Finding my next Crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By reading…”

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

Yes. I am doing this willingly.

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

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

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

“Yeah,”

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

“It’s alright.”

“Yeah? Do you like reading?”

“Not really.”

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

Silence.

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would love a reading class.”

That should’ve been my first clue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked at me and smiled innocently.

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

“No.”

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

“Yes.”

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

“What’s that?”

“What do your grades look like?”

“They are terrible.”

“Why’s that?”

“I have trouble focusing.”

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

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

“OK.”

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

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

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

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

*Name changed to maintain confidentiality.

Gem of the Week: Kia*

This is the second in a sporadic series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m nervous,” she replied.

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

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

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

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

“I feel good!”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I did?”

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

She looked at me, locking eyes.

“Kia, you could be a nurse!”

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

“You can! You are very bright!”

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

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

“I gotta come to school.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Amazing, Kia! Keep going!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Name changed for confidentiality.

A Week’s Journey

Click the arrow to listen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I perked up. “Do you have a card?”

He handed me one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big wins for my students, for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

Doing Fine

Click the arrow to listen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, me, too.

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

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

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

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

“Higher reading levels.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My feral little freshmen beamed.

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

“Yes, I do.”

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

“What do you mean?” I ask.

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

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

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

“He’s going back to the introduction.”

“He’s repeating the claim.”

“He’s making his conclusion.”

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

And almost in unison, they say “yes!”

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

Is it a drain on my body? It is.

Does it energize my spirit? Unquestionably.

Am I beaming as brightly as my students? Obviously.

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

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

Psalm 92:4

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

of Death and Resurrection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shook her head no.

“Hmm. What would she like you to do?”

“She wants me to keep doing hair.”

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

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

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

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

“I am so sorry! I had no idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

We all experience loss. We all experience death.

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

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

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

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

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

And they do.

And the tears flow.

Strangers touch hands and are no longer strangers.

It looks like resurrection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Corinthians 1:4

*All student names have been changed, of course.

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

Pit Stops

Click the arrow to listen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 8:28

And, we’re off!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the whole group collectively sighed.

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

And that’s just Monday and Thursday.

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

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

Students filling out applications at EMU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He who began a good work will complete it.

Philippians 1:6

Gem of the Week: Sam*

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

Click the arrow to listen.

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

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

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

I took note.

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

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

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

“You know my name?” he said.

“Yes. Do you know mine?” I asked.

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“Well, I see you in the hall a lot.”

“That’s not me.”

“I’m pretty sure it is.”

And then we were no longer walking together.

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

“How’s it going, Sam?”

I didn’t always get a response.

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

“Hey, Sam,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Sam, what’s up?”

“Is your class hard?” he asked.

“No, I wouldn’t say it’s hard. Why?”

“Everyone says it’s hard.”

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

“Yeah. I’m a little worried.”

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

“I’m not hall walker.”

“Ok.”

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

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

“I ain’t doing that.”

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

“I ain’t doing it.”

“Ok.”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t want to do it.”

“Just go. Give it a chance.”

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

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

I didn’t see Sam.

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

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

“You went! I knew you would love it!”

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

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

“Thanks.”

Yup. Sam the hall walker said “thanks”.

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

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

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

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

Psalm 27:13 Rathje Revised Version

Getting Ready

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This morning at church, a friend, smiling, asked if I was ready to go back to school yet.

I’m getting closer.

Since last week’s post, I have taken one trip to my school to drop off more supplies including 100 composition books and a variety of incentive prizes I gathered over the summer. While I was there, I picked up a new laptop and logged in for the first time, made sure all my stuff loaded, and turned on my projector to see if it’s going to cooperate this year.

I took two short trips for fun — one to see my mom and help her sort through some closets and memories and another to share a meal with long time friends.

I’ve been working on three deadlines– three deliverables that are all due by or before today — one for my policy fellowship, one for my role as master teacher, and one for my role as reading interventionist.

I’ve attended four zoom meetings — one with a large group of district leaders to discuss changes for the coming year, one with our building’s leadership team to sort out deadlines and responsibilities for the next two weeks of professional development and back to school activities, one with a colleague to get into the specifics of those responsibilities, and one with two administrators to sort out the details for the student teaching supervision that I have agreed to.

I’ve ordered five items online — contact paper for attaching labels to student desks, stickers for students to decorate their composition books, two pairs of shoes, and three tubes of lipstick.

I’ve crocheted six headbands to put in my prize boxes.

I’ve received generous donations from seven friends — snacks, prizes, feminine supplies, gift cards, and the like.

Each day holds a detail or responsibility that reminds me I’m getting closer, but I am still not picturing student faces. I got close last week when I was pushing desks around in my classroom. I could almost see them as I slid tables and chairs, reconfiguring the space to meet this year’s needs.

The bells were already ringing on schedule, and more staff bodies were moving through the building, but no teens yet.

I read the freshman roster this morning and attempted to select those who would participate in my reading class — glancing at names, but relying on data points to make my selections. I thought soon these names will represent bodies, faces, lives that might be impacted by this intervention, but not yet.

In a few hours, I’ll compose a letter to their parents, informing them that their child has been selected for a special program, that their attendance is crucial, that the potential impact is great.

Then, I will construct a Google slide show explaining the grading system and the policies regarding plagiarism and technology use at my school. In a couple of weeks, the teachers in my building will use this slide deck with all of our students to help get everyone acclimated back to academic life and the expectations that come with it.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back in the building, pushing around more tables, trying to envision bodies in seats. I won’t be alone. I suspect other teachers will be preparing their rooms, too.

On Wednesday, we will meet en masse to discuss culturally responsive teaching, to meet with our instructional coaches, and to look at the scope and sequence for the year. We’ll continue for six more days, preparing lessons, practicing for emergencies, meeting with coaches, putting last touches on our rooms.

Finally, we’ll have a three-day weekend.

And then — then — I’ll be standing at my threshold, grinning and welcoming. By then I should be ready.

And, if I’m not, no worries — the minute I lock eyes with the first student, my teacher heart will engage and I will be all-in for nine months. Just like I was transformed during my pregnancies, limiting caffeine, getting extra sleep, transforming my wardrobe, taking prenatal vitamins, and seeing the doctor monthly to ensure the healthy development of the children we had hoped for, I will be transformed. I will arise at 5am each day, caffeinate myself, and arrive at school wearing sensible shoes and comfortable clothing, toting a compact lunch of almonds, fruit, and some kind of bar. I will move throughout my day with my students on my mind, continuously adapting to their needs. I will shorten (or lengthen) a lessen, add (or remove) a funny anecdote, phone parents to brag (or show concern), and walk through the lunch room to track down some kid to give him the item he forgot, a good talking to, or a fist-bump depending on what he needs the most.

I will have my lunch interrupted by students who need something to eat and my prep time disturbed to respond to “Mrs. Rathje, you got a charger?” And by some miracle, I won’t be irritated. I’m not in this next chapter. I’ll look up and ask “What’s your name? Where are you supposed to be? Everything going ok for you today?” I might get an “I’m good” or a “Thank you” or an “I’ll bring it back,” but over time, I’ll likely get someone at my door who asks “Can I talk to you?” and I will push aside my laptop, roll my chair from behind my desk, and take whatever time we need because I’ll be ready.

By then, my students won’t be just on my mind all day, they will have inched their way into my heart. It happens year after year. I sometimes wonder if I’ll be able to fit any more kids in there, but I always can. My own children take up the largest rooms, of course, but my students live right among them.

Yesterday, we walked into a restaurant with some members of our family. We were waiting to be seated when I noticed standing at the host’s stand, a former student who was working there. “Jamie, is that you?” He looked up at me, questioningly.

“It’s me, Kristin.”

Instantly, we were hugging. He grabbed on tight — the way family does. While we were in the restaurant, he and I checked in with each other a couple of times — sharing updates, smiling, laughing. We’ve got a life-long bond with one another. That’s what happens when you spend time learning together.

And that’s why I know I’ll be ready — I’m getting closer and closer each day.

Act justly…love mercy…walk humbly

Micah 6:8

Rest and Return

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The summer is winding down and I (along with teachers across the country) am starting to move toward the classroom.

Feeling truly depleted at the end of last school year, I spent the first two weeks of summer break at home. I gardened, slept late, wrote a teeny little bit, read, walked, and cooked.

And then, when I was somewhat revived, my husband and I boarded a jet and headed west. We alit in the land of palms and headed to wide expanses of beach, spread out matching beach towels. and spent hours reading, sleeping, chatting, and staring in awe at the waves and the sky. We wandered inland and wondered at the mountains and the forests then returned to the beaches — some tame and populated, some rugged and bare.

We ate well, slept long, and walked for miles and miles.

We breathed deeply. We laughed. We restored.

When our vacation was over, he reported back to his responsibilities, and I returned to rest.

This past week, I found my way back to my desk and started to consider and prepare for the roles I will carry this fall. It will be my third year at my current school after a long season of physical and mental recovery, and it will be the most challenging yet.

Earlier in this blog, I have elaborated on the fact that many years of pushing too hard and failing to take care of myself or process any emotion had sidelined me from the classroom for several years. In 2020, I felt called back, and because we were in the midst of a pandemic, I had the privilege of easing back in through a year of teaching virtually followed by a year of some in-person and some virtual learning. I was able to get my feet under me with mostly no physical or emotional consequences until the very end of last year when my body started waving warning flags.

Those flags reminded me to fully lean into my summer, and I have. I have put puzzles together, crocheted, and binge-watched. I have rested fully, and now as reminders of all I have committed to start pinging on my phone, I am both exhilarated and anxious. I have added some new roles, and I am wondering if I will truly be able to manage it all.

I know for sure that I can manage the first responsibility, which is the one I have had from my first day at Detroit Leadership Academy. I am the senior ELA teacher, focusing on building skills that will enable my students to experience success after graduation. Our research projects focus on career and college. Our writing includes college essays and resumes. We practice academic reading, writing, discussion, and presenting. The goal is that our students will have the opportunity to choose — college, career, military, or trade school. I love this role — in many ways it is an extension of what I did in my previous classroom position, and I am thankful that I am able to carry those skills forward to support another community of students.

I also know that I can handle the second responsibility which I have had for a year now. I am our school’s Master Teacher. We have instructional coaches in our building who work directly with teachers to improve instructional practices; that is not my role. My role is more to be an exemplar and an encourager. Teachers can pop in my room and ask a question, check out my white board or room arrangement, complain about a policy, vent about a student, or ask for a snack. I love this role, too. Because I’ve been a teacher and a mom across four decades, I have seen some stuff, and not much surprises me. I can typically remain calm and objective, which is what less-experienced teachers often need.

The above two roles are familiar and natural to me, but like many teachers throughout their career, I have been offered some additional responsibilities that will absolutely stretch me in the coming year.

The first of these is one I volunteered for. I will be participating in a year-long educational fellowship wherein I will work with teachers across the state to examine educational policies and practices, do research, and work with lawmakers and constituents to enact change. I am very excited about this opportunity, which will give voice to my passion for educational equity, the key focus of this fellowship.

The second new role is to be our school’s reading interventionist and to bring a new reading program to the building. I will have one period a day with 10 freshmen who have demonstrated reading skills 2-3 years (or more) below grade level. I am being trained this week in strategies that have been demonstrated to decrease/eliminate that gap in 20 weeks of daily instruction. I am fully behind this initiative. In fact, I asked for a reading interventionist after seeing evidence of weak reading among my students. Because of my Lindamood-Bell experience, I am a solid choice (at least initially) for this role, and I know I will love watching my students develop their reading skills.

Even though I am passionate about each of these roles, they are adding up! And I haven’t even told you the last one.

After I had already accepted all of the above positions, and had begun to wrap my mind around what they would each entail, I was approached by our director of human resources and asked if I would take on an uncertified colleague as a student teacher.

Let me pause for effect, because that is what I literally did when I got the call. I sat with the phone to my ear, breathing silently.

I’ve mentioned before that 2/3 of the teachers in our building are uncertified — most, like this friend, are working toward certification. Many, like this friend, will eventually need to do student teaching. If she can’t do the student teaching in our building, she will find a different school to accommodate her, and then we would be down one more teacher.

I know it is not my responsibility, but I am the teacher in the building with the appropriate certification to supervise her, and I have had student teachers before. I believe we will work well together and that the experience will be successful, but it is a large responsibility on top of an already full load.

This is not uncommon for teachers. In fact, I am not unique at all. Teachers manage their classrooms, provide excellent instruction, sit on committees, volunteer for study groups, and support their colleagues. They coach, they work second (or third) jobs, and they also have lives away from school that include myriad challenges and responsibilities.

It’s not uncommon, yet although I am excited to get started in each of these roles, I do have some anxiety. This is the most I have committed to since the 2013-2014 school year — the year that I requested a reduced load because I was suffering with pain, extreme fatigue, and myriad other health issues, the year before I left my classroom for what I thought was the last time.

I’m not the same person I was then. I have learned how to care for my body. I am learning strategies for managing my emotions. I don’t have teenagers at home. I no longer have pets to care for. And still, it’s going to be a lot.

So here I am recommitting to my best practices — I will continue to write, to do yoga, to walk, to rest, to puzzle, to crochet, to read, and to meet with our small group. I will go to my physical therapy, chiropractic, and (now) acupuncture appointments. I will eat the foods that make me feel well and avoid those that don’t. I will limit other commitments.

More importantly, I will pray, and I will trust that God has provided me this next chapter and all the opportunities in it and that He will carry me through it all so that I can be present and fully engaged with those who are counting on me, because they truly are counting on me.

And really they are counting on the One who lives in me — the One who sees each student, each teacher, each parent, the One who knows each of our names, the One who is faithful, the One who is answering before we even use our breath to ask, the only One who can really be counted on

I may continue to feel anxious, but when I do, I will try to remember that He’s got me and all of my responsibilities in the palm of His hand.

The One who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

I Thessalonians 5:24