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

Changing the World

In July 2020, having been offered a freshman English position at Detroit Leadership Academy, I emailed my enthusiastic acceptance. Within hours, the hiring agent reached back out to see if I would be willing to instead teach senior English. The school had a new initiative called Cougars to College, wherein this senior English course would serve as the vehicle by which all seniors could secure entrance to college. The course had never been taught before, so the person who agreed to teach it would be writing the curriculum, and because the pandemic had interrupted the students’ junior year right at the time that they would’ve been preparing for and then taking the SAT, the first unit would be a crash course in SAT prep. The rest of the first semester, the teacher would be working with the college counselor to help students navigate the college application process.

Just a couple of months earlier, my husband and I had made the decision that I would apply for high school English positions, especially those in schools where race and poverty had historically led to educational disparity. In the wake of racial unrest following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury, and Breonna Taylor, I felt newly called to this work because I believe that Black lives matter and I wanted to do more than just say that with my mouth.

My interior idealistic 25 year old self wanted to change the world.

I applied widely to schools in Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor and landed with Equity Education, an agency committed to intentionally tearing down racial inequities — they want to change the world, too!

They were asking me to teach seniors about the college application process, even though they didn’t know that in my last high school teaching position I had worked with the counseling department to walk with high school juniors and seniors through researching colleges, writing college essays, doing SAT prep, and writing resumes. They couldn’t have known I was uniquely qualified to design and teach this course — they couldn’t have known this was more than all I had dared to hope for.

But God knew. He knew that I’d been preparing for this position for most of my career. I’d not only taught college writing and AP courses for nine years in St. Louis, I’d also taught freshman writing and developmental composition at the college level. I’d designed curriculum for rigorous dual-credit courses and for more foundational courses for emerging writers, so when they asked, “Would I be willing?” my response was, “Are you kidding? It would be my pleasure.”

Almost immediately, I started planning, preparing, and amassing materials. My coworkers at my previous job had showered me with a library full of adolescent and classic literature. A friend purchased boxes full of highlighters so that I could provide each student with a blue, a yellow, and a pink for analyzing sentences, paragraphs, and essays. Other friends (and my mom, of course) collected school supplies to stock my shelves, and one couple funded my purchase of 100 composition books. My son and I lugged all this stuff to my classroom, and there it sat for an entire semester.

Covid made it impossible for me to distribute these materials before school started. My students were on their side of the Zoom screen in their bedrooms and kitchens; I was on my side teaching from my desk. For the entire first semester, we did everything through Google classroom — every single document was electronic.

And can we just say, thank God for Zoom and Google Classroom which have allowed us to stay connected with our students! For many students, teachers are the only interaction they have outside of their homes — the only change of scenery from an otherwise endless quarantine.

We started the first semester by learning how to use Zoom, Google classroom, Gmail, and the Internet. Many of my students had never had a computer at home before, so the whole first quarter was spent on digital literacy and SAT prep. After the seniors had taken the SAT, we moved onto researching colleges and writing first a college essay and then a resume. By the end of the first semester, many students had been accepted into college, some with substantial scholarships.

Now, full transparency, we also have chronic absenteeism (30-40% of all students) even though an attendance team (and our teachers) are working diligently to get kids in class. Nevertheless, I feel good about the progress we made first semester — virtually and during a pandemic. We have students who are on track to go to college who might not have been without our concerted efforts.

Now, knowing that they are going to college and what they will find there, I feel compelled to spend the second semester preparing them, so a couple of weeks ago, when our seniors came to school to get their senior pictures taken, I was ready for them. Each student received a copy of Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime, a set of highlighters, and a composition book. We are going to read the memoir, not only to learn about Noah’s experience, but also to practice reading, build stamina, and develop critical literacy skills. We are going to use the highlighters to analyze text and to build grammar skills — highlighting topic sentences or prepositional phrases as the situation demands. The composition books — they have the most transformative potential.

Last week we kicked off the second semester, which we started with a syllabus — the first one many of them had seen. I can’t hardly send a group of first-generation college students off to class without working knowledge of how to decode a syllabus.

The second day of class, I prompted my students to take out their composition books. These, I said, would be used every week. We would fill up the pages with writing. They would not be graded on spelling, grammar, or punctuation, but they would receive full credit for simply filling up pages. Any writing, I told them, improves writing, and the more you write, the more your writing will improve. It’s just that simple

I put a few prompts on the screen:

  • This pandemic…
  • Thinking about college…
  • Any topic of your choice.

Then I set a timer for 8 minutes, turned on some instrumental music, and told them to write until I said stop or until they filled a page. And then, my students and I wrote.

As the clock ticked, I checked in: “You should be filling up one page of your composition book…” then, “we are halfway through our time…” and “keep writing, even if you just write the names of the people in your family…” then, “Time’s up. Stop writing.”

I asked a few students to share how that felt. In this virtual space, I honestly didn’t know if anyone would want to share, but they did.

“I loved that; I love writing,” said one.

“To be honest, I didn’t write anything; I just sat here. I couldn’t come up with anything,” said another.

“It was alright,” offered another.

I had them take a picture of the journal with the camera on their phones. (Yes, almost everyone has a cell phone, even though some don’t have reliable wifi.) Then I had them upload their photos to Google classroom.

Later in the day, after my classes, I had time to read…about their disappointment of losing their senior year to the pandemic, of their fears about college, of the conflict they are having with their parents, of the trauma that happened to them as a child, of the chronic illness they are living with.

After a semester of listening to my voice and seeing my face on a screen, some of them trusted me enough to share a piece of themselves through their writing. I wrote back to each and every one — thanking them for sharing, commiserating with their grief, and encouraging their bravery.

Look, I realize I’m not going to close the educational gaps that exist for students of color any time soon. I am not in one virtual school year going to get all my seniors to college or give them all the tools they need to be successful there. In fact, all of my seniors won’t likely graduate on time.

But here’s the thing, if I can get a classroom full of students writing in composition books, sharing their feelings and telling their stories, I might just change the world.

That’s all I really want to do — just change the world.

But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Romans 8:25

**If you would like to help me change the world, I will always and forever be accepting composition books, highlighters, and other school supplies.

I

Coronavirus Diary #26: Needed

Click the arrow to hear the audio.

I woke up to the sound of crying. As I gathered consciousness, I realized it was Chester, our twelve-year old golden retriever. He needed me to get up; he was insisting.

I glanced at my clock; it was 5am.

He continued to cry, so I rolled out of bed and took him outside. He needed to go. It was confirmed. And he’d needed me.

I’ve been needed a lot in the last week — the final week of the semester. Some students who had not fully engaged in this semester of virtual learning suddenly needed me to help them with missing assignments, to grade their late work, and to adjust their grades.

I was willing to do all this because we are in unusual times. If you were my student pre-pandemic, I might’ve accepted late work, but I would’ve never given it full credit, and I certainly would’ve given you grief. This semester, however, has been very different.

Some of my students have struggled with technology, many having never had access to a computer at home before, having never used an online interface, having never created or submitted digital documents, and often having unreliable wifi.

Some have struggled with depression. They’ve lost loved ones, their families are struggling financially, and they’re doing their senior year from their bedroom. They haven’t seen their friends, haven’t giggled in the hallways, haven’t gone to a homecoming football game, and haven’t been seen — sitting in classes, walking down halls, playing sports, eating lunch. Instead, they’ve logged into a zoom room to find some cheery middle-aged white woman talkin bout college this and SAT that. How can she possibly know our lives and what we’re going through. How can she sit up in here talkin bout applying to colleges, filling out FAFSAs and turning on cameras. Who does she think she is? She doesn’t know what we need.

I’ve been trying to be available for when they do voice a need. Chester knows when he stands next to my bed and cries, I will certainly stand up and take him outside. In the same way, I want my students to know that they can come to me, and I will do what I can to help them out.

However, after a lifetime in urban schools where teachers often leave after a semester or a year, these students are wary. I knew that walking in; building trust would be job one.

The first step in building trust is consistently showing up, so I’ve done that. Every day, I’ve been on time, used the same routine, and have given consistent messages about assignments, due dates, and goals.

It can feel so rote to me — so robotic — to move through the same motions every hour, hour after hour. We start each class with a gathering — a simple question that invites every student to weigh in, either in the chat box or out loud. Then I share the objectives for the day followed by a two-three question pre-assessment called the Do Now. Next, I share the results of the pre-test on my screen, and together we see what percentage of students knew the answers and what percentage didn’t. After that, we move into instruction which includes modeling and practice followed by me calling on students to check if they are still with me, if they understand, and if they have any questions. Then I give an assignment followed by a two-three question post-test. We take a screen break, then we come back for announcements, questions, and an opportunity for support.

It’s the same every single day, but that’s what my students need — predicability, consistency, routine. And, after five months of doing this every single day, I got a payoff this past week.

On Thursday we had curriculum distribution day. All students were to come to school to get their materials, and seniors were to pose in caps and gowns for their senior pictures. I had invited all of my students to stop by my room, luring them with the promise of prizes — t-shirts, candy, lanyards, and such. Some never made it to the building — they missed the dozen emails and phone calls along with my in-class announcements or their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t bring them — but throughout the day, I had a steady trickle of visitors.

First, my vice-principal dragged in a student who had been MIA for several weeks, until I called her dad and then her mom to let them know that if something didn’t change, she wasn’t going to pass the first semester and she wouldn’t be on track for graduation. The girl walked into my room, and she had to be introduced to me, because even though I’ve talked to her on the phone and she’s been in my zoom room quite often in the last few weeks, she’s never had her camera on. I greeted her, offered her a small prize from my “I had to be introduced to you” table, and encouraged her to keep showing up.

“I had to be introduced to you” Table

She took her prize, nodded her head, and then left. A little while later, she came back, to see if we could work through a couple assignments to bump her over the passing threshold, and we did.

A little later, an enormous mountain of a young man walked in. I recognized him right away. He’d been failing, too, until a couple weeks ago when he showed up in my after school office hours telling me that he wanted to get back on track. He came three days in a row for 90 minutes each day, finishing assignment after assignment. He, too, had moved into the realm of passing. He got to choose a larger item from my “I recognized your face” table.

“I recognized your face” Table

The visits continued. A young man stopped in to tell me that he knew he was going to fail the semester; he’d already talked to our principal and had made a plan for credit recovery. He had lost his uncle, he said, and it had really messed him up.

“I just lost an uncle, too,” I said, “Covid. Yours?”

“No,” he said, “my uncle was shot.”

“Wow. I am so sorry. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be. Are you ok?”

“Yeah. I’m ok.”

“Alright. I hope I’ll be seeing you in class starting next week.”

“You will,” he said, and he made his way out the door.

A little while later, I was standing in the hallway chatting with one student who just wanted to stand and chat when I saw a couple walking toward me — the young man carrying a car seat, the young woman smiling and looking me in the eye.

“The baby!” I said as they walked toward me. These two had shared the birth of their child with me privately in the zoom room, and here they were in the flesh. They brought him close, this perfect little baby with round cheeks and thick curls, and I had to stop myself from instinctively touching him. What a perfect little baby, but his young parents looked weary and newly mature. They are both working fast food jobs, both trying to pass classes, both trying to care for this child.

What did they need from me? I’m not sure, but I let them know I saw them — their togetherness, their situation, their struggle. “You two are doing a lot right now. The best thing I can tell you is to keep showing up, keep doing your best, and keep letting us know how we can support you.”

They couldn’t stay. The baby — the beautiful perfect baby — was starting to fuss. They needed to get him home. After all, he’d waited through their senior pictures, their discussions with the principal, their gathering of supplies. So, they said their goodbyes and went on their way.

It was such a rich day — hearing students call me by name, joking with them in the hallway, giving a couple a hard time for finding a secluded corner. I felt so full as I moved around my classroom, packing up the remaining prizes and recalling all the interchanges I’d had throughout the day. I was smiling and so grateful.

Turns out that seeing my students was just what I had needed.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory!

Ephesians 3:20

**If you’d like to support my ongoing effort to reward my students for showing up and working hard, I welcome all donations of items I can use for prizes. Suggestions include but are not limited to: candy, chapstick, sample size lotion, hand sanitizer, pens, snack bars, etc.

Coronavirus Day #23 Gathering

Every day when I start my class, I ask my students a question and they respond by answering through an app on their phones called Mentimeter. After they’ve responded, I project the question and the answers on the screen. It sometimes looks like this:

This practice, called the gathering, is an expectation of all teachers in the educational network within which I teach. It’s a practice that sets the climate for collaboration, builds community, and allows every voice to heard, which is especially tricky in this virtual environment we find ourselves in. Our network feels so strongly about this practice, that we begin every staff meeting with a gathering, too.

On Friday, I started my day with the Cougars to College team meeting. This team’s goal is that all seniors would be accepted to a college or trade school. Most of our students will be first generation college students, so it is imperative that we provide a high level of support as they navigate the journey. As this meeting started, the facilitator, my principal, asked the question for our gathering, “What was the greatest barrier you faced in obtaining your college education?”

One member of the team said it was transitioning from small high school classes to the large lecture halls of the university. Another said it was moving from a Detroit high school to a university in Texas and realizing that though she was an honors student in high school, she was poorly equipped for the rigor of college. The youngest member of the team said he lost his grandmother during college, the person who had been his strongest cheerleader throughout his education. Each member of the team weighed in and was heard by all the other members who listened attentively. We all got to know each other a little better, and we all grew in our commitment to the cause of supporting our students on their quest for an education.

From that meeting, I quickly transitioned to a class of students who are spending their senior year in their bedrooms, at their kitchen tables, or on their couches, logging into a zoom room on a chrome book that the school provided the week before the start of school. They are in various stages of disillusionment, diligence, depression, determination, and disengagement, and I’m teaching them how to write a college essay — in December of their senior year.

This is an activity that I have, in the past, taught during the junior year — long before my students start applying to colleges. I tell them, “I know you are not applying until next fall, but trust me, you’ll be glad to have this essay in your back pocket when you get there.” This year’s students had nothing in their back pockets when I met them — no SAT score (the tests were all cancelled during the pandemic), no essay draft, no real idea where they wanted to go to college, and not much drive to get started. Let’s be honest, I met them in month six of a global pandemic. They had been sent home in March, and many had done little schooling since then.

And here I come, little Miss Energetic, “Good morning! How are you today? It’s great to see you?” And I know that many of them are rolling over in bed, glancing at the screen, saying, “Seriously? Who is this lady?”

Nevertheless, I forge on, starting with a gathering, sharing the objectives for the day, moving to a formative assessment, providing the highest quality instruction I know how to provide in this virtual space, and encouraging them to engage, to ask questions, to complete the assignment, and to come to my office hours.

Three months later, they may still be asking themselves “Who is this lady?” but they are coming to class. Most of them, I should say. We continue to have a problem with chronic absenteeism, as most Detroit schools do. Some students are not coming because of internet connectivity issues, and my school has been working tirelessly to troubleshoot and provide hotspots. Some are not coming because they’ve been going to work, helping to support their families who have been hard hit by the pandemic. Some are not coming because they are providing child care for younger siblings. One of my students missed the whole first quarter because she was caring for her niece during my class period.

But most are coming to class. Most. And that’s something.

So, at the end of last week, when I started our second lesson on college essay writing, the question in the Mentimeter app was this: When was a time you were really proud of yourself? My goal was to cultivate material for the essay, but as typically happens, I discovered something unexpected about my students as I read their responses out loud.

One was proud of his first touch down; another was proud of being accepted into a college, and a third remembered the feeling of getting one of the highest test scores in the school. These are the kinds of responses I was expecting.

The next two responses surprised me, but I found them equally valid. One student was proud just to have shown up in class. The other was proud to have turned work in on time. You might be tempted to think these students were joking around — that they weren’t taking my prompt seriously. Certainly showing up and completing assignments are merely expectations — what all students should be doing every day.

And I might’ve thought that once, too.

In fact, I used to give students all kinds of crap for showing up late, for missing a day, or for failing to turn in assignments. “What’s the problem?” I might ask. “You know what time class starts.” Or, “You need to get these assignments turned in. Each day your grade will go down by 10%, so you’d better turn it in soon.” I pressured, and I persisted. I shamed, and, I’m afraid, sometimes humiliated.

I don’t do that any more.

Students show up to my Zoom room 5 minutes early or 55 minutes late. They turn in assignments on time, three weeks late, and not at all. They miss nine whole weeks of school and then email me that since their sister got a new job, they will finally be able to join class next week.

And am I mad? Am I put out? Not one bit.

I can honestly say, that I am thrilled when students join my class — whenever they join. I am not angry at the large number of students who are absent, who have turned in nothing, or who are failing my class.

I am simply ecstatic at the ones who have found the wherewithal in the middle of a pandemic, when God only knows what their family is struggling through — if they’ve lost their income, if they’ve had to stand in a food line that day, if they are expecting to be evicted at the end of the month, if family members have died, if everyone is at their wits end and snapping at one another — that they’ve managed to roll over in bed or sit up at a table, to log in to the Zoom room, put their face on the screen, and attend this class.

And if they’ve shown up, I want to give them a chance to say something — anything! That they once made a touchdown, that they got accepted to college, that they got the highest score on a test, or that they are simply doing their best to come to class and turn in their work.

We have no idea what these kids are going through.

And, sometimes, I think they don’t either.

During my lesson last week, I read aloud a sample college essay written by a young woman who had shadowed a doctor at a hospital. I wanted to give my students an example of what a “good” essay looked like. When I finished reading, I asked my typical questions, “What did you see?” and “What did that essay tell you about its writer?”

My students answered my questions, and then one said, “But what are we going to write about? What if we don’t have an experience like that — shadowing a doctor? I don’t have anything happening in my life that I can write about.”

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “All of you right now are living through a freaking pandemic. No one has done this is over 100 years. Each day is something that you can write about. You are demonstrating resiliency each time you show up to class.”

She looked into the camera, straight into my eyes.

“You can do this,” I said.

Tomorrow, when my students show up to class, I will send them to Mentimeter. I will post the question: What is one thing you’ve always dreamed of doing?

My hope is that in gathering around this question, we will be able to share some dreams and perhaps some hope. We’ve got a long way to go, and we’re going to need to encourage one another until we get there.

therefore encourage one another and build one another up

I Thes. 5: 11

Coronavirus Diary #21: Tales told in School

Click the arrow to listen, or read on.

Last Monday morning, I logged into my Zoom room around 8:25am — my senior English class starts at 8:30. I was checking my online grade book for attendance, cuing up my Google slideshow, and verifying that all my other visual aids were loaded and ready to go when my ‘doorbell’ rang and I noticed that Kelvin* was waiting to come in. I clicked the ‘admit’ button and watched my screen to see his window open.

“Good morning, Kelvin, how are you?” I said.

“I’m good,” he answered.

“Nice to see you.”

“Nice to see you, too.”

“Did you have a good weekend?” I asked, hoping that he would engage in conversation with me, trying to build relationship in this virtual space.

“Yeah, it was good. Do you have Ciara* in your class, too?”

“Yes — next hour.”

“She won’t be here today,” he said.

“Oh?” I answered, looking into the screen.

“Yeah, we had our baby this weekend, so she won’t be able to come to class.”

“You did? Congratulations!” I had known that Ciara was expecting, but I had not been aware that Kelvin was, too.

He held up his phone to his Chromebook camera so that I could barely make out a photo of a baby.

“Aw! So sweet! Are Ciara and the baby doing well?”

“Yeah, they’re doing good.”

“That’s great.” I said, and then the doorbell rang, I allowed the next student in, and we were on with the class — one young man, sitting in his bedroom, looking at a photo on his phone and me teaching the group how to present their research by creating a Google slide. Despite the fact that one student’s life changed forever over the weekend, we still have to move forward with the rest of the class.

If we were in a physical space, I’d have probably hunted down Kelvin later in the day — invited him to come have lunch in my room, given him one of the many gifts I have stockpiled for such an occasion, or just patted him on the back and encouraged him to take care of that baby. But we aren’t in a physical space — all I have are the moments that students choose to log in to my Zoom room. That’s it.

Me in my Zoom Room.

Ciara emailed me on Wednesday afternoon.

“I am sorry I have not been in class this week. I had my baby over the weekend, but I want to know what I missed so that I can get caught up.”

“Congratulations, Ciara! I hope you and the baby are doing well. If you are up to coming to class tomorrow morning, I can help you get caught up. Or, you could come to my office hours on Friday afternoon — whichever works better for you. Take care of yourself.”

“Thank you, I will do that.”

And the next morning, at 10:00am, she joined my class.

I’ve been watching Ciara all fall, ever since I called her mom during the first week of class to introduce myself, to let her know what our class would be focusing on, and to make note of the fact that Ciara wasn’t always turning her camera on when she joined the Zoom room. Her mom told me that Ciara was expecting and that she was working long hours at McDonald’s after school, so she often just woke up in the morning, turned on her laptop, and joined the Zoom room from bed. She didn’t want to take the time to get cleaned up, do her hair, and present herself for inspection.

I was stunned, of course. It was September, and although we weren’t yet in the third wave of the pandemic like we are now, the risk was still very real. And yet this young woman was going to work at a McDonald’s every day, seven months pregnant, so that she could earn some money to manage her very real impending responsibilities.

I’ve continued to watch Ciara, as she’s shown up to class, completed her assignments, and joined our virtual college visits every Wednesday. Not only does she join these visits, but she routinely asks college representatives if they offer family housing on their campuses because she is planning to bring her baby with her when she comes to college. This girl has a plan, and she impresses me.

And she’s not the only student who impresses me. My students live in Detroit, are surviving a pandemic, and are facing unprecedented stress and uncertainty, yet they keep showing up.

Some show up intermittently. I talked to a parent of one of my students last week. She’s concerned about her son. He has “changed ever since the pandemic started.” He wants to stay in his room. He doesn’t want to talk. He’s failing his classes.

He’s not alone. Many students — and, let’s be honest, adults — are struggling with depression. Many feel isolated — they are struggling financially, they have struggled with their health, they have lost loved ones, and nothing feels right. Why would they care about school at a time like this?

I asked the parent if she would mind if the school social worker reached out to her, and she answered, “I’m looking for any help I can get.” At my suggestion and her insistence, her son joined my office hours the next day. He and I worked through some assignments, restored his grade to passing, and got to know each other a little. Before he logged off, he said, “Thank you. I appreciate it.”

“It’s my pleasure,” I replied. He has no idea how pleased I am to bear witness to his journey and the journeys of all of my students.

Early this week, one of my students, Kyla*, asked if she could come to my office hours. She didn’t need help, she just wanted to be “in” my Zoom room while she did her work. She asked only a couple quick questions as she sat in my Zoom room for 90 minutes, working on her assignment and chatting with another student she convinced to join her.

On Thursday, Kyla logged into class and said, “Mrs. Rathje, I just want to let you know that we are having a family emergency, so if I need to leave, I will let you know in the chat.”

“Ok, thank you for letting me know. Are you ok?”

“Yes. I’m ok.”

“Alright, just keep me posted.”

“Ok, thank you.”

Near the end of the hour, she private chatted me that she had to go to the hospital to see her mother who sounded like she was in critical condition. I told her thank you for letting me know and that she could reach out if she needed to.

Then on Friday, the last day of school before a week-long break, she joined my office hours again, just to get some work done, like she did before. I chatted with her a bit, to see how she was doing, you know, making small talk.

And that is when I found out that since early in the week, this seventeen year old has been home alone with her two dogs. Her mom has been in intensive care, and she hasn’t been allowed to visit because she’s only 17 and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. She said she’s been taking care of the house and the dogs and that she put up the Christmas tree because Christmas means a lot to her mom and she wanted to do something nice for her.

These are my students — the kind of students who become parents on Saturday and then show up for school on Monday, the kind of kids who go out in the middle of a pandemic to make fast food because they need to earn money, the kind of kids who show up for help when it’s the last thing they want to do, the kind of kids who, while staying home alone because their only parent is in the hospital, find a way to have an adult in the room while they do their homework.

They are the future — these kids. They are building muscle and resiliency that will serve them for years to come, and they need us. They need us to show up five minutes early in a Zoom room, to hold after school office hours, to call their parents when things don’t seem right, and to respond to their emails and give them options for how to manage their responsibilities.

And that’s what I get to do every day — show up and do what I can to encourage these amazing students.

It is truly my pleasure to do so.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due when it is in your power to do it.

Proverbs 3:27

*All student names have been changed, of course.

What World Are We Living In?

Each morning at 7am, I lug my lunch and laptop-crammed tote bag to my car, leave our home on a beautiful college campus in affluent Ann Arbor, and begin my journey to a different world thirty-five miles due east. I travel through a few small bedroom communities thick with half-million dollar homes and thriving school districts and take my exit into a community populated by run-down rental properties and struggling schools.

Each day on my commute I view the reality of disparity in our country.

In the community where I live, people regularly drop over $100 for dinner without batting an eye. Filling a grocery cart aisle by aisle, paying little attention to price tags and discounts, is just another Saturday morning.

In the community where I work, families count on the fact that they can pick up free food two times a week at the school — without it, they won’t make ends meet.

In the community where I live and others like it across the country, kids get their first Smart Phone around age 10, grow up playing games and watching movies on an iPad, and have access to one or more computers in the home. They are digital natives, able to easily navigate the internet, digital platforms, the Google suite, and spaces that I am sure I know nothing about. Some are social media pros — they have their own YouTube channels, have a thousand followers on Instagram, and are regularly exploring and even creating new media. They have a strong Internet connection, and if that should happen to fail, no problem — they have a personal HotSpot on their phone,

In the community where I work, most teenagers have some kind of cell phone. (Although one did admit to me this week that his flip phone would not be able to download the app I had displayed on the shared Zoom screen.) However, of the over 100 students I have met in the last two weeks, very few have had little more than limited access to computers. How do I know? Because they have difficulty copying and pasting a URL, they struggle to navigate their way to the six different Zoom rooms in which they find their teachers and their classmates. Google Classroom, Google Drive, Chat Box, and navigation bar are new vocabulary words. Their Internet service is spotty, and they get kicked off sometimes in the middle of class. HotSpot? What’s a HotSpot?

The kids in the community where I live have their own bedroom where they have set up a virtual learning space with the support of their parents. They have a desk, a MacBook and Airpods, an iPhone, a comfortable chair, and possibly even a printer. They can close the door to shut out distractions and then open the door to walk out to a fully-stocked kitchen complete with convenient snacks.

The kids in the community where I work often share a bedroom with a sibling, often one (or more) who they are charged with helping to connect to their virtual learning. As far as I can tell, the bed is the only piece of furniture in the room, and I often see two people sitting or lying in that bed, still in pajamas, sometimes looking at the screen, sometimes not.

When I say, “The expectation is that your camera will be on and I will be able to see your face,” I am asking a lot. Many have not had their hair cut in quite some time, and it’s a personal — even a cultural — matter of pride to look fresh if you’re gonna be seen. But in the times of Covid, when people may not have had work or a paycheck in six months, haircuts aren’t really a priority.

When I say, “I recommend that you find a space where you can sit up, minimize distractions, and fully engage in your learning,” I see students look back at me as if to say, “What world are you living in, lady?”

Indeed, what world am I living in?

What world am I living in where the richest most well-resourced country allows this kind of disparity? Where affluent — mostly white — folks in suits sit in a chamber and determine to send just ONE relief check in six months knowing that for most families that money was spent long before it was received? Where, with an election less than 50 days away — 50 days that families who are struggling beyond what we have ever experienced will have to find food for their families, gas for their vehicles (if they have them), and money to keep the power on — the suits refuse to come to an agreement over how to help our citizens who don’t have don’t have two homes, three cars, a time share in Florida, and a 401K.

What world am I living in where this story — the story of inequity that impacts not only education but health and lifespan and civil liberties — isn’t the number one headline, the number one problem, we are trying to solve every. damn. day.

Instead, in the midst of a global pandemic, where almost 200,000 Americans have died, many from communities like the one I work in every day, some people are still debating whether this pandemic is serious — or even real! Our president, who could be signing executive action to help the most vulnerable among us, spends his time and energy gathering large groups of supporters, flouting local laws prohibiting such gatherings, refusing to mandate that attendees wear masks, and spreading misinformation about the danger of Covid-19 and the timeline for a vaccine. And — and!– he stands on national television belittling those who would challenge his approach — calling them names and mocking them.

Is this real life?

What world am I living in where the nation’s leaders, instead of rushing to find solutions that will help those most in need, sit in climate-controlled rooms, six feet apart, freshly coiffed and smartly dressed, debating the political impact of an aid package? where in the moments following the death of one of our most loved Supreme Court Justices, a politically-charged debate about when and how to select her replacement reestablishes the political divide between us?

What kind of world am I living in?

I’m living in a world where I can do something, and so are you.

So what are we going to do? Are we going to stay in our comfortable communities sipping $5 coffees, debating the efficacy of masks, and throwing shade at the ‘other side’ from the safety of our Facebook and Instagram pages? Are we going to reduce our agency to a meme-fest bent on self-gratification and self-aggrandizement? Or are we going to take a long critical look at the world we are living in and decide if this is the best that we can do?

Is the best that we have a position where we consider our own lives to the exclusion of the lives of others?

I believe we are better than this.

The kids in the community where I live and those in the community where I work are counting on us. They need us to be better than this.

And we can be; we can change course at any time.

We can re-shape this world that we live in.

We can open our hearts, our minds, our hands. We can stop clinging so fiercely to our own ideals, our own ‘sides’, our own resources. We can love our neighbor — even the one we don’t agree with — as ourselves and determine to do all that we can for the least of these. Then we might be pleased with the world we find ourselves living in.

I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.’

Matthew 25:36

Zooming in Detroit: Week One

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

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

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-1.png

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a lot.

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

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

One week in, how do you imagine they responded?

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

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

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

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

Proverbs 16:3