as she had been doing all fall. But yesterday, I was standing in the office when her sister, a recent graduate, walked in. We chatted, and she mentioned that Monique had had the baby, but that the baby “didn’t make it”.

What happens to a seventeen year old heart when it has carried a life, moved through labor, and then experienced such a devastating loss?

I have no idea, but I am hoping to hear Monique’s story, and I am longing for her to experience resurrection.

[He] comforts us in all our trouble so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

2 Corinthians 1:4

*All student names have been changed, of course.

**Although the Evolving Faith conference is over, you can still register and watch the entire event, which was virtual and recorded.

Coronavirus Diary #35: Two and a half years later

click the arrow to listen

I was all set to get rolling again last Monday. My lunch was packed, my clothes for the day had been selected, and my lesson plans were ready to go. I got up at 5am, as usual, and since I had been having some mild cold symptoms over the weekend, I decided to take a Covid test — for the third day in a row — just to be safe.

I swabbed, I swirled, I tapped, I put three drops in the chamber, and then I set the timer for 15 minutes.

While I was waiting, I took some cold medicine and moved through my routine as though I would be out the door in just a little while. However, when the timer dinged, I saw the faintest line ever. I checked the packaging and consulted my husband before I was convinced that yes, a very faint line is indeed a positive test.

Then I started the texting — the assistant principal in charge of substitutes, the principal, the director of HR, my student teacher.

They were all compassionate, of course, saying “Take care of yourself!” and “Get plenty of rest,” but all I was thinking was, The last thing I want during the fourth week of school is to miss a whole week!

But these things are sometimes outside of our control.

So, for the past week, I have not been firing on all cylinders. No, I have been in bed. I have slept 10-12 hours a day, mustered the strength to make a pot of soup, then rolled back into bed to read a novel, falling asleep at intervals. I’ve watched mindless television, scrolled social media, worked on crossword puzzles, and done the bare minimum to keep my classes in motion in my absence.

I’ve written lesson plans and sent them to my student teacher and my substitute. I’ve graded the work that has been turned in. I’ve responded to student emails, and I’ve replied to texts.

But mostly, I’ve rested and slept, and it’s paying off.

Over the past several days, I have gradually regained strength, and I plan — again — to get rolling on Monday.

After such a long absence — have I ever missed a whole week of school? — I will have to do some work to reconnect, to reset the climate, to re-establish my expectations. Although my student teacher has been at the helm for a week, I know there has been some confusion and some frustration.

Job one will be to hear from everyone — what did I miss? what do you want me to know?

Job two will be to provide clarity and reassurance — Yes, this is what we are working on, let me show you what it should look like, we’re all going to get through this together.

I’ll be doing all this in a mask, of course, because if you’ve been home with a positive case, and are symptom free after five days, you can return to real life, as long as you mask for 5 more days. Some of my colleagues have been masking all along — a few students, too. It’s not a bad idea, to continue using that precaution. I have opted to go mask free, even in my classroom because a) the mask is hot, b) I believe students hear and understand better when they can see my face, and c) two and a half years later, I just want Covid to be over.

This past week has been a reminder that it is indeed not over.

We’d been vaxed and double-boosted, of course, but I’d been pushing off the latest booster for a weekend when “I don’t have anything going on.” Sigh.

We’d had a bit going on, of course. The week before we tested positive, my husband and I had been at a conference with a couple hundred people. Later that week we had attended a celebration dinner with a couple hundred more. In neither setting did we mask. In fact, both events were rich with people we hadn’t seen in a long time, so we hugged, we chatted, we laughed.

Did we catch Covid at one of those events or just in our normal everyday interactions with students and coworkers? It’s hard to tell, but catch it we did.

As someone who experienced Covid early on — in the fall of 2020 — I will say the second time wasn’t easier. In fact, I think I was hit harder — more symptoms, more severe fatigue. Perhaps because we are vaxed, we were able to recover at home and didn’t have the severe symptoms that sometimes send folks to the hospital. For that, we are thankful.

But we still missed out — on a week of work, on several appointments we’d had scheduled, on a visit from our granddaughters. That last one hurt the most.

Nevertheless, we are on the road to recovery and hopefully ready to merge back into reality.

And, for the foreseeable future, reality includes Covid.

I’m obviously still trying to figure out what that means for me. For the coming week, at least, I’ll be masked in the classroom and I will stay away from any type of gathering, but after that, will I resume living as though we are post-Covid when the last week as taught me that we certainly are not?

I want to say that I have been transformed, that I will consistently mask and avoid large gatherings, and maybe I will, at least for a season, but my guess is that as the memory of this past week fades, I will likely gradually ease back “normal”. I’m not sure it’s the wisest course of action, though, so I wouldn’t mind if you joined me in praying about it.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him.

James 1:5

Pit Stops

Click the arrow to listen.

We were rolling — we were!! — but this week, we got sent to the pits — twice!

It’s hard to believe that it happened so early in the school year — week three!! — but, as I’ve heard my principal say, “It is what it is, and we do what we can.”

It was Tuesday afternoon, and I was in the teacher’s lounge doing some required online training (blood born pathogens, sexual harassment, asthma, concussion, and the like), when my principal asked if she could speak to me. She wanted to let me know that we would not be in the building on Wednesday. The weather forecast was predicting temperatures in excess of 90 degrees, and our building does not have air conditioning. It had been warm on Monday, and with the poor ventilation in our building, our students had struggled to stay on task; one had even had an anxiety attack that had led to a 911 call.

If our first goal this year is to ensure our students that they are safe, we certainly couldn’t bring them into a sweltering building. We couldn’t expect their brains to allow higher cognitive functioning if they were preoccupied with survival.

You might think we would swiftly transition to remote learning for the day, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Our students do have chromebooks, but in week three, we are still working out all the kinks. Some chromebooks are malfunctioning, and there’s a long line for tech support. Some students had a chromebook and lost it, and we don’t have replacements on hand even if they did have the money to pay for them. And, even if every student did have a chromebook, we brought on four new teachers this fall who have not had the training they would need to transition to teaching in a Zoom room, and even if they did, not all of our students have at-home internet.

We want to get this all in place, but it’s week three, and we are still enrolling students, still balancing schedules, and still dealing with the disruptive behaviors that come from transitioning back to school in a culture that is characterized by trauma, poverty, and inequity.

Even though we started the school year with intentional school-wide culture-setting and community-building informed by the brain science around trauma, even though the general temperature of our school is warm and settled, we have still had daily behavioral issues to manage. Behavioral issues are common anywhere two or more adolescents are gathered, of course, but when those adolescents have experienced trauma, when they are living in poverty, when they have been consistently underserved in educational spaces, these behaviors are amplified.

Our administration and our wellness team have been on top of it all. They have intervened in arguments that might have led to violence. They have restored relationships that were on the verge of disrepair. They have picked up signals, anticipated trouble, and taken steps to ensure the safety of our students and our staff. It has been a moment by moment journey over the past few weeks, so pardon them if every student does not currently have the means to swiftly transition to online instruction. Forgive them if a student or two in each class is still doing all of their assignments on their phone.

“It is what it is, and we do what we can.”

So, Wednesday, the black flag was waving, all forward progress was halted, and all of us headed to our pits. Each staff member was given a list of tasks to complete — meet with your instructional coach, complete lesson planning for next week, make contact with families, finish online training — and teachers were happy to have the time to comply. By the end of Wednesday, all systems had been checked, fuel levels had been topped off, and we were anticipating the waving of the green.

It did wave, and we resumed forward progress, but not for long. Thursday afternoon, the administration became aware of a social media threat of violence against our school that was planned for Friday. This team — the same team that has been working non-stop since September 6 to read the temperature of each room in the building, to study the body language of students in the hallway, to stand between two teens who are lunging at one another — this team followed protocol, worked with the police, and determined that we would not have school on Friday. For the second time inside of one week the black flag was waving, and it was only the third week of school.

On Thursday night, when the news came through that we would be closed on Friday, our leadership advised us to ” take care of yourselves tomorrow and over the weekend.” They understand that merely learning of a threat of harm can be traumatic, so they didn’t heap expectations on us; they merely gave us permission to drive into the pit, turn off the engine, close our eyes, and take rest.

For me, rest looks like preparation, so I spent most of Friday checking off items on my to-do list: preparing for Monday’s instruction, recording grades from last week’s assignments, and coaching my student teacher and another new hire on some instructional practices that will make their work a little easier. I took a long walk, folded a little laundry, and plucked some fresh tomatoes from the garden.

For the weekend, I’m doing the things that refuel me: writing this piece, receiving acupuncture care, eating well, worshiping, reading, sleeping.

Monday, God willing, the green flag will wave and we’ll return to the building and get rolling again. I don’t want to anticipate that we will be stopping and starting like this all year, but I have to remain flexible in case we do. I’ve got to roll when we are able to roll, and rest when we are able to rest.

I’ve got big plans for next week — giving my students opportunities to dream about their future: a career, an education, a life that looks different than what they see now. I hope to give them space to research colleges, to begin to learn the language of academia, and finally, to tour Henry Ford College at the end of the week. I’m praying we get to do it all, that we won’t have any more unexpected stops.

But if the black flag waves again, I will obediently head for the pit and await further instructions.

It is what it is, and we do what we can.

…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.”

Romans 8:28

And, we’re off!

We just finished the second week of school and let me just say: All. Cylinders. Are. Firing.

From Monday morning at 8am to Friday afternoon at 4, the weeks are gonna be full, full, full.

Let me give you a glimpse. Mondays and Thursdays I spend three blocks — that’s 300 minutes –with seniors and one half block (50 minutes) with a small group of freshmen. From first thing in the morning until the very end of the day, all systems are go.

This past week, my seniors learned how we will respect one another in the classroom, explored my syllabus, and took the semester pre-test to show me what they already know. We also reviewed their SAT scores and had what I call “Real Talk” about where we are and where we are trying to be by the end of the school year. My students (and most students of color in urban areas across the country) have been broadly underserved educationally and their SAT scores show it. They’ve been underserved, and then they’ve spent their whole high school experience dealing with a pandemic. That’s right, my seniors went into lock-down as freshmen, spent their entire sophomore year “learning” remotely, came back for a repeatedly disrupted junior year, and are now trying to fully re-engage and prepare for college.

I need them to know from day one that we’ve got work to do. I don’t mince words. I say, “Look, we’ve got to look reality straight in the face if we want to accomplish our goals this year.”

“Sheesh, Mrs. Rathje, I feel like giving up right now.”

“Oh, we’re not giving up. Let’s pause for five minutes to catch our breath, but then we are right back to it.”

They took a 5 minute break, I called them back, and we were rolling — no time to waste here.

My freshmen — sweet babies — were hand selected because although most every freshmen in our building is trailing behind Common Core benchmarks, this little group of mine is the furthest behind of everyone. I spent the past couple weeks getting to know them, assessing their reading skills, and beginning to engage them in the arduous task of finding and filling in gaps in their literacy learning, getting their buy-in, establishing norms for how we behave in Mrs. Rathje’s class, and holding them to my expectations.

This little class, which meets every day from noon to 12:50 (pray for me!), has been 1 part “real talk”, 2 parts “you can do this!’, 1 parts “this is what we are doing”, and 1 part “this is what we are definitely NOT doing”. They are immature and a bit squirrely, but for whatever reason, they respect me and they know I am not playing. They lean in — they want to learn. And guys, the work we are doing is not easy or fun — I’m making them learn/remember very basic phonetic rules — we’re counting vowels, breaking words into syllables, clapping them out, and even playing games with flashcards.

Yesterday, at the end of our class, when the white board was covered with our notes — the words we broke up and the outline of the book we are reading, one of my students asked, “Mrs. Rathje, do you leave this on your board for your other students to see?”

“No, I do not. I will cover it all up. They won’t even know it’s here. I’ve got you.”

And the whole group collectively sighed.

They couldn’t have a bunch of seniors knowing that they are reading about what animals do in the winter, that they were discovering what the author’s claim was, that they had to break the word hi-ber-nate into chunks, or that we’re all learning the word adapTAtion.

And that’s just Monday and Thursday.

On Tuesday and Friday I meet with my freshmen, of course, but I also have about 300 minutes on each of those days for other tasks. Last week I filled those minutes by writing lesson plans, completing a reading assessment with a freshman, meeting with my instructional coach, returning emails, calling parents, supporting my student teacher, creating materials, grading assignments, and recording grades. The time fills up fast, and I often find myself scrambling to finish “one last thing” before I walk to my car at the end of the day.

I haven’t mentioned Wednesday yet. Wednesdays are typically what we call a “sprint” schedule. We see all seven of our classes in one day on a shortened schedule –typically less than 40 minutes per period with one additional period for social-emotional learning. This past Wednesday was an exception. All of our ninth through eleventh graders had to take the Academic Approach assessment which is a pre-test for the PSAT and SAT. It is computer-based and takes 3-4 hours. Because the seniors didn’t have to take this test, we decided to a) get them out of the building to limit distractions for the underclassmen, and b) get them on their first college visit.

Students filling out applications at EMU

Wednesday morning I found myself on a bus with 50 seniors and four other chaperones riding to Eastern Michigan University. Our students spent a few hours learning about EMU’s programs and touring the campus. Then, we boarded the bus and headed back to Detroit where we dismissed the students and I returned to preparing for the long day of instruction I would have on Thursday.

And before I new it, I was gathering my things on Friday afternoon, loading them into my car, and making the trek home. The week had flown by.

Not only were my days full, I had commitments at night, too.

On Monday, I left work to drive almost an hour to Chelsea where I have physical therapy about once a month. (I do still have to practice self-care if I want to keep pushing on the gas so steadily with my students.)

Tuesday was my first virtual meeting for the educational policy fellowship I am participating in this year where I learned that my working group will focus on policies that impact students’ post-secondary plans.

By Wednesday, I was out of gas. My husband was out of town, so I showered, crawled into jammies, and ate popcorn and garden vegetables while watching Arrested Development. Sometimes a girl’s just got to shut down.

Thursday night was for mental health therapy, and Friday night was for eating curry, watching Netflix, and nodding off to The Great British Baking Show — good old faithful wholesomeness to end the week.

And now? Now I continue to rest and refuel for the weekend because by the time you are reading this, we’ll be back in motion.

Teaching is hard work, but it’s good work. Teachers watch transformation happen right before their eyes — we set the climate and expectations, and because our experience tells us it’s going to happen, we wait and watch in expectation. It won’t be long before my little baby freshmen are reading like professionals telling me the author’s claim and supporting themselves with evidence or before my seniors are texting me from college saying, “Mrs. Rathje, I’m here! I’m setting up my dorm right now!”

We won’t get there by idling or pulling into the garage. No. The only way we’ll get there is by the everyday progress that happens by continually firing on all cylinders.

He who began a good work will complete it.

Philippians 1:6

Gem of the Week: Sam*

*Perhaps the Gem of the Week will turn into a series. Sam is a fictional name for a real person.

Click the arrow to listen.

I “met” Sam last year after seeing him regularly walking or running in the hallways during class periods. He’s what I affectionately call a “hall walker”. A hall walker is not a student who regularly asks for a pass to go to the bathroom or even one who is routinely late. No, a hall walker is a student who appears to spend at least as much class time in the hallway or the office as she does in her actual classroom. Hall walkers are clever; they have somehow managed to convince a number of authority figures at a variety of different times that they have legitimate reasons for being in the hallway.

I was aware of Sam, who last year was a junior, even though he was not assigned to my classroom. I didn’t know his name, but I was familiar with his face and the red jacket that he wore almost every day. Because my student rosters are mostly full of seniors, it is the exceptional underclassman who falls onto my radar, and when I say ‘exceptional’ in this context, it is not always a compliment.

One day, last winter, I was in the hallway on my lunch period, and I saw Sam, red jacket and all, flying down the hallway, away from a staff member who was asking him to come back. I overheard Sam call the staff member an expletive right before he slid back into his classroom.

I took note.

I did not track him down in the moment because he was finally where he was supposed to be, but I logged the interaction and determined to find out the student’s name.

It wasn’t the last time I saw such an interaction. Sam seemed to have a default emotion of “pissed”, as several of our students do, and for good reason. I didn’t know the whole story, but I knew there probably was one.

On one occasion, I happened to be walking down the hall side by side with Sam, and I spoke to him, calling him by name.

“You know my name?” he said.

“Yes. Do you know mine?” I asked.

“No.”

“I’m Mrs. Rathje. What grade are you in?”

“I’m a junior. How do you know my name?”

“Well, usually, if you’re not a senior and I know your name, it’s probably because you’re a hall walker.”

“Whatchu mean? I’m not a hall walker.”

“Well, I see you in the hall a lot.”

“That’s not me.”

“I’m pretty sure it is.”

And then we were no longer walking together.

But I saw him often throughout last school year. He was usually not where he was supposed to be, and he was usually running his mouth, stirring up negativity, as one does. I made a point to speak to him when I had opportunity.

“How’s it going, Sam?”

I didn’t always get a response.

But then, on the night of the Senior Pinning last May, when all of our seniors come dressed to the nines, and their parents stand next to them and “pin” them to show that they are nearly there, I walked into the hall, to find Sam, dressed in his red jacket, hovering near the registration table.

“Hey, Sam,” I said.

“Hey,” he said, but he looked different. He looked timid. He hovered near one of the senior sponsors, and waited for her instructions. He carried in boxes, he ran errands, he watched everything.

Our seniors strutted in, suited and heeled, hair freshly done, and shoes at high polish.

Sam stood to the side and watched, eyes wide, mouth closed.

A couple weeks later, he stepped into my room for the first time. I was between classes, and I looked up.

“Hey, Sam, what’s up?”

“Is your class hard?” he asked.

“No, I wouldn’t say it’s hard. Why?”

“Everyone says it’s hard.”

“I can’t imagine why. Everything is spelled out. You just have to follow directions. It’s no big deal. You worried?”

“Yeah. I’m a little worried.”

“You’ll be fine. You’re pretty bright — you have to be — you’re a hall walker.”

“I’m not hall walker.”

“Ok.”

The summer passed, and a couple weeks ago, we had our back to school open house. Who did I see first? Sam.

“Hey, Sam! Welcome back,” I said. “I hear you are in the dual-credit class that is going to Lawrence Tech twice a week. That’s amazing!”

“I ain’t doing that.”

“Well, you’re on the roster. It’s quite a privilege to go to college during high school. Only the brightest seniors get to go.”

“I ain’t doing it.”

“Ok.”

On the second day of class last week, I saw Sam again. He was visibly upset. He seriously did not want to go to Lawrence Tech twice a week. He didn’t think he would like it, and he didn’t want to be stuck there for his whole senior year if he hated it.

Two teachers were already speaking to him, but he was not budging.

“I ain’t going. I don’t want to go to college.”

“Sam,” I said, “you’re deciding that you don’t like it before you even get there. I can promise you, it’s a whole new world out there. You have to at least give it a try. You’re going to get to leave school twice a week — not everybody gets to do that. You were hand picked because we know you can do it.”

“I don’t want to do it.”

“Just go. Give it a chance.”

Other teachers continued the conversation, but he seemed resolute. He was not planning to go.

On Friday, I saw the small group of seniors — just 12 of them — as they got ready to get on the bus to go to their orientation. I looked at the group and said, “Have fun, guys! You’re gonna love it!” They were all clumped together.

I didn’t see Sam.

A few hours later, I found myself walking down the hall, in step with — Sam.

“Mrs. Rathje, I got my college ID!” he said smiling as he pulled it out of his pocket.

“You went! I knew you would love it!”

“Well, we ain’t been to the class yet. I probably ain’t going to like it.”

“But you got an ID! You’re on your way! I’m telling you — you’re going to love it. It’s a whole different world out there. I’m proud of you for going.”

“Thanks.”

Yup. Sam the hall walker said “thanks”.

He’s in my first hour class along with all the other kids who are going to Lawrence Tech twice a week. He sits in the back because that’s where he feels comfortable. He can’t see the board because he needs glasses, so he takes out his phone, takes a picture of my screen and blows it up to read it.

I walk near him, tap him on the shoulder and say, “Great use of your phone, Sam. Way to get what you need.”

We’ve only finished one week, and we’ve got a lot of heavy lifting to do between now and June, but I do believe I’m witnessing a transformation in progress.

I [can] see the goodness of God in the land of the living.

Psalm 27:13 Rathje Revised Version

Transformation Ready

Click the arrow to listen.

Over the past week I’ve participated in quite a bit of professional development with the other members of my team. The main focus has been on the brain science behind trauma-informed instruction. We are using a book called Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain to learn the why behind some of the strategies we use in our school. A guiding principle in our community is that a large number of our students have experienced trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACES). Our population is predominantly students of color who qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch and who live in the Detroit metropolitan area. Many have experienced racism, poverty, and various other traumas, but even if they hadn’t before 2020, they have certainly experienced trauma (loss of schooling, loss of family members, financial hardship, etc.) because of Covid. For that reason, our network of schools has adopted a whole suite of practices that fall under the umbrella of trauma-informed instruction.

We understood from this week’s training that the brain’s ability to think and process information can be interrupted if it feels the body is in physical or emotional danger or if it doesn’t feel a sense of belonging in a community. Brain science teaches us that the brain stem is continuously searching for danger; if danger is perceived, all of its energy goes to reducing the threat through actions many of us know as fight, flight, freeze or appease. So, before we can hope to build community or engage our students in learning, we must first create a space that is safe, predictable, and consistent.

Slide from Champion Education Network, Summer Summit

With that in mind, we have always emphasized common building norms and expectations such as teachers standing at our thresholds to greet students, having a strategically arranged classroom, and using consistent instructional practices such as Do Nows, Exit Tickets, and other practices of the No-Nonsense Nurturer model. This year, our school is being additionally intentional, using the first week of school to set culture and behavioral norms across all classrooms through common slide decks that the instructional coaches and I have prepared for use by ALL teachers. The first period that students are in the building, ALL teachers and students will review the same community guidelines — focused on ensuring our students that they are safe in our school. The second period that students are in the building, ALL teachers and students will review the same school-wide behavioral expectations — focused on ensuring our students that they are partners in keeping our school threat-free for all. Throughout the first week, teachers will ALL play community-building games and review classroom systems that they will use throughout the school year so that students, who are hopefully beginning to feel safe, can begin to feel engaged within their classrooms.

That’s the second function of the brain, the limbic system’s focus on finding relationships and belonging, also a prerequisite for learning. Our network, with the understanding that the highest functions of cognition cannot happen until students’ safety and belongingness needs are met, has initiated the school-wide adoption of a social-emotional learning curriculum that was piloted last year. This program, Character Strong will be used in every classroom every Wednesday morning. Its content focuses on self-awareness, goal-setting, and community building. The hope is that the more safe, the more connected, the more self-aware our students feel, the better they will be able to engage with rigorous curriculum.

And they do need curriculum! Our standardized test data from last year is not great — I’m not sure that anyone’s is post-Covid! This makes sense! The whole world was collectively in survival mode — our brain stems were at high alert!! It’s no wonder we suffered socially and academically — we were all collectively fighting, flighting, freezing, and appeasing ourselves into a tizzy! This is evidenced by the ways that we treated each other — not as the collective that we are, not as members belonging to each other, but as freaked out individuals trying to scratch our ways to survival.

But guys, it’s time to return to our right minds, and the only we can do that that is by taking actions that remind ourselves (and our brain stems) that we are safe, held, loved, supported and part of a community.

In my classroom, that looks like order and predictability. It looks like standing at my door each morning, greeting each student by name, smiling, and tracking their language (verbal and non-verbal) so that I can attend to any signs of distress and minimize any further triggers. It also looks like an orderly room — I have desks facing one direction; seats will be assigned, but those assignments are flexible based on student feedback. Everyone has adequate space, all can see the screen where I project the goals and content for the day and the white board where I display my students’ learning data so that they can track their progress. We track this progress as a whole class — where are we together? what do we need to do so that all of us can succeed together? We set goals together; we work together; we celebrate together. We are a community.

In my personal life, it looks like continuing my practices of healthy eating, regular exercise, and plenty of physical and mental self care and adding community practices such as a ride-share with a colleague, which will ease the driving burden for both of us and provide time for building relationship in our 25-minute drive each day. We will both have heavy loads at work, so we are intentionally building in support because we are caring for ourselves while caring for each other.

As we move through the fall, using these safety and community-building practices, we will increasingly become available for academic challenge. After learning about brain science and viewing our student data, I identified a couple areas of focus for this year. I will, with everyone, focus in those first two weeks to build safety and community so that I can increase the rigor of instruction and the independence and agency of my learners. I met with my instructional coach (everyone in our building has a coach!) who agreed with my goals and to thought-partnering, challenging, and supporting me as I work toward them. I am very excited about this partnership.

Some teachers I know go back to their classrooms two days before school starts. They arrange their rooms, they make a seating chart, they pull out supplies, and that is enough for them to feel ready. That is not me.

I need every minute of the past week and the coming week to fully shift my mind from the relaxation and freedom of summer to the intentionality and rigor of the school year. I need to remember the traumas my students have endured; I need to be mindful of how my attitude can make or break the culture of my classroom; I need to remember the importance of every moment of instruction and the potential impact it might have on the futures of my students.

My principal says — and she’s dead serious — “We are saving lives here, team.” We are the potential last educational stop for many of our students. What we do and how we act can change or solidify the trajectory of our students’ futures. Our practices, our climate, our culture might just create the safe space in which our students can try to trust, begin to believe, and turn toward a life of transformation — one for themselves, but also one that impacts everyone they touch.

And isn’t that the most powerful thing we can give one another — the space, the safety, the confidence, the support, and the encouragement to be transformed?

I am looking forward to transforming right along with my students — what a privilege I have been given!

be transformed by the renewing of your mind

Romans 12:2