A drink of water

I was so excited last spring when I saw a crew replacing our hallway water fountains at school with filling stations.

As part-camel, I consume a couple quarts of water each day while I’m in the building. I’d been lugging in a large Igloo water jug all year; this would make my daily trek in from the car so much easier.

It made sense, in the times of Covid, that we would do away with traditional water fountains, the likes of which I’d stood in line at in my growing up years. It was the only way we got drinks of water back then, by bending over a shared porcelain bowl and glug-glugging until the person behind us got impatient and we stood up, wiped our dripping mouth on our sleeve, took a big gulp of air, and moved on.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen filling stations pop up everywhere — office buildings, airports, and, of course, schools, but in my little charter school in Detroit, which is on lease from the Archdiocese and in need of myriad repairs, I was surprised to see this improvement. Certainly, it was an expense mandated by Covid — I couldn’t imagine the funds would have been found otherwise.

However it came to be, I happily began to refill my water bottle and gladly left my Igloo at home.

I pictured my students doing the same — bringing a water bottle to school and carrying it with them all day, independently managing their thirst as countless students across the country do without thinking. No such thing happened. The students came, but they brought no bottles. They wanted drinks, but they had nothing to put them in.

“Mrs. Rathje, do you have a cup?”

“A cup?”

“Yeah, so I can go get a drink of water.”

“Oh, right. I guess you can’t get a drink of water unless you have something to put it in.”

The school could hardly let the students go thirsty, but what were we to do? The traditional fountains were gone. We certainly didn’t have a supply of water bottles lying around. Instead, as students became thirsty, they went to the office, asked for a paper cup, filled it at the filling station, and carried it back to class. Day after day after day.

It was a disruption to class and to the office staff, but even more, this paper cup carrying seemed like a step backward. Weren’t the filling stations supposed to be an improvement?

This whole situation really started to bug me, but in a world full of planning, teaching, grading, and managing the movements of hundreds of bodies of teenagers in a building, the water problem was not top priority, never mind Maslow.

We were about four weeks into the school year, four weeks in to the era of the paper cup, when a friend from our St. Louis days reached out to me. He said he’d read my blog and would like to support my students. How could he help? My first response was to say that although I had had a great deal of initial support that had allowed me to purchase snacks and prizes for my students, my supply would certainly need to be replenished in time. My reward system was working, and students were claiming prizes for their hard work, and the word was out — Mrs. Rathje has snacks — and the kids were making a bee-line for my classroom.

However, I had no sooner sent him that message when the water situation popped into my mind. I sent a follow-up: “Another project I’m thinking about starting soon is purchasing re-usable water bottles. We have those refillable water stations, but nobody has a bottle. Right now we are using paper cups. I’ve got 80+ seniors. I’d at least like to get each of them a bottle.”

Before too long, he replied that he’d like to support the water bottle effort and asked how he could get me some cash. As it turns out, he is the pastor of a church called Jacob’s Well. Do you remember Jacob’s well? The place where the Samaritan woman gave Jesus a drink, and He told her that He had water that would forever quench her thirst? (I really can’t make this stuff up.) It seems that Jacob’s Well wanted to make sure my students could get some drinks of water.

Within a day or two he had sent me enough money to purchase water bottles for the whole school. My mind was blown. I wanted to act as quickly as possible to put water bottles in my students hands, and since I was still preoccupied with planning, teaching, grading, and the like, I reached out to a few people who quickly got to work on ordering some pretty sweet water bottles — complete with the school logo — that would arrive within a week! I was telling a friend about this purchase, and she said she wondered if there would be confusion with 300 identical bottles all in the same building. Could she create and fund some custom name labels for the bottles? Before she could change her mind, I supplied her with the names of all of my seniors, and, guys, before I could blink twice, these were in the works.

Front side
Back side

Last week, we had just returned from two weeks of virtual learning due to a high number of Covid cases in our school, and I had brought in some new items to put in the prize bins. I was organizing these prizes Tuesday before I left for the day when one of our custodians said that UPS had just brought me a large delivery — the water bottles!

In my class, each time a student completes an assignment, he earns what I call a Rathje ticket (more on this here); on Wednesdays, students can use their tickets to purchase items in the Rathje Store. I have three bins of prizes that are worth 1, 3, or 5 tickets (almost all of this donated by friends). Additionally, each Wednesday, I hold a drawing; students can put a ticket in a cup, and I draw out the name of one person who can win a prize from the 5-ticket bin.

When my students walked in on Wednesday, tickets in hand, I couldn’t wait to show them that they could get a personalized water bottle for just 3 tickets.

“They have our names on them?”

“Yes!”

“I want one!”

“Me, too!”

It’s not a small thing to have a water bottle of your own, is it? It’s not nothing to be able to fill up your water bottle on the way into the building or in between classes — to take care of a vital need, to do it yourself, to not have to ask someone for a cup for your water every single time you want a drink, to know that this is something that belongs to you.

When people ask me what I mean by educational inequity, I cite examples like this. How can a student focus in class when he has to problem-solve to get a drink of water? And, let me be clear, this issue is not due to an uncaring or irresponsible school administration. I’m working with a very committed team of educators who are working hard each day to provide for our students. If lack of water bottles were the only inequity, it would’ve been handled already, but we’re also trying to ensure that all of our classes have teachers, that every student has a ride to school, that every student has a mask, that students have access to mental health care, winter coats, and all the other things that teenagers need.

Getting a drink of water is so basic, so ordinary, we might overlook the need. Having a water bottle is standard, isn’t it? Don’t we all have several in our homes? Don’t we assume that everyone does?

The fact is that everyone doesn’t. Everyone doesn’t have everything that they need — a water bottle, a warm meal every day, transportation to school, a home with electricity, or access to a quality education. But those of us who do can do something, We can turn the dial on societal inequities — one water bottle, one warm meal, one winter coat, one helping hand at a time. So thank you to my friend who asked how he could help, and thank you, Jacob’s Well, for quenching the thirst of my students.

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,”

Matthew 25:35

Rose-colored Glasses and Reality

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Since I re-entered the classroom last fall, I think I have been annoying some folks on my staff a bit. At least that’s the vibe I’m starting to pick up. Perhaps I’m a little too positive, a little too gung-hung, a little too happy-clappy.

I’ve not always been this way. I haven’t always interrupted staff meetings to say, “I really appreciate the thoughtfulness the leadership put into this decision,” or “Wow! Thank you so much for this meaningful professional development,” but after being away from the high school classroom for six years, thinking I’d never be back, I came to my little charter school in Detroit carrying an unbridled enthusiasm and wearing a lovely pair of rose-colored glasses.

You can almost hear the other teachers, most of whom have been trudging away in understaffed, under-resourced environments for most of their careers and who had recently closed out a school year that ended in an unanticipated three months of virtual instruction, saying, “Who is this woman? And why is she so happy?”

They didn’t ever say that out loud. In fact, I didn’t have any idea anyone was feeling that way until this fall when one teacher I’m growing closer to subtly implied that perhaps my positivity wasn’t firmly grounded in reality.

How could it be? I had been given a second chance at my career during a world-wide moment when everything was virtual. Reality was hard to get a grip on.

All last school year, I sat in my classroom alone, meeting with students who chose to log in to my Zoom room.Those who didn’t want to be there didn’t show up at all. I didn’t have to navigate noisy crowded hallways; I didn’t have to interact up close with the sometimes volatile emotions of high school students. I didn’t have to clean up messes, make copies on machines that sometimes get jammed, stand in line to use the faculty restroom, or cover a class when another teacher was out sick.

My first year back was a challenge, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t the typical Sisyphean grind that most teachers experience day after day, year after year. I was able to prepare, teach, and grade within the hours of the school day with very few exceptions. The classes I taught were similar to those I had taught in the past, and I was able to use my own materials that I had been developing for years. Other staff who had chosen to work from the building became my friends, joining me for walks on our lunch breaks. Every part of my position seemed tailor-made for me, and I was thrilled to be back!

I got excited every time a student logged into my classroom. The few rare times that we actually had students in the building, I gushed with enthusiasm, handing out gifts and prizes to anyone who crossed my path. I looked forward to faculty meetings and gladly answered the phone when anyone related to school — principal, coworker, parent, or even student — happened to call. I volunteered for opportunities such as a curriculum audit and mindfulness sessions, and I agreed to participate in a program for graduates over the summer.

I have been a cheerleader, literally clapping my hands, shouting “hooray”, and doing celebration dances for students and staff. I know, I know — perhaps it’s been a bit much.

But my colleagues can relax, because lately the rose-colored glasses haven’t been doing the trick. We started this school year in the flesh, and shit has been decidedly real.

I think we were “fully staffed” for four whole days, and that was before school even started. We lost one staff member before the students arrived and another within the second week. Not only did we have two fewer staff than we had planned on for the year, but we had a sudden need for an additional staff member when our freshmen class ended up being one and a half times as large as we thought it would be. Our HR department had just replaced the first two staff members that we lost early in the year and was still trying to find the additional teacher when another staff member resigned on the spot last week.

Why so much turnover? Because most teachers don’t experience what I had the privilege of experiencing last year. Most teachers work hard — very hard — with few, if any, breaks, and they do it for insubstantial pay. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and few young people are interested in entering the field. Our nation is experiencing a teacher shortage, which is especially felt in districts like mine where teaching can be even more challenging due to systemic inequities.

So, we’re still down two teachers, and Covid starts picking off first students and then staff. By the middle of last Monday, three key staff members had tested positive. Out of concern for student and staff safety, the decision was made to move to virtual instruction for two weeks. This news was to be communicated to students during the day on Tuesday.

When I walked into the building at 7:30 that morning, I felt wobbly. I think all of us did. We were extra short-staffed, and we all knew we’d be covering an extra class or two. The students, it seemed, were feeling it, too. The halls seemed louder, the classes a little more electric than usual.

About midday, as students got notification of the pending move to online instruction, the questions started coming. Why are we going to virtual? What about Homecoming — the dance is supposed to be this weekend?! The anxiety started building. I know it’s going to last longer than two weeks. I ‘m not coming to virtual class. I can’t do it again.

During the last period of the day, I was subbing for a class in which most of the seniors in the room were already disengaging. I tried, in futility, to get them to complete some of their work, to “get done what you can now before you are at home and don’t have the support.” Another teacher, whose room we were in, brought in a small group of underclassmen who were involved in “some trouble” in another room and needed to be removed. Since the vice principal was already backed up with other behavioral issues, we would have to house them until he had time. The two of us talked with students, answered questions, and tried to keep the atmosphere light until the final bell.

When it finally rang, and the students were dismissed, a handful of us teachers gathered in the hallway for a collective sigh. We hadn’t stood there long when we heard the yell of a staff member saying there was a fight in the parking lot and all of us were needed.

We ran out of the building to find chaos — a small cell of students involved in the actual fight and dozens of students moving about the parking lot instead of getting on their busses. What we had hoped would be a smooth transition to virtual instruction was anything but.

It made sense to me. The whole day had felt tenuous — not enough staff, impending change, and uncertainty about the future. I, a grown adult with years of therapy under my belt, had felt wobbly. How were teenagers, most of whom had experienced trauma after trauma after trauma, supposed to find any ground beneath their feet? How were they supposed to think logically, get on their busses, and go home trusting that we would indeed be back together in a couple short weeks?

The fight was soon dispersed, but not without injury, not without drama, not without the adrenaline and cortisol rush that witnessing chaos produces. Students who had missed their busses were picked up by parents or brought inside to wait for their rides, and staff wandered back to their rooms to hop on a Zoom meeting to discuss the details of Count Day which would coincide with our move to virtual instruction.

When the meeting was over, the same staff member who had gently chided me for my rose-colored glasses stopped by my room and pulled up a chair. We processed what had happened, shared our dismay, and acknowledged the reality within which we function, within which we have chosen to teach, within which we both believe we can make a difference — the messy, unpredictable, and sometimes volatile reality. Then, we loaded our computers into our cars and headed home.

The next day I sat in our home office, logged into my zoom room, and greeted each student who showed up with my overenthusiastic grin. I applauded the students who turned on their cameras, and I literally happy danced when a student told me that she had decided that she was going to go away to college after having resolved some personal issues that she had thought might keep her at home.

I think my happy-clappy self showed up not because I am wearing rose-colored glasses, but because I have fully acknowledged the reality within which my students live and move and have their being. Despite the fact that the challenges are many and varied, I am still a glass-three-quarters-full kind of gal. I think I have to be in order to see a path toward educational equity in spite of what I know to be true, to think that I can make a difference in the lives of my students and their families, and to believe that my experiences have brought me to this place for such a time as this.

The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:10

Road Trip

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My principal called me and my partner, the college access counselor, into her office. We’d received an invitation from Central Michigan University, our charter school’s authorizer, for our seniors to attend a college visit on Wednesday, September 29.

The event was free for our students, but it was only a few weeks away, and we’d have to hustle to pull it together — communicate with students and parents, get permission slips, and coordinate chaperones and transportation.

“What do you guys think? Do you want to take them?”

Almost simultaneously, my colleague and I said, “Absolutely!”

Last year we provided virtual college visits for our students. Each Wednesday, students would log into a zoom room and an admissions rep from a university would pop in and share a presentation, often with slides or a video. We provided incentives for students to show up, turn on their cameras, and ask questions. It was the best we could do, and for some of our students it was enough.

For most, though, it was hard to imagine what college life might be like by merely watching a slide show on the screen of their chromebooks while lying in bed in their pajamas. To be honest, it was very hard a year ago to imagine life beyond the isolation of Covid period.

Last year, virtual visits were the only choice we had. Now that we were being offered an opportunity to actually put our seniors’ feet on a college campus, we couldn’t pass it up. We had to give them a clearer vision of college.

My colleague got busy on a flyer and a permission slip, and our vice principal/athletic director quickly secured us a bus. A few days later, I started meeting with seniors one-on-one.

“You’ve been invited,” I said, “to go on a field trip to Central Michigan University next Wednesday. We’ll leave at 6:45 am and return at 6:45 pm.” I paused after this information each time I said it to allow students a moment to process. Each of the students looked me in the eyes and nodded before I continued. “Here is the agenda. You’ll tour the campus, attend a class, and get a T-shirt. There is no cost for you, but you need to return this permission slip by Monday.”

Each of my students — students who sometimes grumble and complain about school, who often want to sleep or eat in my class, who struggle to stay engaged from time to time — each of these students responded with a measured excitement.

“Ok. Thank you. I’ll bring in the permission slip.”

Over the next couple of days, I heard doubt surface.

“Mrs. Rathje, are we going to have to ride on a yellow school bus?”

“No,” I replied, “we’ll be on a charter bus.”

“What about the lunch? What are they gonna give us — some bologna sandwich and chips?”

“I imagine it will be a regular college dining room meal. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”

“Why do we have to leave so early?”

“CMU is a couple hours away. The event starts at 10am. We don’t want to miss anything.”

We started with a list of 48 students we were willing to invite — those who, despite Covid, are on track for graduation, have consistent attendance, and are mostly engaged in the journey toward college. Several opted out for various reasons, and we ended up with 31 students and four chaperones on a plain vanilla charter bus.

The students were excited and, I think, a little anxious. The questions kept coming.

Mrs. Rathje, are we all going to stick together all day today?”

“No. We’ll be together for parts of it, but you will each go to the class you signed up for. We’ll be separated for that.”

“What if I don’t like my class? Can I just leave?

“No. You are going to give it a chance. You’re going to stay with your group. You’re going to survive. I promise.”

“Mrs. Rathje, you better be right about the food.”

“Trust me.”

After we left the Detroit metro area, Lansing was virtually the only sign of “city” life amid miles and miles of farm land. The students, on their phones or sleeping, were mostly oblivious, but as we neared Mt. Pleasant, which is not far from my childhood home, I woke them and called their attention to the surroundings.

“If you look out your windows, you’ll see mostly farmland, but in the next few minutes, on your left, you will see the CMU Chippewas’ football stadium.”

They looked out the windows as I continued to narrate.

“On the right you see everything you need within walking distance — restaurants, groceries, a pharmacy. As we turn left here, you are officially on campus.”

The phones were mostly down as students looked out the windows.

We pulled up in front of the Student Activities Center where someone in a maroon and gold shirt was waving us in. Inside, more people in maroon and gold were calling the names of our students, handing out backpacks and T-shirts, and encouraging us to change into them to designate that we were part of the group.

I heard just a little grumbling, “Mrs. Rathje, do I have to wear the shirt?”

“Yes.”

Then compliance. They quickly changed, grabbed a donut or a juice that had been set out for them, and then walked en masse into the basketball arena where the opening session was in progress.

The stands on one side of the gym were filled with students — I’d say about 300 or so — from charter schools across the state. Perhaps 80% or more of those students were Black, and most were from Detroit.

In this opening session, the students learned about the culture of CMU — “Fire up, Chips!” — and some of the programs. Next, we were broken into groups for a campus tour and lunch.

I was proud of our students as they followed our tour guides, asking questions, and checking out the campus, and I was probably as excited as they were when they got to lunch and realized they could pick what they wanted and eat as much as they liked. I got my own lunch and sat down at a table with some young men from our school. They weren’t embarrassed or trying to avoid me as some teenaged boys might do. They spoke to me. They asked me questions. In fact, other students sought me out during that lunch time. They, too, had questions and just wanted to check in. They were relishing a full hour of lunch and the freedom to move about among actual college students.

When I saw some of the students who’d expressed concern about lunch, I asked “How was your food?”

“It was great! You were right, Mrs. Rathje!”

After lunch, we moved into class sessions. We were separated into even smaller groups, and students attended sessions based on their interests. It was fun later to hear students report on their experiences.

“I learned about exercise science. It was about how the muscles work,” one said as he massaged his own bicep.

“We were in the TV station learning about how films are made,” said another.

But my favorite was the one that I read on a reflection assignment completed after the event: “We had to do an egg experiment where we dropped it from a certain height to see if it cracks or not. My egg was the only one that did not crack, and I got a mug for it.” He hadn’t said a word the whole trip home. He had held that little victory to himself.

As we wrapped up at the event, I questioned our students. “Well, what did you think? How was your day? What did you learn?”

I got all kinds of responses.

The understated: “It was alright.

The tired: “It was a lot of walking.”

And the excited: “This is my dream school. I’m applying this month.”

As we walked to our bus, we met up with one of our grads from last year who is currently attending CMU. He shook the hands of some of our seniors who, in the fog of Covid, hadn’t known he had chosen to go to college at all. My colleague and I asked if he would come speak to our students when he is home; we’d like him to share his experience with our seniors. He said he would and added, “going to college has changed the way I think about everything.”

The bus ride home was hot. The air conditioning on our bus quit working as though to remind us that our fantastical day of hope was over. We were headed back to our school in Detroit where we wouldn’t go on tours, have hour-long all-you-can-eat lunches, or be bathed in images of possibility.

However, the next day in class, my students wanted to share with those who had not gone. They didn’t mention the hot ride home, but they wanted to share what they’d seen, what they’d done, and most importantly, what they had eaten.

“Mrs. Rathje, are we going to visit more colleges like that? “

“If it’s up to me, we sure will, but right now let’s get back to our college research. Who is adding CMU to their college comparison chart?”

A few hands in the room went up into the air.

“Excellent. Let’s find out even more than we learned yesterday.”

Perhaps I imagined it, but it seemed to me that my seniors were a little more engaged, a little more motivated, a little more interested in the possibilities of college.

Bring on the next road trip.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Jeremiah 29: 11

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

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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.

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