Finding my next Crew

This past week flew by! They all do, but last week was especially full. In addition to my regular teaching duties, I was tasked with testing a dozen or so freshmen to select next semester’s cohort for my AARI (Accelerated Adolescent Reading Intervention) class.

I had a spreadsheet of data including the students’ names, attendance record, scores (if available) on last year’s NWEA MAP test, PSAT/Academic Approach scores from this year, and their current grades in English Language Arts. My job was to first select about a dozen students to test, and then to complete those tests before a Friday deadline.

Now, don’t feel sorry for me. I teach all day long (literally 8:30-3:15 with 35 minutes for lunch) on Monday and Thursday, but on Tuesday and Friday, I teach only one 50 minute block. Wednesdays we have a shortened school day that ends at 1:45 with meetings or professional development following that. The large blocks of time on Tuesday and Friday are usually reserved for planning and grading, but this past week, I used almost every one of those spare minutes to assess the group of freshmen that I had identified. Of the twelve I tested, eleven qualified for the program. I can only keep 10. And really, even ten is a number that is larger than I am comfortable with.

The space in the back of my room comfortably seats 8 — the class size I started with last fall. I am going to have to reconfigure that space sometime this week. AARI says the results are consistent with groups up to 10, and my administrators want to impact as many students as possible with this program, but let me tell you, the freshmen class that we have right now, the one straight outta COVID, is a challenge to wrangle. For two years of their adolescence they could do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. We have been working as a team all semester to use systems and procedures to build a culture and to tame all that energy, but let me tell you, these fourteen year olds have a ton of energy. and impulsivity. and immaturity.

I beckon to their better selves, “Class, why are we here?”

Monotone chanting accompanied by eye rolling, “to become better readers.”

“That’s right! And how do we become better readers?”

“By reading…”

I turn to write on the board, a small bit of pencil eraser flies across the room. Laughter breaks out. I turn back around, meet their eyes, call them back to order, and begin again — over and over and over.

Yes. I am doing this willingly.

So, anyway, Tuesday morning I started pulling students from their regularly scheduled classes.

I knock on the door, ask a teacher for a student, the teacher calls the student’s name, the student looks at me — who they do not know — and stands, walks towards me, and looks as though to say, “What do you want me for?”

“Hi, I’m Mrs. Rathje. Have you seen me around before?”

“Yeah,”

“I teach 12th graders, but one hour a day I teach reading to a group of freshmen. How do you feel about reading?”

“It’s alright.”

“Yeah? Do you like reading?”

“Not really.”

“Well, I am getting ready to start a new class of freshmen who will meet with me everyday to improve their reading. Is that something you are interested in?”

Silence.

“Ok, well, I’d like you to come with me for a few minutes to do a couple of activities to see if you would be a good fit. OK?”

“Yeah.”

We walk to my room, I invite them to take a seat, and I instruct them to start reading lists of words that have been grouped by grade level. Once we have established their familiarity with words and their ability to sound out unfamiliar words, I ask them to read a passage. I started the passage reading for most students at second grade level since I know that most of my students last semester began with an independence level of second to third grade.

Student after student this week complied — not one refused to sit with me and read word lists and passages. In fact, I believe they all gave a good effort to show me their abilities. Of the eleven I tested, seven fell in the ‘instructional’ range at the second grade passage. Three were instructional at the third grade passage. One was instructional at the Primer level — below first grade, and one student surprised me.

Nash* had been on my list all week long, but I didn’t meet with him until mid-morning on Friday. His teachers had informed me that they weren’t sure about his reading but that in class he was “all over the place”, that he had difficulty focusing, and that his grades were abysmal. I had never met the student, so I was curious to find out if reading was the source of the problem.

I found Nash in the back row of the class he was attending. His laptop was open even though the teacher was giving directions and everyone else had their laptops closed. He was deeply engaged in what he was doing, so I walked over to him, touched him on the shoulder, and said, “Would you come with me, please?”

Once we were in the hall, I asked all the same questions. When I asked, “how would you feel about being in a reading class?” he turned to me and said, “Just reading?”

“Yes, we have a small group of students and we work on reading skills every day.”

“I would love a reading class.”

That should’ve been my first clue.

“Great,” I said, “let’s do a couple of activities together and see if you would be a good fit.”

He read every word list I had — from pre-primer to high school level. I think he mispronounced a half a dozen words that he attempted to sound out, but he didn’t see a word he wouldn’t try.

I started the reading portion by giving him a fourth grade passage because even though other students have read far into the word lists, they often haven’t demonstrated comprehension at the same levels.

He easily read the fourth grade passage and answered all the questions, same with the fifth and the sixth. When he got to the Upper Middle School passage about the life cycle of stars, he took a little longer, but he combed the text looking for answers, asked me some of his own clarifying questions, and reasoned aloud about his answer choices. He was deeply engaged with the text and with the process. He was easily “instructional” at that level, so we moved on to the high school passage about cell replication.

This passage was trickier; it was not only longer, but some of the questions referred to captions on illustrations. Nevertheless, he persevered. He kept going back to the text, talking out his reasoning, and then explaining to me why he was giving the answer that he was.

After almost an hour of testing, he was still diving back into the text to verify that his answer was correct. Finally, I said, “Nash, we are going to stop right here because we both have another class in a few minutes, but I have one more question for you. Your name was on a list of students who have difficulty reading. Can you explain to me why your name was on that list?”

He looked at me and smiled innocently.

“You don’t have any difficulty reading. In fact, I would say you are very bright — the kind of bright that not only goes on to college but that often goes to graduate school and might even get a PhD. Do you know what a PhD is?”

“No.”

“People with PhDs teach at universities. Do you want to go to college?”

“Yes.”

“Good. You need to go to college. I see only one problem with that.”

“What’s that?”

“What do your grades look like?”

“They are terrible.”

“Why’s that?”

“I have trouble focusing.”

We talked about focus for a little while — about how two of my own children also struggle with focus, about how hard it is for a fourteen year old to manage his own distractibility, about the fact that he sees a therapist, and about his huge potential despite this difficulty.

“Look, Nash, you’re not gonna be in my class, but you are going to get sick of talking to me. I am going to be checking up on you because it would be a shame if you continued getting the grades you are getting and you eliminated yourself from some great college opportunities.”

“OK.”

I returned him to his class and returned to my room to teach a class. After that, I reported for lunch room duty where I saw Nash again, in a sea of chaos, plunked down alone at a cafeteria table, scanning something on his computer as his lunch debris accumulated around him. I recognized him right away — the little genius that is navigating his way through this high school experience.

I finished up my testing later Friday afternoon and sent my results to my principal. Over the weekend she affirmed my selections and agreed that the eleventh student, the one who needs the AARI program but who said she would not be willing to work in our small group environment, should be referred to our special education team for some other sort of intervention.

Today and tomorrow, I will communicate that all out to the students I tested, and next Monday I will meet my new crew. Before then, I’ve got to finish up with my current class of seven, give them some parting instructions, and let them know, too, that Momma Rathje will be keeping tabs. When they — and Nash — are seniors, they’ll be back with me, God willing, to finish their high school years strong and launch onto what’s next.

What a pleasure it will be to watch their development between now on then.

*Name changed to maintain confidentiality.

Gem of the Week: Kia*

This is the second in a sporadic series.

I met Kia last September. She had done poorly on last year’s NWEA MAP testing and had been identified, along with seven others from among our incoming freshman class, as being most in need of the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Intervention, the program I had been trained in last summer. (I described what our classroom’s version of AARI looks like in this post.)

I started pulling these eight into my classroom, one by one, to evaluate them by way of the QRI — The Qualitative Reading Inventory. This assessment requires students to first read lists of words sorted by grade level to determine their basic skills of decoding and identifying sight words — the ability to get words off the page. Some of my students read these lists fairly independently up to 6th, 7th, and 8th grade level; a few could barely make it through a second grade list. Once I got a glimpse at their ability to read, I had them read grade-level passages and answer comprehension questions — some that were easy to identify from the text, others that required inference. The majority of the eight freshmen I tested demonstrated the ability to read and comprehend at levels between the third and fifth grade; three were frustrated at first grade level or below.

How do students get to their freshmen year reading only at the first through fifth grade level? I suspect two reasons.

First, my students have grown up in Detroit Public Schools (and the charter schools, like mine, within that district) where they have received inconsistent instruction for a variety of reasons such as low attendance of both students and staff, insufficient funding and resources, and multiple out-of-school factors that impact learning such as housing and food insecurity, domestic disruption, trauma, and other realities that have grown out of centuries of systemic racism.

Second, even in the best of schools in the wealthiest of communities, the data shows COVID’s impact on learning over the last two years. Even students who had mostly face-to-face instruction over the two years of the pandemic have scored lower on standardized tests than expected. Students like mine, who had little to no schooling in the Spring of 2020 due to lack of technology and Internet connectivity, followed by one year of virtual instruction where they had to attempt to log in and focus despite many barriers including poor Internet, other siblings in the home (maybe even in the same room), family responsibilities, and the like, followed by another year of continuous transition between in-person and virtual instruction due to insufficient staffing, high COVID rates, and building issues, have been impacted much more dramatically. And, in addition to not being in school, most of my students report that they read very little or not at all between March 2020 and September 2022. That’s thirty months away from reading

It’s no wonder that when it was Kia’s turn to come into my room, she was a little nervous. She giggled a lot and apologized for missing words but did her best. I found her to be comfortable reading at the third grade level; the fourth grade passage was frustrating.

She has been in my room since September. I should say, she has sometimes been in my room since September. She’s been absent thirty-three times. And, on about a half-dozen occasions when she’s been in my class, she has fallen asleep to the degree that I have been unable to wake her. When she is present and awake, she is either fully engaged and a star participant or is having an emotional meltdown in response to a teasing comment from one of the boys in the class. She has demonstrated very little consistency, staying power, or resiliency.

So, when I pulled her out of class to retest her this past Tuesday, the first day back in the building after a two-week break, I did not have high expectations. I had already tested most of the others who had improved their reading scores by 1-3 grade levels in just one semester! I was hopeful, despite her poor attendance, that she would demonstrate the same growth.

We found a quiet corner of the building, and I asked, “Are you ready for this?”

“I’m nervous,” she replied.

“You’re going to do fine,” I said. “In fact, you’ve been telling me all semester that you don’t need this class. Here is your chance to prove it to me!”

I started her with a fifth grade passage, assuming two years’ worth of growth, and she aced it. We moved to the sixth grade passage. She missed a couple comprehension questions, but still fell in the ‘instructional’ range, so we moved on to the next passage which is labelled “upper middle school”. Again, she missed only a couple questions on a dense passage about the life cycle of stars, so we moved to a high school level passage. The text was two single-spaced pages with illustrations describing the functions of DNA and RNA. It took her a while to respond to the questions, as she had permission, according to QRI instructions, to go back to the text and find the answers, but she found them — enough to fall in the “instructional” range once again.

As I watched her read and then search for answers — her determination to prove that she could do this — I was getting choked up. The others had tried hard, too, but she was clearly on a different level.

When she finished, I said, “Kia, how do you feel?”

“I feel good!”

“Do you know what level you started at in September?”

“No.”

“You were comfortable at third grade level. Fourth grade level was frustrating.”

“Oh my God!” she said, covering her face in embarrassment.

“Be kind to yourself!” I explained. “We were just coming back after COVID! It was a very difficult time! How much did you read during COVID?”

“Nothing,” she said with a sheepish grin on her face.

“Right! Do you know you just read a complex biology text at the high school level?” I could barely get the words out because my throat was tightening.

“I did?”

“You understood all that stuff about cells and DNA and replication! Everybody can’t do that!”

She looked at me, locking eyes.

“Kia, you could be a nurse!”

“That’s what I want to be!” she smiled broadly.

“You can! You are very bright!”

She started crying, too. We hugged. I passed her a tissue, then I pulled myself together.

“Listen, Kia, I’m gonna be real with you. You have the stuff it takes to be a nurse, but you aren’t going to get there unless something changes. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

“I gotta come to school.”

“Yes, you’ve got to come to school. If you want to get into a nursing program, you need As and Bs from now on, and you have the ability to do that.”

We talked a little bit longer about how I was going to be after her, checking in on her, even after she has left my class when the semester ends in two weeks. Then we walked through the halls telling administrators and teachers about what she had accomplished — we needed to celebrate.

Everyone applauded her, hugged her, congratulated her — she was beaming.

The next day Kia showed up in my room before school asking to borrow a laptop. She’d lost her charger and hers was dead — had been dead for weeks. I loaned her my laptop, and said, “Here’s a charger. You can keep it.”

“Thank you! Now I can get caught up at home!”

She came to my class later that day, sat up straight, answered questions, and smiled broadly.

She dropped by my room the next day to say, “I’m making up all my missing work, Mrs. Rathje, and I’m staying awake in all my classes.”

“Amazing, Kia! Keep going!”

Do I think that Kia’s ability to read improved nine — 9! — grade levels in one semester? No. However, I think that some basic skills that had gone dormant during COVID were re-engaged. I believe Kia’s brain, like many others I see every day, had learned to “sleep” during the trauma and disruption of COVID, and needed to be woken up.

AARI for an hour a day five days a week, despite her absences, was enough to wake her up, and realizing her potential was the cup of coffee that put her in motion.

I tested Kia on Tuesday, and she was still going strong on Friday. I suspect her momentum will fluctuate. She’ll have hard days, she’ll get discouraged, and she’ll be tempted to go back to sleep, if just to get some relief.

She’s gonna need all kinds of encouragement to build the stamina she’ll need to make it all the way to a nursing degree, because all of the obstacles didn’t magically go away. She’s still going to have to get herself up every morning. She’s still going to have to show up. She’s going to have to learn to tune out the voices of adolescent boys who like to get a reaction out of her. She’s going to have to overcome a lot more than what I see on the surface — whatever is going on at home that allowed her to miss thirty-three days of school, whatever reason there is for the fact that she needs glasses and hasn’t had then for the entire first semester, whatever has happened in her life that makes her so tender to break down so easily from everyday jabs of a few adolescent boys.

She’ll leave my class at the end of this semester, but our school is small, and I will make an effort to see her most days — to engage with her and to wave the cup of coffee under her nose, to remind her of the future that is possible for her.

But mostly it’s going to be up to her to do the next hard thing day after day after day. It’s gonna get tiring. And lonely. And the odds are against her.

But with some determination and a few miracles, she just might make it.

May God make her path straight and may He raise up a great cloud of witnesses to cheer her on her way.

I’m happy to be one among the crowd shouting “Keep going! You’re almost there!”

*Name changed for confidentiality.

A String of Miracles

We purchased the gifts and wrapped them. We planned menus, purchased loads and loads of food, and baked ourselves silly. We cleaned the house and made all the beds, and then we waited.

As we sat on the coach, staring at Netflix, the texts started to come in.

“We’re checked in at the hotel! See you in the morning!”

“Our flight just landed!”

“We should be there in an hour!”

And then our family started rolling in — from Ohio, from Massachusetts, from Missouri.

We hugged, we laughed, and we ate.

We puzzled; we played games. We did crafts, watched movies, and traveled to celebrate with even more family.

It sounds like what most families do over the holidays, but I suppose many families, like ours, can get together like this only because of a string of miracles — only because of choosing forgiveness, of going to therapy, and of healing and time and the stubborn belief that things get better.

Didn’t you, too, have the holiday where everyone was yelling at each another?

And the one where no one spoke a word?

And the one where everyone walked out of church sobbing?

And the one where some decided they just. couldn’t. do it — not this year.

And then there was the covid year (or years — who remembers?) where we packed presents into flat rate boxes and stood in line for hours at the post office, hoping our parcels would get there before Easter. The year (or was it two?) where we sat in Zoom rooms with family members, some of us trying not to hog the air time, others trying to endure those who were hogging the air time.

It seems after all those difficult years we might have stopped believing that we could once again be all in one space, laughing, eating, agreeing on what to watch, moving upstairs to open the gifts, and leaning together over a puzzle, snacking on chips and rock candy and cookies.

But we didn’t stop believing — really — did we?

Didn’t we keep hoping for the day when all the therapy would pay off? Didn’t we long for the moment when we all laughed at the same joke, all smiled at the same memory, all managed to load ourselves and our gifts and bags full of food into cars only to discover most of the way there that we had left the main dish warming in the oven and no one lost their shit but we rebounded easily, picking up take out on the way?

Didn’t we imagine it could happen? Didn’t we dream it?

And so I’m sitting here pinching myself, trying to believe that it actually happened. And someone in the Christmas 2022 group chat sends a text checking on someone else who left the festivities feeling subpar. Another sends a pic of a present that broke upon opening, and everyone laughs. More pics are shared, more laughter, and then a commitment to what we will do next year.

They want to do it again next year.

I need a moment to just take that in.

Every family relationship doesn’t get this gift, does it? We don’t all get the moments we prayed for.

Don’t we all have at least one relationship where we do all the initiating? where tender topics are avoided? where our hearts ache with disappointment at the end of each phone call? where we can’t shake the feeling of being unwanted?

In fact, I was sitting in therapy the very day that the last of our family left, on the come down, for sure, and all I managed was, “our Christmas was amazing, but this one relationship over here still sucks and that’s all I can think about.”

And over the hour of belaboring the one less-than-stellar relationship I have spent most of my life bemoaning, my therapist offered suggestions, role-playing, expectation-setting, and the like, and near the end of the session, I began to realize that the beauty we experienced with our family at Christmas didn’t come without the hard work of many — of all of us, really.

I can’t expect this other relationship to magically transform on its own. If I want something different, I’ll need to return — to my knees, to forgiveness, to therapy, to the stubborn belief that things can get better.

It’s risky — even just the hoping for change — because happy endings or even happy moments are not guaranteed. I might experience disappointment — again.

But I might risk hoping, and a series of miracles might just happen. We might laugh at the same joke or smile at the same memory. We might play a game together or lean toward each other over a puzzle. We might agree on a movie. We might enjoy a meal.

And it might be amazing.

Witnessing the string of miracles that led to an amazing Christmas has me thinking that I just might risk hoping again.

[He] is able to do far more than we would ever dare to ask or even dream of”

Ephesians 3:20

Christmas Cheer

Like many of you, I’ve been checking off items on my to-do list as I prepare for Christmas. In fact, I’ve got multiple lists! We’ve still got a few gifts to purchase, some homemade gifts to finish, and some food to prepare before holiday gatherings. Each day, I complete a task or two and then revise my list, recalculating to make sure everything will be done “on time”.

And while I’m doing that, I’m insisting that my students attend to their own lists.Yes, we are still in school. Our last day is Thursday, December 22. Between now and then, my seniors will complete an essay, which many of them have not yet started. They’ll write a rough draft, participate in peer review, attend to revisions, and carefully proofread before submitting their final drafts. We’re on a tight schedule, but if we stick to our lists, they [and I] will complete everything right on time.

Sounds like no problem, but we’re all kind of over it, if I’m going to be honest — the getting up in the dark, traveling to school in the cold, filing into the building, taking our places, and trudging through the motions, day after day after day.

And, as though she had her finger on the ho-hum pulse of the collective arm of our community, our instructional coach created a spirit week for this of all weeks — the week that I’ve scheduled down to the minute with very little room for getting off task.

The announcement came on Friday at around 1:30. “Get excited, everyone! Next week is spirit week!”

Sigh.

Monday we’ll have a door decorating competition. Tuesday everyone will enjoy hot chocolate and cookies at lunch. Wednesday will be ugly sweater day, and Thursday, our last day at school before break, will be Holiday Cheer Day, where everyone is encouraged to wear Santa hats, jingle bells, or other holiday items.

My first response on Friday afternoon at 1:30pm, as I was wrapping up the week’s work and preparing for the final push, was a very Scrooge-y “Seriously? One more thing to cram into next week?” and “You really want me to take time out of class on Monday to decorate my classroom door? My students are writing a paper!?!?!”

Then I progressed to, “I don’t even have an ugly Christmas sweater!” and “I need to bring supplies to decorate my door?”

Didn’t she know about my lists and my strategy for getting each item ticked off before Christmas? How was I going to fit MORE to-dos onto my lists?

But this morning, my eyes are turned to our students.

This past week, as we have been preparing to write our personal essays, my students have been sharing scenes from their lives, letting me in just a bit, sharing a peek at the things that have shaped them.

Calvin’s* mother died in 2017, when he was just 13. He said it “messed me up”. He found comfort in eating and ballooned to over 300 pounds. But, last summer, an area gym offered free memberships to teens, so he joined. He and his sister, who he now lives with, stopped eating fast food and started cooking at home, and he has lost over 70 pounds. He wants to keep going; his goal is to look sharp for prom — one of the biggest days in the lives of our students.

Monette*, who started this school year pregnant but gave birth and then lost her young son a few days later, says she wants to write about this experience. She says holding her son was a moment she was proud, and losing him was the biggest hurt of her life.

Hope* engaged in an argument with someone on Twitter who claimed that Breonnna Taylor’s boyfriend was a drug dealer. She searched for evidence to disprove his theory and stayed at it until the original post was deleted.

Kevin’s* enlisting in the Army. He spent last summer training with his recruiters, cutting the weight he gained during Covid. He’s our valedictorian, and his ASVAB score qualifies him for just about any military training he chooses. He’s going through the steps now to ensure that he’ll start boot camp just a couple weeks after graduation.

These seniors of mine stand at the edge of adulthood, where the choices they are making have long-lasting impact. They are showing up each day, working hard, and looking forward to a not-too-distant future where they will be responsible for every aspect of their lives. It’s heavy, and I need to take a moment to acknowledge that.

The weight they are carrying goes beyond checking off items on their Christmas to-do list, beyond choosing which salad they will make for Christmas Eve, beyond what gift to purchase for a colleague. They are engaging with real adult stuff — health, loss, political engagement, and military service — when they have a few fleeting moments left to enjoy being kids.

What will it cost me to allow them a little bit of fun this week? a little bit of encouragement? A little reward for continuing to show up even when they are over it?

And won’t I enjoy it, too? Won’t it be fun seeing my seniors scrambling within the 10 minutes they have been allotted to decorate my classroom door, glancing over their shoulders at the classes across the hall to see what they are doing?

Won’t it be great to see our students sipping cocoa and dunking Christmas cookies?

Won’t it bring some laughs and joy to compare our ugly Christmas sweaters?

And won’t it lighten the mood to hear some jingle bells in the hallway?

Yes, of course, yes.

So, I dragged myself out today, found an ugly sweater that I will try to make uglier before Wednesday. I picked up some supplies for our door decorating contest, and while I was out I bought a chai latte to sip on as my attitude finished adjusting.

I checked some other items off my to-do list, too, and then reminded myself to relax. What gets done, gets done. Christmas is about more than my to-do list. It’s about seeing the people in front me, enjoying the time I have with them, and sharing the joy of a love that offers hope, restoration, and a future.

Once again, my instructional coach gave me just what I needed.

for unto [us] is born this day, a Savior”

Luke 2:11

*All names changed, of course.

Humming Along

When I woke up this morning, my cells were vibrating. I don’t know how else to describe it other than to say it feels like my body is humming. I’m not a doctor, but when this happens, I imagine I’m having an inflammatory response. To what? To living my life.

This is the fullest fall I have had since probably 2011 or 2012. By 2013, I was collapsing on the couch immediately after arriving at home, wondering if we had something edible in the fridge or if I had enough energy to drive to Chipotle to pick up “dinner”.

After a years-long journey back to wellness, I am in the third year of the great experiment called, “Can Mrs. Rathje really return to the classroom?” and this year I’m pretty close to matching the load I had prior to being diagnosed with autoimmune disease. Granted, I don’t have teenagers living at home or even a pet to take care of. I am “simply” returning to the “regular” demands faced by teachers across the country, and two weeks shy of Christmas break my body is humming.

A typical work week for me includes 5 hours of commuting, 16+ hours of instruction, 14+ hours of grading and planning, a handful of meetings, some lunchtime and hallway supervision, and all kinds of miscellaneous “duties” such as separating teenagers who are verbally escalating toward a fight, texting with a student who doesn’t have transportation to get to school, doling out snacks to students who are “starving, Mrs. Rathje”, or listening to a student tell me why she got into an altercation with someone she thought was her friend and why that altercation resulted in her one-day suspension.

I am fully invested in my work and the lives of my students, but school and my students are not the totality of my life.

My husband and I have also been blessed to invest quite of bit of time with family this fall. Since October, we’ve travelled to Ohio, Missouri, and the Dominican Republic. Not only that, we have traveled within Michigan to see our parents and siblings and have enjoyed an extended visit from our son.

We’ve also connected with several friends — through our weekly small group community, coffee dates, and other social functions.

And, we’ve participated in some personal and professional enrichment including presenting at a couple of conferences, both separately and together.

We are living a pretty typical professional life, but my body is not wired for ‘typical’.

I will note that this old girl has been hanging in there. Yes, Covid knocked me down in October, but I got right back up (and was temporarily knocked down again and again got back up). Other than that, the bod has been getting it done.

But over the last few weeks she’s been clearing her throat (Ahem!) and raising her hand (Excuse me?) and asking for a little attention.

It started when we were in the Dominican Republic over Thanksgiving. We were totally relaxing — our hosts wouldn’t let us lift a finger! And while we were sitting on the lovely patio surrounded by luscious plants and later lounging on the sofa, listening to Adrea Bocelli on surround sound, my body began to quietly whimper.

There, there, I said. Relax. You’re on vacation. Try to enjoy it. We’ll be home before you know it.

But she continued to whine, so I loaded up on Motrin, did some yoga, took some deep breaths, and soaked up the surroundings and the lovely company we shared.

And, when I got home, I hobbled directly to the chiropractor.

“It’s the travel,” he said, “it always has an impact.”

Then, I met with my therapist who said, “Don’t underestimate the impact of your work stress and the emotion of family interactions on your body.”

And then I went to my physical therapist who said, “You might want to consider getting a pain injection.”

[Dammit.]

I’d been hoping I could do it all and manage my pain without an injection. I had been believing that my discipline — my yoga, my diet, my writing, my therapy — would be enough.

I’d been hoping I could teach at full capacity and travel and present at conferences and still enjoy my improved health.

And, really, for the most part, I think I can, if I also get periodic pain injections and continue being disciplined, and that includes taking significant rest at intervals. I’ve known this, but it seems I’ve always got to test my limits.

And, my body has told me that we are at our limit. Period.

So, this morning, as my humming body and I crawled out of bed, we said goodbye to my husband who is making a whirlwind trip — involving eight hours of driving inside of the next 24 hours — so that he can attend our granddaughter’s birthday party.

I am sad to be missing the festivities. I miss stuff sometimes — that is my reality.

And, at 10am on Saturday, I am still in pajamas. I have done 20 minutes of yoga, eaten a noninflammatory breakfast, drank a lovely cup of green tea with ginseng, am finishing my first of many tumblers of water, and am writing this all down because I need to admit that it is true.

I love my life. I really do.

I have a supportive and loving husband, a remarkable family, a cute little house with an extraordinary garden, a career designed especially for me, and countless high-caliber friends.

And, I sometimes spend quiet weekends at home alone, reading, soaking in the tub, putting together a puzzle, or working on a sewing project.

It’s the miraculous rhythm I get to live in this next chapter.

[He] is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.”

Ephesians 3:20

A Week’s Journey

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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

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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.