Zooming in Detroit: Week One

One of the school-wide practices at my new school is that every student, every period, completes a ‘Do Now’ at the beginning of each class. A ‘Do Now’ is a quick in-the-moment assessment of whether or not the student has already mastered or partially mastered the intended goal for the day.

For example, on Monday, each of my students will use their new school-issued laptops to learn how to navigate to Google Classroom — that is my goal for the day. Monday, before we get started with our lesson, each of my classes will start with a Do Now that will be completed in a Google form. It will look something like this

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The form actually has about three questions: one that will review the lesson from last week, the one above, and a question that requires students to enter their first and last names. The students complete the form and submit it, and then I show them their results on my shared screen in the Zoom room.

Together, we will see if the students are familiar with Google Classroom or not, and how specific my instruction needs to be for them to be able to navigate to Google classroom, find an assignment, complete it, and submit it.

Learning how to get to Google Classroom doesn’t really sound tricky to most of us, but many of my students have just in the past week opened their first Gmail account, just had their first experience with Zoom, and just learned how to open a Google doc, make a copy of it, fill it in, download it, and email it to me as an attachment.

If you find this seems heavy with tech-lingo, imagine how they feel. Up until the Covid-19 quarantine, the students at my school were completing all of their assignments with pen and paper. The school has a computer lab, yes, but it had mostly been used by students who are working on credit recovery — making up courses that they failed but still need to pass in order to graduate. Because of this and other logistical factors, other students had limited opportunities to utilize the computer lab.

So, while some of my students found it quite simple to do what I was asking them to, others had to be walked through step by step, and several needed the steps modeled multiple times. Most of these juniors and seniors have never before Covid-19 utilized online learning, the Google suite, or — quite frankly — email. This, my friends, is what we call scarcity of resources — one aspect of educational inequity.

But I digress.

These students who six months ago were completing all of their assignments in the classroom with paper and pen are now in their homes logging into Zoom rooms — three classes per day — and learning not only the course content, but also all the language that supports digital literacy. Some of my students are learning how to copy and paste a link into their navigation bar just like you and I had to learn when we first started working on the Internet. I spent the whole of last week helping students ensure that they were logged into only their school-issued Gmail account, that they understood the expectations for participation and engagement in Zoom classes, and that they were able to navigate all the pieces we will use this year — Google forms and docs, Gmail, Zoom, etc.

And all the while, some of them were also babysitting younger siblings, taking phone calls from their doctors, trying to get their family members to give them a quiet space, figuring out how they are going to get to work after class, communicating with teachers that they will be out all next week because they are getting their wisdom teeth removed, and asking anyone who will listen how long we are going to have to do school this way.

Just in order to “show up” for school this past week, my students had to pick up equipment from the building, get familiar with a new device, find space in their homes from which to work, and read and understand their schedule which is housed on another website which they have to log in to and navigate. This schedule — one that was difficult to create in the first place because the school switched from a traditional six-period-a-day format to a block schedule — was found to have errors in it such as an imbalance in classes (i.e. one of mine had 47 students in it and another had zero). So, in order to show up this week, my students (and all their teachers) will have to view and understand a new version of that schedule and adjust to the resulting changes.

For me that means that one of my classes has a completely new roster — I will lose all of the students I had in the class last week and meet a whole new group tomorrow.

And this is how it goes when not only the students are learning new structures, new formats, and new technology, but the staff is learning, too. Glitches are going to happen. Connections are going to be lost. People are going to be in the wrong virtual place at the wrong time. And it’s going to be frustrating.

Students are figuring out — in the moment — how to enable their browser to access their microphone and their camera. Teachers are learning how to eject rogue disrupters who somehow gained access to their Zoom rooms while simultaneously learning the names and faces of the students who should actually be there, some of which are — despite the school’s best efforts to get them a computer — working from a phone which won’t allow them to turn on their camera.

It’s a lot.

Nevertheless, the students I saw on Thursday and Friday showed up, worked through all the difficulties, and found a way to do everything I was asking them to do. Some of them finished quickly; some of them took more time. Before they left my Zoom room, I gave them an “Exit Ticket.” The Exit Ticket, like the Do Now, is a quick in-the-moment assessment of whether or not the student achieved the stated goal of that class period.

One question on the exit ticket asked for the student’s name, one asked if they were able to complete the task, the last question was this:

One week in, how do you imagine they responded?

Many clicked “It’s fine,” which I imagine hearing with a note of “it is what it is.” About just as many clicked, “Ugh! I wish we were at school.” But you know, only a few despite all the technological challenges we faced last week, noted frustration with technology, and a few even clicked “It’s great! I love working from home!”

I have about 130 students. I have to believe that each of their stories are different — each of them is overcoming a different set of obstacles just to show up. Because of this, I feel an obligation to be prepared, to bring my best, to demonstrate empathy, and to provide support for their learning so that each of these students who dared to show up, will leave with a plan to do it again the next day.

And when they show up the next day, I’ll put a link to the Do Now in the chat box, and we’ll get started.

Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.

Proverbs 16:3

Giving less than 100%

The first day of school is tomorrow! I’m excited — so excited! — but I am also grounding myself with intention. For the first time in my life, I am planning to give less than 100%.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve written lesson plans and have had them reviewed. I’ve organized my classroom — putting up posters and alphabetizing my classroom library. I’ve prepared Google slides and have read through them aloud. I’ve planned my scope and sequence for the first quarter and have already analyzed the interim assessment. However, when it comes to the day to day interaction with students — my output is going to look much different this year. I’ll be giving less than 100%.

The last time I was a classroom teacher, I gave so much of myself to my classroom and my students, that I forgot to take care of myself and I failed to fully take care of my family. My classroom got the best hours of my day, and my family got the scraps that were left.

It’s got to look different this time.

In my previous chapter, I launched out of bed at 5:30, hit the shower, dressed, and was in the kitchen prepping dinner and nudging teens to breakfast by 6:00. I’m sure my eyes scanned what my kids were wearing and what they were carrying as they piled into my car so that I could drop one at another school and drag the other two with me. I’m sure we talked through check-lists and after school activities in the car as I simultaneously scanned my mind for any lingering tasks I needed to complete before my students started trickling into my room.

Once I pulled into my parking space, my mind, fueled by the first cup of coffee I had sipped greedily on the drive, was fully engaged in the day’s instruction. What did I need to pull up on my screen? Did anything need to be printed? Was there a student I needed to speak to? Was a parent already waiting to meet with me?

I launched out of the car, grabbing bags full of papers, lunch, and a change of clothes, climbed two flights of stairs, unlocked my classroom door, and began the perpetual motion of the day — straightening desks, erasing and writing messages on the white board, wiping down surfaces, checking displays, and moving stacks of paper — so many stacks of paper.

In my classroom, students entered knowing that I would expect their engagement, their participation, and at least feigned interest in whatever essay we were writing, poem we were analyzing, or story we were reading. I loved the content I was teaching — composition, poetry, literature — and I operated under the assumption that if I threw all my passion into my teaching, that love I have for the content would spill over onto my students.

However, along with all my passion, I threw all my energy, all my resources, all my emotions, all of my self into the hours of the school day, and then when the bell rang at the end of the day, I didn’t sit down and take a rest. No — I found another gear and kept going. In the early days, I accompanied two of my children to cross country practice, ran their drills with them — all of their drills — and then drove them home. I finished preparing dinner for the family, washed dishes, showered, did laundry, responded to needs and demands, and sometimes even did more school work.

I don’t think there was ever a day that I didn’t make sure everyone had their physical needs met for the next day, but I am quite sure that I routinely missed checking in with their emotional needs — seeing the hurts they experienced throughout the day, stopping in my tracks to give them a hug, or taking the time to just sit in their presence and be. I know I missed doing all of that.

Sure, I got up early on Saturdays, went for run, drove to the outdoor market to buy fresh produce, picked up enough groceries to feed a small army of teenagers, and made sure the house was picked up, vacuumed, and wiped down, but did I, on those packed Saturdays, parent my children? come beside them in their own personal struggles? help them access their emotions? or did I merely model how to power through?

I’ve had to come to terms with the harsh reality that what my children ultimately saw from watching their mom power through for 10 years in a high school classroom was that she couldn’t sustain it. She was a tough old bird, and she kept that pace going strong for about 9 of those years, but that last year? Whew! That last year’s performance was strictly mediocre. Very average. Just so-so.

The body can only take so much powering through. And when it has had enough, it will shut right down on you. My most important students, the ones who lived in my house with me, learned that lesson right along with me. They learned that when you power through and fail to attend to your emotional and spiritual health, when you try by the force of your own will to do all the things for all the people, you miss some of the most precious parts of life — the face to face, nose-to-nose, cheek-to-cheek moments that give life meaning.

For the past six years, I have been sitting with that reality and tending to my body and to my emotions — intentional every day tending in the form of yoga, writing, therapy, massage, walking, talking, and sitting with all of the joy, hurt, pain, love, anger, sadness, and happiness that life has brought because of and in spite of my actions.

I have experienced so. much. healing.

And so, though my children all now live in their own homes and I have lost my in-person chance to model a better way for them, I am going into the classroom this time with re-set expectations for myself and for my students. I will be doing things differently.

I’ve been practicing a phrase that describes my new approach: giving my best without giving my all. I’m not sure exactly what it will look like, because this mindset is new to me, but I am picturing a me that is more present, that walks a little more slowly, who leaves her stack of papers on her desk when she walks away at the end of a long day, who decides in the moment that we aren’t going to finish the lesson as planned.

Will my students still know that I am passionate about writing, about reading, about poetry, about literature? I hope so, but more importantly, I hope that they see me demonstrate compassion, balance, flexibility, integrity, and kindness. I hope that I am able, in the moment, to say, “It seems we are all a little overwhelmed right now, how about we just pause for a minute and breathe?”

I never allowed myself that space in the last chapter. I never gave myself a moment to recognize that I was overwhelmed. I never took the opportunity to take a long calming breath. I kept on pushing, giving my best and giving my all.

And it showed — maybe not always to my coworkers or the students in my classroom, but it was definitely evident to my family. I was overtaxed and in denial, so I was often detached, preoccupied, reactive, and short-tempered with the people I care about most.

I’m planning to do it differently this time. Even in the season of Covid-19 where all of my students will be online, where I have to create a Google slide show for every class I teach, where I will be training my students to move from Zoom to Google classroom, to a short story, to Khan Academy, to a physical book right in front of them. Now, more than ever, it’s important that we take a breath, check in with one another, and allow ourselves to be mediocre, average, and downright so-so — even on our journey to excellence.

Because true excellence is recognizing your strengths AND your weaknesses; it’s knowing when to work hard AND when to walk away; it’s knowing when to push through AND when to sit down.

It’s knowing that it’s probably best to give less than 100%.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

2 Cor 12:9

Back-to-School, 2020 Teacher Edition

Each morning last week, I opened my laptop and clicked on a zoom link to join the team at my new school. In some ways this Summer Summit, the name my school gives to back-to-school teacher inservice training, is reminiscent of many other trainings I have attended. I’ve been learning about the school’s culture and procedures, getting familiar with faculty and staff names and faces, and examining curricula, assessments, behavior management plans, the master schedule, and school-wide protocols — all the regular details of back to school preparation.

However, in some ways it’s very different due to the added layer of preparing for teaching in the era of Covid-19. I’ve learned how to meet with kids virtually through Zoom, how to deliver and receive content digitally through Google classroom, how to maintain online investment and engagement and build relationships with kids who I’ll see only on a screen, and how to stay safe in the school building where I’ll be working while students work from home.

And, this year, I have one more layer that I keep trying to look at, assess, and interrogate — my deeply rooted racism. I know it’s there, and I’m trying to call it out and deal with it as much as I can.

The first time I saw it last week was when I noticed myself chiming in to provide answers during instructional sections — I knew the answers, so why shouldn’t I unmute myself? But then I heard a small voice saying, Hey, Kristin, why don’t you pause a minute and see if someone else would like to speak? I took a moment to recognize that as a white woman, I’ve had all kinds of opportunities to speak — in fact, I’ve been the leader at several back to school trainings like this — my voice has been heard plenty. How can I learn, in this setting where half or more of the staff members are people of color, to close my mouth and listen to the voices of people who have been in the setting longer, know the community better, and who might have something to teach me?

This realization may have been sparked by the fact that I recently started listening to the Podcast Nice White Parents. It’s a story of the history of “well-intentioned” white parents who have attempted to integrate black schools in New York City and who have often done so by plowing in, demanding their voices be heard, and failing to acknowledge the culture and values of the people of color who were in the school first. Instead, they have come in waving money and shouting loudly about what should be done with it, silencing those who’d been just fine thankyouverymuch before the white people showed up. I’ve been cringing through these episodes, seeing my own well-intentioned-ness in the rearview mirror.

Midway through last week’s training one of the leaders inside a small group of a dozen of us, posed a sharing question to check in on how we are doing and how we are managing stress. It was the day after a 17 year old white boy in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot and killed two protestors in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Sunday, but when I was called on to respond, Kenosha was not at the front of my mind. I said that I was doing well, happy to be part of the team, and managing my stress by taking long walks with my husband. I then sat and listened as the Black men and women in the group took their turns, mentioned their grief and fear in light of recent events, and their passion for caring for our students, 99% of whom are Black. I felt conspicuous. Of course I am there for these students, too, but my privilege, my racism, was exposed in that moment. I could easily share, untouched by the impact of such racial violence. Though I had just the night before been horrified as I watched the video of the shooting on national news, my feelings of injustice — no matter how strong they are — can in no way compare to the lived realities of many of my new coworkers, and I’ve got to acknowledge that.

I’ll be supported in the interrogation and dismantling of my own racism because the school’s mission is explicitly anti-racist. All week long I heard the refrain of ensuring access, closing the achievement gap, and providing resources to ensure that our students have everything they need to succeed. I completed an hours-long course on strategies and language to use to convey the importance of education to my students and the imperative for 100% participation and 100% success.

And not only did I hear the refrain, I saw the practices enacted in our professional development. Staff members were provided scaffolding and support as they learned to function virtually through Zoom. We were given step-by-step instructions and modeling in the use of Google Classroom. We were given breaks away from the screen and incentives like gift cards and fun games that encouraged us to participate. Every instructional practice I will be expected to use — from the technology, to lesson planning, to behavior management — was modeled for me.

I’ve been walked through how to set behavioral expectations, how to use Google Forms to create informal assessments that I will use every single class period (as will everyone else on the team), how to use Google Slides to guide my students through each lesson, how to use my language to encourage my students to show up, opt in, work hard, finish strong, and reflect. We’ve played games, we’ve had hard conversations, we’ve laughed, and we’ve worked!

Why so intense? Because it matters that we get it right — lives are at stake. Whole futures weigh in the balance. Over 300 of our high schoolers have been at home since March, with varying levels of support and resources. Many of them live in poverty in communities that are under-resourced. Many have been fighting to survive in ways that I am sure I will never fully understand. Because we want to provide them with opportunities and access, we are committed to giving high-quality instruction. Because we want them to be able to use their voices and to have choices to pursue education, to obtain employment, to follow their dreams, and to live their fullest lives, we have high expectations for engagement and achievement.

And if I have high expectations for my students, I must also have high expectations for myself. If I expect them to learn and grow, I must be willing to learn and grow, too. If I want them to invest in their education, I must first demonstrate my willingness to invest.

So, I listen to podcasts that make me cringe. I lean into learning about all the technology and all the evidence-based practices. I commit to learning the culture of the school and conforming to the way they do things around here. I acknowledge that I have deeply imbedded racist beliefs, I call them out when I see them, and I invite others to call out the ones I don’t see.

When we were broken into our departments to analyze assessments and do lesson planning, I was thrilled to see that my two English department colleagues are Black women. They will be my guides, my mentors, my supports. I have a lot to learn, and I am thankful for the posture of willingness they have greeted me with. They are sharing resources, answering my questions, taking my phone calls, and welcoming me aboard. The highlight of my week was the end of one of our departmental sessions when the team leader looked into her camera and said, “We have got a dope squad!” Guys, I’m part of a dope squad!

I want to be very mindful of the privilege I’ve been given here — the opportunity, after believing my career was over, to use my gifts of writing and teaching in a community that is committed to social justice and the dismantling of racist systems, working side by side with highly qualified people of color. I could never have dreamt it was possible, but I am thankful, and I am ready.

I’ll put in this hard work; this is what I was built for.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord.

Colossians 3:23

P.S. Many of you have offered support as I step into this work. So many of you have said you are praying for me and will continue to do so. I can’t tell you what that means to me. I will continue to take donations of surplus school supplies (I will never say no to all the surplus paper, folders, pens, highlighters that you have piled up at your house). I will always take book donations — particularly books that feature people of color and memoirs. Additionally, I learned this week that our school offers student incentives for showing up and working hard. I would love to have a stock pile of prizes for my students — I’m thinking small items like college logo cups, stickers, pencils, pens, etc. — think all those freebies you get wherever you go — or gift cards to Target, McDonald’s, etc. in small denominations such as $5 or less (free drink, etc.). I am open to suggestions, too! Thank you for all the support you have given me so far.

Coronavirus Diary 16: Back to School Edition

Can you hear that? Can you hear the subtle hum? It’s the thrum of collective anxiety coursing through the nervous systems of every teacher, parent, and student who has already or who is about to start the school year either in person, online, or in some kind of hybrid format. The theme of the song? Uncertainty.

Never before have we approached a school year in such a “wait and see” posture. Schools and districts that have chosen to open in person have plans in place “just in case” a student or many students, a teacher or many teachers, a school or many schools get infected with Covid-19 mandating a move to partially or fully remote instruction. Schools that have chosen to open virtually have committed to several weeks or months of online instruction with plans in place to move to partial or full in-person models as soon as possible.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing the uncertainty about where they will do instruction this year.

Some schools have provided their teachers with training on using Zoom rooms, Google classroom, and myriad online instructional tools. Some have done this well and thoroughly, some have taken a more haphazard approach, and others have told their teachers to “figure it out”. Some teachers are very proficient with Internet technology, some manage just fine, and some have avoided using technology for as long as possible and have no idea what a URL is. While most students in middle- and upper-class communities have been raised with a device in their hands, many in lower-income communities are learning to access technology for academic purposes for the very first time. Whether they are technological novices or pros, they’ll be “doing school” much differently than ever before.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing uncertainty about how they will do instruction this year.

Some schools started the year early, to get in as much instruction as possible before another potential stay-at-home order. Some schools have students coming to school on alternate days to space out the number of bodies in classrooms. Some schools are having shorter instructional days to allow for added cleaning in buildings or to allow for time away from computer screens if students are learning from home.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing uncertainly about when they will do instruction this year.

Teachers are wondering about how we will build relationships, how we will have enough time together to get to know one another, when we will find time to share stories and tell all the corny teacher jokes that are critical to every classroom. We’re wondering where to pick up in the curriculum, knowing that our students’ learning was disrupted way back in March and that individual students managed that disruption and the virtual learning that followed much differently from one another. We’re wondering how to allow students the time and space to process trauma — the trauma of leaving school in the middle of the year, the trauma of losing a friend or loved one, the trauma of being continuously at home with a family that may or may not have fared well in the face of a global pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, and the concurring racial unrest.

We’re wondering how we’ll manage to reach students who we may only see in the gallery view of our Zoom rooms, how well we’ll adapt to distributing and collecting assignments via Google classroom, and how efficient we’ll be at transitioning from task to task, student to student, class to class, from in-person to online learning, or vice-versa.

Parents are wondering how safe their kids will be at school, how long they will stay there, and how they will manage to juggle all their responsibilities — again! — if their students are moved home. They are wondering if they’ll be able to keep their jobs — or find a job, if they’ll be allowed to work at home, if they’ll be able to find child care, and if they’ll have enough money to pay for it. They’re trying to explain the unexplainable and answer the unanswerable for their children who are also feeling the stress of the uncertain.

These children wonder who their teacher will be, when they will talk to their friends, if they’ll be able to have recess, and how they will eat their lunch. They are worried that they’ll have to keep learning at home, that they won’t understand the assignments, and that they’ll have have to sit in front of the computer for all of their lessons. They are asking when they’ll get to go to practice, will they have to wear their masks, and why they can only go to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Where? When? How? Why?

All of the answers are, “Well, let’s wait and see.”

It’s so uncomfortable to live amid so much uncertainty when we’ve been following the same rhythms and patterns for so long. We just want to go back to ‘normal’ — to do things “the way we’ve always done them” — and to be beyond all this Covid-19 nonsense.

But we’re not there yet. We’re here, in the midst of a global pandemic, where we do things differently than we’ve ever done them before.

We wash our hands more, we wear masks, we stay home, we do family Zoom meetings, we send packages in the mail to loved ones we wish we could see in person. We stand further apart, we ask more questions, we decline more invitations. We become accustomed to the phrase, “we’ll have to wait and see.”

So dear friends, dear teachers, dear parents, dear students, I’m sorry that this is where we find ourselves, but alas, here we are. So, since we’re all in this together, can we find inside ourselves, under the hum of uncertainty, a way to extend a virtual hand of support — a cheering on, a forgiving smile, a gracious response? Can we find a way to see one another’s uncertainty with understanding and compassion? Can we hear one another’s worries, share our frustrations, and commit to being kind to one another in the midst of uncertainty?

Can we, as teachers, be patient with one another as we learn all the things, even if the fog of our Covid brains requires us to hear the instructions multiple times? Can we be gentle with our students who may not know how to submit an assignment online, answer an email, or right click on a hyperlink?

Can we, as parents, be supportive of our teachers and administrators who are trying very hard to meet the educational, social, and safety needs of our children and their teachers? Can we be respectful with our questions, offer our assistance, and send a note of encouragement? Can we remember that our kids are managing uncertainty, too, and that they may not always regulate their anxiety, their fears, their frustration, their anger? Can we give them an extra measure of grace as they navigate the “wait and see”?

Can we, as students, show up and do our best to attend to our teachers and let them know when we are getting lost or don’t know what to do next? Can we be patient when the technology doesn’t work right, when our teachers seem flustered, and when our parents are at their wits’ end? Can we try to communicate when we ourselves are at our wits’ end?

It’s gonna take all of us doing our best, assuming the best, and overlooking the less-than-best. We’re doing a lot here — trying to focus on the tasks in front of us while trying to drown out that insufferable hum of uncertainty. If we have any hope of success, it’s gonna be because we all leaned in to the uncertainty, saw it for what it is, and accepted the fact that we’ll have to do what we can and wait and see.

We can do this — together — we can do this.

Be kind to one another, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:32

Reality Setting In

I drove to Detroit yesterday, walked into a building I’ve only been in twice before, went to a room to see someone I’ve never met, to check out a laptop that’s different than any I’ve ever worked on before.

And reality started to sink in — this is all gonna be new.

I was struggling to type my name on a non-Mac keyboard when the principal walked in and greeted me. She’s a six-foot tall Black woman with red-orange hair, an air of confidence, and a gentle smile. I was so happy to see her. She wondered if I’d seen my room yet, and when I said I had not, she offered to take me there.

As we walked, she shared that Detroit Public School teachers were striking over safety concerns regarding in-person instruction. She (and I) understood the teachers’ concerns and also the reality a strike might mean for students across Detroit who’ve been out of school since March, who’ve missed the stability and routine that school can bring. We shared our compassion for teachers who have not been equipped with the time to plan, the tools they will need, or the training to use those tools in order to effectively teach remotely. Our understanding of a system in need of funding, reform, and repair remained unsaid as we walked down a newly polished hall and found my room.

“My name’s on the door!” I gushed.

“Yes.”

As I walked into the room, I saw the neatly arranged desks, the fresh green wall, a box fan near the front of the room, “Do I get to keep the fan?”

“Yes.”

“Do I get to keep the books?”

“Yes.”

“How about these supplies?”

“Everything in here stays.”

“It looks great!” I practically shouted as I took in all the shelving, the Smart Board, the white board, and the tape, stapler, and other supplies behind my desk area.

I began to picture myself working in this room, knowing that it would be me, alone, at least for the first quarter. All of our students will be remote — from their homes — on tablets and laptops that the school has been acquiring through the generosity of community partners, grants, and purchases. They’ll be able to come to the school to pick up supplies and food, which the school will continue to provide, but they will learn from home. I, on the other hand, will be in this bright classroom four days a week, and working from home on Wednesdays when my students will have assignments to complete, books to read, and journals to write while I meet with my colleagues, hold office hours, grade student work, and write lesson plans.

We left the room and she showed me who would be my hall neighbors — a new math teacher, a social studies teacher, and a master English teacher right next door to me, for ease in collaboration. The computer lab and several computer carts are a few steps away. I could picture myself moving down the hallway to the lab with my students, dropping into the classroom next door to ask a couple of questions, and moving back to my room for instruction. I had to keep editing my mental movie, which kept auto-populating all of the hallways, classrooms, and desks with students. I had to keep reminding myself that this year was going to be different.

I’m going to be in my classroom, in front of my laptop, greeting my students, providing instruction, responding to questions, and — hopefully — making a difference.

When I was offered this position, I agreed to teach freshman English, but on the day I accepted the offer, I was asked if I’d at all be interested in teaching seniors (Yes!) who need to be prepared for college (Yes!) who haven’t taken the SAT and need some preparation (Yes!), even if I have to help write the course (Are you kidding me, Yes!).

Then, last week, I was told that I would also have a section of freshmen (Let me at ’em!) and a section of just SAT prep, an elective, presumably for juniors (Hooray for juniors!). When I left Lutheran North, I had one section of freshmen along with juniors and seniors. This feels like home.

So, I’ve been dabbling in curriculum and reading Common Core Standards while also taking an online course called The No-Nonsense Nurturer, which all teachers at Detroit Leadership Academy (and many other schools across the country) take. Its focus is on setting the classroom climate for high expectations and academic achievement in communities that have historically been marginalized. The training is solid — through it I’m recognizing some of my tendencies toward enabling students because of my inherent biases, and I am also being affirmed in some of the strategies I’ve used in the past to build relationships that motivate students to excel. Taking this course is helping me shift from where I’ve been to where I will be.

And in all this preparation, though I am elated and so excited, I am starting to feel the hum of anxiety — am I really ready? can I really develop this new course in time? can I actually learn to go with the flow? will I really be able to make a difference in the lives of these students?

Yesterday, when I picked up my laptop, I also got a lanyard with keys, and a staff T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the organization that houses Detroit Leadership Academy — Equity Education. It’s just a black T with one word on the front, but that one word is a reminder of why I am taking this step — back to the classroom, back to the city, back to students who might not know that they matter.

I’m ready to put that shirt on — I’m ready to suit up! I’m a little nervous, a tiny bit terrified, but I am ready. I’m stepping into this role knowing that I might not get it all perfect, but I am going to show up each day for the sake of these students, for the sake of their futures, for the sake of equity, and, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, for the sake of myself. I know I’ve been prepared for this moment, and I am thrilled to step into it.

Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1: 9

Disruption and Transformation

My oldest granddaughter is starting kindergarten this week, and as we were celebrating this milestone over the weekend, I started thinking about the year I started kindergarten. I couldn’t wait to go to school, to meet new friends, to sit at a desk, and to raise my hand to speak (ok, let’s be honest, I never fully mastered that part).

Just as my mother and father had done when they were five, I got up early in the morning, ate my breakfast, brushed my teeth, and walked down the street to my neighborhood elementary school, where I greeted my teacher, Mrs. Cole (bless her heart), and met those who would become some of my lifelong friends.

From that point on, most of the years of my life, I have looked forward to the start of school. I’ve bought new pencils and pens, picked out the coolest lunchbox I could find, and selected my first day of school outfit days in advance. I went to school from 8am to 3pm Monday through Friday until I went off to college, where I continued on much the same calendar. I took breaks at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break, and then enjoyed a long summer before I started the cycle all over again.

You could probably say the same, because we’ve been doing school this way since time immemorial.

Much has come to depend on this system. Parents count on the fact that their kids are going to school: it provides a place for kids to go while parents are at work, one or even two meals a day, and even transportation to and from school.

Schools provide social, cultural, and practical education. It’s in school that kids learn to share and take their turn, to appreciate music and the arts, and to follow processes like writing proposals and submitting applications. Our society depends on schools to prepare children to become members of society. It has for centuries by now.

And, for the most part, it’s been doing it the same way for all those years. Children have been starting kindergarten at age five since the 1870s (see a history of kindergarten here). Since long before that time, children across the country have gone to school Monday through Friday, from 8 to 3, or in many cases much longer with breakfast or before care tacked on early and sports, extracurriculars, or after care added at the end of the day.

Teachers arrive early and stay late, often working 10 or more hours a day, day after day, month after month, nine months out of the year. Year after year after year.

Until a pandemic arrives and disrupts that system.

Disruptions can freak us out — We panic, we stress, we yell at our friends and neighbors, we point fingers, and we demand that things go back to normal.

However, sometimes disruption can show us a better way.

If you’ve been following my blog since its inception, you will know that it was born out of disruption. After years and years of celebrating the start of the school year, a disruption pulled me out of that rhythm. Chronic illness, and the acute nature of its beginnings, forced me into quarantine — not a literal quarantine, but it might as well have been, because I was no longer able to be in the classroom, to rub elbows with my community, or to share space and oxygen with the students and colleagues that I had loved so deeply.

And it freaked me out. I cried. I grieved. I yelled at my family and friends. I spent long days and weeks on my bed wishing that things would go back to normal, but the disruption showed me a better way.

When I was forced out of the cycle that had felt like home for over 40 years, I had to take a long look at the time that was available to me, the resources I had at my disposal, the abilities I still had, and the goals I was trying to achieve. How, I wondered, could I still be involved in education with my new limitations?

And isn’t that where we are now? We’ve been forced out of a cycle that has provided structure for our society for well over two hundred years. We are freaking out. We’ve been freaking out. Parents who’ve been stuck at home trying to work while parenting their children and attending to their educational needs, are rightfully overwhelmed. They have not been prepared for this. They’ve been prepared, as all of us have, to send our kids to school. Now some, of course, have chosen to prepare themselves to school their children at home — and these folks right now, are certainly at an advantage. The rest of the country — and much of the world — has been thrown off balance by this curve ball.

And we’re reeling — when will we go back to normal?

Some are pressing the issue of going back to normal right this very minute, “The kids need to be in school!” And I get it. If we go back to school, we think, everything will feel right again. Wouldn’t it be great to be packing lunches, waving to our kids as they get on their busses, going to football games on Friday night, and bending over the kitchen table every night trying to complete school projects (ok, maybe not that one)?

But what if, what if, this disruption could show us a better way. What if we took a long look at the time and the spaces that are available to us, the resources we have at our disposal, the abilities we still have, and the goals we are trying to achieve? How can we still be involved in education with our current limitations?

Some are figuring this out right now, folks. Never before have students of all income levels had access to personal electronic devices, but community members are stepping up, donating, and making sure that all of our kids have a laptop or tablet they can work from. Never before has there been such a global push for equity in terms of Internet technology, but right now, many teachers are receiving training on Google Classroom, Zoom, and other methods of digitizing their content and delivering materials to students who will not be physically with them. Likewise, students from all kinds of backgrounds, will begin to navigate digital spaces like they never have before.

Could this be a leveling of one end of the playing field?

What if educators, who find themselves sitting around the scrap heap of their disrupted plans and schedules, were right now thinking and preparing to do things a different way? What if, in fact, they’ve been begging for this opportunity for years? What if they have been longing for more professional development, more support from their communities, and more resources, and this disruption was the catalyst for change?

You might think I sound like Pollyanna, unless you remember that just six years ago, I walked out of a classroom, convinced that I’d never go back, that I spent that summer and much of the fall in bed with pain and inflammation or in the bathroom throwing up, and that the last six years have been a slow healing and restructuring of my life, and that in that healing and restructuring I’ve discovered new strengths, new possibilities, new ways of thinking, and a new sense of hope.

I’m living proof that disruption can been an opportunity for restoration, rebirth, and ingenuity.

If you are so stressed by this disruption right now and can’t see a way that the coming days will work, I get that. If you are lying on your bed in pain, or shaking your fist in rage, I feel that. If you are hungry for hope, for change, for rebirth, I’m just saying, believe that it can happen.

I’m believing for you right now. Many of you have believed for me over the last six years, even when I didn’t believe for myself.

Transformation often comes in the midst of hopelessness — watch for it. I know I am.

How can I do anything else when I’m looking at this 5 year old beauty curiously examining wildflowers on a Sunday afternoon, knowing that she’s heading to kindergarten on Tuesday.

The whole world is ahead of her, and I have to be full of hope.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Romans 15:13

You want to go back to the classroom? Now?

I keep hearing this question (even if it’s sometimes left unsaid): Why would I leave a perfectly decent job to go back to the classroom? why now — in the middle of a pandemic?

It’s a great question, and the most honest answer I have is that, if it weren’t for the pandemic, I don’t know if I would be going back to the classroom.

After two and a half years at Lindamood-Bell, I was finally learning all the ropes, and I had finally been granted the opportunity to work with the Lindamood-Bell for Schools program in its partnership with the Fort Smith, Arkansas schools. I’d been learning to use Zoom to join a teacher and her class to provide instructional coaching and in-the-moment changes to instructional plans, and I was loving this collaboration. It was reasonable to expect that if I stayed with the company I would be able to do more of this kind of work, and I was excited about that. Also, I had a solid caseload of students (and their families) who I’d been working with for a couple of years — designing and implementing instruction and even collaborating with the schools these students attended. I was finding a way to use my years of experience and to continue to grow.

The pay was fine, the work was challenging, and my body, which had rebelled in my former life as teacher, administrator, mother, wife, and denier of emotions, seemed to be able to manage the pace and the stress.

I really had no serious intention of pursuing anything different.

And then, in mid-March, it became apparent that we were going to take all of our equipment and materials home and we were going to work remotely until further notice. This was actually fine, too. In fact, Lindamood-Bell, I felt, did a great job of getting us all home, digitizing all of our resources, and providing (ahead of any mandates) additional sick time and vacation time. I probably could’ve continued to work with students remotely — from my home office — indefinitely.

Like everyone, I shifted my lifestyle — wore more comfortable clothing (which I lovingly refer to as my Covid uniform), went for more walks, cooked more meals to eat at home, and watched more television including the daily news reports.

I (like most quarantined humans) watched George Floyd die, and it looked too much like watching Michael Brown dying. I saw Ahmaud Arbery get gunned down, and he looked like people I know. I saw Rayshard Brooks shift from a man who’d fallen asleep in his car, to a man aware that his life was in jeopardy, to a dead man through the lens of someone’s cell phone, and I was horrified by the world we are living in — where in the space of a few weeks we repeatedly bore witness to the senseless killing of black men — black men who didn’t have to die.

Night after night my husband and I watched news reports and protests; every day I saw friends, former students, and my own children, posting on social media and reminding me that this is not new. Senseless deaths, not to mention broad and systemic mistreatment, of people of color happen every day in the United States, and they’ve been happening since the first slaves were dragged off boats onto the shores of this sweet land of liberty and beaten if they did not do the work that their white masters demanded they do.

In many ways, a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man, smiling toward the camera, is just one more slave owner demanding that the black man do what he says or pay the price and be punished within the gaze of all the other slaves so that they will know their place and learn to comply.

In this climate I was sitting in my home office every day, meeting with students, doing interventions that enable them to read, chatting with their parents about how they are coping during a pandemic with all the kids at home, trying to get their own work done, and wondering when things will go back to normal.

And I knew that I didn’t want things to go back to normal — not if normal means that some kids get safe schools with excellent resources that set them up for success while other kids (for not fault of their own) get substandard materials, ill-prepared teachers, and less access to a quality education, while white folks who commit crimes often get the benefit of the doubt and minimum sentences and black folks who commit crimes often end up dead or incarcerated far longer than is necessary or humane.

The disparity between schools that are predominantly white and those that are predominantly black is not a new revelation to me — I’ve been aware of these inequities since long before I taught for one measly semester in the St. Louis, Missouri public schools, but somehow being quarantined during Covid, working every day with students who have been given every resource, and then being barraged by data about the inequities (a substantially higher incidence of Covid and deaths related to Covid among people of color, the number of underfunded and understaffed schools in urban centers like Detroit), along with a resurgence of activism, especially among young people including my own children, my coworkers, and many former students, created an atmosphere in which I saw the opportunity I had to step in.

Meanwhile, many teachers are feeling the need to leave the profession because of Covid — they feel they are unsafe in the classroom, that their communities are asking them to risk too much, that they can’t afford to put their loved ones in danger — and I don’t blame them. These are valid concerns. And if you’ve been in the classroom for years or decades and you are already tired, and you feel unappreciated because you are underpaid, under-resourced, and under-valued by your administration, your students’ parents, and your community, then being asked to go into a crowded space for up to eight hours a day, five days a week in the middle of a pandemic just might be the last straw.

So why — why? — would I willingly put my name in the hat?

Because as dark as everything seems right now, I hold onto hope that this just might be the time for major change. Covid-19 might be providing us an opportunity to see — really see — racism, societal inequities, broken systems, and unjust practices. Because we’ve had to shut so many things down, we might be able to see different ways of doing things — ways to incorporate working from home, digital platforms, and content-sharing so that every American kid can have access to all the content and resources that are available in all the best districts. We can begin to imagine scenarios in which one highly qualified teacher in New York City, for example, provides a webinar on the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, which students across the country and around the world can stream at a time that works best for them, submit a reflection to a digital discussion board, and then work collaboratively with other students from different neighborhoods, states, and even countries, to create a YouTube video to link to the original webinar for sharing with countless other students. Imagine how that experience might connect students to one another and impact their view of the world, themselves, and each other!

How might we re-shape education so that the neighborhood you live in, the color of your skin, and your parents’ income doesn’t determine your access to high quality content and educational experiences? Is Covid-19 providing us the space and the perspective to do this?

I think it might be!

Now, do I think I am going to single-handedly change the American educational system. You know I’m gonna try, but realistically, systems that are as established as our school system (or our prisons, or our government) don’t change quickly. In fact, if they have any hope of changing, they need the investment of participants whose voices are unafraid to offer new ideas, to challenge long-held beliefs, and to believe that things can be better.

And I believe they can.

So that’s why I want to go back to the classroom right now in the middle of a global pandemic.

If not now, then when? If not me, then who?

The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.

Psalm 103:6

Note: If you’d like to support my classroom and the work that I will do this year either in that classroom or from my home office, I am currently collecting composition books (one per student to start), highlighters (a set of three — yellow, pink, blue for each student), index cards for vocabulary work, and other classroom supplies. As soon as I get my school-issued email address, I will be posting a link for those who would like to support from a distance. Thank you so much for following me on my journey in this next chapter.

Facing Change

I don’t want to brag or make it seem like I’m an expert on change, but here are the facts:

Before I graduated high school, I had lived in six homes (ok, I only remember four of them). During and after college, I lived in nine locations (counting separate dorms). Since we’ve been married, we’ve had eleven homes. You might call me a moving expert, because I was Marie Kondo-ing way before Marie Kondo was a thing.

I’ve gone to two elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, two colleges for undergrad (transferring after freshman year), and have taken graduate courses at three universities.

Not counting babysitting, I’ve held at least 25, yes twenty-five, jobs in my life, and I’m sure I’m overlooking some gig-work like that one summer that my stepfather got me an “opportunity” handing out samples in the deli of the grocery store that he managed.

I’ve walked into plenty of new situations, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

First, I always come with the gusto: This is gonna be great! Imagine all the possibilities! Won’t it be fun? I am at that point a glass-hall-full-and-expecting-more kind of girl. I come on full speed and give it my all. (Exhibit A: I’ve already organized and alphabetized my newly-forming classroom library, and I’m not even in my classroom yet.)

Because I come in with so much enthusiasm, I have been known to overlook critical details, such as, I don’t know, the fact that the people in my life are also feeling the shift of change and they might not be as enthusiastic as I am. My daughter recently reminded me that when we uprooted our family and moved to St. Louis, my husband and I full of gusto and optimism, our children were reeling with grief, anger, and fear. They were not thrilled to be clinging tightly to the flying capes of their superhero parents. They just wanted us to stop and hold them, which I will graciously remind myself that we did from time to time, but we were, I’m afraid, quick to resume our flight — to conquer our mission and save the day.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that I quickly adapt to culture and expectations. In a new setting, I will likely watch quietly for a few days or weeks, until I see how “we do things around here,” but once I have the lay of the land, I bring myself to that situation in the truest way that I can. I remember the faculty retreat where I met my coworkers at Lutheran North. We were at a camp about an hour away from the school, all in shorts and tennis shoes. We gathered for the morning in a conference room to “talk business,” but after lunch we made our way to a challenge course complete with a zip line. Since it was my first day or two with this community, I was in that ‘quietly watching’ phase of entry, so when my team (people I’d never met before!) needed to lift me over a chest-high obstacle, I let them, and when they asked me if I would like to climb a rock wall and do the zip line, activities which I would under normal circumstances politely (or not so politely) decline, I said ok, I would do it. I was trying to go with the flow and figure out the culture, so I went out of my comfort zone and wouldn’t you know, I climbed that wall and zipped that line, and I felt great! These early successes, and others like them, gave me confidence to take some other chances with that group that would soon become family. I thrived at Lutheran North, where I became a leader, and my team embraced me in my truest form which is always honest (sometimes to a fault), often loud, and frequently emotional.

I came into my experience at Lindamood-Bell much more quietly. Illness had sucked the confidence out of me, and the intentionally positive and congratulatory environment of the company culture seemed, although very welcoming, quite foreign. The first two weeks I sat in a room with a coworker (who was my first on-the-job bonus kid) learning the programs, quietly taking notes, and reluctantly participating in role plays. The job was very scripted to start, and I was thankful! Because I was still visibly struggling with autoimmune disease, my gusto was suppressed; I was happy to have clear expectations and structure. I wouldn’t have to lead in this position, well, not at first…not until I was much stronger.

Yes, I come in with gusto, I quietly learn the culture, and then I am who I am.

At Lutheran North, my students called me Momma Ratch. Two of my own children were students at the school, and though while they were in my class, they were students first and treated as such, they were also my children, who rode in my vehicle, dropped by my classroom for a snack, needed to be driven home when they were ill or forgot their running shoes, and invited their classmates to our home. My students who were not my children, saw me in my role as teacher and my role as mother. They came to understand that I was imperfect in both roles, but that I continued to show up and try. They could come to my room with difficulty or to share celebration. They could borrow a few dollars or raid my stash of feminine supplies without asking. I had a stockpile of notebooks, folders, pens, and books in my room that I collected each year when students cleaned out their lockers. Anyone in the school knew they could come get what they needed no questions asked. I had firm and high academic and behavioral expectations, but I also learned what I could let go, what I could negotiate, and what really didn’t matter much at all.

At Lindamood-Bell, my coworkers called me Momma K. This probably started because I am the age of the mothers of all of my coworkers. They are almost all in their twenties (the age of my children), and though I didn’t always feel like it, particularly in the beginning, I think they have valued my experience, my perspective, my age. Often, it was me who was asking them for support, for encouragement, for understanding, as I navigated some of the most difficult years of my life. They were mostly oblivious to the grief that I was carrying, but it seeped out in moments of unprofessionalism. I would snap in a moment of frustration or glare at a coworker who told me something I didn’t want to hear. Yet, they, too, accepted me for who I am, and even celebrated me. In fact, the culture of Lindamood-Bell, the clapping, the parties, the dancing and balloons, reminded me of the importance of celebration, of noticing small victories and big ones even (and especially) in the midst of grief and transition. My coworkers dress up in wigs and hot dog costumes on a Wednesday just to make learning more fun. They hide pictures of Guy Fieri inside a closet to surprise you and make you laugh. They help kids set a trap of plastic spiders to scare you when you walk into a room. They cry because you are leaving, but send you off with books for your new classroom, a gluten-free cookie for the road, and a bottle of Malbec for your next celebration.

As I’m gathering my gusto to walk into Detroit Leadership Academy I want to be mindful of those around me who in the midst of Covid-19 and all its uncertainties might not be feeling as enthusiastic as I am; I want to be sure I stop and attend to the needs of others instead of just powering through. I know I’ll take the confidence and flexibility I found at Lutheran North and the kindness and celebration I learned at Lindamood-Bell. I’ll walk in quietly, even though I’ve already stocked my closet with teacher wear and powerful shoes. This is a brand new culture, and I want to see how “we do things around here” before I find the expression of myself that will work best for these kids, these coworkers, this school, this season.

As in every other change I’ve navigated over my fifty-plus years, I know I am going to learn at DLA — I don’t know what yet, but if the lessons I learn are even half as impactful as the lessons I’ve learned at Lutheran North and Lindamood-Bell, I know I’ll be changed forever.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1:9

Note: If you are in or near Ann Arbor and have surplus school supplies: notebooks, pens, folders, index cards, feminine supplies, etc. I would be happy to take them off your hands and put them in my new classroom so that students can come and take what they need no questions asked.

The Choice: Changing Course, pt. 5

For the past two weeks, I’ve been chronicling my decision to leave the position I’ve held for the past two and a half years to go back to the classroom — a move I thought I wouldn’t be able to make again. For the back story, you can read the following posts: Prepared for What’s Next, But Wait There’s More, Ready, and Getting Here.

Let’s see, where did we leave off — oh yes, the decision.

How do you make a decision that will potentially alter the course of your life? When presented with one option that is familiar, safe, and consistent, and two others that, while being exactly what you’ve been asking for, represent the unknown.

First, you pray. And for me, that means writing. I’ve filled a spiral notebook during this process that started sometime after Memorial Day with that conversation with my husband in the kitchen, which prompted applications, which turned into phone calls, which turned into interviews, which turned into offers. As I page through my notebook, I see lists of questions for interviewers (would you describe the culture of the school? what curriculum do you use?), I see brainstorming for how education might be restructured post-Covid (what if we shifted the schedule entirely? more broadly utilized technology? forever adjusted class size?), I see feelings about diving into something new (it’ll be amazing, I’m terrified, what if I can’t manage? what if I thrive?), and I see my processing of everything else I was managing throughout that process — my current students and their needs, a temporary health issue that flared up (of course) in the midst of the added stress, and plans to connect with family and friends. Within all the lines I wrote is a groaning, a pleading: Lord, I lift it up to you. What would you have me do? Will you guide my steps? Will you keep me from taking on too much? Will you show me the right fit? Will you provide for my current students if/when I choose to leave? Will you show me how to balance my love for my family and friends with my love for teaching? Will you show me how to give my best without giving my all?

And as I wrote and prayed, I continued through the process.

The first phone call came quickly — perhaps a day or two after I submitted the first round of applications. I had plugged in my headphones and headed out on my lunchtime walk when my phone began to ring. I looked — it was a Detroit area code. My heart sped up. The questions came — did I know this was an inner city, low income school? Did I feel comfortable teaching in such an environment? What were my salary requirements? In other words, was I sure I wanted an interview? Yes, I was sure.

In the next day or two, I had a preliminary video chat with that school, let’s call it School #1, and an informational session with another agency, let’s call it Agency #1, that places teachers in low income schools in several locations across the country. This non-profit organization obtains grants to fund training on equity, inclusion, and classroom management strategies, which they provide to teachers who are then placed in these schools. I was interested in both School #1 and Agency #1 and signaled my desire to move forward with both.

Soon after, I had a second video interview with School #1, this time with the head of instruction, who was similar to me in age and experience, and who articulated the philosophy of the school and some of the initiatives they were working on. She didn’t mince words, and neither did I. That’s the beauty of being 50-something; I feel the freedom to clearly articulate who I am from the start, because I want to make sure I get a good fit. So when she told me that they are working on rebuilding school culture, I asked what does that look like? how are you setting school climate? do you utilize police or safety officers? what are your priorities in terms of curriculum? how do you view your role in racial justice work?

Maybe that same day, or the day after, I had a preliminary video interview with Agency #1. This was a little different. I was given five minutes to introduce myself, share my journey in education, and communicate why I was interested in this particular agency’s work.

As you can imagine, simply being in this process was clarifying and invigorating. Having to articulate my ideas about education and equity, often with interviewers who were themselves most often people of color, was challenging and affirming. I feel strongly about providing high quality education to all students, but most specifically students who have historically been denied access, and the more I talk about it, the more passionate I feel.

Within a week, School #1 offered me a position teaching freshman English. I was elated! I immediately drafted a list of questions I wanted answered before I accepted the offer and sent them off in an email.

That same day, I got an email from Agency #2, which was hiring for School #2; would I be available for a 15-20 minute interview in the next few days. Of course! The next day on my lunch hour, my phone rang. It was a typical call, “Let me tell you a bit about what we do,” followed by “tell me a little about your journey.” The more we talked, the more kinship I felt. This school follows a “do no harm” model and values “restorative justice”. Its current initiatives are to 1) increase academic achievement, 2) decrease suspensions, and 3) increase attendance. While, as with School #1, 99% of School #2’s students are Black and qualify for free and reduced lunch, and though only 25% of graduating seniors go on to college, this interview was upbeat and full of hope.

I hung up thinking, “I sure hope they hurry up and give me an offer before I have to respond to School #1,” and then my lunch hour was over, and I went back to work.

Over the next few days, I checked my email for responses to the questions I’d sent to School #1 but saw nothing. Then, I got a phone call from School #2, asking me if I could do an in-person interview at the school, socially distanced, of course.

Then, I got a call from School #3, asking if I could do a virtual interview. And, I had an follow-up video interview with Agency #1.

Yes, it was moving very quickly — and it was affirming. Imagine that — not only might I have an opportunity to go back to the classroom, I might even be able to be selective. This privilege was not lost on me.

I did all the interviews, including the in-person interview at School #2, where I met with the hiring agent I had spoken with on the phone and with the principal, who I immediately saw as a champion of kids. Within a week of that interview, at the end of a holiday weekend, I received an offer.

As it turns out, although both offers (from School #1 and School #2) were for freshman English and both offered the exact same salary, the communication I received from School #2, Detroit Leadership Academy (DLA), was far more timely and thorough than what I received from School #1. Not only that, when I toured both schools, I saw evidence at DLA of intentionality that I did not see at School #1. I saw a plan in place to support students in their ownership of their education and their future, and evidence of DLA’s commitment to not only the students but their community as well. In fact, DLA is the school I mentioned in an earlier post that has been providing food not only to their students but to any community member throughout this Covid-19 season.

In the end, the choice was not difficult, even though I interviewed with Agency #3 on the day I accepted DLA’s offer. That same day, I put in my notice at Lindamood-Bell, and the goodbyes began.

Although those goodbyes were tear-filled, I am very excited about this coming school year at DLA, even with all the questions that Covid brings. I’m taking some time right now to rest up, but I’m also gathering supplies and dreaming big dreams of how this choice will change my life in this next chapter.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about that next time.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.

Ephesians 4:20-21

Getting Here: Changing Course, pt. 4

I started teaching in the fall of 1989 at Lutheran Special Education Ministries (LSEM) in Detroit. I had a degree in Secondary Education with a major in English and a minor in psychology, and I’d taken a couple courses on the exceptional child, but I had no special education certification. I had at one time explored special education as a career, and my first job out of college was working as direct care staff at a group home for teenaged girls with emotional impairments, but I wasn’t really prepared for a self-contained classroom of 10 seventh-graders with diagnosed learning disabilities. I learned a lot from those kiddos; I can only hope they learned a few things from me, too.

I took a few graduate courses at the University of Detroit that year and the next when I moved to a resource room position at Lutheran High School North and Lutheran High School Northwest. And then, though my husband was thriving in a 3rd and 4th grade classroom and I was beginning to gain some skills in special ed, we abruptly changed course when our son, who lived with his mother and stepfather, relocated right before the start of kindergarten. Because we wanted to continue our frequent visits, we relocated, too. I started teaching middle school and high school emotionally impaired and learning disabled students English Language Arts in a residential school, The Manor Foundation.

While there, I took more courses toward special ed certification, this time focusing on emotional impairments. I stayed at the Manor Foundation a year and a half — until our daughter was born — and then I began ten years focusing on one, then two, then three young children at home.

When the youngest started preschool, I started substitute teaching; then when she was preparing to start first grade, I began exploring graduate school.

I landed in Michigan State University’s Critical Studies in the Teaching of English program. Writing had long been my passion — in fact, the whole time I was home with my young children, I had been working on writing projects: submitting small pieces to parenting magazines, writing devotions, songs, and chancel dramas for our church, and even writing all the content for a monthly newsletter for teachers. I felt strongly that I wanted to further explore writing and literature, but I had no idea how this one choice would impact the course of my life.

Through this program, my gaze was turned to African American literature, Native American literature, and the power dynamics that exist in writing, academics, and society. In each of my courses, I began focusing my projects on the ways language is used to assert power and gain access. The reading and writing I did for those courses laid the groundwork for the ways I have continued to grow in my understanding of academic language, home language, and the ways we navigate different settings through our use of language. I began to see the language of the home — whether it be African American Vernacular English, Spanish, or Chinese, or a mixture of many languages — as a strength and the ability to shift from that home language to the language of work or the classroom as an asset — a tool to gain access.

So, when I left MSU and taught first in a community college in Michigan and another in Missouri and began to observe my students who were struggling to make that shift day in and day out, I sought ways to provide supports and encouragement while also validating the strength of the home language. What this looks like is that rather than being the English teacher who corrects students’ grammar, I have become the teacher who instead invites variation in grammar, even trying it out playfully myself, and then modeling for students the times and places where making the shift from one language to another becomes a way to gain access and even power.

Over the next nine and a half years, both at Roosevelt High School and Lutheran North, these ideas that began to form at Michigan State became integral to my classroom. Through my collaborations with other staff members, I began to develop a strength-based approach to teaching literature and composition. My students walked in the door with strengths — their personality, their resiliency, the language that they used to navigate their lives in whatever contexts they found themselves in, and the fact that they had access to education. My job was to help them identify and articulate those strengths which often looked liked reteaching.

Some of my Black students, and some of my White and Hispanic students, reported that they spoke ‘bad English’ and they ‘couldn’t write’. Those messages are debilitating — they don’t provide a place from which to grow. In my classroom, I began to use language such as, “you use different kinds of language in different settings — the language you use gives you access to your community. Do you imagine that the language I use would give me access to your community?” When students pictured me trying to come to their homes or their neighborhoods speaking the way that I do, they could see that I would be at a disadvantage. When I played with their language, using phrases such as “See, what had happened was…” or when I asked my students to teach me slang using the strategies I used to teach ACT vocabulary, they saw me struggle to learn in the same ways that they were struggling to learn Standard English. We were all language learners; we were in this together. Students who said they ‘couldn’t write’, were affirmed by my words, “you are learning how to write.”

I wrote every assignment with them — from prewriting and journaling through revisions and final drafts. When we needed to understand a grammatical rule, we looked it up together. We practiced identifying adjectives, prepositions, and clauses in our own writing, and then we experimented with breaking the rules intentionally — for effect, to make a point, or to show emotion.

This is what gives me life — playing with language, learning how it works, breaking the rules, and showing my students that they have the power to do the same.

I didn’t get it all right. I am sure that I made mistakes such as — in the early days, insisting that my students speak Standard English in my classroom, but why? Isn’t the classroom the place where we are learning the purposes and audiences for which we need to use Standard English? where we gain the tools we need for whatever comes next? As a teacher, do I want to be the keeper of correctness or an agent of access?

I think you already know the answer to that.

I’ve spent a lifetime getting here — building this philosophy by way of special education, writing, graduate school, and hours and days and weeks and months in the classroom with students — students who come to the classroom with inherent value, built-in strength, and learned skills. Each kid I meet matters.

But many many students in Detroit and areas like Detroit, many of whom are Black, many of whom don’t speak Standard English, have received the message loud and clear that the ways that they arrive, the manner in which they dress, or wear their hair, or speak, are inadequate. They don’t match the Standard — a Standard that was created and is maintained by white people in positions of power. They’ve got to learn to match that standard, they’ve been told, or they won’t succeed. No wonder they feel angry, or rebel, or fight like their lives depend on it to deny who they are and take on what they believe will get them out of the spaces they are in. And what does that cost them?

I’m just one middle-aged white woman from Michigan, but if someone is going to give me an opportunity to step into a classroom full of kids, to play with language, to learn, and to break some rules, how can I refuse?

I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.

So, yes, I took a position in Detroit.

Yes, I’m going to be teaching English.

This decision meant saying no to my current coworkers, families, and students, no to another group of kids, and yes to another.

I’m trying to get to that. Maybe next time.

And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Esther 4:14