The Rewards of Learning

I arrived at school Tuesday morning early — well before my 7:50am required arrival time — and the parking lot was already full. Like me, the rest of the staff wanted a jump on the day. They were scurrying around their rooms putting on finishing touches, in the teachers’ lounge making copies, and stationed in the gym to receive any new students planning to register on the first day of school.

Our rosters had been set since the previous week, and teachers had been charged with creating seating charts that would allow for easy Covid tracking should a positive case be identified. I was in my room numbering my desks to correspond with my chart.

The halls were quiet. Unlike other schools where I have taught, this school holds all students in the gym until a bell releases them to their classrooms. Then, students start walking down the hallways, searching for their rooms, while teachers stand positioned at their doorways, greeting students one by one, and allowing them to enter.

It’s all intentional — a way to bring order. A way to establish rhythms. People who have experienced trauma do better when they know what to expect. Routine is very important to the way we do everything in our school.

Once the second bell rings, and all students are in my classroom. I give them a direction to follow — grab a pencil and follow the directions on the screen, for example — while I take attendance. As I begin to mark attendance, I look up and note those who are following my directions, “Jamar is writing his name on his paper. Devon is reading the directions on the screen.” This affirms those who are following through and reminds those who are unclear on the directions of what they are supposed to be doing. When I have finished taking attendance, I walk around the room, confirming that all students are completed, and I give them a class point saying, “One hundred percent of you grabbed a pencil and followed the directions on the screen — that’s a class point.”

On the first day of class, one senior said, “Why are we still getting class points? We are seniors! This is stupid.”

“I’m glad you asked,” I said. “For some of you, the class points may seem stupid. I get it. However, I just want to acknowledge that we have all just been through a lot. For the past 18 months, we’ve been at home, sitting in our beds, logging in to Zoom rooms, or not,”

Some chuckles can be heard around the room.

“…some of you may feel a little uncomfortable being here today,” I continued, “because Covid is still real, and we are sitting fairly close to each other, and there are going to be, when everyone is here, twenty-eight bodies in this class,”

Groans and grumblings replace the chuckles.

“…so even though the points seem dumb, I want to in some way acknowledge that you are here — that you showed up — that you are choosing to opt in to this school year. So, I’m going to give class points. Roll your eyes if you must, but the class with the most points each week will get some kind of prize on Wednesday. It might be a piece of candy, some small prize, listening to music while you work on your assignment, or something else that you all choose. It might be stupid, but that’s what we’re going to do.”

I looked around the room and saw a few blank stares and a few heads nodding. I hadn’t planned it, but I ended up giving the same speech almost every block that day. Before the end of the week, students were watching the tally on the board, telling me, “Shouldn’t we have gotten a class point for that?” and finally, the last hour on Friday, “Hey, don’t give our point to first block! We’re sixth block!”

I think they are on board with the stupid class points.

In fact, they seem to be on board with most everything we are doing. We have had 100% engagement in every activity, every go-around, every assignment. When I told them to write on a sticky note a way in which they committed to respecting others in the class and to stand up and stick it somewhere on the walls of our classroom, they did. When I said to write for five minutes in their journal about the communities they belong to, they did. When I had them complete an online grammar and writing diagnostic which took them close to half an hour, they did it, and, rather than grumbling about how stupid it was, they confessed their feelings of inadequacy and their need to develop their skills.

When I heard their insecurities, I felt compassion.

“Guys, let’s not be too hard on ourselves here. This is just a diagnostic — a tool to tell us where we are. Remember, we have been away from each other for a year and a half! We have not been focusing on grammar and writing. This diagnostic is going to tell us where we need to start so that we can build these skills.”

I was impressed with their ability to honestly look at their scores and to identify the areas where they were proficient and the areas where they were struggling. They verbalized it, too. “I need to work on verb tenses.” or “I need to practice building compound sentences.”

As they finished the diagnostic, I walked around the room, handing out little white raffle tickets I picked up at Office Depot. Every time they complete an assignment, they receive a “Rathje Ticket”. Once a week, I will open the Rathje Store and they can use their tickets to purchase items that I have been stockpiling. One ticket will get them a pen, a lanyard, a trial-sized bottle of hand sanitizer, or a travel pack of tissue. Three tickets can get them a fabric mask, a small bottle of lotion, a snack bar, or a box of tic tacs. Five tickets might get them a collapsible water bottle, a college t-shirt, a pair of sunglasses, or a flash drive. The prizes will vary because most of this loot has been donated or scavenged from somewhere. I don’t have an unlimited budget for such inventory, but I do have a lot of great friends.

The students have been stacking up tickets all week — they’ve gotten tickets for completing assignments, for downloading apps, for logging into websites — and they are trying to find ways of keeping them until the store opens.

“Mrs. Rathje, do you have something for me to keep my tickets in? I don’t want to lose them.”

And they are looking forward to the store opening.

“Mrs. Rathje, I have five tickets. Can I buy something from the store?”

You might be wondering if this is a waste of time, money, and resources. Shouldn’t high school seniors just be able to do whatever you tell them to do? Isn’t the learning reward enough for the hard work they put in?

Your experience might lead you to think so. You might’ve been able to show up to school every day, follow directions, do all your assignments, and be successful without really thinking about it. Your experience, however, may not be the same as the experience my students are having.

I don’t know all of their stories yet, but I do know that during this first week of school, the highest attendance I had in any class was 65%. I know that many students don’t have the resources for school supplies, lunch, or clothing that they want to be seen in. I know that all of these kids have just been made to learn from home for a year and a half. I know they are unfamiliar with being at the school by 8am, with following a bell schedule, with sitting at a desk, with putting a pencil to paper. I know that just showing up each day is, right now, a very heavy lift.

So until it’s not, every kid who does the work of showing up is going to get something tangible — a point on the board, a ticket in her hand — for doing so. I am going to do my best to stay stocked on prizes that are appealing and to stay prepared with activities that are meaningful, relevant, and engaging.

“Everything we do in this classroom,” I tell my students every day, “is to prepare you for whatever you have planned next. I will do my best to prepare and show up for you. I am expecting you to show up and get all that you can so that you will be ready.”

This is not going to be an easy year. We’ve got a lot of work to do under difficult circumstances — making up for missed instructional time, wearing masks, avoiding Covid infections, and having limited resources. My students and I are going to need to celebrate each tiny step along the way.

I don’t know, maybe they will learn enough this year that the learning itself will be a reward, but until we get there, we’re going to need some cheering along the way.

So, wherever you are, start cheering, because we’re making a comeback, baby. Just watch us and see!

Encourage one another and build one another up.

1 Thessalonians 5:11

Coronavirus Diary #31: Back to School Edition

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My phone rang while I was watching TV last Sunday night. It was the director of HR from my school. I’d been in back-to-school professional development meetings the previous week, and she was informing me that I had had close contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19. I’d need to get a negative test before I reported for more meetings the next morning.

The students weren’t even back yet. Certainly this didn’t bode well.

Monday morning I got up and drove to a nearby CVS where I purchased two self-administered tests. I climbed back in my vehicle, cracked open a swab, and did what we’ve all learned to do over the last many months. I prepped my sample, set a timer on my phone, and started driving in the general direction of my school. If it was positive, I’d return home; if it was negative, I’d continue on to school.

I was slightly worried, because although I’m vaccinated, so was the person who tested positive. If I had Covid-19, I’d have to stay home for 10 days, and I would miss the first day of school. I didn’t even want to entertain that possibility.

Our students haven’t been in school since March of 2020. The last thing I want them to find on the first day of school is a substitute teacher because I’m out due to Covid.

As I waited for the fifteen minutes to tick away, I consoled myself. Kristin, you weren’t within 3 feet of anyone for over 15 minutes, but then I remembered that I had been in a coaching meeting with my mentor where we had sat desk-to-desk, masked of course, for thirty minutes. It was possible, if she was the positive case, that I had truly been exposed.

But surely since we were both wearing masks and both of us are vaccinated, our risk is very low. And that is what I held onto until the timer went off and I saw that I was indeed negative.

Phew! Thank you, God!

I have a feeling this won’t be the last time this year that I will have to swab and sit. My classroom is set up with 27 desks, and for most of the day, every desk will be full. Each 100 minute period, around 27 seniors will roll into my room, find their assigned seats, and hopefully engage in learning until the dismissal bell rings.

Typically during such a long class (we’re on a block schedule), I would move students into groups, have them working at the board or somehow getting out of their seats to break up that long time period and move around the room.

My classroom

Things have to look a little different in the times of Covid. Each room must have assigned seats and a seating chart printed out and kept in a plastic pocket near the door. If a student or a teacher tests positive for Covid, all students who have been within 3 feet of that student for fifteen minutes or longer will be considered ‘close contacts’. If those within close contact are not vaccinated, they will then quarantine for 10 days, receiving their lessons asynchronously via Google classroom. For this reason, we want to limit the number of close contacts each student has.

Can my students move around the room? Yes, but I need to keep that movement to a minimum. Can they work in small groups? Yes, if I keep those small groups within their already-established close contacts or if the small groups last less than 15 minutes. Can I rearrange my seating chart? Yes, but only at the start of the week because for Covid we trace close contacts two days prior to the onset of symptoms or the positive test, so re-sets need to happen over the weekend.

Are you confused yet? Exactly.

And we’re only, so far, talking about the seating chart!

All students and teachers must wear masks at all times inside the building, except for when they are eating. Breakfast will be served in first hour classrooms, fifteen minutes before class starts. Lunch is served in the lunch room, half of the 300-member student body at a time.

Windows will be open as much as possible, and rooms will be equipped with air filtration systems. All rooms are well-stocked with hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes and will be treated each night with a Clorox Total 360 electrostatic sprayer. Custodians will routinely and endlessly disinfect doorknobs, bathrooms, and other high-traffic areas.

But guys, Covid or not, we are going back to school!

Thursday, all staff started work a little later than usual because we were hosting our Back to School night from 3:30-6:30. As I was driving in to work, I wondered how many of our students would show up to get their schedules, to pick up their school-issued Chromebooks, and to sign up for their bus routes. After 18 months at home, how many would opt in to an in-person learning experience? We had no way of knowing.

However, when I arrived at school at 10am, the place was already buzzing with activity. Teachers were arriving to participate in active shooter training, the trainers were setting up in a classroom, a couple of new teachers were being oriented to their new surroundings, and….and we had parents and students touring the building, filling out registration forms, and preparing to be at school!

After a very weird year — arriving to a silent building each morning, walking to my classroom, and signing into my zoom room — this felt very back-to-school normal. Could it be?

I dared not hope that this buzz could sustain itself throughout the day and into the Back-to-School night. So, I leaned in to our training — active shooter, fire drill, and round three of Covid protocols. I put finishing touches on my classroom, and I printed and copied day one paperwork for my students — boldly making enough copies for everyone on my roster. If I print them, they will come.

As it got closer to 3:00, I ate the lunch I packed, cracked open a can of green tea to re-caffeinate, and started heading to the gym with my colleague to get our assigned roles before the students started showing up. We peeked in the principal’s office on our way. She said, “Please get all the teachers to the gym right now; parents are already arriving!” What? It was only 3:00. We weren’t supposed to start until 3:30!

My colleague and I split up and went down separate hallways to round up teachers, and when we got to the gym, we found clusters of people moving about, trying to get what they needed. We scrambled to each take a station and begin assisting parents.

Our principal directed families to please step back outside the gym, form a line, and wait their turn — we would get to everyone. And for the next three hours, families stood in lines, shuffled forward, got what they came for, and chatted with teachers and administrators.

Yes, everyone wore a mask. Yes, it was difficult to hear one another. Yes, it was a struggle to identify students who claimed they had been in my class last year, but guys, that gym stayed buzzing until after 6pm.

Is it going to be a challenging year? Of course! Are we going to have students and teachers who test positive for Covid or have to quarantine due to exposure? Undoubtedly! Will we be exhausted by protocols on top of instruction on top of adapting to ever-changing circumstances? Without question.

However, the activity in that crowded gym told me that we — teachers, students, and parents — are ready to give in-person instruction a try. So take that, Covid. We are going back to school!

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:9

Supplied, Supported, and [almost] Ready

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T minus eight days until the start of school and I’m like a 10 year old again — so excited!

Sure, Wayne County just announced that due to the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases, all teachers and students in the district will be fully masked throughout the school day.

Yes, a torrential downpour caused a flood in our school gym on Friday.

And, of course, we’re still looking to hire two staff members.

But am I bothered? No! I feel like the little girl whose mom just took her to the mall and bought her a first day of school outfit.

Why? Because I can hear you all cheering me on!

A few weeks ago, at the end of my post about Critical Race Theory, I shared that I had a wish list for my classroom. Several readers asked me to share it, and I have received almost everything on that list! I did not anticipate how much impact this would have on me emotionally! I feel buoyed your thoughtfulness and generosity!

For example, a couple of Lutheran educators from St. Louis, MO, who I have never met before, said they used to teach in Detroit and still have hearts for the kids in that community. They sent a check so that I could purchase 100 composition books!

Stacks of composition books and other supplies.

Each day, my students will spend 10 minutes of their 100 minute block writing in these composition books. I will put a prompt on the board and provide 10 minutes of silence during which I, too, will write. I will then share what I have written, to model, and then allow anyone else to share what they have written. This exercise, which takes a total of 20 precious minutes of class time, is invaluable. It not only builds writing muscle — the ability to put pen to paper for 10 solid minutes — it also exercises the students’ writing voices and, more importantly, cultivates community. When we share our thoughts and our stories with one another, we see one another’s humanity, and we begin to care for one another. This is critical in a classroom of developing writers who will have to share their writing often.

Another item on my wish list was highlighters. I asked for 90 sets of three colors — pink/blue/yellow, or green/orange/yellow. A friend texted that she wanted to purchase all of them, and that day, Amazon delivered a huge box to my door!

Bundles of highlighters.

These highlighters will be used in a couple of ways. For grammar instruction, I will have my students locate nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs, for example, in their journals. They will highlight the word, label it, write a definition in the margin, then add several more examples. We will also use the highlighters to identify sentences, fragments, and run-ons. Later, when we are writing paragraphs and essays, students will identify their thesis and topic sentences in blue/green, their examples in pink/orange, and their explanation/elaboration in yellow.

Another item I asked for was individually wrapped snacks because teenagers are always hungry. They stop by before, during, and after school asking, “Mrs. Rathje, you got anything to eat?” I have always tried to keep something edible in my classroom because if you feed them, they will come. Seeing my request, a friend and a family member each dropped off Costco-sized boxes of granola bars and multi-packs of popcorn. A few other friends sent cash which will help me stay supplied.

My stash of granola bars.

I am not only stocked on snacks, but I was also able to use some of the cash that was donated to purchase large variety packs of candy which I will use as rewards/incentives for completing assignments, arriving on time, and quickly resolving conflict. I also always make sure I have plenty of chocolate to encourage other teachers in the building.

I hauled all this stuff to my classroom including several prizes donated by a family member — McDonald’s gift cards, some pop sockets, chapsticks, and the like — and found designated spaces to store it all. I was feeling pretty good about my supplies, and then, when I got home on Friday, I found a large package on my front porch.

A high school friend, who I don’t think I’ve seen in thirty-seven years, had said she was sending a few things; when I opened the box and laid its contents out on the office floor, I was overwhelmed.

A huge supply of feminine hygiene products.

She had sent boxes and boxes of feminine hygiene products, dozens of trial sized lotions and hand sanitizers, several chapsticks, packages of gum, mints, and granola bars, and some cash, in case I needed anything else. She said she “had some things sitting around just waiting to be used” and that “kids deserve to have the necessities of life…whether their parents can afford it or not.”

They sure do.

This is the family of God, my friends. People from across the country — Wisconsin, Missouri, Minnesota, and Michigan — giving what they have to meet a need. My classroom is now more than well-stocked and ready to receive a group of seniors that haven’t seen the inside of a classroom since March of 2020. As they arrive, I want them to know that I, that we, have been thinking about them, that we have prepared for them, and that we are anticipating their needs before they even walk in the room.

You have helped me do that — you have partnered with me to show my students that they are valuable.

They don’t always get that message, to be sure. And in the last eighteen months, they have lived through more than their fair share of challenges. I know they are going to have some anxiety about coming back after such a long absence, so I’ve created a ‘chill’ spot at one end of my room.

My chill spot.

The chill spot is a place my students can move to if they are feeling anxious, angry, or upset in any way. It has tissue, paper, pens, crayons and colored pencils, coloring sheets, beautiful artwork from @mrjohnsonpaints, and some recommendations for how to regain calm. This idea is not mine; most of the teachers in my building have a chill spot. We operate under the assumption that all of our students have experienced trauma — now more than ever — so we are preparing in advance to make sure they can feel safe.

Providing for student needs — food, safety, school supplies — lays the foundation for learning. Job one is showing students that they matter, and as you have cheered me along, not only with gifts and donations, but also with so many words of encouragement and likes and shares of my blog post, you have agreed with me that they do.

My students matter, and this work matters.

They may come in grumbling and complaining. Why can’t we just stay virtual? Why is this classroom so hot? Why do I have to write in this stupid notebook? They are teenagers after all, and teenagers always grumble during change.

But I’m excited! I’ll put on my first day of school outfit and bounce into my classroom next week, ready to receive them, whether they are grumbling or not.

My enthusiasm may need to carry us for a while, so thanks for cheering me on. I didn’t know how much I need you.

…the Father knows what you need before you ask Him.

Matthew 6:8

P.S. If you know a teacher, send them a little extra love at any time, but especially during that first week of class this year. (A gift card to Starbucks or Target, some chocolate, or some fresh flowers just might make the difference.)

Why should white people care about racism?

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As I’ve written about racism and posted about it on social media, I have been reminded that not all people believe that racism even exists.

You may be shaking your head, saying: Come on, Kristin! Why do you keep beating this drum! I’m not racist. Racism is a thing of the past. All this talk just serves to further divide us.

I disagree, and I think our denial of racism is further evidence of its insidious nature — proof that it is way beyond individual acts of prejudice to being deeply rooted in our collective ideology.

Over the past couple of weeks in this space, I have explored the use of Critical Race Theory in the classroom. Some may think I use this framework principally because I teach Black students, but that’s not true. I would use CRT and other antiracist strategies in any classroom — even if my students were all white.

Why? Because racism impacts all of us — most dramatically and tangibly people of color, to be sure, but no less tragically white people.

Think about it. Way back when European explorers came to this continent, they saw its beauty and expansiveness and determined to have it for themselves. Native Americans, of course, had been inhabiting this land for quite some time, and surely some colonists befriended them and sought to share the land peacefully. So, what happened? How did Native Americans end up being called ‘savages’? How did it happen that as this land was being ‘settled’, countless Native Americans were killed or displaced?

Do we ask these questions in school? Or do we take at face value the fact that colonists came to the continent, met the Indians, had Thanksgiving, and, yeah, there were a few massacres here and there, but ultimately the white people got the land and lived happily ever after?

Do we assume that the white people made out pretty well? Certainly, they got what they wanted. Whatever actions they might have taken toward the Native Americans — assimilation, displacement, or the decimation of an entire people group — had little negative impact on the white people, right? Or did they? Did the ‘success’ they found feed the belief among white people that if we want something and fight hard for it, it can be ours? Isn’t this the American Dream? Don’t we all aspire to dream big and succeed, just like the early explorers did? Does it matter if our success comes at someone else’s expense? Isn’t it a dog-eat-dog world, survival of the fittest and all that?

Are we proud of this characteristic of the American ethos? Do we want to perpetuate it further?

What if in teaching this history to American students we asked some questions? What if we sat at a table, map spread wide, and examined what happened? What were the Native Americans doing? What were the white people doing? Who had the right to be on the land? Who won? Who lost?

A question-based strategy such as this, which is informed by Critical Race Theory, encourages learners to ask questions that enable them to see a fuller picture of the story, from more than one perspective. In asking questions, students become critical thinkers. As they ask questions, they find they have more questions: What happened to the Native Americans next? What impact did the colonists’ actions have on their lives? What long-term effects did these events have on the Native American people as a whole?

In asking such questions, students might discover that colonization had a dramatic impact on Native Americans. They might discover the practices connected to Native American residential schools, legislation impacting Native American tribes, and statistics around addiction and suicide among Native American people. They might connect some dots and realize that when we ‘fight for what we want’ and ‘win’, almost without exception, someone loses.

They might develop empathy.

Are there other parts of history where racism played a role? Let’s consider slavery, the practice of kidnapping, buying, selling, beating, and exacting labor from another human. From as early as 1619, Black humans were brought on overcrowded ships by slave traders to the shores of this continent.

More information on slave ships here.

What happened next? Weren’t these ships unloaded at American docks where plantation owners bought and sold humans like cattle? Weren’t these humans forced to work to ensure the financial prosperity of their owners? Weren’t laws enacted to protect the slave owners and to allow them to use any means necessary to force these people to work for no money while living in uninhabitable conditions with little food, clothing, or health care? Weren’t most slave owners white? Weren’t most slaves Black?

Who benefitted from slavery? Who suffered? While Black people worked hard and endured abuse, were they the only ones who were adversely affected by slavery? Or did white people — slave holders, people of the community, citizens of our country — ‘learn’ through slavery that they were superior, that Black lives were expendable, that their own wealth was more important than human rights, that in order to keep and maintain their wealth, they would have to create systems and laws that safeguarded their practices, even if those practices were inhumane?

It can be hard to face the answers to these questions, unless we discover that things truly have changed. And have they?

How would you describe the experience of Black people today? Where do we see them working? Are they gaining wealth or do they continue to work hard to support the wealth of white people? In what ways has the experience of Black people changed in America? What evidence do you find for a shift in the beliefs and attitudes of white people? Do you see an acknowledgment of the impact of racism and slavery on our collective culture?

This Socratic questioning provides students an opportunity to look at the information that is presented and to interrogate it. When we ask questions, when we look for answers, we learn.

In our quest to discover how racism has shaped the American experience, we must start in the beginning with the treatment of Native Americans and Blacks imported through the slave trade, but we must then trace racism’s path through educational practices — what education has been provided for white children, Black children, Native American children, Latino children? Has any group of people received better or worse schooling simply because of their race?

We must continue to follow racism through voting practices — who first held the right to vote? When did others get to participate in elections? Are all groups of people equally able to participate in the electoral process? If not, how can it become more equitable?

We can continue our quest by exploring health care, law enforcement, the prison system, athletics, and higher education, and we can keep on going from there.

What happens when we encourage our students to interrogate both our history and our current practices, to ask: Who is benefitting? Who is hurting? Whose life is positively impacted by this action? Is anyone, intentionally or unintentionally, made to pay a price so that someone else can ‘win’?

When schools allow students to ask these types of questions, particularly about racism in our country, we will begin to see an unveiling of this sin that we often try to hide and deny. Saying that racism does not exist or that it is a thing of the past not only perpetuates the sin against people of color, it also further advances the sins of pride, selfishness, greed, and apathy among people who are white. Refusing to have compassion for all of humanity denies our own humanity.

Discussing race does not divide us — the division is already there. The only way toward healing is to expose the infection, see its pervasiveness, and get on a path toward healing. This work cannot be done in Black communities alone. White people must also acknowledge the impact of racism, the crime it continues to be against humanity, and work to expose it in all its forms and eradicate it. And the only path toward such acknowledgement is a willingness to ask some questions.

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

Mark 8:36

Informed Instruction

Across the country and around the world, countless teachers and students are beginning to return to the classroom. After eighteen months of pandemic, some will be together in the flesh for the first time.

If you listen closely, you can hear the hum of anxiety.

In addition to the usual back-to-school jitters, teachers and students alike are also shouldering Covid 19 fears — do we have to wear a mask? will I get sick? will we return to remote learning? what will it be like to be in the building again? how can I be sure I will be safe?

The seniors who will walk into my classroom in just a few weeks have not been in a classroom since March of 2020 — their sophomore year. They have been zooming into class (or not) from their homes, their cars, and their workplaces for the last eighteen months. Many have rolled over in bed, still wearing pajamas, and logged into class; others haven’t joined online class at all.

So what will I do in the next few weeks to prepare for them — to create a space where they feel comfortable re-entering, where they feel safe, seen, and loved? How will I create a culture inside my classroom where students can trust, engage, and learn?

It’s gonna be a little trickier than usual, to be sure. All of my students live in Detroit, which has been ravaged by Covid. They have all experienced loss — loved ones, friends, a beloved teacher — and most have suffered economically, physically, socially, and emotionally because of Covid. I have to take this into consideration as I prepare for them. Also, 99% of my students are Black, Latino, or Middle Eastern. While the pandemic has changed life for all of us, the impact on communities of color has been disproportionately worse. I have to acknowledge that as I think about how I will create space for grief, for transition, and for learning.

I also have to acknowledge that the impact of racism is an every day reality for my students — their lived experiences are the result of systemic racism. I have to see and admit that my students have had less access to fresh foods, health care, high quality education, and safety. I have to believe that they have been pulled over by the police, followed in a store, or turned down for a job because of their skin color. I have to understand that because of their lived experience, they may not show up in my classroom “ready to learn”.

It’s not because they are less intelligent, or because they are “bad kids”; it’s because many have experienced poverty and most have experienced trauma. In fact, we recognize at our school that all of our students have likely experienced trauma — even before Covid — in the form of homelessness, neglect, abuse, or violence. Knowing this, our whole educational framework revolves around a model of trauma-informed instruction. And, since we know that much of this trauma is rooted in racism or the impact of systemic racism on our community, we also hold as a core value that we are anti-racist. We cannot fully care for our students who have been traumatized by racism if we do not actively work to dismantle racist systems that perpetuate this harm.

Our director of instruction says we need to ask ourselves in each moment, “am I replicating oppression or am I tearing it down?”

All of this, my friends, fits inside the framework of Critical Race Theory. The fact that I believe that my students have experienced loss at a higher rate than white kids, that they are more likely to experience poverty and trauma, that they are more likely to have an incarcerated family member, that they need a different educational approach because of their lived experience, all fits inside the CRT framework.

And how does this paradigm impact my instruction? Immeasurably.

First, the design of my classroom and the structure of our time together is based on the assumption that my students need to feel safe and supported. Our school uses a model called The No-Nonsense Nurturer so that in every classroom, students experience the same expectations, the same language, the same reinforcement as they learn how to be learners. My students can expect when they walk in my classroom, or any classroom in the building, that they will be given clear directions and held to high expectations. The model provides acknowledgement, praise, and rewards for those who are on track and redirection, one-on-one remediation, and further support for those who need it to get on track. Our teachers believe it is critically important that our students opt in to learning, that they earn a high school education, and that they go on to post-secondary education, the military, or work after high school. We believe it is literally a matter of life and death. We already know the trajectory for students of color who do not complete high school, get a job, or go to college — we already know that it doesn’t end well.

We can either replicate the experiences they have had in the past or we can try a different, research-informed practice.

I expect that most of my first week or two will be spent building culture and systems. After eighteen months outside of the classroom, our students (and our teachers) are going to need some time to re-acclimate to the ways of being in the classroom. How do we manage sitting next to each other? How do we function without watching our phones for notifications? How do we contribute to classroom conversations? How do we collaborate? How do we celebrate one another?

And, as we learn those ways of being together, I will slowly begin to integrate content — common core curriculum — using strategies that have high impact for my students. With this group of students, I will start almost immediately with journal writing which is useful not only for building writing muscle but also for developing student voice. Throughout the year, we will incorporate grammar instruction, reading, discussion, and more writing. As I get to know my students and their strengths and weaknesses, I will tailor instruction to best prepare them for what’s next — college, trade school, military, or a career.

I will be supported by a team — our college access counselor and other counseling staff — who will help our students identify their long term goals and explore ways of achieving those goals. Most of our learners, if they so choose, will be first-generation college students, so they need extra supports, and we provide them.

We meet our students where they are, support them as they envision where they might go, and then provide them with the tools they need to take steps toward that goal.

Why?

How can we do otherwise? If we can see with our two eyes that our students need love, support, and a path forward, how can we do anything else than use all the tools we have at our disposal to provide these things? If we know — and friends, we do know — that inequity is a fact in our experience as Americans, that people of color have long been feared, subjugated, controlled, and misrepresented, than it is unconscionable to do anything less than our very best to change this course.

We have replicated oppression in the past — knowingly or unknowingly — we must refuse to do so moving forward.

Our students are counting us. Their very lives depend on those who will stand up and insist on a new way.

The Lord God has told us what is right and what He demands: “See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God.”

Micah 6:8, Contemporary English Version

*If you would like to partner with me in this work, please request my wish list.

**If you’d like to read more about educational disparity, check out a post I wrote last year: “What World Are We Living In?”

***To learn more about my school, check out this video.

Critical Race Theory in my Classroom

Click the arrow to hear me read this post.

I was minding my own business, enjoying a summer full of family visits, sleeping in, and reading indiscriminately when not once, not twice, but several times, the words critical race theory or CRT were set in front of me.

How do I as a teacher feel about critical race theory?

or, more recently, If you are a teacher and believe in CRT, then you really need to stop teaching period.

To be honest, I was at first a little baffled. I was unsurprisingly aware of critical race theory because of my background and work as a teacher, but I was unsure why people outside the classroom were talking about it, and even more confused about why were they upset about it.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that Fox news has spent a sizable amount of time (and money) talking about CRT — one source says Fox has mentioned CRT 1300 times since March. What’s their point? Why do they care so much?

You may be asking yourself, “What is critical race theory, anyway?”

I’m glad you asked.

Critical Race Theory “is a theoretical and interpretive mode that examines the appearance of race and racism across dominant cultural modes of expression. In adopting this approach, CRT scholars attempt to understand how victims of systemic racism are affected by cultural perceptions of race and how they are able to represent themselves to counter prejudice” (Purdue Owl).

In simpler terms, CRT is a viewpoint or lens which acknowledges that racism exists not only in personal acts of prejudice but in established systems; it seeks to identify the impact of racism and to do something about it. The work of CRT is done in several contexts — education, sociology, the legal system, etc. Most familiar to me, as a teacher of students, most of whom are people of color, is its use in rhetorical analysis — examining texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird to see how racism impacted not only the action of the story but the telling of the story. In other words, it not only points out that the unjust conviction of Tom Robinson in TKAM was an outgrowth of the racist beliefs of the fictional community of Maycomb, Alabama, but it also examines the fact that the author, Harper Lee, was a wealthy white woman and questions the impact of her race and class on the telling of the story.

The story, you may remember, is told through the eyes of a young white girl, Scout, who learns that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” Critical Race Theory might ask if Harper Lee, Scout, or any white person for that matter, is actually able to do that — to climb into the skin belonging to a person of color and actually experience what they experience.

The main reason why we can’t, CRT would suggest, is because white people are not impacted by the racism that is baked into many systems within which we must function — education, real estate, employment, law and public policy, and the like. Scout can’t understand what Tom Robinson experienced through the legal system because she would’ve been presumed innocent until proven guilty by virtue of her skin color, which is great for her. Unfortunately, Tom Robinson, a black man in mid-twentieth century Alabama did not have that privilege. He was assumed guilty the minute a white girl pointed her finger at him.

Atticus Finch and the Life Lessons of Moral Courage | Heroes: What They Do  & Why We Need Them
Atticus Finch with Tom Robinson

CRT is not only used to examine literary texts, but also to interrogate cultural practices. According to the Purdue OWL, CRT “scholarship traces racism in America through the nation’s legacy of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and recent events.” It looks at historical events and asks how race played a role, how were systems built, and how we got where we are today. Why is it, CRT asks, that a group of mostly Black people demonstrating at the steps of the Capitol are seen as ‘dangerous’ and dispersed by use of tear gas while a group of mostly white people, brandishing weapons and shouting racial epithets, are allowed to invade the US Capitol building during a legislative session with very little immediate consequences or threats to their bodies?

What is it that makes us see a group of Black people as ‘threatening’ and a group of white people as ‘exercising their right to protest’? CRT would say it is the racism that we have been raised with that teaches us that white people are safe and Black people are dangerous. White people are nice; Black people are menacing. These insidious messages are woven into policies that shape our schools, our neighborhoods, our legal system, our health care system, and even our entertainment and business practices. Racism is so deeply embedded in our culture that some of us deny its existence.

We claim, “I am not racist,” while acknowledging that Black students have less funding for education, fewer course options, and are less likely to be prepared for college than white students (UNCF). We say, “I stand for equal opportunities for all,” while knowing that the black unemployment rate has been consistently twice that of the white unemployment rate for almost fifty years (Center for American Progress). We say, “I love all kinds of people,” as we go on attending our all white churches, hanging out with mostly white friend groups, and shopping in predominantly white spaces. We benefit from the systems that keep Black people away from us — away from our schools, away from our jobs, away from our neighborhoods. We don’t like to admit that, because it sounds awful and makes us feel bad, but if we take a look through a lens shaped by critical race theory, it will be very difficult to deny.

So you might ask yourself, why is FOX news spending so much time telling its viewers to keep CRT out of the classroom? What is it afraid of? Is it afraid that our children, if they are taught to use critical race theory will see what we refuse to see? that they will change what we refuse to change? that our experience as white people in America might be transformed?

Might our children and their children actually work toward a more perfect union where all people are seen as equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights? Might our brothers and sisters of color, yes, fellow members of the family of God, more freely and equitably experience life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Fox News can say whatever it wants; I am going to employ any tool necessary to dismantle racism in my classroom. I am going to teach my students to ask all the questions — even the ones that make me uncomfortable. Why? because for my students, it is a literal matter of life or death — prison or freedom — poverty or prosperity — despair or hope.

In the words of my school’s director of academics, “in each moment, I can either replicate oppression or tear it down.” If CRT is a tool I can use to identify racism and tear it down, then let me get to it.

My students are counting on me.

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Galatians 5:14

**If you would like to partner with me in loving my students, please reach out to me at krathje66@gmail.com and I will share my classroom wishlist.

A time to embrace

It was a weird year to join a school staff. With Covid, all of our back-to-school meetings were virtual. We could see one another’s faces and occasionally hear one another’s voices, but we did not share physical space for those two weeks. Instead, each of us was safely distant from the others, working from our homes.

I wasn’t the only new hire, but I couldn’t be sure, just from looking at my Zoom screen, which staff members were veterans and which ones were rookies. The situation was complicated by the fact that two school staffs had come together for the 2020-2021 school year after one had closed, so even the teachers who had been on staff for three or five or ten years, might have been looking at new faces and wondering where they fit in.

And maybe that dynamic, the fact that none of us felt terribly grounded, created a situation in which no one felt superior; no one felt “new”. Or perhaps we all felt “new” in a way, since we were all learning how to do school online — learning how to use digital platforms for instruction, for behavioral incentives, for managing student work. I can’t know how everyone else was feeling, but from the beginning, I had a sense that we were all in this together. We were all uniting to meet the needs of our students during a pandemic — one that had decimated the community of Detroit in which our school is situated and where all of our students live.

From the beginning of the school year, our focus was to provide high quality instruction in a manner that was safe for our students and for our staff. We took every measure — providing our students with chromebooks and hot spots so that they could safely learn from home, upping the requirements for our all-star custodial staff who sanitized bathrooms and doorknobs on the hour, and allowing staff with health concerns to work from home. If a positive case of Covid was detected, everyone was sent home for two weeks while the building went through a deep clean and while everyone who had even remotely close exposure could get tested and watch for symptoms.

We were so careful, in fact — wearing masks in the building, staying six feet apart, sanitizing surfaces, and holding all meetings via Zoom — that even when a positive case occurred within the building, it was not spread. We were even offered weekly Covid testing every Monday, so when asymptomatic cases were diagnosed, the whole building could go home before any spread could take place.

Our leadership took every precaution to make sure our students and staff remained safe and healthy.

So what a shock it was, as we were all enjoying our summer break, knowing that we finished the year with minimal Covid impact, to receive a message from our principal that one of our coworkers, a well-loved teacher, just forty-four years old, had died very shortly after a cancer diagnosis.

It felt like a punch to the gut. I was stunned. How could this woman, who had volunteered to plan all the senior events (during a pandemic!) so that “our babies” would have a senior pinning, a prom, and an in-person graduation, have died? I had just been on zoom with her a few weeks earlier, discussing teaching strategies and sharing resources. She’d asked early in the year if I would mind talking with her from time to time as she was striving to be the best she could be for our students.

In the group chat where the news of her death had been shared, my colleagues instantly began sharing with one another how they were shocked and devastated. None of us could believe that just as we were planning to be physically with one another in the fall, this woman who leaned into every Zoom room, face fully on the screen, smiling and attentive, would not be with us.

Shortly after we learned of her passing, our principal sent out another note. We would have a candlelight vigil and balloon launch the following week to allow students and staff to grieve. I had heard of this practice just earlier in the year. Two of my former students from St. Louis and one of this year’s seniors all were killed by gun violence within weeks of one another between Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Each of them had been remembered in this way.

Our principal’s note said to bring pink balloons (our colleague’s favorite color) and to come to the school. On that evening, my husband and I cut a family trip short so that we could be there. We pulled up to the building and found the principal and one of the custodians setting up. As we got closer, both of them moved toward us. After a whole school year of giving one another a wide berth, my principal and I instinctively hugged. I turned to the custodian, and we held one another.

It was no longer safe to remain distant.

As each staff member arrived, the hugging continued. Friends who had stepped around one another all year long, were offering comfort in the only way that would do — touch.

And tears.

Tears dripped from our eyes as forty-four candles were lit and balloons were shared. Markers were passed so that we could write tributes on the balloons. One teacher, who also happens to be a police chaplain, offered Scripture, emotional support, a space for sharing memories, and prayer. He told the dozen or more students who had gathered on a weeknight in the middle of summer that whatever they were feeling was ok, that the staff was grieving, too, that we were all shocked. None of us had known she was sick, he said; she hadn’t known long herself. He offered support through our social worker, our counseling resources, and himself. “We are a family,” he said, “and family supports one another through difficult times such as this.”

Our colleague’s mother moved to the middle of our circled bodies and shared that her daughter had loved our students, had talked about them all the time. Even from her hospital bed, she regretted that she was missing prom. We all nodded, knowing this was true, knowing that her heart had been fully with our kids.

As one, we counted to three and released our balloons into the sky. The cluster of bodies on the ground gazed upward, silently, for many long moments, watching the pink balloons lift into the clouds.

And then we lingered. Staff and students spoke to one another, shared memories, and stood closely in the silence. Gradually we began to chat: how is your summer? what have you been up to?

A baby was passed from his mother to students to staff. As though he knew our hearts were hurting, he lay his head our shoulders then lifted his gaze to smile us, instinctively bringing joy to the mourning.

One by one, the gathered began to dissipate, moving to cars, waving goodbyes, holding eye contact a little longer than we might’ve before, promising to see each other soon, knowing that we were connected a little more now than we had been a few hours earlier.

I don’t know how next year will play out. It holds promise for more proximity, more gathering, more sharing, and I hope we get that. It was appropriate to keep our distance for a while to protect one another, but it seems the best way to care for one another now is to come back together.

[There is] a time to refrain from embracing, and a time to embrace.

Ecclesiastes 3: 5 (Order reversed by me.)

This just might work.

Click above to listen, or read on.

Last week I reminisced about our life in our little house by the river. Today, I share some of the journey to our next nest.

Even before we moved in, we knew we wouldn’t live in the little house by the river forever. It’s university property, after all, and one does not retire in university property.

Not that we are retiring. We’re not even close.

I’m just one year into my journey at Detroit Leadership Academy and have accepted the role of Master Teacher for next year. I will stay in the classroom, teaching English Language Arts to our seniors, working with my colleagues to close the educational equity gap and prepare our students for success in college, trade school, or the work world. This past year has more than affirmed my passion for teaching in Detroit, and I hope for many years of teaching ahead in this next chapter.

Similarly, John is as invested as ever in the students at Concordia. When he moved here eight years ago, he had a sense of what this position held, what his role and responsibilities would be, but now he fully understands how his gifts as an educator, a counselor, and a pastor work together to support college students as they develop into adulthood. He’s part of a strong team of leaders here who are committed to walking with students through both joys and challenges, and he’s excited about continuing in that role.

So why the change? Don’t we love living on campus? We sure do! I’ve written about how much we love it over the years. Even during the pandemic, when the campus was almost vacant, we enjoyed its beauty — the green of summer against the brick structures, the fall leaves beside the peaceful Huron River, the pure white expanses of snow in the open spaces, and always the lilacs, the tulips, and the peonies in the spring. We have loved living and literally walking beside students, faculty, and staff these past years — watching ultimate frisbee from our patio, hearing laughter outside our door, and chatting with members of this community as we move throughout our weeks. We have experienced many unique relationships as a result of living in the little house by the river, and we are sad to be leaving.

Nevertheless, from the beginning, we knew we would one day move out. We weren’t sure when or to where, but from the beginning, we’ve kind of had our eye on Ypsilanti. We love Ann Arbor — its parks, its restaurants, its cool campus scene — but when in Ann Arbor, I’ve always felt a bit like a tourist. I love to explore how beautiful, how smart, how impressive Ann Arbor is — I don’t get tired of it. However, when I visit Ypsilanti, I feel more at home — its edges aren’t polished; it’s not trying to impress anyone. Ypsilanti looks like it’s been through some stuff and lived to tell — and I resonate with that.

So last winter, when we were on month one million of Covid isolation and my husband’s plantar fasciitis got in the way of our long quarantine walks, we started taking drives around Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and their surrounding areas. We talked about what we liked and didn’t like. We discussed our future. We clarified our goals. Then one day, we called our friend who is a realtor and formalized our search.

Over the next few months, we looked at many, many houses. Our realtor’s patience with us allowed us to imagine what we were looking for — what kind of space would suit us in this stage of life and carry us forward into the next. The little house by the river definitely informed that vision. We have been very content in this simple home, and we could picture ourselves in something similar — three bedrooms, perhaps a second bathroom, a garage, and definitely space for a garden. We wanted to be in a community where we could mix with people whose journeys may have been different from ours, where we could build relationships that would challenge and enrich us. Our goal was to stick to a conservative budget so that we could easily pay our mortgage and continue to live our simple life and contribute to causes that matter to us.

This was a tall order in the current real estate market. Interest rates are at an all-time low, and we were not the only ones looking for a house during the pandemic. In fact, the first house we bid on had several other offers, and so did the second house. Buyers right now are offering well over asking price and some are paying fully in cash. In fact, the third house we made an offer on had twenty-six (26!) other offers. The winner paid in cash. We were starting to get discouraged and even said, “It’s fine. Let’s take a break; we don’t need to buy a house right now.”

Then, on a Friday, when I clicked through the latest listings in an email sent by our realtor, I noticed a little three bedroom with a garage in Ypsilanti Township. I pulled it up on Google Maps and thought, “We aren’t going to like it. It’s too close to the highway.” I wasn’t even going to go look, but as I left work that day, I thought, “I’m in the car anyway, and it’s kind of on the way.” I took the exit and drove the path that we had driven to so many others in the area, and then I found myself on a quiet street that was indeed extremely close to the highway, but for some reason didn’t feel like it was. I pulled up in front of a small blue ranch, put the car in park, lowered the windows, and listened.

It was so quiet. Across the street was a playground and what was once an elementary school but is now an alternative education center. The house seemed in good shape, and so did the garage. I drove up and down the street, looking at the other houses on the block.

“Huh,” I thought, “this just might work.”

I texted my husband and our realtor, “I know we just said we were going to take a little break, but I’m sitting in front of this house, and I think it might be worth a look inside.”

Two days later we were standing in the driveway, then we were walking around to the back where we saw the garden — an enormous garden, right at the back of the yard, adjacent to three other yards that also had their gardens right next to the fence. I could immediately see myself leaning on that fence, talking to the neighbors, sharing gardening tips, and passing produce. I saw mature well-cared-for rose bushes and a patio next to the house, where I imagined our Adirondack chairs might fit quite nicely. We walked inside and found a lovely well-lit living room, a small eat-in kitchen, and three small bedrooms on the main floor. Everything had been recently painted, and the flooring had all been replaced. It felt fresh and ready to be lived in. We made our way downstairs to the finished basement where we found a fourth bedroom, a family room, the laundry, and all the makings of a bathroom — toilet, shower, sink — minus the finishing touches of walls and a vanity.

I heard my husband saying, “This might just work”

We guarded our feelings and put in an offer — the fourth offer we had made in a little over a month — and then we waited.

We didn’t have to wait long. By Monday the sellers had accepted our offer, and less than a month later, we have closed on our next nest. We haven’t yet begun to move in, but we’ve already put seeds and seedlings in the garden, and I’ve already leaned on the fence and talked with the neighbors. They like to chat and linger, just like I was hoping they would.

As I’m packing boxes in the little house by the river, I continue to reminisce, but my gaze is starting to move forward. I’m imagining our things living inside their new spaces. I’m picturing us sitting in our living room watching children playing in the park. I’m looking forward to walks in our next neighborhood.

I think this just might work.

You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.

Psalm 145:16

Come Closer

In the past weeks and months we’ve seen an escalation, it seems, of the gun violence that has been a plague on America since well before the attack at a high school in Columbine, Colorado on April 20, 1999, twenty-two years ago this week. In 2020, during a global pandemic, when many of us were under stay-at-home orders for large chunks of time, the New York Times reports that there were more than 600 shootings in which four or more people were injured or killed. In 2021, the United States has logged 147 such mass shootings and eleven mass murders (in which four or more people were killed) as of April 16th. Just a few days ago, a young man shot and killed eight at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis before turning the gun on himself. In March, a man killed ten people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. A few days earlier, a young man killed eight adults at three spas in Atlanta.

At the same time, incidents of police shooting and killing suspects seem to be increasing. Last Sunday, April 11, Daunte Wright, a 20 year old man, was shot during a traffic stop. On March 29, Adam Toledo, a male teenager, was shot after a brief middle of the night police chase. In total 213 civilians were fatally shot by police in the first three months of 2021 in the United States.

What is happening? As I watch the news from my couch, I find myself yelling: “get rid of semi-automatic weapons!” and “we need free mental health care for all,” as if more mental health care and a few gun laws would make the changes we need in America.

I really wish it were that simple, but what I’m starting to wonder is what if the shootings –these killings — aren’t the problem, but merely symptoms — and as soon as I’ve written the words, I know I’m right.

The problem is much more pervasive than the gun violence we’ve seen over the last weeks, months, and years, and rather than being isolated to some we might call ‘killers’ or ‘terrorists’, ‘thugs’ or ‘criminals’, the problem lives inside all of us. The deadly disease of ‘othering’, or dehumanization, that causes and perpetuates isolation, desperation, and violence has infected all of us, and we spread it through our actions — and our inactions — every day.

Brené Brown in her now-famous Braving the Wilderness describes this disease saying:

Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.

excerpt found here

Have you seen this? Have you found yourself getting angrier and angrier, losing trust, and being unable to listen to those with whom you don’t agree? Have you found yourself listening for buzzwords that can help you categorize people into the enemy? I have!

Haven’t we even named those who are our enemies? Liberals, conservatives, libtards, Trumpsters, thugs, Karens, maskers, no-maskers, … I don’t have enough space on this page to list all the ways that we label those that we put on the other side or that we ourselves identify with.

Brené Brown explains that we dehumanize others in order to justify our mistreatment of them. If we reduce fellow humans to labels or categories through our language, we create distance between them and ourselves, and we find it easier to sling verbal grenades. Doing harm to these others seems right and appropriate if they are indeed the enemy. I want to shut down those I view as different from me so that my agenda can be furthered. I’m right, after all, and they are clearly so, so wrong.

If I call someone a “liberal”, I take away their personality, their humanity. I decide that they are less than human because they believe ‘socialist ideas’ and will certainly bring our country to ruin if they are left unchecked.

The same thing happens when I label someone a “Trumpster.” In my mind, I’ve consciously or unconsciously demoted their status to subhuman. They are no longer a child of our Creator, how could they be if they are not only ‘conservative but likely racist, homophobic, and hateful toward women’?

In my mind, I justify my ill thoughts toward these “enemies”; I view myself as more righteous, more human. However, such dehumanization not only reduces others to subhuman status, it reduces me, too. It makes me less than what I’m called to be, less than kind, less than gentle, less than compassionate, less than self-controlled. I find myself behaving as one who has no love, no hope, no wisdom, no knowledge of a God who has created and loves all of us. All of us.

Brene’ Brown says, ‘When we desecrate [others’] divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.”

So what is the remedy? Perhaps we will find our way by re-humanizing, re-connecting. And how do we do that?

I am reading a book called The Restorative Practice Handbook by Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel. My principal handed me this book last fall when I started working at Detroit Leadership Academy, whose educational framework is grounded in the idea that all of our students have experienced trauma, all of them need restoration, a space into which they might step to find a different way.

And isn’t that what we need? Don’t we need some space in which we might turn around and find our way back to humanity, to compassion, to empathy for other humans whether they are similar to us or very, very different?

The main premise of the book is that when one person has caused harm to another or to the community in general, the goal should be to restore that person to his community through a very simple series of steps. Rather than immediately jumping to consequences or even punishment, Costello et al have spent the past twenty years practicing this restorative process which asks the offender to first describe what happened, what they were thinking at the time, what they’ve been thinking of since, who they think they may have offended, and what they might do to make things right. This simple questioning creates space. It allows the person, the human, to think about what happened, to process their emotions, and to realize that their actions had consequences for others.

The next step is to allow those who were impacted to share what they were thinking when the event occurred, to describe the impact it had on them, and to suggest what might need to happen to make things right. The person(s) who was harmed has a chance to process their emotions, to put their feelings into words, and to be a partner in the process of reconciliation.

These discussions take place inside a circle of those who were involved and other interested parties such as parents or community leaders. The process takes an investment of time and intentionality, but as it has been used inside school and institutional settings, the results have been remarkable. Communication in a caring and supportive environment has allowed the individual to “move past shame…and make things right and restore his relationship with the….community” (74). Crucial to the success of this process is a commitment to “‘separate the deed from the doer’ by acknowledging the intrinsic worth of the person while rejecting the unacceptable behavior” (73). This is counterintuitive. We really want to label others according to their actions, pushing them away from us into convenient boxes and imagining their ‘enemy image’, but where has that gotten us? Further and further apart.

What does this have to do with gun violence? Well, remember I said that gun violence was a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. The real disease is our habit of dehumanizing others, of hating them, of calling them names, and pitting ourselves against them.

Brené Brown says that “people are hard to hate close up,” and that might be why we push them away. If we pulled ourselves into circles and listened to one another, listened to each other’s stories, heard each other’s hearts, we might find that our preconceived notions were oh so wrong. We might discover that we are more alike than we might have ever imagined. We might find empathy and even love.

It won’t be easy to do this work. Just reading this book over the last several days has forced me to confront all the ways I have been judgmental, punitive, legalistic, and dehumanizing. That has not been fun, but as a good friend said just recently, “I’d rather realize I’ve been an asshole for the last fifty years and work to live differently than to keep being an asshole for the rest of my life and not even know it.”

I’ve been a real asshole to some people. I haven’t been able to separate the deed from the doer. I’ve pushed people away and made judgments about them, cutting off any possibility for relationship or empathy. I’m saddened by that, and I want to do better. And I’m wondering if a few of us trying to do better might make a difference, if a few of us showing love, compassion, and empathy might begin to change the world.

I’m willing to try, and I already know that I will fail in this trying, so I am counting on some of you to keep calling me back, to bring me into the circle, to ask me what happened, what I was thinking, and what needs to happen to make things right. Are you with me?

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, as Christ forgave you.”

Ephesians 4: 32

Seeing Racism

Note: I have included several links in this post, but I am not reading my references to them in the audio version.

I’m reading Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime with my seniors.

I read it the first time myself back in August, when I had just taken my current teaching position at a charter school in Detroit.

Trevor Noah tells his story of being born during Apartheid in South Africa. His very existence was illegal– his father was a white European and his mother was a Black South African — and it was against the law for whites and Blacks to have sex with one another. Because he grew up facing extreme racism and living with few resources, I felt that my students might resonate with his story. I hoped they would find the story engaging and inspiring.

We couldn’t get to it right away, though. All fall we were busy playing catch up. My seniors had not taken the SAT, so we had to do some super fast prep work and bring them all to the building — six feet apart — to take the test in person. We also spent several weeks researching, learning about, and applying to colleges. Many of our students now have acceptances and some are working through the financial aid process. For a school that had fewer than 10% of its seniors go on to college last year, the progress we have made (during a pandemic no less) is remarkable.

Anyway, back to Trevor Noah.

Before the second semester started, I made sure that each of our seniors had a copy of Born a Crime along with a composition book and a set of highlighters. My goal for this semester was to engage these seniors in the types of activities I have used in the college freshman composition courses I’ve taught. I’ve made some adjustments, like adding supports such as guided note-taking and using the Audible version of the book along with the text. I’m also using a pace that is approachable for seniors who are not only logging in to school via Zoom but who are also, due to educational inequity, not familiar with the rigor that seniors in other districts might be.

Some of you may wonder what I mean by ‘educational inequity’.

You can check out these statistics at your leisure, but let me summarize: students of color have been historically and perpetually underserved by the public educational system of the United States. This is a symptom of systemic racism. During slavery, one way of maintaining the hierarchy of the forced labor system was to prohibit slaves from learning to read and write. Later, when Blacks were allowed to go to school, their buildings and materials were intentionally substandard. This inequity was not resolved by Brown vs. the Board of Education–this landmark legislation did not create equity in schools. In fact, in some ways it made the experience of students of color worse. (Check out this podcast for a discussion on how Black educators were disenfranchised and students of color were henceforth educated mostly by white teachers, much to their detriment.) In 2021, African American students are still less likely to have access to college-ready curriculum, are located in schools with less-qualified teachers, and are concentrated in schools with fewer resources. To put it in simple terms, the seniors I teach in Detroit are years behind the seniors in the Ann Arbor schools where I live. Why? The perpetuation of systemic racism. (To read my blog post comparing education in the communities where I live and where I work, click here.)

So, it is with these students, most of whom have been schooled up to this point in the Detroit Public Schools or charter schools in the area, most of whom read below grade level, most of whom will do well to score 800 on the SAT, most of whom have been poorly educated and are ill-prepared to succeed in college — it is with these students that I am reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime.

Over the last two weeks as we’ve listened to Noah narrate his story of being hidden by his mother, of the ways she had to sneak around so as not to be caught, my students have been shocked. They can’t believe it would be illegal to have an interracial relationship. One student said, “Can you imagine your mom going to jail just for having you?”

When they learned that a Black person who was involved with a white person would go to jail for five years while the white person was given a slap on the wrist, I asked, “Have you ever seen that kind of inequity in policing in the United States?” When I showed them on the map how Black South Africans were moved onto Homelands far away from the whites who lived in the cities and were later allowed to live in slummy Townships nearer to the cities so that they could provide labor to sustain the lifestyles of the whites, I wondered aloud, “Have you ever seen this kind of segregation in the communities where you live?”

I’ve asked these questions, whose answers seem obvious to me, and my students seem to have no comment. They are tracking the story of Trevor and his mother and their escapades in South Africa, but when I challenge them to connect the racism the Noahs encounter to racism here in America, they remain silent.

Instead, they want to know if there is still racism in South Africa. They want to know if interracial relationships are still against the law.

I’m struggling for ways to talk about how long it takes to change the kind of thinking that would intentionally subjugate whole groups of people for the benefit of another group. I mean, I can tell them that Apartheid was declared a “crime against humanity” in South Africa in 1998, but I have to also add that that decision did about as much to eradicate racism in South Africa as the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did to eradicate racism in the United States.

I’m trying to lead them to make connections themselves instead of giving lectures on the history of racism in America, but I’m getting the feeling that their 17- and 18-year old selves aren’t much more aware of the impact of racism on their lives than my 17- or 18 – year old self was.

Is that possible? Is it possible that my Black students who have grown up in Detroit don’t fully understand the power and impact of racism? Is it possible that they don’t know that their socioeconomic status, their substandard schools, and the incidence of crime and policing in their communities are all a function of systemic racism? Having lived in their communities all of their lives, are they even aware that communities outside of theirs are so different?

I don’t think I was. I was mostly oblivious to racism at their age. I knew that slavery was wrong, but I couldn’t see the systems that were continuing to advantage me, a middle class white girl, over another human, a middle class Black girl. I could call out the hate behind the Holocaust, but I didn’t see the hate that drives inequity in health care or the entertainment industry.

I think I assumed that my students would be acutely aware of racism’s impact on them, but you know, I am starting to think that they are not. And, I’m not sure I –a middle-aged, white woman — should be the one to connect all the dots. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.

My students know their own experience. They know what their schooling has been like. They know that money is tight, and that shit goes down on the street where they live. They know that one of their classmates was killed by gun violence a little over a week ago, but I’m wondering if they know that that doesn’t happen in the lives of most white students in America. I am wondering if they know that they are a few years behind their white peers. I am wondering if they know that they haven’t been adequately prepared for college.

And if they don’t know, they are about to find out that their experience has been very different than the experience of much of white America. And I’m afraid that blow is gonna hit hard.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they know — fully know — all about racism and how it’s held them back. Maybe they’ve been knowing, and they are pissed, and they’ll be damned if they’re gonna talk to some white teacher about it. That’s possible, but I’ve been doing this gig for a minute, and I know how to read a room, even it turns out, a Zoom room.

I don’t think I’m wrong, so what I’m gonna do is to continue to build relationships for as long as I have these seniors. These few short minutes a few times a week, I am going to show up and give them my best. I’m going to read Trevor Noah with them and let them interrogate the racism of another culture, one that is removed and therefore easier to fully see. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll build some muscle that will give them the resiliency to one day interrogate the racism of this culture that has done them so wrong.

Lord, have mercy.

If my people who are called by My name humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sins and will heal their land.

2 Chronicles 7:14